“And the bramble said to the trees, ‘If in truth you anoint me to be king over you, enter and take refuge in my shadow. But if there is not, let fire go out from the bramble, and let it consume the cedars of Lebanon!’” (Judges 9:15)
There are two levels to how we need to approach this passage. The first level is the immediate context of the passage. Here, the bramble is given kingship and will subjugate all of the trees, destroying them in the process. Indeed, there is a curse that is attached to the acceptance of the bramble: may fires go out to consume even the great and stately cedars of Lebanon. Abimelech will be made king, he will rule with an iron fist—and does so for three years—and not even the greatest of the people who made him king will be able to stand against him, indeed fire will consume even his strongest opposition during his reign.
And, were we just studying the book of Judges, we would leave this verse be with that translation. But, given that all scripture is authored by God, it is important for us to see where this imagery is referenced in other books of the Bible. And, indeed, the imagery is referenced in other books of the Bible, and in those cases, the language carries with it Messianic intent.
Indeed, just as Abimelech, the false king of Israel destroys his enemies, so too, does the true king of Israel destroy his enemies with fire. The book of Amos, within its first two chapters, repeatedly finds God sending out his fire to consume his enemies. Also, in Zechariah 11:1-3, God pronounces his judgment against the unbelievers in Israel by declaring that his fire will devour the cedars of Lebanon. Though this language is often used figuratively, it also looks backward to a time before the time of Judges, during Israel’s wilderness wanderings, where God literally destroyed his enemies with fire (Leviticus 10:1-7).
Yet, there is an even more compelling allusion to the language of this parable that occurs nearly 1300 years after the Jotham’s telling of this parable. In Revelation 11, there is a reference to the two witnesses of God breathing out fire and destroying their enemies. Now, admittedly, there is a great deal of debate as to just what these two witnesses represent, but I hold the position that they represent Christ during his earthly ministry. The two witnesses are described as the two olive trees that stand before the lampstands which are before God. This is imagery taken right out of Zechariah 4, where the two olive trees are the “anointed ones” that stand before the Lord (Zechariah 4:14). Who is the anointed one before the Lord? It is the Messiah—Jesus our Lord.
Why then is Jesus represented by two witnesses? I would like to suggest two options: first, Jesus’ witness is to both the Old Testament believers and to the New Testament believers, and second, Jesus had dual natures—one human and one divine. Thus, two witnesses are given within the figurative language of the book of Revelation. And indeed, getting back to the imagery that we spoke of earlier in this passage, Jesus is the olive tree; he is the rightful king of Israel.
Did Jotham have all of this in mind when he told his parable? I very much doubt it. Jotham was telling a story to tell the people what they had gotten themselves into. At the same time, God, through other Biblical writers and in other times, used that imagery to warn those who would be the enemies of his son. Abimelech would rule as a despot, and the righteous had much to fear; Jesus rules as the rightful and righteous king, and the unrighteous have much to fear. Our God will obliterate even the strongest resistance to his rule—even the modern cedars of Lebanon cannot withstand his wrath.
I find it comforting to serve a God who has all of his enemies at his feet. As believers, we know just how the story will end up and who ends up on top. We do not worship in vain and we worship a God that gives life and sanctuary to those who enter under his shadow. Jesus calls out to all who would hear: “come and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28). Won’t you rest in him?