Category Archives: Judges

My Land or God’s Land?

“And Jephthah sent messengers to the king of the Sons of Ammon, saying, ‘What do you have against me? For you are coming to me and fighting in my land.”

(Judges 11:12)

You will notice how relationships have now changed in the eyes of Jephthah. Before he was an alien toward the land of Gilead — unwelcome and without a stake in the land. Now he speaks of the land as his and tells the Ammonites that an attack on the land is an attack on him personally. How quickly one’s attitudes can change.

Yet, the character and upbringing of Jephthah begins to demonstrate itself even here. For, though he is now the leader of Gilead and will function as the delivering Judge over the people, the land does not belong to the king. It belongs to God and to God alone. Were he to have spoken rightly, he ought to have said something like, “Why are you fighting against the people of God and fighting on the land that God has set apart for them?” But no, Jephthah, like the pagans in the nations around him, treats the land (and people of the land) as his own.

Now, as we look at the church today, I find it interesting how many people make the same mistake, though with far fewer excuses than has Jephthah. Jephthah didn’t know any better from his pagan culture. People who are part of churches ought to know better. People who have grown up in churches across generations definitely ought to know better and sometimes they are the worst offenders. Jesus is King over the church and that means the church is not “my” church, nor does it belong to any one family or community of people. The church belongs to Jesus. He will defend her, which is something that a king does and he will govern over her which is the other thing that a king does. He will also issue decrees that all those within the church must obey unless they are to find themselves under judgment. The same follows with the church.

We ought not be surprised when confessing Christians have problems understanding that Christ is king over his church because confessing Christians also struggle with the notion that Christ is to be king over their lives. We want things our way. But our way is not an option. Christ’s way is the right option…it is the only option. Jephthah’s worldview is a mess because he has grown up in a pagan society, but recognize the damage that the pagan culture does to our worldview even today.

The Elders, Force, and Bad Decisions

“And it came to pass in several days time that the Sons of Ammon fought with Israel. And as the Sons of Ammon fought with Israel, the Elders of Gilead went to take Jephthah from the land of Tob.”

(Judges 11:4-5)

And thus, the thing predicted took place: The Ammonites wage war in Gilead and the leaders of Gilead send for Jephthah. I find it interesting, typically in conversations with those outside of the Reformed movement, how often people think of the office of Elder as a New Testament construct. Yet, that could not be any further from the truth. Here we see one of many examples where the Elders of the community are making decisions that will affect the welfare of all within. Even Moses was instructed to address the Elders of Israel (Exodus 3:16). In fact, if you happen to read the Greek translation of Exodus 3:16 found in the ancient Septuagint, you will discover that Moses is instructed to speak to “the Council of the Sons of Israel.” The simple principle that we must always keep in the forefront of our minds is that the church considered themselves not to be something entirely new, but to be the continuation of the work God had begun in the Garden of Eden. Thus, they chose titles and offices familiar to the Jewish people. The Christians were the continuing Jewish church amongst a Jewish nation that had apostatized in their rejection of Jesus.

Interestingly, the term that is used to refer to the way that the Elders of Gilead went to bring Jephthah from Tob implies that they used force to bring him to Gilead. Most commonly, לקח (laqach) means to grasp or seize something or to take by force. These leaders were not taking a casual stroll in the country. They sought a great warrior to deliver them and Jephthah was the man they chose; he was going to deliver them one way or another. And so, they took him from the land of Tob to bring him to Gilead.

One of the themes that is found regularly in the Bible is the theme of waiting on the Lord. True, the idea can sometimes be a hard one because, how does one know for sure that the Lord has opened a door for you in this direction or in that direction. At the same time, it is easy to see examples of the catastrophes that ensue when one does not wait upon the Lord’s timing. Here is one of those examples. Rather wait for the Lord to relent at the repentance of his people, the people seek out a leader after their own image — Jephthah the son of a prostitute who grew up in a pagan land with pagan friends who had no good character. Folks, it shouldn’t take too much to figure out that very little good is going to come from this arrangement. It never does.

The Church Oppressed and Subjugated

“And the nose of Yahweh burned against Israel and he sold them into the hand of the Philistines and into the hand of the Sons of Amon. They subjugated and oppressed the Sons of Israel in that year — even for eighteen years all of the Sons of Israel who are beyond the Jordan in the land of the Amorites, which is Gilead. And the Sons of Amon crossed the Jordan to also wage war in Judah and in Benjamin and in the house of Ephriam. And Israel was enveloped.”

(Judges 10:7-9)

Just as the idolatry of the people during this cycle was excessive, so is the punishment of the people. God brings down the Philistines from the north, the Amorites from the north-east, and the Amonites from the east to subjugate and oppress Israel, this time for 18 years. And so, for nearly as many years as Jair had brought peace to the land, now there is oppression and misery. And why? God’s people had turned from serving their God to serve the gods of the pagan nations. And, if there is one thing that makes God angry, this, my friends, is it. 

While the anger of God toward sin is always justified, the patience of God toward our sin never is — but is given entirely as a matter of God’s grace. He suffers long with his people so that when we do fall into sin for which discipline is necessary, we are left without excuse. And indeed that can be said of the people of Israel.

What is sad is that as I look over the landscape of the church in the west, I find myself wondering whether we are not in exactly the same situation and whether we are overdue for judgment and even wrath. Many times people like to apply this in the context of nations, and I agree that there is a place for that, but it is in the life of Christ’s church that God has deemed proper to work. Yet, when the church imports pagan ideas, tolerates practices that are contrary to the Bible, and condones human invention rather than divine decree, what else should we expect but the hand of God to bring discipline? 

How often the church remains silent when it comes to matters of truth. It does not matter the reasons why. It might be done in the name of ecumenicity, tolerance, courtesy, tolerance, liberty, or plurality, but all of these things are the idols of the nations. If we genuinely believe our Bibles that God is the God of the heavens, that he created all things, and that he alone is God, then why put up with such nonsense? And if we really believe that it is under the name of Christ alone that we can be saved from eternal judgment, why would we not tell others and proclaim it from the mountaintops no matter the costs? We too (as the church) are worthy of the judgment of God and the oppression of the pagan nations, and I think that this is what it is that we are seeing as people from our congregations are fleeing to the Synagogues of Satan in our midst where their ears can be tickled and their lusts for entertainment can be slaked. What is the solution? Truth and truth without compromise. Will we champion that? Can we do anything other?

Salting the Earth

“And it came to pass on the morrow that the people went out to the fields and it was reported to Abimelek. And he took the people and divided them up under three heads and he laid in wait in the field and he beheld the people coming out of the city. And he rose up over them and slew them. Abimelek and the head that was with him charged and stood at the entrance gate of the city. Two companies charged upon all who were in the field and struck them down. Abimelek fought in the city all that day and he overthrew the city and he slew the people who were in it. Then he razed the city and sowed it with salt.”

(Judges 9:42-45)

And so, the siege of Shekem goes into the second day and there is a group of people that seek to enter the fields. Some suggest that this is the leaders of Shekem trying to break through Abimelek’s lines. Others might suggest that these are people who think that, since they have given Ga’al the boot and evicted him from the city, life can go back to normal. The best answer, though, given the context, is that these people were likely trying to flee the city now that it is clear that the city is under the judgment of Abimelek. Yet, at this point, they have made their bed with Shekem, it is time for them to sleep in it. Thus Abimelek counters by dividing his forces again and attacking them in the fields while also rushing the gate of the city and holding it (standing in the gate is a figure of speech referring to holding it and keeping it open for the rest of Abimelek’s army to flood in. After the people in the fields are slaughtered, the soldiers rush into the city and lay waste to it, burning it to the ground and executing the people..

Having torn down the city, he now takes salt and scatters the earth with it. The tradition in the middle-east was that salting the earth was a sign of curse on the land. While one has to bring in a lot of salt to do any long-term damage to the ground, the principle of the matter is that it was meant as a reminder to those who would pass by that the city had been judged.

This passage makes me think of Jesus’ statement that Christians are salt of the earth (Matthew 5:13). Typically we speak about salt as a preservative for meat (which it is) and as a seasoning for food (which it again is). But perhaps we also ought to think of salt in the context of being a judgment on the earth, that the presence of believers is to be a reminder to the world that they are under the curse of God unless they repent and believe. Indeed, this even helps to shine light on Jesus’ statement that if salt loses its saltiness that it is not good for anything (and the saltiness cannot be restored — Matthew 5:13, plus Mark 9:50 and Luke 14:34). In other words, if we become so worldly that we are no longer a reminder to the world of God’s wrath upon them, what good have we done? And oh, in refusing to preach on the need for repentance, but only on grace, how many churches have ceased to be salty?

Fire Consuming Everything

“And if not, may fire go out from Abimelek and consume the leaders of Shekem and the house of Millo. Then, let fire go out from the leaders of Shekem and the house of Millo and consume Abimelek.”

(Judges 9:20)

Why fire? Sure, fire is a sign of judgment, but more importantly, fire is the only proper way to destroy the brambles (Psalm 58:9). Yet, when the brambles are choking out the forest, there is no good way of burning out the brambles without burning the trees as well. Such is the judgment of Jotham’s parable — he is essentially saying to them that if they think that what they have done is proper, then fine, God will be the judge, but if your conscience convicts you, then let your actions destroy you under God’s hand of wrath.

Paul writes much the same thing in Romans 1, when he speaks of God giving the people up to their sin and lust of their hearts. The point that Paul is making is that one of God’s forms of judgment is to allow people to pursue their lusts, removing his hand of restraint from them, for sin destroys us not only in eternity, but in this life as well. Did the leaders of Shekem know that what they were doing was wrong? Surely they must have. Did the people of whom Paul speaks know that what they were doing was wrong? Again, they must, that is the work of their conscience, yet how often (as Paul also points out) we suppress our conscience and the things that we know are right when we desire to pursue sin.

We sometimes talk about how much times change over the generations. And were we just simply talking about the application of technology, then we are entirely right to do so. My first computer, for example, had 16 Kilobytes of RAM, no hard drive, and took up my whole desktop. Today, I take my MacBook Pro wherever I go. But, if we are talking about human nature, very little has changed. We still are sinners to the core, we still think that the end justifies the means, and we still pursue what we think we want instead of what God thinks is best for us. We still wallow in our sin and are in desperate need of a savior.

Jotham’s Warning

“So then, if you acted in faith and devotion when you coronated Abimelek, and if you have created goodwill with Jeruba’al and his sons, and if the honor due his works has been given to him — for my father fought for you and risked his life, and with that he delivered you from the hand of Midian — yet, you rose up against my father’s house on the day and slaughtered his sons — seventy men on one stone — and coronated Abimelek, the son of his servant, before the leaders of Shekem, because he is your brother — if then you have acted in faith and in devotion to Jeruba’al and with his house on this day, then rejoice in Abimelek and let him rejoice also with you.”

(Judges 9:16-19)

There is another principle that really ought to be addressed in this context, and that is the matter of loyalty to those men whom God has raised up to lead. Clearly, the men of Shekem are loyal only to themselves and to their own interests, that is the only explanation for what took place. Had it been otherwise, they would have submitted to the plan and design of God and not sought to raise up their own king…especially not one who was illegitimate.

Yet, how often we see churches acting much like these Shekemites. People dislike a pastor or an Elder in the church and seek to undermine his work. Or if they do not seek to undermine it, they don’t submit to his teaching or they simply find teachers who will scratch their itching ears. And sometimes they even rise up with the aim of removing these God-ordained men from their offices.

Solomon reminds us that a faithful, or a loyal man brings great blessings, but when we pursue getting rich by our own designs, we will be punished for doing so (Proverbs 28:20). Loyalty is one of the virtues to which Christians ought to strive. Society says, “to yourself be true (loyal).” The Bible says, be loyal to God. How does this apply to the church? When we are loyal to godly men whom God has raised up into leadership, then we are being loyal to God. When we are loyal to the Word of God which he has given to us, then we are being loyal to God. When we are faithful to submitting to the commands of God found in the Word we are being loyal to God. When we seek our own agenda, we are being loyal to self.

Hear the warning of Jotham, oh church; let it not fall on deaf ears. If you are loyal to God in God’s house then you will be a blessing to all. If you seek to bring about your own gain in God’s church, God’s hand of judgment will be upon you.

Jotham’s Accusation

“So then, if you acted in faith and devotion when you coronated Abimelek, and if you have created goodwill with Jeruba’al and his sons, and if the honor due his works has been given to him — for my father fought for you and risked his life, and with that he delivered you from the hand of Midian — yet, you rose up against my father’s house on the day and slaughtered his sons — seventy men on one stone — and coronated Abimelek, the son of his servant, before the leaders of Shekem, because he is your brother — if then you have acted in faith and in devotion to Jeruba’al and with his house on this day, then rejoice in Abimelek and let him rejoice also with you.”

(Judges 9:16-19)

And so, as Jotham so eloquently puts it, the bramble is preparing to suffocate the trees and the trees are blindly following along, consumed by their lust for a king of their own making, they cannot see the devastation that their sin will bring. And such is the way with men. These final words of Jotham’s are more of an accusation than a parable — his very presence, as a legitimate son of Gideon (Jeruba’al), seals the condemnation in its fullness. For how can the murderers of the sons of Gideon say with clear conscience that they have acted with faithfulnesss and goodwill or devotion in doing so?

More will come as we are not yet done with Jotham, but the condemnation has been made. As my mother used to say, “You’ve made your bed, now lie in it.” Jotham says, “rejoice together” — essentially, “you deserve one another and you deserve the fire that is to come.”

As we have mentioned before, how often churches are short-sighted. People wish for instant gratification and immediate results rather than taking the harder road of charting a path of faithfulness in the midst of a world that pulls people in many directions. Even here it would be three years before God would bring the curse of Jotham upon the head of Abimelek and his co-conspirators. People forget that God works on his own timetable, but the judgment he promises will come; one never “dodges a bullet” with respect to the God of eternity. Those who conspire to build their empires by enticing a generation away from the church will, in time, reap the vengeance of our God. Woe to them lest they repent of their wicked ways.

A Covenant with the Bramble

“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)

The sad irony of this picture is that here we have the great cedar trees, trees known to grow up to 130 feet in height, who are bowing down before a bramble bush — a thicket in the wilderness — just because they are desperate to have a king and ruler over them that is of their own making. Much like the person who carves an idol out of wood by the labor of his own hands and then bows before it, their folly will bring their downfall. And what a downfall it is as we look forward toward the leadership (or lack thereof) that Abimelek will bring and the warfare that will follow.

Notice, too, the change in language. The previous trees spoke of “shaking over” or dominating the other trees (which of course, would rob them of their good fruit), the bramble speaks of the trees taking refuge in his shadow. For this to happen, the bramble must literally consume the trees in its prickly vines. If you want to know what this looks like, take a visit to the mountains of West Virginia where the Kudzu vine has overrun the trees.

Notice, too, the imprecation that the bramble utters — that if they do not submit to the bramble’s consuming spread, fire will go out and consume the cedars. Do not miss the covenantal nature of this language. The agreement is binding and the cedars are being instructed that they will receive the same fate as the bramble if they do not submit. And so, the fire the bramble deserves will be shared with the cedars. The greater is essentially enslaving itself to the weaker. Such indeed is the case with the people and Abimelek; it would also be the case with Saul to come and so many of the kings that would be raised up amongst the people of Israel.

While there is a clear and direct application to Abimelek, intended by Joab, we can apply the principles within to our lives and churches today. How often do we raise people up into church leadership who are not spiritually mature? How often do we pursue sin and permit it to ensnare our hearts rather than to submit to God’s law for our lives? Are we any less guilty than the people of Shekem? I think not.

And then they Asked the Bramble…

“Then all of the trees said to the bramble, ‘You come and reign over us.’”

(Judges 9:14)

The final candidate is the bramble — אָטָר (atar) — a thorny bush that has no real redemptive value — it is simply fit for the fire (and even in that, the bramble does not produce much heat — Psalm 58:9). The rule of thumb is that if you look hard enough for someone to take advantage of you, well, you will eventually find one. History is filled with examples of the catastrophic effects of actions like this.

In principle, these events are reminders of what Paul speaks of toward the end of Romans 1. As the people will not bow to the God of creation, but instead, prefer to bow to things in the created order or to the works of their own hands, he gives them up to their depravity. The bottom line is that God does restrain our sin and the sin of society to great degrees. Yet, when the people rebel hard enough or consistently enough, God gives them over to their wickedness and removes his hand of restraint. Sin unrestrained will cause a society to implode upon itself.

Yet, this does not just happen in societies and communities, it happens within churches as well. Often, for one reason or another, the truth of God is compromised. Whether the justification seems good at the time, when you compromise the Truth of God’s word, that one compromise always leads to another, and another, and another. Before long, the Bible is no longer held up as authoritative, but becomes simply a book of good suggestions. And when that happens, the church is no longer a church, but just an organization that gathers as a parody of the true church. Such are the effects of seeking to go about matters in man’s fashion of things rather than in submission to God’s Word.

The Vine’s Rejection!

“And the vine said to them, ‘Shall I leave my new wine, which is joy to God and men, and shall I go to dominate the trees?’” (Judges 9:13)

And thus, the “New King Search Committee” has received their third rejection. On one level, we might be tempted to feel sorry for these trees, working hard to find a candidate but no one wants to do so. At the same time, we ought to see this as a mark of God’s grace, restraining the people from sin for a season. How often, when God holds us back from what we wish to do, we see that as a frustration, yet how often it is a gift of God’s restraint…we just cannot see it at that point in time.

Do you see the irony of the contrast here? The trees are seeking to meet what they perceive as their immediate need and the vine is looking at the long-term ramifications of this act. How so? He speaks of the sacrifice of his new wine, but it is new wine that replenishes the stock-pile of old wine. So, unlike the fruit of the Olive or the Fig, for the fruit of the grapevine to be genuinely valuable, it must age for five, ten, or twenty years.

How often, in our churches, leadership finds itself stuck in the challenges of the immediate rather than forward planning for the life of the church decades from now. Obviously there are changes that we cannot predict, but wisdom seeks to both prepare for the lean years and come out stronger and more focused from the challenges the body faces. This cannot be done unless the leadership is prayerfully evaluating their direction and vision. That cannot be done without the wisdom of the vine that recognizes the long term ramifications of meeting the short-term-perceived-need of these bully trees (how often church leaders miss that reality).

Ask the Vine!

“And the trees said to the vine, ‘Come, you reign over us.’” (Judges 9:12)

So, once again, it is back to the drawing board for the trees. They want a king to shake over them and to dominate them, yet they are also seeking out a small tree that is incapable of doing so. In other words, they like the idea of a king — shucks, everyone else has one — but they want a king they can control. Of course, as the old saying goes, you can’t have your cake and eat it too.

Thus the trees go to the next person in line, which is the vine. The term that is used here, גֶּפֶן (gephen), is a generic term that can be used to describe any kind of climbing plant, yet in the context of the next verse, it is most likely a grapevine to which they are appealing. Like the fig tree, the grapevine is a symbol of God’s blessing here in this life and in the next (Deuteronomy 8:8, Zechariah 8:12). And, as with the other plants mentioned beforehand, to step up to this task would cost the vine his fruit, hence the rejection to come.

It also raises the question, if your king requires something to climb on to give it strength, upon what will it climb? And how will it have to domineer the other trees to genuinely lead. Without a fence or support on which it may climb, the grapevine is unproductive and prone to all sorts of frailties and diseases.

Again, people are seeking a king because these candidates are suited to their own ends. Instead, they ought to be seeking a leader who is godly and who will point people toward ends that glorify God and provide faithful government to God’s people. The vine cannot do this and frankly, the trees do not want this…which will become all too apparent in their next candidate. And while we could rail against the political process in our nation, what about the process of choosing leaders in our churches? To what do church nominating committee’s appeal first? Are they looking for warm bodies to fill offices? Are they looking for people who are good businessmen who can make frugal decisions for the church body? Or are they looking first at the godly character of the individual? The first two are of value, but godly character must always be the driving question, lest you end up with a bramble in office.

The Fig’s Rejection

“And the fig said to them, ‘Should I end my sweetness and my good fruit and shall I go to dominate the trees?’” (Judges 9:11)

The fig has rejected the request of the trees, making this the second denial that the people receive. And, once again, the implication is that the fig tree understands the cost of dominating the other trees — the way humans lead when they reject God’s authority and timing — the way Abimelek will lead… Good fruit disappears and is replaced by the bitterness of force.

It is also worth noting that once again, the kind of tree being appealed to is not a large, stately, and powerful tree, like a cedar, but the fig and the olive are smaller and more frail. They would not be able to “shake over” the other trees even if they wanted to. The suggestion can be made that the trees didn’t really want a true ruler who could compel them to do this or to do that. Instead they wanted a king that they could control like a puppet. Remember, it was not Abimelek who initiated the agenda to be made king, it was his mother by her choice of names (Abimelek means, “My father is king…” How people love to look at the world around them and be jealous of the things that the pagans have, but oh, how people do not wish to receive the consequences of such things.

And thus, there is a second denial. The people should have understood their folly by that point…but then again, how often we become so filled by our foolishness that the greater the wall God places against it, the more desperate we become to embrace the foolishness wholeheartedly. In the end, it is sin, no matter which way you look at it. And sin brings death.

The Fig Tree

“Then the trees said to the fig tree, ‘Come, you reign over us.’” (Judges 9:10)

Do you see how the trees are trying to take the initiative over God?  They first asked the one who would have been the rightful king and he turned down the job.  Rather than turning back to God to bring them a king in His time, they start going to others—others who do not belong on the throne.  And this is just what the people were doing.  Gideon had turned down the kingship, so as soon as he died, they sought out another.  And, oh what a mess they ended up with.

The fig tree is another staple fruit of Israel.  In good years, it will bear fruit twice in a season — once early and once late.  Its fruit is sweet and highly nutritious and their presence and imagery is a sign of abundance for the people.  The promised land is a land described as a land of fig trees (Deuteronomy 8:8). Further, during times of peace, both in this world and in the new creation, the people are spoken of as being able to recline under their own fig trees (1 Kings 4:25, Micah 4:4).

Yet, peace does not come to us when we seek to run ahead of God.  The people were not happy with the fact that other nations had human kings and they did not have one, though how much more wonderful it is to have God as king.  Through Gideon’s rejection of kingship, God was telling the people to wait for the appropriate time.  They found that entirely unacceptable and went to another.

How often it is in our lives that we try and run ahead of God rather than stopping and waiting for God’s timing?  How often do we receive a “no” from God and we proceed anyhow?  Friends, trying to run ahead of God is never profitable behavior.  God will work in his own time.  That time is perfect and proper and we need to learn to be patient, waiting upon the Lord to open doors when he is ready.

The Olive Tree’s Response

“And the olive tree said to them, ‘Should I leave my fatness, which in me God and men are honored and shall I go to dominate the trees?’”  (Judges 9:9)

As God’s prophetic word goes out in this parable, it becomes clear from the words of the Olive Tree that Jotham is speaking about his father. While not perfect and while Gideon permitted the setting up of the Ephod, he rightly rejected the offer to become king. It is not the role of man to anoint a king over the people; that privilege belongs to God himself. Indeed, one need not look very far forward in the Bible to see the mess that men brought when they anointed Saul as their king — a king after their own hearts. How often we are prone to doing much the same.

There is also important significance to the way in which the Olive responds. He asks if he is really expected to leave behind his honored abundance to dominate the other trees. In Hebrew the word “dominate,” נוע (nawa), literally means “to shake violently.” The violent shaking creates fear in others, but at the same time, would very literally cause the tree to lose its fruit…and how else shall we judge a tree? The reality is that rule over men generates violence and this tree wishes none of that. Perhaps one might suggest that the trade-off is worth it, that the power and benefits from becoming king would outweigh the cost of one’s fruit. That, indeed, is the way the world views things. Yet, this idea can be explored on both an earthly and a spiritual level.

On an earthly level, this opens the door to the conversation about the doctrine of vocation. In other words, God calls and gifts each person with the ability to serve him in some section of his church or community. Some are called to be pastors and teachers in the church. Others are called to be teachers in the community or farmers, mechanics, administrators, or one of numerous other vocations that are necessary to maintain society. And thus, in God’s eyes, the auto-mechanic is no more or less important than the computer-programmer who is no more or less important than the builder and who is no more or less important than the banker…and the list goes on indefinitely. We are all called and gifted in different ways, just as different body parts provide different functions to the body, and in this way God is honored in his community. Further, no one should be jealous of another’s calling. Rejoice in the calling you have, do it to the best of your ability, and do it to the glory of God.

Yet, there is a spiritual level by which we can discuss this parable. Jesus equates the idea of fruit to one’s spiritual characteristics, thus we judge a tree by its fruit (Matthew 12:33). Similarly, Paul speaks of fruit as the result of our good works (Colossians 1:10) and of the “Fruit of the Spirit” as a reflection of the character of a believer (Galatians 5:22-23). Thus, if you are asked to do something or given an “opportunity” to do something that might bring you personal gain, but would cause you to lose your fruit — that is, your spiritual fruit — then you must not do so. To do so would be to destroy both your walk with God and your Christian testimony in this world. That does not mean that God does not or cannot forgive, but why would you wish to bring that kind of heartache and grief into your life for a short-term, worldly gain?

Yet, how short-sighted we can be sometimes, which is why God has gifted us in the church with faithful Elders who are called to be overseers of our souls. How important it is, indeed, that we learn to listen to their wisdom, submit to their counsel, and rise to God’s calling as is affirmed by them. That’s not easy for us as Americans, but for us as Christians it is part of living faithfully.

The Olive Tree

“The trees surely went to anoint a king over them.  And they said to the olive tree, “You must surely reign over us!”  

(Judges 9:8)

And we enter into the lawsuit of Jotham, which he offers in the form of a parable. Remember, the purpose of parables is that those who are spiritually blind will remain spiritually blind and those whom the Holy Spirit has begun his work upon may see (Matthew 13:10-17). Abimelek will not repent and will continue his rampage until God destroys his life in judgment; how sad a condition that he will find himself within. Yet, notice even here (as we alluded to earlier in Gideon’s life), the people would much rather have a human king than a divine one. Again, how sad…but how common. How often people in church would far rather lead the church in their way rather than to follow the instructions for the church that God has given us in the Bible.

But what of this parable of trees? Obviously the trees represent those who might rule over the people; what is telling is how Jotham designates them and in terms of which tree the Israelites will choose. Yet, the first of the trees is the Olive, which is the most appropriate of the trees to which the Israelites should look.

Historically, the Olive Tree is a symbol of national Israel (Jeremiah 11:6; Romans 11:17) as well as being a symbol for the Messiah (Zechariah 4:11-14). Not only does the tree grow well in the climate of Israel, but it provided one of the staple foods for the people as well as oil for lamps and for cooking. It seems that the trees have gone to the rightful leader first…God’s anointed tree (Gideon).

Yet, Gideon refused. His calling is not to be king, but simply to be a redeemer on behalf of the people of Israel. Had the people stopped with Gideon, all would have been well and they would never would have been given the circumstance where a parable such as this would have been necessary. Yet, with the refusal of this first tree — the rightful tree — the people began looking elsewhere, and hence the problem.

Again, while we may snub our noses a bit at the people of this day for their impudence, we are guilty of doing the same in much the same way. Christ is king over his church, that principle ought to be debated by no one. Yet, how rarely the church sincerely submits to His rule. How often the church makes decisions based on pragmatism rather than upon plain Biblical teachings. How often the people brought into leadership are people we like rather than people who meet (or who strive to meet) the qualifications found in scripture for leadership as an Elder of as a Deacon. How often Christians talk about service, but never do service. How often, rather than by Christ through a body of elected Elders and Deacons, the churches are run by pastors — those who once again are not the legitimate tree to assume this role — one which belongs to Christ alone.

A Covenant Lawsuit

“And when it was announced to Jotham, he went and stood on the top of Mount Gerizim and lifted his voice, calling out, saying to them, ‘Listen to me leaders of Shekem and God will listen to you.’”

(Judges 9:7)

Before Jotham goes into hiding, God sends him as a prophet to speak condemnation against the people of Shekem and against Abimelek. The significance of his choice of Mount Gerizim ought not be missed. When the people entered into the promised land, half of the tribes were to stand on Mount Ebal and half on Mount Gerizim with the Ark of the Covenant in between. On Mount Ebal there was to be an altar established with the Law of God in plaster beside it. From Mount Ebal the priests would declare curses on the people for covenant disobedience. Then from Mount Gerizim, the priests would declare blessings on the people for covenant obedience (see Deuteronomy 27-28 and Joshua 8:30-35). In this way, the covenant was renewed.

So, here we find Jotham choosing to return to the location of the covenant renewal for the purpose of proclaiming a curse on the wicked Abimelek and his followers. It perhaps seems odd that he would choose to stand on Gerizim rather than Ebal, given that he is speaking curses on the people. On the other hand, one may argue that while Abimelek is finding his strength in the hands of wicked men and is being enthroned by the sacred oak at Shekem, Jotham is finding his hope and strength in the promises of God — promises that are symbolized by Mount Gerizim. Like we so often see in Biblical history, this has the makings of a showdown between the God of Israel and the pagan gods of the people.

The last phrase sounds a little bit odd to our ears until we realize the structure of the parable to follow. Jotham is saying, “You listen to me and God will listen to you.” This is language structured like a covenant lawsuit with Jotham as the prosecuting attorney and Abimelek and the leaders of Shekem being in the dock. Thus, Jotham is declaring the charges and the people must answer to the charges before God who is the judge. If you think of his language much like this, you will notice similarities found within the various Old Testament prophetic authors who utter similar lawsuits against God’s rebellious and unfaithful people.

What is our take-away from these events? We may go into the contrast between the mighty strength of God’s promises (symbolized by Mount Gerizim) and the feeble promises of men and pagan gods (symbolized by a big tree in Shekem), but perhaps what is even more significant is the question as to where we stand in terms of faithfulness to God’s covenant…a covenant we all confirm when we enter into membership in Christ’s church. When honestly looking at our church’s faithfulness, where do we fall? And if we fall closer to Ebal than to Gerizim, will we repent?

The Execution of Abimelech’s Brothers

“And he entered his father’s house at Ophrah and executed his brothers, the sons of Jeruba’al, seventy men upon a single stone. Yet, Jotham, the youngest son of Jeruba’al, remained because he was hidden. And so he gathered all the leaders of Shekem and all of the house of Millo and they went and enthroned Abimelek king. At the oak which was standing in Shekem.”

(Judges 9:5-6)

Isn’t it sad just how quickly reforms that are made go away? Here, Abimelek’s father had torn down the Asherah (a cultic totem pole of sorts) in his hometown to rid them of the evil of the idolatry and here we have a coronation that takes place…yes, it is of a usurper, we will get to that…but it is under a sacred oak of sorts that happens to be in the town of Shekem. The hearts of men are wicked indeed, but how quickly they flee back to paganism even after being delivered by the one true God.

Now for the attack. It seems that the sons of Gideon were meeting at his home at a predicted time when Abimelek and his “unprincipled and reckless men” laid siege on the house. The language here implies that the thugs were used by Abimelek to capture the brothers, not to slay them. These men were all slain on a single stone by Abimelek, execution style. If you remember in chapter 8, when Gideon had captured Zebah and Zalmunna, he instructed his eldest son, Jether, to slay execute these kings (Judges 8:20-21), here Abimelek is gladly doing what his brother proved unwilling to do.

Recognizing that this is taking place at an oak in Shekem and recognizing the presence of idolatry and the emphasis that is placed on this “single stone,” there is also an implication here that these executions may have been done as a kind of pagan sacrifice. Just as Gideon had sacrificed to the Lord prior to his taking on the role of leadership, one can make the argument that Abimelek is doing the same…just instead of sacrificing to the Lord, he was sacrificing to his pagan gods. Again, how far we have fallen.

The one glimmer of hope is in the news that one of the sons of Gideon escaped slaughter because he had hidden. Notice that the verb, חבא (chaba — “to hide”) is in the “niphal” or passive tense. While this verb is most commonly found in the passive tense, it leaves open the question as to whether Jotham might have been hidden by one of his brothers (to preserve the youngest’s life) or whether he might have been hidden by God himself (who superintends all things). This we do not know for sure, but it is not out of reach of the text. So, whether Jotham skillfully hid himself, whether one of his brothers nobly sacrificed himself to keep Jotham hidden, whether God supernaturally kept the thugs blind to where Jotham was hidden, or whether it was a combination of all of the above, God had determined that one in the line of Gideon — a remnant — would survive not only to tell the tale and to lay a curse of judgment upon Abimelek and his followers. While the wicked rarely fear the curse of a godly man; they almost always regret what follows.

Unprincipled Men

“And they gave to him seventy pieces of silver from the house of Ba’al Beryth and Abimelek hired for himself unprincipled and reckless men, and they followed after him.”

(Judges 9:4)

Thugs, hoodlums, criminals…these are the men that Abimelek will attract to himself. The Apostle Paul cites the wisdom of the Greek poet, Menander, when he reminds the Corinthian church that “bad company ruins good morals’ (1  Corinthians 15:33). But if bad company ruins good morals and “the companion of fools will suffer harm” (Proverbs 13:20), what happens when the wicked attracts more wicked into their service? Nothing good, that can be for certain.

The reality is that whenever you see the phrase, “worthless fellows” or something similar to that, you can be sure that there is nothing good that can come out of it (cf. Judges 11:3; 2 Samuel 6:20; 2 Chronicles 13:7). The term in question is the Hebrew word  רֵ׳ק (reyq), which literally means “empty.” These men which Abimelek is attracting to his side are empty. They are empty of morals, empty of principles, empty of virtue, and empty of God. And now we see that money is being used to gain these men’s allegiance. Again, nothing good can or will come from an arrangement such as this.

Can it be said that the church never acts this way? We may be tempted to say that the church does not murder the people they don’t like…though that has certainly taken place in history — the name Thomas Becket comes to mind as just one example. But need we murder a man to be guilty of murder? Certainly not. How often has slander ruined a person’s reputation or even a person’s career. How rarely have we really acted on the idea that people are to be presumed innocent until proven guilty by two or there witnesses? How often has the church practiced passive-aggressive behavior toward one they do not like…or even toward their pastor? All of this is empty, unprincipled, behavior…wicked to the core. And God brings every deed into judgment (Ecclesiastes 12:14).

Back to Shechem

“And Abimelek, the son of Jeruba’al, went to Shekem, to the brothers of his mother. And he said to them and to the whole clan of the house of his father and mother, saying, ‘Please speak into the ears of all the leaders of Shekem, ‘Which is better for you to rule over you? Seventy men who are all sons of Jeruba’al to rule over you or one man? Remember that I am your bone and your flesh.’ And his mother’s brothers spoke in the ears of all of the leaders of Shekem all of these words. And they bowed their hearts to follow Abimelek because they said, ‘He is our brother.’

(Judges 9:1-3)

As we return to the life of ancient Israel after the death of Gideon (aka Jeruba’al), the scheming of sinful hearts clearly is seen to abound. Of course, one might say, “What do you expect when you have seventy-one sons from numerous wives and a concubine!” How David and Solomon should have learned from the foolish practice of Gideon and his polygamy.

In this case, the sons of Gideon’s wives formed a kind of Council of Seventy to lead the people of Israel. Abimelek, the son of his concubine who grew up in Shekem. What is particularly interesting about growing up in this location is that Shekem (or Shechem as is transliterated in many of our Bibles) is one of the cities of refuge established by Joshua (Joshua 20:7), a place where those guilty of un-premeditated murder may flee for refuge and thus avert the death sentence (Numbers 35:9-15). It would likely have been a place where many thugs and criminal types would have abounded…and these were Abimelek’s kin. It helps us to get a picture of why Abimelek sought to do what he would do next.

There is a great debate as to whether nature or nurture influences us more profoundly. Certainly we must recognize that nature is a significant part of the equation…we are born in sin as a result of the fall. But sinners raising sinners; well, we just compound the problem. Oh, the wicked web we weave when we pursue the lusts of our heart.

The sanctuary cities were to be controlled by the Levites (Numbers 35:6). The principle behind this should have been obvious — use the leaders in the church to guide the refugees toward a life of faith. Yet, Levites are sinners too and thus what this city of refuge has become is more or less a prison and the levites guards on the prison wall. Again, the evil of sinful man begets nothing good in our world. What is even sadder is that, knowing the lessons of history, often the church acts no differently than the pagan world, plotting and conspiring to gain power and influence rather than living submissively according to God’s law…even in the church of Jesus Christ.

Forgetting and Neglecting

“And the Sons of Israel did not remember Yahweh their God who had saved them from the hand of all of their enemies which surrounded them and they did not show faithfulness to the Sons of Jeruba’al (Gideon) for all of the good things which he did for Israel.”

(Judges 8:34-35)

We have spoken before about the Biblical importance of memory. When the people remember the good works of God they remain faithful. But when the people forget, they fall into sin. And we see this pattern showing up over and over to us in the scriptures and in church history.

But remembering is not just the intellectual recognition that an event took place; remembering also reflects a life that has been influenced by those events that took place in the hopes that we not repeat the same errors that brought us to the condition we were in. Yet, how often we as a church are also near-sighted and forget God’s work amongst us to deliver us from the evil that lurks in our midst.

And, too, how often people forget the faithfulness of those who served them well. Gideon was far from perfect as a leader, but he was God’s chosen tool to deliver the people from their oppressors. In the same vein, pastors and church leaders, too, are not perfect. Yet, if they are faithful to God’s calling, they are deserving of the respect of those they serve — “double-honor” to use Paul’s language in 1 Timothy 5:17-19. Yet, how often have there been times when, for a single misstep, congregations have turned on their pastors like a pack of angry dogs. Such is the way of sin.

Unlike what we have seen with the previous judges, we do not shift immediately into the next cycle of leadership. Instead, we see a cycle within Gideon’s own house, where the sons will vie for position in Israel’s leadership (remember our earlier discussion of Gideon wanting to pass down his role to his sons). And sadly, it will be Abimelech who rises to the forefront…God’s punishment on Gideon’s household for their sin and arguably even God’s punishment on Israel for their forgetting…

Leaders Should be a Threat

“And he said to Zebach and to Tsalmunna, ‘Where are the men which you slew at Tabor?’ And they said, ‘They were just like you; each one resembled the son of the king.”

(Judges 8:18)

This little verse is filled with idioms that don’t translate well at least in literal word for word English. First is the use of “Where are the men…” Gideon is not so much as looking for the location of the bodies of his brothers who were slain, though this is likely what we would presume from the literal translation of the text. The word “where” can also refer to “what condition” or in “what state” were these men when you executed them. One might even ask, in more idiomatic English, “Why did you slay them?” This understanding makes more sense of the answer that the two kings offer…these men that they slew appeared to be kings — leaders of men, just like Gideon.

The second idiom that is awkward in English comes in the response of these two kings. Literally they respond: “Like you; like them.” This can be understood in connection of the language of the son of the king — another idiom that refers to one’s comportment or bearing — the confident air that one in leadership would embody. It was obvious to these kings that the men they slew were leaders amongst men, not followers.

The practical application to the church of this is how many church leaders really distinguish themselves as leaders…so much so that the pagans who are against Christianity see them as a threat? And here, I am not just talking about pastors…in fact, I am not primarily talking about pastors, but the leadership of the local church…the Elders, Deacons, and other leadership of the congregation. Sadly, I fear that it can be said of few of them that “like you; like them” or that they carry themselves as a son of the King in such a way that the enemy would be threatened by their work and character. People wonder why the church in America does not influence American life…a big part of it is because the leaders of the church do not live their lives in such a way as to influence American life.

May we Interrogate? Torture?

“He caught a young man from the men of Succoth and interrogated him. This he wrote down for him the princes of Succoth and the seventy-seven men who were elders.”

(Judges 8:14)

On the way back home, the two kings of Midian in tow, Gideon does not forget his threat to the men of the cities who opposed him. Thus, he captures a young man…perhaps one who had been working in the fields and demands to know the names of the Elders and Princes of the city. These are those whom will feel Gideon’s wrath.

The word lDaDv (sha’al) that is translated here as “interrogate” is arguably better translated as “demand.” It is often used in the context of a beggar demanding aggressively demanding money from someone on the street — intimidating the person if the person does not want to offer monies. Thus, this is not merely a matter of asking questions, but there is a sense that Gideon forcefully extracted information from this lad.

One might be tempted to ask the question about the morality of such actions. Does one have the right to interrogate with force to obtain information? Might one be permitted to use techniques of bodily harm to gain such information…things like torture? While there is no indication in the language that Gideon would have used any sort of torture device on this young man, the question rises from the text.

The first thing that must be pointed out here, though, is that Gideon is acting with governmental authority, thus he is given the power of the sword (Romans 13:4). Thus, Gideon can act in ways that you or I do not have the authority to act. Yet, if we are going to extrapolate from the idea of the penalty suiting the crime (Exodus 21:23-25; Leviticus 24:19-20), then one can make the argument that extent to which the official presses for the information must suit the importance of the information to be gotten. This would make the question of how far one might intimidate a person, demanding information, a question that would have to be tackled on a case by case basis.

In any case, this young man has been caught by seasoned soldiers and brought back to Gideon. I doubt that it would have taken much prying to get this young man to open his mouth about who the leaders of Succoth were. Vengeance will follow.

To be Nice or Loving?

“And he said to them, ‘What have I done now? Compared with you? Are not the gleanings of Ephriam better than the vintage of Abiezer? Into your hands God has given the princes of Midian  and Oreb and Ze’eb. What am I able to do compared to you?’ Then their spirit withered from being against him when he said these words.”

(Judges 8:2-3)

I have been told that discernment and timing are the key to negotiations. Sometimes one speaks softly and sometimes one speaks with an uncompromising authority. My grandfather spent many years negotiating with unions on behalf of King Instruments in the mid-Twentieth Century. One story he told was of a very tense negotiation over the fact that several of the parts King was using on their instruments were made overseas and the Union officials wanted them to be manufactured in America. The two men were at an impasse until my grandfather pulled out a cigarette and asked the Union negotiator for a light. The Union man pulled out the official Union lighter and handed it to my grandfather, who looked at it and slammed it back down on the table — the Union’s lighter had been made overseas. My grandfather had won the negotiation right then and there in that simple action.

Gideon was in a similar situation. The men of Ephriam complained. They were not excited about confronting the Midianites when things looked dark but now the Midianites were on the run and Ephriam wanted to share in more of the glory. They had effectively accused Gideon of hogging the spotlight.

Gideon’s response is masterful. He essentially says, “Oh my, but you did so much more than I could have done — your successes are much more glorious than mine. You captured these princes, but what has little old Gideon done?” One might accuse Gideon of a little flattery here, but if it is flattery, it is flattery joined with a touch of sarcasm. For what has Gideon done in compared to Ephriam? Gideon was God’s chosen servant in overthrowing not only the Midianites but also the idolatry in the land of Israel which had brought on the Midianite invasion in the first place. Surely the vintage of Gideon’s father is much better than the gleanings that the Ephriamites have been left. And all of this was God’s choosing.

It seems that the jab is not lost on the men of Ephriam. Most of our English translations speak of the anger of Ephriam abating as a result of Gideon’s statement. Literally the text reads that their “spirit withered” from being against him. The implication of the text is not so much that Gideon flattered these men, but that he spoke words that had an edge to them and put these men in their place — much as my grandfather had put the Union negotiator in his place. It is sure that these Ephriamites returned to their task humbled before Gideon’s words.

Unlike my grandfather, I do not enjoy confrontation and would make a lousy negotiator in high-stakes settings. We all have different gifts. At the same time, as we read the Bible, over and over there are times when God’s people are called to be confrontational and I have found, in cases where such is necessary, the Holy Spirit gives us the strength and the words to use.

One of my fears is that Christians have been taught in church and in society that we are not to be confrontational and we have confused non-confrontation with love. Non-confrontation may prove to be “nice” but it is certainly not loving. Further, most people who know me well, know that I do not much like the word “nice” when applied to Christians. Nice has its origins in the Latin word niscere, which means “unknowledgeable.” In Middle English it was used the way we would use the word, “stupid,” and Christians should be neither stupid nor unknowledgeable.

Unlike being nice, love is confrontational. Love confronts those things that bring harm to the one who is the object of one’s love. If a child is threatened, a loving parent becomes a fierce adversary of the one who is threatening to bring harm. That is just what love does. And love confronts sin because sin harms the person who is sinning and harms the relationships one has with others. It may be “nice” to let someone go about their way doing whatever they please, but it is not love. And Christians are called to be known by their love (John 13:34-35). Gideon’s response to the men of Ephriam was not nice by any stretch of the imagination, but it was loving because it shut their mouths to their sin…and isn’t that better?

Muddled Minds

“And when they blew the three hundred shophar, Yahweh set each man’s sword against his comrade and against all of Midian. The camp fled as far as Beth-Hashittah by Tsererathah and as far as the border of Abel-Mecholah above Tabbath.”

(Judges 7:22)

The Midianites are thrown into a panic. Operating at night, hurriedly throwing on armor and grabbing weapons together, they burst from their tents and fell into battle with whomever was closest — everyone assuming that the Israelites were in their camp. Surely too, this is not a simple matter of confusion, but God has muddled and clouded their minds as part of his judgment upon them. Being broken, the army soon finds themselves in route, fleeing toward the Jordan river to return to their homelands.

What follows is a bit of a geography lesson, listing some towns that are between the encampment and the Jordan. The first, Beth-Hashittah, literally translates to the “House of Acacia Wood,” a kind of wood prized by the Israelites, which would be used for items in the temple (including the Ark of the Covenant — Deuteronomy 10:3), and Abel-Mecholah would eventually give birth to the prophet Elisha (1 Kings 19:16). There is still some debate as to exactly where some of these villages are, but they are located on the west of the Jordan river and in between the encampment of the Midianites and the ford to cross the river at Beth-Barah.

We have spoken a great deal about God being the warrior of Israel and that in this and every case, it is God who brings victory, not the might of men. It is important that we be reminded as well of the fact that it is God who either opens the mind or clouds the mind to see Truth. How often it is that we can get frustrated with those unbelievers in our midst that just don’t seem to understand things in the way we do — they just cannot see the Truth as to eternal things around them. The answer has more to do with God not opening their minds than anything else. Indeed, we ought always strive toward making good arguments, but at the same time, the blind will remain blind unless their eyes are opened by a rebirth brought about by the Holy Spirit. So, pray for those with whom you will debate and discuss matters of eternal Truth. Apart from the Spirit, their minds are as muddled as that of the Midianites.

Christian Leadership

“And so, as Gideon heard the account of the dream and its interpretation, he bowed in worship. And he returned to the camp of Israel and said, ‘Arise! For Yahweh has given the camp of Midian into your hands!’”

(Judges 7:15)

If you have not yet taken notice, one of the hallmarks of Gideon (at least early in his career as a Judge) is that his actions are prefaced by worship. Here he has snuck up on one of the Midian sentry posts, overheard the telling of a dream that God has designed to encourage Gideon’s faith and confidence, and now, before he retreats back to safety, Gideon bows before the Lord and worships. It is probably not long, simply a reverential prayer of gratitude, but it is worship. And as we have noted before, that is exactly the mindset that every Christian ought to have as we go through life. For the believer, action begins with worship.

There is an interesting Hebrew idiom that is employed here when it comes to the interpretation of the dream. Literally the text reads: ‘As Gideon heard the account of the dream and its cracking open.’ The word in question is rRbRv (shever) and ordinarily it is used to refer to breaking or shattering something with force. Applied to the dream in question, the figure of speech is obvious. And though this is not a common use of the Hebrew term, it does seem to establish a bit of a play on words with what follows. For, just as the dream has been “cracked open,” so too will the clay jars that Gideon and his men carry be “cracked open” (same word). And all of this to crack open and destroy the Midianite camp like an old clay vessel. Such are the ways of God.

One more piece about Gideon…notice that as he rallies the troops, he gives them ownership in the victory. He does not say, “God has given Midian into my hands.” He does not say, “God has given Midian into our hands.” He uses the second-person plural — your. Gideon is the one called to lead this battle and God is bringing the victory, but the three hundred men of Gideon are the ones whose hands will seize the day. How important it is for leaders to remember this great truth. Worship God and give your people ownership in the victory. How easy it is for leaders (and pastors even!) to take all the credit for things wrought by those serving under or alongside of them. And, when that happens, how misplaced the credit really is.