There are occasions both in the scriptures and in daily life when we come across an individual who seems to be totally devoid of moral worth; Abimelech was just such a man. It is a moot point whether in fact he should be counted among the Judges of Israel; he certainly took the title of king and ‘reigned three years over Israel’, Judg. 9. 22, though this may have been a parochial administration at best. However, Abimelech’s sole ambition was self-promotion and although there was never any indication that he was raised up of God, we do know there are times when the permissive will of God allows ungodly men to take prominent positions. And, if the Spirit of God has deemed it necessary to leave on record such a long and detailed chapter of Abimelech’s nefarious exploits, then there must be lessons for us ‘upon whom the ends of the world are come’, 1 Cor. 10. 11.
In the latter verses of Judges chapter 8, we are given the sequel to Gideon’s victory over the Midianites and it was an expected consequence that Gideon would be offered the responsibility of ruling over Israel. At first he appeared unwilling to do this and insisted that the Lord should rule over the nation, v. 23. Yet, it would seem that he did take up the task in some capacity and presided over Israel for forty years during which time the land had peace, but in which time also the seeds were sown for the disastrous events that followed.
It is perhaps a comment on the moral conditions of the day that although Gideon was not the first to have more than one wife, he is the first recorded as having such a multiplicity of wives as to produce seventy sons! In spite of that, however, he still felt the need to have a concubine in Shechem, some distance from his home town, and as a result of this association, Abimelech was born. His name means ‘my father is king’, which is in fact the very title Gideon refused! Abimelech, however, was determined to exploit family connections to his own advantage and set his sights on a place of prominence. If God equips a man to take a leading role among His people He will make sure that all the necessary training is given, and, as seen in the life of David, the Lord will order the timing as well. When men exhibit the character of Diotrephes, ‘who loveth to have the pre-eminence among them’, 3 John 9, then little of any value will follow.
We are not surprised that Abimelech found a ready following among the men of Shechem, his mother’s people; Shechem was a place of mixed associations. It was a place of sacred memory, for there the bones of Joseph were buried when the nation entered the land, Josh. 24. 32. It was also the place of solemn meeting where Joshua challenged the people of God regarding their allegiance, Josh 24. 15. Yet, long before this, in Genesis chapter 34, Jacob’s sons, Simeon and Levi had wreaked an awful vengeance upon Shechem, leaving it a city of slain men because of the Shechemites’ behaviour towards Dinah their sister. Although the city had been allocated to the tribe of Ephraim, there is no mention of its conquest in the book of Joshua. It would seem therefore that the indigenous population of Shechem remained, and they would feel no affinity with the sons of Jacob.
Abimelech gained an acceptance among the men of Shechem, persuading them to finance his mercenary following of ‘vain and light persons’. With them he went to his father’s house, and, in order to neutralize any potential opposition to his rule, he slew sixty-nine of Gideon’s sons; the calculated and merciless act being emphasized by the phrase ‘upon one stone’.
Jotham, the sole survivor, managed to escape the carnage and waited his moment to deliver a very incisive parable to the Shechemites. He chose his moment as Abimelech was celebrating his coronation. The vantage point he used to deliver words, which proved to be prophetic, was mount Gerizim. This was the designated mount of blessing for Israel, yet their actions and their idolatry had resulted in blessings being forfeited and just retribution anticipated.
Jotham paints a picture in words of the trees seeking to appoint a king. The olive, the fig and the vine are approached in turn as potential rulers. On each occasion the offer is refused. All are producing something of value, fruit, food and fulfilment for the people of God. They have no ambition to rule over others, just to carry out the service for which they are fitted. Is there a lesson for us? How many divisions would have been avoided among the Lord’s people if individuals had made it their ambition to produce fruit for the benefit of others, rather than seek a place of prominence? In desperation the trees turn to the bramble, a worthless, barren shrub, producing only symbols of the curse, thorns to pierce and briars to snare those who come into contact with it. Such would be the legacy of Abimelech’s reign, culminating in judgement by fire both upon ruler and ruled.
Ignoring Jotham’s perceptive warning, the Shechemites put their trust in the shadow of the bramble king and for a while all seemed to run quite smoothly. Yet, inevitably, retribution would come, ‘God is not mocked’, and after three years the chain of events leading to Abimelech’s downfall began. The quotation attributed to Longfellow seems quite appropriate, ‘Though the mills of God grind slowly, they grind exceeding small’.
From the beginning of chapter 9, heaven has remained an interested observer as events unfolded. Now in verse 23, God takes a hand. His omniscient eye was still upon the bloodstained stone in Ophrah; such cruelty could not go unpunished. It is interesting to watch as men are moved around from place to place, taking issue with one another, initiating strife, challenging and meeting the challenge. Yet behind all this activity is the hand of a sovereign God, to whose will these men, Abimelech, Gaal, Zebul and their followers are unwittingly responding like pawns on some terrestrial chessboard, moving swiftly to the inevitable checkmate and total loss. It is good to remember that our God has never abdicated his sovereignty with regard to this world’s affairs. The posturing of self-important leaders, thinking that they are masters of their own destiny, and the destiny of nations, are all subject to His will. All the plans and purposes of ungodly rulers which we see played out around us are but setting the stage for the final great events foretold and unfolded in the scriptures. We observe with interest and anticipation, knowing with assurance that ‘now is our salvation nearer than when we believed’, Rom. 13. 11.
The evil spirit sent by the Lord in verse 23 did his job well. Throughout the remainder of chapter 9 it is as though we stand where Jotham stood on mount Gerizim and view the whole panorama of events. The ambushes set up by the men of Shechem to destabilize Abimelech; the attempted coup by Gaal; the secret envoy sent by Zebul, Abimelech’s accomplice, to warn him of the mounting opposition. We watch the manoeuvring of troops, the execution of military plans and counter-plans, until at last smoke arises from the tower of the idol temple in Shechem where a thousand men and women had taken futile refuge as ‘fire came out from Abimelech and devoured the men of Shechem’, exactly as Jotham had foretold.
Flushed with success, Abimelech proceeded to lay siege to the neighbouring city of Thebez, doubtless expecting a similar victory to enhance his reputation and secure his position of authority. Again, the inhabitants take refuge in the tower built for such eventualities, and, again, Abimelech applies the same strategy so successful at Shechem. However, he reckoned without considering a resourceful woman who had hauled a piece of millstone to the top of the tower! What follows is possibly the first example of a guided missile; guided that is by the hand of God! It finds its intended target with unerring accuracy and Abimelech is mortally wounded. Pride is paramount to this man even in his death throes. Appearance is everything; it cannot be said that he, the mighty soldier, was felled by a woman! Abimelech summons his armourbearer, the very man whose responsibility it was to protect him, and he renders the coup de grace. So ended the career of the man who would be king, yet who left God completely out of the reckoning.
It is interesting to observe that the only other time Abimelech is brought to remembrance in scripture is in 2 Samuel chapter 11 verse 21. David, while seeking to justify the death of Uriah beneath the walls of Rabbah, recalls the fact that Abimelech died by the hand of a woman. The one thing that he was desperate to avoid being remembered for!