Minutes With Messiah Logo

by the Numbers

by Tim O'Hearn

The British and (to some extent) the Americans are taught from a very young age to believe in fair play. In the National Hockey League, after each round of the playoffs both teams traditionally form lines to shake hands with the same people they were fighting with moments before. Some prefer bow hunting to shooting because it is “more sporting” for the intended dinner. This idea of fairness is most instilled in the composition of competing teams. The numbers of players is always the same. Professional baseball has its 25-man roster, and if someone is injured they may bring a substitute in to replace him. In hockey, the penalty is that you have to play with fewer men on the ice than your opponent. The quality of players may differ from team to team, but the numbers always have to match. The Yankees don’t get to have a 40-man active roster just because they can afford it.

Unlike in war, even our war games demand fairness. There are equal numbers of checkers (draughts) pieces per side. Unless an expert player gives a piece as a handicap, chess is always started with sixteen pieces to a side.

God seems to have a different view of fairness. His view seems to be that even in war his side is so overwhelming that numbers don’t matter. He even told Israel that he expected to win with smaller numbers.

And ye shall chase your enemies, and they shall fall before you by the sword. And five of you shall chase an hundred, and an hundred of you shall put ten thousand to flight: and your enemies shall fall before you by the sword. (Lev 26:7-8)

Not only do numbers not matter. In God’s economy, strength is not even proportional to the numbers. Five shall chase a hundred, but twenty times that will chase a hundred times a hundred. A small increase in numbers yields a huge increase in strength.

God wanted Gideon to learn this lesson. The tale is told in Judges 7. The large Midianite army came up against Israel. God told Gideon that his own army was too large. He first told him to send home anyone who was afraid. The army had 22,000 honest men who went home. We are not told how many remained, but that would have been a huge blow to any other army.

The next test involved drinking from the river. God told Gideon, “Every one that lappeth of the water with his tongue, as a dog lappeth, him shalt thou set by himself; likewise every one that boweth down upon his knees to drink.” It turned out that three hundred men lapped with their hands to their mouths, and the rest got on their knees to drink directly from the river.

For years, even centuries perhaps, it has been proposed that God chose those who lapped because they were more vigilant and better prepared for battle. After all, they could drink while looking around and with a hand on a sword. The interesting thing, though, is that God didn’t tell Gideon which group would be the fighters until after they were divided. It is probable that if three hundred knelt and the rest lapped, God would have chosen the kneelers. The criterion was not the soldier’s readiness for war, it was the smaller number of soldiers. God chose the smaller number “lest Israel vaunt themselves against me, saying, Mine own hand hath saved me.” (Jdg 7:2)

We live in a world of megachurches. God doesn’t seem to believe we need megachurches to do his work. There is nothing wrong with a church having attendance in the thousands, but God can work just as easily with a church of 250, or of twenty-five. Smaller churches should never feel unimportant or of less value than larger churches. God defeated Midian with a church of 300. To God, smaller numbers are not less valuable; they are invaluable.