(A) Introduction. Read Judges 9.
First of all we need to be clear about the status of Shechem. It was a town situated in a fertile valley between Mts Ebal and Gerizim at the junction of the east to west route from the Jordan valley to the coastal plain and a north to south route.
It is probable that when Joshua conquered Canaan the population of Shechem agreed terms. They accepted the Israelites as overlords and became part of the territory of Manasseh. However, most of the population remained largely Canaanite. They saw themselves as the men of Hamor. Jd9v28. Hamor was their remote Canaanite ancestor.
It shouldn't be forgotten that the Shechemites were oppressed by the Midianites along with the Israelites. They benefitted as much as anyone from Gideon's victory of the semi-desert nomads. The men of Shechem should have been grateful for all that Gideon achieved.
Most of Judges is about the enemy without - Moabites, Midianites, Amalekites and Philistines - and God's provision of deliverers from these aggressors. Chapter 9 is about the enemy within and the trouble caused by internal strife. This exposition will remind us of the enemies within the church today who are far more dangerous and spiritually destructive than all our opponents without.
I will use the headings suggested by Dale Ralph Davis in his admirably lively and concise commentary on Judges. Sadly this exposition will not be brief!
(B) The peril of forgetting.
(1) The two things the Israelites forgot.
(a) They did not remember the LORD their God who had rescued them from the hands of all their enemies on every side. Jd8v34.
This does not mean the Israelites had no knowledge of the LORD or their history. It meant they did not remember God with gratitude and felt under no obligation to worship or obey him. There was no heart-felt allegiance to their LORD.
So the Israelites turned to Baal-Berith or the God of the covenant - the God the Canaanites had covenanted to worship. The Canaanite deities were in the main fertility gods and the festivals dedicated to these gods typified by gluttony, drunkenness and debauchery. Therein lay their appeal.
(b) They forgot Gideon including all the good things he had done for them. Jd8v35. Jotham, Gideon's youngest son, who escaped the massacre of Abimelech upbraided the people of Shechem at his half brother's coronation for ignoring how his father had risked his life to save them from Midianite oppression.
Some might argue that it was only the Canaanites of Shechem who behaved abominably to Gideon by financing the massacre at Ophrah. The fact is NO ONE in Manasseh lifted a finger to punish Abimelech or the Shechemites for their murder of Gideon's sons. Indeed, after a short time it seems that most of the Israelites accepted the leadership of Abimelech. See Jd9v22. Gideon's heroics counted for nothing. All Israel was culpable of inaction.
(2) Lessons for today.
(a) Gratitude to God for past and present blessings should motivate our behaviour. This is a persistent theme in the book of Deuteronomy. The Israelites were told to provision released slaves, allow the poor to glean in their fields after harvest and never to take advantage of the alien, widow or orphan. The Law specified: Remember you were slaves in Egypt and the LORD you God redeemed you. Dt24v17and18.
Jesus told us to participate in a simple meal of bread and wine in remembrance of him. We remember in particular his death on the cross to redeem us from sin. Whenever we participate in the Lord's Supper we affirm our common indebtedness to Jesus, our dependence upon God's grace for salvation and the gift of the Spirit for new life. Surely one consequence of all this is that we show grace to others.
If the Jews were expected to be kind to slaves, aliens, the widows and the fatherless because God redeemed them from slavery in Egypt how much more should we show grace to the needy in gratitude for being redeemed from sin.
(b) Christians should show gratitude to the church that was instrumental in their salvation. Sadly, many young Christians leave the church where they came to Jesus - where believers prayed for them and witnessed to them. They move on to pastures new with never a thought for the 'home' church which did so much to bring them to Christ.
This has been my experience. In the past my own small church organised holiday clubs that resulted in people being saved. None of those people remain with us. They have gone to worship at bigger, livelier churches.
One of the things I like about the testimonies given at the Gideon conventions in the United States is the gratitude expressed in those testimonies to the people who left the Bibles that played such a large part in their conversions. Most of those giving the testimonies have then given life-long support to the Gideons out of gratitude.
I sometimes think of the four people who have come to Jesus through my ministry. I wish there were more - but I am grateful that there are four. Of the four, only one keeps in touch. Perhaps the others have overlooked that God expected the Israelites to show kindness to Gideon through whom he delivered his people.
(c) Christians should be grateful to those who serve the church faithfully and well. Unfortunately there have been churches that take for granted and undervalue a long-serving minister lacking, perhaps, charisma but well endowed with sincerity and goodness. A congregation can be like a family longing to ditch a clapped out old banger for a flash new model. It doesn't much matter that the old banger has served them well, they are only too happy to dump it and forget it. Such is the way of the world. It is a bad job when it is also the way of a church.
I don't like it when a pastor retires and he is expected to move away from his church to give the new man a clear run. The old and the new pastor should as Christian brothers be able to work together. If they cannot there is something wrong. The world does better. I know of family businesses where the father retires and hands over to his sons. The father is not forgotten - he remains available to help in any way the sons require.
When my father retired from is ministry at Brockley Baptist church through ill health he remained in membership. His life became increasingly devastated by Parkinson's disease. However, in the 13 years he continued to attend his old church, my father was treated with the greatest respect and affection. In those last years of physical and mental decline he reaped what he had sown. The members of the church were able and willing to give him something back for his faithful service. That is how it should be.
(C) The problem of leadership.
(1) How it shouldn't be achieved.
Abimelech's bid for leadership illustrates how it should not be done:
(a) Abimelech pushed himself forward. He suggested himself as king of Shechem. He got the job mainly because he had the brass necked nerve to ask for it.
There are a surprising number of people who are quite willing to propose themselves for positions of power and influence. George Thomas, a former speaker of the House of Commons, describes in his autobiography what happened when the committee to organise the Great Peace Rally of 1954 met to elect a chairman. Lord Beveridge proposed himself because of his wife's opinion that his status and position demanded it. George Thomas opposed this suggestion. Beveridge phoned his wife and then promptly resigned from the committee. Then John Collins, the Canon of St Paul's, announced, "Well, now Lord Beveridge has gone, I think that I should be chairman." After others objected Collins left in a huff. Eventually Dr Donald Soper was elected chairman. Such behaviour from grown men beggars belief - but there again it happens all the time in politics.
(b) Abimelech invented a threat that wasn't real, namely, the collective leadership of Gideon's sons. There was no evidence that they would exercise this sort of leadership. They hadn't even organised a very effective bodyguard!
This is a tactic employed by dictators in their rise to power and to extend their power. Hitler demonised the Jews and communists. He portrayed them as a threat to Germany. Mr Mugabe did the same with the white farmers in Zimbabwe. Even Tony Blair whom I would not ordinarily associate with Hitler or Mugabe justified the war against Iraq in terms of weapons of mass destruction that were not there.
(c) Abimelech played the race card. He got his mother's family to win the support of the leading men of Shechem. Abimelech had Canaanite blood in his veins so surely he was a better bet for the leadership than the Jewish sons of Gideon.
Through the centuries family alliances and tribal allegiances have been a means of seizing power and keeping it. We witnessed in 2011 how important family and tribe were to Colonel Gaddafi maintaining himself in power for as long as he did in Libya.
(d) Abimelech was utterly ruthless in his own interests. He used bad money, 70 shekels of silver from the temple of Baal-Berith, to hire a group of unscrupulous mercenaries to kill all of Gideon's sons. It was a heinous crime - fratricide on a grand scale.
We know that many dictators, both in their rise to power and their consolidation of power, share Abimelech's murderous ruthlessness. Hitler, Stalin, Mao tse Tung, Pol Pot, Idi Amin murdered without compunction.
(e) Abimelech adopted a leadership model that prevailed among the Canaanites. Each city had its own king. Abimelech became king of Shechem and then sought to extend his influence further afield.
This was not God's model. Each city or local area had elders - a group of older men of experience, wisdom and discernment who made decisions and passed judgments. Major issues were decided by tribal leaders. God raised up judges, like Deborah and Samuel, who exercised jurisdiction over all the tribes. They would only concern themselves with the most important disputes. So there was very considerable devolution of authority and responsibility. Power was not centralised as it is in most dictatorships.
(f) Abimelech was made king with little regard to his personal qualities. No one seriously investigated whether he had what it took to be a good leader. This gave rise to Jotham's parable. See Jd9v7to17. The parable seems to say that no one of any real worth would want to be king of Shechem. So the only king they are likely to get is someone of little merit - possessing all the qualities of a thorn bush.
There are certain dangers getting too close to a thorn bush. One thing it can do is transmit fire from scrub to the cedar groves.
(2) Application to the modern church.
(a) There are those who push themselves forward to take over the leadership of: a local church, denominational faction or committee, a group of churches that break away from an established denomination, a new movement within a denomination or a pressure group.
Paul faced this problem with the arrival of the false "super apostles" to the church at Corinth. They were brilliant at promoting themselves and tried to take the fellowship over. This dangerous cabal were ruthless in their own interest and set about trashing Paul's reputation. See exposition on 2Corinthians11v1to15.
My experience is limited to Grace Baptists who have a democratic form of church government. Policy is decided by the vote of members in church business meetings. This does make these churches vulnerable to forceful, strong-willed, brazen individuals who promote themselves for leadership. I know of someone who was invited to preach at a pastorless church and then shamelessly promoted himself for the pastorate. He exploited a situation where the deacons were at loggerheads to grab the leadership. The church subsequently fell apart.
In the past the association of churches to which I belong was fairly tolerant of dissidents. Pastors like George Bird at Bethesda, Ipswich, believed it was more important to be a Christian than to be a Calvinist. However, as time passed the old guard were replaced by pastors who were more Reformed. A small group of them virtually took over our association to insist that every church affirm the common doctrinal statement in every detail. Failure to do so would result in expulsion from the association. Some churches left the association and individual Christians with reservations about Calvinism were marginalised. The militants who pushed themselves to the fore, who became the leading men, didn't do our association of churches any favours.
(b) Family loyalty can be a big problem in the local church. This certainly was the case in the nonconformist churches of rural Suffolk in the past. In some village chapels there were two or three large extended families. It caused two problems:
Christians belong to two families - their natural family and God's family. Which is most important? I think Jesus made it clear that our relationship with him was more important than any other relationship. The natural family should not take precedence. Some time ago one of our oldest members died. Her sister wanted to keep the funeral 'in the family.' I protested! I told the sister, who was a dear friend of mine, that the old saint's church family should play some part in the funeral. I am glad to say my advice was accepted. But you can see how easily we can relegate the church family to second place.
(c) Many churches ignore the New Testament model for leadership. This is a big and complex subject and I am not up to the task of exploring it properly. I will limit myself to a few observations.
Just as the leadership system in the time of the Judges was a bit "messy" so it was, too, in the early church. However the New Testament makes three things clear:
So how do modern churches measure up to the example of the early church?
Departure from the New Testament model had led to inadequacies in church leadership - too many 'thorn bush kings'. For instance:
But all of us who believe in a plurality of elders need to remember that God allowed Israel to adopt a different system of government. Samuel was the last of the judges. God allowed the Israelites to ape their neighbours and adopt kings. He disapproved but allowed this change to take place. This led to much greater centralisation of authority.
It seems to me the church has followed in the footsteps of Israel in this respect. The church moved to a system of government more in line with what existed in the world. Just as God in his mercy accepted the change in ancient Israel so he has accepted it in the church. The Holy Spirit is willing to work with whatever system of government churches adopt however inferior to God's model they might be. This does not take away from the fact that they are inferior!
(D) Process of judgment.
God was behind the process of judgment that befell Abimelech and Shechem. See Jd9v56to57: Thus God repaid the wickedness that Abimelech had done to his father by murdering his seventy brothers. God also made the men of Shechem pay for all their wickedness. The curse of Jotham son of Jerub-Baal came on them.
These verses make clear that Abimelech and the Shechemites were punished not so much for adopting a different system of government as for their wickedness in murdering Gideon's 70 sons. This was far, far, worse.
(1) The inevitable consequence of Abimelech and Shechem's behaviour.
Abimelech's sponsors turned against him. Strangely, he did not live in Shechem. He put his man Zebul in as governor. Arumah was Abimelech's base. Perhaps he chose Arumah to identify more closely with the Jews and to widen his sphere of influence. When Abimelech attacked Thebez and was mortally wounded and then finished off by has armour bearer it is significant that the account reads: When the Israelites saw that Abimelech was dead they went home. Jd9v55. In other words he had dispensed with his mercenaries and recruited Israelites to his army.
It is highly probable the traders of Shechem missed out when Abimelech moved his base to Arumah. They got their own back by sending armed gangs to the trade routes to ambush and rob travelling merchants. By doing this they also cocked a snoot at Abimelech's authority. They probably realised he had used them.
Gaal, son of Ebed, arrives on the scene doubtless attracted by the opportunity to rob from the safe haven of Shechem. He comes with all his clan.
Gaal wants to oust Abimelech. He is a pure blood Canaanite, a true descendent of Hamor. We read the citizen's of Shechem: Put their confidence in him. Jd9v36.
At a drunken orgy following the grape harvest, Gaal throws down the gauntlet to Abimelech. He also insults Zebul by referring to him as Abimelech's side kick. I like the suggestion by Dale Ralph Davis that his incoherence (evident in the Hebrew) is a probable consequence of his drunkenness.
(c) The battle for supremacy.
Abimelech and his four companies rout Gaal and his allies. The rebellion is all over very quickly. Abimelech then proceeds to punish the people of Shechem for siding with Gaal. His troops kill them in the fields, in the suburbs and in the fortified tower of the temple complex. The city is destroyed.
(d) Over reaction.
Once Abimelech and his men start killing they can't stop. After burning 1000 men and women in the stronghold of Shechem, attention is turned to Thebez. The process is repeated.
While Abimelech and his men were besieging the stronghold of Thebez intending to torch it and burn alive its inhabitants, a woman dropped an upper millstone on Abimelech's head. It seems he came too long enough to realise he was finished and called upon his armour bearer to finish him off so that no one could say: "A woman killed him." Jd9v54.
(2) Relevance today.
All the terrible events of Abimelech's three year reign find a parallel in the church today.
Sometimes the keenest to appoint a new pastor - a man of their choice - will be the first to experience disillusionment and become discontented.
I can remember going to preach at a church in London several years ago. I was only invited because a friend was in membership at the church. It was a terrible Sunday to be a guest speaker. In the previous week a vote for a new pastor had not reached the required majority to appoint him. The members who had voted for the prospective pastor were up in arms. They had delivered an ultimatum: "Call another church meeting and vote the candidate in or else we will leave." My friend and his family were among those who had voted against the candidate on the grounds that he was not up for the job. They were very distressed by the developing situation. Well, another church meeting was called and the candidate got his majority and was appointed. Within 18 months those who had behaved so ungraciously and got their own way were leaving - dissatisfied with the pastor's preaching. The pastor lasted another 6 months. What a sorry, ungodly saga.
Sometimes a new couple - man and wife - arrive at a church lacking strong leadership. It is not long before the man - backed by his wife - wins enough support to take the church over. This might well upset an inarticulate but resentful minority who oppose the takeover. Unrest results and members are shed.
This is not a rare event. I have seen it happen several times. I can remember preaching as a very young man at a mission hall the leader of which was very encouraging and warm hearted. Sadly the leader died. In no time at all - out of nowhere - another man appeared - a hard line Calvinist - and everything changed. I was banned!! Eventually a warm little fellowship was destroyed.
Where two factions exist in a church they are bound to clash over a range of issues affecting the fellowship.
One disagreeable church business meeting will follow another. In the end when one side loses a crucial vote they will leave. If they opt to stay and fight on then eventually one party will request outside assistance. This will probably result in the minority group being asked to resign their membership.
Churches that experience trouble of this sort are fatally weakened and often close.
(5) Over reaction.
After a battle there is a tendency for the winners to over react. They may well be hostile to those who didn't take sides who then become marginalised and feel unwanted. This seems to be happening in the Church of England where the Anglo-Catholic wing is being squeezed out. It happened in my small association. The ascendency of the militant Calvinists has meant there is a very limited role for those of more moderate persuasion.
Many churches close and denominations wither because of godless dissatisfaction, rivalry and battles in the past. In 1829 a Particular Baptist church was established in Glemsford, Suffolk, and called Ebenezer. In 1851 the afternoon attendance was 430. In 1859, after some acrimony, 32 left and founded another somewhat less Calvinistic and more evangelical Baptist church called Providence. Today there are no Baptist churches in Glemsford whatsoever - both have long closed.
God is still mightily displeased with individuals who behave like Abimelech and churches that behave like Shechem. He will inevitably punish us for forgetting his grace, Christ's mercy and the service of faithful ministers. We must beware of demonising people and purging dissidents. We should always, always remember and NEVER, NEVER FORGET that Jesus was a dissident.
Paul's words to the Galatians remain as true as ever: God is not mocked, whatsoever you sow that shall ye also reap. Gal6v7.