Pulpit Commentary Homiletics
I. THE AIM. Worthy men seek to emulate the moral and intellectual excellence of the great deceased; unworthy, merely to succeed to their office and to enjoy their honours. It was a splendid opportunity which now presented itself to carry on, and to higher issues, the work initiated by Gideon. Instead of this, personal aggrandisement is the all-absorbing aim. Unscrupulous advantage is taken of the interregnum in the judgeship. And the more utterly base appears the project, inasmuch as it is not only what Gideon enjoyed that is sought, but what he rejected, as considering himself unworthy.
II. THE SPIRIT.
1. Irreligious. No betaking of himself to the oracle; no recognition of God as Supreme Arbiter and Judge-maker.
2. Immodest. Personal fitness is not questioned, nor is the superior qualification of others considered.
3. Selfish. The rights of others are trampled upon, human blood is spilled like water, and the nation is regarded only as a corpus vile for political experiments and ambitious aims.
III. THE MEANS AND METHODS. Arguments. Falsehood and sophistry. The alternatives presented - "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?" - are not real. Charging others with the same aims as his own. Appeals not to the nation's sense of right, but to expediency, and kinship, etc: - Its occasion is the misfortune and weakness of others. Its instrumentality, unhallowed gold and a mercenary soldiery. Its method, a series of wrongs culminating in murder.
IV. THE. SUCCESS. Apparently sudden, complete, absolute; really hollow, involving constant distrust and fear, and ever new outrages, and having in itself the elements of ultimate judgment. - M.
I. IT IS THE EXAGGERATION AND PROSTITUTION OF A NATURAL AND PROPER AFFECTION. Of the true claims of "our brother" how much might be said! A basis for moral obligations, and rights, and duties seldom fairly acknowledged. But to the desirable things of the world and "out in the open" there are many claimants whose title has to be weighed. The fond mother, desirous of such things for her son, may be asked, "Why your son, and not another's?"
II. IT IGNORES AND TRAMPLES UPON GENERAL INTERESTS FOR THE SAKE OF INDIVIDUAL ADVANCEMENT. Next to the absolute appointment by God, and often indicative of it, is the "greatest good of the greatest number." The king or other public officer is for the people, not vice versa. Although absolute right may be sometimes waived because of general advantage, when both are wanting the claim is weak.
III. THE TRUE TITLE-DEEDS TO ADVANCEMENT ARE NOT RECOGNISED OR APPEALED TO. Divine appointment; unique capacity; desire for the good of others rather than the advantage of self; service rather than office; duty than right. - M.
I. A MORAL GOVERNMENT OF THE WORLD IS WITNESSED TO.
II. IF EVIDENT IN SOME CASES, MAY NOT THE SAME LAW EXIST WHERE NOT CLEARLY VISIBLE?
III. IN THIS IS ILLUSTRATED THE ESSENTIALLY MORAL CHARACTER OF HIGHEST REASON. The wicked always leave something unconsidered or unprovided for. The lives and schemes of the wicked are based on fallacies. Truth and righteousness coincide. - M.
I. THE BAD ORIGIN OF AMBITION. This is illustrated in the circumstances which were associated with the early days of Abimelech.
1. Irregular social habits. The parentage of Abimelech would
(1) stir in him a sense of injustice, and
(2) incline him to lawless conduct (Judges 8:30).
Loose morals undermine the peace of society. Whatever desecrates the sanctity of the home tends to derange the order of the state.
2. Parental vanity. The high-sounding name of Abimelech is significant as an index to the character of his mother, and the thoughts she would instil into his mind. The vanity of the parent may be the curse of the child.
II. THE WICKED CHARACTER OF AMBITION. Abimelech displays some of the worst features of ambition.
1. Selfishness. The ambitious upstart has no thought of his nation's prosperity, his sole aim is his own aggrandisement.
2. Deceit. Abimelech deceives his brothers and the men of Shechem. True greatness is simple and frank; the bastard greatness of ambition is mean, false, treacherous.
3. Cruelty. The new king soon abuses the confidence of his brethren, and develops into a murderous tyrant. Ambition inclines to cruelty
(1) because it isolates the ambitious man, and destroys the safeguard of the sympathy and influence of equals, and
(2) because it creates dangers from which there seems no escape but by violence.
III. THE TEMPORARY TRIUMPH OF AMBITION. Abimelech reaches the throne at which he aims.
1. We must not be surprised at the temporary success of wickedness. It is easier for the unscrupulous to obtain a low worldly triumph than for the conscientious to reach their more noble goal. The irony of providence is apparent in the fact that these men "have their reward" (Matthew 6:2).
2. We must not judge of conduct by worldly success. Success is no vindication of character. Bad conduct is not to be justified because it proves to have been expedient. The syco-phancy which flatters triumphant ambition, while it execrates the ambition which fails, is one of the meanest characteristics of popular opinion.
IV. THE FATAL RESULTS OF AMBITION.
1. To the people who shamefully countenance it it brings disaster. Israel was the worse for tolerating Abimelech, and Shechem, which accepted and encouraged him, suffered the heaviest calamities at his hand. Instead of securing strength and peace, the new throne only flung disorder and misery into the nation.
2. To the ambitious man his conduct brought ultimate defeat, shame, and death. Greed of power is punished by a triumph of weakness. Pride and vanity meet with humiliation and ridicule. - A.
I. NATIONS MAY BE ACTUATED BY CAPRICE AND FALSE CRAVINGS, AS WELL AS BY MORAL OBLIGATION.
II. GOOD AND WORTHY MEN WILL REFUSE TO BE THE PLAYTHINGS AND VENAL INSTRUMENTS OF OTHERS.
III. THERE ARE SACRIFICES FOR WHICH POLITICAL ADVANCEMENT DOES NOT COMPENSATE, AND WHICH IT DOES NOT JUSTIFY ONE'S MAKING.
IV. THE CHARACTER OF A PEOPLE IS REFLECTED IN THEIR POLITICAL REPRESENTATIVES.
V. HIGH POSITION MAGNIFIES POWERS OF MISCHIEF AS OF BLESSING.
VI. THE TRUST THAT HAS BEEN WON BY UNWORTHY ACTS WILL BE AS BASELY BETRAYED. - M.
I. MEN ARE TOO READY TO SHELTER THEMSELVES UNDER THE INFLUENCE AND RESPONSIBILITY OF LEADERS OF THEIR OWN CHOOSING. The trees combined to elect a king; but this was contrary to their natural functions. They fulfilled their vocation perfectly in their individual life and fruit-bearing. So Israel resolved to have a king, though in opposition to the simple form of government which a realisation of the idea of the theocracy would have shown to be the noblest and happiest. Men trust too much to organisation; but organisation is injurious without wisdom and strength to use it aright. There is a common temptation to throw upon others the responsibility which should be borne in common. Thus in the kingdom of Christ the Church is inclined to leave to ministers and official persons the work which belongs to all her members. Men generally fear to be independent, though they are proud of their boasted liberty. The usual habit is to repose under the leadership of others. Such conduct implies unfaithfulness to our supreme King and the neglect of our own responsibility.
II. POSITIONS OF HONOUR DEMAND SACRIFICE FROM THOSE WHO CAN RIGHTLY OCCUPY THEM. Each of the fruit trees sees that it must sacrifice its own peculiar advantages in undertaking to rule over the forest. Rank and power involve loss of opportunities for private usefulness, anxiety, danger, responsibility. The quieter life is the happier. Nevertheless, it will be wrong to press these personal considerations to the neglect of public duty. For the good of others we should be willing to suffer personal inconvenience. It might have been better if one of the fruit trees had accepted the crown instead of letting it fall on the bramble. The selfishness which allows public offices to come into the hands Of inferior men is a sin on the part of the more capable.
III. USEFULNESS IS BETTER THAN BANK. The olive, the fig, and the vine are fruitful. Unless they were absolutely needed as kings, the world would be the poorer by their forsaking their useful vocations for the glory of royalty. It is better to feel that we are doing good, however obscurely, than that we are reaping barren honours. God is glorified not by our fame or rank, but by our fruitfulness (John 15:8). To bear good fruit we must be rooted like the tree - be content, patient, willing to fill a small space if God be glorified. There is nothing so fatal to Christian fruitfulness as ambition.
IV. THE LOWEST NATURES ARE THE MOST AMBITIOUS. The bramble alone covets the crown. Ambition aims at greatness, but it arises out of littleness. The ambition of great men is their weakness, the smallest, meanest thing in them. True greatness will perceive the hollowness of the rewards of ambition, and the true glory of honest, faithful work in whatever sphere it is done. We must not therefore be deceived into judging of the fitness of a man for any post by the eagerness with which he seeks it. For ourselves we should learn that self-seeking in all its branches is a low and despicable habit of life.
V. THE EXALTATION OF THE MEAN WILL END IN DISASTER. Weakness is better than ill-lodged power. Better have no king than a bad king. As a good government is the first blessing of a nation, so a bad government is its greatest curse. They who enter blindly into needless obligations will have their eyes opened when these begin to work them harm. It is easier to confer power than to withdraw it. There is one King under whose shadow all can rest secure (Isaiah 11:1-5). - A.
Jotham ran away!" The bodily presence and outward achievements of really great men are often contemptible. But Jotham, like many another, is not to be estimated from without.
I. THE CONSCIENCE OF THE NATION WAS APPEALED TO THROUGH ITS IMAGINATION. He had shown himself to the whole people. The literary simplicity and charm of his fable would rivet the attention of men upon the essential wrong committed, and the folly.
II. THE MORAL FORCES OF THE WORLD ARE ITS STRONGEST, AND WILL IN THE END PREVAIL. The "case" had been portrayed by a stroke of genius, so that no craft or sophistry could ever justify it. The claim of Abimelech, etc. was stripped of all its pretensions. To leave a matter with the conscience of men and with God is often harder than to contest it by force of arms. Christ yielded to the physical force and perverted authority of the Jews, but by his bearing at the judgment and by the matchless clearness of his statements he put his persecutors for ever in the wrong, and became the mightiest Ruler the world has known. - M.
I. A NATURAL ELEMENT. The instruments of usurpation soon display their untrustworthy and turbulent character. Their help to Abimelech was chiefly in the interests of disorder. When the hard rule of the tyrant (force of word "reigned") was felt they became restive. The accession to their ranks of Gaal the marauding chieftain gives them the requisite stimulus toward open rebellion. So in time the drunken revels, the highway robberies of Shechem move irresistibly onward toward open revolt, and its consequence, overwhelming destruction. In this way the perpetrators of the coup d'etat are made the agents of the Divine vengeance upon each other. In punishing the rebels a seeming accident made Abimelech the victim of a woman's hand. Blood for blood. "Without shedding of blood there is no remission." The tragic element in human history.
II. A DIVINE ORDERING OF EVENTS. So natural does the development of events appear, that there is danger of overlooking the overruling providence of God. What may be termed the "poetic justice" of the political movements of the time and their results renders it impossible to credit the sublimely neutral forces of nature with the working out of the issues. God wrought through the natural forces and the complications of the political sphere. His people have to be led onward in the pathway of national progress and religious illumination, therefore such obstacles must be swept out of the way. Yet all this is consistent with the moral freedom of those whose actions and end are so promotive of the Divine purpose. What was done in one development of events might equally have been secured by another. This principle that "maketh for righteousness" is evident to every careful and devout student of history. It may be detected in the individual private life, and in the history of a nation. How far the evolution of events which we esteem secular and blind is so informed by the Divine purpose we shall not discover in this life. But enough is laid bare to encourage the holy and righteous, and to awaken in the breast of the wicked "a fearful looking for of judgment and of fiery indignation, which shall devour the adversaries." - M.
I. GOD RELATES THE LIVES OF THE GOOD AND THE BAD FOR WISE ENDS. "Never any man was so ill as not to have some favourers: Abimelech hath a Zebul in the midst of Shechem" (Bp. Hall). Every situation has its moral complications.
II. THE WORTHLESSNESS AND IMMORALITY OF A SUPERIOR DO NOT EXONERATE FROM EXTERNAL RESPECT AND FAITHFUL DUTY, UNLESS HIS AUTHORITY IMPOSES UNRIGHTEOUS TASKS. Much of the routine of life is neutral from a moral point of view, otherwise it would be impossible for the righteous to live amongst men. We must fulfil our bond until the conduct of our employer renders it impossible for us to serve God in serving him. So with natural duties, as of a child to a parent.
III. ON THE OTHER HAND, FAITHFULNESS IN DETAILS WILL NOT ATONE FOR NEGLECTING TO STUDY THE MORAL DRIFT OF THE WHOLE SITUATION OF WHICH THESE DETAILS ARE A PART. The judgment of Abimelech involves Zebul. There comes a time when we share the guilt of the master in continuing to serve him. An honourable quittance should be sought at once in such a case, "The Lord will provide." Otherwise we shall be involved in the same judgment. - M.
I. REPUTATION AMONGST MEN IS SOMETIMES VALUED MORE HIGHLY THAN INNOCENCE IN THE SIGHT OF GOD. Abimelech is anxious about the opinion of the world, he cares nothing for the judgment of God. He is concerned with what will be said of him, he is not troubled about what he really is. He is dying after a most wicked life, yet he has no thought about his evil nature and his vile misdeeds, but only anxiety about his fame. So we constantly see people much more occupied in securing a fair appearance than in living a true life. Yet how hollow is this pursuit I After our death it matters nothing to us what men may say, but everything turns on what God will do. A man's future state will depend not on the splendour of the fame which he leaves behind in this world, but on the character of the revelation which will be made of his life in the other world. An epitaph is no passport to heaven.
II. REPUTATION AMONGST MEN IS OFTEN DETERMINED BY A FALSE STANDARD OF CHARACTER. Abimelech knows that his misdeeds have been blazed through the country, yet he has no concern for the judgment of men on these, but very much concern for their opinion of the accident of his death. He sees no dishonour in cruelty and treachery, but great dishonour in death from a woman's hand. The code of honour differs from the code of God's law. Public opinion is too much formed on artificial points of merit and superficial appearances. Thus cowardice is commonly felt to be more disgraceful than cruelty; yet it is at least as bad not to be just and generous as not to he brave. Men commonly think more of masculine excellences than of saintly graces. Both are good, but the first obligation lies on the more Christian. Among the Christian duties which a consideration of merely worldly reputation leads men to neglect in comparison with lower obligations, are -
(1) purity on the part of men,
(3) forgiveness of injuries,
III. THE INFLUENCE OF REPUTATION SHOWS THE IMPORTANCE OF CULTIVATING A HEALTHY PUBLIC SENTIMENT. Whilst so many are governed by the opinion of the world, it is imperative that this should be purified as far as possible. There is something natural in respect for reputation. The bad man who has lost this proves himself to be utterly abandoned. Next to the fear of God, shame before men is the strongest safeguard for conscience. A healthy social atmosphere is an immense aid to goodness. The society of the Church is helpful for the preservation of the faithfulness of the Christian. A pure Christian home is a most valuable security for the character of its members. It is dangerous to stand alone; therefore, while regarding right and God's will first, and rising above the fear of man which bringeth a snare, let us reverence Christian public sentiment, and seek to keep it pure. - A.
I. THERE ARE TIMES WHEN THE DEATH OF SOVEREIGNS, etc. APPEAR AS NATIONAL JUDGMENTS, OVERAWING MEN'S HEARTS AND SEARCHING THEIR CONSCIENCES. Did rot Israel feel now what a fool's errand it had been going? What better could it do in its irresolution and dismay than retire into privacy, and there in penitence and prayer await the new unfoldings of God's purpose?
II. ONLY A GREAT CAUSE CAN KEEP TOGETHER THOSE WHO HAVE LOST THEIR NATURAL BOND AND AUTHORITY. Self-interest, fear, absence of common enthusiasm, scattered the army of the dead Abimelech. So shall misfortune and Divine judgments break up the confederacies of the wicked. "The stars in their courses fought against Sisera." But the Church of Christ can never be leaderless. "Lo, I am with you alway, even unto the end of the world."
III. THE INFLUENCE OF THE WICKED SOON PERISHES. There is no talisman in the name of the son of Shechem now that he is dead. His body is left to the wolves and vultures. Only "the memory of the just smells sweet, and blossoms in the dust." The saintly departed rule us from their graves. The name of the Crucified an eternal, infinite power. - M.