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Abimelech the son of Jerubbaal.
The election of the usurper to be king
I. Contrasts in the history of God’s own people. After Gideon--Abimelech!
II. The best of fathers may have the worst of sons.
III. useful purposes are served in recording a wicked man’s life in the book of God.
1. The record is given as a curse, and not as a blessing.
2. Such a record illustrates the truth of God’s testimony respecting human character.
3. It shows by practical example the frightfully evil nature of sin when allowed to develop itself unchecked.
4. Wicked deeds recorded are beacons set up to warn us from the rocks and whirlpools of sin.
IV. God can bring accusers against the wicked when they fancy themselves most secure. (J. P. Millar.)
Abimelech, the adventurer
Abimelech is the Oriental adventurer, and uses the methods of another age than ours; yet we have our examples, and if they are less scandalous in some ways, if they are apart from bloodshed and savagery, they are still sufficiently trying to those who cherish the faith of Divine justice and providence. How many have to see with amazement the adventurer triumph by means of seventy pieces of silver from the house of Baal or even from a holier treasury. He in a selfish and cruel game seems to have speedy and complete success denied to the best and purest cause. Fighting for his own hand in wicked or contemptuous hardness and arrogant conceit, he finds support, applause, an open way. Being no prophet, he has honour in his own town. He knows the art of the stealthy insinuation, the lying promise, and the flattering murmur; he has skill to make the favour of one leading person a step to securing another. When a few important people have been hoodwinked, he too becomes important, and “success” is assured. The Bible, most entirely honest of books, frankly sets before us this adventurer, Abimelech, in the midst of the judges of Israel, as low a specimen of “success” as need be looked for; and we trace the well-known means by which such a person is promoted. “His mother’s brethren spake of him,” etc. That there was little to say, that he was a man of no character, mattered not the least. The thing was to create an impression, so that Abimelech’s scheme might be introduced and forced. So far he could intrigue and then, the first steps gained, he could mount. But there was in him none of the mental power that afterwards marked Jehu, none of the charm that survives with the name of Absalom. It was a jealousy, pride, ambition, he played, as the most jealous, proud, and ambitious; yet for three years the Hebrews of the league, blinded by the desire to have their nation like others, suffered him to bear the name of king. And by this sovereignty the Israelites who acknowledged it were doubly and trebly compromised. Not only did they accept a man without a record, they believed in one who was an enemy to his country’s religion--one, therefore, quite ready to trample upon its liberty. This is really the beginning of a worse oppression than that of Jabin or of Midian. It shows on the part of Hebrews generally, as well as those who tamely submitted to Abimelech’s lordship, a most abject state of mind. (R. A. Watson, M. A.)
Ambition destroys the finer feelings of men
The love of power and supremacy absorbed, consumed Napoleon. Before this duty, honour, love, humanity, fell prostrate. Josephine, we are told, was dear to him; but the devoted wife, who had stood firm and faithful in the day of his doubtful fortunes, was cast off in his prosperity to make room for a stranger, who might be more subservient to his power. He was affectionate, we are told, to his brothers and mother; but his brothers, the moment they ceased to be his tools, were disgraced; and his mother, it is said, was not allowed to sit in the presence of her imperial son. He sometimes softened, we are told, by the sight of the field of battle strewn with the wounded and dead. But if the Moloch of his ambition claimed new heaps of slain to-morrow it was never denied. With all his sensibility he gave millions to the sword with as little compunction as he would have brushed away so many insects which had infested his march. (H. E. Channing.)
The trees went forth . . . to anoint a king.
The parable of the trees
This Divine parable is full of interest. It is the oldest complete example of a parable blending with literal history. It was spoken by Jotham, the youngest son of Gideon, to expose the unworthy conduct of the Israelites, and to arrest them in their course. The olive, the vine, and the fig-tree, in the metaphorical application, would be his father, his brethren, and himself, none of whom would be king. The bramble would be Abimelech, who would either reign or destroy, and who would in the end, as the parable teaches, introduce so wretched a system as to entail upon himself and people mutual destruction. And so it happened. And such is the eternal law. He whose throne is reached through falsehood and blood, who has no foundation of virtue and right and worth to rest upon, must continue to cement with fresh crime the edifice he has reared, and so to add to the fire of vengeance that is secretly gathering around him, until at length some additional blow breaks the cover under which it has been smouldering, and it bursts upon the wicked tyrant and destroys, as it was with this Abimelech, both reign and life. Such is the lesson yielded by this parable in its letter, as a warning against that destructive ambition which has so often desolated the earth, in ancient and in modern times. Before quitting this part of the subject, allow me to call your attention to the difference between metaphor and correspondence. Metaphor is a certain likeness which is perceived by the mind, between two natural things, which have in other respects no connection with one another. Correspondence is the analogy which exists between two things, one spiritual and the other natural, and which answer to one another in all their uses and in all respects. We might go further, and attempt to show that in all cases of true and complete correspondences the spiritual is to the natural as the cause to the effect, the soul to the body; but upon this we cannot now enlarge. We have dwelt upon the parable as a metaphor. The olive-tree stands in this respect for Gideon. Like him, it was most valuable and honoured, and like him it would not reign. In other respects there was no connection or relation between them, and both were natural visible objects. We come now to the spiritual sense of the parable, and to bring this out we must employ, not metaphor, but correspondence. Perceptions, or acknowledged principles of truth or error, grow up in the mind like trees in the soil, and answer to trees in all their progress. Instruction is like seed. Instruction in Divine things is the seed of all that is great and good in the soul. “The seed,” the Divine Saviour said, “is the Word of God” (Luke 8:11). If we watch the reception and growth of knowledge in the mind, until it becomes a clear and enlarged view, and at length a productive principle, we shall discern the closest analogy to the progression of a tree from seed to fruit. In our text, however, we have not only the subject of trees in general placed before us, but three trees especially are singled out as valuable, but declining to reign--the olive, the fig-tree, and the vine: and one as worthless determined to rule or to destroy--the bramble. Let us examine these singly; and first, the olive. It is the tree most esteemed in Eastern countries, and especially in Palestine. Its wood yields a precious gum, its fruits are delightful and nutritious, and its oil, which is as it were the essence of the fruit pressed out, is used in food, also to give light, and as holy oil in the offerings of worship. As trees correspond to truths perceived as principles in the mind, the most worthy tree will correspond to the most valuable principle, that is, the wisdom which teaches love to the Lord. This principle when it has grown up in the soul, and given us to know the true character of our heavenly Father, shows us that He is not only loving, but love itself, infinite love unutterably tender, unchangeably merciful, good to all, whose tender mercies are over all His works. This is the celestial olive-tree which yields the oil, honoured both by God and man. It is of the olive-tree corresponding to the interior wisdom which conjoins the soul and its God together, and through which holy love descends, that we are informed in our text it refused to be king over the trees. The Divine Word teaches us by this that the spirit of rule is opposed to the spirit of love. Love desires to aid, to serve, to bless, but not to rule. If placed in positions of government and responsibility, it accepts them that it may minister, not that it may reign. If it were to enter into the desire of ruling it would lose its fatness; or, in other words, its richness and its joy. The fig-tree is next brought under notice. It was one of the most common fruit trees in Palestine, growing often on the wayside. It corresponds therefore to that natural perception which teaches the ordinary virtues of daily life. But even the common virtues of life, to be genuine, must be separated from the love of dominion. It is not always so. But unless this is really the case, there is no sweetness in doing good. Our good in fact is not good, but self in a disguise. A person will sometimes be liberal in his support of charities. He will profess the utmost sympathy for the poor. He will be generous in his support of public institutions for education and general improvement. His fig-tree seems to hear fine fruit, and yet it is quite possible that the love of applause, the desire to be paid by the suffrages of his fellow-citizens, being given to confer upon him political power, may be his aim. And if so, his figs have no sweetness, and are not good fruit. And oh, what is the applause of men compared with the sweetness of heaven? What are fruits worth if they are only gilded dust? (Jeremiah 24:8). Such, then, is the lesson conveyed in the reply of the fig-tree spiritually understood. Should we leave the sweetness of heavenly virtue, and the real goodness of works which will abide the scrutiny of eternity, for the empty pageantry of place and power, sought only from the love of rule, and entailing bitterness here, and misery hereafter? “Then said the trees unto the vine, Come thou and reign over us.” Vines correspond to the truths of faith. The Church, especially as to its principles of faith, is commonly called in the Scriptures a vineyard. The reason is, no doubt, that the influence of principles of true faith is to the mind what wine is to the body--it strengthens the exhausted and cheers the weary. There are more that be with us than all that be against us: why then should we faint or despair? A God of love has created and prepared us for our work. His creation consists of innumerable channels, through which His benevolence descends. Loving friends are around, and a heaven of love before us. All things cheer us on. The mountains run down with new wine. The vine, in our text, speaks of its wine as cheering God and man. And when we perceive that wine is the emblem of encouraging truth, we appreciate the force of the Divine words. For when man is cheered by truth and saved, God rejoices with him. But the vine intimates that, if she sought to be ruler over the trees, she would leave her wine. “Should I leave my wine, which cheereth God and man, and go to be promoted over the trees?” And so it is. If any one, by means of heavenly truth seeks dominion, his truth ceases to be saving. It is poison, not wine, to him. We come now, however, to a plant of very different character, and you will find the reply quite different. “Then said all the trees to the bramble, Come thou, and reign over us.” The reply takes it for granted that he is willing, and expresses his determination either to rule or destroy. This bramble is a low bushy tree with strong thorns, and whose wood is of a fiery nature easily set in flames. It is the emblem of the lust of dominion, which is also essentially unbelieving. The ambitious man believes in nothing but himself and his cunning. Everything which will contribute to his earthly aggrandisement is welcome; but he hates what will not come down to his level. Let us hear him. “If in truth ye anoint me king over you, then come and put your trust in my shadow: and, if not, let fire come out of the bramble, and devour the cedars of Lebanon.” What an extraordinary invitation was that! The olive, the vine, the fig-tree, the lofty cedar, and all the noble trees of the forest, were to come and put themselves under the shadow of this contemptible shrub! How ridiculous an idea! Yet it is paralleled, in all respects, by the demands of ambition. It will deign to lend its protection to Divine things, only they must be subservient, and it must be chief. This principle in politicians makes religion an instrument of state policy; the ministers of religion a superior kind of police. But woe to the religion which stoops to it. It loses its own native life and vigour: it leaves its oil, and its figs, and its wine. The principle in an ambitious priest uses all the semblances of earnest piety to attain his selfish ends. He cares, however, nothing for them in themselves. That which he cannot bend to his selfish rule he burns to destroy. He says, like this miserable plant, “If not, let fire come out of the bramble, and devour the cedars of Lebanon.” He burns with the mad rage of frenzy against whatever will not stoop to gratify his insane whim to rule over all things. From the whole of this Divine lesson we may gather the most invaluable impressions. We cannot too strongly imbue ourselves with the conviction that all heaven breathes humility, and everything heavenly is humble. The moment any sacred principle is turned to a selfish purpose, it loses its richness, its sweetness, its holiness, and worth. Love becomes flattery, virtue hypocrisy, faith deception. Oh let us shun this awful, desolating, soul-destroying sin. And, on the contrary, let us attend to Him who is at once the humblest and the highest. Bring often to mind the impressive and beautiful scene, when, surrounded by His disciples, He took a little child, and placed it in the midst of them. It was the day following that of the grand scene of the Transfiguration. (J. Bayley, Ph. D.)
The parable of Jotham
I. Its intention and success. When William Penn was carrying on negotiations with the Indians he used to gain their respect and attention by exhibiting to them his skill as a swordsman. This was an acquirement which the red man could appreciate. So Jotham here clothes the truths he wishes to utter in the form of parable, and gains the attention of the men of Shechem by his skilful use of imagery.
II. The contents of the parable. In it we have the national life of Israel set forth under the similitude of the natural life of the tree. In the kingdom of trees we notice--
1. The individuality of each tree.
2. The diversities of size, and form, and worth, found among them.
3. The manifest dependence of some trees upon others.
III. The teaching which underlies it. The parable implies that there were men in Israel at this time who possessed the qualifications necessary to a good ruler set forth in the excellences peculiar to the trees mentioned. But these men, the most fitted to rule, refused to do so because there is no honour in ruling where excellence is held in dishonour. They were in the soil of private life, which was congenial to their nature, and to be transplanted to a soil in which only a bramble could flourish, would be to lose their power of imparting light and sweetness. The nation, the city, or the congregation in which a bramble is held in estimation is not the soil in which to plant an olive-tree, a vine, or a fig-tree.
1. The honour of a leader depends, not upon the fact that he is chosen to rule, but upon who chooses him.
2. It is the man who gives honour to the position, and not the position which gives honour to the man.
3. In choosing a position in the world, we should be most solicitous to obtain that which will be favourable to the development of our character, and that in which character will be appreciated.
4. The ruler of a nation is a mirror in which is reflected the character of the people.
5. The true leaders of men have resources within for themselves, and therefore for others. Such men can afford to remain in obscurity, their mind is to them kingdom, they are their own society. (A London Minister.)
The parable of the trees
(to Young Men):--This parable of Jotham is, it is supposed, the very oldest in existence. We reach here, in a literary sense, almost to the source of fictitious writing. It is a question sometimes put to religious teachers, “Do you object to works of fiction?” For myself I can answer at once. “I do not.” If I did I should condemn perhaps all the peoples that ever lived, simple and cultured alike. In the snow hut of the Laplanders, in the warm wooden house of the Norse peasant, in the sunny islands of the Southern Sea, and all through the burning East, genius has in this way expressed itself, and men have been pleased and improved by its ministries. But question me further. Ask me if I object to much of the sensational literature of the day, and I answer, “I do”; not because it is fictitious, but because of the evil in more or less degree which it contains, and because it is sorry nourishment for human minds or hearts. To return to Jotham’s parable. “The trees went forth on a time to anoint a king over them.” There must have been a good deal of talk among them before it came to that, much wagging of arboreous tongues, twittering of leaf, and groaning of branch. They did not need a king. But the procession has started. We must follow and make part of it, if we want to see and hear.
I. Now there is a halt before an olive-tree. And they said to the olive-tree, “Reign thou over us.” A splendid offer, to be the anointed king over the whole vegetable world! We listen to hear the reply, couched in the deprecating, cautious phraseology usual in such cases. No such answer is given; but a clear, distinct refusal of the proffered honour. “Should I leave my fatness?” etc. Must I tear up my roots from the kindly soil where I have had my home for a thousand years, and cease to receive the secret but willing ministries of the earth, and close up the channels along which they have come? Must I shake the hard grain of my body by locomotion, and have my leaves withered in a triumphal progress, and see my berries grow scant and shrivelled, and produce no more oil for God or man, and all this that I may be a king? Wise olive-tree! Keep thy roots where they have struck and spread! Build up in concentric rings, as the years come and go, the hard pile of the serviceable wood! Store the secret fragrance! Distil the precious oil for many uses! Give men the annual harvest and God the continual glory of thy growing! Can we miss the lesson? Usefulness is better than honour. Usefulness, if it be of the higher kind, is attained through long growing and long striving. But when it is attained, when there is a normal, regulated usefulness flowing steadily out of a man’s life, when he serves God and man where he is and by what he is, the offer of promotion ought to carry with it some very strong and clear enforcements to induce him to think of acceptance.
II. Here is a fig-tree by the wayside. It belongs to an old and most respectable family. It traces its pedigree up to Eden. It leads a useful life, and yet it has much less to give up and leave than the olive. But no! The fig-tree has not much, but it has something substantial and good. It has beautiful leaves of deep shining green, and better still--for the fig-tree makes no mention of its leaves--it has figs which carry in them a wonderful sweetness when they are fully ripe. Sweetness is the one quality which the fig-tree felt that it possessed. There is in some human souls a sweetness which imparts a fig-tree flavour to the whole life. When you meet one who possesses this gift moving about among rough ways and persons, consider that you see something far more than merely pleasant, something of exceeding value to the world.
III. “Then said the trees unto the vine, Come thou and reign over us.” Surely there will be no refusal now! The vine cannot stand alone, it needs to be propped. It will leap at the offer of a throne, up which to climb and on which to hang its nodding clusters. It can only do one thing: it can bear clusters of grapes. Ah! but that one thing is of force and value enough to keep the vine steady under temptation. “ Should I leave my wine,” etc. As there are some human lives with sweetness in them as their main element, so there are some with this brighter, racier quality, which “cheers” and animates the spirits of others. Be a vine if you can be nothing more; distil and distribute the wine of life.
IV. Now, at length, we go to the coronation. The trees have found a king. “Then said all the trees unto the bramble, Come thou and reign over us.” Accepted as soon as offered! The bramble needs no time for deliberation. It accepts the crown at once. Look at the bramble or spiky thorn of Palestine with its long straggling branches. It has no “fatness” to leave, like the olive-tree; no “sweetness,” like the fig-tree; no clusters, like the vine. It casts no shadow, like the oak. It has nothing but sharp, piercing spikes, and of these it has abundance; every branch is full of them--and yet hear how the mean creature speaks! “If in truth ye anoint me king over you”--as if it were the most natural thing in the world that they should; as if it were thinking of its ripe baskets of fruit, and of the weary pilgrims it had sheltered. “if in truth ye anoint me king!” Think of it, in presence of them all! The cedar, nodding his dark plumes; the oak, with castled strength of stem and branch; the beech, in its sylvan beauty; the palm-tree, with its cylindrical stem and feathery leaves, and bounteous burden of dates; “and the fir-tree and the pine-tree and the box together”; and those that have declined the honour--to all these it says, “Come and put your trust in my shadow!” The unbounded impudence of this address is remarkable, and would be amusing if it were not connected with peril to the whole arboreous kingdom. This peril the bramble knows, and has the art to hold it out in audacious menace. “If not, think of it well. You have gone too far to go back, you are now in my power; and that the noblest among you shall feel the first, in case of the least show of opposition.” Society, in all its sections, is full of bramble men, who are striving for every sort of personal elevation and advantage. By the picture in this parable I want you to scorn the principles they act upon; and to despise the honours and advantages they win! (A. Raleigh, D. D.)
We find instruction in the parable by regarding the answers put into the mouth of this tree and that when they are invited to wave to and fro over the others. There are honours which are dearly purchased, high positions which cannot be assumed without renouncing the true end and fruition of life. One for example, who is quietly and with increasing efficiency doing his part in a sphere to which he is adapted, must set aside the gains of long discipline if he is to become a social leader. He can do good where he is. Not so certain is it that he will be able to serve his fellows well in public office. It is one thing to enjoy the deference paid to a leader while the first enthusiasm on his behalf continues, but it is quite another thing to satisfy all the demands made as years go on and new needs arise, When any one is invited to take a position of authority he is bound to consider carefully his own aptitude. He needs also to consider those who are to be subjects or constituents, and make sure that they are of the kind his rule will fit. The olive looks at the cedar and the terebinth and the palm. Will they admit his sovereignty by and by though now they vote for it? Men are taken with the candidate who makes a good impression by emphasising what will please and suppressing opinions that may provoke dissent. When they know him, how will it be? When criticism begins, will the olive not be despised for its gnarled stem, its crooked branches and dusky foliage? The fable does not make the refusal of olive and fig-tree and vine rest on the comfort they enjoy in the humbler place. That would be a mean and disbonourable reason for refusing to serve. Men who decline public office because they love an easy life find here no countenance. It is for the sake of its fatness, the oil it yields, grateful to God and man in sacrifice and anointing, that the olive-tree declines. The fig-tree has its sweetness, and the vine its grapes to yield. And so men despising self-indulgence and comfort may be justified in putting aside a call to office. The fruit of a personal character developed in humble, unobtrusive natural life is seen to be better than the more showy clusters forced by public demands. Yet, on the other hand, if one will not leave his books, another his scientific hobbies, a third his fireside, a fourth his manufactory, in order to take his place among the magistrates of a city or the legislators of a land, the danger of bramble supremacy is near. Next a wretched Abimelech will appear; and what can be done but set him on high and put the reins in his hand? Unquestionably the claims of Church or country deserve most careful weighing, and even if there is a risk that character may lose its tender bloom, the sacrifice must be made in obedience to an urgent call. For a time, at least, the need of society at large must rule the loyal life. The fable of Jotham, in so far as it flings sarcasm at the persons who desire eminence for the sake of it and not for the good they will be able to do, is an example of that wisdom which is as unpopular now as ever it has been in human history, and the moral needs every day to be kept full in view. It is desire for distinction and power, the opportunity of waving to and fro over the trees, the right to use this handle and that to their names, that will be found to make many eager, not the distinct wish to accomplish something which the times and the country need. Those who solicit public office are far too often selfish, not self-denying, and even in the Church there is much vain ambition. But people will have it so. The crowd follows him who is eager for the suffrages of the crowd, and showers flattery and promises as he goes. Men are lifted into places they cannot fill, and after keeping their seats unsteadily for a time they have to disappear into ignominy. (R. A. Watson, M. A.)
Forms of usefulness in life
What special advantages of life, what particular forms of usefulness and comfort, Jotham had in view, if he had any, in choosing these particular trees, it is not easy to say. But it is obvious that he meant in a general way to point out that there are two or three functions, or employments, or ways of spending life, so much worth a man’s while continuing, that he is wise in refusing to abandon them for the sake of what may seem a better position. It is very desirable that men should see the advantages of their own position, for nothing is more enervating than a craving after change, and nothing more delusive than the fancy that almost any other position would be better than our own. The “fatness” which the olive was not disposed to forsake in exchange for high position, may very naturally be supposed to symbolise the usefulness which belongs to many obscure positions in life. If we are filling a place that somebody must fill, if we are doing work which some one must do, then we should be cautious how we seek change. Moreover, in the life of most of us, the usefulness of our daily occupation is by no means the whole measure of our usefulness. We are mixed up in life with persons who are entangled in difficulties, who are full of faults, who are needing help: wherever we go, in whatever occupation we spend our time, we find this to be the case; and he is a happy man who can disentangle the sinner from the meshes of his sin and pluck his feet out of the net, who can let some tempted person have the strengthening influence of his society, who can give advice that saves from misery or loss. Again, many lives are soured and rendered wretched to all connected with them, because it is not recognised that sweetness is that to which they are specially called. The fig-tree did not think it was a necessary of life; it did not flatter itself men could not live without figs; but it was modestly and reasonably conscious that by bearing figs year after year it did add an element of a most desirable kind to the life of man. Taking the mere word of the fable, the “sweetness” of the fig, every one knows what a blessing in a household is even one sweet temper, one disposition that is not ruffled, that does not take offence, that does not think every one else in the wrong, that does not vaunt itself, but is quiet, reasonable, patient, meek. Peremptoriness is not always equivalent to efficiency. Any one who has tried to catch an unbridled horse in a field knows how little persuasive power there is in violent language. The assumption of a tone of authority or infallibility defeats the ends of persuasion quite as certainly as the admission of a tone of entreaty destroys the authority of one who should rightfully command. But a third lesson for individuals in private life, which we gather from this fable, is how contemptible a thing is display and worldly honour, and what is called style. People will not be content to live comfortably, to be moderate in their expenses, quiet in their ways; but must be doing as other people do, must commit the same extravagancies, even though they have really no taste for them; must deny themselves the enjoyments they prefer, that they may seem to enjoy themselves like their neighbours; bind themselves religiously to do many troublesome things, for no other reason whatever than that it is expected of them. The consequence is that the spirit becomes false, and the life is worn out by useless forms and meaningless labour; the useful services which might be rendered are neglected, and time cannot be found for them. In conclusion, Jotham shall not have spoken this parable in vain for us if we carry away from its perusal the settled conviction that in life there is something better than mere show or the mere attainment of the rewards accorded by the world to its successful men. The real value of human life does not lie on the surface; lies, indeed, so deep that very many people never see it at all. There are circumstances so afflicting and straitened, so very tormenting and hampering, that we are apt to think we do well if only we do not cry out and let all the world know how we suffer; but there is a better thing to do always, and that is, to set ourselves with patience and humble self-crucifixion to think of others and do our best for them. In the worst circumstances, in circumstances so perplexing we know not how to act, there always remains some duty we are aware of, some kind and loving thing we can do, and by doing which other duties become clearer. (Marcus Dods, D. D.)
The olive-tree said . . . Should I leave my fatness?--
The refusing of leadership
I. The varieties which God has made among men.
II. The temptations to which we are exposed to be untrue to our distinctive nature and position.
III. The evil which would arise from our going out of our true place to obtain a vulgar power.
IV. The wise conduct of some in resisting the injurious temptations addressed to them.
V. Those who refuse formal rule may be kings in their spheres notwithstanding--nay, all the more.
VI. The world’s king is often the bramble after all. (W. Morison, D. D.)
The faithful olive-tree
The fable teaches that temptations will come to us all, however sweet, or useful, or fruitful, even as they came to the fig, the olive, and the vine. These temptations may take the shape of proffered honours; if not a crown, yet some form of preferment or power may be the bribe.
I. Apparent promotions are not to be snatched at. The question is to be asked, “Should I?” Let us never do what would be unbecoming, unsuitable, unwise (Genesis 39:9). Emphasis is to be laid on the “I.” “Should I?” If God has given me peculiar gifts or special grace, does it become me to trifle with these endowments? Should I give them up to gain honour for myself? (Nehemiah 6:11). A higher position may seem desirable, but would it be right to gain it by such cost? (Jeremiah 45:5). It will involve duties and cares. “Go up and down among the trees” implies that there would be care, oversight, travelling, etc. These duties will be quite new to me; for, like an olive, I have been hitherto planted in one place. Should I run into new temptations, new difficulties, etc., of my own wanton will? Can I expect God’s blessing upon such strange work? Put the question in the case of wealth, honour, power, which are set before us. Should we grasp at them at the risk of being less at peace, less holy, less prayerful, less useful?
II. Actual advantages are not to be trifled with. “Should I leave my fatness?” I have this great boon, should I lightly lose it? It is the greatest advantage in life to be useful both to God and man: “By me they honour God and man.” We ought heartily to prize this high privilege. To leave this for anything which the world can offer would be great loss (Jeremiah 18:14; Jeremiah 2:13). Our possession of fatness meets the temptation to become a king. We are happy enough in Christ, in His service, with His people, and in the prospect of the reward. We cannot better ourselves by the move; let us stay as we are. We may also meet it by the reflection that the prospect is startling: “Should I leave my fatness? “ For an olive to do this would be unnatural: for a believer to leave holy living would be worse (John 6:68). That the retrospect would be terrible: “leave my fatness.” What must it be to have left grace, and truth, and holiness, and Christ? Remember Judas. That even an hour of such leaving would be a loss. What would an olive do even for a day if it left its fatness? That it would all end in disappointment; for nothing could compensate for leaving the Lord. All else is death (Jeremiah 17:13). That to abide firmly and reject all baits is like the saints, the martyrs, and their Lord; but to prefer honour to grace is a mere bramble folly.
III. Temptation should be turned to account. Let us take deeper root. The mere proposal to leave our fatness should make us hold the faster to it. Let us be on the watch that we lose not our joy, which is our fatness. If we would not leave it, neither can we bear that it should leave us. Let us yield more fatness, and bear more fruit: he who gains largely is all the further removed from loss. The more we increase in grace the less are we likely to leave it. Let us feel the more content, and speak the more lovingly of our gracious state, that none may dare to entice us. (C. H. Spurgeon.)
The fig-tree said . . . Should I forsake my sweetness?--
There was to the fig-tree no excellency like that of meeting adequately its own ends and of fulfilling its own inborn purpose. The fig-tree was not created to be a king among the trees. That was not its selected part or its appointed task. The oak and the cedar might be great in strength, the ash and the willow might be exalted for beauty, but in its own way of being great the fig-tree had a dignity all its own; measured by what it was meant to be and by what it was meant to do it might rest, secure for all time of usefulness and of honour. The real measure of the success or failure of each life is thoroughly and exactly the measure of its self-fulfilment. Centuries afterwards a Greek philosopher laid hold of this same principle, and he gave to it a more philosophical interpretation, a profounder application to the life of man; but Aristotle did not teach the lesson of it more finely, he did not illustrate it more happily, than had been done before in this passage. The measure of the success or failure of each life is thoroughly and exactly the measure of its self-fulfilment. As with the fig-tree, it is the excellency of man to live and to be fruitful in those powers which are distinctly his own; to be rational because he alone is truly rational; to be moral because he alone is moral; to be spiritual because he alone within the earth is breathed upon from a higher world, and hears with a deeper hearing a music and a song which hath not been uttered, Nature and God alike ask of man not the life of the tree or of the brute or of the angel, but the life of man as man. For man to turn from the culture of that rational and moral life which is distinctively his own, for man to yield his own peculiar task, for him to forsake the high inheritances of rational freedom and of moral purpose, is to tear from his own experience, to cut from out his history, the very justification of his existence in the world. Let him look well to that. It is not his life to be merely strong. When we look for strength we will not look to him. We will not look for strength to man, but to the deep-settled hills laid strong and sure among the rocks; to the wild waters of the flood as they beat and scream in their ruin of the land; to the winds of heaven as they fall sharply upon the sea; to the great fish within the deep; to the huge beast within the forest; to a thousand things in earth and sky; but we will not look for strength to man. Nor is it man’s life or woman’s to be merely beautiful. When we look for beauty we will not look to man, but we will look far out upon some deep blue quiet of the hills, to the unfolding glories of the new day, to the sweet radiance of those tears which the dying night has left upon the flowers; we will look to corals of the sea, to diamonds from the under-world, to the waving shadows of the forest and the fields. To these we will look for beauty, but not to man. Let man keep and wear the graces which as man are his; let woman be dowered in those beauties which are all and peculiarly her own; but let that motive die within us which has no task for man or woman but those sad and empty services of flesh, those weak apparent shows of lust or ease or wealth. Oh, for men whose first and thorough task will be that of being men! Oh, for women whose souls and hearts are set deeply in the purpose of being and of serving under woman’s name in those causes which are all her own, among those dignities and sanctities which make with men her queenliness and saintliness for ever! If there is need to-day for a humanity which is human--for manly men, for womanly women, for childlike children--there is need also for a churchly Church. Institutions as well as individuals have their primary uses and their distinctive life. The Church, too, if she is to continue among men, must act truly and deeply from her own powers, must be strong in a Church’s spirit, instinct and eager with the Church’s mission. The life of the Church may have its social aspect, it may have in a sense its business aspect, it has been forced to have in certain quarters an aspect which is purely political; but the measure of her exclusive and especial triumphs along lines like these is exactly the measure of man’s detestation of her cause. The Church, to be the Church, must be primarily and essentially religious. There are individual Churches which are not successful in any sense, but the Church which is successful in the life God sends her out to live, that Church which in a religious sense is a success must be a success in all senses and for all wise and honourable work. (E. G. Murphy.)
The bramble said.--
Bramble rule; or, the people and their leaders
I. That the people have a conscious want of leaders, and they are not particular in their choice of them.
1. The people in every age have needed leaders in every department of life--mercantile, artistic, political, and especially religious. The uncultured masses have ever been ignorant, credulous, servile.
2. And they are conscious of their want. This arises from--
(1) An instinctive faith that there is somewhere an unpossessed good for them.
(2) A consciousness that they are incapable of reaching it themselves.
(3) A conviction that there are members of the race superior to themselves,
3. That the people are not particular in their choice of leaders. They do not generally follow the greatest men. Men of inferior capacity and uncultivated nature are scarcely qualified to appreciate the highest form of greatness. Great men to them are masters whom they martyr.
II. That inferior men are often more ready to assume the responsibility of leadership than great ones. The greater a man is, the less taste he has for a conventional greatness, the greater resources he has in himself, and more disposed is he to work in the glorious realms of principles than amidst the din of social parties. Great men build their own thrones, and establish their own empires.
III. That leadership in the hands of inferior men is ever fraught with mischief.
1. Small men can do great mischief.
2. The higher the office they reach, the greater the mischief they can effect.
1. The sad condition of the world.
2. The transcendent worth of the gospel. Christ is just the Leader needed. (Homilist.)
Pulpit brambles; or, a vacant Church making a choice of a minister
1. Jotham’s parable is full of interest.
(1) On account of its antiquity. First on record.
(2) The spirit of its delivery. Full of the humorous.
(3) The sarcasm it contains. The satiric is a most useful gift to the Christian teacher, when guided by the hand of wisdom.
2. The principle contained in the parable is, that the highest places ought to be occupied by the best of men, and that the bramble people should never be allowed to occupy a position of greatness.
3. From Jotham’s parable the following remarks are suggested--
(1) That it is a time of great responsibility to Churches when making choice of a minister. Christ spent a night in prayer before He ordained His apostles.
(2) That Churches sometimes show a great want of shrewdness in their choice of a minister.
(3) That Churches ought to keep a view to the practical in giving a call to a minister.
(4) That very often we find the most insignificant ministers are the most ready to accept invitations from large Churches.
(5) That a stated ministry is advantageous to Churches.
(6) That great evils follow in the choice of unsuitable ministers.
(7) That Churches will never reach their true position while their pulpits are filled with brambles.
1. That the ministerial life is one of great sacrifice.
2. That most frequently the ministerial brambles are blessed with unanimous calls.
3. That the men of small talent, almost without exception, are full of vanity.
4. That the great force of the bramble pulpit is in destruction.
5. Some of our large Churches have frequently been deservedly punished when they have lost their old minister. (Homilist.)
King Bramble and his subjects
Why were the trees so willing to enthrone “Bramble”? The trees argued: “If we make Bramble king, he will never find fault, and never dare chide us for shortcomings--he is so puny and worthless compared with us.” So men reason, all over the globe. Do you know why men possessing just as much good common-sense as you have, still cling to idols in heathen lands? Many of them know as well as we do that their idols are worthless. Why keep them? Because with these for gods, they make religion as base and sensual as they desire. But we need not search heathen lands. In our own midst are people who serve King Bramble rather than King Jesus.
I. The bramble of intemperance. Do you suppose that any boy ever starts out in life with the intention of being a drunkard? He who yields in the least degree is in danger of being overpowered and ruined by this King Bramble.
II. Bramble of mammon. Just enough affords more happiness than too much.
III. Most dangerous bramble of all is self. We all need to pray for deliverance from the evil which is in our own hearts. One of the most cunning devices by which Satan entraps men is that of making them worship themselves rather than God. (A. F. Vedder.)
1. How proud the bramble was! “Come and put your trust in my shadow.” Are boys and girls proud? I think so. And yet they have no more reason to be proud than the foolish bramble. They are entirely dependent on the bounty of a gracious Providence, and He hates pride. But why are we proud? We cannot boast of our clothes--these are given to us by animals. Why, what is more beautiful than the butterfly, that flits about in the sunshine, or the tiny flower growing by the roadside? Both insect and flower appear in better coats than we.
2. Another thing we may notice about the bramble--its insufficiency for shelter. It said to all the trees: “Come, put your trust in my shadow.” The lesson to be learnt from this parable is the folly of false trust. The Bible in many places warns us against false trusts. It warns us against trusting ourselves. “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked.” He that trusteth in his own heart is a fool.” Some trust in riches. This is not safe. For riches sometimes take to themselves wings and fly away; moreover, they profit not in the day of wrath. Then in whom shall we trust? In the Lord, for we read: “It is better to trust in the Lord than to put confidence in princes.” We should trust in Him for our salvation. There is none other name under heaven given among men whereby we must be saved.
3. Then, the weakness of the bramble reminds us of its insufficiency for defence. Such a plant could easily be trodden down. The careless ox cannot crush the cedar, or the olive, or the fig-tree so easily as it can crush the bramble. A defence indicates the existence of enemies. You and I have enemies, and it is necessary that we should be guarded against them. They are round us--on every hand. Jesus Christ is not only a shelter, but a defence.
4. The bramble reminds us of sin. Sin is like a thorn. It pierces, it irritates, it wounds. (H. Whittaker.)
Many are misled, because they judge themselves too much by the impression they make upon those around them. To them, in that sense, vox populi is vox Dei. If they are popular in their own circle, they think proportionately well of themselves. But this is manifestly an empirical judgment. It depends very much on the circle to which we belong; on the mental and moral attainments of those in it; on the natural affection they cherish towards us, which predisposes them in our favour; and on the ideal they hold generally of character and worth. A solid is buoyant in a liquid in proportion as it is light, and the liquid heavy, floating or sinking according as it is heavier or lighter, bulk for bulk, than the liquid it is in. And similarly we may judge of a man’s moral and intellectual weight by the kind of society he floats in. The company which will buoy up one man will not sustain another, and in light, frivolous society, a silly, empty fellow may successfully keep on the surface, inflated only with his own self-conceit. In judging ourselves by the opinions of those around us, therefore, let us ask what their opinions are worth, and how far they are determined by principles which will decide eternal destiny. (A. Rowland, B. A.)
God sent an evil spirit between Abimelech and the men of Shechem.
It is not said that he was judge over Israel, for they were raised up by God, but he ruled and usurped, as tyrants use to do. And to begin first with his prosperity in that God gave him this short time to enjoy his desire, and to domineer as he did, it is to teach us that He doth for some little time give wicked men their longed-for desires; and yet not for that He applaudeth them therein, but that they may have time to repent, and to bethink themselves what they have done, and how they have gone to work, and how many ways they have provoked God. But to go forward: this evil spirit that was sent betwixt them, being the first occasion of their overthrow, was the devil, by whose malice and subtlety ill-will and hatred were kindled betwixt them, and this, with the breaking their promise, doth show us clearly that the league and friendship of the wicked is soon broken off. For why? It hath no good ground. The use whereof is that we make no such wicked and cursed leagues. Secondly, that we account no otherwise of them where they be made, but as of the spider’s web, soon swept down; and thirdly, praise God highly when we see them broken. And in that it is said that the Lord sent an evil spirit betwixt them, we may note, that though God be not the author of evil, yet that sin which is in the wicked, hidden in their hearts, and never so secret, He bringeth forth at His pleasure, and lets it break out at His commandment, ruling and overruling the same. And they that nourish it in themselves, and do not give it a vent by repentance, may ever justly fear, and do sometime too truly find, that as water pent in breaks out violently in some place or other, even so the sin that is entertained in men’s hearts shall one time or other break out to their shame in their lives. But as the stink of the dunghill riseth not from the sun, no more doth sin proceed from God. Also, by this division betwixt them we may note, that when God suffers division among the wicked, or an evil spirit any way to lead them, it is to punish their lewd fellowship, and to revenge the sin of both parts, and to make each the other’s executioner. And yet, oh what a sweet liberty it is thought to be, to enjoy fellowship with such? And first, grudges secretly being conceived, they are nourished by jealousies and suspicions exasperated by daily injuries, till they break out into hatred, and end in extremity. These things are commonly seen, but who beholdeth God’s justice therein? or is thereby prevented from having anything to do with such? or made wise to lay a better foundation of their amity and friendship. Furthermore, by this, that God would have the blood of the innocent sons of Gideon revenged upon Abimelech and the men of Shechem, He teacheth us that He will revenge the innocents’ cause. The Lord will bless them that bless His, and curse them that curse His. (R. Rogers.)
And Abimelech took an axe in his hand.
The storming of the temple of Berith
1. I learn first from this subject, the folly of depending upon any one form of tactics in anything we have to do for this world or for God. Look over the weaponry of olden times--javelins, battle-axes, habergeons--and show me a single weapon with which Abimelech and his men could have gained such complete triumph. It is no easy thing to take a temple thus armed. Yet here Abimelech and his army come up, they surround this temple, and they capture it without the loss of a single man on the part of Abimelech, although I suppose some of the old Israelitish heroes told Abimelech: “You are only going up there to be cut to pieces.” Yet you are willing to testify to-day that by no other mode--certainly not by ordinary modes--could that temple so easily, so thoroughly, have been taken. What the Church most wants to learn, this day, is that any plan is right, is lawful, is best, which helps to overthrow the temple of sin, and capture this world for God. We are very apt to stick to the old modes of attack. We come up with the sharp, keen, glittering steel spear of argument, expecting in that way to take the castle; but they have a thousand spears where we have ten. And so the castle of sin stands, I propose a different style of tactics. Let each one go to the forest of God’s promise and invitation, and hew down a branch, and put it on his shoulder, and let us all come around these obstinate iniquities, and then, with this pile, kindled by the fires of a holy zeal and the flames of a consecrated life, we will burn them out. What steel cannot do, fire may. We want more heart in our song, more heart in our almsgiving, more heart in our prayers, more heart in our preaching. Oh, for less of Abimelech’s sword and more of Abimeleeh’s conflagration! The gospel is not a syllogism; it is not casuistry; it is not polemics, or the science of squabble. It is blood-red fact; it is warm-hearted invitation; it is leaping, bounding, flying good news; it is efflorescent with all light; it is rubescent with all summery glow; it is arborescent with all sweet shade.
2. Still further, I learn from this subject the power of example. If Abimelech had sat down on the grass, and told his men to go and get the boughs, and go out to the battle, they would never have gone at all, or if they had, it would have been without any spirit or effective result; but when Abimelech goes with his own axe and hews down a branch, and with Abimelech’s arm puts it on Abimelech’s shoulder, and marches on, then, my text says, all the people did the same. How natural that was! What made Garibaldi and Stonewall Jackson the most magnetic commanders of this century? They always rode ahead. Oh, the overwhelming power of example! Oh, start out for heaven to-day, and your family will come after you, and your business associates will come after you, and your social friends will join you. With one branch of the tree of life for a baton, marshal just as many as you can gather. Oh, the infinite, the semi-omnipotent power of a good or a bad example!
3. Still further, I learn from this subject the advantage of concerted action. If Abimelech had merely gone out with a tree-branch, the work would not have been accomplished, or if ten, twenty, or thirty men had gone; but when all the axes are lifted, and all the sharp edges fall, and all these men carry each his tree-branch down and throw it about the temple, the victory is gained--the temple falls. Where there is one man in the Church of God at this day shouldering his whole duty, there are a great many who never lift an axe or swing a bough. It seems to me as if there were ten drones in every hive to one busy bee. What broken bone of sorrow have you ever set? Are you doing nothing? Is it possible that a man or woman sworn to be a follower of the Lord Jesus Christ is doing nothing?
4. Still further, I learn from this subject the danger of false refuges. As soon as these Sheehemites got into the temple, they thought they were safe. They said: “Berith will take care of us. Abimelech may batter down everything else; he cannot batter down this temple where we are now hid.” But very soon they heard the timbers crackling, and they were smothered with smoke, and they miserably died. And you and I are just as much tempted to false refuges. The mirror this morning may have persuaded you that you have a comely cheek; Satan may have told you that you are all right; but bear with me if I tell you that, if unpardoned, you are all wrong. I suppose every man is stepping into some kind of refuge. Here you step into the tower of good works. You say, “I shall be safe here in this refuge.” The battlements are adorned; the steps are varnished; on the wall are pictures of all the suffering you have alleviated, and all the schools you have established, and all the fine things you have ever done. Up in that tower you feel you are safe. But hear you not the tramp of your unpardoned sins all around the tower? They each have a match. You are kindling the combustible material. You feel the heat and the suffocation. Oh! may you leap in time, the gospel declaring, “By the deeds of the law shall no flesh living be justified.” “ Well,” you say, “I have been driven out of that tower; where shall I go?” Step into this tower of indifference. You say, “If this tower is attacked, it will be a great while before it is taken.” You feel at ease. But there is an Abimelech, with ruthless assault, coming on. Death and his forces are gathering around. “But,” says some one, “you are engaged in a very mean business, driving us from tower to tower.” Oh no! I want to tell you of a Gibraltar that never has been and never will be taken; of a bulwark that the judgment earthquakes cannot budge. The Bible refers to it when it says: “In God is thy refuge, and underneath thee are the everlasting arms.” Oh! fling yourself into it, (T. De Witt Talmage.)
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Exell, Joseph S. "Commentary on "Judges 9". The Biblical Illustrator. https://www.studylight.org/
the Third Week after Epiphany