The world of the book of Judges is a sordid, nasty, utterly broken place. Some of the most horrific accounts of sin detailed in the Bible are found in the book of Judges. We are told quite plainly: “In those days there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes” (Judges 14:7, 17:6). In Judges 9, the people of Israel are beginning to reap what they’ve sown in discord and disobedience.
After the death of Gideon (referred to as Jerubbaal in Judges 9), the nation has descended into apostasy, and God’s judgment looms. But it is not as so often judgment in the guise of an invading army but more along the lines of what we see detailed in Romans 1:24, or Psalm 81:12—“ So I gave them over to their stubborn hearts, to follow their own counsels.”
Abimelech, who was a son of Gideon by one of Gideon’s concubines, saw an opportunity to fill a void in power, and making an appeal to his family for support, he made a shrewd and self-interested case for himself as a king. “Would you rather be ruled by seventy men?” he argued (Judges 9:2), referring to the totality of Gideon’s sons. “Or by one?” What ensued was a succession of hits that makes The Godfather look like Strawberry Shortcake. Using money from a house of Baal-worship, Abimelech hired seventy assassins. “Worthless and reckless fellows,” Judges 9:4 calls them. Together they murdered all of Abimelech’s brothers “on one stone” (9:5). All, that is, except one. The youngest, named Jotham, escaped.
The brazen act of murder, nearly sacrificial in its overtones, is certainly devil worship, whether explicitly or implicitly. The root of pride if left unchecked will grow into a murderous tree. Through this wicked use of force, Abimelech was made king.
We pick up the story here:
When it was told to Jotham, he went and stood on top of Mount Gerizim and cried aloud and said to them, “Listen to me, you leaders of Shechem, that God may listen to you. The trees once went out to anoint a king over them, and they said to the olive tree, ‘Reign over us.’ But the olive tree said to them, ‘Shall I leave my abundance, by which gods and men are honored, and go hold sway over the trees?’ And the trees said to the fig tree, ‘You come and reign over us.’ But the fig tree said to them, ‘Shall I leave my sweetness and my good fruit and go hold sway over the trees?’ And the trees said to the vine, ‘You come and reign over us.’ But the vine said to them, ‘Shall I leave my wine that cheers God and men and go hold sway over the trees?’ Then all the trees said to the bramble, ‘You come and reign over us.’ And the bramble said to the trees, ‘If in good faith you are anointing me king over you, then come and take refuge in my shade, but if not, let fire come out of the bramble and devour the cedars of Lebanon.’” (Judges 9:7-15)
Jotham’s story is a crypto-parable. His employment of trees and vines and fire are elemental to several of Jesus’s more prominent parables. Jotham includes three symbols of national flourishing that lay at the, for lack of a better word, root of Jesus’s own promises and warnings. They are the olive tree, the fig tree, and the grapevine. Each, personified by Jotham, is asked by the trees to come reign over them. In general, Jotham is indicting the people’s God-offending demands for a king. They should have no king over them but YHWH, yet still they stamp their foot. More specifically, however, there is a lesson to learn in each of the parable’s would-be rulers.
The trees ask the olive tree, renowned for its “fatness,” its abundance, because idolatrous people will easily be ruled by extravagance and consumption. Wanting to be ruled by the olive tree is making an idol of materialism, of riches. It is parallel to the New Testament’s “their god is their belly” (Philippians 3:19).
The trees next ask the fig tree to reign over them. The fig tree serves in the Jewish mythos as the national symbol of safety and security and of stability. We see this symbolically in the prophetic “shade” the fig tree offers (1 Kings 4:25, Micah 4:4). Remember also that it was with fig leaves that Adam and Eve sought to first cover their shame. The cry of the trees for the reign of the fig tree seeks ultimate hope in temporary safety and peace. It is the symbolic equivalent of the false prophets crying “Peace, peace” where there is no peace (Jeremiah 6:14, 8:11).
The trees next ask the vine to reign over them. The vineyard and its grapevines are symbols of national abundance and fruitfulness, of luxurious provision, and generally of God’s favor. Here the trees asking for the vine’s presence reveals the arrogant audacity of the people asking for God’s favor despite their idolatry! It is a foreshadow of Paul’s words in Romans 6:1: “Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound?” The trees—and the idolatrous nation detailed in the book of Judges—would say, “Heck yes!”
But of course God’s favor does not work in any of these ways. The cry for these kings goes unheeded. The olive tree, the fig tree, and the vine all decline the request made of them. Indeed, what we may gather is embedded in Jotham’s parable is that, a repentant nation focused on YHWH as their only hope and glory, might actually enjoy the abundance of the olive tree, the security of the fig tree, and the libation of the vine. That was the original point of these biblical symbols!
Jotham drills down into the heart of the matter. “Then all the trees said to the bramble, ‘You come and reign over us’” (Judges 9:14). The bramble is Abimelech. And the people are going to get what they ask for.
For what is a bramble? A dry, thorny bush. An invasive and offensive weed, really. Suitable only for the machete and the bonfire.
“Come, get under my shade,” the bramble calls. “I will take care of you.”
The bramble promises destructive fire if the trees will not comply. But it’s a trick. Like the devil tempting the Lord with the provision of bread or the security of the angelic helpers or the abundance of the nations, the promise belies that the fire is not outside his reign but inside. The threats of Abimelech draw the people in, where they are in the most danger.
Examined like this, we can see the gospel application in Jotham’s parable for us today. Our hearts are desperate for a king. We will make an idol of nearly everything, and indeed, the abundance of possessions and the security of comfort and the assumption of God’s favor for our self-righteousness are the most common. But God’s gifts are good gifts and terrible gods. In the end, if we will not serve God as God, we will find our refuge no refuge at all, but a house of brambles—dry and thorny and reserved for the fires of hell. Several of Jesus’s parables make the same point, and it is not for no reason that he curses the fig tree and tells stories about dead trees ready for the fire. His warning is Jotham’s, and vice versa.
We cry out for a king, and Jesus answers the call. For all who will trust him, he is eternal provision, everlasting security, and infinite favor. He is the vine (John 15:5); all else is bramble.
(This is a slightly edited excerpt from The Storytelling God: Seeing the Glory of Jesus in His Parables)