Judges - 09 Abimelech

Chapter 9

The Man who would be King
Ambition, Contention and its Results

Ambition of Men
This chapter is one that we would wish were not a part of the history of God’s people, yet it represents a sad reality that has often been witnessed. The history of the church period as well as our personal experience has taught us that whenever God is doing a work, there will often be some expression of man’s personal ambitions, which, through its actions, manifests our tendency toward failure.

Earlier, Paul warned the elders of the Ephesian assembly when he met with them in Miletus, “For I know this, that after my departing shall grievous wolves enter in among you, not sparing the flock. Also of your own selves shall men arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away disciples after them.”  Acts 20:29-30. It was not long in church history before this actually took place. Men began to arise, seeking positions, exalting one’s self over others, forming hierarchies of authority that denied the autonomy of local churches, and thus proved that, in this sense, history repeats itself.

We find in 3 John, that a man named Diotrephes was lording over the saints of the local assembly because he “loveth to have the preeminence among them.” (v. 9). We learn from 1 Peter 5:3, that elders in an assembly are not to be functioning as “lords over God’s heritage, but being ensamples to the flock.” In Diotrephes’ case, as well as that of some others who sought positions of power, there seems to be some doubt concerning the reality of his salvation, but in any case, he was certainly not a spiritual man.

We learn from Jotham’s parable of the trees in Judges 9, that the spiritual men do not want a position over others; they are occupied with doing a work that ministers blessing to the saints. They emulate the example of our blessed Lord Jesus as described to us in Philippians 2:3-4. He rightly occupied a position of infinite power and authority, but in lowliness He came down and went continually lower until He endured the cross death. We should seek to consider Him and follow His example as believers in our service to God and others. A carnal man or an unsaved man will frequently seek ascendancy over others, and the desire for a position of authority is his ambition.

Application to Sardis
It is both interesting and instructive that the Lord presents himself to the assembly in Sardis (Revelation 3:1) as the One who “hath the seven Spirits of God and the seven stars.”  This seems to indicate that He is asserting His rightful authority and power over those who would represent Him in the churches. He is the only One who holds the stars in His hand. He has the power to raise them up and to make them stand (Romans 14:14). He possesses all intelligence and knows all the needs of His people. When He raises a man to guide His people, He will give him knowledge and wisdom with grace to minister to their needs and to lead them in paths of righteousness for their spiritual blessing (Psalm 23:3). We see this when God raised David to lead His people, and this is emphasized in Psalm 89:19-21: “Then thou spakest in vision to thy holy one, and saidst, I have laid help upon one that is mighty; I have exalted one chosen out of the people. I have found David my servant; with my holy oil have I anointed him: With whom my hand shall be established: mine arm also shall strengthen him.”

However, when we survey the events of history, we often see just the opposite condition. We see men wanting to be lords, ruling over others with power and force, even using the might of secular armies and political intrigue to accomplish that end. Millions of faithful believers have suffered and have been martyred under the inquisitions and impositions of power and authority by such men. It is indeed a sad history that has been recounted faithfully in many books, including “Foxe’s Book of Martyrs,” “The Pilgrim Church” by E. H. Broadbent, and “Miller’s Church History” by Andrew Miller.  

Abimelech’s Beginning
This pattern is exemplified in Gideon’s son, Abimelech. It is interesting that he was born of the union between Gideon and his concubine who was kept separate from his family, in Shechem. Thus this relationship and this locality became the center of sad and serious problems that resulted because of this son. The man who refused to become king (Judges 8:23) and rejected the thought of his son becoming king begat a son under questionable circumstances at the latter part of his life (or, at least, the Divine record saves this incident for mention at the point of Gideon’s decline and failure).

Does it not seem true that the ascendancy of men to places of power came out of the developing weakness and failure on the part of a previous generation in church history? This is one reason why believers must be exercised to “walk humbly” with their God (Micah 6:8) so as to influence a successive generation to follow their example. What we are in ourselves will inevitably influence for good or ill those who come after us in assembly testimony. Gideon typically combated the spirit of division and strife represented by Midian and delivered the people; however, his son, Abimelech, produced division and strife among the people who had been delivered. We might do the same as he did in our own lives and testimony! One generation of faithful men may build up the testimony for God while the next generation can so easily bring it to ruin! May the Lord stir us to greater exercise in relation to His beloved people!

Abimelech’s Ambition
His name seems significant as we learn that Abimelech means “father of a king,” or “my father is king.” One wonders why Gideon would name his son this, but it seems possible that Abimelech expressed his ambition to begin a line of rulers that would dominate God’s people. As we have noted, that ambition lurks within most of us! Abimelech’s actions illustrate for us the initiation and expression of personal ambition in a man. Observe what he did: out of his own desires he worked to influence his own (mother’s) family, causing them to promote him before the men in Shechem, then with men aligned with him and money used to bribe them, he killed his own brethren. Notice that he had a stronger affinity to his mother’s family than to that of his father.
To him pertained a similar propensity as Ishmael, who was a wild and unruly man. Judging from the response that his mother’s family seemed to give him, we would say that they represent “carnal” people who are governed by a natural way of thinking. Taking Jotham as representative of Gideon’s family, they would typify those who are “spiritual,” or a faithful remnant. It is not hard to see that a carnal man can influence those like himself, and then, using their support, seek to destroy those who are of a spiritual character.

Abimelech’s appeal to the lords of Shechem and their alacrity in responding to him indicates that among Israel there was a growing desire for a king. Due to their sinfulness, the theocratic rule of God over His people was undesirable to them and seemed unworkable. Indeed, such a form of rule can only prevail either over spiritual persons or by means of force on God’s part. It was a natural appeal that drew the men of Shechem to Abimelech, for he was their brother. But it was also a logical appeal; it made sense to them to have one man rule rather than have a plurality of men ruling over them (9:2). It seems to correspond to the great truth of Proverbs 14:12 and 16:25, “There is a way that seemeth right unto a man, but the end thereof are the ways of death.” Of course, none of Gideon’s sons ever said anything about ruling over God’s people! His argument was flawed in that it was based on a presumption concerning something that didn’t exist.

Possibly, he assumed that they harbored the same ambitions as he did, but that was not true. However, it sounded good to the men of Shechem and they listened and acted. Don’t we see a pattern here that has been continued through the course of Christendom? Men are put into offices or given places of power on the basis of relationship or because of a natural appeal that draws others to support them. In some cases it was due to the strength, abilities and assertiveness of the individuals; perhaps in others, it resulted from the lethargy of men that would rather “have someone else do it.” Based on the logical advantage of having one man rule rather than a plurality, gradually the entire system of clergy and laity with the religious hierarchy has evolved. It makes better sense in the minds of many to have one man make the decisions, say the prayers, read the Word, preach the message, and carry out all the functions that should be the responsibility of a plural oversight of an assembly. It is so easy to set aside God’s pattern and substitute a system that seems good and that seems to work, is it not? But it is wrong since it is contrary to God’s Word and it results in disaster under God’s government, as it did in this case in Shechem. God’s pattern of Scripture is always right and is always best. We should never forget the principle so clearly expressed in 1 Corinthians 2:14-15. It is only the spiritual man who is willing to receive the things of God, but to other men, the natural or soulish men, those things are foolishness unto them. May God help us to be spiritual men who are willing to follow the principles of God’s Word!

Those who Followed Him
It seems that Abimelech had a large following of men, since in Judges 9:5, he was able to slay all his brethren at one time “upon one stone.” Was this the same stone upon which Gideon had placed his offering to God at the beginning, the same stone from which the fire came out to consume the flesh and cakes (6:20-21)? He was back to the beginning of his father’s work to deliver Israel, but his was a denial of all that his father had done. Gideon had offered an offering to the Lord upon a stone at Ophrah; Abimelech slew his own brethren on a stone, again at Ophrah. It seems like an execution, with the brothers, (excepting Jotham) killed one after another by their ambitious half-brother. It would take a reasonable force of men to apprehend and hold, then kill 69 men at one time. But we also think of the overwhelming force that some men can garner to support them in their desires for power and place among God’s people, force that has been used in the past, or even in the present, to incapacitate and kill those who stand in opposition.

The man who has killed his brethren is then crowned king “by the plain (oak) of the pillar that was in Shechem.” verse 6. How interesting that this was the first place where Abram pitched his tent and built his altar when he came into the land (Genesis 12:6). Such a place was marked by reverential dependence on God and true worship; here we see a very carnal or ungodly man seeking worship and allegiance from men. Again, we notice in Joshua 24:1, 25-26, that it was under the oak at Shechem where Joshua had raised a great stone to be witness to the covenant the people made with God ere he closed his days. It was the place in Judges 7:1, where Gideon had attained his mighty victory over the Midianites. Now, in departure, identified with “the lord of the covenant” or Baal-berith (Judges 9:4), it was the location of that evil temple (9:46), and their descendents gather to make his son, an evil man, king. What irony in the stone of Ophrah and the oak of Shechem! How quickly God’s people can reject first principles and depart from God’s pattern!

All that took place from the beginning of Abimelech’s movements never demonstrated the slightest indication of any desire to seek God’s will in anything. It seemed right, it “felt right” and all seemed to be good, but sadly, anything done in this way without knowing and obeying the will of God will result in the same end as is recorded here. How important for God’s people to be careful to know and obey the will of God, especially as revealed in His Word. The principles of God, whether in Ophrah, in Shechem, or in our own day, never change, and we are responsible to act accordingly.

Jotham’s Escape
In his escape, we read that Jotham took his position on the top of Mt. Gerizim, a craggy hill rising on the south side of Shechem to about 800 feet in height and overlooking all those who were gathered in the plain below to make Abimelech king. This was the mount upon which half of Israel had stood to pronounce the blessing of God on His people. The other half of Israel stood on Mt. Ebal, and they pronounced the curse of God upon all those who refused to obey God’s word (Deuteronomy 11:30, Joshua 8:30-35). It was this mountain (Gerazim), that was so revered by the Samaritans of later date (John 4:20), where their temple had been reared and where they believed men should worship God. Standing on this mountain, Jotham represents those who seek to be faithful to God’s Word and who know God’s rich blessing upon them. Clearly, the men aligned with Abimelech speak of those who take their position on a broken law that always brings God’s judgment. These men had defiantly done exactly that, and inevitably, God would judge them for their sinfulness. When men set aside God’s clear Word and set up their own rules and ordinances, blessing cannot result but only the curse that their actions will bring upon them for disobedience.  

It is notable that Jotham was willing to take a position alone in speaking to the men of Shechem. He had narrowly escaped death at the hands of Abimelech’s men, so it would be natural for him to flee as far as possible without delay. However, he fearlessly warned the people of what they had done and what would be the result of their sinful behavior. In this way, he represents a faithful remnant that exists to testify against departure and evil when it rises among God’s people. We think of the two witnesses in Revelation 11 who will fearlessly testify for the Lord in the midst of great danger, but with His hand over them to protect them. We applaud such men in other days, but we need them in every period to stand against evil and seek to uphold what is right in the sight of the Lord.

Jotham’s Parable
Jotham also has the distinction of being the first man in Scripture to speak by way of a parable. The parable described in clear terms what the people of Shechem were doing and what the results would be. Jotham showed them in his parable (9:7-20) the kind of man who would want to be king and “reign over (wave above)” the rest. Briefly, he is not a man who can minister any kind of blessing to God’s people, nor does he care to. The olive tree, the fig tree, and the vine all expressed their joy in serving both God and man. The bramble had nothing to offer men, but it was willing to receive. The lesson is obvious: the spiritual man is a man who seeks to serve and bring blessing to others, not to assume a position over others. Jotham shows what kind of man Abimelech was, and he prophetically tells the men of Shechem what their end would be.

The Olive Tree represents a spiritual man who is able to bring blessing to the saints. He can teach them, giving them light (the oil of the lampstand was from the olive) and satisfying their souls. How important this is among the believers, and godly elders will seek to feed, guide and strengthen the saints from God’s Word. Having a place and “being lords over God’s heritage” (1 Peter 5:3) is the farthest thing from their minds. The bramble has no ability to bring blessing, no fruit, no oil, no help for anyone. But he can “wave over” and take a place of prominence if given the opportunity.

Then he speaks of the Fig Tree, a tree that is marked by sweetness and fruit that brings pleasure to man’s heart. This tree suggests to us a fruitful man in God’s assembly, one who is marked by qualities that exemplify the work of the Holy Spirit in his soul to produce a life that is satisfying.  However, no fruit could the bramble produce, for no one has ever received anything good from a plant like this. A place of authority, with others bowing down and taking a place of submission under him is what he wants and seeks to gain.

Jotham then turns to the Vine, but the vine has no interest in reigning over the trees. It would need to give up its production of wine that cheers God and man in order to do so. This plant represents a joyful man among the saints, and his presence is a help and a cheer to the entire assembly. How could he leave that work and give up those qualities in order to take a place of preeminence. Such a thing is the farthest from his mind. But the ‘bramble man’ is willing to do so, and we notice that he never brings joy but always causes sorrow and suffering.

What kind of believers are we? Are we seeking to do, within our own sphere and God-given abilities, a work that will feed and strengthen, satisfy or bring joy to the saints? If we are engaged in such a work, think of the blessing it brings to the company! How could any believer so occupied consider abandoning that work to take a place over others?

Work of Overseership
We notice that the New Testament clearly teaches us that those who occupy the place as elders or overseers in the local assembly are those who desire a “work” (1 Timothy 3:1). It is not a desire to have an office (“office of a bishop” in this verse is better translated “overseership”), but an exercise for a very necessary work, a work that makes great demands on those who are properly engaged in it. Many problems have occurred in assemblies when there are men who are grasping after a position and wanting to be an elder “because it is their right,” or “because they are better than others,” or for any other such reason. It is ideal and Scriptural when a man is seeking to do the work out of an exercise of heart for the welfare of the saints and the assembly, and then is recognized as one who is already doing the work.

Jotham describes the Bramble as one that is very low, not in its own estimation but in reality. This is a plant that is very near the earth. It offers a shadow to the trees, but the irrationality of the offer is obvious, for the bramble has no shadow. No blessing can be provided by the bramble, but there is an abundance of retributive judgment when it speaks of “let fire come out of the bramble and devour the cedars of Lebanon.” (9:15). No love here! This plant would devour even the trees that are far loftier and greater than it is. This was Abimelech, a man who was lowly, grasping, promising what he couldn’t provide, and eventually, destined to be the cause of destruction and death. How sad to see this kind of man among the saints! May God help each of us to discern the true qualities of those who we might recognize in any position of authority over His people.

Church History
Just for a moment, let us briefly mention the relationship between this attitude and that which has been observed in church history. Just reading that sad story of the rise of ecclesiastical systems that resulted in men fighting each other and only seeking to take and not to give, brings cause for concern. When men were more occupied with rising above others and taking a place of power than with feeding and shepherding the saints, it inevitably brought division, rivalries, contentions and ruin to God’s people.

We leave it with each person, if interested, to read that history and compare the attitude of the bramble man, Abimelech, with that of others in the past (and present), and then to consider the ruin it has brought. Maybe one might say that those words are too strong; however, we should only consider them in the light of what has happened, compare it with what God’s Word teaches, and learn from it. Thankfully, this has not been the attitude nor action of many, but it is of some. What a blessing it is when we read about those who diligently served the Lord and served God’s people in the past! Let us heed the exhortation of Hebrews 13:7, 17 to remember them and obey them, those who have and presently exemplify the qualities that are desirable in all the saints of God. God has used these men to preserve local testimonies of His dear people to this present day, and such men will continue to have this positive effect into the future.

God’s Governmental Dealings
It was only inevitable that bad feelings and conflict would arise out of an action like this. Those who would begin by slaying brothers will eventually turn on each other. Ambitions and desires for place result in inward tensions and outward conflicts that cause destruction on every hand. We hardly need to spend much time on the remainder of this story, except to notice that another man arose, Gaal, (meaning “loathing”) who also wanted a place and purposed to dethrone Abimelech. War between them and their parties resulted, and many on both sides of the conflict lost their lives. The city of Shechem was completely destroyed even to the point that Abimelech sowed it with salt (9:45) and those in the tower of Shechem, about 1000 persons, were burned alive. Linking 9:3 and 9:26, we learn that this tower was at least part of the house of Baal-berith, or “lord of the covenant.” Their worship of Baal at this point of departure from God had caused them to enter into a covenant with a false king. That covenant had been broken and the people were about to realize the results of evil agreements.

Any person who would contend with his brethren to achieve a place of authority and prominence needs to anticipate what the end will be. This story is mirrored in the results, written on the pages of history, of men fighting for prominence and position among God’s people, again with the same sad results. We read in church history of the popes and anti-popes, contending one against the other. The record of the days during and after the Protestant Reformation concerning well-meaning men using the secular powers of the state to eliminate their enemies or suppress any who disagreed with their position or practice is not much better. This only makes one realize how personal ambitions can be easily aroused so that sad consequences can result.

Abimelech’s End
The end of Abimelech is apropos! While he was in the act of fighting against his enemies at Thebez, a woman threw an upper millstone (marginal reading) from the tower and it nearly broke his skull (Judges 9:53). Rather than suffer the humiliation of having a woman cause his death, he commanded his armor bearer to take his life instead, which he did. How interesting that it was a woman, Jael (Judges 4:21), who also dispatched an enemy of God’s people by driving a tent peg through the temples of his head. This act again reminds us that the problem in these cases stems from wrong thoughts and attitudes in the individuals responsible. However, those who, like these women, act on God’s behalf out of devotion to Him, even though in weakness, can accomplish a great work that will bring peace to the people of God. More than condemning wrong thoughts in others, we should, first of all, use the effectively-working Word of God to cast down high thoughts and reasonings in ourselves (2 Corinthians 10:4-5), so that we will not be the cause of problems of the same nature among believers.