After Gideon died, the worship of Baal became common again in Israel. And having forsaken their Covenant-God, the people next turned in ingratitude from their earthly deliverer; for they did not show kindness to the family of Gideon. This chapter begins by telling us how Abimelech got himself into authority, and how he made himself “great.” His mother – Gideon’s maidservant, and a native of the city of Shechem – had perhaps instilled into his mind some towering, ambitious thoughts. And nothing would serve his proud spirit except succeeding his father in the government of Israel – directly contrary to Gideon’s will, for he had declared that no son of his should rule over God’s people. Abimelech used craft to get his mother’s Shechemite relatives to support him. He wheedled them into the choice by suggesting that it was better to have one ruler (that is, himself), rather than to have many persons sharing a co-government over the nation (the seventy sons of Gideon). Abimelech also got money from the Shechemites, taken from the house of Baal. How unfit was this man to reign over Israel, who – instead of restraining and punishing idolatry – thus received money from an idol’s treasury! With this money, Abimelech hired into his service the local thugs and scoundrels. Aided by these desperadoes, the tyrant destroyed all his brothers – except for the youngest, Jotham, who Providentially escaped. And not only did the Shechemites aid and abet this murderous villain, but the rest of the Israelites were also so senseless that they let such deeds be done without opposition. They tamely submitted to this bloody tyrant – as people who had not only lost their religion; but also their sense of honor, liberty, and justice.
When Abimelech’s dark deed had been completed, Jotham suddenly appeared on the edge of a tall cliff on Mount Gerizim – immediately overlooking the town of Shechem. From this natural pulpit, he uttered the first parable recorded in the Scriptures. His parable is very imaginative, for he spoke of the trees anointing a king over themselves. The government was offered to valuable trees like the olive, the fig, and the vine. But they refused it – choosing rather to serve than to rule. But when the same offer was made to the bramble bush, he accepted it with vain-glorious enthusiasm. Herein Jotham exposes the ridiculous ambition of Abimelech, whom he compared to the bramble – a worthless plant that is useless, fruitless, and hurtful. Jotham reminded his hearers of the many good services which his father Gideon had done for the people, and he charged them with great unkindness and contempt to his father’s family. And then he left it for them to decide whether or not they had done rightly in this matter. If they had dealt wickedly and treacherously in this matter (as he was sure they had), they could not expect to prosper long. Abimelech and the Shechemites, who had thus strengthened one another’s hands in villainy, would certainly become a plague and ruin to one another. Then, having given this admonition, Jotham made a swift escape for his life and went to live in a remote and obscure place.
Abimelech reigned for three years in Shechem. It is probable that at first, his authority did not extend much beyond the city of Shechem, which had made him king; but by gradual encroachments, he seems to have expanded his authority over the neighboring towns and territories, compelling them to acknowledge his power. Later in the chapter, we find him warring against Thebez, in the tribe of Ephraim, as a rebellious city that seems to have refused submission to him. During these three years, however, Abimelech disgusted the men by whom he had been raised to power; and they began to deal treacherously with him. It seems that at this time, he was living in Arumah (verse 41). Expecting him to come to town, the Shechemites set men to lie in wait for him (verse 25); they were planning to make him their prisoner, whom they had lately made their prince. But when Abimelech did not come, these men who were thus posted to capture Abimelech took the opportunity of robbing ordinary travelers; and this would help make the people more and more uneasy under Abimelech’s leadership, when they saw that he either could not or would not protect them from these outlaws.
The men of Shechem began to entertain a man named Gaal – a bold, ambitious man who served their purposes admirably well when they were now inclined to quarrel with Abimelech. And the Shechemites served Gaal’s own selfish intentions just as well as he served theirs. Together, they did all the dishonor they could to Abimelech’s name. They made themselves merry in his absence, as if they were glad to have him out of their way. They feasted in the house of their idol, and cursed Abimelech – wishing him ill and praying to their idol for his destruction. And Gaal began to talk largely of what he could and would do, if authority was vested in him. This man did not intend to recover Shechem’s liberty; he only intended to change their tyrant. And he seems to have boastfully desired his friends to send Abimelech word that he was ready to contest the matter with him (verse 29). “Increase thine army, and come out!” he said.
Gaal’s boastful words were heard with much indignation by Zebul, one of the chief magistrates of the city of Shechem. Zebul lost no time in betraying the Shechemites’ plans by secretly sending word to Abimelech concerning how matters stood. He advised Abimelech to suddenly show up outside the city – at which time, Zebul would undertake to encourage Gaal and his men to march out against him.
Accordingly, one morning, when Zebul and other principal persons were with Gaal at the gate of the city, armed men were seen descending the hills. Gaal saw them and pointed them out to Zebul – little thinking that the man to whom he was speaking had sent for them himself and was now expecting them. “Look!” he said. “Do I not see a band of men coming down the mountain?” “No, no,” Zebul replied. “Your eyesight is deceiving you!” he mocked. “The shadow of the mountains looks like an army to you!” But Gaal was convinced that his eyes saw the truth when two more companies of men came into view. Then Zebul began to upbraid him by reminding him of his recent boastings, and he challenged Gaal to lead his men out – if he dared – to repel the advances of Abimelech.
The opposing forces met, but no sooner did Gaal see a few of his men fall, than – with the rest – he hastily fled back into the town. Zebul availed himself of this palpable exhibition of impotence – if not cowardice – to induce the people of Shechem to expel Gaal and his troop from the city. Abimelech, who was staying at Arumah (which was not far off), was informed of this the next morning; and he was also made acquainted with the fact that the inhabitants of the town, although no longer guarded by Gaal, now went out to their labors in the field. Abimelech, therefore, laid ambushes outside the city; and when the men came forth to their work in the vineyards, two of the ambush-parties rose to destroy them, while a third hastened to the gates of Shechem to prevent their return into the safety of its walls. The city itself was taken; and Abimelech caused all the buildings to be destroyed, and the ground to be strewn with salt, as a symbol of the desolation to which his intentions consigned it.
The tower in Shechem still remained, however; and 1,000 men and women were inside it. But they – supposing that the tower would not remain a defense to them – withdrew to the stronghold, which had the advantage of standing in a more elevated and commanding position. Upon perceiving this, Abimelech cut down the bough of a tree with his battle-axe, and carried it upon his shoulder – directing all his men to do the same. The wood was deposited against the entrance and walls of the fortress; and when it was kindled, it made a tremendous fire, in which the building and the thousand people within it were destroyed.
The city of Thebez was near Shechem, and Abimelech attempted the destruction of this city also (verse 50). He drove all the inhabitants of the town into the castle. When he had them there, he thought he could easily do the same thing here that he had lately done at the stronghold in Shechem. He attempted to set fire to this tower – at least to burn down the door, and thus force an entrance. But in the attempt, he himself was destroyed – having his brains knocked out with a piece of a millstone that was thrown at him from a woman in the tower. Herein we see that evil pursues sinners, and sometimes overtakes them when they are not only secure, but also apparently triumphant. Here at Thebez, all Abimelech’s honor was buried forever. And how foolishly prideful he was when he was struck down by the millstone! He took no care taken about his precious soul, and he did not pray to God for mercy. But he was very concerned to patch up his shattered reputation, even when there was no way to patch up his shattered skull. And he wickedly thought he could avoid a disgraceful death by becoming his own murderer through his servant’s hands, rather than going down in history as being slain by a woman. Nor did his foolish plan have its desired effect; for nearly three centuries afterward, his death was still ascribed to the woman who threw the piece of millstone from the wall (2 Sam. 11:21).
Thus ended the dark, dishonorable career of the “Bramble King,” after a tyranny of three years; and thus closed one of the most degrading chapters in the history of Israel. The end result of all of this was that Israel’s peace was restored, and an end was put to this civil war; for those who followed Abimelech departed and went home. In addition, God’s justice was glorified (verses 56-57); for He punished the wickedness of both Abimelech and the Shechemites, thereby fulfilling Jotham’s curse. In this way, the Lord preserved the honor of His government, and gave a solemn warning to all ages. Although wickedness may seem to reign for a short time, it will not prosper forever!
When our wandering souls leave the Savior’s fold, may He raise up a holy conflict within us until the corruptions of our poor fallen nature destroy each other – just as Abimelech and the Shechemites did – and until our every thought is brought into captivity to the obedience of Christ!
Lord, You have given us Your Word of truth and righteousness! Pour upon us Your spirit of purity, peace, and love; and write Your holy law upon our hearts. Cause us to behold, with humble thankfulness, Your mercy in adopting every means which Your grace and wisdom see most suited to call home our rebellious hearts, when we depart from You and Your fullness of blessings. Amen.
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