“As soon as Gideon died, the people of Israel turned again and whored after the Baals and made Baal-berith their god. And the people of Israel did not remember the Lord their God, who had delivered them from the hand of all their enemies on every side, and they did not show steadfast love to the family of Jerubbaal (that is, Gideon) in return for all the good that he had done to Israel.” (ESV – Read the chapter)
The epitaph for Gideon is presented as an indictment of the people of Israel. They were so incorrigibly wicked that they turned away from God at the first chance they had and didn’t honor the memory of this great leader. But, I tend to see this as more of an indictment of Gideon himself. He may have fulfilled the calling God placed on him to free the people from the oppression of the Midianites, but he was a terrible leader and not a very good person to boot.
As evidence, we really don’t need to look much further than right here. Had he been the kind of leader the people really needed (one to lead them well politically, militarily, and, most importantly, spiritually), then the people would not have turned back to the path they were on before he came on the scene as soon as he left it.
Now, yes, the people were responsible for their own choices, but real, biblical leadership does not just touch the physical circumstances of the people being led, it gets to their hearts. The kind of leadership that makes the biggest difference is leadership that changes the heart of those being led. It sets them on a course to a better place than they were headed before the leader came into position, and gives them the tools to stay there when the leader moves on to the next place.
On this score, Gideon failed miserably. Rather than improving the spiritual condition of the people, he merely reflected it. In fact, he set the people back on this terrible course before he died. The text gives him credit for refusing to be made into a king, but then he went and created a golden ephod (something used to communicate with the gods), which the people promptly worshiped.
If God has put you in a position of leadership over His people–and there are many different levels of leadership from mentoring a single individual to leading a small group to pastoring a whole church–altering their physical circumstances in some way is good, but better is to get at their hearts so that they are transformed from the inside out. Lead them with God’s Spirit and empower them to let that Spirit set them on a course for the kingdom. Build a strong foundation for them to stand on when you aren’t there any longer so that they don’t immediately go back to where they were before. Mostly, don’t follow Gideon’s example. It’s not a good one.