“One day the trees went out.” Jotham starts this poetic fable as we would start a story, “One day,” except we often say, “Once upon a time.” Jotham’s fable is short but powerful, and is about the trees wanting a king (Judg. 9:8-15).
In this fable, the trees are the common people, and this is different from the metaphorical use of trees in many other places in the Bible where the trees are the leaders, the powerful people in the kingdom (see commentary on Luke 3:9). The common people are often referred to as “sheep,” but not here. In this case, Jotham correctly points out that the common people often do not want to participate in governing themselves or take much responsibility for how their lives are governed (even today a significant percentage of the population of the USA does not vote, and few of those who do vote make much effort to find out much about the candidates). Thus, the trees seek out a leader and are persuaded by boastful talk and big promises, and do not recognize “bramble-people” and work to keep them from gaining power in the kingdom.
The trees’ desire to have a king is parallel to the people of Shechem wanting a king (Judg. 9:2-6). Later, Israel would want a king and anointed Saul (1 Sam. 10:1; 11:15). However, in rejecting God as king, the men of Shechem and later all Israel caused themselves great pain. Part of that pain is due to the kind of people who often get into politics, although thankfully there are exceptions. Usually, good and godly people see the value in productive work, like the olive tree, fig tree, and grapevine did, and get fulfillment from that work (Judg. 9:9-13). In contrast, “bramble people” enjoy the attention of others and lording it over others, and we see that in the demands of the bramble (Judg. 9:15).
The productive trees had no interest in reigning over others, and called it “swaying back and forth,” which was a sarcastic reference that gives the correct impression of a lot of movement and show, but without anything of value being accomplished, and that is often what ungodly leaders are about. They create a lot of drama, but not valuable production. People involved in godly and valuable production tend to realize it, and have no desire to leave their production to go get involved with a lot of show, glamor, and controlling behavior. In contrast, “bramble people” love the attention of others and will give up much to be “in the limelight” and in control of others.
Like the bramble itself, “bramble people” do not produce good things for life. Furthermore, the demand of the bramble to “come and take refuge under my shade” is at best a useless, stupid demand that the other trees don’t need to obey to do well, and at worst a self-delusion. Although we do not know exactly what the “bramble” is (the exact identification of the bush or tree called atat in Hebrew is not known), it seems certain that the atat plant does not produce a lot of shade that the other trees could take refuge in. But being arrogant and overly self-important, the bramble leader threatens the other plants (people) that if they don’t obey they will be burned up. The bramble says that if you won’t come to it for refuge, “let fire come out of the bramble and devour the cedars of Lebanon” (Judg. 9:15). The bramble is so self-important and deluded that it deems itself far more important than others, including those that would be usually well known to be important, such as the cedars of Lebanon, and therefore bramble people, like the bramble itself, see no problem with destroying others. Abimelech was a bramble person, and one way he demonstrated that fact was by murdering his brothers so he could be king.
James Jordan correctly observes that the bramble ruler “is oriented toward tyrannical rule. He represents the ungodly man who builds up a society based on taking what other people have labored to produce. His is a socialistic society, based on the massive confiscation of the wealth of other people, their hard earned savings and capital. His is an imperialistic society, based on the conquest of weaker people and of their production. His is a slave society, based on the forced labor of other people. The bramble society is indeed the society of the curse. True to his unregenerate nature, the bramble man is a man of wrath. If things don’t go his way, he intends for fire to consume those who obstruct his plans” (James Jordan, Judges: God’s War Against Humanism, p. 165).
Sadly, societies are full of people who are like Abimelech: self-important murderous “kings” who want to control others, dictate what they do, and take what they have earned (for a “good cause” of course). Furthermore, just as sadly, because of the demonic power behind them, they will exist and thrive until Christ comes and conquers the earth. The very good news is that when Jesus Christ comes he will destroy the bramble people and set up rulers who will be wonderful. The prophecy is that the rulers that Christ will appoint in the next life will be “like a shelter from the wind,” like “a refuge from the storm,” “like streams of water in a dry land, like the shade of a great rock in a weary land” (Isa. 32:2). What a blessing it will be to live with that kind of government.
[For more on the future reign of Christ on earth, see Appendix 3, “Christ’s Future Kingdom on Earth”].
“to anoint a king.” The first time in the Old Testament the anointing of a king is mentioned. Although there was not yet a king in Israel, there would have been in other nations.
This teaching addresses the passage in Judges 9 where the evil leader Abimelech came to power and expounds the fable about the trees that Jotham spoke to the people of Shechem. “Bramble people” love to be noticed and praised, to be in charge and lord it over people, and although they talk big about doing things for others, in actuality they do things that feed their ego and build their reputation. These kinds of people still exist today, and wise Christians recognize them and pray they do not come to power.
Verses covered: Judges 9:1-20
Teacher: John Schoenheit