Judges 9:1-15.
 
The Curse of Selfish Ambition

American Journal of Biblical Theology
Copyright © 2012, J.W.  Carter     Scripture quotes from KJV


We have probably all heard the quote by Baron Acton, "Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely."[1]  There are many types of power, both constructive and destructive.  For the purposes of this study we will look at that form of power that is realized when an individual or small group of individuals exercise authority over others.  In the secular and pagan world, this is the normative form of rule among most of its people groups.  Nations are ruled by kings (though other titles are usually used) and dictators.  Tribal groups are led by their “kings” as they compete with one another for the resources of a region.  Those in power, devoid of the Holy Spirit’s guidance, often abuse those whom they exercise authority over by hoarding resources for themselves and for their close supporters, often those who work to keep them in power to realize those rewards. 

It is the LORD’s purpose that His people would always submit to His authority, and His alone.  The basic tenet of Jewish tradition is that they would never bow to the authority of any man or government.  This is one of the fundamental conflicts that Jews have always faced when they find themselves under the rule of other governmental authorities.  

The same is true for the body of Christ.  As a body, Christians are to submit to the government authority under which they receive the benefits of citizenship.  However, the body of Christ is never to be submitted to the authority of a dictator since Christians hold that Lordship is reserved for God alone.  Consequently, churches are organized as a free-will body that is led by servant leaders: leaders who submit themselves to the LORD and to the congregation as they minister to the needs of the body.  It is only through this model that the LORD can truly be the master of the fellowship as He is allowed to speak through the Holy Spirit to every member and guide the group.  Too often we elect or anoint leaders based upon their ability to lead rather than on their spiritual maturity, and the body finds itself submitted to the authority of the leader, or small group of leaders, rather than to the LORD.  Also, when such people are chosen as leaders it is not unusual that those individuals have a great personal desire to hold a position of authority over others, usurping for themselves the lordship of the body.  When this happens only conflict can result.

This is not a new problem, and has actually been a reoccurring theme throughout the history of ancient Israel as well as in the New Testament churches.  When people are allowed to use the church to exercise their need for self-centered ambition, disaster results.  The Old Testament examples of the exercise of selfish ambition are dramatic.  One of the first of these we encounter takes place shortly after Gideon served as a judge for Israel.

The communities in the ancient near-east were tribal, and tended to be militant in nature in order to protect their own interests from others, and they tended to be led by kings who were either patriarchs, proven military leaders, or hyper-violent bullies who maintained power through ruthlessness.  As Israel turned away from God and experienced a need to defend itself from the Canaanites who were not purged from the Promised Land, it too desired a king to lead them.

Chapters six and seven of the book of Judges chronicles the rise of Gideon to the position of Judge in Israel, and Chapter eight chronicles the “mop up” operation that followed the defeat of the Midianites who had brought Israel to their knees. The LORD knew Gideon’s gifts, and as the LORD used him to lead Israel back to himself, he became a very successful leader.  Gideon served as a godly leader, and the people of Israel approached Gideon with the desire to raise him to the level of king.  Gabriel’s response to their demands serves to illustrate the perspective that is held by a godly leader. 

Judges 8:22-23.  Then the men of Israel said unto Gideon, Rule thou over us, both thou, and thy son, and thy son’s son also: for thou hast delivered us from the hand of Midian. 23And Gideon said unto them, I will not rule over you, neither shall my son rule over you: the LORD shall rule over you.

Though Gideon would not rule over Israel, his position did bring him many of the opportunities that such leadership would realize, including a harem of wives and at least one concubine.  In a kingdom, it was quite acceptable for the king to have many wives so that there would be many sons, one of whom would be able to succeed him as the next king.  With a large number of sons, the chances were that one would survive the intrigue of battles and coup attempts that were common in their culture.  The sons of concubines would have no such opportunity. 

Chapter eight records that as soon as Gideon died, the nation again turned away from the LORD and sought after the pagan gods of the Canaanites.  Gideon may not have served as king, but by failing to pass his faith on to a successor, he did put in place a scenario that was similar to what was the norm in the pagan nations that surrounded Israel, a scenario that would play out quickly after his death. 

By the time of his death, Gideon had fathered seventy sons and at least one additional son by a concubine, a son who would feel like an outsider, one who is not given the same rights as the other seventy sons, a son named Abimelech.

Judges 9:1-2.  And Abimelech the son of Jerubbaal went to Shechem unto his mother’s brethren, and communed with them, and with all the family of the house of his mother’s father, saying, 2Speak, I pray you, in the ears of all the men of Shechem, 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? remember also that I am your bone and your flesh.

Our introduction to Abimelech reveals much about his nature.  As a concubine, Abimelech’s mother was not a wife of Gideon (herein referred to by his new name, Jerubbaal)[2], and likewise did not have the rights of the true wives of the “king.”  It is evident that Abimelech did not have the faith of his father.  Devoid of that faith, all that Abimelech did have was a desire to have the one thing that he could not: the throne of Israel. 

Perceiving himself as an “illegitimate prince,” Abimelech had little influence in Israel (as his father had little prior to his call to serve as one of Israel’s judges), and as a son of a concubine had no pathway for ascension to a throne that did not even exist.  However, with Gideon gone, it was reasonable for the nation to look to one of Gideon’s sons to take his place, a community of prospects that did not include Abimelech.  Consequently, Abimelech initiated a conspiracy that would gain him some influence in the community. 

Reminding his mother’s family of his close relationship with them, he asked of them a simple question:  would you rather that Israel have one king, or seventy?  Those who wish to manipulate others will often present arguments that in themselves are inherently lies.  There was no potential that the seventy sons of Gideon would serve as kings of Israel, though there was a likelihood that one might have risen to such a position given the appropriate set of circumstances.  His question was stated in the form of a certainty that if Israel did not quickly find a king, that his family would be overwhelmed by the autocracy of those seventy sons who already treated them as outcasts.  Abimelech painted a false picture, in improbable scenario, in order to convince them to join him in his personal agenda.

Judges 9:3.  And his mother’s brethren spake of him in the ears of all the men of Shechem all these words: and their hearts inclined to follow Abimelech; for they said, He is our brother.

With Gideon dead, Abimelech’s mother had little more status than a widow.  She was not a wife of Gideon and, with Abimelech, did not take part in the blessing as his estate was divided among his sons.  Consequently, she perceived Abimelech’s plan as a way out of her dilemma.  She went throughout the city of Shechem, her hometown and now the largest Israelite city in the region, and planted seeds of doubt in the minds of all who would hear.  As she shared Abimelech’s question, she also made it clear that her son would be an appropriate choice for king.  The seventy sons lived around Ophrah, and were not part of the community in Shechem.  Abimelech was from their town.  As a “favorite son” they had much to gain by supporting Abimelech as Israel’s first king.

Still, for Abimelech to become king, a plan needed to be put in place that would remove the sons of Gideon from “succession.”  Ignorant of the LORD and His purpose for Israel, Abimelech believed that if those seventy sons were taken out of consideration and only he remained, he would be the obvious choice for king.  So, a plan was put in place.

Judges 9:4.  And they gave him threescore and ten pieces of silver out of the house of Baalberith, wherewith Abimelech hired vain and light persons, which followed him.

When the LORD called Gideon to gather together an army, the respect that the nation had for Gideon was evident by the overwhelming response to his summons that went out to the nearby tribes when over 30,000 volunteers joined him.  Abimelech was not respected by the Israelites, and any such summons would not only be fruitless, but would expose his conspiracy and result in his certain death.  Therefore, the people of Shechem collected from among themselves a sum of money, recorded as a piece of silver for each son of Gideon: seventy pieces, that would be used to pay mercenaries to serve as Abimelech’s army, silver that was taken from proceeds of pagan worship.  With laborers typically receiving only a copper coin for a day’s work, Abimelech could pay enough to form a quite large group of “followers.”  Unlike the army that Gideon gathered together who came with a desire to serve the LORD under his lead, this group is described as “vain and light” referring to their self-centeredness and lack of wisdom.  It is this type of person that a bully like Abimelech could recruit as his strongmen. 

Often when one desires to exercise selfish ambition, power is attained by the gathering together of those who can be easily influenced and manipulated into a circle of protection.  By ordering his unholy mercenary army, Abimelech put in place a plan that would assure his ascension to the first throne of Israel.

Judges 9:5.  And he went unto his father’s house at Ophrah, and slew his brethren the sons of Jerubbaal, being threescore and ten persons, upon one stone: notwithstanding yet Jotham the youngest son of Jerubbaal was left; for he hid himself.

The text does not indicate the size of Abimelech’s mercenary army, but it was large enough to overwhelm the house Gideon to the point that they were able to herd the entire family to one central location where each was systematically executed one-by-one.  However, blinded the frenzy of their bloodthirst, they assumed that they had rounded up every son of Gideon, only to have passed over the youngest who successfully hid from them. 

Judges 9:6.  And all the men of Shechem gathered together, and all the house of Millo, and went, and made Abimelech king, by the plain of the pillar that was in Shechem.

What just took place was not an action taken by the Israelites, but rather by a single group of thugs from a single city.  However, by his actions, the support of the city of Shechem, and the void left by the death of Gideon, Abimelech did indeed assume for himself the position of king over Israel.  However, because he was neither a godly leader or beloved by the nation, he held his position of power only as long as the men of Shechem provided a wall of protection around him.

When people seize power in an inappropriate and self-centered way, they fail to attain the most important resources that are needed for effective leadership:  the guidance of the Holy Spirit, and the love and respect of the people.  Certainly, Abimelech had neither resource to draw from.  Abimelech seized power in the nation, literally declaring himself king, when it was never God’s plan that Israel would be led by any king in the first place.  When Jotham heard that Abimelech had been declared as the king of Israel, he bravely approached Israel with the only weapon he had:  truth.

Judges 9:7-13.  And when they told it to Jotham, he went and stood in the top of mount Gerizim, and lifted up his voice, and cried, and said unto them, Hearken unto me, ye men of Shechem, that God may hearken unto you. 8The trees went forth on a time to anoint a king over them; and they said unto the olive tree, Reign thou over us. 9But the olive tree said unto them, Should I leave my fatness, wherewith by me they honour God and man, and go to be promoted over the trees? 10And the trees said to the fig tree, Come thou, and reign over us. 11But the fig tree said unto them, Should I forsake my sweetness, and my good fruit, and go to be promoted over the trees? 12Then said the trees unto the vine, Come thou, and reign over us. 13And the vine said unto them, Should I leave my wine, which cheereth God and man, and go to be promoted over the trees?

As Jotham observed what had just taken place, he described the situation to Israel in the form of an allegorical parable.  It is not God’s plan that Israel would be led by a king.  God’s plan is that the people of Israel would love and obey Him, and bear much fruit, so that the nation can prosper.  Jotham illustrates this truth by comparing what Shechem had done to a request made by the forest to an olive tree, a fig tree, and a grape vine, to be the king over all of the trees.  The olive tree, fig tree, and grape vine all have one thing in common:  they all bear fruit. There is no need for any of these to rule over the forest, and none would choose to do so because they are doing exactly what they were created for: to bear fruit.

Jotham is declaring that no man of God would have a desire to serve as the king of Israel simply because a godly man would know that this is not God’s purpose for the nation.  Those who truly bear fruit for the LORD cannot agree with what had just taken place.  Jotham is clearly declaring that Abimelech is not a man of God, nor are those who worked to bring him to power.  If anyone doubts this, he clarified his position by closing the parable with a description of Abimelech:

Judges 9:14-15.  Then said all the trees unto the bramble, Come thou, and reign over us. 15And the bramble said unto the trees, If in truth ye anoint me king over you, then come and put your trust in my shadow: and if not, let fire come out of the bramble, and devour the cedars of Lebanon.

Jotham compares Abimelech to a bramble:  a fruitless weed that only serves to destroy everything that it touches.  Brambles serve to choke the life out of the fruitful plants it overwhelms, robbing the plants of the sun and moisture they need, and making it nearly impossible for the harvester to access what fruit remains. 

Those to rise to power in the body of faith by selfish ambition are these brambles.  They are not those in the body who bear spiritual fruit, but rather those who accept or take positions of leadership for what they can gain from it, whether it be to have their esteem built, to be able to exercise their desire to control others, etc.  Often the body of believers, the “trees,” select for leadership those who are willing to serve rather than those who are gifted to serve.  This is what happened in Shechem.  Abimelech was more than willing to be king, but lacked the gifts that God would have a leader of Israel to have. Consequently, Abimelech took power in an inappropriate manner, and we will find he also “led” Israel in a manner that failed to bear fruit. 

Had the people of Shechem been led of the LORD, they would have never supported the rise of Abimelech.  However, having turned their backs on God, they lacked the spiritual perspective to choose for themselves a godly leader.  When the trees call brambles to lead themselves, the forest cannot bear the fruit that God would desire.  This is a lesson that every body of believers can embrace. 

Judges 9:19-21.  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: 20But if not, let fire come out from Abimelech, and devour the men of Shechem, and the house of Millo; and let fire come out from the men of Shechem, and from the house of Millo, and devour Abimelech. 21And Jotham ran away, and fled, and went to Beer, and dwelt there, for fear of Abimelech his brother.

Speaking to the people of Shechem, particularly those who took part in the murder of Gideon’s family, Jotham makes a simple and important point for consideration.  As the LORD would have His people led by godly leaders, Jotham simply asks them if Abimelech is, indeed, a godly leader.  He is challenging them to take a good look at the one whom they have chosen to lead them:  Look at the nature of his true heart.

Judges 9:22-24.  When Abimelech had reigned three years over Israel, 23Then God sent an evil spirit between Abimelech and the men of Shechem; and the men of Shechem dealt treacherously with Abimelech: 24That the cruelty done to the threescore and ten sons of Jerubbaal might come, and their blood be laid upon Abimelech their brother, which slew them; and upon the men of Shechem, which aided him in the killing of his brethren.

Abimelech’s godless reign had lasted unchallenged for three years.  By this time all knew the kind of person that Abimelech was.  During his “reign” he did not serve the LORD, and he did not serve the people.  He only served himself.  Recognizing this, the people asked themselves the question, “why are we submitting to him”?  Unlike the godly leader Gideon who had earned the love and respect of the people because of his demonstrated love for God and for them, Abimelech had no basis upon which to gain the respect of the people except for the type of submission that comes from fear.  When Abimelech first attained the throne, his power was protected by his mercenaries.  After three years Abimelech found himself without his paid assassins, without the respect of the people, and surrounded only by those whom he abused.  Unprotected, Abimelech would face the consequences of his behavior, one that was first demonstrated when he murdered the family of Gideon.  Jotham’s prophecy would be proved to be true as the people turned on Abimelech. 

Judges 9:54-57.  Then he called hastily unto the young man his armourbearer, and said unto him, Draw thy sword, and slay me, that men say not of me, A woman slew him. And his young man thrust him through, and he died. 55And when the men of Israel saw that Abimelech was dead, they departed every man unto his place. 56Thus God rendered the wickedness of Abimelech, which he did unto his father, in slaying his seventy brethren: 57And 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.

Facing a rebellion of his “subjects,” Abimelech foolishly attacked the city walls only to have a woman drop a large stone on his head.  A victim of his own pride and violence, he chose suicide at the hand of his armorbearer, ending the cycle of violence that he started.

The intrigue and violence that characterized the rise and fall of Abimelech is indicative of the same intrigue and violence that was common in the pagan nations that surrounded Israel.  Likewise, the community of faith is today surrounded by a similar world of godless paganism.  Choosing to be like the world, the nation of Israel turned its back on God, opening itself to the world culture, subjecting itself to the vagaries of those who would choose violence to attain their own godless and selfish goals. 

The church today has the potential to make the same mistake as it chooses leaders for itself.  A worldly church will choose worldly leaders, and by so doing only accomplish the things that the world accomplishes.  A church who chooses leaders who are led by selfish ambition will, like be led by that leader rather than by the LORD.  A godly church will chose leaders who are spiritually mature, leaders who love GOD and love them.  A church is made up of gifted and talented members who each should have the opportunity to express those gifts, talents, and interests as each serves the body in a variety of ways, some as administrators, some as worship leaders, some as planners, some as prayer warriors, etc.  God’s plan for the church is that all would take part as He leads the body through its members, rather than have the body led by an individual or small group of individuals.  It is only in this model that every believer can minister and serve to the level of their potential.  To take this opportunity away from the people through selfish ambition robs the body of the purpose that God intends.

Jotham called upon the people to honestly consider their motives and the motives of their leaders to assess whether they were led of the LORD or led of the world.  The selfish ambition of Abimelech resulted in extraordinary violence and pain for the people of Israel as they witnessed the massacre of Gideon’s entire family, and Abimelech’s seizure of power.  Though we should never witness this level of violence in the church, the purpose of the church is similarly stunted when led by self-centered leaders.  As we choose those who would lead us, let us also consider godly motives, and choose those who would serve the body from godly motives that are demonstrated by spiritual maturity.  If we are serving in leadership let us also always serve the LORD rather than use our position to serve ourselves so that every member of the body can also express the gifts that the LORD has given them and desires for them to exercise.  Then the body can flourish and be the church that the LORD desires. 


[1] John Emerich Edward Dalberg, 1st Baron Acton (1834–1902), British historian. Letter, April 3, 1887, to Bishop Mandell Creighton. The Life and Letters of Mandell Creighton, vol. 1, ch. 13, ed. Louise Creighton (1904).

[2] Jerub Baal means, “strives against Baal.”