It was during the First Gulf War that the concept of precision bombing became very popular. And why not? It was a great way to convince ourselves (and the world, as it looked on) that we were only killing the “bad guys” and that very few innocent civilians were among the casualties in this war. And so throughout the day, television reports provided example after example of precision bombing, illustrating how each target was destroyed in such a way as to avoid collateral damage.
I love precision, not because I am precise in everything that I do, but because I get great pleasure watching others do their tasks with such skill and accuracy. It may be one of my woodworking friends, making a cabinet, or one of my computer friends, skillfully setting up a network or writing an elegant program. It might even be a plumber or an auto mechanic who knows exactly what to look for and how to fix it most efficiently. They waste little time and material, and they make their work look so easy.
Our text illustrates the precision with which our God goes about His work in this world. The obstacles and difficulties are many. We will see God at work through different kinds of men and women, few of whom are godly, or even wise. He will work through some who are strongly opposed to Him. The goal of God’s work is the preservation of His people, the fulfillment of His covenant promises, and the punishment of those who have played a part in the slaughter of the 702 sons of Jerub-Baal (Gideon). This punishment must be meted out in such a way as to destroy the guilty, and yet secure the safety of those who were not involved in the evil committed against the sons of Gideon. The skill and efficiency of God are entirely consistent with His character, but it is still a wonder to behold.
Gideon (or Jerub-Baal as he will be referred to in chapter 93) had many wives, and they produced 70 sons. He had yet another son – Abimelech – who was born to him by his concubine. It was his desire to rule as king because he was a son of Jerub-Baal. Abimelech went to Shechem where he appealed to his relatives4 for their support. He asked them to use their influence with the city leaders to appoint him as their king, reasoning that it was better to have one king than 70, and especially one who was well connected in Shechem. Surely they would receive preferential treatment from Abimelech, more so than from the other (more legitimate) sons of Jerub-Baal, whose loyalties would lie more with the people of Ophrah, where they lived.
The leaders of Shechem were persuaded by Abimelech’s relatives, but they realized that this meant his brothers would have to be eliminated.5 They gave Abimelech 70 pieces of silver from the treasury of the temple of their god, Baal-Berith (god of the covenant). He then hired ruthless and unprincipled mercenaries who undoubtedly assisted him in rounding up and murdering all of his brothers, save one (Jotham – verse 5), killing them on one stone. Immediately thereafter, the people of Shechem inaugurated Abimelech as their king (verse 6).
When Jotham learned that Abimelech had been appointed as king, he stood on Mount Gerizim and called the people of this city to account by telling them a parable and then interpreting its meaning and application. The essence of Jotham’s message to the people of Shechem was that God would bring His judgment upon them and upon Abimelech for the evil they had committed in killing the sons of Jerub-Baal and assuming the role of king over Shechem and a handful of surrounding cities.
Our text for this message takes up the story at this point, and we will see how God providentially worked through wicked men to bring about judgment upon Abimelech and the leaders of Shechem, while protecting those who were not culpable for this terrible injustice. But just before we get to the message, I’d like to take a moment to point out how times may have changed, but men (and politics) have not.
Special interest groups. In the early verses of Judges 9, we find that Abimelech’s mother’s relatives are a special interest group. They have much to gain by the “election” (or appointment) of Abimelech as their leader.
Lobbying. The special interest group in our text (Abimelech’s relatives) will use every means at their disposal to influence their leaders to bring about a decision that will benefit them, at the expense of others.
Money. In our text, the money was necessary to achieve the death of Abimelech’s brothers and thus his appointment as king. Getting a person elected to office takes money, lots of money, and thus money is often raised from those who are led to believe that their contribution will benefit them in the final outcome.
“Political hatchet men” are sometimes used, who are willing to get their hands dirty and do the dirty deeds that will destroy or eliminate the competition. In one way or another, they are paid or rewarded for their faithful service.
People (those “ruled”) – the general population – who are so interested in their own personal benefits from government that they will look the other way when evils are committed by those seeking to gain political power over them.
Some things never change.
Abimelech’s rise to power has been described in the first 21 verses of chapter 9. Now, the remainder of this chapter is devoted to the account of his demise. It takes place by means of a sequence of divinely orchestrated events.
22 Abimelech commanded Israel for three years. 23 God sent a spirit to stir up hostility between Abimelech and the leaders of Shechem. He made the leaders of Shechem disloyal to Abimelech. 24 He did this so the violent deaths of Jerub-Baal’s seventy sons might be avenged and Abimelech, their half-brother who murdered them, might have to pay for their spilled blood, along with the leaders of Shechem who helped him murder them. 25 The leaders of Shechem rebelled against Abimelech by putting bandits in the hills, who robbed everyone who traveled by on the road. But Abimelech found out about it (Judges 9:22-25).
It may be significant that the author tells us Abimelech “commanded Israel for three years,” rather than to say Abimelech “reigned as king.” While the leaders of Shechem made Abimelech king, the author does not regard his reign as that of a king, and so he deliberately chooses a different word here than what we find in verse 6.6 As K. Lawson Younger Jr. observes,7 this is the shortest period of oppression thus far in the Book of Judges. God’s judgment came quickly here, though this is not always the case. It all began with God sending an “evil spirit,”8 which created animosity between Abimelech and his former co-conspirators. Just three years earlier, Abimelech and his allies joined forces to exterminate his brothers and to orchestrate his rise to power over Shechem. Now these same folks were at each other’s throats. Did the leaders once help Abimelech to become king by slaughtering his brothers? They now were seeking to undermine his authority and be rid of him. I believe that if they could have, they would have killed him (or, more likely, had him killed – surely there was still some money in the temple treasury).
The author wants his readers to clearly understand that the downfall and destruction of Abimelech and of the leaders of Shechem is God’s doing – divine retribution imposed for their treachery in slaughtering the 70 sons of Jerub-Baal. He states this very clearly in verse 24, before he describes how all this came to pass, and then once again at the end of the account in verses 56-57. The death of Abimelech and the leaders of Shechem was not something that happened by chance; God caused the words of Jotham to be fulfilled by the events described in our text, which He providentially brought to pass.
The treachery is initiated by the leaders of Shechem, as we see in verse 25. The question in my mind is, “Just what form did this treachery take, and why?” We are informed that the leaders of Shechem “rebelled against Abimelech by putting bandits in the hills,” and that these bandits “robbed everyone who traveled by on the road.” How could these bandits hide out in the tops of the “mountains” and rob those who passed by on the road? There are no roads at the top of mountains. Now some of my problem in grasping what is being said here stems from the fact that where I grew up, “mountains” were real MOUNTAINS. Mount Rainier, for example, reaches 14,410 feet into the sky. The NET Bible helps by somewhat paraphrasing the term which is rendered “mountains” by most translations as “hills.” Aha! I watched enough “Lone Ranger” shows on television as a kid to be able to understand this kind of ambush. The mountains around Shechem did not rise above 3,000 feet, and thus one could hide out on the top of these mountains and look out over the valley below. When a caravan would pass by, they could hastily descend and ambush these folks where they were easy prey.
If I understand the text correctly, it was meant to work something like this. Bandits were hired to hide out in the hills and to rob those who passed by. Word of this would reach Abimelech, and he would be prompted to retaliate. After all, he was the king. Wasn’t it his job to provide police protection for his citizens, as well as for those passing through? And not only this, the robbers were taking money from these passersby that Abimelech would have considered his (whether taken by force in the form of robbery, or in the form of tolls and taxes). If Abimelech himself were to pass by (especially if he was not adequately protected), these bandits could kill him, and thus Shechem would be rid of its king.
The plan of Shechem’s leaders would never do because it would not fulfill Jotham’s curse. Not only must Abimelech die, but the leaders of Shechem must die as well. God had a better plan. But the futile efforts of Shechem’s leaders did produce one thing. As it was hoped, word of these bandits and their ambushes reached Abimelech. While the text does not tell us what his response was, we can be sure that he was not happy about what was happening in his kingdom. No doubt he was trying to think of a plan which would allow him to retaliate and to regain control of the people of Shechem. It was not yet the time or the place for divine judgment to fall upon Abimelech and the leaders of Shechem, but this treachery certainly did succeed in heating things up. Abimelech was good and mad. I should probably say he was mad and bad. Something was going to happen, and soon.
26 Gaal9 son of Ebed came through Shechem with his brothers. The leaders of Shechem transferred their loyalty to him. 27 They went out to the field, harvested their grapes, squeezed out the juice, and celebrated. They came to the temple of their god and ate, drank, and cursed Abimelech. 28 Gaal son of Ebed said, “Who is Abimelech and who is Shechem [who are we], that we should serve him?10 Is he not the son of Jerub-Baal, and is not Zebul the deputy he appointed? Serve the sons of Hamor, the father of Shechem! But why should we serve Abimelech? 29 If only these men were under my command, I would get rid of Abimelech!” He challenged Abimelech, “Muster your army and come out for battle!” (Judges 9:26-29)11
It “just so happens” that a newcomer arrives in Shechem at this point in time. His name is Gaal, and he comes accompanied by his relatives (literally his “brothers”). We learn that the leaders12 of Shechem put their trust13 in Gaal. Just how that came about is not revealed, although there are clues that come to us in the author’s account of a Canaanite “worship” gathering in verses 27-29. One of the crops grown outside the gates of Shechem was grapes. The grapes were harvested and trodden into juice, which then turned to wine. It was now “Miller Time” for the people of Shechem, and the “bar” was open in the temple of Baal-Berith (or, as later, El-Berith).
When Gaal was well “under the influence,” he gained great courage and began to say publicly what he had no doubt been saying in private. Gaal cursed Abimelech, boasting that if he were in charge he would quickly get rid of him. He would challenge Abimelech to come with his entire army, and all would see who was worthy to be their king.
Here is where it gets really interesting. Earlier in the story, it was Abimelech who had reasoned that he was the best candidate for king because he had “roots” in Shechem. His mother and brothers were Abimelech’s relatives, and so they would receive preferential treatment from him as their king. Keep in mind that while this was his promise, Abimelech was an “absentee king” for the people of Shechem. His headquarters or capital seems to have been in Arumah (verse 41) and not Shechem. Gaal uses the same argument as Abimelech, but he reminds the people of Shechem that their “roots” go way back to Hamor (verse 28), Shechem’s founding father. What is clear to me is that Abimelech cannot trace his roots to Hamor. Gaal seems to imply that his roots do go back to Hamor. Why should the people of Shechem submit themselves to a relative newcomer, when the “old guard” is at hand? No wonder he feels confident regarding his claim to the throne. And so we see that Gaal has beaten Abimelech at his own game. If one wants to make a claim to the throne based on one’s heritage, Gaal has the most compelling proof that he has claim to the throne.
30 When Zebul, the city commissioner, heard the words of Gaal son of Ebed, he was furious. 31 He sent messengers to Abimelech, who was in Arumah, reporting, “Beware! Gaal son of Ebed and his brothers are coming to Shechem and inciting the city to rebel against you. 32 Now, come up at night with your men and set an ambush in the field outside the city. 33 In the morning at sunrise quickly attack the city. When he and his men come out to fight you, do what you can to him” (Judges 9:30-33).
As I mentioned earlier, Abimelech was an “absentee king” for the people of Shechem. In his absence, Abimelech appointed Zebul to serve as his lieutenant, who governed for him in Shechem. Whether he heard it directly (in Baal’s “bar”)14 or indirectly, Gaal’s words reached Zebul, and he was not happy about it at all. He sent a report to Abimelech, detailing Gaal’s claims and also his popularity with the people. He also recommended a course of action for Abimelech to follow: Abimelech should approach Shechem with his army in the darkness of night and lie in wait in the fields, attacking at morning light. Abimelech will take Zebul’s advice and do as he suggests. His attack on Shechem will come in several phases, which we will now consider.
34 So Abimelech and all his men came up at night and set an ambush outside Shechem – they divided into four units. 35 When Gaal son of Ebed came out and stood at the entrance to the city’s gate, Abimelech and his men got up from their hiding places. 36 Gaal saw the men and said to Zebul, “Look, men are coming down from the tops of the hills.” But Zebul said to him, “You are seeing the shadows on the hills – it just looks like men.” 37 Gaal again said, “Look, men are coming down from the very center of the land. A unit is coming by way of the Oak Tree of the Diviners.” 38 Zebul said to him, “Where now are your bragging words, ‘Who is Abimelech that we should serve him?’ Are these not the men you insulted? Go out now and fight them!” 39 So Gaal led the leaders of Shechem out and fought Abimelech. 40 Abimelech chased him, and Gaal ran from him. Many Shechemites fell wounded at the entrance of the gate. 41 Abimelech went back to Arumah; Zebul drove Gaal and his brothers out of Shechem (Judges 9:34-41).
In his first attack, Abimelech divides his men into four companies. At dawn, he makes his way down the mountains toward Shechem in the valley below. Gaal seems to have risen early and to have joined Zebul at the gate of the city, where leaders normally gathered.15 At this early hour, many would have passed through these gates on their way to work in the fields.16 Gaal’s attention was drawn to the hills, where he noted movement. It must have given Zebul great pleasure to suggest to Gaal that he was imagining something that was not there, giving Abimelech and his troops more time to advance on the city unchallenged. Then Gaal observed movement from another part of the hills above. Now he was certain that there were many men advancing on the city.
This was Zebul’s opportunity to express his contempt for Gaal and to call his bluff. He had talked so boldly when he had too much wine to drink; now let him prove his right to rule by engaging Abimelech in battle as he boasted that he would if the opportunity was afforded him. Gaal had no choice but to confront Abimelech outside the city gates. Gaal led the city leaders out of the city, and they engaged Abimelech in battle. Abimelech gained the upper hand, inflicting many casualties on Gaal’s forces. Gaal’s courage vaporized, and he fled to safety inside the city gates, with Abimelech in hot pursuit. It seems that Gaal and others were able to keep Abimelech from gaining entrance to the city, so that he finally returned to his headquarters at Arumah. It appeared that Abimelech had given up.
Zebul had enough of Gaal, so he drove him and his relatives out of Phase II of Abimelech’s campaign against Shechem as described in verses 42-45.
But just before we get to Phase II, let me make an observation related to the expulsion of Gaal from Shechem by Zebul (and others loyal to Abimelech). Not only does this account of the battle between Abimelech and the leaders of Shechem describe the fulfillment of the curse of Jotham, pronounced from Mount Gerizim, it also informs the readers that God providentially spared Gaal and his relatives from the judgment that was soon to come upon those who took part in the slaughter of Jerub-Baal’s sons. Gaal would have been humbled by his defeat and expulsion from Shechem, but his departure from Shechem also spared him from the judgment which was to fall upon that city (and Abimelech) the next day.
42 The next day the Shechemites came out to the field. When Abimelech heard about it, 43 he took his men and divided them into three units and set an ambush in the field. When he saw the people coming out of the city, he attacked and struck them down. 44 Abimelech and his units attacked and blocked the entrance to the city’s gate. Two units then attacked all the people in the field and struck them down. 45 Abimelech fought against the city all that day. He captured the city and killed all the people in it. Then he leveled the city and spread salt over it (Judges 9:42-45).
In the morning, it looked like “business as usual” for the people of Shechem. Abimelech was nowhere in sight, no doubt licking his wounds back at Arumah. Gaal and his relatives were long gone, having been evicted by Zebul. Why would anyone expect Abimelech to return or fear that they were in danger? The people of Shechem were going about their daily routine when divine judgment came upon them suddenly and unexpectedly.17
Abimelech returned to Shechem because his wrath was not yet satisfied. This time, he divided his men into three companies. One of these companies was tasked to seize the city gates, gaining entrance to the city while at the same time preventing the citizens of Shechem from returning to the city for protection. The other two companies went about the business of slaughtering the people of the city who were outside the city gates. Abimelech focused his attention on the defeat and destruction of the city of Shechem. He captured the city, killed all its inhabitants, and then completely destroyed the city, so that it appeared that it would never be restored.
46 When all the leaders of the Tower of Shechem18 heard the news, they went to the stronghold of the temple of El-Berith. 47 Abimelech heard that all the leaders of the Tower of Shechem were in one place. 48 He and all his men went up on Mount Zalmon. He took an ax in his hand and cut off a tree branch. He put it on his shoulder and said to his men, “Quickly, do what you have just seen me do!” 49 So each of his men also cut off a branch and followed Abimelech. They put the branches against the stronghold and set fire to it. All the people of the Tower of Shechem died – about a thousand men and women.
50 Abimelech moved on to Thebez; he besieged and captured it. 51 There was a fortified tower in the center of the city, so all the men and women, as well as the city’s leaders, ran into it and locked the entrance. Then they went up to the roof of the tower. 52 Abimelech came and attacked the tower. When he approached the entrance of the tower to set it on fire, 53 a woman threw an upper millstone down on his head and shattered his skull. 54 He quickly called to the young man who carried his weapons, “Draw your sword and kill me, so they will not say, ‘A woman killed him.’” So the young man stabbed him and he died. 55 When the Israelites saw that Abimelech was dead, they went home (Judges 9:46-55).
Abimelech seems to be like his father, Gideon – determined to satisfy his desire for revenge on his enemies. Having completely destroyed Shechem, one would be inclined to assume that Abimelech would now get back to his normal routine. But this was not at all the case. The leaders of the city of Shechem (those who were destined to be “burned with fire from Abimelech” according to the curse of Jotham) had gotten word that Abimelech was waging war against the city of Shechem, and so they fled to the temple of El-Berith.19
One must ask why the leaders of Shechem chose to flee to the “stronghold of the temple of El-Berith.” Was it the most heavily fortified place within or at least near Shechem? Or did the leaders of the city believe that being here, in the temple of the deity they worshipped, was the safest place they could be? How interesting that the leaders of Shechem would seek refuge in the sanctuary of their god, the “god of the covenant,” while being pursued by the son of Jerub-Baal (let Baal contend). This, like the events of the exodus, was a contest between the true God, the God of Israel, and the god of these pagans. Can their “god” deliver them? No! Can the God of Israel punish those who unjustly dealt with the sons of Jerub-Baal? Yes!
And so we find the leaders of Shechem – the ones on whom Jotham pronounced God’s curse –huddled together in the inner room of the temple of their god. The doors were securely shut, and it seemed as though Abimelech and his men would have great difficulty breaking through to them. Then Abimelech had a brilliant thought: Why not burn them out? Abimelech made his way up Mount Zalmon with his men. He instructed them to follow his example. He then cut down some branches (from the trees – is this a coincidence?) and carried them back to the temple of El-Baal. There he set fire to all the branches, placed beside (or on top of)20 the wooden structure in which the leaders of Shechem had sought sanctuary. Either the smoke or the fire (or both) did its job. All of the leaders (under the curse of Jotham) died. Truly, fire had come forth from Abimelech, and it had destroyed the leaders of Shechem.21
We don’t really know anything about the city of Thebez, but it would seem that it was a city that was located somewhere near Shechem. It must also be a city that had resisted Abimelech in some way, prompting him to seek his revenge now that he was nearby. Thebez had a fortified tower in the center of the city, and so when Abimelech approached, the people of the city crowded into the tower for refuge. They then went up to the roof of the tower where they could look down and watch Abimelech unsuccessfully attempting to break through the locked doors or gates.
It is easy to understand what Abimelech did next. He had just succeeded in setting fire to the stronghold in the temple of El-Berith, so why not do the same thing here? And so Abimelech and his men drew near to the tower to set fire to it. But in his arrogance and overconfidence, Abimelech drew a little too close to the walls of the tower, so that he was within reach of a projectile from above.
At this point, I must pause to share a footnote in Dale Ralph Davis’ commentary on Judges regarding this millstone:
One can just imagine a husband panting beside his wife as they run to refuge in the Thebez tower, exasperated that his wife insists on lugging her upper millstone along. Doubtless she responded: “Now, dear, you never know when you might need a good millstone.”22
Actually, the presence of this millstone makes good sense. If Abimelech were to lay siege to this tower, it might be some time before he either prevailed or gave up and went home. No doubt there were some bags of grain and containers of water up there as well. This way the grain could be ground into flour, and food could be prepared.
Arnold Fruchtenbaum, a classmate in our seminary days, writes this about the millstone:
An upper millstone was between twelve and eighteen inches in diameter, and several inches thick, and could have weighed as much as twenty-seven pounds. It was quite a heavy object, and as a result, it broke his skull. This incident will be remembered many years later by King David (II Sam. 11:21).23 Once again in Judges, it is a woman who obtains the victory and gets the glory for her faith.
One of my friends shared his daughter’s response to this story after the Scripture text was read. She turned to her father and said, “This is going to be even better than the story of Jael and the tent peg!” Can you imagine this unnamed woman’s amazement to look down from her lofty perch on the tower roof and see Abimelech standing directly below her? There she stood, with her upper millstone in her hands. It was too easy (I was about to say it was a “no-brainer”) for her to release the stone and watch it land on his head, crushing his skull.
It was one thing for a soldier to suffer a mortal blow from the enemy while in battle. It was quite another to be struck on the head with a millstone, cast down by a woman. Abimelech had sufficient time to see that a woman had mortally wounded him. In his last moments of life, he ordered his armor-bearer to draw his sword and run him through, so that his death was the result of a more manly blow. But he would not be allowed the honor of a noble death; his would be a death that would be spoken of for years to come, as we see from Joab’s words (anticipating David’s response to the death of Uriah) in 2 Samuel 11:24
21 Who struck down Abimelech the son of Jerub-Besheth? Didn’t a woman throw an upper millstone down on him from the wall so that he died in Thebez? Why did you go so close to the wall?’ Then just say to him, ‘Your servant Uriah the Hittite is also dead’” (2 Samuel 11:21).
It was the worst kind of death a king and military commander could have suffered, and yet it was also appropriate because of Abimelech’s treatment of his brothers.
Seeing that their leader was dead, the followers of Abimelech gave up the fight and went home, leaving the people in the tower of Thebez unharmed. Once again, God sovereignly directed the course of events so that the wicked were punished, as promised, and so that those who were not guilty were unharmed. I cannot help but think of this text in 2 Peter 2:
So you see, the Lord knows how to rescue godly people from their trials, even while keeping the wicked under punishment until the day of final judgment (2 Peter 2:9, NLT).
56 God repaid Abimelech for the evil he did to his father by murdering his seventy half-brothers. 57 God also repaid the men of Shechem for their evil deeds. The curse spoken by Jotham son of Jerub-Baal fell on them (Judges 9:56-57).
At the beginning of our text (9:25) and now again at the end, the author calls his reader’s attention to the fact that the events that have been described here are not accidental, or even coincidental; they are the fulfillment of God’s word through Jotham, providentially orchestrated by God, whereby He brought judgment upon the guilty while delivering the innocent (regarding the injustice done to Gideon’s sons) from His wrath. He also makes it clear that what Jotham said from Mount Gerizim was a pronouncement (or prophecy) of divine judgment.
At this mid-point in our study of the Book of Judges, it might be good for us to review our reasons for studying Judges. Here are a few of the reasons why I believe our study is not only justified, but required:
The circumstances and culture described in Judges are remarkably similar to our Postmodern age of today.
Neither God, nor men, nor the temptations men and women face, have changed (see Romans 15:4; 1 Corinthians 10:13; James 5:17-18). As were the Canaanites (Genesis 19), so were the Israelites (Judges 19), and so are men today (Romans 1).
Judges gives us the assurance that in spite of man’s unfaithfulness, God will remain true to His covenant promises, and thus He will preserve His people and establish the kingdom He promised.
Judges assures us that God will use the most unlikely (and even unwilling) instruments to achieve His purposes and promises (people like Ehud, Gideon, Samson, and Jael; instruments like ox goads, tent pegs, and upper millstones).
A study of Judges shows how relevant and profitable this Old Testament book is for Christians today, thus illustrating the truth of Paul’s words to Timothy regarding the usefulness of all Scripture in 2 Timothy 3:16-17.
A study of Judges helps us to understand the culture of many in the world today. A friend who has ministered in the Middle East told me that his wife chuckled through this entire message because what I was trying to describe is what they have experienced for many years. The culture of Israel, Shechem, and Abimelech is the culture of the Middle East. Studying Judges helps us to understand how many people think and act today.
Main lesson: Salvation is not possible through keeping the Mosaic Covenant. In their zeal, the Israelites of Joshua’s day renewed their covenant with God, but Joshua warned them that they would not be able to keep this covenant:
16 The people responded, “Far be it from us to abandon the Lord so we can worship other gods! 17 For the Lord our God took us and our fathers out of slavery in the land of Egypt and performed these awesome miracles before our very eyes. He continually protected us as we traveled and when we passed through nations. 18 The Lord drove out from before us all the nations, including the Amorites who lived in the land. So we too will worship the Lord, for he is our God!”
19 Joshua warned the people, “You will not keep worshiping the Lord, for he is a holy God. He is a jealous God who will not forgive your rebellion or your sins. 20 If you abandon the Lord and worship foreign gods, he will turn against you; he will bring disaster on you and destroy you, though he once treated you well.”
21 The people said to Joshua, “No! We really will worship the Lord!” 22 Joshua said to the people, “Do you agree to be witnesses against yourselves that you have chosen to worship the Lord?” They replied, “We are witnesses!” 23 Joshua said, “Now put aside the foreign gods that are among you and submit to the Lord God of Israel.”
24 The people said to Joshua, “We will worship the Lord our God and obey him.”
25 That day Joshua drew up an agreement for the people, and he established rules and regulations for them in Shechem. 26 Joshua wrote these words in the Law Scroll of God. He then took a large stone and set it up there under the oak tree near the Lord’s shrine. 27 Joshua said to all the people, “Look, this stone will be a witness against you, for it has heard everything the Lord said to us. It will be a witness against you if you deny your God.” 28 When Joshua dismissed the people, they went to their allotted portions of land (Joshua 24:16-28, emphasis mine).
There was no way that the Israelites of old would be able to earn righteousness and God’s blessings by law keeping. If Judges affirms any doctrine of Scripture, it is the doctrine of the depravity of man. Anyone who seeks to earn salvation through law keeping is not only deceived; they are also on the path to eternal destruction. The only deliverance which saves and secures the sinner is that which is accomplished under the New Covenant, through the shed blood of the Lord Jesus. That is why the author of the Book of Hebrews warned his Hebrew readers that turning back to the Old Covenant would be a tragic mistake. The first step toward salvation is the realization that you are lost, and incapable of obtaining salvation by your own efforts. Judges certainly conveys this message clearly.
The deliverers that God raised up in the Book of Judges were not men who could save men spiritually. There were two main problems with the judges God raised up: (1) they were themselves sinners, in need of deliverance, and, (2) they did not live eternally, so that the peace they brought about ended with their deaths. The same could be said of the Old Testament priests and of Israel’s kings as well. The only Deliverer who can save men eternally is Jesus Christ.
17 For here is the testimony about him: “You are a priest forever in the order of Melchizedek.” 18 On the one hand a former command is set aside because it is weak and useless, 19 for the law made nothing perfect. On the other hand a better hope is introduced, through which we draw near to God. 20 And since this was not done without a sworn affirmation – for the others have become priests without a sworn affirmation, 21 but Jesus did so with a sworn affirmation by the one who said to him, “The Lord has sworn and will not change his mind, ‘You are a priest forever’” – 22 accordingly Jesus has become the guarantee of a better covenant. 23 And the others who became priests were numerous, because death prevented them from continuing in office, 24 but he holds his priesthood permanently since he lives forever. 25 So he is able to save completely those who come to God through him, because he always lives to intercede for them. 26 For it is indeed fitting for us to have such a high priest: holy, innocent, undefiled, separate from sinners, and exalted above the heavens. 27 He has no need to do every day what those priests do, to offer sacrifices first for their own sins and then for the sins of the people, since he did this in offering himself once for all. 28 For the law appoints as high priests men subject to weakness, but the word of solemn affirmation that came after the law appoints a son made perfect forever (Hebrews 7:17-28, emphasis mine).
The Book of Judges reveals the need for godly leadership, and it also warns that choosing to follow the wrong leader has disastrous consequences. Let men wait for the day when God will raise up His king. Ultimately that king will not be David, or Solomon; it will be the Lord Jesus Christ. He will defeat His enemies, and He will bring judgment upon the wicked, but blessings on the righteous. God’s promises of judgment and of blessing are sure and unstoppable. Let us be certain that what God says, He will do.
Judges reminds us of the sinfulness (depravity) of man. For a number of years, I taught seminars in prisons in various parts of the country. In one prison in my home state, I taught high school classes for a summer. I learned that prisoners struggle with the same sins as the rest of us. The difference that I observed was that there was not as much sophistication exercised to make sin look better than it is. Put differently, in prison, sin is practiced “in your face” with very little attempt at hypocrisy. Thus, it is easier to see sin for what it is in such settings.
That’s the way I feel about sin in the Book of Judges. Men are no different today than they were back then, and we all struggle with the same kinds of sin. But in Judges, sin is candidly practiced and openly displayed. It is something like the story Nathan the prophet told David in 2 Samuel 12. The evil which Nathan described to David shocked and angered him. But when Nathan then told David that this was his sin, he was caught off guard. He had already committed himself to condemn such a horrible deed, but now he was faced with the fact that what he had condemned was also what he had done. As we read through Judges, we are shocked and distressed at what we see, and we condemn the evils described. But the convicting work of the Holy Spirit then reveals our own sin of the same kind. Now we see our sin as we should, as God views it. And so Judges reveals not only the depravity of man, but it reveals my depravity, my sin, as well.
Our text teaches me that choosing the wrong leader and putting our trust in him (or her) have disastrous effects. The people of Shechem put their trust in Abimelech, rather than in God, and later they put their trust in Gaal, rather than God. Gaal did not save them; he simply ran for his life, and then was unable to lead (because he was thrown out of town by Zebul). Abimelech cared little for the people of Shechem, whether they were relatives or not. He chose to dwell in another town, seldom making an appearance in Shechem. And when his authority was challenged, he became a bitter and vengeful foe. He killed everyone in Shechem and would have killed everyone in Thebes as well, if he could have done so.
Abimelech is like Satan in this regard. He promises to provide protection and blessings for all those who submit to him. But once men are under his power, he becomes an oppressive tyrant. He does not save or deliver; he keeps men in bondage. He does not protect life; he is a destroyer. He does not keep his promises for he is a liar. And yet many fall prey to him because they believe his seductive lies.
How different is our Lord’s leadership from that of Abimelech and Satan. Abimelech gained his leadership position by killing his brothers. Jesus gained His position by laying down His life for his brothers. Abimelech’s leadership style was cruel and oppressive. Our Lord described His leadership role in very different terms:
28 “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. 29 Take my yoke on you and learn from me, because I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30 For my yoke is easy to bear, and my load is not hard to carry” (Matthew 11:28-30).
25 But Jesus called them and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and those in high positions use their authority over them. 26 It must not be this way among you! Instead whoever wants to be great among you must be your servant, 27 and whoever wants to be first among you must be your slave – 28 just as the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Matthew 20:25-28).
Our text is an excellent demonstration of the fact that God is not only able to execute justice in such a way that the wicked get exactly what they deserve, He is also able to judge in such a way as to protect those who are innocent. Abimelech and the leaders of Shechem perish for their treachery in the murder of Gideon’s sons who were Abimelech’s rivals. Gaal, his relatives, and the people of Thebez were spared because they had no part in this evil. Is it not a great encouragement to realize that God’s timing and His work of deliverance and destruction are always done with great precision. There are no accidents in what God brings to pass. His ways are perfect.
We should also take note that God’s deliverance and judgment in our text comes about providentially. That is to say that the judgment that fell on the wicked and the deliverance of the innocent was accomplished through those who did not know or worship God. God used wicked people to accomplish His purposes in our text. If someone were there and were looking on as these events took place, they would undoubtedly have perceived what happened as something entirely natural, rather than the providential intervention of God. They would have thought that all of this “just happened.” They would be wrong, for our author makes it very clear to his readers that these things happened because God brought them to pass, to fulfill His purposes and His promises.
When you read the newspaper or watch the news on television, the world appears to be in chaos. Let us not despair, as though no one is in control. I would suggest that our text teaches us to view the apparent chaos of our world differently than we often do, as the unseen hand of God, bringing about the fulfillment of His plans and purposes. Our text teaches and illustrates the wonderful truth of the sovereignty of God. God is in complete control of everything that happens. That is how He can fulfill the curse of Jotham in such a precise way. There is no question but what God’s plans and purposes will come to pass as He providentially or more visibly governs the affairs of men.
If God is sovereign (and He surely is!), then our text has a lesson to teach us regarding vengeance and revenge. Gideon and Abimelech seem determined to get revenge on their enemies. Christians, too, can be tempted to take matters into their own hands and to see to it that justice is done (vigilante style). While we must practice justice, we need not be consumed with thoughts of revenge, and our text is an excellent illustration of why we can leave vengeance to God. He may bring about justice without us, as we can see in Judges.
There is a correlation between the conflict God affected between Abimelech and the leaders of Shechem and the slaughter of the Midianites by “friendly fire” in Judges 7:
21 They stood in order all around the camp. The whole army ran away; they shouted as they scrambled away. 22 When the three hundred men blew their trumpets, the Lord caused the Midianites to attack one another with their swords throughout the camp. The army fled to Beth Shittah on the way to Zererah. They went to the border of Abel Meholah near Tabbath (Judges 7:21-22, emphasis mine).
What happened in chapter 7 occurs once again (in a slightly different form) in chapter 9. In chapter 7, God caused the Midianites to turn against each other, killing each other with their swords. Gideon and his 300 soldiers were unarmed. They merely stood by and watched God work. Now, in chapter 9, God turns Abimelech and the leaders of Shechem (once closely allied in the slaughter of Gideon’s sons and in making Abimelech king) against each other, so that Abimelech brings about the destruction of the leaders of Shechem, and they are instrumental in bringing about his destruction.
God has His ways of executing justice so that we do not have to seek revenge. This is why Paul can later write:
17 Do not repay anyone evil for evil; consider what is good before all people. 18 If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all people. 19 Do not avenge yourselves, dear friends, but give place to God’s wrath, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay,” says the Lord. 20 Rather, if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him a drink; for in doing this you will be heaping burning coals on his head. 21 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good (Romans 12:17-21).
Our text also exposes the current teaching of “Open Theology” as a lie that should be rejected as heresy. Open Theology is a rather recent teaching, but its roots reach deep into church history. Open Theology opposes the biblical teaching that God knows everything about the future, including not only what will happen, but also what could happen under differing circumstances.25 More to the point, Open Theology opposes the Scriptural teaching that God is in absolute control of the future, bringing about His predetermined plans and purposes whether through the obedience of His people or the disobedience of those who oppose Him. It portrays a God who is “feeling His way along” in history, learning from His mistakes and doing better as time goes on. But He is (in their imagination) a fallible God, a God who does not and will not determine the future, but will allow men to act independently of Him, and then He will respond to their actions.
How in the world can Open Theology deal with our text in Judges? God promises to bring judgment upon Abimelech and upon the leaders of Shechem for the role they have played in the slaughter of Gideon’s sons. And in the course of only three years, God fulfills this prophecy (as set forth by Jotham) precisely as foretold. And God did so in a way that no one would have recognized as God’s work apart from the claims of His Word (Jotham’s prediction and the statements made in Judges 9). Beyond this, God brought all this to pass through those who didn’t believe in Him and who sought to oppose Him. Does God know everything? Yes! Is God in control of this world and the affairs of men, even though they oppose Him? Yes! Goodbye, Open Theology. Hello, sovereignty! Praise God that He is in control, and not those who oppose Him.
Let me end with two thoughts. First, while God’s judgment comes quickly (in three years) in our text, divine judgment does not always come as quickly as we would wish. That is why the saints have cried out, “How long. . . ?” for centuries.
For the music director; a psalm of David.
How long, Lord, will you continue to ignore me?
How long will you pay no attention to me? (Psalm 13:1)
9 Now when the Lamb opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been violently killed because of the word of God and because of the testimony they had given. 10 They cried out with a loud voice, “How long, Sovereign Master, holy and true, before you judge those who live on the earth and avenge our blood?” 11 Each of them was given a long white robe and they were told to rest for a little longer, until the full number was reached of both their fellow servants and their brothers who were going to be killed just as they had been (Revelation 6:9-11, emphasis mine).
God may delay His judgment, but it is always because this fulfills His gracious purposes and promises:
8 Now, dear friends, do not let this one thing escape your notice, that a single day is like a thousand years with the Lord and a thousand years are like a single day. 9 The Lord is not slow concerning his promise, as some regard slowness, but is being patient toward you, because he does not wish for any to perish but for all to come to repentance. 10 But the day of the Lord will come like a thief; when it comes, the heavens will disappear with a horrific noise, and the celestial bodies will melt away in a blaze, and the earth and every deed done on it will be laid bare (2 Peter 3:8-10, emphasis mine).
But judgment day for the wicked will come, just as God’s promised blessings will come for the righteous, in His time:
4 Then the third angel poured out his bowl on the rivers and the springs of water, and they turned into blood. 5 Now I heard the angel of the waters saying:
“You are just – the one who is and who was,
the Holy One – because you have passed these judgments,
6 because they poured out the blood of your saints and prophets,
so you have given them blood to drink. They got what they deserved!”
7 Then I heard the altar reply, “Yes, Lord God, the All-Powerful, your judgments are true and just!” (Revelation 16:4-7, emphasis mine)
1 After these things I heard what sounded like the loud voice of a vast throng in heaven, saying,
“Hallelujah! Salvation and glory and power belong to our God,
2 because his judgments are true and just.
For he has judged the great prostitute
who corrupted the earth with her sexual immorality,
and has avenged the blood of his servants poured out by her own hands!”
3 Then a second time the crowd shouted, “Hallelujah!” The smoke rises from her forever and ever.
4 The twenty-four elders and the four living creatures threw themselves to the ground and worshiped God, who was seated on the throne, saying: “Amen! Hallelujah!”
5 Then a voice came from the throne, saying:
“Praise our God
all you his servants,
and all you who fear Him,
both the small and the great!”
6 Then I heard what sounded like the voice of a vast throng, like the roar of many waters and like loud crashes of thunder. They were shouting:
For the Lord our God, the All-Powerful, reigns!
7 Let us rejoice and exult
and give him glory,
because the wedding celebration of the Lamb has come,
and his bride has made herself ready.
8 She was permitted to be dressed in bright, clean, fine linen” (for the fine linen is the righteous deeds of the saints).
9 Then the angel said to me, “Write the following: Blessed are those who are invited to the banquet at the wedding celebration of the Lamb!” He also said to me, “These are the true words of God.” 10 So I threw myself down at his feet to worship him, but he said, “Do not do this! I am only a fellow servant with you and your brothers who hold to the testimony about Jesus. Worship God, for the testimony about Jesus is the spirit of prophecy” (Revelation 19:1-10).
There is a day coming when God will fulfill His promises of judgment (for the wicked) and of blessing (for the righteous).
And just as people are appointed to die once, and then to face judgment (Hebrews 9:27).
24 “I tell you the solemn truth, the one who hears my message and believes the one who sent me has eternal life and will not be condemned, but has crossed over from death to life. 25 I tell you the solemn truth, a time is coming – and is now here – when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live. 26 For just as the Father has life in himself, thus he has granted the Son to have life in himself, 27 and he has granted the Son authority to execute judgment, because he is the Son of Man.
28 “Do not be amazed at this, because a time is coming when all who are in the tombs will hear his voice 29 and will come out – the ones who have done what is good to the resurrection resulting in life, and the ones who have done what is evil to the resurrection resulting in condemnation” (John 5:24-29).
If the blessings of salvation and eternal life were based upon our faithfulness to God and on our obedience to His commands, we would all be in trouble – we would all be in hell. The Book of Judges is here to remind us that no one can earn God’s blessings by their good deeds. And that is why God’s king must come, King Jesus. He came first to bear the punishment we deserve for our sins, and to give His righteousness to all who believe in Him. He will come again to bring judgment on all those who have rejected Him and His provision for salvation, and to bring eternal blessings for those who have placed their trust in Him for salvation.
3 We ought to thank God always for you, brothers and sisters, and rightly so, because your faith flourishes more and more and the love of each one of you all for one another is ever greater. 4 As a result we ourselves boast about you in the churches of God for your perseverance and faith in all the persecutions and afflictions you are enduring. 5 This is evidence of God’s righteous judgment, to make you worthy of the kingdom of God, for which in fact you are suffering. 6 For it is right for God to repay with affliction those who afflict you, 7 and to you who are being afflicted to give rest together with us when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with his mighty angels. 8 With flaming fire he will mete out punishment on those who do not know God and do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. 9 They will undergo the penalty of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his strength, 10 when he comes to be glorified among his saints and admired on that day among all who have believed – and you did in fact believe our testimony (2 Thessalonians 1:3-10).
The people of Shechem placed their trust in the wrong person – first in Abimelech, and then later in Gaal. The people of Shechem sought to find protection within the walls of the city, and others in the inner sanctuary of the temple of El-Berith. They sought salvation from the wrong source. Our safety and salvation comes only from the God who has delivered His people throughout the centuries. There is a “tower” to which we can flee for salvation and safety, and that “tower” is none other than our Lord Jesus:
The name of the Lord is like a strong tower;
the righteous person runs to it and is set safely on high (Proverbs 18:10).
Indeed, you are my shelter,
a strong tower that protects me from the enemy (Psalm 61:3).
Flee to Jesus for safety, my friend, for salvation comes only from Him. Flee to Jesus, my friend, because those who reject Him will face Him in the Day of Judgment.
Our text, like the rest of the Book of Judges, contains a wealth of revelation. The deeper you dig into this book, the more you find. In this message, I have sought to focus on some of the major areas of emphasis, but there are many matters that are more subtle that are well worth further consideration. Let me mention a few of these without much comment.
First, there are those like Younger who are convinced that Abimelech’s mother was a Canaanite.
“While not explicitly stated in the text, it is nevertheless a clear inference this Shechemite concubine is a non-Israelite (i.e., a Canaanite). Abimelech’s own carefully worded argument of 9:2 makes this clear. With Gideon, we have a cyclical/major judge who, in clear contradiction to Yahweh’s commandment, is having conjugal relations with a Canaanite!” (K. Lawson Younger Jr., Judges and Ruth (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 2002), p. 210; see also p. 232.
Are you convinced that this is, or is not, the case? What difference does it make?
Second, one of Israel’s sins mentioned in our text was forgetting God and the deliverance He achieved for Israel. Another sin was not showing gratitude toward the family of Gideon for the role he played in their deliverance. Does this relate to the New Testament teaching and practice of remembering our Lord’s “deliverance” at Calvary each week at the Lord’s Table? Should we express our gratitude toward those whom God has used to proclaim God’s deliverance through Jesus to us? If so, what form(s) should this take?
Third (and finally!), there are a number of subtleties in our text that would not be immediately apparent to those unskilled in the original (Hebrew) language of the Old Testament. Younger (pp. 230-232) deals with some of these.
There is one subtlety that really got my attention. I was puzzled as to why the author made it a point to tell his readers (twice – 9:5, 18) that the 70 sons of Gideon were killed on “one stone.” It was not until I considered Younger’s observations26 that it all made sense. It was on “one stone” that Abimelech slaughtered his brothers; now it is “one stone” that is cast down by an unnamed woman that brings retribution upon Abimelech for his wickedness. It is subtle, but it is also somehow poetic; the punishment so appropriately fits the crime. Many other subtleties are evident in our text, which reminds me that this book (and particularly this chapter) is written with the same skill and attention to detail as is given by the psalmists to their psalms. The deeper one goes into the details of this book, the more impressed one is with the wisdom of God and the richness of His Word.
1 Copyright © 2009 by Robert L. Deffinbaugh. This is the edited manuscript of Lesson 11 in the series, The Dark Days of Israel’s Judges, prepared by Robert L. Deffinbaugh on October 25, 2009. Anyone is at liberty to use this lesson for educational purposes only, with or without credit.
2 Or perhaps 69 sons, since Jotham, one of the 70, escaped death at the hand of his brother, Abimelech.
3 This really is a battle of the gods in the sense that the only true God, the God of Israel, will prove Himself the deliverer of His people and the destroyer of the pagan no-gods and those who follow them. Jerub-Baal (let Baal contend for himself) – the name Gideon’s father gave him in Judges 6:31-32 – is the better name to use for Gideon in this context.
4 Literally “his mother’s brothers.”
5 Some may question this assumption, but it certainly seems coincidental that the 70 pieces of silver exactly corresponded to the number of sons who would need to be put to death. What is clear is that God held the leaders of Shechem responsible for “strengthening Abimelech’s hands to kill his brothers” (9:24).
6 The term for reigning as king is also found in 9:8, 10, 12, 14, 15, 16, 18. See Arnold G. Fruchtenbaum, Judges and Ruth (San Antonio, Texas: Ariel Ministries, 2007), p. 121.
7 K. Lawson Younger Jr., Judges and Ruth (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 2002), p. 224.
8 The original text literally reads “an evil spirit from the Lord.” The same expression is also found in 1 Samuel 16:14, where God sent an “evil spirit” to terrorize Saul (after the Spirit of the Lord had departed from him). It seems to me that we must see what is happening here as the work of a demonic spirit, and that this is not merely some “spirit of animosity or hostility” as the NKJV and NJB would suggest.
9 Gaal sounds quite similar to Baal. Is there some providential word play taking place here?
10 The rendering of the ESV makes the most sense of this sentence: "Who is Abimelech, and who are we of Shechem, that we should serve him?”
11 Abimelech’s words sound a great deal like those of Absalom (see 2 Samuel 15:1-13).
12 A form of the word “baal” is used here to refer to the leaders of Shechem. Actually, the term occurs 16 times in chapter 9, referring to the leaders of Shechem. The CSB often renders it “lords” – the “lords of Shechem.” I cannot understand how the NASB can render this “the men of Shechem” when it is to the leaders of Shechem that the author is referring. It is yet (in my opinion) another word play in our text.
13 There are two different readings of the Septuagint (Greek) translation of verse 25. One says that the leaders were persuaded by Gaal, and the other says that they put their hope in Gaal. They pinned their hopes on Gaal, rather than on God. That will never work, for misplaced trust always leads to trouble.
14 My language here has been influenced by Dale Ralph Davis, for he has a very clever way of putting things. See Dale Ralph Davis, Such a Great Salvation: Expositions of the Book of Judges (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House, 1990), p 125.
15 See Genesis 34:24; Ruth 4:1; Proverbs 31:23, 31.
16 See verse 42.
17 One cannot help but think of New Testament texts such as Luke 17:26-30 and 1 Thessalonians 5:1-3, which speak of God’s judgment coming suddenly upon those who do not expect it.
18 The relationship of the “Tower of Shechem” and the city of Shechem is unclear (not only to me, but to others). Was this a separate fortification within (or somewhat removed from) Shechem? Fortunately, the answer to this question has little bearing on our understanding of this passage.
19 El is a term from god (or God), and Berith is the term which means covenant. It would seem that Baal-Berith and El-Berith are the same god who was worshipped by the Israelites in this area.
20 Several translations read that Abimelech set the branches on fire “above,” “over,” or “upon” the people gathered there.
21 Younger notes that while “fire proceeds from Abimelech, destroying the leaders of Shechem,” it is difficult to see how literal “fire” comes forth from the leaders of Shechem, destroying Abimelech. His solution is to suggest a word play between the word for “fire” and the word for “woman.” See K. Lawson Younger Jr., Judges and Ruth (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 2002), p. 230.
22 Dale Ralph Davis, Such a Great Salvation: Expositions of the Book of Judges (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House, 1990), p. 127, fn. 11.
23 Arnold Fruchtenbaum, The Books of Judges and Ruth (San Antonio, Texas: Ariel Ministries, 2007), p. 128.
24 These are the words of rebuke Joab anticipated from David when he learned that Uriah had been killed because he was too close to the walls of the city they were attacking.
25 Open Theology rejects the absolute omniscience (God knows all) of God. Proponents of this error believe that while God knows everything in the future that is reality, any future events that are dependent upon men’s decisions and actions are not yet reality, and thus no one – not even God! – can know what does not yet exist. There are many excellent sources which refute the errors of Open Theology. When all is said and done, Open Theology presents us with a God who does not know what we will do, or what He will do until after men have acted. Open Theology makes God’s will dependent upon men’s decisions, not upon God’s eternal purposes. I would suggest that you begin with what John Piper and other likeminded men have said on this topic:
26 See K. Lawson Younger Jr., Judges and Ruth (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 2002), p. 230.