Judges 9 presents the story of Abimelech, Gideon’s son. This is a relatively unfamiliar story. It is never taught in Sunday School and it is not a very popular topic for preaching. This is possibly because it is so gruesome, so horribly sad, and because it seems to have no redeeming value. It is a horrible part of Israel’s history, full of judgment, with no gospel, and no grace. However, it is in the Bible, and hence it is useful for us to turn our attention here. It shows how trouble can not only come from without (oppressors like the Midianites) but also from within (from Abimelech, Gideon’s own son).
Before we begin on Judges 9, it would be best to review Judges 8:29-35. Gideon had taken to himself many wives, the act of a pagan king. He had also taken a concubine from Shechem, who bore him a son. Gideon named this son Abimelech, which means “my father is king.” When Gideon, the savior of Israel, died, the people of Israel turned again and whored after the Baals, declaring Baal as “Lord of the Covenant” rather than the LORD (“Baal-Berith” means “Baal, lord of the covenant”). They forgot the LORD, who had delivered them from all their enemies, and also forgot Gideon.
It is not so much that they forgot who the LORD was or that they forgot what He did. They knew that the LORD had delivered them. They knew their history. Their problem was that they did not let their knowledge affect their actions. Their factual knowledge about God did not keep them from worshipping Baal. To put it in a modern setting, they could recite their catechisms and spout out their prooftexts, but that did not keep them from watching X-rated films, reading pornography, getting drunk with the guys, cheating on their wives, and cheating on their final exams.
This illustrates how much we need the Holy Spirit. We can drill biblical doctrine into our children’s heads and have them memorize lots of memory verses, but if the Holy Spirit does not work in their lives, if they do not have a heart of flesh given by God instead of a heart of stone, it is all worthless. We can read every theological tome that comes out, read “The Outlook” from cover to cover each month, but if we do not apply it to ourselves, it is all worthless. We need to remember the LORD not only in our heads but also in our hearts. All this knowledge that we have has to make a difference in the way we live our lives. We need to live lives of cheerful obedience. The knowledge of God’s marvelous and wonderful grace needs to fill us with immense gratitude. If we really know who God is and what He has done for us, the only natural response is to overflow with joy. That is what Israel failed to do. They knew the facts of God and His works, they just did not personalize them, they did not understand what a difference it made in their hearts.
Not only did Israel forget the LORD, they also forgot Gideon. They did not show love to Gideon’s family. They were ungrateful. The Bible often warns about holding Christian leaders too highly. Obviously, we cannot let our love for our leader interfere with our love for the LORD. However, the Bible strongly calls for respect and esteem for our Christian leaders (see 1 Thessalonians 5:12-13 and 1 Timothy 4:12). And it is here that many Christians fall short. Too often we, like the Israelites, do not show steadfast love for our leaders. We are always criticizing our elders, mocking our leaders, and having “roast preacher” for Sunday dinner. Too often it seems like our main goal in listening to preachers or speakers is to find things to disagree with instead of looking for the benefit. We specifically write down every time the pastor messes up or misspeaks so that we can snicker at it with our friends. When we listen to a Christian speaker on the radio, we focus more on the one or two points on which we disagree, rather than on the many excellent biblical points he may make. Dr. Dale Ralph Davis says we need to learn to “tender grateful thanks to parents, pastors, mentors, friends, and educators who have labored to lead us in the grace and wisdom of God.”
It is in this sort of ungrateful and wicked attitude that Abimelech grew up. Abimelech seems to have had a great desire to live up to his name. He raised a big fuss over who would succeed Gideon as ruler. This had never happened before in the history of the judges. This is an argument that kings would make, not God-appointed judges. The people, led by Abimelech, want to choose their own leaders rather than let the LORD choose. Abimelech went about securing his power in an ambitious and treacherous way.
His mother, Gideon’s concubine, had come from Shechem, so Abimelech got his relatives to help him. He sends them this message: “I do not want to alarm you, but have you checked out what is going on in Orphah lately? Gideon had seventy sons and they are all going to rule over us. Would it not be less chaotic and more beneficial if just one person were to rule over you? And why not let that one person be Abimelech, since he is of our own flesh and blood?” The people of Shechem jumped right on the bandwagon of the Abimelech campaign.
Abimelech’s hired a group of brutal thugs using money from the Baal temple. With his group of mercenaries, Abimelech went to his father’s home of Orphah, and murdered all of his brothers in a gruesome execution. One victim after another after another was brutally hewn on one stone. Each one was dispatched until all of his brothers were eliminated from possibly usurping Abimelech’s throne. Only one brother escaped. Jotham, Gideon’s youngest son and Abimelech’s little brother, managed to escape and hid himself away.
With his brothers out of the way, nothing stood in Abimelech’s way to the kingship. So, the men of Shechem came and made Abimelech king by the oak of the pillar at Shechem. In Joshua 24, Joshua put that pillar under the oak tree to be “a witness against us, for it has heard all the words of the LORD that He spoke to us. Therefore, it shall be a witness against you, lest you deal falsely with your God.” So, whenever the Israelites saw that pillar under the oak tree, they were supposed to remember the covenant renewal ceremony that happened at Shechem years before. They were supposed to remember God’s law (which says “do not murder”) and how they all swore to serve the LORD. Apparently, it did not work. The Israelites did not remember. Instead, they crowned a power hungry murderer to be their king.
Jotham (the son who got away) got wind of the coronation and decided to crash it. In the middle of Abimelech’s coronation, Jotham’s tiny voice is heard piping up from over on nearby Mount Gerizim, as he calls on God to witness their response.
It seems Jotham inherited his father’s timid side, since he decided to deliver his parable from on top of a mountain so that he could easily get away if the crowd got angry. From his mountain perch, Jotham delivered the parable of the trees. It is a rather straightforward parable. In the parable, the trees go out because they want to anoint a king. To find a king, they approach four different plants. The first three (the olive tree, the fig tree, and the grapevine) have great value and significance in Palestinian agriculture. They are all useful and profitable. But they all refuse the kingship, because they are too busy being useful to God and to men. So, the trees, seeking a king, offer the kingship to a fourth plant, a bramble (or thorn bush). The bramble responds by giving two possible outcomes, saying “If in good faith you are anointing me king over you, then come and take refuge in my shade, but if not, let fire come out of the bramble and devour the cedars of Lebanon.” This is quite absurd. If they were offering the bramble kingship in good faith, with clean motives, they would enjoy shade. But how could trees get under a little tiny bramble? In doing so, the trees would get pricked by its thorns. But at least then they would have a king. The second option is even crazier. If they were not in good faith when they made him king, then fire would come out of the bramble and burn the forest. How can fire come out of a thorn bush and burn up a whole forest? But the biggest absurdity of all is trying to make a silly useless little bramble king in the first place! If the trees were crazy enough to do that, then perhaps the world is a crazy enough place that fire will emerge from the bush and burn them all.
Jotham then applied his little parable in verses 16-20. If the people of Shechem had acted honorably and in good faith when they made Abimelech king and if they had been fair to Gideon and his family, then they would have every reason to rejoice in making Abimelech king, in taking shade under his branches, as it were. But, in a parenthetical statement in verses 17-18, Jotham pointed out that the people of Shechem had not acted honorably, for they had killed all of Gideon’s sons and had not respected Gideon. Jotham points out in these two verses that Gideon took great personal risk in delivering them. Yet, the people had revolted against him by murdering all his sons. So, the only option is the second option—that fire would come out of Abimelech and destroy them all. Basically, Jotham is saying “I hope you are happy, because you are going to get what you deserve if you keep Abimelech as king,” because it was not just Gideon and his family that Israel had been unfaithful to, but also to the LORD.
What is the main thrust of this little tale of talking trees and fire-shooting thorns? Many commentaries have spent all sorts of time assigning different meanings and identities to the different trees. However, the main concerns are the foolishness of the trees and the uselessness (except for bringing disaster) of the bramble. The fable does not teach that the kingship is worthless but that their chosen king is worthless. The focus is not on the worthy candidates who reject the kingship but on the worthless bramble who accepts it. It is foolish to accept clearly unqualified leadership. “Brambles make good fuel but poor kings; they burn better than they reign.”
What can we learn from this little parable? We must be careful whom we choose to be our leaders, especially our church leaders. We should never settle for lesser leaders “just because they will do it.” In Titus 1:5-9 and 1 Timothy 3:1-7, Paul encourages us to practice the utmost discretion when choosing church leaders. Our elders, deacons, and ministers must be biblically qualified, and we should never settle for less. And we should train young men in our churches to be the sort of man who will be qualified, who will be useful to both God and man, profitable like the olive tree, the fig tree, and the grapevine.
Having delivered his parable, young Jotham fled quickly and hid out in the town of Beer. For three years, Abimelech ruled. He probably forgot about Jotham, or at least wrote him off as a minor annoyance. The rulers of Shechem probably forgot about him. But God did not forget. After three years, God sent an evil spirit of quarreling between Abimelech and the leaders of Shechem. The leaders of Shechem put men in ambush against Abimelech along the road. While they waited for Abimelech, they spent their time robbing and looting all who passed along the road.
Meanwhile, a man named Gaal and his family moved into Shechem. One day, while he was getting drunk at a festival, Gaal spoke out in a drunken rage against Abimelech (verses 28 and 29, which record Gaal’s drunken speech are written in Hebrew in such a way that when reading it out loud, it sounds slurred and confused, all messed up). Gaal claimed that he would be a better leader than Abimelech. And he seemed to draw quite a following down in Baal’s bar. Zebul, Abimelech’s loyal henchmen in town, sent word about this rebellious drunkard to Abimelech.
That was the straw that broke Abimelech’s back. Abimelech gathered his men and set up an ambush against Shechem in the middle of the night. The next day, Gaal walked out to the entrance of the gate. He saw Abimelech’s forces and tried to alert whoever was standing nearby. His only audience was Zebul, Abimelech’s lackey. With great relish, Zebul delivers his little “look who is laughing now” speech. Zebul said “If you are so sure that Abimelech is such a worthless ruler, go out yourself and fight him!” So Gaal and the leaders of Shechem organized a resistance, but Abimelech had no trouble dispatching them. Those they did not kill, they banished.
The next day, the people of Shechem went out into their fields, minding their own business. They did not really care who ruled over them, Abimelech or Gaal; they never really got involved in any of the political nonsense. They thought now that Abimelech had dealt with Gaal, everything would be back to normal. Abimelech was still full of rage and He desired revenge, much like his father in chapter 8. He sent out some guerilla troops into the fields and attacked all of the peaceful workers, killing them. Meanwhile, Abimelech led a company of soldiers to the gate of Shechem and destroyed the city, sowing it with salt (which would make it worthless for future crops).
Hearing of this bloodbath, the leaders of Shechem fled to their strong tower for refuge. Abimelech and his army gathered bunches of brushwood, which they stacked against the tower and burnt the tower down, incinerating one thousand men and women alive in brutal fashion. Such a horrifying slaughter shows how degraded the people of Israel had become, that they would do this to each other. So, Jotham’s parable was coming true. Abimelech, the bramble, was consuming the people of Israel with fire.
Moving on in blitzkrieg fashion, Abimelech and his men next attacked Thebez. Perhaps Thebez was involved in the rebellion along with Shechem, or maybe Abimelech just wanted to destroy a city. Similar to Shechem, Thebez had a strong tower within the city to which all the men and women of the city fled to the tower. Abimelech decided that he would destroy this tower in the same way he dealt with Shechem—burn it down. Just as he was leaning down to light the match, a woman dropped a millstone straight down onto his head. He discovered, in the words of Dr. Dale Ralph Davis,
that “a woman had a crush on him.” One wonders why the woman had a millstone up on the roof to begin with, but I am certainly glad she did (one speculates a feisty little Israeli woman forcing her husband to carry it up the winding stairs saying “you never know when you might need a good millstone, dear” similar to Mrs. Beaver in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe).
Now Jotham’s parable has been fully realized. What he said in verse 20 has come true—fire came from Abimelech and destroyed the leaders of Shechem, and now (figurative) fire from the leaders of Shechem destroyed Abimelech. Abimelech had been utterly humiliated, suffering at the hands of a woman. He called his armor-bearer to kill him. But, no matter how he died, he was dead. Utterly destroyed. He had brought Israel to utter ruin and now he was destroyed. God had destroyed the destroyer of His people.
What on earth can we learn from this sickening story full of bloodshed and brambles? Verses 56-57 tell us that God was still in control of all of this. God repaid Abimelech for his evil. It did not come in a way we would want it to. If it were up to us, we would have wanted Abimelech stopped right away, before the slaughtering of his seventy brothers. If it were up to us, Adolf Hitler would never have performed his atrocious slaughtering of Jews. But know this: whatever happens, no matter how horrible it seems, God is in control. And no matter what happens and no matter how much it looks like the enemies of God are winning, God will always punish them; they will always get what they deserve, either in this life or in the life to come. Sin has consequences. What God says will come to pass. It took three long years of violence before Jotham’s curse came to pass, but come to pass it did.
As mentioned at the beginning of this lesson, this is a horribly sad and disturbing story. The whole story seems like it is a sidetrack, like it should not even be in this book. It is not about a judge. It is not about outside oppressors. It is about trouble from within the nation of Israel, trouble that should not have come. Thank God that we do not rely on human leaders, for they will always fail us. Maybe not as terribly as Abimelech failed Israel, but they will fail us in one way or another. We must look to the anti-Abimelech, to the perfect and holy Son of God, Jesus Christ, who will lead us as a prophet, priest, and king and will never forsake us or abuse us.
Mr. James Oord is a Christian Thought major and a Junior at Grove City College in Grove City, Pennsylvania.
Lesson 10: Points to Ponder
1. How has the love and grace of God affected your life?
2. Suggest ways that you can show appreciation to those who have labored for the Lord on your behalf.
3. Describe the spiritual vacuum in Israel that allowed Abimelech to rise to power. Could this happen within a nation today? How about within a church?
4. Why do churches sometimes “settle” for certain leaders (elders, deacons, etc.) simply because they will serve. Do churches sometimes call a minister just because they think he might come? How can this be avoided?
5. Are seminaries sometimes guilty of graduating men who are not biblically qualified for the ministry?
6. Can you find other places in the Bible and throughout history where God has used evil men to accomplish His purpose? Does God sometimes give to nations (and churches) the leaders they deserve?