The tyranny of Abimelech, part. 2; Judges chapter 9
We continue our study of Abimelech and the consequences of tyranny. Above all in our study we are seeing the impact of human viewpoint thinking [pagan thought: technical term for any thinking that is not biblical, any thinking that is not based on a Judeo-Christian heritage]. Whenever a culture assimilates non-biblical thought in to their overall orientation to life, the more paganism they have and the more the culture fragments and is disrupted, the more we see there is an increase in tyranny. This is because only on the basis of divine viewpoint, only on the basis of a proper orientation to Scripture that we can properly exercise authority. Authority, as we have seen, is part of the divine make-up. God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit are equal in their essence, they each share in all of the attributes, there are none that have those attributes to a greater degree or to a lesser degree, so they are equal in their being. But they are distinct in their roles. God the Father is the author of the plan of God, God the Son is the one who carries it out, and God the Holy Spirit is the one who reveals it to mankind. They have distinct roles and there is an authority structure within the Trinity. There is always an authority relationship. Authority isn't something God invented and imposed on man after the fall in order to bring order to a chaotic universe. Authority was always there and the only way authority does not deteriorate into tyranny is when on the basis of doctrinal orientation we are able to hold things in balance. But once we get away from God as the ultimate authority in the universe and authority orientation breaks down, then, as we have seen, the sin nature is in control of the individual, sin natures of individuals are then dominating the institutions, the divine institutions that God has established, and those divine institutions are going to break down. The individual, when he does not have authority orientation, is going to be under the domination of the sin nature. The sin nature is always going to have trends toward either licentiousness or legalism. Licentiousness is the absence of any kind of control, absolute or authority; legalism is an abuse of authority. So what happens when the aggregate of individuals are turning toward either licentiousness, which produces anarchy in a society, or if they tend toward some kind of self-righteous legalism (you don't have to be a believer to be self-righteous or legalistic) there is tyranny. The more anarchy enters into a divine institution the more there is a reaction toward control because people can't function in an unstable situation where there is no order and no control and everybody does what they want to do. That is the exact situation in Israel at the time of the judges and everyone was doing what was right in their own eyes, so the people tried to solve the problem by means of an illegitimate monarchy and they appointed Abimelech as king.
The divine institutions start with individual responsibility. This was established at the garden by the command, Thou shalt not eat of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. It put responsibility on each person; each individual is responsible for his own decisions. The second divine institution was marriage and we saw that when a marriage breaks down and a husband and wife want to separate and do whatever they want to the marriage is going to fragment and collapse, or there is usually some sort of frustration element in the marriage because there is no order, and so one or the other becomes abusive and controlling. That works it out in the family, the third divine institution, when parents don't want to discipline their kids and let them do whatever they want to, and then before long the kids are just running wild and there is no discipline, no order, problems at school, and so on. Then there is a reaction such as excessive force, abuse, etc. Paganism produces that. The fourth divine institution is in a nation. National government was established with the Noahic covenant in Genesis chapter nine. So there is an extreme from anarchy on the one hand to totalitarianism on the other hand. Paganism always produced some kind of totalitarianism. When you get away from doctrine there is a loss of freedom, a loss of responsibility, and a loss of respect for the individual. The consequence of that is that there is going to be a rise of abuse, a rise in violence, and man is going to become more and more brutal. This is exemplified for us in the book of Daniel where the major kingdoms in human history, representing the kingdom of man in its various stages in human history, are represented by ferocious beasts, because man dominated by the sin nature always tends to act like an animal. He becomes a brute and there is no longer the emphasis on individual responsibility because that has as its ultimate foundation ideologically in Genesis 1:26, 27, that every human being is created equally in the image and likeness of God and therefore has value and significance. But apart from doctrine, apart from any biblical influence, then every culture is going to break down and the people are going to be treated as means to an end and they will act after the manner of a brute.
This is what is warned by Jotham, starting with his little able in Judges 9:7. After Gideon died his 71st son, Abimelech ["My father's king," a title of Canaanite royalty], enters into a conspiracy with his mother's relatives in Shechem. He plays the family card, he says it is better to be ruled by the devil you know than the devil you don't know, so it is better for him to rule over them because at least he is related. He also plays the gender card and he uses his mother as a means to an end. If the men of Shechem will give him money then he will hire a bunch of assassins and they will kill Gideon's seventy sons. That will destroy any potential of a dynasty from Gideon's family and any competition from them as far as Abimelech is concerned, so he can be ensconced as the king of Israel. One of the sons escapes: Jotham. Jotham comes down and stands on top of Mount Gerezim which has an natural amphitheatre, wonderful acoustics, and shouts the message to the town and everyone can hear him clearly.
It is an interesting little parable, beginning in verse 8. The trees represent people. All of this personification represents a fable, probably a well-known fable at the time but he uses it for his own ends. The trees go to the olive tree. The olive tree is productive, producing olive oil which was necessary for many things in life. But the olive tree says that if it was reigning over them then it wouldn't be able to fulfill its natural function. So what we see here is that the olive tree represents the honorable person who is productive in society and would rather operate in his niche and benefit society than get involved in politics. So they go to the second notch down, the fig tree in verse 10, and get the same result. The fig tree doesn't want to give up its natural production and benefit to society. So there is a very negative view of politics in this fable. There is the same result with the vine in verse 12, so they go to the bramble. The bramble represents Abimelech, he is just the lowest level on the social economic scale. They offer the kingship to the bramble and the bramble accepts it. The people are so out of the plan of God at this point that God is going to exercise some divine discipline through Abimelech and He is telling Israel to "wait a minute." They are going to go through such chaos as a result of this as part of God's discipline on them that God is going to use this to get their attention once again, to bring them back to Him. So Abimelech is the briar king, the "wait a minute" king, and he is absolutely worthless. A bramble is good for nothing. It doesn't produce anything that is beneficial to mankind.
Jotham drives a crucial point home in verse 16. "Now, therefore, if [and it is not] you had acted in truth and sincerity …" "Truth" is the Hebrew word emet, and it refers to the concept of truth, and when related to God it relates to His veracity. God is absolute truth. Truth is a concept that is related to two other attributes of God: His perfect righteousness and His absolute justice. His righteousness is the standard of His character; justice represents the application of that standard to His creatures. So we say that what the righteousness of God demands the justice of God supplies. So that if righteousness condemns man because man doesn't meet the standard, then justice must judge man. If righteousness approves of man, then justice blesses man. But it is related to truth, which is the expression of righteousness' and justice's demands. In Psalm 68:14 we read that "Righteousness and justice are the foundation of your throne, but truth and love [chesedh: God's faithful loyal love] go forth from it." There we see this connection between four elements: the righteousness and justice of God on the one hand as the foundation of His standard and His application towards man, and then as it is expressed toward man, truth and lovingkindness. Those are the elements most closely associated with the integrity of God. What underlies this entire passage is the faithful function of God's integrity towards Israel despite their disobedience and rebellion. So the emphasis that Jotham makes in his application is repeated again in verse 19. Of course, they didn't deal with Jerrubbaal with integrity, so he continues in v. 20. Verse 21, Jotham ran away and fled. Rightly so. He did not have the courage of his convictions and he just announced this judgment. He wasn't under the Holy Spirit, we don't know if he was a believer or not, God is not involved because it doesn't mention God's involvement. But God is going to honor this anyway and utilize this and demonstrate His integrity. Though the people didn't deal with Gideon in integrity God is going to deal with them in integrity. In fact, God is going to give them exactly what they deserve in this case, He is not going to deal with them in grace. He is going to judge them and discipline them in this context.
We see the beginning of this downfall in v. 22. This is another fascinating passage because it shows how God is operating behind the scenes. Ordinarily we read that at the end of the reign the length of the reign is announced, but under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit his reign is put first this time to indicate that it is short. V. 23, "God sent a spirit of ill will [NKJV], "an evil spirit" [NASB]. The Hebrew means evil, so literally "an evil spirit"—"between Abimelech and the men of Shechem." It is legitimate to translate this "spirit of ill will," but the same construction is used in another passage, 1 Kings 22, at the end of the reign of Ahab where there is a fascinating look into what takes place in the throne of God and how God sovereignly brings about judgment in the human sphere, utilizing the fallen angels. Even when God allows Satan to do something God is still in control. This is exactly the same thing that we see in Judges chapter nine. This is how God utilizes the angelic conflict to bring about discipline on mankind. So He sends out this deceiving demon in order to create this disharmony between Abimelech and the men of Shechem.
Verse 26, we see this person suddenly appear on the scene. His name is Ga'al the son of Ebed. He is a person who is going to try to redeem (not in a soteriological sense) Shechem from the tyranny of Abimelech. The men of Shechem put their confidence in him and they throw a party because they think that this man is going to free them from the tyranny of Abimelech. One thing that always goes along with tyranny, because tyranny is the result of a people and a culture that does not understand authority orientation, it doesn't take much to light the fuse on a conspiracy and a rebellion. This is exactly what Ga'al does. There are seven active verbs here to demonstrate the excitement that all of these partiers are experiencing. They went out to the fields, they gathered the grapes, they trod them, they made praise, they went into the temple of their god, they ate and they drank, and they cursed Abimelech. Then Ga'al got up and gave a rousing speech to get everybody fired up to go to battle against Abimelech.
Verse 30, the response of Abimelech's team. The strategy is to lie down in the fields so as not to be seen, and then in the morning when the sun comes up it will be at their back so that when they come out of the city to work the fields they are not going to see them, they are going to be blinded by the bright sun and can be ambushed. This is exactly what they did, v. 34. In verse 39 Ga'al leads his men out and they have a battle with Abimelech. Abimelech completely routs them and kills all of them. That is the excessive violence of tyranny. But he doesn't destroy everyone in Shechem, v. 42. There is still a group back in town that are hostile to Abimelech so he takes his army, divides it into three companies, lays in wait in the field again. When the people were coming out of the city he attacked them. It took all day before he slew all of the Shechemites. He sowed the city with salt. That means there would be no more productivity. The fields were ruined from that point on. He executes vengeance on the people. There is no justice here, just a vendetta. These previous verses summarize what happened. Verses 46ff is going to give the detail of the final destruction of the Shechemites. Men, women and children were roasted to death. This shows the excessive cruelty, the brutality, and the bestiality of the kingdom of man represented by Abimelech. This is the excessiveness of tyranny.
But it doesn't stop there. Now he is going to try to further his control. Thebez was apparently a satellite city of Schechem and in verse 50 we are told about Abimelech's final demise. All the residents of the city fled to the tower, shut themselves in, and went up to the top of the tower. He intends to do the same as he did at Shechem and roast the people in the tower. But a certain woman dropped a mill stone on Abimelech's head. It doesn't kill him but he knows it is a fatal wound and doesn't want to have the horrible dishonor of having been killed by a woman, so he calls his armor bearer to come and kill him, "lest someone say he was killed by a woman." So we see again this negative view of woman. It has deteriorated now through this pagan period in Israel and women are no longer viewed as valuable, they are viewed as objects of means to an end.
Then we have the final editorial note of the author of Judges: "Thus God repaid the wickedness of Abimelech, which he had done to his father, by killing his seventy sons." This is the second mention of God in the passage. The first time told of God using the evil spirit, and here in conclusion we see that even though God has been forgotten by Israel, God has not forgotten Israel and is working behind the scenes.
1) This emphasizes the sovereignty of God over the affairs of man. God is in firm control of all the situation in Israel, even though they don't like it and they don't want to acknowledge it. God is only referred to twice in this passage but all the events move forward toward God's intended outcome. This shows how the sovereignty of God works with the volition of man. God is not forcing anybody to these decisions but is working behind the scenes to bring about His intended conclusion, but without destroying human responsibility or freedom. The application from this is that no matter how chaotic, not matter how out of control things may appear in your personal life, no matter how out of control things may appear in the nation, we can have confidence that as believers in the Lord Jesus Christ God never deserts us. It may appear out of control to us but all of history is under the control of the Lord Jesus Christ.
2) God deals with mankind on the basis of His integrity. God had extended grace to Israel time and time again, yet they rejected it. So for the first time in this long process of deterioration God is going to deal with Israel on the basis of what they deserve. This is what happens in the believer's life. It is a picture of sanctification. God is going to extend to us grace, grace, and more grace, but at some point if we continue to disobey God He is really going to lower the boom in terms of divine discipline, and at that point we have reached almost the point of no return in our reversionism where God is going to start dealing with us on the basis of what we deserve. Then our life is really going to get miserable. This is what happens in this episode in Judges. If we take the whole panorama of the book of Judges there is this continual decline. Some of the judgeships are short, some are longer, but up to this point nothing has been as long. The writer has not spent nearly as much time on Gideon or Deborah as he has on Abimelech and his tyranny. Why? God wants us to pay attention to the fact that this is a turning point in Israel's history. They have hit rock bottom at this point and now it is going to deteriorate to an even more chaotic position.
3) The principle of divine discipline which is reaping what we sow. Gideon became arrogant, led the people into idolatry, and his son Abimelech intensified that and brought even greater calamity on the nation.
4) The issue of gender, gender politics. What we see is that paganism affects the way men and women relate to each other. It affects the way men view themselves and their role in society, their role in marriage, their role in relationship to women, and it changes the way women view themselves and their relationship to men and their relationship to society. Paganism transforms all that. Even though women seem to gain some measure of freedom it is at the cost in the rise of abuse. As paganism increases, so do these other things. They always go together. Once the stops from a Judeo-Christian heritage are removed then it intensifies geometrically.