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ABIMELECH MADE KING
Judges 9:1. And Abimelech.] Some little time may have elapsed after Gideon’s death, so that the air was again filled with tendencies to idolatry. Before certain acts can be done, the times must be ripe for them. Abi signifies “my father,” Melech “a king.” The name was probably given by the mother, who was probably a woman of energetic or aspiring spirit, if it is her character that we see reflected in her eon. Probably, being an only son, she wished to make the most of the situation for him; and as her husband, though not de jure, was yet de facto king over the land, she determined to keep this fact as a mark before the eyes of her son day by day in his being always addressed by the words, “My father was a king.”
Son of Jerubbaal.] How strange! that the man who earned the proud title of being the destroyer of Baal, should have a son who promised to be the most zealous supporter of Baal’s interests in the land!
Went to Shechem.] A historical city, and one of the chief cities of Ephraim, from its central position and the many attractions of its situation. Here God first appeared to Abraham when he arrived in Canaan, and here Abraham first raised the altar (Genesis 12:0); near this both Abraham and Jacob lie buried; between the two hills on which the city was built all Israel were assembled to hear the law read, in its blessings and curses, when they first entered the land of promise; here Israel’s greatest captain most solemnly called on the people to stand firm by their covenant with Jehovah with his dying breath; and this was the place, and the well of Sychar the spot, where the Saviour’s ever memorable conversation with the woman of Samaria took place. It is one of the oldest towns of Palestine.
The house of his mother’s father.] Blood is thicker than water. Abimelech reckoned it better to have a surrounding of relatives than of general acquaintances.
Judges 9:2. Men of Shechem.] Not the inhabitants generally, but the leading men—בְַעַלֵי, the heads, those who had a standing in the town, either as regards property and therefore owners, or as regards guildry and so citizens—the guildry or burgesses. Hence we read elsewhere of “the men of Jericho,” “the men of Keilah,” etc. Or the reference may be to the Israelites, as opposed to the Canaanites.
Reign over you. He assumes that the people wished some one to be their king, and also that the thirst for rule was in the breasts of all Gideon’s sons as well as in his own.
I am your bone and your flesh.] This is a subtle argument; it implies two things—
(1) that he was of the same kindred with them (Genesis 29:14, 2 Samuel 6:0; 2 Samuel 6:0), but also
(2) “I have Ephraimite blood flowing in my veins, so that if you elect me to be king you will be giving Ephraim the sovereignty, and Manasseh shall no longer rule. Shechem will be the royal city, and Orphah will be eclipsed.”
Judges 9:3. For they said, “He is our brother.”] Abimelech had read well the dominating sentiment in the hearts of his people, for the bait at once took. They knew that the story about the brothers wishing to reign over them was false, but the pill was too temptingly gilded to be refused. They raised the shout at once for Abimelech.
Judges 9:4. 70 pieces of silver] or shekels—the shekel being two shillings of our money. This was all the price at which each head of Gideon’s sons was valued! The money was given by the worshippers of Baal-berith, and doubtless was given willingly, when it was hinted that the use to be made of it was to destroy utterly the house of him who had destroyed Baal. Temple treasures were indeed often applied to political purposes [Bertheau]. 1 Kings 15:18; 2 Kings 18:15-16. Small sum indeed, yet such soldiers might be got for trifling wages.
Vain and light persons] Vain means either those who were fond of dash and show, like Absalom’s fifty men, who ran before him (2 Samuel 16:0), men who would not bear the yoke of any steady employment in the occupations of life, or men of no worth of character, and kept lounging about ready for any dark or foul deed that might come in their way. Light persons of no principle or conscience, unscrupulous desperadoes. These are sometimes called “Men of Belial” (2 Samuel 20:1; 1 Kings 21:10).
5. Slew his brethren] in cold blood. They had committed no crime, but the usurper feared lest they should one day disturb him in his unlawful possession of the throne. Thus did Jehoram, the unworthy son of the good Jehosaphat (2 Chronicles 21:4). So did Jehu to the 70 sons of Ahab (2 Kings 10:7), Athaliah to the seed royal of Judah (2 Kings 11:1), Baasha to the house of Jeroboam (1 Kings 15:29), and Zimri to the house of Baasha (1 Kings 16:11-12). Timour, on his conquest of Persia, destroyed the whole male family of the king. At the conquest of Bagdad he is said to have made a pyramid of 90,000 human heads. Even in modern Persia, it is said, until quite of late, to have been the custom for the new king either to kill, or to put out the eyes of all his brothers and near male relatives. Abimelech did indeed live in a barbarous age, and a sterner code prevailed then than now, yet we dare not do less than brand his conduct on this occasion as the atrocious act of an inhuman monster. Dim as was the light which the Israelitish religion shed on the value of human life compared with that which we now enjoy, it was sufficient to teach its worshippers to ostracise such a man, and put him beyond the pale of human fellowship. This system of wholesale murder of the innocents is one of the natural results of polygamy, and the lust of power.
Judges 9:6. House of Millo] not family as some make it, but fortress. It was in fact a large rampart or castle. Its walls were filled in with stones and earth. We hear of something similar in 2 Samuel 5:9, also 1 Kings 9:15; 1 Kings 9:24; 2 Kings 12:20 (see also Judges 9:46). The house of Millo, means probably those who garrisoned the fortress.
Gathered together and made Abimelech king.] The ruling class in Shechem, or the citizens, and those who belonged to the fortress, assembled. We hear of no dissentients, though such a dark tragedy had just been perpetrated, but, on the contrary, this assembly are unanimous in electing the man whose hands were reeking with the blood of so many of his brethren to be their king, that is to occupy the most exalted post of honour they could give him. What a picture of the times in even God’s Israel! If anything could add to the frightful depravity of this whole transaction, it is to be told, that all this happened on, or around, the spot where stood the oak of the pillar (not “the plain of the pillar”) or monumental stone under the oak, which Joshua set up as a witness of the solemn covenant, which the people entered into to take Jehovah alone to be their God (Joshua 24:1; Joshua 24:26-27—comp. also Genesis 25:4). As to the custom of holding councils under wide-spreading oaks in olden times, see Pict. Bible in loco. That the men of Shechem aided Abimelech in this slaughter of Gideon’s family is manifest from Judges 9:24.
Judges 9:7. On the top of Mount Gerizim.] This hill stood on the south-west side of Shechem as a huge rock, about 800 feet above the valley below. The town, however, was not built at the bottom of the valley, but on one of the shoulders of the hill, and therefore not so far distant, but that a person speaking from the top of the rock might be heard by those in the town. The facilities for a person being heard, who might speak from the height to those below, were greatly increased by the fact, that there was another rock-hill immediately opposite, called Mount Ebal, which threw back the sound and sent it downwards (see Pict. Bible). (1 Samuel 26:13; 2 Samuel 2:25-26.)
Jotham was told all that had taken place. The cruel blow aimed at Gideon’s house called forth no protest. It was clear that Israel had fallen again into an idolatrous stupor. Every nerve of gratitude was deadened. Steps were taken to make the usurper king. He has only a few spirits left who are likeminded with himself, but the spirit of his father is still in him. The instinct of self-preservation is strong in him, but he will speak one firm and faithful word ere he disappear from view. He chooses his time and place—the rock Gerizim, and the coronation-day of Abimelech. There, as the impersonation of conscience, he suddenly appears to the masses below to warn them of the heavy retribution, which such high-handed sins must bring down on their heads at no distant day. The speaker appeared, probably, on some projecting crag, near enough to be heard, yet distant enough to be not easily caught. The fact that he was supposed to be killed, while now he appears suddenly with a message of vengeance on his lips, at the supreme moment of the coronation, must have staggered all but the conscience-hardened in that guilty multitude.
This address ought to be called a fable, not a parable, for that never transgresses the limits of actual occurrences. [Douglas.] It is the oldest of all known fables, and was spoken 700 years before the days of Æsop, the most ancient of heathen fabulists. A similar one, though more brief, occurs in 2 Kings 14:9. Compare also the Agrippan fable, in Livy, Book 2, chap. 30, as to the rebellion of the members of the body against the belly. Of parables there are examples in 1 Kings 20:39-40, and especially 2 Samuel 12:1-4; and 2 Samuel 14:5-11. This was the most ancient instruction of any, for oftentimes it was only in this veiled form that wholesome truths could be conveyed to the ears of men of power, or those of the unreasoning multitude. Evils were thus reproved, and the multitude was admonished.
In this fable two things are put in contrast, and thus a severe censure is passed on the conduct of both Abimelech and his friends. The high character of Gideon’s sons who had been slain, and the strong pretensions they might have put forward, while yet they stood quietly in the background, are contrasted with the rough character and worthless pretensions of the illegitimate son.
Jotham we believe spoke this message from God, so that we are to regard it as the fruit of Divine inspiration (see Adam Clarke at end of chap. 9; see also Dr. Cassel on chap. 9).
Judges 9:8. The trees went forth.] This states the matter in hand. The trees are supposed to want a king, and they go first to those that might respectably wear the dignity of the office. They begin with the olive, but the olive declines.
Judges 9:9. My fatness … they honour God and man.] It has excellent qualities, the one specially referred to here being its oil-producing power. This oil is used to consecrate both kings and priests; it also feeds the light that burns in the sanctuary of God. Thus it honours both God and man. Its leaf and branch are also signs of reconciliation and peace. Strong are the claims of the olive to reign, but it aspires not to that distinction. “Should I give up my vocation in bearing oil, that I might wave over the trees!”
Judges 9:11. Promoted over the trees.] The fig-tree is also invited and also declines. The word “promoted” means to shake, or be shaken. It seems to refer to the instability of royalty or worldly greatness, and the many cares and distractions that attend it.
Judges 9:13. That cheereth God and man.] This is hyperbolical language. The wine may be said to give delight to God, because He was always well pleased with the offerings of His people when they were presented in a right spirit, and in the appointed way. The hin of wine as a drink-offering came up with a sweet savour unto the Lord (Numbers 15:7; Numbers 15:10). The purport of these verses is, that should these trees—the olive, the fig, and the vine—comply with the request made, and occupy themselves with waving their branches over the other trees, it would take them away from the far more useful occupation of producing oil, and figs, and grapes.
Judges 9:14. The bramble.] The largest of thorns, with dreadful spikes like darts. It bears no fruit, has no leaves, and casts no shadow under which one might shelter himself from the burning heat of the sun. It is indeed not a tree, but a mere shrub, prickly, barren, base, and good for nothing, save to burn or kindle a fire. It is the symbol of a worthless man, who lives only to do harm. At the moment that Jotham was speaking, these trees filled the valley in profusion, and the brambles in large numbers were climbing up among the rocks.
Judges 9:15. The thornbush said to the trees, etc.] Thorns easily catch fire. If you do truly anoint me to be your king, then put your trust in my shadow. Spoken ironically, for shadow it has none. It refers to the hard character of Abimelech’s rule. It must be a real submission. If not, the alternative will be that the bramble shall set fire to the other trees, not even excepting the noblest of them all—the cedars of Lebanon. For the most worthless man can do much harm to the most distinguished. He will have no mercy on rebels.
Judges 9:16. If ye have done truly and sincerely, etc.] Acted honestly and fairly with Jerubbaal and his house, then take your fill of joy over your newly made king, though it is only a thornbush you have got. This is said with a caustic irony and also with a bitter personal grief.
Judges 9:20. But if not.] If you have not acted fairly and properly by that house, then, as a righteous consequence, let fire break out between you mutually, from Abimelech to devour the men of Shechem, and from these again to destroy Abimelech. There is a recompense which is meet for compacts which are entered into over falsehood, robbery, the shedding of innocent blood, and the exalting of false gods to the place of the true and only Jehovah.
Judges 9:21. Beer.] A place supposed to have been in the tribe of Benjamin. Jotham is not heard of more, but his words now spoken will not die till the end of time. It was something of the spirit of his father that spoke in him. How truly his words came to pass, the parties concerned on both sides knew to their dire experience, ere they were three years older. Abimelech began his reign, not on principles of truth and honour, justice and uprightness, but with open rebellion against Israel’s Divine King, with assassination of those he was bound most sacredly to love, and with the fixed resolution to gain his own aggrandisement at whatever cost or ruin to those around him. With such a beginning, the end must be truly disastrous; nor was it long delayed.
MAIN HOMILETICS.—Judges 9:1-21
THE ELECTION OF THE USURPER TO BE KING
I. Contrasts in the history of God’s own people.
This chapter, though a long one, contains a miserable history. Apart from names, it looks like the career of a roving bandit, who, setting the laws of God and man alike at defiance, could commit with cool barbarity the most unnatural crimes, to gratify an inordinate lust of power. Yet the first line reminds us that Abimelech, the actor in this tragedy, was the son of Jerubbaal. What a deplorable sequel to the glorious sun-setting recorded at the close of the previous chapter! The “gold has become dim indeed, and the most fine gold is changed.” As the gloomiest of nights sometimes follows the brightest of days, so does the short and reckless career of this unprincipled young man follow the long and honourable course of life of Israel’s greatest hero. In passing from the one chapter to the other, it seems as if we had dropped all at once, from the highest pinnacle of Solomon’s temple, which overlooked all the glories of that matchless building, and had fallen down among the dead bones, the disgusting offal, and many abominations of the valley of Hinnom, which required the constant action of fire to prevent the atmosphere from being poisoned.
Striking contrasts occur also at different intervals in the history of this people, both before and after this period. One occurs in comparing the generation that conquered Canaan under Joshua, in the exercise of a strong faith in their covenant God, with the degenerate generation of their descendants, who could not drive out the Canaanites, from the want of that faith, but permitted them to dwell among them, and, ere long, they intermarried with the idolaters, and became as they were. We have another case, in the few thousands who followed the guilty king of Israel, trembling through the land in the days of Saul, compared with the lion-like host that gathered around David shortly afterwards, and went on conquering and to conquer.
The contrast of such a history as that of Abimelech following that of so excellent a man as Gideon, teaches several lessons, such as—
(1.) It was a punishment on the people for their misimprovement of so just a rule as that of Gideon. To have had such a man bearing rule among them, and placed at the top of society for so long a time, was a great privilege conferred by the God of Providence on His chosen people. But they seem to have had no eye to see the Divine mercy extended to them. They did not realise that there was any favour being shown to them; when at last God withdrew His Gideon, and sent them an Abimelech. Between these the people soon found, to their bitter experience, there was the difference between an angel of light, and a demon of darkness.
(2.) The thoroughly corrupt state of the people of God apart from renewing grace. Israel was really no better in character before God than the members of any other nation. “By nature they, too, were children of wrath, even as others.” There was “in them the same evil heart of unbelief, departing from the living God.” The renewing grace of God alone made the difference. “What, then? Are we better than they? No, in no wise; for we have already proved, both Jews and Gentiles, that they are all under sin.” (See also Ephesians 2:3.) It was but a few centuries before this when Job wrote these words, “Who can bring a clean thing out of an unclean? Not one.” And Bildad responded, “How can man be justified with God? or how can he be clean that is born of a woman?” And it was but a few generations subsequent to this when David wrote thus, “Behold, I was shapen in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me. Create in me a clean heart, renew a right spirit within me.” (Psalms 40:12; Ezekiel 36:26-27.)
These Israelites proved that when Gideon was no more, and the only remaining barrier removed out of the way, they could run on headlong in the old idolatrous course as before, keeping pace with any of the Canaanite nations themselves. As for Abimelech, we believe, were all the habitations of these native idolaters searched to find a character worse than his fellows, it would have been impossible to discover a monster in human form more detestable than we have in this son of Jerubbaal. And as for the people in general, we never read of any generation among them growing up in righteousness and the fear of God, as an essential part of their character, to whom, therefore, it was unnatural to be guilty of sin. There was no generation of Israel without their sins against the God of Israel. Had there been so, how meaningless to them would have been the elaborate ceremonial of their sanctuary service!
(3.) God’s mercy is not like man’s in the measure of its forbearance. Were but half the provocation which men are giving every day to God to be given to each other, they would instantly bring down on the heads of the transgressors the full vials of their wrath. Man’s patience is so soon exhausted; God’s patience is like Himself, inexhaustible (Malachi 3:6). That patience is not even exhausted when He leaves the sinner, or when He proceeds to inflict on him the sentence of doom. His course usually is, to wait long enough till mercy has had full display, and till it be shown that He is not willing that any should perish, but rather come to repentance, and live; but if that long and patient dealing is made in vain, a time must come, when reasons of righteousness and wisdom require that sin be dealt with as it deserves, and that justice be allowed to take its course. Yet patience is not properly exhausted.
(4.) The deep debt of gratitude every saved man owes to the grace of God. It was a wise habit of the good John Bradford to say, when he saw any very striking personification of human wickedness in the worst of men around him—“There goes John Bradford, but for the grace of God.” And well might any believer in the doctrine of renewing grace have said, when he saw this wicked young man going on in a career of unbridled sin—“There goes I, myself, but for the grace of God.” Meaning that he, too, has a wicked heart by nature, and that it requires to be made the subject of God’s renewing grace, ere it become fit for entering the holy world above. For we are to judge character, not by the measure of its present development, but by the direction it is taking. The development is now rapidly going on, and ere long it will reach a point or degree in wickedness, which at one time would have astonished the man himself, could he have foreseen it. Thus it was with Hazael, when the prophet foretold him of the atrocities, of which he would one day be guilty towards the people of God. “Is thy servant a dog,” he exclaimed, when the prophet held up to him the picture of his future deeds, “that he should do this thing?” He was at that time horrified at the thought of perpetrating such cruelties; yet, some years afterwards, as his wicked character became developed, he showed by the fact, that he could do all that the prophet predicted.
To every saved man who enters the world of perfect purity and bliss, it will be made clear, as with a thousand sunbeams, that it is not to any supposed goodness of his own, or to any worth in his own works, that he owes his admission to that bright home. All the outbreaks of depravity of which he has been conscious, from day to day during his whole life, and these occurring in the face of every possible restraint, will be as so many strong lights to flash on him the conviction, that it is by grace alone that he is saved—that salvation is not the thing which he deserves, but that which God is loving enough through Christ to give.
II. The best of fathers may have the worst of sons. This is another truth suggested by the paragraph (see pp. 95, 96).
(1.) No good father can impart his renewed nature to his son. What the father is by nature, he may, and does, more or less, convey to his son. The conditions of his body, its healthy or sickly state, whether it is strong or weak, its character in other respects, the father’s temperaments, his likeness, his natural dispositions and tendencies, his constitutional peculiarities, with other features, but above all his fallen spiritual condition, both in his depraved desires and affections, and in his liability to condemnation as a guilty being—these the parent confers more or less on the child. “Adam begat a son in his own likeness, after his image” (Genesis 5:3). It is not said “after God’s likeness and in His image,” as in the case of Adam himself (chap. 5). To grant the renewed nature is a thing in God’s special gift; and so we are expressly informed, that all who become “sons of God” are made so directly by God Himself. They are “born not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God” (John 1:13). Not indeed without the use of means, for we are expressly told in the previous verse, that it is those who “receive Christ and believe in His name,” that are honoured with the privilege of being made sons of God (comp. also Galatians 4:4-6; John 3:5).
(2.) A good father may often neglect the training of his child. The child of a pious parent, though he derive no advantage directly in his natural birth, is yet open to many advantages otherwise—in respect of example, of superintendence and training, of prayers many and sincere, of special promises, and mixing with the fellowship of the righteous, to which might be added a fuller and more regular enjoyment of the means of grace. Thus a good man may have the formation of his son’s character in a great measure in his own hands; that is, so far as means are concerned.
Yet we often know that, as a matter of fact, a pious father sometimes neglects the proper upbringing of his son; as did Eli, when “his sons made themselves vile, and he restrained them not;” and as did David, when he “never said to Adonijah, what doest thou?” If the tree, when it is young, is permitted to grow up crooked and misshapen, it will remain crooked and misshapen during its whole existence. So is it with the child, “Trained up in the way that it should go, when it is of mature age, it will not depart from it.” But, if neglected as to training and the use of means, the result desired cannot be expected, even if many prayers from a godly father should be laid on the altar. Thus it was with Absalom, and thus it was with Abimelech.
3. A perverse son may receive a wicked training away from his pious father’s eye. Thus it was apparently with Abimelech. His mother seems to have had most to do with his training, and she was a Canaanite and idolater. He would naturally be kept separate from the other sons, who were all children of Israelitish mothers, and must have regarded Abimelech as a son of the bondwoman. Thus he was cradled in an idolatrous circle in reality, though this was concealed from the public eye by the fact that Gideon was his father, and that, during the season of his youth he lived in his father’s house. Naturally also, he would attract to himself idolatrous companions, of whom there were only too many everywhere, notwithstanding all that Gideon could do to reduce the number. These were the circumstances that determined the general aspect of his religious character. His natural force of action, selfwilledness, and towering ambition would do all the rest. Hence we have in him one of the worst characters in Scripture history. We do not find in the picture one single redeeming element, and there is scarcely a single element of wickedness awanting.
4. The course of Gideon’s son was one of unmitigated wickedness.
(1.) He begins with casting off all fear of God. “Conscience must be either satisfied or seared, if a man would act with thorough decision,” says a wise thinker. Abimelech chose the latter course; and, as the most effectual way to sear it, he would not recognise the existence of the true God at all.
(2.) He dares to usurp the sacred seat which was reserved for Jehovah alone, in being king over His chosen people. Had this been merely a vacant secular throne, like one of those on which any of the other kings of the earth sat, it had even then been an act of impertinent presumption, when there were 70 persons, of far more legitimate title than he possessed, ready to occupy it if necessary. But the act becomes one of daring irreverence, when, without warrant, and in the face of a direct prohibition from the jealous Jehovah, he thrusts himself into the holiest office on earth, except that of the High Priest alone, if indeed that is to be excepted.
(3.) Self-aggrandisement was his only object. He could not assign a single reason of right or of merit for what he had done. On the contrary, his character was so full of blemishes, that to exalt him to a throne was the last thought that would have occurred to other minds, had he not made the suggestion himself. Self-worship is the meanest of all kinds of idolatry, and for a man to push himself forward to occupy the first place, when he ought to take the last, only exposes his memory to infamy in the future. Yet with him every sacred interest was cast to the winds to gratify an inordinate ambition.
(4.) His first step to accomplish his purpose is falsehood. He insinuates that Gideon’s sons were, each and all, ambitious to become king in Israel, and that matters had gone so far that the men of Israel must make their choice—the fact being, that in no breast save his own was any such thought cherished.
(5.) His second step is to hire money from the headquarters of idolatry to serve his wicked purposes (Judges 9:4). “This was like going to the forge of Satan to find means to kill the servants of Jehovah” (Trapp).
(6.) His third step was to make bosom friends of the vilest of characters. If a man is to be judged by the company he keeps, what can we think of the son of the noblest man in Israel choosing for his associates the desperadoes of society! In place of saying, as a true son of Gideon ought to do, “Gather not my soul with sinners, &c.,” we see him looking about for characters vile enough to assist him in accomplishing his Satanic devices.
(7.) His fourth step, and the darkest of all, is to commit murder wholesale on the family of his father. As if it were a light thing to take the life of one brother, another, and another follow, until 70 lives are taken—all sons of his father, and every son he had—every one of them innocent, and an utter stranger to the thought of aspiring to the crown of Israel! How expensive is the work of sin! Blood must flow in streams, and the nearest relatives must be sacrificed, ere its ends can be attained!
(8.) Finally, he gets himself elected King by an apostate city, in the interests of idolatry. The Shechemites utter no protest against the hydra-headed crime, but rather strengthen the perpetrator’s hands for its commission, and even regard it as a recommendation for their suffrages, that he had destroyed the house of him who had destroyed Baal. Say not that a man’s religious belief has nothing to do with the colour of his conduct. Like king, like people!
Examples of more decidedly opposite characters are not to be found in the Book of God, than those of Gideon and his son Abimelech. They are wide as the poles asunder. We can hardly imagine how such a son could be reared under such a paternal roof. But it forms a palpable condemnation of Gideon’s sin, in having married a Canaanite.
III. Useful purposes are served in recording a wicked man’s life in the Book of God.
It might be said, such a record would only be a blur on the page. And it might farther be objected, that, as the name of the wicked is destined to rot, it seems inconsistent with this to inscribe it in the book of true immortality. But—
1. The record is given as a curse and not as a blessing. Gladly would the wicked man hail the announcement that his deeds were not to be recorded. It would be accepted by him as a valuable boon, that his name were allowed to lie in perpetual oblivion. But God puts a brand on it, and holds it up to the execration of all coming time. It was so with Cain, when a mark was set upon him; so with Ahaz, when the finger was pointed emphatically to his sin (2 Chronicles 28:22); so with Jezebel, Pharaoh, Judas, etc. Their names go down to posterity, with a character of infamy indelibly stamped on them. Thus they are made a mark for perpetual hissing to the whole world of men in after times. Gladly would the wicked dead continue to lie in their graves if they could, when the great voice is heard, “Let the earth and sea give up their dead.” For when they awake it will be “to shame and everlasting contempt” (Daniel 12:2). How beautiful is the reverse experience of those who accept of the Saviour, and trust in His glorious redemption—“your sins and iniquities will I remember no more.” The man is blessed “whose sin is covered” (Psalms 32:1).
2. Such a record illustrates the truth of God’s testimony respecting human character. It is put down “that God may be justified when He speaks, and clear when He judges.” Has He said that “the heart of man is deceitful above all things and desperately wicked;” in this dark history is the proof—has He said, “there is no fear of God before the wicked man’s eyes,” “his mouth is full of cursing, deceit, and fraud, etc.” (Psalms 10:7-11); in such a history as that here set down we see it all realised.
3. It shows by practical example the frightfully evil nature of sin when allowed to develop itself unchecked. It is a frightful thing for a creature to give up his Creator, as all sin implies. The consequences cannot fail to be of the most serious character. There must be a fearful perversion of his moral nature, in abandoning a fellowship so pure, in despising a friendship so essential to his happiness, in violating an authority so sacred, and in wantonly forsaking the infinitely Good One. The immediate effect must be to come under the Divine frown, and to lose the Divine image. According to the excellence of the object despised, so must be the deep-rootedness of the evil disposition in the heart that rejects it. And as the law of progress applies to character, the longer this disposition is cherished, or the more unreservedly it is brought into exercise, it must become more and more inveterate. “Sin becomes exceeding sinful,” and more and more sinful (Romans 7:13).
In Abimelech we see sin developing itself unchecked. He throws the reins on his lusts, especially his lust of power, and we see before us a monster rather than a man. For here there is everything to shock the moral sense. An exhibition is made of what sin naturally leads to, when allowed to operate without restraint. It turns man into an evil spirit, it makes a fearful wreck of our moral nature. This illustrates the greatness of the deliverance wrought by the Saviour, when “He gave Himself for us, that He might redeem us from all iniquity and purify unto Himself a peculiar people, zealous of good works.”
4. Wicked deeds recorded are beacons set up, to warn us off from the rocks and whirlpools of sin. They show that a course of sin is like sailing among sunk rocks, or falling under the destructive sweep of a vortex. The full malignity of sin is not to be told in words, but has to be seen in acts. It is a headlong rush, a maddening rage, “a possession of seven devils,” a bursting through all bounds, a rampant and reckless career of treading under foot the sacred commands of the Most High—as seen in the chapter of life here recorded. Abimelech is a finger post set up in God’s Providence, with the words inscribed, “Beware of the broad road that leadeth to destruction!” When allowed full scope, it becomes so virulent, that almost every word in the vocabulary which is expressive of an evil quality would be required to tell its many sides and degrees of evil. It is venomous and baneful, a desolating scourge, a withering blight. It is savage in its conceptions against the innocent, and merciless in carrying its designs into execution. It is a destructive force marring and crushing everything that comes in its way—corrupting, corroding and polluting whatever is most fertile and beautiful in God’s world.
All this exhibited in actual life is a most emphatic testimony, that “the end of these ways is death,” and carries in its bosom the warning, “Avoid the evil way, pass not by it, turn from it, and pass away.”
IV. God can bring accusers against the wicked when they fancy themselves most secure.
On the very coronation day, when this vile aspirant to the throne of Israel had just got the consummation of all his wishes gratified, and saw himself hailed by the thousands of one of the chief cities of the land as their king, suddenly a messenger from Jehovah appears on the scene with the language of solemn warning on his lips. It was as if the very rocks were made to cry out against such hideous wickedness. Had his heart been less hard, Abimelech could, like Herod after the murder of John (Mark 6:16), have exclaimed—“This is one of my brothers whom I have put to death.” Standing on an eminence among the rocks which overhung the valley, one of the seventy sons, all of whom were supposed to have been massacred, appears, as if risen from the dead, to act the part of an accusing conscience. The occasion was so strong, that the very Mount of Blessing (Gerizim, where Jotham stood) must for once thunder out a curse, against the perpetrators of the awful deeds, which had that day culminated in the unheard of act, of an impious mortal rushing forward to occupy the throne which, of all others, was reserved for the God of Israel alone!
Thus did God meet Adam, on the very day when he sinned, and hid himself among the trees of the garden. Thus suddenly was Haman caught in a snare by that very queen who had honoured him by inviting him to a special banquet, where none but the king, queen, and Haman were present. At the moment when his proud wishes were being gratified to the full, his fall came swiftly—in the twinkling of an eye, from a hand that he least of all expected. So did Ahab encounter Elijah, at the very moment he entered to take possession of that long-coveted vineyard of Naboth. At the moment, when the man, who tried to crush the Church of God in its infancy, was receiving honours from the people as a god, “the angel of the Lord smote him, and he was eaten of worms and gave up the ghost” (Acts 12:21-23; Job 20:23; Habakkuk 2:11; 2 Kings 5:26; Joshua 7:18-21).
V. Silent nature is full of lessons of wisdom for irrational men. It needs only a Jotham to bring them out, and apply them. Long before our poet told us in words, there were—
“Tongues in trees, books in the running brooks,
Sermons in stones, and good in everything.”
“Ask now the beasts, and they shall teach thee—or speak to the earth, and it shall teach thee,” etc. (Job 12:7-9). If the fable (which this paragraph is supposed to be) be the work of fancy, or a narrative woven by fancy from the elements of nature, in order to press home some important truth, it is not the less instructive; for nature is in all its aspects essentially a teacher. It not only contains illustrations of spiritual truth, happy but accidental likenesses of it, but its very framework is so constructed, as to furnish emblems to the eye of sense of the great spiritual meaning which lies in the background. The world of spirit which is unseen, and which existed before the material world, repeats itself in that world; so that, what we see in nature is the counterpart of what exists in the realm of spirits. It bears witness for that realm, and shadows it forth. Man’s body is so fashioned, as to shadow forth in its curves and features and noble upright form, especially too in its expression of the countenance, the higher qualities of his spirit. In some sense, “the things of earth are the copies of things in heaven.” The objects in the mart, by the wayside, or in the field, are instruments through which man is educated to know much more of God. “This entire visible world, with its kings and subjects, parents and children, sun and moon, sowing and harvest, light and darkness, life and death, is a mighty parable—a great teaching of supersensuous truth, a help at once to our faith, and our understanding.”
LESSONS TAUGHT US BY THE TREES
1. Humility. None of the really good trees aspire to have a distinction above the others. They are content to remain in the place where their Creator has put them. The lofty and umbrageous tree does not boast itself above those that are small and tender, but rather flings its arms around them to shelter them.
2. Sense of responsibility. Each tree feels it has an office to fulfil, which is specially given to it to do, and which it must not leave undone.
3. Obedience and submission. There is no rebellion among the trees, against the authority of Him who appointed them their places, and assigned them their duties. That which is scantily laden, or bears a more common sort of fruit, does not murmur because it is not covered with rich clusters; but each seems content to bear that which is expected of it. It is obedient and submissive.
4. Mutual good-will. No tree wishes to despoil another tree of its glory. There is no joining together of those that are less favoured, against those that are renowned for fertility and beauty. There is neither a strife for precedence, nor do the others show jealousy, if any one is likely to have the precedence. So ought it to be among men of all classes, but especially among those who form the Church of God. All should feel they have the same nature, are trees planted by the same hand, watered by the same clouds, and warmed by the same sun; and so, being united by many ties in common, should grow peaceably together as one vineyard of the Lord of Hosts.
5. Entire dependence of each on the provision God has made for it. It is but in a secondary manner, that any one tree derives benefit from another. One may to some extent protect another from the fury of the blast, or contribute to it somewhat of heat. But all the primary conditions of health and strength to any tree, belong to the soil in which it is placed, to the air around it, to the sun that shines upon it, and to the rain or dew that falls upon it. Its root must be fastened in the soil, and on that everything depends in the first instance. The soil must be sufficient and rich in order to a luxuriant growth. The rain and dew must fall copiously, and the sun must send forth heat. In the spiritual vineyard these conditions are essentially required. Fellow Christians may in many ways be helpful to each other, but each one is dependent, for all that is primary, on God alone. Each one is rooted by God’s own hand in Christ, and built up in him; it is from Him that the rain and due of spiritual influences come down; and it is he who causes the Sun of Righteousness to arise with warmth and healing in his beams (Galatians 1:15-16; Colossians 2:6-7; Hosea 14:5; Hosea 14:3-4; Malachi 4:2). The great practical lesson taught by the trees therefore is, that the Christian’s primary duty is to look after his relations to his God, and see that these are all right, for it is on that that all which is essential to his growth depends.
VI.—To be useful is better than to reign.
All the good trees gave it as a reason for their refusal to wave their tops over the other trees, that they had each a useful vocation to fulfil, and, that the fulfilment of that vocation was a far more important thing, than to reign over others. To reign, is to live for the glorification of one’s self; to be useful, is to be a fountain head from which blessings might flow out to others. All the objects of Nature seem to say, we exist not for ourselves, but for the benefit of others around us. The sun shines not for itself, but to enlighten and warm the planets that revolve around him. The clouds float in the firmament, not on their own account, but to distil their watery treasures on the thirsty ground. The birds sing among the branches, and fill the grove with melody, to give delight to many a listening ear. The flowers put forth their blossom, and convey a pleasing sense of view to the eye; while the trees and shrubs grow, and wave their branches in the breeze, not on their own account, but to glorify Him who created them, for the gracefulness of their form, the richness of their hues, the sweet fragrance they emit, or the excellent fruit they bear.
It is the law also for all true Christians—“None of us liveth to himself,” &c., “Ye are the salt of the earth,” “Ye are the light of the world.” And the rule they have to follow is, “It is more blessed to give than to receive” (Romans 14:7-8; Matthew 5:13-14; Acts 20:35) He who lives to do good to others around him, and especially to advance the cause of God on the earth, has the consciousness that he lives not in vain, that he is not a cypher but a valuable integer in society, that he is spending the talents given to him to a profitable account—with the two gaining other two—that he has thought more of God’s glory while passing through the world than of his own, and that his place will be missed when he is gone.
ABIMELECH’S TRAGIC BUT BRIEF HISTORY
CRITICAL NOTES.— Judges 9:22. Had reigned] ruled by force rather than by natural right, implying a hard, as opposed to a mild, rule. Over Israel]. Shechem in some measure represented Ephraim, and Ephraim in some degree represented Israel. Where one is active, and has a strong will, among many who are passive, his ascendency is practically acknowledged.
Judges 9:23. God sent an evil spirit.] not evil temper or disposition, but a wicked spirit, which stirred up evil dispositions, discords, and insurrections, ending in bloodshed (comp. 1 Samuel 16:14-15; 1 Samuel 18:10). In what took place, we see not only the action of those evil passions that gender strifes, but also the controlling and directing influence of the Moral Governor of the world. There was the intention of a Personal Ruler to punish high-handed crime in a manner suited to its character. If the evil feeling which led to the sad issues were in men’s hearts already, it was God that fixed the time for the awakening of these feelings, and directed them to produce these issues in the end, in the exercise of His moral government. The Shechemites were led to break their oath of fidelity to him whom they had chosen to be their king. Though at the moment they endorsed the strong act by which he had effectually cleared the way of all competitors for the throne, yet now after three years’ experience of the rigorous rule of the bramble king, they no doubt began to feel some remorse for their wicked conduct, in having been co-partners in his infamous deed.
Judges 9:24. That their blood might be laid upon Abimelech … and on the men of Shechem. So it usually is in the course of Providence (comp. 1 Kings 2:32; Psalms 7:16; Matthew 23:35-36; Esther 9:25). “He maketh inquisition for blood.” “He beholdeth mischief to requite it with His hand.” All the events that followed were permitted by God, and overruled by Him, to bring down suitable retribution both on Abimelech and his partners in crime. The Shechemites wished to make themselves the rallying point of the nation by making Abimelech king, and they had other interests of their own to serve. But they quickly found, that, while they thought they were making use of him to serve selfish purposes of their own, he was actually making use of them as his tools. At length they resolved that, as he had played falsely by them in his general conduct, they, from being sworn friends, would now turn round and become deceitful foes.
Judges 9:25. Set liers in wait for him, etc] i.e., during his absence. Probably, he was at that moment trying to extend his rule over other places. Supposing he might return attended only by a few followers, and unsuspicious of danger, they placed a number of men in ambush so as if possible to take him prisoner, for they were afraid to face him when on his guard and in the open field. Meantime these “liers in wait” commited acts of brigandage on all travellers as they passed along the mountains, which at once showed their character, and also perhaps a design to make it known that the country was getting disorganised under Abimelech’s rule.
Judges 9:26. Gaal, the son of Ebed,] i.e., the son of a servant. He was so by the father’s side, as Abimelech was by the mother’s side. He too, like the latter, was a Canaanite. Both were morally and socially base in their origin. The appearance of two such men in the front rank indicated, that in these days “vile men were high in place.” It was a case of bramble contesting superiority with bramble. Gaal was probably something of a knight errant, or a chieftain at the head of a company of freebooters, or brigand chief. That such an adventurer should now turn up so unexpectedly, and be able all at once to command so much influence with the masses, was a sign of the evil days that had happened to Israel. The men of worth and of weight have disappeared from society; such nuisances as a Gaal or a Zebul are the rival claimants for the honours of the day; an Abimelech is the chosen king of one of the principal cities of Israel; while public robbery, treachery and disorder overspread the land.
Gaal is judged unworthy of having many particulars given about him, and so he quickly passes across the stage with no more notice taken of him than what is necessary, to show how low Israel’s history at this period had sunk. His appearing on the surface only proves that when base deeds are to be done, there is always someone starting up who is base enough to do them. In this upstart the men of Shechem actually put confidence as a leader.
Judges 9:27. Gathered their vineyards and trode the grapes.] It was the season of vintage. At such a season, it was customary even for the heathen to keep some festival to the god they worshipped, as an act of thanksgiving for his granting them a bountiful harvest. The literal rendering is, they made praise offerings or thank-offerings, along with praise songs. That such a service of joy and thanksgiving was required to be observed among the Israelites, is clear from such passages as Leviticus 23:24; Deuteronomy 16:10-11; Isaiah 9:3. The offerings were of the fruits produced by the vineyards in the fourth year. But the Shechemites transferred to their god Baalberith, what should have been rendered to Jehovah.
Went into the house of their god.] The history of Israel in its deepest meaning, is the history of the true God fighting against all the false gods which men worship, and exposing their utter insufficiency.
They did eat and drink and cursed Abimelech.] How general the sin of drunkenness. Even in the earliest days of human history we see the blighting effects of it, and that in the case of Noah himself, ere he had time to settle down after coming out of the ark. And we see it now, like the opening mouth of a volcano, ready to pour its destructive streams on every side. To curse their ruler, in defiance of the law laid down (Exodus 22:28; 2 Samuel 19:21; Isaiah 8:21), was the first evil effect and led on to worse. Thus it was among the heathen; at the feasts of Bacchus among the Romans, and at similar festivals among the Greeks, and other peoples. The harvest home was an occasion celebrated with banqueting and songs of rejoicing. But how often did those occasions, which might have been harmless and cheerful, become, through indulgence, the means of producing the deepest sorrow and woe!
Judges 9:28. And Gaal said, who is Abimelech, etc.?] What is to be noted here, is the contrast between the present jubilant strain of merriment, and the tragic issue which anyone might see could not be far off, when such a man as Abimelech was to be dealt with. What a difference between the lighthearted braggartism of the revellers of to-day, while the enemy was at a safe distance, and the pallid terror of the cowards on the morrow, when the lion really appeared. Hitherto they had been too much cowed by the stern spirit, and energetic action, of their tyrant ruler, to do more than speak in whispers, and express their thoughts by signs. But now being treated with wine, and the object of their dread being beyond the hills, they could name him as a despot, and utter curses both loud and deep against his despotic sway.
Now was the time for this base upstart to step forward, when men of worth were hanging their heads with shame. If Gaal had courage for nothing else, he was bold enough to set all laws of decency and propriety at defiance, by proposing himself to be ruler in place of Abimelech. It was time to strike the iron, when he saw them begin to curse Abimelech. Accordingly he shouts out defiantly, “Who is this Abimelech, whom you have allowed to get the upper hand of you—this man who adopts to himself the title of Shechem, as if he were the only person who could speak or move there?” This is said contemptuously, and when, being well out of harm’s way, the speaker could afford to use treasonable language. Some would make the word Shechem apply to the people of the town, or even to Zebul. It is more natural to suppose, that one and the same person is alluded to in the language, for it was customary to address the same person by a double name, as may be seen in the parallel passages (1 Samuel 25:10; 1 Kings 12:16). “Is he not a son of the man who boasted against your god, and though he proudly usurps the name of your town as his own, was not his mother a bondwoman, and no true descendant of Hamor, the father of your clan? And Zebul, who now rules over you, is but his officer in his absence, who has no other claim to advance. Your wisdom is to serve the true stock of the children of Hamor, and not this low caste usurper.”
Judges 9:29. Would to God this people were under my hand.] This thought was what was uppermost in his heart all the time, but he did not dare at first to bring it out. Probably he waited to see if anyone else would make the proposal, but as none did, he, as if speaking aloud to himself, ventures the proposal himself. He puts it as if it were a special favour, and act of kindness done to the Shechemites, for him to take the command over them, and restore prosperity to their city. Since no one seemed to oppose the proposal, he takes for granted that it is carried, and proceeds to act accordingly. The great thing to be done is first to remove Abimelech. Accordingly a message of defiance is sent to the tyrant king, which was the most likely thing to unite the men of the city around Gaal and his company.
Judges 9:30. And when Zebul heard the words of Gaal, etc.] Though these words were spoken amid a scene of dissipation, they were resented by Zebul, who whether a warm adherent of Abimelech or not, was deeply offended at being regarded as his tool, and also at being marked out for destruction equally with his master. Hence he sends secret reports of how matters are going to Abimelech.
Judges 9:32. Up by night, thou, and the people that are with thee.] Zebul, from these verses, and from the whole account, seems to have been a man of considerable shrewdness; but how tame any character becomes, that is so sadly wanting in the higher moral qualities.
Judges 9:35. And Gaal went out and stood at the gate.] Doubtless he would suppose, that someone may have conveyed information to Abimelech of what was going on; and now he came to see whether the way was clear. Besides he had sent a challenge to Abimelech. Meanwhile, Abimelech was acting on Zebul’s instructions, and was lying in wait to enter the city, so soon as Gaal should have left it. But the latter was getting more cautious, or timid, as danger approached, and was now only feeling his way.
Judges 9:36. There come people down from the top of the mountains.] Zebul had not till now openly opposed Gaal, for the great body of the Shechemites appeared to be opposed to Abimelech. He therefore thought it better to temporise for a time. Zebul knew very well, that the figures on the mountain were real men, but wished to put Gaal off the tack of thinking so (who was a man of much less sharpness of discernment), in order to gain time for Abimelech’s four companies to effect a junction.
Judges 9:37. There come people down by the middle—the elevated centre of the land.] Meonenim—the Wizard’s Oak—a place where these idolatrous soldiers may have looked for omens as to their success.
Judges 9:38. Where is now thy month, etc.] A little time had been gained for the approach of Abimelech’s troops while Gaal continued inactive. The treacherous Zebul now throws off his mask, and bitterly taunts his rival with the boastful language he had used in Abimelech’s absence, ending with a challenge to him to fight his adversary in the open field, now that he was actually come. It is thus that Satan deludes his dupes in making them imagine there is no such thing as a pit of perdition. It is only a “shadow,” a mere figure of speech. Thus he temporises, until the time comes for transfixing the culprit with the arrow of an accusing conscience, and then he taunts him with a malicious sneer, while he writhes in his agony (Matthew 27:4).
Judges 9:39. Gaal went out before the men of Shechem.] At the head of the men of Shechem, for his whole drift was to enlist them on his side, and having already publicly dared to curse Abimelech they were no longer neutral.
Judges 9:40. Unto the entering in of the gate] but could not pass through the gates, when they were shut against him in time.
Judges 9:41. Dwelt at Arnmah.] Remained יֵֹשֵׁב sat down, not dwelt for any length of time, continued for the day at Arumah. Zebul thrust out Gaal and his brethren.] When it was manifest that Gaal was no match for Abimelech, the Shechemites fell from him, and Zebul took advantage of the moment of his weakness, to thrust him out of the town altogether. From this moment, we hear no more of him. He disappears as one who goes down no more to rise. Zebul also is seen no more. He fades from public view the moment his master comes to the front.
Judges 9:42. The people went out into the field] probably for the purpose of resuming their harvesting work. They supposed there could now be no longer any trouble, seeing that Gaal had been thrust out from their midst, and Abimelech’s authority was restored. But the wrath of the bramble king was not to be so easily pacified. All the night long he had been meditating farther revenge on those who had dared to revolt from him; and, expecting that the people of the town would have to resume their field operations, he laid a trap for them accordingly. Dividing his men into three companies, with one company he seized the gate, and the other two companies he employed to make a regular massacre among the people, as they fled in all directions across the plain.
Judges 9:45. Slew the people, beat down the city, and sowed it with salt. In this the human tiger went beyond his usual mark. It is as if a king were to slay all his subjects, and then rase his capital to its foundations, that it might not be known ever such a place had existed. This meant more than merely condemning Shechem for the future to a state of comparative infertility. For the sowing of salt on the surface of the ground could not absolutely prevent all growth. But salt was the symbol of any covenant which the people made with their god, and when for the breach of that covenant salt was employed, it meant that such a people came under the curse of their god. These Shechemites had made a covenant, in the house of their god (Baalberith), to be faithful subjects to Abimelech as their king; and now that that covenant was broken, he brings over their city the sign of the curse. Infidelity to such covenants was reckoned the greatest of crimes, and was understood to mean that they were devoted to destruction.
When Milan was taken (A. D. 1162) it was sowed with salt. At the massacre of St. Bartholomew (A. D. 1572) the house of Admiral Coligny, after he was murdered, was sown with salt (see illustrations in Micah 3:12; Psalms 107:34; Jeremiah 17:6; Deuteronomy 29:23).
Judges 9:46. When the men of the tower of Shechem heard that, etc.] i.e., the same with the “house of Millo” in Judges 9:6. Their numbers were now so reduced, while Abimelech was still as strong as ever, and roused to fury like an unchained lion, that they abandoned all resistance, and thought only of betaking themselves to the best place of security they could find. There was only one place they could run to with any hope of getting safety—the house of their god, called in Canaanite language Baalberith, but in that of the Israelites, Elberith. This was a stronghold—in the special sense, that those who were in it were understood to be under the special protection of their god. But there was also a fortified enclosure within it, which might be called their safe, where their money and treasures were preserved. This was the upper chambers of a lofty tower. The same word is used in 1 Samuel 13:6, where it means the topmost portion of inaccesible rocks.
Judges 9:48. He gat him up to Mount Zalmon.] Abimelech now supposed that he had got a fit opportunity of carrying out his whole thought of revenge upon the rebels at once. When they were all brought together into one place, and in a helpless condition, it was easy to destroy them at one blow. Like Nero, afterwards, who wished that all the people of Rome should have but one neck, that he might have the pleasure of cutting off their heads at one stroke, so, now, this human fiend was glad to find that all the people of Shechem who were left, were gathered together into one bundle, that he might have the satisfaction of consuming them by one holocaust.
To raise a conflagration around them occurred to him as the readiest method of accomplishing their ruin. Hence he repairs to the thicket of Zalmon, in the immediate neighbourhood, a mountain covered with wood, which has been called a “Black Forest” [Luther], though some have identified it with Ebal, [Stanley]. (Psalms 68:14). The reference in the Psalm is to the snow which sometimes rested on its top, and appeared the more striking, because of its contrast with the thick shade of wood that covered its sides. There was no difficulty in finding fuel sufficient for the purpose. Each man had but to carry one branch, and 1,000 men would have brought 1,000 branches. He himself set the example, axe in hand, cutting down his branch and setting it in order. Every man was invited to do the same, by which not only was fuel provided, but also a test was applied to ascertain whether all were faithful to their leader.
Judges 9:49. All the people likewise cut down, etc.] All complied, for where there is a strong will in action, other wills naturally yield to its decisions. The wood was applied to the hold, and as a portion of it appears to have been of wood, it was soon enveloped amid the flames, and every man within the walls met with a horrible death. So true to the letter was Jotham’s curse fulfilled (Judges 9:20).
Judges 9:50. Thebez] now called Tubas, a small town about 13 miles north from Shechem. This town seems to have joined with Shechem in throwing off the yoke of Abimelech, and as this ferocious despot knew no limit to his malice short of extermination, when his lordly will was crossed, he now proceeded to do to Thebez as he had done to Shechem. This town appears to have been built in circular form, with a tower in the centre, many missiles being gathered on the top. To the highest part of this tower all the inhabitants fled for refuge, fastening every entrance securely behind them. Abimelech himself headed the attack. Being in a frenzy of rage he became regardless of the danger arising from showers of missiles thrown by the besieged. So it happened, that while fighting furiously in the thickest of the crowd, he was struck on the head by an upper millstone כֶּלַח רֶנֶב thrown from a woman’s hand—the hand, the moment, and the instrument, being all determined by the Disposer of all events. The effect was “all to break his skull.” i.e. entirely to break, or crush in his skull. [It is an old English expression]. It was the upper part of a hand-mill that was used, that which revolves when grinding, while the under part is fixed (Deuteronomy 24:6; Luke 17:35). It was the work of women to use such a mill. Some supposed they expected to be imprisoned several days in the top flat of the tower, and therefore would need to grind corn. It is singular that the great warrior Pyrrhus met his death in a manner precisely similar; a large tile from the roof of a house being thrown upon him by a poor woman, whose son was engaged in combat with the warrior, and in danger of being slain by him.
At length we see the “violent man’s dealing come down on his own pate.” “The wickedness of the wicked has come to an end.” There lies proud Abimelech, and a woman slew him! This was the last arrow he received from a world which he bitterly hated, and by which in turn he was shunned as a demon in human form. It was to him a small thing to die, but for a man of such lofty pretensions, it was bitter gall to have it said, that a woman slew the proud Abimelech!
How in a moment suddenly
To ruin brought are they!
With fearful terrors utterly
They are consumed away.
Even like unto a dream when one
From sleeping doth arise;
So thou, O Lord, when thou awak’st
Their image shalt despise.
Judges 9:54-57. His young man thrust him through … and when the men of Israel saw that Abimelech was dead, etc.] An incubus was taken off the land. Everyone breathed more freely. Not a single tear was shed. No mourner was anywhere seen. The young man is glad of the opportunity offered to put his master to death (unlike the case of Saul, 1 Samuel 31:4-5). The men who composed Abimelech’s army will not do another stroke of the bloody work, to which he had called them. The army melted away, and every man went to his own home. We hear nothing of a funeral—nothing of a successor—nothing of a wind-up!—nothing but an ominous pause on earth, and a whisper from Heaven’s Justice saying, “Thus God rendered the wickedness of Abimelech which he did unto his father, in slaying his seventy brethren; and all the evil of the men of Shechem, did God render upon their heads; and upon them came the curse of Jotham, the son of Jerubbaal.”
What was said of Pope Boniface VIII. might also be set up as a suitable epitaph for this bramble king of Shechem. “He entered the world like a fox, reigned like a lion, and died like a dog.”—(Trapp). O unhappy son of Gideon!—perhaps the child of many prayers, certainly the child of a noble example of parental piety, perhaps the child of many pious counsels, certainly the child of great religious privileges, would that the hand of mercy had placed a protracted sick bed between thee, and the summons to appear before the great Judge, that so an opportunity might have been given for repenting of thy evil deeds, and taking refuge in the “blood which cleanseth from all sin!”
HOMILETICAL SUGGESTIONS.—Judges 9:22-57
THE TEACHINGS OF A DARK NIGHT IN ISRAEL’S HISTORY
I. God sometimes sends winnowing seasons both on individuals and on communities.
Ordinarily, He is gentle in His providential dealings with men, and for the most part, even under not a few provocations, there is little of the frown on His face, or of the stern in His voice. He would allure, rather than terrify them into repentance. But when they have long made light of sin, and have turned a deaf ear to gentler warnings, at fit seasons He brings influences around them, which thoroughly sift and try their character. Then it is impossible for a man to refrain altogether undiscovered. His arts of concealment will no longer serve his purpose, his heart is stirred as a pool is by the application of a rod, when, from the surface to the bottom, all that it contains is put into a state of agitation. Circumstances in Providence ferment round a man, and he is shaken and tossed as the leaf in the wind, so that he is obliged to appear exactly as he is. The false is then discovered from the true, and what is false in any character is detected as well as what is genuine.
So it was with the Israelites as a community, at different periods of their history; so it was with Gideon; so with Abimelech, and with the men of Shechem. This is one of those lines of practical instruction, which God keeps up in every history from age to age, whether of individuals, or of communities. To bring out men’s characters, and show what they are, when exposed to different fires as tests, is one of the great moral uses of such history as is contained in the word of God.
Winnowing seasons are intended not only to reveal what is chaff, but to clear it away. Such a history as that of Abimelech resembles the raging whirlwind, which, however destructive it may seem, has usually the effect of clearing a stagnant atmosphere. It is God’s voice saying solemnly, “Stand in awe and sin not. Woe to the wicked man! for it shall be ill with him.” It is another kind of rod, that God takes into His hand to chastise His people, besides the Moabites or Midianites.
II. The importance of choosing a right King.
(1.) It was important for Israel now. While Gideon ruled as a “judge” the “peace of the nation flowed as a river, and its righteousness as the waves of the sea.” But when Abimelech was chosen to occupy the place of power, the wheels went rapidly backwards, and at last by leaps and bounds rolled downhill. A greater mistake could not have been committed, than to choose a fellow mortal to be their king at all, when the King Eternal Himself so graciously condescended to single out this people from all the people of the earth to reign over them. But when they did commit this sin, and cast a slight on the wonderful love of their God, they were punished by being left to choose the worst man in all Israel to occupy that position. “Righteousness exalteth a nation, but sin is the reproach of any people.”
(2.) It was so in their after history. In the days when kings ruled over Israel and Judah, the colour of the history was uniformly given by the character of the king. When a certain king ascended the throne, and we read, that “he did that which was right in the sight of the Lord,” we uniformly find that the state of things prospered in the land. But when we read, that “he did that which was evil in the sight of the Lord,” all things begin to go against him. The sovereign in those days had it in his power to give a tone to society, which none but a despot can wield now. Society then for the most part followed the example of him who reigned over it. But there was in the case of the chosen people another reason. The King was held to represent the people, so that what he was, and did, the people were reckoned to be and to do. Hence we see in one reign the country going to ruin under Saul, and in the very next rising under David to the very climax of its greatness.
(3.) It is important for any people. In England, we see the Queen of the freest and most enterprising people on the face of the globe, after the long test of fifty years’ rule, retaining as much of the love and loyalty of her subjects as she did on the day when first they hailed her as sovereign; and this, notwithstanding the fact, that the intellectual forces were never more strongly brought into collision than during her reign. While something certainly is due to the excellent constitution of the realm, by which the sovereign is exempted from the responsibility of guiding the legislation of the nation, not a little also, is due to the wise, benevolent, and virtuous character of the Sovereign herself.
(4.) And there is a King in Zion, who has seen not one jubilee only, but all the jubilees that are contained in eighteen centuries, and who will see all that are to come through unending time. The Church of God has an everlasting King, to whom she owes all her vital energy, her survival from a thousand dangers, and her future prosperity, until she become a blessing to all the nations of the earth. Jesus is, under the Gospel, the rightful King of all individual hearts, and they are wise indeed who allow Him to reign alike over their thoughts, words, and deeds. Where He is allowed to reign, there order, Heaven’s first law, is set up, peace with God is established, peace of conscience is enjoyed, and the joy of the Holy Ghost is the happy atmosphere breathed by the soul. Every man’s heart is the chosen seat of Government for this King, and from that centre, He desires to rule the whole life.
III. God’s delay in punishing high-handed sin.
Why should three years be allowed to pass, ere such outrageous conduct received the punishment it deserved? The principle of instant retribution for offences committed against the laws of righteousness, under the government of a holy and righteous God, certainly seems the most natural. We see it in the remark which Shimei’s conduct called forth from Abishai to David, “Why should this dead dog curse my lord the king? Let me go over, I pray thee, and take off his head.” Such is the instinct of many. And the first threatening uttered by the Lawgiver against the first sin, required instant execution of the penalty on the head of the offender. “In the day thou eatest, thou shalt surely die.” That moment the sense of moral turpitude was felt for the first time, separation took place between man and his God, and his body became mortal. But here, as on so many occasions, judgment is deferred. The sun does not cease to shine, nor do Heaven’s lightnings flash out against the perpetrator of so many awful murders, but, for three long years, he is permitted to walk the earth, while Heaven’s thunders sleep, and he is not consumed.
Two important principles are illustrated by this delay—
1. Without such delay moral government could not be carried on. Moral government requires that there be the fullest liberty for the exercise of the will allowed to the subject of moral rule. Were the transgressor always to be cut down at the moment of transgression, there could be no further opportunity for moral dealing with him. And as the whole race of men have within them a tendency to depart from God, and offend against the laws of His government, in one short hour their history would, on this principle, come to an end. For the tendency to violate the laws of God would certainly show itself, and on every occasion it did death must happen, so that in one day the world would be swept clear of its inhabitants. Besides, were man always to be punished with death for his first sin, there would be no opportunity of bringing out his character on all its sides, and under every variety of circumstance. Farther, if a man saw that for the first known sin he might commit the certain consequence would be death, he would be put under a system of terrorism as to his obedience, which would destroy all liberty of action, and it would not be known what his character really was, until he were left free to act according to his own disposition.
2. This delay shows God’s unwillingness that men should perish. If it were a pleasure to Him to inflict death on the wicked, we might suppose He would make haste, on the commission of sin, always to carry out the sentence. Had even His love for men been according to an ordinary standard, and measurable by a man’s conception, we might suppose, that the heinous character of several sins would be such, as to provoke the offended Lawgiver to send swift and condign punishment on the heads of the transgressors, in order to mark His detestation of their sins. But God is so unwilling that men should perish, that He always acts as one reluctant to punish. He delays and defers, and defers and delays, until men begin to think He has forgotten their sins entirely. Though opposed to sin more than light is to darkness, His patience goes far beyond the measure of a man’s forbearance. He never loses the absolute calm of His holy nature. The want of self-government is far beneath the majesty of His august character. “I am God—not man,—therefore ye sons of Jacob are not consumed.” That he rises up so slowly to do the work of the Just Judge, proves His reluctance to proceed against the rebel, even when the argument on the side of justice is most strong. It shows that His heart is at the farthest possible remove from taking delight in the death of the sinner, and that no possible motive could induce Him to inflict the penal sentence, except that, on the one hand, justice requires that He should administer to sin what is its due, and on the other, He jealously requires that there should be a full vindication of His own holy and righteous character as the moral Governor of the universe.
IV. God remembers all the sins that wicked men commit.
Though full three years passed since the great crimes were committed, which opened the way for Abimelech’s ascending the throne of at least a part of Israel, nothing had been forgotten by the all-seeing God. Every moment of that time these sins were present to His view, yet He did not depart from the customary method to act with deliberation, in bringing round the time and the manner of the punishment.
Men forget that “with the Lord a thousand years are as one day.” The sins of a man’s whole lifetime are as present to “that faithful witness,” at the last hour of life, as they were at any previous part of it. Sins which he has left fifty years behind him in the past, are as freshly in the presence of Him with whom he has to do, as they were each one at the moment of commission. God says of His backsliding people, “They consider not, that I remember all their wickedness.” This is an element which the wicked too often leave out of consideration. For there is ever a proneness in men to make light of sin, because it is not visibly and solemnly dealt with the moment it is committed. So far however is God from not marking it, that He says even of His own people, “The sin of Judah is written with a pen of iron, and with the point of a diamond” (Jeremiah 17:1). It is impossible that sin can ever fall into oblivion, until satisfaction is given for it. No man is safe from the sins he committed many years ago, on the ground that possibly they may now be forgotten. Not a single sin can be forgotten, until it is solemnly dealt with, and due atonement made.
For the final account, God will bring every secret work and thought into judgment. And to represent the accuracy and particularity with which the process shall be gone through, we are told there are “Books of remembrance” which shall be opened, and every man shall be dealt with according to what is found written in the Books. It will then be seen, that “God requireth that which is past.” Not only the acts of the life, but the springs of character in the thoughts, volitions and purposes of the inner man—all the lines of a man’s conduct, beginning with his motives and aims, his judgments and decisions, and going out to the spirit which he displayed, the principles on which he acted, and the whole course of life which he led. It is clear, therefore, that no sinful man can build any hope of deliverance from condemnation on the ground, that any of his past sins may become forgotten through lapse of time. Unless some abnormally great and solemn transaction should take place before the end of life, he will to a certainty find all the sins of his life then meeting him, in the same measure of guilt they had when they were committed (Ecclesiastes 12:14; Psalms 50:21; Romans 2:16; Psalms 90:8).
What a relief from anxiety does the Gospel message bring at this point. For 1500 years the atoning victim was laid on the altar year by year, showing that there was still a remembrance of sins. At last came “the Lamb of God which bore away the sin of the world.” “Christ died for our sins.” “Now there is no condemnation to them that are in Christ Jesus.” He hath “finished transgression, and made an end of sin.” “Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to every one that believeth.” So great is the change wrought in the condition of those who accept of this solemn method of disposing of their sins, that we read in one place, “In those days, saith the Lord, the iniquity of Israel shall be sought for, and there shall be none; and the sins of Judah, and they shall not be found again.” “Their sins and their iniquities will I remember no more.” And yet again, “They are without fault before the throne of God.”
V. The miseries which befall the wicked come not by chance, but as the result of God’s moral government of the world.
It was not by mere accident, without any directing cause, that a spirit of disaffection rose between the Shechemites and their self-appointed king. It was indeed a natural expectation, when we take the dispositions and proclivities of the parties into account. It was natural that the rule of a man so imperious in will, so selfish in aims, so capricious in tastes, so unprincipled in character, with no relaxation in his rod-of-iron treatment, and nothing benignant, or even tolerant in his bearing, would very soon cool down loyalty in any hearts where it really existed, and, in spite of themselves, the men of Shechem would waken sooner or later to the conviction, that they had been made dupes of by a bold and aspiring man, whom they could neither love nor respect. They saw that he was making use of them as tools, or stepping-ladders, to something higher. For, not content with remaining at home in Shechem, he seems to have been making occasional excursions to other places; and Thebez is mentioned as one of the towns which he had brought under his authority. Hence, among those who elected him king, there would be coldness first, then alienation, and by-and-bye hatred and resentment, with, at last, a desire for revenge. All this was according to the working of natural causes.
But this Book sees God’s hand in everything. So we read that “God sent an evil spirit between Abimelech and the men of Shechem.” It is added that there was a special design in view, “that the cruelty done to the sons of Jerubbaal,” &c. This testimony implies, that there was something more than the blind working of natural causes. Overruling these and directing these, was the will of the Supreme Ruler in Providence at work, to fulfil a purpose of retribution on the heads of perpetrators of a great wickedness. We dare not deny to God the character of a Moral Governor, nor His presence in His own works. We cannot resolve the whole course of causes and consequences in the history of this world into a mere system of naturalism, nor can we accept of deism as the true philosophy of God’s relation to man, and at the same time be guided by the teachings of this Book. Scripture uniformly recognises God’s presence among the affairs of men, adjusting the laws so as to reward the righteous, and inflict retribution on the wicked. God could have brought a hundred different issues out of the train of causes that were at work in this history, had it so pleased him. But he arranged to bring about that which did actually happen, that the object might be gained which He intended, in the righteous punishment of evildoers.
VI. Compacts formed in sin are soon broken.
The Shechemites appear to have sworn to Abimelech to be faithful to him as their king, while he on his part engaged to act similarly by them. But, at the time they did so, their hands were reeking with the innocent blood they had shed, and so the compact was formed in sin.
(1.) The curse of the Lord rested on such compact. High-handed sin always brings down the frown of Him who sits on the Throne of Righteousness. When men “walk contrary to Him, He walks contrary to them;” and though they “associate themselves together they shall be broken in pieces; though they take counsel together, it shall come to nought.” “The face of the Lord is against them that do evil.” “He maketh the devices of the people of none effect.” “He is angry with the wicked every day.”
(2.) There is no principle in such compact which conscience can respect. None of these wicked men could respect either themselves, or each other, for the revolting act of wickedness of which they were guilty, in having slain the seventy innocent sons of Jerubbaal. On the contrary, conscience, as the “domestic chaplain” of the soul [Trapp], in so far as he was allowed to utter his voice, must have loudly condemned the iniquity, and this must have led to mutual recrimination against one another. It must indeed have produced the constant risk of an explosion, conscience acting as a sort of dynamitard in the camp. Or, if conscience were seared and practically inoperative among them, then there was no principle of right to hold them to their compact; conscience being the faculty which acknowledges the existence of what is right and what is wrong. But when the sense of doing what is right is taken away, where is the security for continuing faithful to the compact?
(3.) Among wicked associations there is no real cohesive power. The parties here concerned, both the man who aspired to be king and those who agreed to elect him to that high office, knew that this was an open act of rebellion against that God who was already King of Israel, and who wished none other to usurp the seat. And there was the terrible aggravation of this sin, in the previous massacre. What then could have led them to associate together to gain such an end? It could not possibly have been any desire thereby to promote the good of the commonwealth. It could only have been some selfish and interested purposes of their own which they believed would thereby be served. Abimelech was a man of unbounded ambition, and seemed to have no thoughts but those of self-aggrandisement. The men of Shechem were nothing to him but tools to serve his purpose. They, on the other hand, thought they saw in Abimelech one who might form a suitable rallying point for the scattered tribes of Israel, and one who, by uniting all the people, and going out before them to fight their battles, might make them become respected all around, as one of the great nations of the earth—Shechem being the capital city. It was an additional consideration to this, that he had destroyed the house of Jerrubbaal, who was the destroyer of their god. And still further they said of Abimelech, “Is he not our brother—of our own stock, and a young man of excellent promise?”
In all this banding, together there was no real cohesive power. The motives of the respective parties were not only not the same, but were strongly in conflict; and each party had but to come to see in actual history what the aims of the other were, in order to become at once jealous, and suspicious of deceit being practised by their partners in the compact. What cared Abimelech for the feelings and interests of the men of Shechem, if only his iron will were fully carried out among them. Was not he their master, and was not their whole purpose in life summed up simply in obeying the king? Let any one tremble if he should dare to think otherwise. Such was the spirit of the ruler. Those who had chosen him to the office felt that they were as birds caught in a snare. Their eyes were opened to the fact, that, in place of being exalted in station, and realising a new golden age of their history as a people, they had come under a reign of terror, and had sunk to the position of slaves, to be trodden under foot and made to do all kinds of drudgery at the will of a capricious despot. Here, surely, was nothing that was attractive, but everything that was repellent.
So is it universally among the wicked—there is no proper cohesive power. We cannot accept the line of the poet as correct—
“Devil with devil damn’d firm concord holds.”
The only point in which the wicked entirely agree is, their common hatred of what is good. Pilate and Herod for once agreed, when they both had occasion to oppose the Saviour. The nations around Israel were as a rule ever quarrelling with each other, until some one of them began to oppose Israel, when quickly the others joined with them (Psalms 83:0). The wicked are in their very nature selfish, proud, jealous, full of envy, covetousness, malice, and evil lusts and passions, which could not fail to break up and disintegrate their unions more or less.
(4.) Where there is no strongly uniting force, men’s fickleness tends to break up compacts. Nothing is more capricious than the human will, when left entirely without the restraint of right principle. All history proves it. We see it in the treatment given by the populace of the Grecian States to their heroes in the field, or their wise men of the senate or the schools, who were half worshipped by them to-day; yet to-morrow, for some freak of the popular will, were either banished their country, or had a deep brand of odium affixed to their names. It is not without reason that our essayist has said—“The head that to-day grows giddy with the roar of the million has the very next been fixed on a pole.” Nearly all Oriental history proves it, portions of Roman history, portions of the history of nearly all the other countries of Europe, and especially France, exemplify it; nor do we except certain periods of our own English history.
VII. Our idols often prove our scourges.
The men of Shechem were at first hero-worshippers of Abimelech, in which they grievously sinned, when they made him king in place of Jehovah. Now Abimelech becomes their scourge in the terrible tragedy here recorded (Jeremiah 2:19; Proverbs 1:31). Thus David found it with Absalom and Adonijah; Jacob, for many years with Joseph; Jehoshaphat with Ahab; and the Israelites, with several heathen nations with whom they intermarried and had too friendly relations.
VIII. Men are often called to read their sin in their punishment.
(1.) Abimelech rose to influence by putting forth false claims as an adventurer, and now it is by the setting forth of the false claims of another adventurer (Gaal), that the standard of revolt is raised against his authority.
(2.) In the house where he found the money, that enabled him to carry into execution the awful deed which left his way free to ascend the throne, his subjects met to pour curses on his head, and to plot his ruin.
(3) The man who made it his boast to say, “My father was a king,” is at last rejected by his votaries for one who was the son of a slave (Ebed means a slave).
(4.) By a woman he rose to power (his mother; when the Shechemites said. “He is our brother”) and by a woman he met his death.
(5.) He slew all his brothers on one stone, and now by means of one stone he is slain.
(6.) He sinned so much, that he might get the crown set on his head, and now he dies through his head being crushed.
(7.) His grand ambition was, that his name might go down to posterity as Abimelech the Invincible,” and yet the last thing the world hears of him is, ‘A woman slew him.”
IX. All the wicked’s confidences are refuges of lies.
The men of Shechem who swore to be faithful to the upstart king, soon rebelled against him in a body, and followed another adventurer—Zebul the ruler of the city, was the only friend that stuck to his master, and he appears to have acted from selfish motives. The men of the tower were against him. The people of Thebez to a man rose against him. And the very men who followed him did so through fear; for, the moment he breathed his last, every man threw down his sword and retired to his home; while the body of their chief was left to the vultures, and his name to the execration of posterity. (Psalms 37:35; Jonah 2:0)
How different the confidence of the righteous! (Isaiah 57:2; Isaiah 26:3-4; Psalms 112:7; Psalms 125:1; Isaiah 33:15-16).
X. The wicked are often employed to be the instruments of inflicting the punishment of their sins on each other.
Thus it was conspicuously here, in the case of the men of Shechem and their so-called king. Thus it has been in nearly all ages, in the wars which one nation has had with another. How often, too, in Scripture history do we read of the king of Babylon at one time, of Nineveh at another, or of Egypt at still another, being employed by the Governor among the nations, to punish this or that people for their long-continued wickedness in the sight of high Heaven! The wars of the Saracens and Crusaders, the descent of the Turkish hordes from the heights of Central Asia, on the west of Asia, and the east of Europe, and the wars of ancient Rome, when the Cæsars conquered all the west, the north, and the east of Europe, and the wars, too, which led to the fall of the Roman empire by the inrushing of Goths, Huns, and Vandals from all parts of the north, for the destruction of the city that had so long sinned, are examples.
It is on the same principle, that the evil angels are said to be the instruments of inflicting wrath on the wicked. They brought the plagues on Egypt (Psalms 78:49); perhaps they brought the flood on the old world; some suppose they brought the hail, the lightning, and the hornet on the Canaanites for their destruction; also they destroyed the property of the Gadarenes by entering into the swine; Satan himself is said to have the power of inflicting death on mankind as God’s messenger (Hebrews 2:14)—he is the “spirit that worketh in the children of disobedience” (Ephesians 2:2), and these are “led captive by him at his will” (2 Timothy 2:26).
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Exell, Joseph S. "Commentary on Judges 9". Preacher's Complete Homiletical Commentary. https://www.studylight.org/
the Sixth Week after Easter