FRESH DECLENSION AND FRESH REVIVALS
Abimelech, or the Usurpation of Authority (Judges 9)
This chapter introduces us to such a sorrowful phase of declension, that, at first sight, it does not seem to contain a single refuge for faith. In Judges 8, we have seen the congregation of Israel wishing to confer authority on their leader; here, a wolf usurps the Shepherd's place, and seizes upon the flock in order to devour it. It is the arbitrary authority of the evil servant, who, in the absence of his lord, began to smite his fellow‑servants, and to eat and drink with the drunken (Matt. 24: 48, 49). This briefly reminds us of the principle of clericalism in the house of God and its pernicious encroachments. The wretched Abimelech was not a judge; he sought a position still more exalted: he had himself proclaimed king (v. 6), and took, in the midst of the people, the title assumed by those who rule over the nations. In thus openly arrogating to himself this title (v. 2), he acted in the opposite way to a judge who had been raised up of God (c.f. Judges 8: 23). In order to usurp this place, he resorted to thoroughly human expedients. Through the brothers of his mother, the concubine of Gideon, he beguiled the men of Shechem under the guise of fraternity. They placed confidence in this traitor; their moral state was so low, that they even forgot the bond that united them to all Israel, and said of Abimelech: "He is our brother." Fraternity had lost, for them, its true meaning, and had come to be a name characterizing only a party.
The influence of this man was sustained by treasure taken from the house of a false god. The usurper appealed to the pockets of the people, and did not despise the unholy source from which the money came. This silver served to accomplish the devil's work. Baal's treasure took the place of Jehovah's power, and furnished the usurper with the means of persecuting and cutting off the posterity of faith, the family of God (v. 5). One only, Jotham, the youngest of all Gideon's sons, a poor, insignificant creature, escaped, and succeeded in concealing himself.
Abimelech was successful; the evil spirit triumphed, but it will never be a spirit of peace among men. Intestine dissensions, treacheries, struggles for supremacy, vintages productive of drunken hilarity, drunkenness finding its vent in curses, the ambition of Gaal, the counsels of Ebed, the craft of Zebul, the violence of Abimelech - such were the disturbing elements which troubled the camp of Israel, when the testimony of God had left it. It became a scene of sorrow, of slaughter, and of hatred; but Jehovah, in His grace, caused a ray of light to shine in the midst of the darkness. He does not leave Himself without testimony; this we may reiterate with confidence, as we pass through difficult times. And should there be, as here, only a single witness left for God in this world, may we be that one, that despised Jotham, the last of all, but standing steadfast for God.
Preserved by the providential goodness of Jehovah, "he went and stood on the top of Mount Gerizim" (v. 7). Moses, in the past, had decreed that six tribes should stand on Mount Ebal to curse, and six on Gerizim to bless. Joshua had remembered this when the people entered Canaan, but since then Israel had morally chosen Ebal, the place of cursing. Jotham chose Gerizim, the place of blessing, and he stood there alone. As God's witness, in face of the whole people, he lifted up his voice and spoke a fable in their ears, proclaiming the blessing of faith and also the consequences of the unfaithfulness of the people. Jotham is, in his own person, the representative of the blessings of the true Israel of God; as to himself, feeble and persecuted, yet able to enjoy the favour of God and testify for Him, bearing fruit to His glory.
In his recital, three trees refuse to be promoted over the other trees. They depict, according to the word, the different characteristics of Israel under the blessing of Jehovah. The olive tree said: "Should I leave my fatness, wherewith by me they honour God and man, and go to be promoted over the trees?" (v. 9). Oil answers to the unction and the power of the Holy Spirit by which God and men are honoured. The Israel of God can only realize this power, when in thorough separation from the nations and their principles. These latter set up kings over themselves (1 Sam. 8: 5), whilst Jehovah was the sole ruler of the people when faithful. The fig tree said: "Should I forsake my sweetness, and my good fruit, and go to be promoted over the trees?" (v. 11), for Israel could only bear fruit when in separation from the nations. The vine said: "Should I leave my wine, which cheereth God and man, and go to be promoted over the trees?" New wine is the joy found in the mutual communion of men with God, and this enjoyment - the highest that could be desired - was lost to Israel when they adopted the spirit and ways of the nations.
What a lesson for us Christians! The world is to the church, what the nations were to Israel. If we yield to its solicitations, we abandon our oil, our fruit, our new wine - that is to say, our spiritual power, the works which God has prepared for us (Eph. 2: 10), and the joy of communion. Oh! are we able to respond to all the offers of the world; Should I leave that which is my happiness and my strength, for fruitless turmoil, or to satisfy the lusts and ambitions of the heart of men? Jotham, like his father Gideon (Judges 8: 23), appreciates these treasures of the Israel of God, and set himself apart on Gerizim, retaining his blessed position. In the presence of all this apostate people, he is the true and last bud of faith, the sole witness for God. What honour for the young and feeble son of Jerubbaal! Spurned by all, his lot was the only enviable one, for he glorified God in this sorrowful world. May we too, like him, be found in the path of separation from evil There we shall taste all that the trees of God yield. He who has enjoyed these things exclaims: "Should I leave them?"
When Jotham had shown the people their folly, and foretold their judgment, he ran away and fled (v. 21). He left the congregation of Israel, abandoning it to the chastisement which was already at the door. He went to Beer and dwelt there: "That is the well whereof Jehovah spake unto Moses, 'Gather the people together, and I will give them water,'" and which Israel celebrated in a song (Num. 21: 16‑18). Thus it is, that the faithful witnesses, in the midst of Christendom already ripe for judgment, withdraw to Beer, the true gathering point, where is the fountain of living water (c.f. Jer. 2: 13), the place also of songs and praises.