Expositor's Bible Commentary
And the men of Ephraim said unto him, Why hast thou served us thus, that thou calledst us not, when thou wentest to fight with the Midianites? And they did chide with him sharply."MIDIAN’S EVIL DAY"
Jdg 7:8-25 - Jdg 8:1-21
THERE is now with Gideon a select band of three hundred, ready for a night attack on the Midianites. The leader has been guided to a singular and striking plan of action. It is, however, as he well knows, a daring thing to begin assault upon the immense camp of Midian with so small a band, even though reserves of nearly ten thousand wait to join in the struggle; and we can easily see that the temper and spirit of the enemy were important considerations on the eve of so hazardous a battle. If the Midianites, Amalekites, and Children of the East formed a united army, if they were prepared to resist, if they had posted sentinels on every side and were bold in prospect of the fight, it was necessary for Gideon to be well aware of the facts. On the other hand if there were symptoms of division in the tents of the enemy, if there were no adequate preparations, and especially if the spirit of doubt or fear had begun to show itself, these would be indications that Jehovah was preparing victory for the Hebrews.
Gideon is led to inquire for himself into the condition of the Midianitish host. To learn that already his name kindles terror in the ranks of the enemy will dispel his lingering anxiety. "Jehovah said unto him Go thou with Purah thy servant down to the camp; and thou shalt hear what they say; and afterward shall thine hands be strengthened." The principle is that for those who are on God’s side it is always best to know fully the nature of the opposition. The temper of the enemies of religion, those irregular troops of infidelity and unrighteousness with whom we have to contend, is an element of great importance in shaping the course of our Christian warfare. We hear of organised vice, of combinations great and resolute against which we have to do battle. Language is used which implies that the condition of the churches of Christ contrasts pitiably with the activity and agreement of those who follow the black banners of evil. A vague terror possesses many that in the conflict with vice they must face immense resources and a powerful confederacy. The far-stretching encampment of the Midianites is to all appearance organised for defence at every point, and while the servants of God are resolved to attack they are oppressed by the vastness of the enterprise. Impiety, sensuality, injustice may seem to be in close alliance with each other, on the best understanding, fortified by superhuman craft and malice, with their gods in their midst to help them.
But let us go down to the host and listen, the state of things may be other than we have thought.
Under cover of the night which made Midian seem more awful the Hebrew chief and his servant left the outpost on the slope of Gilboa and crept from shadow to shadow across the space which separated them from the enemy, vaguely seeking what quickly came. Lying in breathless silence behind some bush or wall the Hebrews heard one relating a dream to his fellow. "I dreamed," he said, "and, lo, a cake of barley bread tumbled into the camp of Midian and came unto a tent and smote it that it fell, and overturned it that it lay along." The thoughts of the day are reproduced in the visions of the night. Evidently this man has had his mind directed to the likelihood of attack, the possibility of defeat. It is well known that the Hebrews are gathering to try the issue of battle. They are indeed like a barley cake such as poor Arabs bake among ashes-a defeated famished people whose life has been almost drained away. But tidings have come of their return to Jehovah and traditions of His marvellous power are current among the desert tribes. A confused sense of all this has shaped the dream in which the tent of the chief appears prostrate and despoiled. Gideon and Purah listen intently, and what they hear further is even more unexpected and reassuring. The dream is interpreted: "This is nothing else save the sword of Gideon the son of Joash, a man of Israel; for into his hand God hath delivered Midian and all the host." He who reads the dream knows more than the other. He has the name of the Hebrew captain. He has heard of the Divine messenger who called Gideon to his task and assured him of victory. As for the apparent strength of the host of Midian, he has no confidence in it, for he has felt the tremor that passes through the great camp. So, lying concealed, Gideon hears from his enemies themselves as from God the promise of victory, and full of worshipping joy hastens back to prepare for an immediate attack.
Now in every combination of godless men there is a like feeling of insecurity, a like presage of disaster. Those who are in revolt against justice, truth, and the religion of God have nothing on which to rest, no enduring bond of union. What do they conceive as the issue of their attempts and schemes? Have they anything in view that can give heart and courage; an end worth toil and hazard? It is impossible, for their efforts are all in the region of the false, where the seeming realities are but shadows that perpetually change. Let it be allowed that to a certain extent common interests draw together men of no principle so that they can cooperate for a time. Yet each individual is secretly bent on his own pleasure or profit and there is nothing that can unite them constantly. One selfish and unjust person may be depended upon to conceive a lively antipathy to every other selfish and unjust person. Midian and Amalek have their differences with one another, and each has its own rival chiefs, rival families, full of the bitterest jealousy, which at any moment may burst into flame. The whole combination is weak from the beginning, a mere horde of clashing desires incapable of harmony, incapable of a sustaining hope.
In the course of our Lord’s brief ministry the insecurity of those who opposed Him was often shown. The chief priests and scribes and lawyers whispered to each other the fears and anxieties He aroused. In the Sanhedrin the discussion about Him comes to the point, "What do we? For this man doeth many signs. If we let Him thus alone, all men will believe on Him: and the Romans will come and take away both our peace and our nation." The Pharisees say among themselves, "Perceive ye how ye prevail nothing? Behold the world is gone after Him." And what was the reason, what was the cause of this weakness? Intense devotion to the law and the institutions of religion animated those Israelites, yet sufficed not to bind them together. Rival schools and claims honeycombed the whole social and ecclesiastical fabric. The pride of religious ancestry and a keenly cherished ambition could not maintain peace or hope; they were of no use against the calm authority of the Nazarene. Judaism was full of the bitterness of falsehood. The seeds of despair were in the minds of those who accused Christ, and the terrible harvest was reaped within a generation. Passing from this supreme evidence that the wrong can never be the strong, look at those ignorant and unhappy persons who combine against the laws of society. Their suspicions of each other are proverbial, and ever with them is the feeling that sooner or later they will be overtaken by the law. They dream of that and tell each other their dreams. The game of crime is played against well known odds. Those who carry it on are aware that their haunts will be discovered, their gang broken up. A bribe will tempt one of their number, and the rest will have to go their way to the cell or the gallows. Yet with the presage of defeat wrought into the very constitution of the mind and with innumerable proofs that it is no delusion, there are always those amongst us who attempt what even in this world is so hazardous and in the larger sweep of moral economy is impossible. In selfishness, in oppression and injustice, in every kind of sensuality men adventure as if they could ensure their safety and defy the day of reckoning. Gideon is now well persuaded that the fear of disaster is not for Israel. He returns to the camp and forthwith prepares to strike. It seems to him now the easiest thing possible to throw into confusion that great encampment of Midian.
One bold device rapidly executed will set in operation the suspicions and fears of the different desert tribes and they will melt away in defeat. The stratagem has already shaped itself. The three hundred are provided with the earthenware jars or pitchers in which their simple food has been carried. They soon procure firebrands and from among the ten thousand in the camp enough rams’ horns are collected to supply one to each of the attacking party. Then three bands are formed of equal strength and ordered to advance from different sides upon the enemy, holding themselves ready at a given signal to break the pitchers, flash the torches in the air and make as much noise as they can with their rude mountain horns. The scheme is simple, quaint, ingenious. It reveals skill in making use of the most ordinary materials which is of the very essence of generalship. The harsh cornets especially filling the valley with barbaric tumult are well adapted to create terror and confusion. We hear nothing of ordinary weapons, but it must not be supposed that the three hundred were unarmed.
It was not long after midnight, the middle watch had been newly set, when the three companies reached their stations. The orders had been well seized and all went precisely as Gideon had conceived. With crash and tumult and flare of torches there came the battle shout-"Sword of Jehovah and of Gideon." The Israelites had no need to press forward; they stood every man in his place, while fear and suspicion did the work. The host ran and cried and fled. To and fro among the tents, seeing, now on this side now on that, the menacing flames, turning from the battle cry here to be met in an opposite quarter by the wild dissonance of the horns, the surprised army was thrown into utter confusion. Every one thought of treachery and turned his sword against his fellow. Escape was the common impulse, and the flight of the disorganised host took a southeasterly direction by the road that led to the Jordan valley and across it to the Hauran and the desert. It was a complete rout and the Hebrews had only to follow up their advantage. Those who had not shared the attack joined in the pursuit. Every village that the flying Midianites passed sent out its men, brave enough now that the arm of the tyrant was broken. Down to the ghor of Jordan the terror-stricken Arabs fled and along the bank for many a mile, harassed in the difficult ground by the Hebrews who know every yard of it. At the fords there is dreadful work. Those who cross at the highest point near Succoth are not the main body, but the two chiefs Zebah and Zalmunna are among them and Gideon takes them in hand. Away to the south Ephraim has its opportunity and gains a victory where the road. along the valley of Jordan diverges to Beth-barah. For days and nights the retreat goes oft till the strange swift triumph of Israel is assured.
1. There is in this narrative a lesson as to equipment for the battle of life and the service: of God somewhat like that which we found in the story of Shamgar, yet with points of difference. We are reminded here of what may be done without wealth, without the material apparatus that is often counted necessary. The modern habit is to make much of tools and outfit. The study and applications of science have brought in a fashion of demanding everything possible in the way of furniture, means, implements. Everywhere this fashion prevails, in the struggle of commerce and manufacture, in literature and art, in teaching and household economy, worst of all in church life and work. Michaelangelo wrought the frescoes of the Sistine chapel with the ochres he dug with his own hands from the garden of the Vatican. Mr. Darwin’s great experiments were conducted with the rudest and cheapest furniture, anything a country house could supply. But in the common view it is on perfect tools and material almost everything depends; and we seem in the way of being absolutely mastered by them. What, for example, is the ecclesiasticism which covers an increasing area of religious life? And what is the parish or congregation fully organised in the modern sense? Must we not call them elaborate machinery expected to produce spiritual life? There must be an extensive building with every convenience for making worship agreeable; there must be guilds and guild rooms, societies and committees, each with an array of officials; there must be due assignment of observances to fit days and seasons; there must be architecture, music, and much else. The ardent soul desiring to serve God and man has to find a place in conjunction with all this and order his work so that it may appear well in a report. To some these things may appear ludicrous, but they are too significant of the drift from that simplicity and personal energy in which the Church of Christ began. We seem to have forgotten that the great strokes have been made by men who like Gideon delayed not for elaborate preparation nor went back on rule and precedent, but took the firebrands, pitchers, and horns that could be got together on a hillside. The great thing both in the secular and in the spiritual region is that men should go straight at the work which has to be done and do it with sagacity, intelligence, and fervour of their own.
We look back to those few plain men with whom lay the new life of the world, going forth with the strong certain word of a belief for which they could die, a truth by which the dead could be revived. Their equipment was of the soul. Of outward means and material advantages they were, one may say, destitute. Our methods are very different. No doubt in these days there is a work of defence which requires the finest weapons and most careful preparation. Yet even here no weight of polished armour is so good for David’s use as the familiar sling and stone. And in the general task of the church, teaching, guiding, setting forth the gospel of Christ, whatever keeps soul from honest and hearty touch with soul is bad. We want above all things men who have sanctified common sense, mother wit, courage and frank simplicity, men who can find their own means and gain their own victories. The churches that do not breed such are doomed.
2. We have been reading a story of panic and defeat, and we may be advised to find in it a hint of the fate that is to overtake Christianity when modern criticism has finally ordered its companies and provided them with terrifying horns and torches. Or certain Christians may feel that the illustration fits the state of alarm in which they are obliged to live. Is not the church like that encampment in the valley, exposed to the most terrible and startling attacks on all sides, and in peril constantly of being routed by unforeseen audacities, here of Ingersoll, Bakunin, Bebel, there of Huxley or Renan? Not seldom still, though after many a false alarm, the cry is raised, "The church, the faith-in danger!"
Once for all-the Church of the Lord Jesus Christ is never in danger, though enemies buzz on every side like furious hornets. A confederation of men, a human organisation may be in deadly peril and may know that the harsh tumult around it means annihilation. But no institution is identical with the Catholic Church, much less with the kingdom of God. Christians need not dread the honest criticism which has a right to speak, nor even the malice, envy, which have no right yet dare to utter themselves. Whether it be sheer atheism or scientific dogma or political change or criticism of the Bible that makes the religious world tremble and cry out for fear, in every case panic is unchristian and unworthy. For one thing, do we not frame numerous thoughts and opinions of our own and devise many forms of service which in the course of time we come to regard as having a sacredness equal to the doctrine and ordinances of Christ? And do we not frequently fall into the error of thinking that the symbols, traditions, outward forms of a Christian society are essential and as much to be contended for as the substance of the gospel? Criticism of these is dreaded as criticism of Christ, decay of them is regarded, often quite wrongly, as decay of the work of God on earth. We forget that forms, as such, are on perpetual trial, and we forget also that no revolution or seeming disaster can touch the facts on which Christianity rests. The Divine gospel is eternal. Indeed, assailants of the right sort are needed, and even those of the bad sort have their use. The encampment of the unseeing and unthinking, of the self-loving and arrogant needs to be startled; and he is no emissary of Satan who honestly leads an attack where men lie in false peace, though he may be for his own part but a rude fighter. The panic indeed sometimes takes a singular and pathetic form. The unexpected enemy breaks in on the camp with blare of ignorant rebuke and noisy demonstration of strength and authority. Him the church hails as a new apostle, at his feet she takes her place with a strange unprofitable humility; and this is the worst kind of disaster. Better far a serious battle than such submission.
3. Without pursuing this suggestion we pass to another raised by the conduct of the men of Ephraim. They obeyed the call of Gideon when he hastily summoned them to take the lower fords of Jordan within their own territory and prevent the escape of the Midianites. To them it fell to gain a great victory, and especially to slay two subordinate chiefs, Oreb and Zeeb, the Crow and the Wolf. But afterwards they complained that they had not been called at first when the commander was gathering his army. We are informed that they chode with him sharply on this score, and it was only by his soft answer which implied a little flattery that they were appeased. "What have I now in comparison with you? Is not the gleaming of the grapes of Ephraim better than the vintage of Abiezer?"
The men of Ephraim were not called at first along with Manasseh, Zebulun, Asher, and Naphtali. True. But why? Was not Gideon aware of their selfish indifference? Did he not read their character? Did he not perceive that they would have sullenly refused to be led by a man of Manasseh, the youngest son of Joash of Abiezer? Only too well did the young chief know with whom he had to deal. There had been fighting already between Israel and the Midianites. Did Ephraim help then? Nay: but secure in her mountains that tribe sullenly and selfishly held aloof. And now the complaint is made when Gideon, once unknown, is a victorious hero, the deliverer of the Hebrew nation.
Do we not often see something like this? There are people who will not hazard position or profit in identifying themselves with an enterprise while the issue is doubtful, but desire to have the credit of connection with it if it should succeed. They have not the humanity to associate themselves with those who are fighting in a good cause because it is good. In fact they do not know what is good, their only test of value being success. They lie by, looking with half-concealed scorn on the attempts of the earnest, sneering at their heat either in secret or openly, and when one day it becomes clear that the world is applauding they conceive a sudden respect for those at whom they scoffed. Now they will do what they can to help, -with pleasure, with liberality. Why were they not sooner invited? They will almost make a quarrel of that, and they have to be soothed with fair speeches. And people who are worldly at heart push forward in this fashion when Christian affairs have success or eclat attached to them, especially where religion wears least of its proper air and has somewhat of the earthly in tone and look. Christ pursued by the Sanhedrin, despised by the Roman, is no person for them to know. Let Him have the patronage of Constantine or a de Medici and they are then assured that He has claims which they will admit-in theory. More than that needs not be expected from men and women "of the world." "Messieurs, surtout, pas de zele." Above all, no zeal: that is the motto of every Ephraim since time began. Wait till zeal is cooling before you join the righteous cause.
4. But while there are the carnal who like to share the success of religion after it has cooled down to their temperature, another class must not be forgotten, those who in their selfishness show the worst kind of hostility to the cause they should aid. Look at the men of Succoth and Penuel. Gideon and his band leading the pursuit of the Midianites have had no food all night and are faint with hunger. At Succoth they ask bread in vain. Instead of help they get the taunt-"Are Zebah and Zalmunna now in thine hand that we should give bread unto thine army?" Onward they press another stage up the hills to Penuel, and there also their request is refused. Gideon, savage with the need of his men, threatens dire punishment to those who are so callous and cruel; and when he returns victorious his threat is made good. With thorns and briars of the wilderness he scourges the elders of Succoth. The pride of Penuel is its watchtower, and that he demolishes, at the same time decimating the men of the city.
Penuel and Succoth lay in the way between the wilderness in which the Midianites dwelt and the valleys of western Palestine. The men of these cities feared that if they aided Gideon they would bring on themselves the vengeance of the desert tribes. Yet where do we see the lowest point of unfaith and meanness, in Ephraim or Succoth? It is perhaps hard to say which are the least manly: those contrive to join the conquering host and snatch the credit of victory; these are not so clever, and while they are as eager to make things smooth for themselves the thorns and briars are more visibly their portion. To share the honour of a cause for which you have done very little is an easy thing in this world, though an honest man cannot wear that kind of laurel; but as for Succoth and Penuel, the poor creatures, who will not pity them? It is so inconvenient often to have to decide. They would temporise if it were possible-supply the famished army with mouldy corn and raisins at a high price, and do as much next time for the Midianites. Yet the opportunity for this kind of salvation does not always come. There are times when people have to choose definitely whom they will serve, and discover to their horror that judgment follows swiftly upon base and cowardly choice. And God is faithful in making the recusants feel the urgency of moral choice and the grip He has of them. They would fain let the battle of truth sweep by and not meddle with it. But something is forced upon them. They cannot let the whole affair of salvation alone, but are driven to refuse heaven in the very act of trying to escape hell. And although judgment lingers, ever and anon demonstration is made among the ranks of the would be prudent that One on high judges for His warriors. It is not the Gideon leading the little band of faint but eager champions of faith who punishes the callous heathenism and low scorn of a Succoth and Penuel. The Lord of Hosts Himself will vindicate and chasten. "Whoso shall cause one of these little ones that believe in Me to stumble, it is profitable for him that a great millstone should be hanged about his neck, and that he should be sunk in the depth of the sea."
5. Yet another word of instruction is found in the appeal of Gideon: "Give, I pray you, loaves of bread unto the people that follow me, for they be faint and I am pursuing after Zebah and Zalmunna." Well has the expression "Faint yet pursuing" found its place as a proverb of the religious life. We are called to run with patience a race that needs long ardour and strenuous exertion. The goal is far away, the ground is difficult. As day after day and year after year demands are made upon our faith, our resolution, our thought, our devotion to One who remains unseen and on our confidence in the future life, it is no wonder that many feel faint and weary. Often have we to pass through a region inhabited by those who are indifferent or hostile, careless or derisive. At many a door we knock and find no sympathy. We ask for bread and receive a stone; and still the fight slackens not, still have we to reach forth to the things that are before. But the faintness is not death. In the most terrible hours there is new life for our spiritual nature. Refreshment comes from an unseen hand when earth refuses help. We turn to Christ; we consider Him who endured great contradiction of sinners against Himself; we realise afresh that we are ensured of the fulness of His redemption. The body grows faint, but the soul presses on; the body dies and has to be left behind as a worn-out garment, but the spirit ascends into immortal youth.
"On, chariot! on, soul!
Ye are all the more fleet.
Be alone at the goal
Of the strange and the sweet!"
6. Finally let us glance at the fate of Zebah and Zalmunna, not without a feeling of admiration and of pity for the rude ending of these stately lives.
The sword of Jehovah and of Gideon has slain its thousands. The vast desert army has been scattered like chaff, in the flight, at the fords, by the rock Oreb and the wine press Zeeb, all along the way by Nobah and Jogbehah, and finally at Karkor, where having encamped in fancied security the residue is smitten. Now the two defeated chiefs are in the hand of Gideon, their military renown completely wrecked, their career destroyed. To them the expedition into Canaan was part of the common business of leadership. As emirs of nomadic tribes they had to find pasture and prey for their people. No special antagonism to Jehovah, no ill-will against Israel more than other nations, led them to cross the Jordan and scour the plains of Palestine. It was quite in the natural course of things that Midianites and Amalekites should migrate and move towards the west. And now the defeat is crushing. What remains therefore but to die?
We hear Gideon command his son Jether to fall upon the captive chiefs, who, brilliant and stately once, lie disarmed, bound and helpless. The indignity is not to our mind. We would have thought more of Gideon had he offered freedom to these captives "fallen on evil days," men to be admired, not hated. But probably they do not desire a life which has in it no more of honour. Only let the Hebrew leader not insult them by the stroke of a young man’s sword. The great chiefs would die by a warrior’s blow. And Jether cannot slay them; his hand falters as he draws the sword. These men who have ruled their tens of thousands have still the lion look that quails. "Rise thou and fall upon us," they say to Gideon: "for as the man is, so is his strength." And so they die, types of the greatest earthly powers that resist the march of Divine Providence, overthrown by a sword which even in faulty, weak human hands has indefeasible sureness and edge.
"As the man is, so is his strength." It is another of the pregnant sayings which meet us here and there even in the least meditative parts of Scripture. Yes: as a man is in character, in faith, in harmony with the will of God, so is his strength; as he is in falseness, injustice, egotism, and ignorance, so is his weakness. And there is but one real perennial kind of strength. The demonstration made by selfish and godless persons, though it shake continents and devastate nations, is not Force. It has no nerve, no continuance, but is mere fury which decays and perishes. Strength is the property of truth and truth only; it belongs to those who are in union with eternal reality and to no others in the universe. Would you be invincible? You must move with the eternal powers of righteousness and love. To be showy in appearance or terrible in sound on the wrong side with the futilities of the world is but incipient death.
On all sides the application may be seen. In the home and its varied incidents of education, sickness, discipline; in society high and low; in politics, in literature. As the man or woman is in simple allegiance to God and clear resolution there is strength to endure, to govern, to think, and every way to live. Otherwise there can only be instability, foolishness, blundering selfishness, a sad passage to inanition and decay.
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.
GIDEON THE ECCLESIASTIC
THE great victory of Gideon had this special significance, that it ended the incursions of the wandering races of the desert. Canaan offered a continual lure to the nomads of the Arabian wilderness, as indeed the eastern and southern parts of Syria do at the present time. The hazard was that wave after wave of Midianites and Bedawin sweeping over the land should destroy agriculture and make settled national life and civilisation impossible. And when Gideon undertook his work the risk of this was acute. But the defeat inflicted on the wild tribes proved decisive. "Midian was subdued before the children of Israel, and they lifted up their heads no more." The slaughter that accompanied the overthrow of Zebah and Zalmunna, Oreb and Zeeb became in the literature of Israel a symbol of the destruction which must overtake the foes of God. "Do thou to thine enemies as unto Midian"-so runs the cry of a psalm-"Make their nobles like Oreb and Zeeb: yea, all their princes like Zebah and Zalmunna, who said, Let us take to ourselves in possession the habitations of God." In Isaiah the remembrance gives a touch of vivid colour to the oracle of the coming Wonderful, Prince of Peace. "The yoke of his burden and the staff of his shoulder, the rod of his oppressor shall be broken as in the day of Midian." Regarding the Assyrian also the same prophet testifies, "The Lord of Hosts shall stir up against him a scourge as in the slaughter of Midian at the rock of Oreb." We have no song like that of Deborah celebrating the victory, but a sense of its immense importance held the mind of the people, and by reason of it Gideon found a place among the heroes of faith. Doubtless he had, to begin with, a special reason for taking up arms against the Midianitish chiefs that they had slain his two brothels: the duty of an avenger of blood fell to him. But this private vengeance merged in the desire to give his people freedom, religious as well as political, and it was Jehovah’s victory that he won, as he himself gladly acknowledged. We may see, therefore, in the whole enterprise, a distinct step of religious development. Once again the name of the Most High was exalted; once again the folly of idol worship was contrasted with the wisdom of serving the God of Abraham and Moses. The tribes moved in the direction of national unity and also of common devotion to their unseen King. If Gideon had been a man of larger intellect and knowledge he might have led Israel far on the way towards fitness for the mission it had never yet endeavoured to fulfil. But his powers and inspiration were limited.
On his return from the campaign the wish of the people was expressed to Gideon that he should assume the title of king. The nation needed a settled government, a centre of authority which would bind the tribes together, and the Abiezrite chief was now clearly marked as a man fit for royalty. He was able to persuade as well as to fight; he was bold, firm, and prudent. But to the request that he should become king and found a dynasty Gideon gave an absolute refusal: "I will not rule over you, neither shall my son rule over you; Jehovah shall rule over you." We always admire a man who refuses one of the great posts of human authority or distinction. The throne of Israel was even at that time a flattering offer. But should it have been made? There are few who will pause in a moment of high personal success to think of the point of morality involved; yet we may credit Gideon with the belief that it was not for him or any man to be called king in Israel. As a judge he had partly proved himself, as a judge he had a Divine call and a marvellous vindication: that name he would accept, not the other.
One of the chief elements of Gideon’s character was a strong but not very spiritual religiousness. He attributed his success entirely to God, and God alone he desired the nation to acknowledge as its Head. He would not even in appearance stand between the people and their Divine Sovereign, nor with his will should any son of his take a place so unlawful and dangerous.
Along with his devotion to God it is quite likely that the caution of Gideon had much to do with his resolve. He had already found some difficulty in dealing with the Ephraimites, and he could easily foresee that if he became king the pride of that large clan would rise strongly against him. If the gleaning of the grapes of Ephraim was better than the whole vintage of Abiezer, as Gideon had declared, did it not follow that any elder of the great central tribe would better deserve the position of king than the youngest son of Joash of Abiezer? The men of Succoth and Penuel too had to be reckoned with before Gideon could establish himself in a royal seat he would have to fight a great coalition in the centre and south and also beyond Jordan. To the pains of oppression would succeed the agony of civil war. Unwilling to kindle a fire which might burn for years and perhaps consume himself, he refused to look at the proposal, flattering and honourable as it was.
But there was another reason for his decision which may have had even more weight. Like many men who have distinguished themselves in one way, his real ambition lay in a different direction. We think of him as a military genius. He for his part looked to the priestly office and the transmission of Divine oracles as his proper calling. The enthusiasm with which he overthrew the altar of Baal, built the new altar of Jehovah and offered his first sacrifice upon it, survived when the wild delights of victory had passed away. The thrill of awe and the strange excitement he had felt when Divine messages came to him and signs were given in. answer to his prayer affected him far more deeply and permanently than the sight of a flying enemy and the pride of knowing himself victor in a great campaign. Neither did kingship appear much in comparison with access to God, converse with Him, and declaration of His will to men. Gideon appears already tired of war, with no appetite certainly for more, however successful, and impatient to return to the mysterious rites and sacred privileges of the altar. He had good reason to acknowledge the power over Israel’s destiny of the Great Being Whose spirit had come upon him, Whose promises had been fulfilled. He desired to cultivate that intercourse with Heaven which more than anything else gave him the sense of dignity and strength. From the offer of a crown he turned as if eager to don the robe of a priest and listen for the holy oracles that none beside himself seemed able to receive.
It is notable that in the history of the Jewish kings the tendency shown by Gideon frequently reappeared. According to the law of later times the kingly duties should have been entirely separated from those of the priesthood. It came to be a dangerous and sacrilegious thing for the chief magistrate of the tribes, their leader in war, to touch the sacred implements or offer a sacrifice. But just because the ideas of sacrifice and priestly service were so fully in the Jewish mind the kings, either when especially pious or especially strong, felt it hard to refrain from the forbidden privilege. On the eve of a great battle with the Philistines Saul, expecting Samuel to offer the preparatory sacrifice and inquire of Jehovah, waited seven days and then, impatient of delay, undertook the priestly part and offered a burnt sacrifice. His act was, properly speaking, a confession of the sovereignty of God; but when Samuel came he expressed great indignation against the king, denounced his interference with sacred things, and in effect removed him then and there from the kingdom. David for his part appears to have been scrupulous in employing the priests for every religious function; but at the bringing up of the ark from the house of Obed-Edom he is reported to have led a sacred dance before the Lord and to have worn a linen ephod, that is, a garment specially reserved for the priests. He also took to himself the privilege of blessing the people in the name of the Lord. On the division of the kingdom Jeroboam promptly assumed the ordering of religion, set up shrines and appointed priests to minister at them; and in one scene we find him standing by an altar to offer incense. The great sin of Uzziah, on account of which he had to go forth from the temple a hopeless leper, is stated in the second book of Chronicles to have been an attempt to burn incense on the altar. These are cases in point; but the most remarkable is that of Solomon. To be king, to build and equip the temple and set in operation the whole ritual of the house of God, did not content that magnificent prince. His ambition led him to assume a part far loftier and more impressive than fell to the chief priest himself. It was Solomon who offered the prayer when the temple was consecrated, who pronounced the blessing of God on the worshipping multitude; and at his invocation it was that "fire came down from heaven and consumed the burnt offering and the sacrifices." This crowning act of his life in which the great monarch rose to the very highest pitch of his ambition, actually claiming and taking precedence over all the house of Aaron, will serve to explain the strange turn of the Abiezrite’s history at which we have now arrived.
"He made an ephod and put it in his city, even in Ophrah." A strong but not spiritual religiousness, we have said, is the chief note of Gideon’s character. It may be objected that such a one, if he seeks ecclesiastical office, does so unworthily; but to say so is an uncharitable error. It is not the devout temper alone that finds attraction in the ministry of sacred things; nor should a love of place and power be named as the only other leading motive. One who is not devout may in all sincerity covet the honour of standing for God before the congregation, leading the people in worship, and interpreting the sacred oracles. A vulgar explanation of human desire is often a false one; it is so here. The ecclesiastic may show few tokens of the spiritual temper, the other worldliness, the glowing and simple truth we rightly account to be the proper marks of a Christian ministry; yet he may by his own reckoning have obeyed a clear call. His function in this case is to maintain order and administer outward rites with dignity and care-a limited range of duty indeed, but not without utility, especially when there are inferior and less conscientious men in office not far away. He does not advance faith, but according to his power he maintains it.
But the ecclesiastic must have the ephod. The man who feels the dignity of religion more than its humane simplicity, realising it as a great movement of absorbing interest, will naturally have regard to the means of increasing dignity and making the movement impressive. Gideon calls upon the people for the golden spoils taken from the Midianites, nose rings, earrings and the like, and they willingly respond. It is easy to obtain gifts for the outward glory of religion, and a golden image is soon to be seen within a house of Jehovah on the hill at Ophrah. Whatever form it had, this figure was to Gideon no idol, but a symbol or sign of Jehovah’s presence among the people, and by means of it, in one or other of the ways used at the time, as for example by casting lots from within it, appeal was made to God with the utmost respect and confidence. When it is supposed that Gideon fell away from his first faith in making this image, the error lies in overestimating his spirituality at the earlier stage. We must not think that at any time the use of a symbolic image would have seemed wrong to him. It was not against images, but against worship of false and impure gods, that his zeal was at first directed. The sacred pole was an object of detestation because it was a symbol of Astarte.
In some way we cannot explain the whole life of Gideon appears as quite separate from the religious ordinances maintained before the ark, and at the same time quite apart from that Divine rule which forbade the making and worship of graven images. Either he did not know the second commandment, or he understood it only as forbidding the use of an image of any creature and the worship of a creature by means of an image. We know that the cherubim in the Holy of Holies were symbolic of the perfections of creation, and through them the greatness of the Unseen God was realised. So it was with Gideon’s ephod or image, which was however used in seeking oracles. He acted at Ophrah as priest of the true God. The sacrifices he offered were to Jehovah. People came from all the northern tribes to bow at his altar and receive divine intimations through him. The southern tribes had Gilgal and Shiloh. Here at Ophrah was a service of the God of Israel, not perhaps intended to compete with the other shrines, yet virtually depriving them of their fame. For the expression is used that all Israel went a whoring after the ephod.
But while we try to understand we are not to miss the warning which comes home to us through this chapter of religious history. Pure and, for the time, even elevated in the motive, Gideon’s attempt at priestcraft led to his fall. For a while we see the hero acting as judge at Ophrah and presiding with dignity at the altar. His best wisdom is at the service of the people, and he is ready to offer for them at new moon or harvest the animals they desire to consecrate and consume in the sacred feast. In a spirit of real faith and no doubt with much sagacity he submits their inquiries to the test of the ephod. But "the thing became a snare to Gideon and his house," perhaps in the way of bringing in riches and creating the desire for more. Those who applied to him as a revealer brought gifts with them. Gradually as wealth increased among the people the value of the donations would increase, and he who began as a disinterested patriot may have degenerated into a somewhat avaricious man who made a trade of religion. On this point we have, however, no information. It is mere surmise, depending upon observation of the way things are apt to go amongst ourselves.
Reviewing the story of Gideon’s life we find this clear lesson, that within certain limits he who trusts and obeys God has a quite irresistable efficiency. This man had, as we have seen, his limitations, very considerable. As a religious leader, prophet or priest, he was far from competent; there is no indication that he was able to teach Israel a single Divine doctrine, and as to the purity and mercy, the righteousness and love of God, his knowledge was rudimentary. In the remote villages of the Abiezrites the tradition of Jehovah’s name and power remained, but in the confusion of the times there was no education of children in the will of God: the Law was practically unknown. From Shechem where Baal-Berith was worshipped the influence of a degrading idolatry had spread, obliterating every religious idea except the barest elements of the old faith. Doing his very best to understand God, Gideon never saw what religion in our sense means. His sacrifices were appeals to a Power dimly felt through nature and in the greater epochs of the national history, chastising now, and now friendly and beneficent.
Yet, seriously limited as he was, Gideon, when he had once laid hold of the fact that he was called by the unseen God to deliver Israel, went on step by step to the great victory which made the tribes free. His responsibility to his fellow Israelites became clear along with his sense of the demand made upon him by God. He felt himself like the wind, like the lightning, like the dew, an agent or instrument of the Most High, bound to do His part in the course of things. His will was enlisted in the Divine purpose. This work, this deliverance of Israel, was to be effected by him and no other. He had the elemental powers with him, in him. The immense armies of Midian could not stand in his way. He was, as it were, a storm that must hurl them back into the wilderness defeated and broken.
Now this is the very conception of life which we in our far wider knowledge are apt to miss, which nevertheless it is our chief business to grasp and carry into practice. You stand there, a man instructed in a thousand things of which Gideon was ignorant, instructed especially in the nature and will of God Whom Christ has revealed. It is your privilege to take a broad survey of human life, of duty, to look beyond the present to the eternal future with its infinite possibilities of gain and loss. But the danger is that year after year all thought and effort shall be on your own account, that with each changing wind of circumstance you change your purpose, that you never understand God’s demand nor find the true use of knowledge, will, and life in fulfilling that. Have you a divine task to effect? You doubt it. Where is anything that can be called a commission of God? You look this way and that for a little, then give up the quest. This year finds you without enthusiasm, without devotion even as you have been in other years. So life ebbs away and is lost in the wide flat sands of the secular and trivial, and the soul never becomes part of the strong ocean current of Divine purpose. We pity or deride some who, with little knowledge and in many errors alike of heart and head, were yet men as many of us may not claim to be, alive to the fact of God and their own share in Him. But they were so limited, those Hebrews, you say, a mere horde of shepherds and husbandmen; their story is too poor, too chaotic to have any lesson for us. And in sheer incapacity to read the meaning of the tale you turn from this Book of Judges, as from a barbarian myth, less interesting than Homer, of no more application to yourself than the legends of the Round Table. Yet, all the while, the one supreme lesson for a man to read and take home to himself is written throughout the book in bold and living characters-that only when life is realised as a vocation is it worth living. God may be faintly known, His will but rudely interpreted; yet the mere understanding that He gives life and rewards effort is an inspiration. And when His life-giving call ceases to stir and guide there can be for the man, the nation, only irresolution and weakness.
A century ago Englishmen were as little devout as they are today; they were even less spiritual, less moved to fine issues. They had their scepticisms too, their rough ignorant prejudices, their giant errors and perversities. "We have gained vastly," as Professor Seeley says, "in breadth of view, intelligence, and refinement. Probably what we threw aside could not be retained; what we adopted was forced upon us by the age. Nevertheless, we had formerly what I may call a national discipline, which formed a firm, strongly-marked national character. We have now only materials, which may be of the first quality, but have not been worked up. We have everything except decided views and steadfast purpose-everything in short except character." Yes: the sense of the nation’s calling has decayed, and with it the nation’s strength. In leaders and followers alike purpose fades as faith evaporates, and we are faithless because we attempt nothing noble under the eye and sceptre of the King.
You live, let us say, among those who doubt God, doubt whether there is any redemption, whether the whole Christian gospel and hope are not in the air, dreams, possibilities, rather than facts of the Eternal Will. The storm wind blows and you hear its roaring: that is palpable fact, divine or cosmic. Its errand will be accomplished. Great rivers flow, great currents sweep through the ocean. Their mighty urgency who can doubt? But the spiritual who can believe? You do not feel in the sphere of the moral, of the spiritual the wind that makes no sound, the current that rolls silently charged with sublime energies, effecting a vast and wonderful purpose. Yet here are the great facts; and we must find our part in that spiritual urgency, do our duty there, or lose all. We must launch out on the mighty stream of redemption or never reach eternal light, for all else moves down to death. Christ Himself is to be victorious in us. The glory of our life is that we can be irresistible in the region of our duty, irresistible in conflict with the evil, the selfishness, the falsehood given us to overthrow. To realise that is to live. The rest is all mere experiment, getting ready for the task of existence, making armour, preparing food, otherwise, at the worst, a winter’s morning before inglorious death.
One other thing observe, that underlying Gideon’s desire to fill the office of priest there was a dull perception of the highest function of one man in relation to others. It appears to the common mind a great thing to rule, to direct secular affairs, to have the command of armies and the power of filling offices and conferring dignities; and no doubt to one who desires to serve his generation well, royalty, political power, even municipal office offer many excellent opportunities. But set kingship on this side, kingship concerned with the temporal and earthly, or at best humane aspects of life, and on the other side priesthood of the true kind which has to do with the spiritual, by which God is revealed to man and the holy ardour and divine aspirations of the human will are sustained-and there can be no question which is the more important. A clever strong man may be a ruler. It needs a good man, a pious man, a man of heavenly power and insight to be in any right sense a priest. I speak not of the kind of priest Gideon turned out, nor of a Jewish priest, nor of any who in modern times professes to be in that succession, but of one who really stands between God and men, bearing the sorrows of his kind, their trials, doubts, cries, and prayers on his heart and presenting them to God, interpreting to the weary and sad and troubled the messages of heaven. In this sense Christ is the one True Priest, the eternal and only sufficient High Priest. And in this sense it is possible for every Christian to hold towards those less enlightened and less decided in their faith the priestly part.
Now in a dim way the priestly function presented itself to Gideon and allured him. Sufficient for it he was not, and his ephod became a snare. Neither could he grasp the wisdom of heaven nor understand the needs of men. In his hands the sacred art did not prosper, he became content with the appearance and the gain. It is so with many who take the name of priests. In truth, on one side the term and all it stands for must be confessed full of danger to him set apart and those who separate him. Here as pointedly as anywhere must it be affirmed, "Whatsoever is not of faith is sin." There must be a mastering sense of God’s calling on the side of him who ministers, and on the side of the people recognition of a message, an example coming to them through this brother of theirs who speaks what he has received of the Holy Spirit, who offers a personal living word, a personal testimony. Here, be it called what it may, is priesthood after the pattern of Christ’s, true and beneficent; and apart from this priesthood may too easily become, as many have affirmed, a horrible imposture and baleful lie. Christianity brings the whole to a point in every life. God’s calling, spiritual, complete, comes to each soul in its place, and the holy oil is for every head. The father, mother, the employer and the workman, the surgeon, writer, lawyer-everywhere and in all posts, just as men and women are living out God’s demand upon them-these are His priests, ministrants of the hearth and the shop, the factory and the office, by the cradle and the sick bed, wherever the multitudinous epic of life goes forward. Here is the common and withal the holiest calling and office. That one dwelling with God in righteousness and love introduce others into the sanctuary, declare as a thing he knows the will of the Eternal, uplift the feebleness of faith and revive the heart of love-this is the highest task on earth, the grandest of heaven.
Of such it may be said, "Ye are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a peculiar people that ye should show forth the praises of Him Who hath called you out of darkness into His marvellous light."
And Jerubbaal the son of Joash went and dwelt in his own house.
ABIMELECH AND JOTHAM
Jdg 8:29-35; Jdg 9:1-57
THE history we are tracing moves from man to man; the personal influence of the hero is everything while it lasts and confusion follows on his death. Gideon appears as one of the most successful Hebrew judges in maintaining order. While he was there in Ophrah religion and government had a centre "and the country was in quietness forty years." A man far from perfect but capable of mastery held the reins and gave forth judgment with an authority none could challenge. His burial in the family sepulchre in Ophrah is specially recorded, as if it had been a great national tribute to his heroic power and skilful administration.
The funeral over, discord began. A rightful ruler there was not. Among the claimants of power there was no man of power. Gideon left many sons, but not one of them could take his place. The confederation of cities half Hebrew, half Canaanite, with Shechem at their head, of which we have already heard, held in check while Gideon lived, now began to control the politics of the tribes. By using the influence of this league a usurper who had no title whatever to the confidence of the people succeeded in exalting himself.
The old town of Shechem situated in the beautiful valley between Ebal and Gerizim had long been. a centre of Baal worship and of Canaanite intrigue, though nominally one of the cities of refuge and therefore specially sacred. Very likely the mixed population of this important town, jealous of the position gained by the hill village of Ophrah, were ready to receive with favour any proposals that seemed to offer them distinction. And when Abimelech, son of Gideon by a slave woman of their town, went among them with ambitious and crafty suggestions they were easily persuaded to help him. The desire for a king which Gideon had promptly set aside lingered in the minds of the people, and by means of it Abimelech was able to compass his personal ends. First, however, he had to discredit others who stood in his way. There at Ophrah were the sons and grandsons of Gideon, threescore and ten of them according to the tradition, who were supposed to be bent on lording it over the tribes. Was it a thing to be thought of that the land should have seventy kings? Surely one would be better, less of an incubus at least, more likely to do the ruling well. Men of Shechem too would not be governed from Ophrah if they had any spirit. He, Abimelech, was their townsman, their bone and flesh. He confidently looked for their support.
We cannot tell how far there was reason for saying that the family of Gideon were aiming at an aristocracy. They may have had some vague purpose of the kind. The suggestion, at all events, was cunning and had its effect. The people of Shechem had stored considerable treasure in the sanctuary of Baal, and by public vote seventy pieces of silver were paid out of it to Abimelech. The money was at once used by him in hiring a band of men like himself, unscrupulous, ready for any desperate or bloody deed. With these he marched on Ophrah, and surprising his brothers in the house or palace of Jerub-baal speedily put out of his way their dangerous rivalry. With the exception of Jotham, who had observed the band approaching and concealed himself, the whole house of Gideon was dragged to execution. On one stone, perhaps the very rock on which the altar of Baal once stood, the threescore and nine were barbarously slain.
A villainous coup d’etat this. From Gideon overthrowing Baal and proclaiming Jehovah to Abimelech bringing up Baal again with hideous fratricide-it is a wretched turn of things. Gideon had to some extent prepared the way for a man far inferior to himself, as all do who are not utterly faithful to their light and calling; but he never imagined there could be so quick and shocking a revival of barbarism. Yet the ephod dealing, the polygamy, the immorality into which he lapsed were bound to come to fruit. The man who once was a pure Hebrew patriot begat a half-heathen son to undo his own work. As for the Shechemites, they knew quite well to what end they had voted those seventy pieces of silver; and the general opinion seems to have been that the town had its money’s worth, a life for each piece and, to boot, a king reeking with blood and shame. Surely it was a well spent grant. Their confederation, their god had triumphed. They made Abimelech king by the oak of the pillar that was in Shechem.
It is the success of the adventurer we have here, that common event. Abimelech is the Oriental adventurer and uses the methods of another age than ours; yet we have our examples, and if they are less scandalous in some ways, if they are apart from bloodshed and savagery, they are still sufficiently trying to those who cherish the faith of divine justice and providence. How many have to see with amazement the adventurer triumph by means of seventy pieces of silver from the house of Baal or even from a holier treasury. He in a selfish and cruel game seems to have speedy and complete success denied to the best and purest cause. Fighting for his own hand in wicked or contemptuous hardness and arrogant conceit, he finds support, applause, an open way. Being no prophet he has honour in his own town. He knows the art o! the stealthy insinuation, the lying promise and the flattering murmur; he has skill to make the favour of one leading person a step to securing another. When a few important people have been hoodwinked, he too becomes important and "success" is assured.
The Bible, most entirely honest of books, frankly sets before us this adventurer, Abimelech, in the midst of the judges of Israel, as low a specimen of "success" as need be looked for; and we trace the well known means by which such a person is promoted. "His mother’s brethren spake of him in the ears of all the men of Shechem." That there was little to say, that he was a man of no character mattered not the least. The thing was to create an impression so that Abimelech’s scheme might be introduced and forced. So far he could intrigue and then, the first steps gained, he could mount. But there was in him none of the mental power that afterwards marked Jehu, none of the charm that survives with the name of Absalom. It was on jealousy, pride, ambition he played as the most jealous, proud, and ambitious; yet for three years the Hebrews of the league, blinded by the desire to have their nation like others, suffered him to bear the name of king.
And by this sovereignty the Israelites who acknowledged it were doubly and trebly compromised. Not only did they accept a man without a record, they believed in one who was an enemy to his country’s religion, one therefore quite ready to trample upon its liberty. This is really the beginning of a worse oppression than that of Midian or of Jabin. It shows on the part of Hebrews generally as well as those who tamely submitted to Abimelech’s lordship a most abject state of mind. After the bloody work at Ophrah the tribes should have rejected the fratricide with loathing and risen like one man to suppress him. If the Baal worshippers of Shechem would make him king there ought to have been a cause of war against them in which every good man and true should have taken the field. We look in vain for any such opposition to the usurper. Now that he is crowned, Manasseh, Ephraim, and the North regard him complacently. It is the world all over. How can we wonder at this when we know with what acclamations kings scarcely more reputable than he have been greeted in modern times? Crowds gather and shout, fires of welcome blaze; there is joy as if the millennium had come. It is a king crowned, restored, his country’s head, defender of the faith. Vain is the hope, pathetic the joy.
There is no man of spirit to oppose Abimelech in the field. The duped nation must drink its cup of misrule and blood. But one appears of keen wit, apt and trenchant in speech. At least the tribes shall hear what one sound mind thinks of this coronation. Jotham, as we saw, escaped the slaughter at Ophrah. In the rear of the murderer he has crossed the hills and he will now utter his warning, whether men hear or whether they forbear. There is a crowd assembled for worship or deliberation at the oak of the pillar. Suddenly a voice is heard ringing clearly out between hill and hill, and the people looking up recognise Jotham, who from a spur of rock on the side of Gerizim demands their audience. "Hearken unto me," he cries, "ye men of Shechem, that God may hearken unto you." Then in his parable of the olive, the fig tree, the vine, and the bramble, he pronounces judgment and prophecy. The bramble is exalted to be king, but on these terms, that the trees come and put their trust under its shadow; "but if not, then let fire come out of the bramble and devour the cedars of Lebanon."
It is a piece of satire of the first order, brief, stinging, true. The craving for a king is lashed and then the wonderful choice of a ruler. Jotham speaks as an anarchist, one might say, but with God understood as the centre of law and order. It is a vision of the Theocracy, taking shape from a keen and original mind. He figures men as trees growing independently, dutifully. And do trees need a king? Are they not set in their natural freedom, each to yield fruit as best it can after its kind? Men of Shechem, Hebrews all, if they will only attend to their proper duties and do quiet work as God wills, appear to Jotham to need a king no more than the trees. Under the benign course of nature, sunshine and rain, wind and dew, the trees have all the restraint they need, all the liberty that is good for them. So men under the providence of God, adoring and obeying Him, have the best control, the only needful control, and with it liberty. Are they not fools then to go about seeking a tyrant to rule them, they who should be as cedars of Lebanon, willows by the watercourses, they who are made for simple freedom and spontaneous duty? It is something new in Israel, this keen intellectualising; but the fable, pointed as it is, teaches nothing for the occasion. Jotham is a man full of wit and of intelligence, but he has no practicable scheme of government, nothing definite to oppose to the mistake of the horn’. He is all for the ideal, but the time and the people are unripe for the ideal. We see the same contrast in our own day; both in politics and the church the incisive critic discrediting subordination altogether fails to secure his age.
Men are not trees. They are made to obey and trust. A hero or one who seems a hero is ever welcome, and he who skilfully imitates the roar of the lion may easily have a following, while Jotham, intensely sincere, highly gifted, a true-sighted man, finds none to mind him.
Again the fable is directed against Abimelech. What was this man to whom Shechem had sworn fealty? An olive, a fig tree, fruitful and therefore to be sought after? Was he a vine capable of rising on popular support to useful and honourable service? Not he. It was the bramble they had chosen, the poor grovelling jagged thorn bush that tears the flesh, whose end is to feed the fire of the oven. Who ever heard of a good or heroic deed Abimelech had done? He was simply a contemptible upstart, without moral principle, as ready to wound as to flatter, and they who chose him for king would too soon find their error. Now that he had done something, what was it? There were Israelites among the crowd that shouted in his honour. Had they already forgotten the services of Gideon so completely as to fall down before a wretch red handed from the murder of their hero’s sons? Such a beginning showed the character of the man they trusted, and the same fire which had issued from the bramble at Ophrah would flame out upon themselves. This was but the beginning; soon there would be war to the knife between Abimelech and Shechem.
We find instruction in the parable by regarding the answers put into the mouth of this tree and that, when they are invited to wave to and fro over the others. There are honours which are dearly purchased, high positions which cannot be assumed without renouncing the true end and fruition of life. One, for example, who is quietly and with increasing efficiency doing his part in a sphere to which he is adapted must set aside the gains of long discipline if he is to become a social leader. He can do good where he is. Not so certain is it that he will be able to serve his fellows well in public office. It is one thing to enjoy the deference paid to a leader while the first enthusiasm on his behalf continues, but it is quite another thing to satisfy all the demands made as years go on and new needs arise. When anyone is invited to take a position of authority he is bound to consider carefully his own aptitudes. He needs also to consider those who are to be subjects or constituents and make sure that they are of the kind his rule will fit. The olive looks at the cedar and the terebinth and the palm. Will they admit his sovereignty by and by though now they vote for it? Men are taken with the candidate who makes a good impression by emphasising what will please and suppressing opinions that may provoke dissent. When they know him, how will it be? When criticism begins, will the olive not be despised for its gnarled stem, its crooked branches and dusky foliage?
The fable does not make the refusal of olive and fig tree and vine rest on the comfort they enjoy in the humbler place. That would be a mean and dishonourable reason for refusing to serve. Men who decline public office because they love an easy life find here no countenance. It is for the sake of its fatness, the oil it yields, grateful to God and man in sacrifice and anointing, that the olive tree declines. The fig tree has its sweetness and the vine its grapes to yield. And so men despising self-indulgence and comfort may be justified in putting aside a call to office. The fruit of personal character developed in humble unobtrusive natural life is seen to be better than the more showy clusters forced by public demands. Yet, on the other hand, if one will not leave his books, another his scientific hobbies, a third his fireside, a fourth his manufactory, in order to take his place among the magistrates of a city or the legislators of a land the danger of bramble supremacy is near. Next a wretched Abimelech will appear; and what can be done but set him on high and put the reins in his hand? Unquestionably the claims of church or country deserve most careful weighing, and even if there is a risk that character may lose its tender bloom the sacrifice must be made in obedience to an urgent call. For a time, at least, the need of society at large must rule the loyal life.
The fable of Jotham, in so far as it flings sarcasm at the persons who desire eminence for the sake of it and not for the good they will be able to do, is an example of that wisdom which is as unpopular now as ever it has been in human history, and the moral needs every day to be kept full in view. It is desire for distinction and power, the opportunity of waving to and fro over the trees, the right to use this handle and that to their names that will be found to make many eager, not the distinct wish to accomplish something which the times and the country need. Those who solicit public office are far too often selfish, not self-denying, and even in the church there is much vain ambition. But people will have it so. The crowd follows him who is eager for the suffrages of the crowd and showers flattery and promises as he goes. Men are lifted into places they cannot fill, and after keeping their seats unsteadily for a time they have to disappear into ignominy.
We pass here, however, beyond the meaning Jotham desired to convey, for, as we have seen, he would have justified every one in refusing to reign. And certainly if society could be held together and guided without the exaltation of one over another, by the fidelity of each to his own task and brotherly feeling between man and man, there would be a far better state of things. But while the fable expounds a God-impelled anarchy, the ideal state of mankind, our modern schemes, omitting God, repudiating the least notion of a supernatural fount of life, turn upon themselves in hopeless confusion. When the divine law rules every life we shall not need organised governments; until then entire freedom in the world is but a name for unchaining every lust that degrades and darkens the life of man. Far away, as a hope of the redeemed and Christ-led race, there shines the ideal Theocracy revealed to the greater minds of the Hebrew people, often restated, never realised. But at present men need a visible centre of authority. There must be administrators and executors of law, there must be government and legislation till Christ reigns in every heart. The movement which resulted in Abimelech’s sovereignty was the blundering start in a series of experiments the Hebrew tribes were bound to make, as other nations had to make them. We are still engaged in the search for a right system of social order, and while rearers of God acknowledge the ideal towards which they labour, they must endeavour to secure by personal toil and devotion, by unwearying interest in affairs the most effective form of liberal yet firm government.
Abimelech maintained himself in power for three years, no doubt amid growing dissatisfaction. Then came the outburst which Jotham had predicted. An evil spirit, really present from the first, rose between Abimelech and the men of Shechem. The bramble began to tear themselves, a thing they were not prepared to endure. Once rooted, however, it was not easily got rid of. One who knows the evil arts of betrayal is quick to suspect treachery, the false person knows the ways of the false and how to fight them with their own weapons. A man of high character may be made powerless by the disclosure of some true words he has spoken; but when Shechem would be rid of Abimelech it has to employ brigands and organise robbery. "They set liers in wait for him in the mountains who robbed all that came along that way," the merchants no doubt to whom Abimelech had given a safe conduct. Shechem in fact became the headquarters of a band of highwaymen, whose crimes were condoned or even approved in the hope that one day the despot would be taken and an end put to his misrule.
It may appear strange that our attention is directed to these vulgar incidents, as they may be called, which were taking place in and about Shechem. Why has the historian not chosen to tell us of other regions where some fear of God survived and guided the lives of men, instead of giving in detail the intrigues and treacheries of Abimelech and his rebellious subjects? Would we not much rather hear of the sanctuary and the worship, of the tribe of Judah and its development, of men and women who in the obscurity of private life were maintaining the true faith and serving God in sincerity? The answer must be partly that the contents of the history are determined by the traditions which survived when it was compiled. Doings like these at Shechem keep their place in the memory of men not because they are important but because they impress themselves on popular feeling. This was the beginning of the experiments which finally in Samuel’s time issued in the kingship of Saul, and although Abimelech was, properly speaking, not a Hebrew and certainly was no worshipper of Jehovah, yet the fact that he was king for a time gave importance to everything about him. Hence we have the full account of his rise and fall.
And yet the narrative before us has its value from the religious point of view. It shows the disastrous result of that coalition with idolaters into which the Hebrews about Shechem entered, it illustrates the danger of co-partnery with the worldly on worldly terms. The confederacy of which Shechem was the centre is a type of many in which people who should be guided always by religion bind themselves for business or political ends with those who have no fear of God before their eyes. Constantly it happens in such cases that the interests of the commercial enterprise or of the party are considered before the law of righteousness. The business affair must be made to succeed at all hazards. Christian people as partners of companies are committed to schemes which imply Sabbath work, sharp practices in buying and selling, hollow promises in prospectuses and advertisements, grinding of the faces of the poor, miserable squabbles about wages that should never occur. In politics the like is frequently seen. Things are done against the true instincts of many members of a party; but they, for the sake of the party, must be silent or even take their places on platforms and write in periodicals defending what in their souls and consciences they know to be wrong. The modern Baal-Berith is a tyrannical god, ruins the morals of many a worshipper and destroys the peace of many a circle. Perhaps Christian people will by and by become careful in regard to the schemes they join and the zeal with which they fling themselves into party strife. It is high time they did. Even distinguished and pious leaders are unsafe guides when popular cries have to be gratified; and if the principles of Christianity are set aside by a government every Christian church and every Christian voice should protest, come of parties what may. Or rather, the party of Christ, which is always in the van, ought to have our complete allegiance. Conservatism is sometimes right.
Liberalism is sometimes right. But to bow down to any Baal of the League is a shameful thing for a professed servant of the King of kings.
Against Abimelech the adventurer there arose another of the same stamp, Gaul son of Ebed, that is the Abhorred, son of a slave. In him the men of Shechem put their confidence, such as it was. At the festival of vintage there was a demonstration of a truly barbarous sort. High carousal was held in the temple of Baal. There were loud curses of Abimelech and Gaal made a speech. His argument was that this Abimelech, though his mother belonged to Shechem, was yet also the son of Baal’s adversary, far too much of a Hebrew to govern Canaanites and good servants of Baal. Shechemites should have a true Shechemite to rule them. Would to Baal, he cried, this people were under my hand, then would I remove Abimelech. His speech, no doubt, was received with great applause, and there and then he challenged the absent king.
Zebul, prefect of the city, who was present, heard all this with anger. He was of Abimelech’s party still and immediately informed his chief, who lost no time in marching on Shechem to suppress the revolt. According to a common plan of warfare he divided his troops into four companies and in the early morning these crept towards the city, one by a track across the mountains, another down the valley from the west, the third by way of the Diviners’ Oak, the fourth perhaps marching from the plain of Mamre by way of Jacob’s well. The first engagement drove the Shechemites into their city, and on the following day the place was taken, sacked, and destroyed. Some distance from Shechem, probably up the valley to the west, stood a tower or sanctuary of Baal around which a considerable village had gathered. The people there seeing the fate of the lower town, betook themselves to the tower and shut themselves up within it. But Abimelech ordered his men to provide themselves with branches of trees, which were piled against the door of the temple and set on fire, and all within were smothered or burned to the number of a thousand.
At Thebez, another of the confederate cities, the pretender met his death. In the siege of the tower which stood within the walls of Thebez the horrible expedient of burning was again attempted. Abimelech, directing the operations, had pressed close to the door when a woman cast an upper millstone from the parapet with so true an aim as to break his skull. So ended the first experiment in the direction of monarchy; so also God requited the wickedness of Abimelech.
One turns from these scenes of bloodshed and cruelty with loathing. Yet they show what human nature is, and how human history would shape itself apart from the faith and obedience of God. We are met by obvious warnings; but so often does the evidence of divine judgment seem to fail, so often do the wicked prosper, that it is from another source than observation of the order of things in this world we must obtain the necessary impulse to higher life. It is only as we wait on the guidance and obey the impulses of the Spirit of God that we shall move towards the justice and brotherhood of a better age. And those who have received the light and found the will of the Spirit must not slacken their efforts on behalf of religion. Gideon did good service in his day, yet failing in faithfulness he left the nation scarcely more earnest, his own family scarcely instructed. Let us not think that religion can take care of itself. Heavenly justice and truth are committed to us. The Christ life, generous, pure, holy, must be commended by us if it is to rule the world. The persuasion that mankind is to be saved in and by the earthly survives, and against that most obstinate of all delusions we are to stand in constant resolute protest, counting every needful sacrifice our simple duty, our highest glory. The task of the faithful is no easier today than it was a thousand years ago. Men and women cart be treacherous still with heathen cruelty and falseness; they can be vile still with heathen vileness, though wearing the air of the highest civilisation. If ever the people of God had a work to do in the world they have it now.