MESSAGE FOR JULY 28, 2002 FROM JUDGES 9:1-57

(12th in a series from the book of Judges)

            This week, we close out the section of the book of Judges related to one of the best-known figures in this book, Gideon.  Last week, we saw that after God had used Gideon to defeat the Midianites, the backslidden, idolatrous people of God asked Gideon to be their king, giving him full credit for the miraculous military victory Yahweh had accomplished.  We saw that although Gideon verbally professed to refuse the throne of Israel, his actions spoke much louder than his words and he in fact did establish an unofficial, undeclared monarchy with himself on the throne.  One of the many trappings we saw last week of this sham monarchy was his large harem of wives who birthed him 70 sons—a king-sized family.  In addition to his wives, he also had a concubine, a Baal-worshipping Canaanite from Shechem who gave birth to a boy named Abimelech.  Gideon died an old man, but the seeds of idolatry and apostasy he had planted through his gross compromise and idolatrous heart come to full bloom in the life of Abimelech.  So, although chapter nine occurs after Gideon’s death, we can rightly say that the murderous, chaotic, thoroughly paganized Jewish culture we see on display in chapter nine flows from Gideon’s idolatrous heart.  The gruesome events of chapter nine are Gideon’s sad legacy.

            This next section is the largest single literary unit in the entire section of the judges, 57 verses and it really would not work well to split it up into more than one message.  So, we will read a section of the text at a time, make some comments explaining some of the important features and then move to the next section.  There are seven major divisions in the chapter and after we finish reviewing what the author is saying, we will briefly makes some application to our lives.  Let’s begin with 9:1-6.  The word of God says, “Abimelech son of Jerub-Baal went to his mother's brothers in Shechem and said to them and to all his mother's clan, 2"Ask all the citizens of Shechem, 'Which is better for you: to have all seventy of Jerub-Baal's sons rule over you, or just one man?' Remember, I am your flesh and blood." 3When the brothers repeated all this to the citizens of Shechem, they were inclined to follow Abimelech, for they said, "He is our brother." 4They gave him seventy shekels of silver from the temple of Baal-Berith, and Abimelech used it to hire reckless adventurers, who became his followers. 5He went to his father's home in Ophrah and on one stone murdered his seventy brothers, the sons of Jerub-Baal. But Jotham, the youngest son of Jerub-Baal, escaped by hiding. 6Then all the citizens of Shechem and Beth Millo gathered beside the great tree at the pillar in Shechem to crown Abimelech king.

After Gideon’s death there is a power vacuum in Israel and Abimelech displays in full the ruthless political ambition Gideon showed only in part.  He goes back to his political power base, his home town of Shechem where his mother, the concubine of Gideon lived and he appeals to his family to go before the ruling elders of the town to lobby for his rule over them.  He points out his fitness for the job by shrewdly reminding them that he is their own flesh and blood through his Canaanite mother’s side and it would also be far better for them to have just one rule over them (the traditional Canaanite way) than to have 70 of Gideon’s other sons by alien Hebrew women rule over them.  His family goes to bat for him before these influential leaders and they submit to his leadership, giving him enough money to hire his own personal military entourage.  These men were nothing more than thugs and they prove it by going to Gideon’s hometown of Ophrah and literally slaughtering his 70 other sons.  The murders are “on one stone” from which we can infer that this is a methodical, cold-blooded, serial murder.  This stone may have been some sort of occult altar where sacrifices were made.  These murderous thugs round up Abimelech’s half brothers and line them up until one by one; they are murdered on this stone.  This is brutal and shows us at the outset what kind of heart Abimelech possess.  The only bright spot in this part of the story is the escape of Gideon’s youngest son, Jotham who we read about next in verse seven.

7When Jotham was told about this, he climbed up on the top of Mount Gerizim and shouted to them, "Listen to me, citizens of Shechem, so that God may listen to you. 8One day the trees went out to anoint a king for themselves. They said to the olive tree, 'Be our king.'

9"But the olive tree answered, 'Should I give up my oil, by which both gods and men are honored, to hold sway over the trees?'   10"Next, the trees said to the fig tree, 'Come and be our king.'   11"But the fig tree replied, 'Should I give up my fruit, so good and sweet, to hold sway over the trees?'   12"Then the trees said to the vine, 'Come and be our king.'   13"But the vine answered, 'Should I give up my wine, which cheers both gods and men, to hold sway over the trees?'  14"Finally all the trees said to the thornbush, 'Come and be our king.'

15"The thorn bush said to the trees, 'If you really want to anoint me king over you, come and take refuge in my shade; but if not, then let fire come out of the thorn bush and consume the cedars of Lebanon!'  16"Now if you have acted honorably and in good faith when you made Abimelech king, and if you have been fair to Jerub-Baal and his family, and if you have treated him as he deserves-- 17and to think that my father fought for you, risked his life to rescue you from the hand of Midian 18(but today you have revolted against my father's family, murdered his seventy sons on a single stone, and made Abimelech, the son of his slave girl, king over the citizens of Shechem because he is your brother)-- 19if then you have acted honorably and in good faith toward Jerub-Baal and his family today, may Abimelech be your joy, and may you be his, too! 20But if you have not, let fire come out from Abimelech and consume you, citizens of Shechem and Beth Millo, and let fire come out from you, citizens of Shechem and Beth Millo, and consume Abimelech!"  21Then Jotham fled, escaping to Beer, and he lived there because he was afraid of his brother Abimelech.

         This is a fairly well known portion of Scripture because it is the best example of a fable in the bible.  A fable is a story where animals or other mute objects are given the power of speech to make a point.  Jotham hears about Abimelech’s ascendancy to the throne and hikes up to a high place where he can safely speak to the entire town of Shechem and be heard.  In the fable, Jotham uses three of the most beloved plants in Palestine, the olive tree that produced olives and valuable oil, the fig—an important food supplier and the grape vine, which rendered wine.  Each of these productive plants when offered the throne refuses it and scoffs at the comparative unimportance of waving over a bunch of trees.   Do you hear how Jotham ridicules the monarchy in this fable?  Finally, the thorn bush or bramble is willing to take the throne, but notice how Jotham gets a dig at Abimelech here by make this a very egotistic thorn bush.  He says the people can come and take shelter in his shade.  Brambles don’t give shade—they are good for nothing but to be burned.  He also says that he is able to consume with fire the cedars of Lebanon.  These were so large and impressive that they became a symbol for large, impressive things.  Jotham pictures this bramble, which represents Abimelech as a good for nothing, egotistic thorn bush.

         After he finishes this fable he calls these Shechemites to examine whether they have acted fairly in making Abimelech king and slaughtering his 70 brothers.  Jotham makes his own, not unexpected opinion clear on that subject by, in verse 20, invoking a curse on them saying, “let fire come out from Abimelech and consume you, citizens of Shechem and Beth Millo, and let fire come out from you, citizens of Shechem and Beth Millo, and consume Abimelech!”  This is a double curse on both Abimelech who murdered his brothers and the citizens of Shechem who helped him do it.  It may not seem like it but this is in fact the pivotal point of this entire story because the rest of the narrative is little more than the author relating in some detail the way in which this curse is brought to fulfillment.  Even though Jotham here is no prophet, by the end of the story we see he is speaking for God.  We don’t have to go much further into the story to see things begin to unravel for Abimelech.  Verse 22 says, “22After Abimelech had governed Israel three years, 23God sent an evil spirit between Abimelech and the citizens of Shechem, who acted treacherously against Abimelech. 24God did this in order that the crime against Jerub-Baal's seventy sons, the shedding of their blood, might be avenged on their brother Abimelech and on the citizens of Shechem, who had helped him murder his brothers. 25In opposition to him these citizens of Shechem set men on the hilltops to ambush and rob everyone who passed by, and this was reported to Abimelech.

Notice that even though God has not been heard from in this story or even the last part of Gideon’s life, he is still at worker.  He sends an “evil spirit” between Abimelech and the citizens of Shechem.  “Evil Spirit” is probably better translated, “spirit of disaster” and the reference speaks more to what the spirit will bring upon the guilty than his own nature. He begins the process that will eventually bring about his justice not only on Abimelech, but also on the citizens of Shechem.  The events from this point on are like dominoes that fall in succession and God starts these dominoes toppling right here by sending this spirit to spoil the relationship between Abimelech and his so called “subjects.”  This spirit in some way prompts the Shechemites to set ambushes for Abimelech and steal from all of his sympathizers.  As the story continues, we expect the author to unfold the specifics of the souring of this relationship, but he instead takes us in another direction. 

We read in verse 26, “26Now Gaal son of Ebed moved with his brothers into Shechem, and its citizens put their confidence in him. 27After they had gone out into the fields and gathered the grapes and trodden them, they held a festival in the temple of their god. While they were eating and drinking, they cursed Abimelech. 28Then Gaal son of Ebed said, "Who is Abimelech, and who is Shechem, that we should be subject to him? Isn't he Jerub-Baal's son, and isn't Zebul his deputy? Serve the men of Hamor, Shechem's father! Why should we serve Abimelech? 29If only this people were under my command! Then I would get rid of him. I would say to Abimelech, 'Call out your whole army!' "  With Abimelech’s decline in favor, another power vacuum is created and into that vacuum steps a man named Gaal who is a native of Shechem and who we know from verse 28 was related to a man named Hamor who evidently founded Shechem.  We see Gaal making his case, pointing out his clear superiority to rule over Shechem because he was a pure Canaanite, not half Jew like Abimelech.  Do you hear how Gaal, by appealing to his closer blood ties with the Shechemites does just what Abimelech had done with his half brothers? Gaal beats Abimelech at his own political game.  He also accuses the city’s governor, Zebul to be nothing more than Abimelech’s lackey.  His arguments prevail and when Gaal is made king, they all throw a huge party and curse Abimelech.  Gaal brags that he would get rid of Abimelech and his entire army.  He will soon regret that boast. 

Verses 30-34 set us up for the battle that is brewing between Abimelech and Gaal.  We read, “30When Zebul the governor of the city heard what Gaal son of Ebed said, he was very angry. 31Under cover he sent messengers to Abimelech, saying, "Gaal son of Ebed and his brothers have come to Shechem and are stirring up the city against you. 32Now then, during the night you and your men should come and lie in wait in the fields. 33In the morning at sunrise, advance against the city. When Gaal and his men come out against you, do whatever your hand finds to do.34So Abimelech and all his troops set out by night and took up concealed positions near Shechem in four companies. Zebul evidently doesn’t like being help up to public ridicule by his fellow Shechemite, Gaal and in his anger decides to side with Abimelech.  He sends messengers giving Abimelech crucial intelligence information and advises him as to how to best proceed against Gaal.  Abimelech follows this advise and now the stage is set for the battle as Abimelech’s men lie in the fields outside Shechem with an ally in the person of Zebul inside the city with Gaal and his followers. 

Verse 35 continues, “35Now Gaal son of Ebed had gone out and was standing at the entrance to the city gate just as Abimelech and his soldiers came out from their hiding place.

36When Gaal saw them, he said to Zebul, "Look, people are coming down from the tops of the mountains!" Zebul replied, "You mistake the shadows of the mountains for men." 37But Gaal spoke up again: "Look, people are coming down from the center of the land, and a company is coming from the direction of the soothsayers' tree."  38Then Zebul said to him, "Where is your big talk now, you who said, 'Who is Abimelech that we should be subject to him?' Aren't these the men you ridiculed? Go out and fight them!"  39So Gaal led out the citizens of Shechem and fought Abimelech. 40Abimelech chased him, and many fell wounded in the flight--all the way to the entrance to the gate. 41Abimelech stayed in Arumah, and Zebul drove Gaal and his brothers out of Shechem. 42The next day the people of Shechem went out to the fields, and this was reported to Abimelech. 43So he took his men, divided them into three companies and set an ambush in the fields. When he saw the people coming out of the city, he rose to attack them. 44Abimelech and the companies with him rushed forward to a position at the entrance to the city gate. Then two companies rushed upon those in the fields and struck them down. 45All that day Abimelech pressed his attack against the city until he had captured it and killed its people. Then he destroyed the city and scattered salt over it. 46On hearing this, the citizens in the tower of Shechem went into the stronghold of the temple of El-Berith. 47When Abimelech heard that they had assembled there, 48he and all his men went up Mount Zalmon. He took an ax and cut off some branches, which he lifted to his shoulders. He ordered the men with him, "Quick! Do what you have seen me do!" 49So all the men cut branches and followed Abimelech. They piled them against the stronghold and set it on fire over the people inside. So all the people in the tower of Shechem, about a thousand men and women, also died. 50Next Abimelech went to Thebez and besieged it and captured it. 51Inside the city, however, was a strong tower, to which all the men and women--all the people of the city--fled. They locked themselves in and climbed up on the tower roof.

         The account shows the fulfillment of Jotham’s curse against Shechem as the town and its inhabitants are brutally annihilated.  The combination of Abimelech’s forces outside the city and the men Zebul was able to mobilize within the city proved to be too much for Gaal and his forces.  The battle ends with the incineration of the last remaining citizens of Shechem in their pagan temple.  Abimelech does precisely what Jotham had earlier foretold he would do to Shechem if they crossed him-- he consumed them with his fire.  At this point, Abimelech is sitting pretty.  All the potential rivals to his throne have been slaughtered on the stone of Shechem and now any opposition in Shechem has been disposed of as well.  He is like a mob boss who had consolidated his power and eliminated his rivals.  He feels so buoyed by his victories that his ruthless ambition drives him to try to stretch the boundaries of his kingdom still further. He chooses to fight against a neighboring town called Thebez.  Abimelech and his men appear to easily capture the city and they are in the process of doing another clean-up operation, routing out the remaining holdouts in the city tower.  Let’s pick up the narrative in verse 52.

52Abimelech went to the tower and stormed it. But as he approached the entrance to the tower to set it on fire, 53a woman dropped an upper millstone on his head and cracked his skull. 54Hurriedly he called to his armor-bearer, "Draw your sword and kill me, so that they can't say, 'A woman killed him.' " So his servant ran him through, and he died.   Just when victory was in his grasp, Abimelech falls in battle in a most unceremonious way.  A woman with a millstone drops it on his head and in his last remaining breaths he tells his armor bearer to save him from the utter shame of being killed by a woman.  Do you catch the irony here?  Abimelech, this murderous machine who had eliminated all his rivals and who is so full of himself falls victim to a woman.  What an inglorious end to this so-called king?  The story’s conclusion begins with verse 55.

55When the Israelites saw that Abimelech was dead, they went home. 56Thus God repaid the wickedness that Abimelech had done to his father by murdering his seventy brothers. 57God also made the men of Shechem pay for all their wickedness. The curse of Jotham son of Jerub-Baal came on them.   It’s clear that this military machine rested squarely on the shoulders of Abimelech.  When he is killed, everyone else just goes home and the author is left to interpret the events.  He reveals that this story is ultimately not about the Shechemites or Jotham or the millstone-heaving woman or Abimelech. It’s about God.  God repays the horrific crimes of Abimelech and the people of Shechem.  Abimelech is now dead and Shechem is lifeless and uninhabitable and this brutal judgment is credited to God.

         What can we learn from this grisly, violent chapter in redemptive history?  First, this story illustrates the truth that when the preserving, evil-limiting influence of God is removed from a context, we are left with destructive evil.  The Jews under Abimelech had totally compromised to the Baals.  They were thoroughly paganized by this time in Judges.  When they refused to give credit to Yahweh over his victory over the Midianites, when they put their lot in with this Abimelech and did nothing to bring justice on him for his brutal murder of 70 of Gideon’s sons, Yahweh had clearly been disinvited from being part of the Jews life.  This is NOT a good thing!  When this happens to God whether in a culture, a church or the life of a person, He doesn’t go sulk in a corner.  What he does do when he and his promptings are repeatedly rebuffed is recorded in Romans chapter one.  You’ll remember in verses 24, 26 and 28 its says that when God is disinvited from exercising his role as king in a person’s life, God “gives them over” to their sin.  That is, he allows the person to run unbridled into sin with its calamitous consequences. 

Although that context speaks of unbelievers who suppress the truth in unrighteousness and are therefore under God’s wrath, God often does the same thing in the lives of his children who decide they don’t want him to reign in their lives anymore.  He allows them to taste the consequences of that decision as their sinful lives fall apart around them.  Hebrews 12 tells us we are to “endure hardship as discipline” and isn’t true that often our hardships come when we reject the reign of God in our lives?  If we ignore God’s counsel to slow down and work fewer hours we often end up with heart attacks and broken marriages and children who feel alienated.  If we continue to indulge our sexual lust we can eventually degenerate into perverts even by the world’s godless standards and we can lose our marriages and suffer public humiliation.  If we persist in gossiping we may very well see our relationships with others fractured as the folks we talk about behind their backs feel the sting of betrayal and leave us in a cloud of dust.  If we persist in lying we eventually end up getting caught in the middle of one or more of them and lose our jobs or worse.  This is to say nothing of the far worse consequence of God’s name being dishonored in our lives as we in our recklessness trample on the precious blood of his Son.

Israel exchanged Yahweh for Abimelech as their king—what was the result?  They ended up crest fallen over their fallen and humiliated leader and with the blood of Gideon’s sons on their hands.  Also, they had forsaken a good, patient and gracious King who was the only One with the power to keep them from the oppressive hand of their neighbors.  They were begging for trouble and it surely did come, as we see later on in the book.  When we, through our neglect of God dethrone Him as our King in an area, that area of our life, though it may give us pleasure for a season, is doomed to bring us great pain.  God loves us too much to allow it to be otherwise.  If you have absented God from an area of your life, allow the painful lesson of the Jews under Abimelech to remind you of the folly of doing that and repent of your sin.

A second and final truth that comes out of this story is:  God is always sovereignly at work even in the midst of contexts marked by wretched evil.  We must understand a glorious truth about God.  Though God hates sin, he is not at all hand-cuffed by it and is free to work his sovereign will in a context filled with people who want nothing to do with him and who are committing utterly vile acts against Him.  God is repulsed by and disgusted with sin but he is not driven off by the sin of his creatures.  This story is a perfect illustration of that.  You have this treacherous and murderous Abimelech who, in his bloodthirsty desire for power kills Gideon’s 70 sons.  In the Providence of God, one gets away.  That is all God needs and that one whose name means, “God is perfectly honest” places this perfectly honest, two-pronged curse on those who have killed Gideon’s sons.  Then, God uses—of all people-- Abimelech to bring HIS judgment on the Shechemites who helped him commit these grisly crimes. The Shechemites are guilty in God’s court of justice so he sentences them to death through this curse of Jotham and He carries out his execution using the very one who ordered them to kill his half-brothers!?  Is that brilliant or what?

After that, there was Abimelech to take care of so God allows Abimelech’s own blind ambition to drive him to Thebez where, as Dan Block says, “He who had slaughtered his brothers “upon one stone” has his skull crushed beneath one stone.”  It’s also ironic that Abimelech is killed by a woman because at the very beginning of the story it is a woman, Abimelech’s pagan mother--the concubine of Gideon who opens the door for his rule over Shechem.  God allows a woman to elevate him and a woman to “crush” him.  Do you catch the exquisite parallels here that could only mark a plan of God?  Do you see the wonder of God’s sovereign control here?  This is an utterly shameful, violent, brutal, grisly chapter of Israel’s history, but God is in the midst of this seeming chaos and with surgical precision is bringing about his justice to bear on the perpetrators of this horrible crime.  As we’ve said before, when you look at the utter mish mash of the Middle East and Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein and you wonder where on earth God is—when tragedy and chaos and difficulty and violence comes into your own life--do not fear.  God is right smack dab in the middle of it working out his plan, bringing ultimate glory to his name and furthering his redemptive plan in our world and our lives.  It is a mess on a human level, but God is not paralyzed by the enormous sin in our world and maybe in our lives.  He is working his plan—he will not be trumped!   His justice will roll down and his name will be exalted just like it is here in Judges chapter nine.  May God give us the grace to trust Him as our King in all the areas of our lives.

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