The Tragedy of Lawlessness
Topic: Expository Passage: Judges 8:22–9:57
If you have ever taken a speech or writing class, you’ve probably heard that big ideas should always be stated positively. Rather than saying, “Don’t be a liar,” say, “Be honest.” It’s a good principle, because, people respond more favorably to positive affirmations than to negative denials. We like warm pictures, happy endings, and good feelings.
But tragedy can also be a powerful teacher, because it has a certain shock value we sometimes need. This is certainly the intent of our story for today. It’s fully of pride, selfishness, and backstabbing. It ends in division, destruction, and death. The only happy part is that God wins in the end, by bringing justice on wicked people.
So there are not many “raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens” in this story, but it serves as a valuable warning against the consequences of sin, which on the positive side, should drive us to love righteousness and to rejoice in the wisdom of God’s will. And I hope that’s where we will end today—that the darkness of the night will drive us to appreciate the beauty of the light.
By way of review, this is our third week in the story of Gideon. Gideon has had some lows. He really struggled to trust the Lord. Then he had some incredible highs as God gave him an incredible, miraculous victory over the Midianites. But sadly, Gideon’s story ends with more lows, and those lows continue with his children. This ending begins with…
I. Gideon’s Foolishness (8:22–35)
Verse 22 picks up after Gideon’s victory over the Midianite, when several tribes (probably those who had participated in the battle) respond to Gideon’s victory by inviting him to become their king.
But their reasoning is dumbfounding. They want Gideon to be their king, because, “You have delivered us from the hand of Midian.” I imagine God sitting in heaven shaking his head. “Gideon didn’t deliver you. He stood on the mountain and watched, while I killed the Midianites. I did it that way with only 300 people, so that there was no way you could claim the glory for yourself, and yet somehow you still think you did this. Unbelievable!” The human memory can be pretty short and selective can’t it?
But thankfully Gideon gives the right answer (v. 23). It wasn’t his place to accept such an offer, because God was Israel’s king. But while Gideon gives the right answer, his actions in the following verses indicate that he practically became a king, even if he never wore the title. In particular, he adopted two excesses that typified pagan kings of the day. First…
Gideon collected taxes like a king (vv. 24–28). Notice that Gideon declines their invitation, but follows by asking for much of the Midianite spoil. And he collects a large amount of wealth. This sounds a lot like royal taxation.
And then Gideon uses the gold to make some type of ephod. In the Law, the ephod was a garment the priest would wear in the tabernacle. But this ephod was clearly something different, since you can’t make clothes out of gold. Most likely Gideon made an image that was dressed in a gold ephod.
Gideon probably meant for this image to reflect the Lord, but making it clearly violated the 2nd Commandment, which said Israel was not to make any graven images. And predictably, it didn’t end well (v. 27b). Sadly Gideon had set Israel on course to return to idolatry. The 2nd way Gideon acted like a king is that…
Gideon collected wives like a king (vv. 29–32). Deuteronomy 17:17 said that Israel’s kings must not multiply wives, but like the pagan kings around him, Gideon collected a massive harem, and he fathered 70 sons let alone daughters. That’s a big family, and in the ancient world it was a symbol of royal glory. Sadly, Gideon adopted a very worldly value system.
On top of all this, v. 31 adds that he had a concubine (a second-class wife) from the city of Shechem. And Shechem was likely still a Canaanite stronghold that had made peace with Israel. This means that Gideon’s concubine was probably a Canaanite, so he should have never married her.
But he did, and he had a son with her, whom he named Abimelech. Abimelech means “My father is king,” which is another indication of how Gideon viewed himself. This son is going to play an awful role in chapter 9.
And so Gideon did not remain the humble, hesitant leader of chapter 6. Rather, he grew proud in his latter years. And rather than being a force for revival, he set the stage for Israel’s apostasy. And 33–35 say this is exactly what happened. Gideon maintained an appearance of godliness in Israel, but it had no foundation. Therefore, when Gideon died, structure crumbled immediately, and his children reaped the consequences.
There’s an important warning here for all of us. You might be able to hide hypocrisy and never feel the effects of a divided heart. But the next generation will probably not be so fortunate. Your hypocrisy will likely turn into their rebellion. Hypocritical parents rarely raise godly children, because they see right through the façade.
And the same is true in churches. For a generation a church can look really big and impressive while not really being anchored to truth and godliness. But the next generation is usually not so quiet about their unbelief and ungodliness.
That’s why it is so important that we not merely talk the talk, but that we foster deep-seated convictions and godliness, because your family and the next generation of our church depends on it. But sadly, Gideon failed here, and the next generation reaped the consequences in the form of…
II. Abimelech’s Conspiracy (9:1–6)
Again Abimelech is Gideon’s half-Canaanite son. After Gideon’s death, he conspires to seize power. And we need to recognize that his conspiracy was…
Rooted in Selfishness (vv. 1–3): Abimelech isn’t looking to strengthen Israel; he’s looking to serve himself. And so after Gideon’s death Abimelech strikes a deal with his hometown of Shechem, which again was probably, largely Canaanite. And he appeals to the selfish interests of Shechem. He basically says, “Hey, what’s better for you, living under 70 Israelite rulers as second-class citizens, or having one of your own as king?”
Essentially Abimelech says, “If you scratch my back and help me become king, I’ll scratch your back and take care of you.” Abimelech sounds like a Washington politician doesn’t he? And his appeal works. The Shechemites make a pact with this evil man. And this selfish pact…
Ended in Brutal Murder (vv. 4–6): Shechem apparently housed a temple to Baal-Berith, who was a local form of Baal, and the leaders of Shechem use 70 pieces of silver from the temple treasury to finance a small gang for Abimelech. Verse 4 says he “hired worthless and reckless men”—the kind of guys who would follow Abimelech in carrying out dirty deeds.
Then Abimelech and his gang went up to Ophrah, Gideon’s hometown, to stage a coupe. And they killed all but one of Gideon’s 70 sons. And this isn’t because they put up some major fight. Rather, Abimelech kills them all “on one stone.” This means that he captured them, and then he executed them one after the other in cold blood.
It’s a brutal scene that reflects the lawless anarchy that had replaced obedience to God’s Law. And again, it all goes back to Gideon’s own failure. Rather than using his influence to pursue spiritual revival, Gideon used it to serve himself. And his selfishness and pride ended in the murder of his entire family except one son Jotham who escaped.
Gideon’s failure should serve as a sober warning for us, because very often we are tempted like Gideon to live for the moment. It’s so much easier to just stay home and rest than to get your family out to church. It’s easier to watch TV or sleep than to read your Bible. It’s always easier to give into temptation than to resist it, because sin always appeals to my immediate desire. But sin always ends in judgment while there is life and joy in Christ. So work to maintain a long-term vision rooted in faith and do what is right, not what is convenient.
But Gideon didn’t, and now his sons are dead, and Shechem and probably a couple of surrounding towns crown evil Abimelech as their king. However, Jotham is still alive, and when he hears what has happened, he boldly confronts Abimelech and Shechem. Notice in vv. 7–21…
III. Jotham’s Condemnation (9:7–21)
Jotham goes up on Mt. Gerizim, which overlooked Shechem, and he challenges their wickedness by means of parable.
In this parable, a forest of cedar trees is looking for a king, and they ask an olive tree to rule over them. Olive trees were highly valuable because of their fruit, but the olive tree declines the offer, because it’s content serving God and men through producing olives. In so doing, the olive tree takes a selfless, sacrificial, and honorable stance. And when the offer is made to the fig tree and grape vine, they also decline, because they are also happy serving.
As a result, the mighty cedar trees ask the bramble to rule over them. This is ironic, because bramble is just a weed and a nasty menace to farmers. It spread along the ground choking crops and creating a fire hazard in the dry summers. It has no value, but the trees want a ruler. The bramble accepts their offer, and invites the mighty cedars to seek shade under it. It’s just foolish. Why would huge cedar trees seek shade under a low-growing weed?
And Jotham’s point is that Shechem had made a deal with the devil. They rejected the goodness and wisdom of God’s will for short-term security, and Jotham predicts that it will end in a wildfire that will burn the forest.
That’s almost always how it goes doesn’t it? We see an opportunity for some quick security or pleasure if we just compromise our convictions a little. Maybe a lie will get me out of a bind, or “Yeah, I probably shouldn’t be talking to this man behind my husband’s back, but I am really enjoying the attention, so I’ll just make sure it doesn’t go too far.” It seems so appealing in the moment, but in the end, we get caught in a wildfire.
That’s what Jotham predicted would happen to Shechem, and then he goes on to condemn them for their sin against Gideon. In particular, he drives home the fact in both vv. 16 and 19 that God demands truth and sincerity.
Essentially, Jotham is saying that God’s Law teaches that we must be people of honesty and integrity. We must not be slaves to convenience or selfish interest. Rather, like the olive tree, fig tree, and grape vine, our primary concern must be to serve others sacrificially and to honor the Lord by doing what is right.
Folks, that’s so different from the pragmatic anarchy that ruled Jotham’s day and ours, where everyone does “what is right in their own eyes.” We live in a day where what matters to people is not what God has said in a law that stands over us but what is convenient or feels good. But as Christians, we have to see the rebellion in that kind of spirit. God is my lord, and his Word is my authority. Therefore, as Christians, there are few questions that I should ask more often than, “What is the right thing to do?” I need to be committed to obeying God and doing what is right, not what appeals to me.
But Shechem didn’t care about what was right; rather, they did “what was right in their own eyes.” As a result, in v. 20 Jotham prays that God would respond their treachery by letting them be burned by the bramble. And we’ll see that Jotham’s prayer is going to come true quite literally for many in Shechem, as the bramble Abimelech will literally burn them in the final section of the story. Notice in vv. 22–57…
IV. Abimelech and Shechem’s Civil War (9:22–57)
You’ve probably heard the saying, “There’s no honor among thieves.” Thieves will sometimes band together to make a heist, but they’re thieves, who can’t be trusted, so when they can get ahead by stabbing each other in the back, they’re certain to do so.
And that’s what happens in this section. Abimelech and Shechem made a treaty based on selfishness and pragmatism, not on moral principle, so naturally they end up stabbing each other in the back. As such this section serves as a sober reminder that a society built on pragmatism and selfish interest rather than on moral absolutes is doomed to self-destruct, just like happens here. It begins with…
Shechem’s Treachery (vv. 22–29): Verse 23 says that after 3 years, God judged Abimelech and Shechem by causing division between them. In particular, when Shechem finds a leader who convinces them that he can give them a better deal, they stab Abimelech in the back.
It all begins after the grape harvest. The people of Shechem make a lot of wine and have a drunken festival. And Gaal stands up to speak (v. 28). He makes the same appeal Abimelech had made. “I’m your brother, and if you elect me, I’ll fulfill all your dreams, way better than the last guy.” He sounds like our politicians doesn’t he?
And the Shechemites think they’ve got a better deal, so the coupe is on. Except for the fact that Zebul the ruler of the city is loyal to Abimelech, and he sends a warning to Abimelech (v. 32). The end result is…
Abimelech’s Revenge (vv. 30–49): Zebul counsels Abimelech to attack immediately before the rebellion can fully coalesce. Notice his counsel in 33 keeping in mind that Zebul is encouraging this slaughter against his own city. Abimelech follows his advice. He and his men surround Shechem, and at the first light, they begin to charge the city.
Apparently Gaal assumes Zebul is on his side because they are standing outside at dawn, and Gaal thinks he sees soldiers attacking. But he believes Zebul when he tells him that he is just seeing the morning shadows. And by the time Gaal realizes what is happening, it’s too late to organize a strong defense, but he quickly rounds up some men and charges out the city.
But Abimelech routes him, driving him back into the city (v. 40). And since Gaal just got whipped, Shechem now turns on him (funny how that works), and Zebul drives him out of town.
And you would think Abimelech would be happy. The rebellion is crushed and his friend Zebul has the city under control. That’s what the people of Shechem assumed, so the next day the farmers leave the safety of the city and return to their fields. But Shechem had made a deal with the devil, and it came back to haunt them.
Once the farmers are out in the field, Abimelech cut off the gate to the city, and his men slaughtered the helpless farmers. Then Abimelech attacked Shechem. Verse 45 says that he, “took the city and killed the people who were in it, and he demolished the city and sowed it with salt.”
That was completely unnecessary, but Abimelech didn’t care about what was right; he was ruled by his own passion. And Shechem was reaping the consequences of their own selfish treachery.
But Abimelech is still not done. There’s still about 1,000 Shechemites left, and they all flee to a defense tower that was part of the temple to Baal Berith. These people aren’t a threat to Abimelech, but he and his men go out to the mountainside and collect dead brush. They then pile it around the base of the tower, and they set it on fire. It’s an awful scene. 1,000 people are trapped at the top of a burning tower. It gets hotter and hotter, and the flames come closer and closer. I’m sure the air was filled with screaming and crying, but Abimelech and his men just stood there and watched as 1,000 people, most of whom were civilians, burned alive.
It’s just awful, but it’s exactly what Jotham predicted. Shechem’s wickedness resulted in the bramble literally burning them to the ground. Had they walked in truth and sincerity, things may not have been perfect, but they would have been pretty good. But greed and fear drove them to make a deal with the devil, and they suffered the consequences. But Jotham’s prediction still requires one more act of justice. Notice in vv. 50–57…
God’s Revenge (vv. 50–57): Abimelech is still not happy, so he attacks Thebez, which must have joined Shechem’s rebellion. Again, he takes the city and drives the citizens including women and children, into a tower. And Abimelech figures he’ll burn this tower But this time, he got a little too close, and rather creative woman sees Abimelech down below, and she grabs a millstone, which would have been a pretty good size rock. She takes a shot for the ages and hits Abimelech in the head. And seeing that he is about to die, Abimelech has his servant kill him before he is technically killed by the act of the woman. He’s the second evil ruler in Judges to have his head crushed by a woman. Abimelech reaped the consequences of his sin. And v. 55 says that after he was dead, everyone just went home. This was a senseless civil war, so they see that there is no point in continuing.
And notice the inspired commentary in 56–57. In the end God wins, and Abimelech and Shechem reap the judgment they deserve.
I told you this story was a tragedy. But this dark tale should drive us to see the light of Christ more clearly, and so I’d like to close with 4 brief conclusions/applications.
Recognize the wisdom of God’s way and stay anchored to a biblical ethic. We like to think that we know a little more than God, and we can do a little better with ourselves than God. But this story reminds us that when people serve their own passions and selfish interests, it always ends in destruction and pain. But God’s Word is true and wise and good. So love this Book, live in this Book, trust this Book, and obey this book.
Walk in truth and sincerity serving others, not yourself. Don’t live your life looking out for “number 1”; rather, like the olive tree in this story, find your joy in serving. And bee honest and treat people with integrity.
Recognize the depravity of your heart and your need of new life to truly obey God’s will. This story is a powerful reminder of the wickedness of human hearts. It shows what happens when we follow our own passions. Left to ourselves, we are really bad. In particular, you are really bad. And the Bible consistently teaches that we have no power to fix ourselves or to avoid God’s judgment. There is no human answer to the darkness of this chapter.
That’s why Jesus came. He fulfilled God’s Law and bore our punishment on the cross so that we could have hope of being right with God and living with him in heaven. If you have never come to Jesus for salvation, I hope you will see that your heart is also dark with sin and that Jesus is the only solution that that darkness. I would love to talk with you about how your sins can be forgiven about how you can know his salvation.
Christian, rely on the grace of God to live in godly sincerity. For those of us who are saved, this story reminds us that having God’s Law in hand will never guarantee our obedience. We need more than to know what is right; we need grace to do what is right. And thankfully, if you are in Christ, he has written his Law on your heart. And so give thanks for the grace God gives to obey his will, be confident in his power to change you, and commit to delight in God’s Law and to live God’s law.