And Abimelech the son of Jerubbaal went to Shechem to his mother's brothers, and communed with them…
(to Young Men): — This parable of Jotham is, it is supposed, the very oldest in existence. We reach here, in a literary sense, almost to the source of fictitious writing. It is a question sometimes put to religious teachers, "Do you object to works of fiction?" For myself I can answer at once. "I do not." If I did I should condemn perhaps all the peoples that ever lived, simple and cultured alike. In the snow hut of the Laplanders, in the warm wooden house of the Norse peasant, in the sunny islands of the Southern Sea, and all through the burning East, genius has in this way expressed itself, and men have been pleased and improved by its ministries. But question me further. Ask me if I object to much of the sensational literature of the day, and I answer, "I do"; not because it is fictitious, but because of the evil in more or less degree which it contains, and because it is sorry nourishment for human minds or hearts. To return to Jotham's parable. "The trees went forth on a time to anoint a king over them." There must have been a good deal of talk among them before it came to that, much wagging of arboreous tongues, twittering of leaf, and groaning of branch. They did not need a king. But the procession has started. We must follow and make part of it, if we want to see and hear.
I. Now there is a halt before an OLIVE-TREE. And they said to the olive-tree, "Reign thou over us." A splendid offer, to be the anointed king over the whole vegetable world! We listen to hear the reply, couched in the deprecating, cautious phraseology usual in such cases. No such answer is given; but a clear, distinct refusal of the proffered honour. "Should I leave my fatness?" etc. Must I tear up my roots from the kindly soil where I have had my home for a thousand years, and cease to receive the secret but willing ministries of the earth, and close up the channels along which they have come? Must I shake the hard grain of my body by locomotion, and have my leaves withered in a triumphal progress, and see my berries grow scant and shrivelled, and produce no more oil for God or man, and all this that I may be a king? Wise olive-tree! Keep thy roots where they have struck and spread! Build up in concentric rings, as the years come and go, the hard pile of the serviceable wood! Store the secret fragrance! Distil the precious oil for many uses! Give men the annual harvest and God the continual glory of thy growing! Can we miss the lesson? Usefulness is better than honour. Usefulness, if it be of the higher kind, is attained through long growing and long striving. But when it is attained, when there is a normal, regulated usefulness flowing steadily out of a man's life, when he serves God and man where he is and by what he is, the offer of promotion ought to carry with it some very strong and clear enforcements to induce him to think of acceptance.
II. Here is a FIG-TREE by the wayside. It belongs to an old and most respectable family. It traces its pedigree up to Eden. It leads a useful life, and yet it has much less to give up and leave than the olive. But no! The fig-tree has not much, but it has something substantial and good. It has beautiful leaves of deep shining green, and better still — for the fig-tree makes no mention of its leaves — it has figs which carry in them a wonderful sweetness when they are fully ripe. Sweetness is the one quality which the fig-tree felt that it possessed. There is in some human souls a sweetness which imparts a fig-tree flavour to the whole life. When you meet one who possesses this gift moving about among rough ways and persons, consider that you see something far more than merely pleasant, something of exceeding value to the world.
III. "Then said the trees unto the VINE, Come thou and reign over us." Surely there will be no refusal now! The vine cannot stand alone, it needs to be propped. It will leap at the offer of a throne, up which to climb and on which to hang its nodding clusters. It can only do one thing: it can bear clusters of grapes. Ah! but that one thing is of force and value enough to keep the vine steady under temptation. " Should I leave my wine," etc. As there are some human lives with sweetness in them as their main element, so there are some with this brighter, racier quality, which "cheers" and animates the spirits of others. Be a vine if you can be nothing more; distil and distribute the wine of life.
IV. Now, at length, we go to the coronation. The trees have found a king. "Then said all the trees unto the BRAMBLE, Come thou and reign over us." Accepted as soon as offered! The bramble needs no time for deliberation. It accepts the crown at once. Look at the bramble or spiky thorn of Palestine with its long straggling branches. It has no "fatness" to leave, like the olive-tree; no "sweetness," like the fig-tree; no clusters, like the vine. It casts no shadow, like the oak. It has nothing but sharp, piercing spikes, and of these it has abundance; every branch is full of them — and yet hear how the mean creature speaks! "If in truth ye anoint me king over you" — as if it were the most natural thing in the world that they should; as if it were thinking of its ripe baskets of fruit, and of the weary pilgrims it had sheltered. "if in truth ye anoint me king!" Think of it, in presence of them all! The cedar, nodding his dark plumes; the oak, with castled strength of stem and branch; the beech, in its sylvan beauty; the palm-tree, with its cylindrical stem and feathery leaves, and bounteous burden of dates; "and the fir-tree and the pine-tree and the box together"; and those that have declined the honour — to all these it says, "Come and put your trust in my shadow!" The unbounded impudence of this address is remarkable, and would be amusing if it were not connected with peril to the whole arboreous kingdom. This peril the bramble knows, and has the art to hold it out in audacious menace. "If not, think of it well. You have gone too far to go back, you are now in my power; and that the noblest among you shall feel the first, in case of the least show of opposition." Society, in all its sections, is full of bramble men, who are striving for every sort of personal elevation and advantage. By the picture in this parable I want you to scorn the principles they act upon; and to despise the honours and advantages they win!
(A. Raleigh, D. D.)
Parallel VersesKJV: 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,