The tyranny of Abimelech; Judges 9
Last time we came to Judges chapter nine which tells the odd, if not bizarre, little episode about the tyranny of Gideon's son by a Canaanite concubine. The son's name is Abimelech. We got into chapter nine to study Abimilech and his usurpation of the monarchy in Israel—the true monarchy in Israel is God's but Abimilech conspires and connives with the residence of Shechem to have himself appointed king over Israel. And it is a time of tremendous tyranny. He exercises his authority in an extremely abusive way. It is marked by violence, by conspiracy and people stabbing one another in the back; all sorts of things are going on here that are not unusual. You can take this and apply it to what goes on in an office situation, in businesses, in some marriages, in certain dynamic situations, and on a national level. Just because the text here is talking about tyranny in a nation doesn't mean that it has irrelevance for its other fields of endeavor. What tyranny is is the abuse of authority. Authority is something that God initiated in human history, not because of the fall, not to regulate sin, but because whenever there is a group of persons there is authority related to role function. This is true even in the Godhead. Man, because he is a sinner, always wants to interpret the authority as abuse. That is because our sin nature wants to assert its own economy.
There are five divine institutions. You may have been taught four but I separate numbers four and five because they are temporally and spatially separated in the Scriptures. The first is individual responsibility, This took place in the garden of Eden before the fall. God told Adam he could eat any fruit of the tree in the garden, but from the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil he could not eat. So there was a responsibility imposed upon them to fulfill God's commands, to guard and to keep the garden but also not to eat from the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Therefore the authority is the individual's volition. The authority in the soul is our volition. The second divine institution also established prior to the fall before there was sin is marriage. In the marriage the authority is the husband. Then family. God told Adam and the woman to be fruitful and multiply, even though God sovereignly intervenes and that did not take place until after the fall. There was the establishment, at least in an incipient way, in that command of the family. The authority for the family is located in the parents. Then in Genesis chapter nine, in the Noahic covenant, there is the establishment of government authority, that human government is delegated to man. This is done by giving man authority to take human life in the form of capital punishment. The reason we say that this establishes human government is because the most serious, the most extreme judicial act that a body of human beings can take is to make that decision to take the life of a criminal. If human beings have been delegated the authority to take the life of a criminal, someone who commits murder or some other heinous crime, and have been given the authority to make the most extreme decision possible, then that implies all other judicial decisions. It is a form of an a fortiori argument. The Scripture never gives the reason for capital punishment as being a deterrent. It is because someone has committed an act so heinous, they have removed so much control of their own sin nature that they have forfeited the right to live. That is the point in capital punishment. It is not simply a deterrent because it may not be a deterrent for everyone. But also, if capital punishment is applied the way Scripture says it should be applied then it should be swift and efficient. There should not be a system where the criminals do not have adequate representation. In the current debate we have to separate the principle of capital punishment from the way it is applied legislatively and judicially in our nation. The way it is often applied today is often injudicious, unfair, inappropriate. People who are guilty of certain crimes should be executed in an efficient manner, quickly within a year. The idea of waiting fifteen or twenty years and giving them hundreds of opportunities to appeal is just absurd and extremely inequitable. The way it is applied needs to be evaluated but the principle does not need to be questioned. People can't think in our culture anymore and they can't distinguish principle from the application of a principle. The agenda of the anti-capital punishment crowd is to attack the application because if they can do that then they can do away with the principle. It is a subterfuge because the ultimate agenda is removal of the application of the principle. As believers we can't question the principle. If you question the principle of capital punishment then you undercut everything the Scripture says about government, about authority and about nations. That is extremely dangerous. The final institution is international distinctions. Government was established by the Noahic covenant in Genesis chapter nine, and it is not until Genesis chapter eleven, a couple of hundred years after the conclusion of Noah's flood, that you have the episode of the tower of Babel where God brings multiple languages into the human race, and the consequence of that is that is creates international distinctions and borders. The ultimate authority for maintaining the borders and distinctions of nations is God's, but Satan is usurping that today because, remember, he is the god of this age and he is the prince of the power of the air. So Satan's agenda is to eradicated national distinctions in order to have some kind of international organization that he can rule. That will be brought into place during the Tribulation under the Antichrist who Satan personally will indwell.
When we look at this, and we look at the whole category of these divine institution in terms of tyranny, we apply the principles from the sin nature. The sin nature of the individual is motivated by a lust pattern, and that lust pattern moves all of us in one of two different directions: either towards asceticism, legalism and rationalism on the one hand, or towards licentiousness, lasciviousness and antinomianism [anti-law, lawlessness] on the other hand. Antinomianism is the complete breakdown of any society in terms of anarchy. When there is anarchy in the soul from an antinomian and you have a collection of people with sin natures trending towards antinomianism then that is going to trend toward anarchy which will cause a breakdown of all your social institutions. What happens when a society trends toward anarchy, in order to bring some sort of control to that which is out of control, there is an opposite reaction to the other extreme to bring control. Legalism is part of that, it tries to bring some sort of artificial control to the sin nature. In the political realm or relational realm it is the excessive use of authority. This is perhaps one way of understanding the rage that is going on in our own society today. Once people have lost the concept of personal self-discipline and self-control so that they are operating in irresponsibility and they are their own authority—everyone does what they want to do—then what happens in different arenas of operation there is a reaction which tries to impose some order by control of something which is considered out of control. So you get this increased anger. The point is that the more a culture—home life, marriage, the work environment, etc.—gets away from the controlling absolutes of establishment principles and the Word of God the more it is going to move towards anarchy. First and foremost it is because there is a rejection of divine authority, and authority can't be understood properly apart from the framework of the Scriptures. When man apart from Scriptures tries to deal with authority it is always viewed with some sort of tyrannical manner, it always goes to extremes.
In the home, eventually what you have is a loss of the biblical idea of marriage, that the two become one flesh but the leader in the home is the husband. The wife's role, according to the Scripture, is to be the helper, the assistant, the one who comes alongside the man to help him be successful, because he is the one that God is leading to direct the family. That doesn't mean he is always right, it doesn't mean he is perfect. Authority is never set up in Scripture to obey government if they are right; wives obey your husbands when they are right; children obey your parents when they are right. It never qualifies it, because once a person in the subordinate role starts questioning the person in the authority position then they are following the path of Eve in the garden. You are setting yourself up as the authority. That does not apply when the person in authority is demanding illegal activity.
Husbands are under authority too, they are under the authority of the Lord and they ought to be following the direction of the Lord and making doctrine the priority, and applying doctrine in the home. Wherever authority is we are to follow that authority otherwise there is a breakdown of whatever the institution is and then with that consequent anarchy there is going to have to be the imposition of a rigorous control from the outside in order to restore order. This is what happens sometimes in marriage and perhaps this explains the rise in our culture today of spousal abuse. There is always a certain element of paganism in every culture in every society, but what has happened in the last thirty to forty years is with the complete societal, cultural rejection of biblical absolutes—especially since the mid-sixties—all of a sudden spousal abuse and child abuse has become pandemic, it is everywhere. There were episodes of it here and there before because there were still families who weren't believers, where there was no doctrine governing the home, but once you get this as a majority factor in a culture then it become rampant and starts happening everywhere. What happens in marriage is that there is a reaction to excessive control, and you see more and more abuse. Same thing happens in the family. There is an authority breakdown because parents no longer understand that their primary role is to teach their children to control their sin natures. That involves corporal punishment when necessary, and the parents' active attention in everything that is going on with the children in the home so that the parents can stop the development of certain trends before they get rooted in behavior. Part of that is teaching children manners, protocol for social relationships, to govern their behavior when relating to other self-centered people.
In government, when people won't govern themselves through self-discipline and personal responsibility the it produces anarchy. People can no longer possess and utilize firearms in a responsible manner and so the government is going to come in and control it with excessive regulation. What that is going to do is destroy freedom. And that is always what happens. In history the only nations that have ever experienced any degree of personal individual liberty are nations that have had their thinking rooted and grounded in the Judeo-Christian principles of the Scriptures. The further any nations get gets away from that, the less personal freedom there is, because it is only on the basis of the Judeo-Christian ethic that there is an emphasis on personal responsibility for action. Once you get away from that then there is breakdown. That was true in the ancient world. All of the governments surrounding Israel were totalitarian. They had excessive force, the king was viewed either as god or the agent of god, and so there was this extreme tyranny from the top and virtually no personal liberty at the bottom.
In terms of applying this to international distinctions, what happens is the world today, the more we see it, gets out of control. With wars, etc. there is a move toward having some kind of international body that can then impose its authority on all of the nations. So we will see this kind of polarization taking place internationally more and more—especially if we are close to the Tribulation. In the Tribulation the Lord removes the restraint on that and it is finally allowed to work its force and an international body will then exercise its tyrannical function over all the nations. That will be in the person of the Antichrist.
These chapters that we are looking at, chapter nine in Judges along with 1 Samuel chapter eight, are two of the most political chapters in all of the Scriptures. We must remember that they are all part of the same period. 1 Samuel chapter eight is the end of the period of the judges. The period of the judges began with the passing of Joshua's generation and it ends with the inauguration of the first legitimate king of Israel, who is Saul. This happens in 1 Samuel 8:5-8. "They [the elders of Israel] said unto him, Behold, you are old, and your sons do not walk in your ways"—even a great prophet like Samuel who probably did everything right with his family had sons who were influenced by the culture. Sometimes as parents we can do everything right and our kids exercise their own volition reject everything we have tried to teach them. Don't run around and beat yourself up in guilt for the rest of your life. Make sure that while you have that influence on your kids—the first twelve years are the most crucial. The most crucial relationship in the home is that of the father as the spiritual leader in the home—you fulfill the responsibility. Samuel's sons followed the prevailing culture and were paganized, and they rejected doctrine. "Now appoint a king for us to judge us like all the nations." We want to be like everybody else!
We have to remember what "everybody else" was like. This is a rejection of freedom. In each of the major empires around Israel whoever the ultimate leader was in that society is viewed as either god or an agent of god. Everything in that culture was designed to function to benefit the king, to benefit the executive branch of government, and there was little or no individual or personal freedom in any of those nations. Every individual lived his life for the purpose of serving the Pharaoh or the king, they were simply an extension of his will. So what is happening now is that Israel is rejecting freedom. They did not have a visible monarch; God was their King. Under that theocracy they had the greatest personal liberty ever to exist in human history. But they rejected that because they rejected divine viewpoint as the foundation for their lives and their society, and they imbibed all the pagan thoughts of all the cultures around them. So now they want to be like everything else.
Samuel who understood divine viewpoint reacted in anger, verse 6. Even though he was upset about the situation he went to the Lord in prayer. Verse 7, the Lord is going to answer their prayer as a form of divine discipline. God originally intended for them to have a king, but He is going to give them Saul who is a bad example of a king in order to teach them some things about kingship from a negative perspective to prepare them for David. This is so that they would have the capacity and be ready for David when the time came.
Verse 8, what time period is this? God is talking about the whole period of the judges. From the time He brought them out of Egypt, "in that they have forsaken me." They had consciously removed the Lord from being involved in the day to day affairs of life, they had removed Him from the thoughts of life. All the intellectual endeavors of man did not pay attention to Him (no different from our culture today—God is not relevant to everyday issue of life). When God is not relevant to the everyday issues of life then what happens is that society is no longer relevant to God, and so God is going to bring discipline on it. This is what happened in Israel. It is in this tragic event in history that the Jews rejected freedom. God warned them that by taking a king that that king would just increase the burden of taxation and take away freedom. The more taxes you pay the less freedom you have.
In Judges chapter nine we have the bizarre episode of the tyranny of Abimelech. Abimelech was one of Gideon's 70 sons, and he was by a concubine he took down in Shechem. Shechem has an interesting history. When you think of Shechem you think of that weird episode back in Genesis 34 where Dinah, the daughter of Jacob, was raped by Shechem. Jacob's sons devise a cunning plan to get revenge on the Shechemites. Jacob's sons had no spiritual inclination whatsoever. They want revenge. This incident reminds us that Jacob's twelve sons became paganized, just like the nations paganized now. They weren't living or operating any differently from any of the other people. And that is why God removed them to Egypt. They were beginning to assimilate so much with the pagans around them that for God to protect this new race through whom He was going to bring salvation to the world, He had to put them in a place where they were completely isolated and protected so that He could bring them to maturity. As it were, He took them to Egypt as an incubator because the Egyptians were as racist as any group of people in history have ever been and they didn't want to have anything to do with the Jews. So the Jews had their own isolated community and it was there that God protected them during the Egyptian slavery for the nation to grow to a size where God could bring them back to the land and accomplish His purposes. So the very mention of Shechem ought to bring to our minds the consequences of paganism and how horrible it is when assimilation to pagan thought takes place.
Abimlelech personifies this and he has a scheme. He is going to put himself in a position of ultimate power. As soon as we read in Judges 9:1 the name Jerubbaal, the other name for Gideon (it emphasizes Baal worship) immediately reminds us of the problem in Israel, they were worshipping the Baals and they succumbed to paganism. Abimelech went to Shechem to his mother's brothers. Notice how he is going to pit his mother's relatives against his father's family. He is going to divide the family and create this hostility. What he does is he gets all his relatives together and says he wants them to go to everybody else in Shechem and plead my case for me. The case: Don't you think that it would be better for them to be under the rule and under the authority they are related to than it is to be under the rule of those other seventy sons that Gideon had, and they are operating up north, they don't really know us. He is playing the race card. "Remember that I am your flesh and bone." He convinces the family members to be on his side, and so then they go out to the men of Shechem to make a bargain with them. They decide to go along with Abimelech's scheme, and not only that, they are going to subsidize him financially. They give him seventy sheckles of silver from the temple of Baalberith.
The writer [in Hebrew] uses words to conjure up images in our thinking. Abimelech goes to the leaders, the men of Shechem. This is not an accurate translation. Literally in the Hebrew Baalshechem means the Lord's of Shechem. Baal means lord. The standard word used in Hebrew for princes in a country is the word sar. But he called them the Baals of Shechem because he is emphasizing, he is repeating this idea of Baal because he wants to give the point. The problem is not political or economic, the problem is spiritual. The problem in any nation can't be solved by legislative action or activism if the people do not have their focus on spiritual priorities. Once you reject the God of the Bible and consciously remove Him from having an active role in social discourse then the ultimate consequence is the self-destruction of the nation, nothing can stop it and nothing can recover it until there is a recovery based upon, first of all, return to salvation—faith alone in Christ alone—and then the application of doctrine. So these are the lords of Shechem, Baal-Shechem, and they are going to give him 70 shekels of silver from the temple of Baal-berith-berith is the Hebrew for covenant, and apparently it is these men who are the men who entered into this covenant. There is so much background to understand here just to be able to understand the dynamics. Just as in Israel where they had Yahweh who had entered into a covenant with Israel what happened with the Shechemites, the Canaanites, was that as Satan is always trying to counterfeit truth, what he has done is created this false god Baal who has himself entered into a covenant with the men of Shechem. These leaders are the men who signed the covenant with the Baal and so they are the elders or the deacons who are running the temple of Baal-berith—that means they are in charge of the treasury—and they go in and take out the seventy shekels of silver. So this is using Baal's money and Baal's resources to handle the problem. Abimelech goes out and hires as killers "worthless" men, street scum and vagabonds that he picks up along the way. They go along to his father's house and killed his brothers, the seventy sons of Jerubaal on one stone. That is interesting. Why did the writer include the little detail, "on one stone"? It is a ritual killing. They bring them out to a sacrificial altar, the one stone, and they chop their heads off as a sacrifice to Baal. This is a bizarre situation. The more you get away from Scripture the more bizarre are the things that happen in a culture, and it is legitimized. This was legitimized by the lords of Shechem.
This is one of the most extreme examples of ingratitude that could be imagined. Remember that Gideon is the one who just delivered them from the oppression of the Midianite hordes. As soon as he dies there is no gratitude any more because there is no divine viewpoint, no concept of grace, and the culture just deteriorates. We have seen a decline in Israel but at this point the decline accelerates. That is why the riter of Judges takes this entire chapter, some 57 verses, in order to focus on this one episode.
One of the sons, Jotham, escapes. He comes back, somewhat surreptitiously. Verse 7 tells us about his little parable. This parable is not stated to come from God, not stated to be a prophecy, but it is a divine viewpoint commentary on kingship. This is almost as powerful a political statement as 1 Samuel 8 is. Jotham comes to Mount Gerezim, just to the north-west of Shechem. It is like an amphitheatre, so he can stand on the mountain and speak to the town of Shechem and all can hear him. "Listen to me, you men of Shechem, that God may listen to you." This is the first of only two times that the word "God" is used in the passage, which again emphasizes how God is removed from Israel at this point. He is not entered into their thinking, they have abandoned Him completely. He gives them a fable. Kingship in the ancient world was generally viewed as something positive, but in this parable kingship is viewed as something that is destructive and something that is harmful to the citizens. The olive tree, the fig tree, and the vine, all of which are valuable and produce something of value to society, don't want to have anything to do with politics. Doesn't that ring true for today? We are so busy doing that which is best for society that we not going to get tainted by being involved in something as low as politics. So there is something negative that is being portrayed here in relation to kingship. Secondly, persons of honor who are engaged in constructive activity have not time for political agendas. The olive tree, the fig tree and the vine represent people who are involved in solid productive activities for society, and they are too busy serving humanity to be caught up with politics. The third thing we see in this parable is that rulers have a tendency to desire power for the worst reasons—their own narcissistic self-interest. The fourth thing, in the words of many modern observers: people get exactly the kind of leader they deserve. They get the bramble. Too often the leaders that we get are the leaders we deserve because they accurately reflect the heartbeat of the nation that produced them.