“When the people of Israel cried out to the Lord on account of the Midianites, the Lord sent a prophet to the people of Israel. And he said to them, ‘Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel: I led you up from Egypt and brought you out of the house of slavery. And I delivered you from the hand of the Egyptians and from the hand of all who oppressed you, and drove them out before you and gave you their land. And I said to you, “I am the Lord your God; you shall not fear the gods of the Amorites in whose land you dwell.” But you have not obeyed my voice.'” (ESV – Read the chapter)
The people of Israel were hurting and broken and desperate. They were starving. The Midianites were taking everything. They were keeping them weak and unable to mount any kind of a meaningful resistance to their reign of terror. The Israelites were but a couple of generations into the land God had provided for them and it looked like he had abandoned them to this enemy for good. Now, the reality was that it had only been like this for a few years, but when you’re trapped in misery, a few years can seem like a lifetime. They did the only thing they could: Scrape together a meager survival and cry out to the Lord.
And would you believe it? The Lord heard their cry and sent to them a prophet. After Moses and Deborah, this unnamed man is, I believe, the first prophet ever sent to the people of Israel. He brought to the people a word from the Lord.
And what was this first-of-its-kind prophecy? God started by reminding them of what He had done for them. “I brought you up out of slavery in Egypt. Everyone who oppressed you I opposed and delivered you from them. I did all that and brought you to the land you are now in.”
In other words, “I’m in the business of delivering you people from oppression. That’s how our relationship started.” The implication of this was that if God had done it before, then of course He could do it now. The Midianites were not the Egyptians. They weren’t even close. If Egypt posed no threat to God’s plans to give them a land that was their own, the Midianites didn’t stand a chance.
This should have been much to their comfort and encouragement, but there was more. God wasn’t done. And the next thing He says isn’t so comforting. Look at it again. He said, “I did all of that for you in Egypt and said, ‘You need to not go after the gods of the people I helped you defeat to move into the Promised Land—gods like those of the people of Midian to whom you started looking when this whole mess started.’”
Again, in other words, I expected you to stick with me. I showed you over and over again that I’m bigger and better than all the gods of these other people. You conquered them and drove them out of the very land you now inhabit. That means those gods weren’t big enough or strong enough to defend their people from Me. Even if they had dominion over this region before you got here, I beat them. Why would you look to them for anything?
The people then believed gods had dominion over certain regions. If you traveled to a new place, you needed to know which god was in charge there so you could honor him appropriately. Part of the idea behind warfare then was that a certain god was expanding his territory and the armies of “his” people were the means of that expansion. That’s part of what made Israel such a fearful force to the Canaanites (see Joshua 2 and Rahab’s report to the spies). Israel kept claiming their God was the God of gods and the Lord of lords and then following this claim up by defeating everybody in their path. They started with the supremely powerful (or so it was believed) gods of Egypt including Pharaoh himself, and then mowed down every other people in their path.
Sticking with their God should have been the obvious choice, but they did not obey His voice. That’s the punchline here. God did all this for them and established Himself as their champion, and they turned from Him. Not very comforting words. They went to Him for relief and the only thing He said to them was essentially, “you put yourselves in this mess by not listening to me.”
Sometimes when we go to God for help but the mess is really of our own making, His first words to us are not going to be for comfort, but for challenge and correction. He’s going to gently remind us that we’re in the mess we’re in because of the choices we have made. This isn’t always terribly pleasant to hear, but sometimes it’s necessary. The first step in a journey back to God is to be faced with the fact that we’re not on it right now. Until we own up to that, we’re not going to get back on the right track where it counts most. We might make some changes to the externals, but we won’t make them where it counts most—inside.
If you’re in a place where it seems like everything is going wrong, where the wheels have fallen off the wagon, cry out to God. Let Him know of your misery. Open yourself up and let Him hear your heart. But know well that He might respond first with calling you to repent. This isn’t going to be pleasant, but it will open the door to life. Listen with an open heart. Your God is for you.