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Verses 1-57


The Bramble King

Judges 9:0

IS Abimelech dead? Has he reappeared in our own days? Or after the devil made Abimelech did he throw the mould away? These questions are not difficult. We can easily determine them, either in the positive or in the negative. It would be something worth doing to be able to establish as a fact the absolute certainty of the death of Abimelech and all his progeny. But we must take the evidence as we find it, and abide by the issue to which it points, whatever that issue may be. This is the only just way of reading human history, and we must not suspend it, or pervert it, simply to confirm our own prejudices or inclinations. The broad lines of the career of Abimelech are written in this chapter, and are easy of comprehension. Abimelech was the son of Gideon. So far that may be put down to his credit. But his mother was only a concubine, or a wife of the second rank. So Abimelech stands somewhat on one side in history. It is often awkward to have incidental relations in life: they surprise the parties interested at unexpected times; they flash out light in the darkness; they make a noise when deep sleep falleth upon man. Still, Abimelech had advantages arising from the concubinage of Gideon. He was related to the Ephraimites on the one hand and to the Canaanites on the other. It has been pointed out in the case of our own Henry II. that he boasted that he was the first Norman son of a Saxon mother. Abimelech may make use of this peculiarity in his history, and may work along that line of policy and adventure. Still, we must not blame Abimelech where no blame is due. We are not asked how we will be born into the world, or where; otherwise some of us would never have been born at all. Do not throw a man's disadvantages in his face. There are misfortunes as well as crimes, and a just criticism of character and of history will ever distinguish between the one and the other. Abimelech must speak for himself. When he begins to talk we shall understand somewhat of the quality of his mind, but even there we must make critical and perhaps generous allowance. We do not now begin the human race. Even now we are tainted or blessed by our past Only God, therefore, can judge the world. We see but the individual man, the narrow and open circumstances of life; and the basis of inference is too narrow to justify us in supposing that it is in our power to form a comprehensive and final judgment. "Judge not, that ye be not judged. For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged: and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again." Abimelech himself may illustrate these fundamental principles.

Abimelech was ambitious. By so much he lives today. He would be king; who would not? There is a taking of the lowest seat at the feast which is the veriest pride. When Diogenes trampled upon the robe of Plato he said, "Thus I tread on Plato's pride;" Plato answered, "With greater pride of your own." So if we find Abimelech wanting to be king, the air is full of Abimelechs. There are various kingdoms and thrones and primacies for which men are striving night and day. Who has not his own little ambition? It looks innocent enough in some cases: it is but to add a letter or two to the name; or to live in a larger house; or to be able to give hospitality that will create a reputation for itself; or to be named by some distinguished writer; it does not lie at all along the high line which is supposed to be terminated by a throne: but, as a mere matter of analysis the action or purpose underlying it is as full of ambition as if the man, actuated by that motive, had fixed his eyes upon the supreme throne of the world. Abimelech was adroit. He put a question. Are interrogators dead? He put a question that was noble and unselfish in its letters, namely, "Whether is better for you?" as if to say, It is no matter of mine; your interests are supreme: I open my business on the public highway for the good of the public; it is of no consequence to me whether you buy my goods or not; I lay them before you and give you the golden opportunity, and you must say what you will do in the matter. Is that man dead? Why, he is a thousand strong in nearly every great thoroughfare! Time cannot kill him; he can be found at a moment's notice. But Abimelech was unjust in his benevolence. The question he put had no right to be put, because it involved others, namely, "Whether is better for you, either that all the sons of Jerubbaal, which are threescore and ten persons, reign over you, or that one reign over you?" ( Jdg 9:2 ). Would you like to have seventy kings, or one king? Now the spirit of Abimelech was false, because the seventy men had never said anything about wishing to be kings. Why do we first credit men with bad motives, and then charge those bad motives upon them as accusations, as if they had originated in the spirit of the men themselves? We must not put one another into false positions. If the seventy sons of Jerubbaal had said, "We would all like to be kings," the case would have been put precisely in the terms which Abimelech used. But Gideon had refused the kingship. Long ago, when the Israelites said, Rule thou over us, and thy house, he said, No, I will not rule over you, nor my house: the Lord is your king. How subtle is the temptation to misconstrue a man's purposes, and then to treat him as if he had actually originated those purposes! We transfer ourselves to the man, and having invested him with an enforced personality we judge him by that investiture. The spirit of injustice is a cruel spirit.

The action which Abimelech took was to kill the sons of Gideon. That was the rude method of the times. Seventy men were in the way, and the answer to the embarrassment was Murder! So the sons of Gideon, seventy in number, were murdered "upon one stone" probably flung from one rock and dashed to pieces. How will Abimelech die? We must wait to see. But one son escaped, namely, the youngest, Jotham by name. How is it that one always does escape? Account for the one little Fleance always getting out of the way and coming back at unexpected times, and facing society like a living judgment. It is in so-called little things that the providence of God is vividly shown. Not the oldest, strongest son, but little Jotham, we may call him, for he certainly was the youngest. He came upon a given day, and spake a parable upon the top of Mount Gerizim. He "lifted up his voice, and cried, and said" and then comes the parable, or fable, of the trees. It is rather a fable than what we now understand by a parable. It is more after, as we should say, the lines of Æsop than the lines of Christ. But a fable may be the larger truth. How is it that the men living at the time cannot write the history of what they see? We say, This statesman, or that reformer, must be left for critical judgment to the historian. Or we say, The event is too near us to be correctly judged. That is to say, a man who is not yet born will arise and tell the world the exact meaning of what we are now doing! Why, then, this wonderful objection to Biblical prophets and Biblical judgments? It is the very principle upon which we ourselves operate day by day. There can be nothing much more startling to what we call common-sense than that a man who is not yet born shall arise and give a true version of the men's motives, purposes, and histories who lived a thousand years before he himself was born. So fable takes up the real meaning of things, that marvellous composition we call fiction, dramatic interpretation, the lifting of things up from low levels, into right line and colour, that most wondrous of all God's gifts to man, the gift of Imagination. Jotham displayed amazing intellectual sagacity, and expressed himself with exquisite verbal beauty. It required an attentive mind to follow him. The man speaks about trees; the trees going forth to anoint a king over them; the trees asking the olive, and the olive declining; then asking the fig-tree, and the fig-tree saying No; then asking the vine, and the vine refusing the throne; last of all, the bramble lean, prickly, sharp asking in a taunting tone if they were willing to put their trust in his shadow; if so, he, the bramble, would reign over the cedars of Lebanon. Pride at first says, Who shall we have to reign over us? At last Pride says, Who can we get to be our king? God humbles pride. The first inquiry made by a Church may be, Who shall we have for our minister? and the last may be, Who can we get? who will come? It is right: all really good people are pre-engaged. The olive-tree says, "Should I leave my fatness, wherewith by me they honour God and man, and go to be promoted over the trees?" The fig-tree says, "Should I forsake my sweetness, and my good fruit, and go to be promoted over the trees?" The vine says, "Should I leave my wine, which cheereth God and man, and go to be promoted over the trees?" All the good trees are pre-occupied. All the men worth having to reign over us are already enthroned. Kings are not falling about the streets to be picked up by any passer-by. Last of all, the trees becoming a little disappointed, actually renounced their courtesy, and said to the bramble, somewhat brusquely, "Come thou, and reign over us." No question was asked; no opportunity of declining was given; but, with a kind of satiric brutality, the trees said, We must have a king here, come, and take the throne. The parable is spoken. It is sprinkled, so to say, on the air, and is apparently lost. No; the air is full of sermons yet to be applied. They will take fire some day, and come back upon us with startling, if not destructive, energy No wise word is lost; no fable charged with sacred meaning has vanished with the smoke of the day in which it was spoken. Cheer thy heart, godly teacher; the sermons appear to be all lost They are listened to, but not answered. The appeal, warm with thy very blood, accentuated by the fire of life, may apparently be lost. But there is a time of resurrection in these things, and swift application, a day of judgment before the judgment day, and then it will be known what every man has done in endeavouring to serve his age. Again and again in the life of Christ we read such words as these, "Then remembered they," that is to say, circumstances had gathered themselves into such proportions, and had addressed themselves with such vigour to the mind and the memory, that something within was awakened, the old word was sounded in the ear, and it came with its full and noble meaning. The man who can make a beautiful parable can make a beautiful sermon also. Jotham made a magnificent appeal:

"Now therefore, if ye have done truly and sincerely [a bitterly ironical supposition], in that ye have made Abimelech king, and if ye have dealt well with Jerubbaal and his house, and have done unto him according to the deserving of his hands; (for my father fought for you, and adventured [cast, "he hath poured out his soul unto death,"] his life far, and delivered you out of the hand of Midian: and ye are risen up against my father's house this day, and have slain his sons, threescore and ten persons [Jotham himself is counted in this number], upon one stone, and have made Abimelech, the son of his maidservant [intentionally contemptuous], king over the men of Shechem, because he is your brother;) if ye then have dealt truly and sincerely with Jerubbaal and with his house this day, then rejoice ye in Abimelech, and let him also rejoice in you: but if not, let fire come out from Abimelech, and devour the men of Shechem, and the house of Millo; and let fire come out [exactly fulfils Jdg 9:45-49 ] from the men of Shechem, and from the house of Millo, and devour Abimelech" ( Jdg 9:16-20 ).

The epimuthion , or application of the fable, was magnificent in moral tone. Jotham comprehended the great philosophy that water cannot rise above its level: men cannot rise above the honour that is in them. Little men cannot be great; ungrateful men cannot be just; mean souls can never be majestic. Jotham said in effect: If this is your idea of honour, so be it, take the consequences; if this is your reading of history, and this your tribute to the illustrious dead, let it be so. Men must act according to their own quality. Men do not gather grapes of thorns, nor figs of thistles. The criticism with which your life is followed will be according to the quality of the critics: tainted men will see putridity in you; men of ungenerous mind will never write or speak one glowing word about your action. They are hardly to be blamed; they cannot help it: every tree grows after its own kind, so does every man. The appeal of Jotham is the appeal which men may address to the ages, though they run away as Jotham did, and flee into darkness; but the appeal will abide when the speaker has gone. Children, if this is your idea of what is due to your father and your mother who lived for you, suffered for you, had but one thought, and that a thought for your comfort and progress, if this is your idea of gratitude and justice to their memory, carry out your programme, and let the times that are coming judge you. Nations, if this is the way in which you treat your statesmen, your patriots, your reformers, so be it: nations cannot rise above their level: by your treatment of your leaders and patriots we shall know your own quality. Nations write themselves in the deeds which they do to those who have led and instructed them. Congregations, if this be your idea of what is due to your ministers and teachers, so be it; if after the men have prayed themselves into agony for you, studied your distresses that they might heal your wounds, lived for you, thought for you, sacrificed themselves on the altar of your welfare, if you care to forget the past, to throw out the old men and let them die where they may, so be it: congregations cannot rise above their level. Congregations must carry out their own idea of honour. They find it convenient to forget, to obliterate, the noblest service which man can render to man. Be it so. Do not reason with them. It is an inevitable meanness. Then the other side is true: there are grateful children; there are nations loyal to their chiefs; there are congregations greater than the ministers. So be it. On both sides we can but say with Jotham, So be it; rejoice, and rejoice in one another.

After three years peace was broken. Abimelech conquered until he came to Thebez, where there was a strong tower; and full of his father's intrepidity and daring courage, he went straight up to the tower and said he would destroy it, or overthrow it, or burn it The people went to the top of the tower, and a woman among them looked out, and saw this man fighting against its very walls, and she dropped a stone, and it crushed the head of Abimelech. He killed the sons of Gideon with a stone: God also can throw stones. Let us take care: "With what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again." When Adoni-bezek had his thumbs and great toes cut off he said, "As I have done, so God hath requited me." The treacherous idolaters had their temple burned by the treachery of their enemies. "It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God."

"Thus," we read:

"God rendered the wickedness of Abimelech, which he did unto his father, in slaying his seventy brethren: and all the evil of the men of Shechem did God render upon their heads: and upon them came the curse of Jotham the son of Jerubbaal" ( Jdg 9:56-57 ).

Selected Notes

Cast a piece of millstone. So that ambitious King Pyrrhus was at last slain with a tile-stone thrown upon his head by a woman. And the like deadly blow by a like hand, upon the head of Hermanius, Earl of Lucelberg, whom Pope Hildebrand had set up in opposition to Henry the Emperor, whom he had excommunicated. Simeon De' Monteforti also, another of the Pope's champions, fighting against those ancient Protestants, the Waldenses, was brained with a stone at the siege of Toulouse. That scholar that took his death by the falling of a letter of stone from the Earl of Northampton's house at the funeral of Queen Anne, was to be pitied. But commentators observe it for a just hand of God upon Abimelech, that upon one stone he had slain his seventy brethren, and now a stone slayeth him: his head had stolen the crown of Israel, and now his head is smitten.

The vengeance which he had wreaked upon Shechem, he intended also for Thebez, a town placed by the Onomasticon thirteen Roman miles from Neapolis (Shechem) on the road to Beth-Shean, or Beisân; which is therefore the modern Tûbâs, twelve miles e.n.e. of Shechem. One might infer from this that the son considered himself the lawful successor of his father in the government of Israel, and meant to punish these two cities as Succoth and Penuel had been punished for their rebellion. But his utter failure, his death by the hand of a woman (like Sisera, Jdg 4:9 ), and his miserable effort to escape by suicide from this disgrace, to a bold warrior, were the tokens in providence that he wanted the moral and spiritual qualities of Gideon. And his personal ruin, together with the immediately resulting collapse of the government which he had established over Israel, marked the fulfilment of Jotham's curse. It is mere ignorance of old English which in many copies of the Bible changed "alto brake," that is, "altogether brake," into "all to break" in ver. 53.

In the providence of God a spirit of rebellion and hatred was allowed to work its influence upon the Shechemites. Gaal, probably a Canaanite, came to the city, and excited the inhabitants at the time of the vintage festival, urging that Abimelech was half an Israelite, and that it behoved them to establish a pure native rule. Abimelech was privately informed of the conspiracy by Zebul, one of his followers, whom he had made ruler of Shechem; and with an energy and promptitude that recall the military abilities of his father, at once proceeded to quell the revolt. He defeated Gaal, who attempted to exclude him from Shechem, and on the following day took the city with much slaughter of his former subjects. The temple-citadel in which the rest took refuge he burned to the ground, and then besieged Thebez, which had borne a part in the insurrection. The people fled to the citadel, and Abimelech proceeded to lay fire at the gate. Here, however, his reign and his life came suddenly to an end. A piece of a millstone, flung by a woman from the battlements, fractured his skull, and, at his own request, his armour-bearer thrust him through with a sword. Thus ended the dark, dishonourable career of "the Bramble King," after a tyranny of three years, and thus closed one of the most degrading chapters in the history of Israel.


Almighty God, we are part of thy purpose in the creation of the world. We know not why we are here. We are here by no will of our own: the times are hard, the temptations are a million in number, the chances are that we may be lost. We cannot tell what all this means. Thou didst not ask us to be here. We are often full of pain and sore distress, hardly knowing the right hand from the left; mocked in our prayers; disappointed, not only in our ambitions, but in our rational hopes; borne down by a great weight, threatened by an immeasurable cloud, full of blackness, charged with thunder. What we love we lose: we grow flowers only to see them wither, and rear children that they may break our hearts, and pet the household lamb that it may be stolen. This is a great mystery. We knew not any of its meaning in ourselves. We bless thee for a book which interprets the riddle. We hear in that Gospel-book music from heaven, voices from beyond, assurances that the darkness is but for a moment, and that a great light has already started from the eternal throne and will be here presently. We have read the story of thy Son, and we know it to be true: this Man receiveth sinners; this Man talks to the broken heart, and holds up pictures of the kingdom long enough for us to see them through our tears. He loved us: he preached in our towns and villages; he gave us bread when we were hungry; he cured the sick man whom the physicians had abandoned; he allowed us to approach him by night when we dared not go by day: he saved others, himself he did not save; he forgave his enemies dying, and he sent gospels to them living; and now he is exalted, a King, a Prince, a Saviour, to give repentance unto Israel and remission of sins; and he carries the little earth in his heart like a thing loved with all heaven's love. We know Jesus Christ. We love him. His name is wrought into the very texture of our life: to take it away is to take away our breath. He was our visitor when none else would come near the house; he lighted the lamp when the chamber was all darkness; he came out into the wilderness to seek and to save that which was lost. We cannot forget his cross: if we forget that cross, may our right hand forget its cunning; if we cease to remember that death, may our tongue cleave to the roof of our mouth. Lead us to see that all other deliverances point to the one redemption. As we move along the line of Biblical story, may we feel that One greater is yet to come than any deliverer who has appeared. May we find our way through providence to redemption, through history to revelation, and through the altars built by men to the cross set up from before the foundation of the world; thus will our reading be profitable, full of spiritual nutriment, and our souls shall grow in the school of God, and around them shall be wrought the mystery of grace, as we spend our nights and days with Jesus. We put our hands into thine. The way is too long for us, and too rough; who made the road we cannot tell, but our feet are weary, and our eyes are distressed by the vast monotony. But in thy society there is no weariness; in thine inspiration, O Holy Spirit of the living God, heaven begins. Feed us; lead us; keep us; may no wanderer be lost! Amen.

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