Once again we notice a break in the usual cycle and flow of the book of Judges. Usually we will read about the sins of the nation and the subsequent oppression from a foreign nation after the death of the judge. Then we read about God giving the people another deliverer to save them from oppression. Gideon has died and read about the people falling back into idolatry (8:33-34). Instead of reading about a cry to God for help, we are going to see the continuing decline of Israel’s morality.
Abimelech’s Rise To Power (9:1-6)
Chapter 9 opens with Abimelech, the son of Gideon through one of Gideon’s concubines, not one of the many wives through whom he had 70 sons. Remember that Abimelech’s name means, “My father is king.” This name may have provoked some selfish ambition within Abimelech. After his father dies, Abimelech wants to be king over Israel. However, Abimelech would be last on the list of succession because he was a son through a concubine. He has 70 brothers that are ahead of him in an effort to be king. So Abimelech goes to Shechem. Shechem is a prominent city in the scriptures ever since the days of Abraham. God appeared to Abram concerning the promises at Shechem (Genesis 12:6-7). Shechem was the burial place of Joseph (Joshua 24:32). The covenant was renewed with Israel at Shechem (Joshua 8:30-35). Joshua challenges Israel to serve the Lord in his famous speech at Shechem (Joshua 24). So Abimelech is not choosing a random city. Shechem has historical importance to the nation of Israel.
Abimelech tells his mother’s relatives and clan to speak to the leaders of Shechem. Ask the leaders of Shechem if they would rather have the 70 sons of Gideon rule over them or just Abimelech who is their flesh and blood and from their city. This is kind of like how in our presidential elections we see the candidate almost always carry his home state. The thinking is that he is one of us. So Abimelech garners support for becoming king by swaying the leaders of Shechem with this kind of thinking. Verse 4 tells us that Abimelech is given 70 shekels of silver from the treasury of Baal to hire worthless and reckless people. These are lawless troublemakers who follow Abimelech. With these men hired they go to Oprah and kills the 70 sons except for the youngest named Jotham who hides himself during the massacre. With this slaughter complete, the leaders of Shechem declare Abimelech to be the king.
Jotham’s Parable (9:7-21)
Now Shechem sits in the valley between two important mountains: Mt. Gerizim and Mt. Ebal. Recall that these two mountains are associated with the blessings and curses being proclaimed to Israel (Joshua 8:33; Deuteronomy 11:29; 27:12). Jotham, the remaining son who escaped from the slaughter of his brothers by Abimelech, climbs Mount Gerizim. Gerizim was associated with the blessings of God. He cries aloud to the leaders of Shechem a parable.
The parable tells a story of how the valuable plants all reject being anointed king. The olive tree, fig tree, and vine all reject the offer of king. So the trees ask the bramble to be their king. I visualize one of those brown, parched thorn bushes that you see blowing around in the desert when the winds pick up. This is a useless plant, having no value at all. Listen to the nonsense of the bramble in verse 15.
And the bramble said to the trees, “If in good faith you are anointing me king over you, then come and take refuge in my shade, but if not, let fire come out of the bramble and devour the cedars of Lebanon.” (Judges 9:15 ESV)
Come and take refuge in my shade? What shade does a bramble provide? Nothing. This worthless bramble thinks it has something to offer others. It speaks arrogantly as if it can shoot fire and destroy the massive trees of Lebanon. Jotham tells the leaders of Shechem that they have made a terrible choice. But now he calls upon their integrity. If they think that they have been fair with the children of Gideon, then may you be blessed by his rule. But if you have not been fair with the house of Gideon, then you will be burned by Abimelech and Abimelech will be burned by you. We know that Shechem has not been fair with the family of Gideon and the family line was just exterminated except for this one survivor. After saying these words, Jotham must flee for his life because of Abimelech.
God Handles Abimelech (9:22-57)
Abimelech rules as king for three years. But God is going to do something about this. Before we look at what God will do I would like for you to consider something we see God doing each time. God allows people to deal with the consequences for their actions. God does not do something about Abimelech immediately. He allows three years to go by before his hand moves in the affairs that are taking place. Similarly, we have seen the Lord allow his people to experience the consequences of their decisions, being oppressed by foreign nations for many years before his hand moves and brings help. God allows us to go on our path and deal with the consequences of our decisions. We may ask, “Where is God?” but God shows that he is there but is not removing our consequences simply because we cry out to him.
In verse 23 God sends an evil spirit between Abimelech and the leaders of Shechem so that the leaders deal treacherously with Abimelech. I used to be greatly troubled by the idea that God would send and use an evil spirit, which we see happen on occasion in the Old Testament (1 Samuel 16:14; 1 Kings 22:19-23). We know that God cannot do evil and yet it sounds like this is what God is doing. In the Hebrew, “evil spirit” can refer to moral evil. But it also can refer to disaster, harm, or calamity in a non-moral sense. So God is not sending evil in a moral sense. That is not how we should understand what God is doing. Rather, this spirit is sent to cause calamity and trouble. Trouble is going to erupt between Abimelech and the leaders of Shechem. Verse 24 tells us why God is doing this. God is going to make sure that the blood Abimelech spilled in killing the sons of Gideon will be laid on Abimelech.
A man named Gaal moves into Shechem (9:26) and speaks in the same way that Abimelech did earlier. Why are we following Abimelech? If I were king I would remove Abimelech so that we would not have to serve him. With Gaal trying to lead an insurrection with Shechem against him, Abimelech and his men sets us ambushes against the people of Shechem. Abimelech wars with Gaal and drives him out of the city. Then Abimelech fights against the city of Shechem, captures the city, kills the people, razes the city to the ground, and sows the ground with salt so that they cannot grow crops again (9:45). The leaders take refuge in the tower of Shechem. Abimelech and his men take wood, put it against the stronghold, and burn the tower down so that about 1000 people die. Then Abimelech went to Thebez, 10 miles north, to punish that city also. We assume that dissatisfaction with Abimelech was widespread and so he is going to deal with those who are against him. All the leaders of the city flee to the tower in that city for refuge. Abimelech and his men have the same plan. They begin to lay wood against the tower so as to burn it down and kill all inside. But an unnamed woman threw an upper millstone on Abimelech’s head and crushed his skull. An upper millstone was about two inches thick and about a foot in diameter. It would have likely weighed about 30 pounds. Dying by the hands of a woman was a disgrace in that day. So Abimelech calls for his armor bearer to kill him by the sword so that no one will say that a woman killed him. Of course, the scriptures make sure that everyone knows that a woman killed him. With Abimelech dead, the people go home and the city of Thebez is rescued.
We are able to see God’s inevitable justice. God will not allow evil to continue forever. Justice will be served by our God. Notice that God allows Shechem to suffer at the hands of Abimelech because they supported Abimelech and funded his massacre of Gideon’s family. But God delivers the city of Thebez and brings justice to Abimelech after many years of rule. This is the hope we have as to why we do not retaliate when we are wronged. God is just. God will see our righteous acts and has promised to bring vengeance on evildoers (Romans 12:19-21).
We must also consider why this account of mayhem is recorded for us. How does all this begin with Abimelech? Why does disaster come about? The genesis of this trouble is one person’s selfish ambition. Selfish ambition is a disastrous characteristic in the Lord’s eyes. The world believes this is a wonderful trait so that you can propel yourself ahead in life. But look at the damage that selfish ambition causes. Abimelech wipes out an entire family. He kills thousands in Shechem. He does these things all so that he can maintain his power. His concern for self is harming everyone else around him. This should be obvious to us but it must be stated so we see it clearly: thinking about ourselves hurts other people. This is why God condemns selfishness and selfish ambition.
For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there will be disorder and every vile practice. (James 3:16 ESV)
Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. (Philippians 2:3–4 ESV)
Friends, we must go to war against selfish ambition. Selfish ambition and selfish thinking is natural. James says that this kind of thinking is earthly and unspiritual (James 3:15). We must constantly fight against thinking that is concerned about ourselves. We can either desire God or we can desire ourselves. We are either thinking about God or we are thinking about ourselves. The two do not work together. When I am concerned about myself then I am not concerned about God. When I am thinking about myself then I am not thinking about you. We must work to change our way of thinking to stop thinking about ourselves. Life is not about what others are doing for you or to you. Your life is about what you are doing for the Lord and for others. We become consumed with ourselves and what others are doing for us. Yet this is sinful thinking. This is worldly, unspiritual thinking. As soon as we ask in our hearts about why someone has not done something for us, ask instead what have you done for that person. Instead of being concerned about what your spouse is doing or not doing, consider what you are doing for your spouse. Instead of being concerned about what people in the church are doing or not doing for you, think about what you are doing for the people in the church. Instead of thinking about what people at work are doing or not doing for you, look at what you are doing for them. We must warring against selfish thinking and selfish ambition.
God tells us the way to fight that thinking is to look to Christ and the cross (Philippians 2:5). Please notice another theme that has reoccurred in the book of Judges. An unexpected deliverer (a woman) brings victory through unexpected means (tossing a millstone out a tower window crushing the head of the oppressor). Judges continues to foreshadow an unexpected savior bringing victory to the people through unexpected means. Jesus, God in the flesh, came to this world and dies on the cross to bring our salvation. This ends our selfish thinking and our selfish ambition. I cannot act for my good when I see that God has acted for my good. My life belongs to him because he purchased me and saved me. So selfish thinking ends and godly thinking begins. My life must be given to the Lord and to others. It is no longer my life. We will end with how the apostle Paul describes this life.
If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory. (Colossians 3:1–4 ESV)