“And they stripped him and laid a scarlet cloak on him. And they twisted together a crown from a thorn vine and put it on his head with a reed in his right hand, and they knelt before him and mocked him saying, ‘Hail, king of the Jews.’ And they spat on him and took the reed and beat him on the head.”
“And they clothed him with a purple cloak and they put on him a crown woven from a thorn vine and they began to recognize him: ‘Hail, King of the Jews!’ And they were striking him on the head with the reed and spitting on him and bowed the knee to worship him.”
“And the soldiers wove a crown from a thorn vine and put it on his head and clothed him with a garment of purple. And they came up to him and said, ‘Hail, King of the Jews!’ And they gave him blows.”
Yet, the robe isn’t the only counterfeit item placed upon Jesus to mock him…there is a reed and a crown as well. The crown is often what attracts the most attention given the cruelty of the act. The term used in the Greek is a¡kanqa (akantha) and refers to a very specific bramble known commonly as the “Rest Harrow” or scientifically as the “Onanis spinoza L.” for those of you who prefer to be technical. This is a vine that grows up in fields with a thick, woody vine with long spiny thorns (hence the distinction: spinoza). They are called “Rest Harrows” because they were so strong and stubborn to pull out that they would grab the farmer’s harrowing tool and bring it to rest. They are common in Israel both modern and ancient and bring grief to farmers both modern and ancient.
These are the thorns that Jesus spoke about in the parable of the sower which choked the seed out as it tried to grow (Matthew 13:7,22) representing the cares of this world. They are also the thorns of which Jesus spoke when he talked about good fruit not coming from a thorn bush (Matthew 7:16) and similarly is employed by the author of Hebrews to speak of a life that is worthless (Hebrews 6:8, also see 2 Samuel 23:6 for the same term in the LXX). In the Greek translation of the Old Testament, they are the hedge of thorns that represents the life of the sluggard (Proverbs 15:19), the crackling of the laughter of fools (Ecclesiastes 7:6), and it is the fruit of the carefully tended vineyard of Israel in Isaiah 5:1-6 (though our translations typically render this word here as “wild grapes” in favor of the Hebrew, not the Greek, reading).
Yet, the most significant reference to this word is found in Genesis 3:18 in the Greek translation of the Old Testament. The punishment for Adam and Eve’s sin is that the ground will now produce thorns and thistles — “rest harrows.” And thus, our Lord is symbolically crowned with the thorn that is the symbol of mankind’s sin and rebellion. Again, this is God’s design, there is no random chance that these things are brought together in this way without a divine hand at work.
Jesus is indeed crowned with our sin on the cross, bearing the guilt of our sin before His Father’s wrath and anger so that we might be redeemed to trust in Christ’s completed work. My prayer for you is that you are doing just that. If not, my prayer is that God will use these humble words to spark something within you that He will use to draw you in faith to himself. Jesus bore the sins of his own on that cross and as the Second Adam, he too faced the Rest Harrow and the sweat of his brow.
“Then all of the trees said to the bramble, ‘You come and reign over us.’”
And this is where you end up if you try and organize life in accordance with your own desires and not in accordance to God’s will. You end up with a good-for-nothing, thorny bramble as your king. The term that the Jotham uses here is dDfDa (atad), which is only found five times in the Old Testament (2 times in Genesis 50 as a proper name, 2 times in this parable, and 1 time in Psalm 58:9, where it is used to describe a thorny bush ready to be destroyed), but is never used in a positive way when referring to such a bush.
Indeed, the only fruit that such a bush bears are thorns and thistles. This contrast is very important to note in this parable. The previous three candidates which were asked all bore abundant and good fruit. The fruit of the grapevine, the fig, and the olive are not only staple foods, but they point to the promised new creation. Given that the new creation is a restoration of the earth to its pre-fall purity, beauty, and abundance, new creation language often uses language that points our minds backwards to Eden as well—a place where the grapevine, the fig, and the olive would have been abundant. What am I getting at here? The bramble was not present in Eden, nor will it be present in the new heavens and earth.
In God’s judgment of Adam, God cursed the land rather than cursing mankind (who rightfully deserved the curse). This is a foretaste of the substitutionary work of Christ for our sins. The effect of that curse on the land is that it would bring forth “thorns and thistles” (Genesis 3:18). This thorny bramble, which the people of Shechem have made king, namely Abimelech, is being linked with sin. Indeed, it is the sin of not trusting God’s kingship that has brought them to desiring a human king and to bring this about, the sin of murder (68 of them to be exact) is committed. Adam and Eve’s sin in the garden was an outward rebellion against the rulership of God, and the fruit of that sin was demonstrated in the lives of their two sons: Cain and Abel. What a dark place the people of Shechem have gotten themselves into.
And, all too often, we do the same. No, we may not be guilty of killing off our brothers and sisters to gain a kingdom, but how often do brothers and sisters raise their fists against one another fighting over a share of their parent’s estate? How often do we cut someone down to size at work, seeking a better position in the boss’ eyes? How often do we insult someone just to get others to laugh? Jesus calls this murder (Matthew 5:21-26). Just because we do not wield the knife, does not mean we are innocent of this sin. Friends, the good news is that in Christ there is forgiveness for our sins (1 John 1:9). But God does not simply forgive us and let us go back to our sinful ways, he wants us to grow and mature in holiness. Repentance means turning around; it implies seeking to put to death those things that cause you to trip and fall. We have a lifetime of work ahead of us, but in Christ, there is progress in that work. The people of Shechem put their own desires ahead of God’s will—nothing but trouble comes from doing that; it brought them brambles then and it will bring us brambles today.