The Lyin’ King
It’s so good to worship with you, in God’s Word, online, as well as here! Last week we ended with Proverbs 14:26. We memorized it, and let’s review quickly.
“In the fear of the Lord one has strong confidence, and his children will have a refuge.”
Let’s say it together. “In the fear of the Lord one has strong confidence, and his children will have a refuge.” One more time. “In the fear of the Lord one has strong confidence, and his children will have a refuge.”
I mentioned that this verse has been hugely stabilizing for Karen and me, but I didn’t really share any specifics. So, I want to mention as we begin today one of the main reasons why we have been soaking in this verse. So, if you’re visiting, this may be new, but my wife was diagnosed last summer, (Karen) was diagnosed with leiomyosarcoma, which is a very rare, aggressive cancer. And she had a tumor removed, and it had clear margins. So, we were very encouraged, but since then, they’ve been scanning, monitoring to see if the cancer returns or spreads, and her pulmonary oncologist this past week identified a spot in her lungs that they’re concerned about. And so, Tuesday she’s going to have surgery to remove part of her lung, and we’ll know whether it’s just nothing or whether it’s leiomyosarcoma spreading.
So, when I say we’ve been living in this verse, I mean, we’ve really been finding so much strong confidence in the fear of the Lord. What I mean by that is when God is little, cancer is big. But when God is big, it’s not that cancer is nothing, and it’s not that other trials are nothing, but they’re put in their proper place. When God is big, cancer is little. And I know that sounds trite, but it’s been true. We’ve been experiencing strong confidence because we stand in awe of God, and even cancer is under his sovereign rule. So, thank you for those of you who have been praying and those of you who will pray this week. We just had a time with the elders anointing with oil and praying, and we are putting our confidence fully in the Lord. We’re grateful for all the love and support, and we’re thankful that as that verse ends, “our children have a refuge.” In times like this, it is hugely encouraging.
But this verse is also extremely relevant for the relationship between Judges 8 and Judges 9, as we will see, because if we are not finding refuge in what is true, we will find refuge in lies. We’re going to find refuge in something. For example, Isaiah 28:15,
“For we have made lies our refuge, and in falsehood we have taken shelter.” So, chapter 9 of the book of Judges is all about making lies our refuge. So, you’re going to notice … well, you’ve already noticed, just hearing part of it read … that it is a strange chapter. And you wonder when you read it, if you’re in your Bible reading, you’re thinking, “Why in the world is this in the Bible? It sounds more like a violent movie.” But what I would like us to do is to work through Judges 9 quickly — it’s a pretty big chapter, fifty-seven verses — summarize the story, and then step back and see if we can see any lessons that would answer the question “Why is this in the Scriptures?”
You could break this story down into four movements, and it all revolves around Abimelech. Abimelech is crowned, cursed, crossed, crushed. We’ll take those one at a time. Number 1, Abimelech is crowned. Look at verse 1. And remember last week Abimelech is Gideon’s son by one of his concubines. What’s a concubine? A concubine is a quasi-wife from Shechem. Verse 1.
“Now Abimelech the son of Jerubbaal went to Shechem to his mother’s relatives and said to them and to the whole clan of his mother’s family, ‘Say in the ears of all the leaders of Shechem, “Which is better for you, that all seventy of the sons of Jerubbaal rule over you, or that one rule over you?” Remember also that I am your bone and your flesh.’”
So, Abimelech is encouraging the leaders of Shechem to reject the aristocracy of Gideon’s sons and to go with the autocracy that he will offer. And he claims that it will be better for you. So, we’re seeing right from the outset this is a man who lies. He’s arguing that a monarchy will be much more efficient, and besides, we’re related. So, what could possibly go wrong? As Davis says, “Blood runs thicker than brains.” And the leaders of Shechem plunder their Baal stash to bankroll Abimelech’s rise to power, and he hires (verse 4) “worthless and reckless fellows.” Interesting way to describe them! That first word “worthless” in the Hebrew means “empty.” And there’s so much there. When someone is filled with truth, he cannot be bought with lies. But when you’re empty of truth, you’re vulnerable to any salesman of deception. So, this militia of hitmen sacrificed Gideon’s seventy sons (verse 5) “on one stone.” So, this is sick. This is like ritual slaughter. Abimelech is crowned.
Secondly, Abimelech is cursed. You might have noticed, back in verse 5, one loose end that the narrator just quickly mentions, that Jotham, Gideon’s youngest son, hid himself. So, verse 7,
“When it was told Jotham [that his brothers were dead and Abimelech was king], he went and stood on top of Mount Gerizim and cried aloud and said to them, ‘Listen to me, you leaders of Shechem, that God made listen to you.’”
Now the city of Shechem was built between Mount Gerizim and Mount Ebal. This is where the blessings and the curses were recited in the covenant renewal in Joshua 8. Mount Gerizim had steep cliffs with some great acoustics, perfect platforms to deliver a message that could be heard for miles while still staying far enough away so that you’re not killed. There’s a ledge that is still called Jotham’s pulpit, where he might have delivered this message.
In verses 8-15 he tells a parable or a fable, kind of a verbal cartoon, about two trees, a vine, and a bramble. The trees, all the trees, wanted a king. So, they went to the olive tree, verse 9, and said, “Reign over us.” And the olive tree responded, “Shall I leave my abundance?” Am I going to leave my abundance to “hold sway over the other trees”? So, then they went to the fig tree: “Reign over us.” And the fig tree responds, “Shall I leave my sweetness?” And then the vine: “Reign over us.” And the vine responds, “Shall I leave my wine that cheers?”
And each one said “No.” And so then they went to the bramble — what’s a bramble? It’s like a thorn bush — and said, “Reign over us.” In verse 15, the bramble said to the trees — there’s so much irony here — “If in good faith, you’re anointing me king …” Now remember, this represents the king who just slaughtered all of his brothers, lied to the leaders of Shechem to gain power, and he is represented as saying,
“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.”
Jotham then applies the fable. Verse 16,
“Now therefore, if you have acted in good faith and integrity when you made Abimelech king, and if you have dealt well with Jerubbaal and his house and have done to him as his deeds deserved….”
Remember, this is Jotham saying my father risked his life to set you free from oppression to the Midianites. So, if you’ve done him right, then rejoice in Abimelech. But if you didn’t do him right, verse 20, and here’s the curse: May the leaders of Shechem and Abimelech devour one another in mutually assured combustion. That’s essentially what he says. And then he fled. Abimelech is cursed.
Third, Abimelech is crossed. Verse 22,
“Abimelech ruled over Israel three years. And God sent an evil spirit between Abimelech and the leaders of Shechem, and the leaders of Shechem dealt treacherously with Abimelech.”
So, what did this treacherous spirit look like? It came in two forms, the first one is terrorism, a kind of economic terrorism. Verse 25, they ambushed caravans in the mountains to siphon off tax money, to scare off traders, to devastate commerce, undermining Abimelech’s economy and his security.
Second, they committed treason. Verse 26, a previously unknown character named Gaal drifts into town with his posse, they host a New Year’s festival celebrating harvest with an open bar, and this new guy with some alcohol-induced confidence begins trash talking Abimelech. Why should we serve Abimelech? Verse 29,
“Would that this people were under my hand! Then I would remove Abimelech. I would say to Abimelech, ‘Increase your army, and come out.’”
Well, Zebul, who is the ruler of Shechem under Abimelech, secretly warned Abimelech, who gathered forces in the mountains. And early the next morning, Gaal and Zebul are drinking V-8s in the Juiceria at the city gate, and they’re looking off across the valley, and Gaal says to Zebul, “The mountains are moving.” And Zebul’s like, “Drink more V-8.” And then Gaal says again, “No. Those are people. And they’re coming toward us.” In verse 38, Zebul says, Well, “where is your mouth now?” You’ve got to step up.
And so, Gaal led an army of Shechemites out against Abimelech. The battle didn’t last long. Abimelech crushed him. Gaal and his men fled, had to leave Shechem, and Abimelech is ticked. Isn’t it interesting how treacherous people get really mad when people deceive them? And he’s so upset about their disloyalty that the next day his men break into a couple of companies, they wait for the people to be out in their fields, working, harvesting, and they surround them and slaughter them. And they level the city, and they sow salt all over the city, essentially condemning the city. But a thousand men and women fled into this tower of Shechem, which is kind of a tower/fortress/temple. And Abimelech and his men put wood around this tower of Shechem, where a thousand men and women are hiding, and he smokes them out, burns them to death. Remnants of this fortress temple were excavated ninety years ago. You can still see some of the foundation. Abimelech is crossed.
And then finally, Abimelech is crushed. His anger is still not satisfied. So, Abimelech senses that the treasonous spirit has spread further than just Shechem. So, he moves on to Thebez. He captures it. The people, just like in Shechem, flee to the strong tower, and as Abimelech was preparing to burn everyone in the tower, as he did in Shechem, look at verse 53.
“A certain woman threw an upper millstone on Abimelech’s head and crushed his skull.”
I would have loved to have been there for that conversation. Husband and wife at the top … “Do you have anything to throw? I don’t have anything. What’s in that purse?” “An upper millstone! Just happened to have one!” This woman had a “crush” on Abimelech. Sorry, sorry. So, he was down, still not dead, but notice he was so misogynistic that his last thoughts, his final thoughts were not, “I need to repent. I have hurt a lot of people. I’ve done a lot.” No repentance. It’s “I’m embarrassed that I was killed by a woman.” So, he gets his armor bearer to kill him. And then the narrator picks up in verse 55 with the conclusion.
“When the men of Israel saw that Abimelech was dead, everyone departed to his home. Thus God returned the evil of Abimelech, which he had committed against his father in killing his seventy brothers. And God also made the evil of the men of Shechem return on their heads, and upon them came the curse of Jotham, the son of Jerubbaal.”
Let’s go back to our initial question: Why in the world is this terrible story in the Bible? And we could give a lot of insignificant reasons because the symmetry of this chapter is stunning. There’s breathtaking justice, symmetrical justice. What goes around comes around. That’s huge here. There are also themes like women. Did you notice the story began with a woman? Abimelech made his claim to the throne based on his mother’s family, and the story ended with a woman with a big purse and a strong arm. So, there are all sorts of themes like that. But I want us to focus in on four key lessons, and there’s no way we can all take all four of these in. But ask the Spirit to put his finger on one of these that you believe God is pressing home to you today.
So, number 1 is obvious: choose leaders wisely. Abimelech, affectionately known as Thorn Man, the superhero that never took off, he embodies bad leadership. Let me give you six examples: number 1, he was egotistic. Notice there’s no calling from God in this chapter. Most of the judges, even the bad ones like Samson, were called by God. There’s no calling of God. He’s self-appointed.
Number 2, he’s nepotistic. He makes his claim based on family connections, not character qualities or real qualifications. Blood is the basis of his leadership, and that never goes well. Even when people are saying, “Well, he can relate to us. He gets us because he’s one of us.” That is not a good reason for someone to be a leader.
Third, he is tribalistic. Abimelech divides and conquers along racial and ethnic lines. We see this so much today. People haven’t changed, right? I may not even agree with what your position is, but if you’ll say what I and my group want to hear, we’re for you … tribalistic.
And number 4, euphoric. He over promises like the bramble in verse 15: “Take refuge in my shade.” How much shade does a thorn bush provide? Do you see the irony? It’s all over this chapter. Thorns don’t shade. They poke. So, he’s over promising.
And then number 5, he is toxic. Abimelech’s delusional pride and bitterness spread throughout Shechem, and then it contaminates other cities like Thebez. The narrator wants us to see that this wasn’t just one person who did a lot of damage. But his toxicity, his bitterness and poisonous attitude spread and harmed many.
And then, number 6, he is barbaric. He is savagely cruel, slaughtering innocent people. And you may look at that list and go, “OK, you still haven’t told me why this is in the Bible.” I think I have. No … Because when you look at a list like that, and I’ve just had an amazing time worshiping Jesus by thinking of him as the opposite. This is the anti-Christ. This is the opposite of Jesus in every way. And the one who rightly could claim the throne, the one who justly reigns became a servant. He didn’t rise up to kill and destroy. He died that we might live. A totally different kind of leadership! So, even in the negative, we get a beautiful picture of our Savior, Jesus. Choose your king wisely because all of us serve someone.
Number 2: treat people kindly. This theme comes out strongly, and it begins in chapter 8, verse 35, 8:35 from last week,
“They did not show steadfast love to the family of Jerubbaal (that is, Gideon) in return for all the good that he had done to Israel.”
That word “steadfast love,” one word in Hebrew — “hesed,” loyal love. It’s one of the most beautiful words throughout the Old Testament. And, as you might not be surprised to hear, it only appears twice in the book of Judges, once in chapter 1 and here. Why is it here? Well, Judges 9 is a picture of the opposite of loyal love. It’s picturing disloyalty or as chapter 9, verse 16 says, “If you’ve acted in good faith,” if you’ve dealt well …. This story is a picture of a people who have been blessed by a particular individual, Gideon, who, as we saw last week, was not a perfect man, made a lot of mistakes, was dominated by insecurity, but yet the passage raises the question. He helped by God’s grace rescue you from Midian, and you showed no gratefulness to him.
“When we ignore the instruments of God’s grace, we demean the Giver of that grace.”
Some of us need to spend some time this week remembering instruments of God’s grace, even imperfect ones, people whom God has used to pour out kindness on us. But we focus in on the mistakes they made, the way they could have done it better, and we miss out on that loyal love, that kind gratefulness that says, “God, thank you for using him or her in my life, and I am the better for it, even though they weren’t perfect.” That comes out very strong in this chapter. Treat people kindly, gratefully.
And then along with that, third is use gifts gratefully. The olive and the fig tree and the vine in the fable were not vulnerable to the intoxicating request to become king because they were contentedly blooming where they were planted. Remember that? They said, “Why would we give up the opportunity to bless our neighbors with abundance, sweetness, cheer to hold sway over the other trees?”
So, this fable … By the way, you can spend a lot of time just studying this fable. It’s a beautiful work of literature. This fable pictures the difference between service and power. Will we receive the gifts God has given us and be satisfied blessing those nearest to us? Or do we constantly crave going higher and having a better position and having more authority, influence, or bigger reputation? There’s a huge difference here, and Christians who are actively loving their neighbors with whatever gift God has given you — it may be something very simple or mundane — are far less vulnerable to the intoxicating influence of the latest political con man.
Do you understand what I mean by that? This fable communicates that if I’m spending all my time, let’s say for example, feeding on news sources that are fomenting fears and who’s doing what … And obviously we need to be informed … But if my life is dominated by that, rather than “God, I have an opportunity to serve in a very local way in actually making a difference right now in someone’s life …” The people who are doing that, who are serving, maybe in a mundane, local way, are far less vulnerable to Thorn Man, people like Abimelech, who come along and say, “Follow me, and we’ll accomplish things you could never have dreamed.”
I got a glimpse of this. Yesterday I was speaking at a conference in Pennsylvania all day, and I know it sounds weird because there was so much happening that was beautiful. But what captured my mind were the people who were serving behind the scenes. To make this thing happen in this church, there were so many people who were cooking all day food for everyone. There were people who were watching kids so that parents could be in this conference being blessed, refreshed, encouraged, transformed. And you had to actually work to see who they were because they aren’t like Thorn Man. They’re just seeking to share their abundance, their cheer, their kindness. So, please don’t ever minimize the call of God to bless our neighbors and think we’re not doing anything significant enough or big enough, as if that doesn’t matter. Use gifts gratefully.
Number 4: worship God humbly. And this is huge, and I want to go back to Proverbs 14:26.
“In the fear of the Lord one has strong confidence, and his children will have a refuge.”
The lack of the fear of the Lord in chapter 8, where we ended last week, set up a refuge in lies in chapter 9. So, in chapter 9, the greatest threat does not come from outside of Israel. Did you notice there’s no mention of Amorites? Or Philistines? We get to see them again next week. But none in chapter 9. Because there’s no major foe mentioned, the problem doesn’t come from outside, it comes from inside. And where does it begin? Look at chapter 8:33:
“As soon as Gideon died, the people of Israel turned again and whored after the Baals and made Baal-berith their god. And the people of Israel did not remember the Lord their God, who delivered them from the hand of all their enemies on every side.”
So, all this social chaos, this social disorder in chapter 9 that we think, “Why is this in the Bible?” … God is saying to us this social disorder comes from a worship disorder. When you don’t remember the Lord, it’s going to have social implications, relational destruction.
Jesus warned us of this in John 5:43:
“I have come in my Father’s name, and you did not receive me. If another comes in my in his own name, you will receive him.”
Isn’t that tragic? Our fidelity to the fake king flows from our infidelity to the true King, the real King. If we will not humble our hearts and worship Jesus, we are way more vulnerable to Thorn Man. Romans 1:21 describes this very clearly.
“For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking and their foolish hearts were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools and exchanged …”
So, they didn’t stop worshiping. They just exchanged their worship …
“exchanged the glory of the immortal God for the images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things.”
Like Thorn Man. Romans 1:26,
“And for this reason, God gave them up to dishonorable passions.”
So, the social and moral disorder flowed from the worship disorder. And this is what the narrator is getting at in this confusing statement, confusing to many of us. Look at verse 23, Judges 9.
“And God sent an evil spirit between Abimelech and the leaders of Shechem, and the leaders of Shechem dealt treacherously with Abimelech.”
Now, remember Abimelech and Shechem already were treacherous in killing Gideon’s sons and many other things they’ve done. So, God is giving them over to what they were. You want treachery? I will let you be treacherous. God never tempts anyone to sin. But also, evil is not occurring outside of the sinless the sovereignty of God. Look what Bruce Ware says:
“When God controls good, he is controlling what extends from his own nature; yet when he controls evil, he controls what is antithetical to his nature.”
E.W. Smith presses closer to this:
“Did we believe that so potent and fearful a thing as sin had broken into the original holy order of the universe in defiance of God’s purpose, and is rioting in defiance of His power, we might well surrender ourselves to terror and despair.”
If we thought that all of the junk that is going on is completely outside of God’s sovereign power, we would fall into terror and despair.
“Unspeakably comforting and strengthening is the Scriptural assurance … that beneath all this wild tossing and lashing of evil purposes and agencies there lies, in mighty and controlling embrace, a Divine purpose that governs it all.”
It governs them all. So, in the middle of this messy chapter, what feels like a senseless story of treachery and violence is God. And he is still bringing about justice. There is no evil that will not find its just end. And he is still giving over — that idea that we see so prominently in Judges, where God is giving Israel over to the Philistines, over to the Amorites, or in this case, over to their own treachery. Don’t think that doesn’t happen today. If you want something badly enough, God will let you have it. I beg you not to want that. When conviction ceases, repentance no longer happens. We are hopeless. Conviction and confession and repentance are actually gifts from God. It saves our souls. It’s a kind act of God. It’s the kindness of God that leads us to repentance.
And when God gives over people, like in Romans 1, when he gave us over to our passions, the purpose was not so that we will inevitably be destroyed. The goal is that we would see this is not what we want, just like Israel under the Philistines or the Midianites — this is not what we want! — and that our eyes would be opened, and our heart would be softened, and we would repent. That’s where Romans 1 leads to. If you follow that to Romans 3, Romans 3:11:
“No one understands no one seeks for God. All have turned aside.”
We are all Abimelech.
“Together, they have become …”
And notice he has an identity statement and an activity statement.
“Together they have become worthless …”
because they’ve given themselves, we have given ourselves to what is worthless. We have become worthless.
“No one does good, not even one.”
No exceptions. Verse 17,
“The way of peace they have not known. There is no fear of God before their eyes.”
There is lots of fear of man but no fear of God. Why does God do this? Why does God give us over to that? Well, verse 19,
“So that every mouth may be stopped.”
God has used this in huge ways in my life because my mouth doesn’t tend to stop. And God puts his hand on my mouth and says you can’t argue your way out of this. You can’t explain your way. There is no justification. The law condemns you.
But the law also is a schoolmaster to point us to Christ. And that’s why the verse goes on to say in verse 23, yes,
“all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified [made right] by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus,”
not the anti-Christ, but the true Christ who didn’t come to crush but to save. That’s the good news. I pray that each one in here can receive the bad news that we are much more like Abimelech than we’d like to admit, which prepares us to receive the good news — that God loves us anyway. And he gives us over to our sin, not to condemn us, but to wean us, to break us so that we will look to him in faith to do what only he can do through Christ. Let’s pray.
Father, in the fear of you, we have strong confidence. We can try to muster confidence. We can try to convince ourselves we are something we’re not. But that will not only leave us in a precarious, insecure place, but it will leave our children with no refuge. But in the fear of you one has strong confidence, and his children will have a refuge. So, Father, may all of our hearts be tender right now, Lord. Spirit of God, please take this violent, treacherous story that can be so confusing to us, and miraculously, by your Spirit, the Spirit of truth, use it, Lord, to shine lights in the places of our hearts maybe we didn’t want to look, to give us the ability to see how much we crave power and how often we use it to harm those we claim to love. What a difference when we look to you, Jesus! Give us grateful hearts so that we can see your conduits of grace, the people you’ve used in our lives, and we can praise you for them. We can serve you with the gifts we have rather than delusionally think we’ve got to have some kind of sway over others. Spirit, we trust you to take your Word and use it for your purposes to bring joy to our hearts, glory to your name. We pray in Jesus’ name. Amen.