We often think of danger as coming from to us from outside. That’s why we drive defensively – vigilant for dangerous boy-racers who might cut in at the last minute or career across the road. Dale Ralph Davis makes this point in his excellent commentary on Judges. But he goes on to say how he remembered a motorway trip when traffic slowed to a crawl as he passed the wreck of a burned out car. Nothing around the car was damaged. There hadn’t been a collision. Destruction came from the car itself. Perhaps it was an electrical fault. Maybe a damaged fuel line. Whatever it was, the danger had come from within.
As we’ve been working through Judges on Sunday evenings, Israel has repeatedly faced danger from outside – most recently from the marauding Midianites. But in Judges 9 the danger for Israel comes from within, from Abimelech.
The story has three acts, and my heading for Act 1 is Dangerous forgetfulness.
It starts with the death of Gideon. Now Gideon was a far-from perfect leader. He made some very bad decisions. He led Israel into sin. He had many wives. But he had been raised up by God to rescue his people. So Judges 8:28 tells us Gideon’s legacy to Israel:
28Thus Midian was subdued before the Israelites and did not raise its head again. During Gideon's lifetime, the land enjoyed peace for forty years.
God had rescued them and given them peace. But when Gideon died, Israel forgot God.
33 No sooner had Gideon died than the Israelites again prostituted themselves to the Baals. They set up Baal-Berith as their god and 34 did not remember the LORD their God, who had rescued them from the hands of all their enemies on every side.
Israel didn’t remember God. That doesn’t mean they suffered memory loss. If you asked them, they could tell you who God was. They could list the nations they’d been rescued from. But that knowledge didn’t reach their hearts or affect their actions. Israel rejected God, and went off after the Baals, which were the false gods everyone else worshipped. And that’s not all. Verse 35 tells us:
35 They also failed to show kindness to the family of Jerub-Baal (that is, Gideon) for all the good things he had done for them.
So Israel forgot God, and Israel neglected God’s people. That dangerous forgetfulness is the background for what’s coming next.
But before we move on with the story, we need to face up to this danger too. We who are Christians need to make sure we don’t forget God and his rescue. God’s rescue of us through Jesus is much greater than his rescue of Israel through Gideon. Through Jesus’ life, death and resurrection God defeated Satan. He defeated the world that opposes him and his people. He rescued us from our sins and adopted us into his family. And if you don’t actively remember God and his rescue in Jesus, you’ll drift. You‘ll cave in to the pressure of the world and serve the false gods everyone else worships – money, or pleasure, or achievement, or lifeless religion, or a political ideal.
That’s what’s happened in our wider culture, isn’t it? We have a great Christian heritage in this country. But on the whole we’ve forgotten God and his rescue, and run after the gods with names like ‘get-rich-quick’ and ‘anything-goes’ and ‘my-family-first’.
So don’t forget God and how he has rescued you. Yes, the rescue happened two thousand years ago. And we can’t see God. So we need memory aids. We need the memory aid of reading and memorizing the Bible that tells us of that rescue. We need the memory aid of getting together with God’s people, in big gatherings like this and in small groups, where we can talk about Jesus and what he did for us. We need the memory aids of praising God in song like we’ve been doing tonight, and taking part in the communion service.
Forgetting is dangerous. Back in Judges, Israel forgot God, so dangerous forgetfulness led straight to
Destructive leadership. That’s my heading for Act 2.
At the beginning of chapter 9, the question is: who will be king? You see Gideon had seventy sons by his wives. And he had one son – Abimelech – by his concubine. Now Abimelech is ambitious and wants to be King. But he’s got a problem – actually seventy problems – in the form of his half brothers, Gideon’s other sons.
So Abimelech goes on the campaign trail, with just one calling point: Shechem, his mother’s town. He co-opts his brothers on his mother’s side as his campaign team, and sends them out to do an opinion poll:
2 "Ask all the citizens of Shechem, 'Which is better for you: to have all seventy of Jerub-Baal's sons rule over you, or just one man?' Remember, I am your flesh and blood."
Well there’s nothing like the fear of political instability, combined with a good dose of nepotism to stir people to action. The Shechemites are on board the campaign, and pay for an army of thugs for Abimelech, who goes to deal with the opposition:
5 He went to his father's home in Ophrah and on one stone murdered his seventy brothers, the sons of Jerub-Baal. But Jotham, the youngest son of Jerub-Baal, escaped by hiding. 6 Then all the citizens of Shechem and Beth Millo gathered beside the great tree at the pillar in Shechem to crown Abimelech king.
It was a solemn occasion, I’m sure, until there’s an unexpected change in the programme. A voice calls out from the hillside. “Listen up everyone”. It’s Jotham. And he tells them a story called ‘King of the trees.’ I’ll give you the short version. All the trees decide to crown a King over them, but the first three trees they ask aren’t interested in the job. Jump down to verse 14:
14 "Finally all the trees said to the thornbush, 'Come and be our king.' 15 "The thornbush said to the trees, 'If you really want to anoint me king over you, come and take refuge in my shade; but if not, then let fire come out of the thornbush and consume the cedars of Lebanon!'
Here’s a quiz for you. Question: how much shade can you get from a thornbush? Answer: Very little. Question: How easily will a thornbush burn? Answer: Very easily. And that’s the point: the trees settle for a worthless King. That’s what the Shechemites have done with Abimelech. So Jotham curses them in verse 16:
16 "Now if you have acted honorably and in good faith when you made Abimelech king…
Which of course they haven’t…
19 if then you have acted honorably and in good faith toward Jerub-Baal and his family today, may Abimelech be your joy, and may you be his, too! 20 But if you have not, let fire come out from Abimelech and consume you, citizens of Shechem and Beth Millo, and let fire come out from you, citizens of Shechem and Beth Millo, and consume Abimelech!"
Here’s what Jotham teaches us about leadership:
Where leaders and people are faithful to God and to God’s people, there’s great joy. But an alliance of unfaithful people and godless leaders, leads to destruction.
Abimelech stands in stark contrast to the leaders we’ve seen so far in judges: they were raised up by God; he arrogantly exalts himself. They saved God’s people by depending on God; he destroys God’s people by pursuing personal gain. And the Shechemites are no better. They aid and abet his arrogant, violent rise to power. That’s the problem of destructive leadership. And we see it in the news from around the world all the time.
But it may be a problem for us in the church too. In Acts 20 Paul says this to church leaders:
29 I know that after I leave, savage wolves will come in among you and will not spare the flock. 30 Even from your own number men will arise and distort the truth in order to draw away disciples after them. 31So be on your guard!
That probably seems quite extreme. It is. But there are leaders in churches who distort the truth and so damage God’s flock. Savage wolf leadership is the deep end. We need to watch out at the shallow end. If you’re a leader in the church, or aspire to lead, and many of us lead at some level, you need to watch out: that you’re striving to be godly; that you’re caring for God’s people and not for what you can get out of leading; that you’re holding fast to the truth of the gospel. And I need to watch out for that too. And as a church, make sure you don’t settle for thornbush leaders. Settle only for leaders God is raising up, measured by the standards 1 Timothy chapter 3 and Titus chapter 2. Watch out for destructive leadership.
In the rest of the chapter we see Jotham’s curse come true. And for the first time in this account we hear what God is doing:
22 After Abimelech had governed Israel three years, 23 God sent an evil spirit between Abimelech and the citizens of Shechem, who acted treacherously against Abimelech.
On the evil Spirit, the Bible teaches God is utterly good, and utterly in control. Only God can use evil for his purposes, but his purposes are always good. Here God’s good purpose is vengeance:
24God did this in order that the crime against Jerub-Baal's seventy sons, the shedding of their blood, might be avenged on their brother Abimelech and on the citizens of Shechem, who had helped him murder his brothers.
So my heading for Act 3, which takes us to the end, is Divine Vengeance
I need to say two things on that before we continue with the story.
First, some people object to the idea of God taking revenge. They’d say God doesn’t punish. God is love. They’re right about God being love. But because God is a God of love, he is also a God of retribution and judgement and revenge. This verse says that plainly. “God did this”. “in order that the crime against Jerub-Baals sons, the shedding of their blood, might be avenged on their brother Abimelech and on the citizens of Shechem”.
God’s vengeance is something to fear. But it’s also something to rest in. When we come face to face with evil, like the families of those seventy executed brothers did, there are no easy answers. But there is some comfort that God is love, and God is in control, and hates violence, and he will one day deal with evil and put things right.
Here’s the second thing: From this point on, the chapter is structured like a sandwich. The writer’s comments in verses 22-24 are like one slice of bread, and verses 56-57 at the other end are the other slice. These two bits of bread tell us what God is doing. But God doesn’t appear at all in the filling of the sandwich, in the actual telling of the story. So the sandwich structure here says this: God is working behind the scenes to bring revenge and judgement.
And that’s good to know because that’s how we experience life most or all the time. In world events, and in our day-to-day lives, God doesn’t usually appear on the stage. But he’s working behind the scenes directing everything in line with his plans.
So let’s see how God directs things in our account. In verses 25-29 Shechem turns against Abimelech. They posted highwaymen on the hills, so the crime stats are up, and Abimelech’s ratings are down. Then a chap called Gaal moves into town and curries favour with the locals.
At a party one night the anti-Abimelech feeling is running high, and Gaal, who sounds drunk, fuels the fires of revolt:
28 "Who is Abimelech, and who is Shechem, that we should be subject to him? Isn't he Jerub-Baal's son, and isn't Zebul his deputy? Serve the men of Hamor, Shechem's father! Why should we serve Abimelech? 29 If only this people were under my command! Then I would get rid of him. I would say to Abimelech, 'Call out your whole army!' "
Abimelech’s sidekick Zebul sends word to Abimelech. Before daybreak Abimelech has his troops in place around the city. The next morning, as Gaal and Zebul sip their coffee at the city gate, Gaal thinks he sees people running down the hills. Zebul tells him he’s seeing things, until it’s obvious he isn’t. Then Zebul says:
38 "Where is your big talk now, you who said, 'Who is Abimelech that we should be subject to him?' Aren't these the men you ridiculed? Go out and fight them!"
That’s what happens, and Gaal and his brothers are killed or driven out. The next morning Abimelech attacks the Shechemites themselves:
45 All that day Abimelech pressed his attack against the city until he had captured it and killed its people.
Some escape to a fortified tower, but Abimelech follows and sends it up in flames:
49 So all the people in the tower of Shechem, about a thousand men and women, also died.
But Abimelech still isn’t satisfied. He moves on to a city called Thebez, where the citizens lock themselves in another tower. But Abimelech’s fire goes no further:
52Abimelech went to the tower and stormed it. But as he approached the entrance to the tower to set it on fire, 53a woman dropped an upper millstone on his head and cracked his skull.
Abimelech is finished off by his servant to spare him the disgrace, so they thought, of being killed by a woman. The violence stops, and the Israelites go home.
Can you see God’s sovereign hand behind the scenes there? A woman at the top of a tower happens to have a heavy millstone with her. You can imagine her husband’s comments about bringing the kitchen sink. Then she happens to be next to the window which happens to be bang over where Abimelech is bending down with a box of matches. God is at work, behind the scenes, working out his judgment.
So we come to verse 56:
56 Thus God repaid the wickedness that Abimelech had done to his father by murdering his seventy brothers. 57 God also made the men of Shechem pay for all their wickedness. The curse of Jotham son of Jerub-Baal came on them.
So here’s the big lesson from Abimelech: God destroys the destroyers of his people. That was a warning to Israel. And it’s a warning for us today too. I don’t think this is a church about to destroy itself in a violent power struggle. But that doesn’t mean we can shrug off the warning. God is concerned about any damage done to his church – his people. So we need to be careful how we treat each other. In 1 Corinthians 3 Paul wrote to a church damaged by infighting, immorality and a lack of concern for each other, and he said:
16 Don't you know that you yourselves are God's temple and that God's Spirit lives in you? 17 If anyone destroys God's temple, God will destroy him.
That’s a warning we all need to take to heart. How we treat God’s people matters.
Abimelech’s story is a warning, but it’s also a comfort for Israel. And that’s because it shows God is preserving his people. You see, the damage done by Abimelech and Shechem was contained. God saved his people from the danger within. And that’s much more than they deserve. In this passage, and throughout judges, Israel has turned away from God to serve the Baals. But God doesn’t give up on them. He keeps on saving them. Israel is rebellious and stubborn and weak. But God will not let them be destroyed. That’s grace.
And the message of Abimelech is comfort for us too, because God shows us that same grace.
We are unfaithful and often turn away from God. We sometimes forget him and how he’s saved us. We don’t always treat each other right among God’s people. But God raised up the perfect leader and judge – Jesus. Jesus always protects and preserves anyone who trusts in him and turns to him. It’s because of Jesus’ death for us that God protects us from his vengeance that we deserve. And because he lives and will come again we know he’ll protect us from all our enemies.
Father, Israel didn’t deserve your protection and neither do we. So thank you for your kindness and patience. Thank you for raising up Jesus to live and die for us. We know that one day you will take revenge on all your enemies. Thank you for sparing us because Jesus took our place. Please teach us to value godly leadership, care for your church, and remember your great salvation. In Jesus name, Amen.