Judges 9:42-45 The punishment of sin

JUDGES 9:42-45
42 The next day the people of Shechem went into the fields, and this was reported to Abimelech. 43 He took his troops, divided them into three companies, and set an ambush in the countryside. He watched, and as the people were coming out of the city he arose up and attacked them. 44 Abimelech and the men in his company rushed forward and took their position at the entrance of the city gate. The other two companies rushed forward against everyone out in the fields and struck them down. 45 So Abimelech fought against the city that whole day. He captured it, and killed the people who were in it. Then he tore down the city and scattered salt over it.
We need to look at this account from three different points of view. First, that of Zebul the mayor, Abimelech’s lieutenant. Zebul had calmed everyone dawn and restored peace with a single letter to Abimelech and a single statement (albeit a lie) to Gaal. As a mayor, he had proved his abilities and his worth. A few hotheads were hurt (verse 40 does not say that anyone was killed, but that many were wounded), but the city was still intact, and the farmers could still go out and do their day’s work. 
Second: Abimelech. From his perspective, this was anger way out of control. Someone might argue that as king he had a right to put down a rebellion and make an example out of Shechem—but if we take Abimelech to be a king (and his actions were proving that he wasn’t), then what was he going to prove by destroying his kingdom? The people of Shechem were the ones who crowned him, and only a couple of other cities and villages were under his power. So after the destruction of Shechem, what was Abimelech king over?
Third: The people of Shechem. Abimelech was ruthless, needlessly cruel, and would be condemned by almost everyone today—and yet he was king to the Shechemites—they had made him king—and they had acted with treachery. According to the standards of his time, in his context, he was within his rights to do what he did, even if we might be horrified about it. What we need to remember is that in Abimelech’s rage and punishment, there is a picture of God’s rage over sin, and the coming punishment following judgment day.
We cannot and should not allegorize what Abimelech did—the three companies attacking, one at the gate, two in the fields, the all-day assault, the destruction of the whole city, and even salting the earth to make it ruined for crops in the future—all of this was historically what happened, and not a prophecy of things to come. And yet it all serves as a reminder to us of God’s righteous anger over sin, and the terrible truth of the coming punishment. 
The true horror of this punishment is not the destruction of the earth as we know it, since we are also told that for the sake of his people, God will remake or renew the earth in some way, interconnected with heaven (2 Peter 3:13; Revelation 21:14). But it is the punishment of hell itself that will be the eternal reality for those who are there. On the mountain of transfiguration, Peter exclaimed, “’Tis good, Lord, to be here” (Matthew 17:4, and J.S. Bach’s hymn, CW 95). The opposite will be felt eternally by the damned. To them, Christ says, “Depart from me” (Πορεύεσθε ἀπ’ ἐμοῦ, Matthew 25:41), They will be thrown outside into the darkness (Matthew 8:12) like the unclean things removed from God’s community (Lev. 4:12; 14:40 and Jer. 22:19). We don’t know what the fire of hell will be like, but our dogmatician John Gerhard cautioned: “It is wiser to be concerned about escaping this eternal fire by true repentance than to engage in an unprofitable argument as to the nature of this fire” (quoted in Pieper, vol. III p. 546). Or as the ancient pastor John Chrysostom (c. 349-407 AD) said “We search not where it is, but how we may flee from it.” Our sin condemns us, all mankind, to this punishment. But faith in Christ saves. “Whoever believes in him shall not perish, but have eternal life” (John 3:16).  
Last night, my city was warned about a massive snowstorm coming our way. There were some predictions of three feet of snow or more, and 80-mile an hour winds. Schools are closed. Events are called off. But we looked out this morning and… no snow. No hurricane-force winds. God spared us, not because we are pretty or exceptionally good, but because in his love he chose to spare us from this storm. This is just a glimpse of the grace of God in sparing our souls from hell. We trust in Christ because Jesus Christ took onto himself the agony of hell in our place. He endured it, and therefore our payment is completed. This is how we flee from hell; how we escape this everlasting fire: We put our faith in the one who did not escape it, but who endured it for us. There is no other escape except through him (John 14:6). Because he lives, we shall live. 
In Christ,
Pastor Timothy Smith
Archives by Wisconsin Lutheran Chapel: http://www.wlchapel.org/worship/daily-devotion/


Pastor Smith serves St. Paul's Lutheran Church, New Ulm, Minnesota

Judges 9:37-41 What we owe our government

JUDGES 9:37-41
37 Then Gaal spoke again, “Look, troops are coming down from the central part of the land, and a company is coming from the direction of the Soothsayer’s Oak.” 38 Then Zebul said, “Where is your big mouth now? You said, ‘Who is Abimelech that we should serve him? ’ Aren’t these the troops you despised? Go out now and fight them! ”
The “central part of the land” is the tabur, the navel, which in the Bible is always used as a geographic reference like this (see also Ezekiel 38:12) and not for human anatomy.  Perhaps the reference is to Mount Gerizim, which rises up from the valley where Shechem sits and which was revered by many at the time and later by the Samaritans in particular (John 4:20). The Soothsayer’s Oak was yet another famous old tree where some unknown prophet held court like the Palm of Deborah (Judges 4:5). 
Gaal was certain now that he could see more than one group of Abimelech’s mercenaries, coming down from at least two different directions like the anti-hero in Marty’s Robbins’ El Paso: “Off to my right I see five mounted cowboys, off to my left ride a dozen or more….” 
A minute ago, Zebul had falsely accused Gaal of faulty eyes. Now he rightly accused Gaal of having a boasting mouth. Gaal assumed he could rally the people of Shechem to follow him and fight for him—and we were told that they trusted him—but could he lead them in a fight against the king of mercenaries? 
39 So Gaal went out leading the citizens of Shechem and fought against Abimelech, 40 and when Gaal fled Abimelech pursued him. Many fell wounded, all the way to the entrance of the city gate. 41 Abimelech stayed in Arumah, and Zebul drove Gaal and his brothers out of Shechem.
Gaal’s personality was enough to make several of Shechem’s baals or leading citizens to go and fight for him. But already in verse 40 Gaal himself was running away while other men were fighting and dying for him. Abimelech did not enter the city, but directed the battle from the nearby village of Arumah. Gaal and all of his brothers were driven away. He was no longer the toast of the town—but very soon the town would understand what it meant to give him any support at all against the king that they had appointed. 
In this passage, who is at fault? This is an important question, because unless we understand that, we can’t apply law and gospel; we can’t know what there is in our own lives for which we should repent. As difficult as it seems, Abimelech the anti-judge, the upstart king and the villain of the book of Judges, is—in this one instance—not at fault. These people had made him their king. As foolish as that was, and whether it was the will of the whole community or just a handful (like a U.S. President losing the popular vote but winning the Electoral College and therefore the election),  Abimelech was king. Romans 13:5 commands us to submit to our authorities for two reasons: (1) “because of possible punishment,” but also (2) “as a matter of conscience.” So even if my government is wicked and persecutes Christians, I obey its laws and submit, unless those laws command and compel me to sin against God. But if the government’s law are merely an irritation and an inconvenience, then I am bound by the fourth commandment to obey. And not only that, I am bound by the fourth commandment to do even more. 
Philip Melanchthon explained:
“The fourth commandment is established at the first level of authority, namely our parents, and thus ought also to be the rule for other forms of governance, as in Romans 13. Likewise the highest degree of obedience is commanded, which is honor. Honor has three aspects: The first is recognition of God, who is the author of the laws for human society both in marriage and in the state [ Melanchthon is reminding us from where parents and the governments get their authority under this commandment]…. The second involves external obedience, so that we may observe our common duties in society and not destroy them. The third involves equity by which in the great weakness of mankind we pardon certain wrongs in our government and restore or repair them with our sense of fairness, gentleness, and concern, and yet in such a way that we do not act contrary to the commandments of God.” 
We don’t need to assume that Paul (writing Romans and its 13th chapter) loved Nero or Caligula. In fact, he could despise them as agents of the devil. He could pray with David, “Lead me, O LORD, in your righteousness because of my enemies… Not a word from their mouth can be trusted; their heart is filled with destruction. Their throat is an open grave; with their tongue they speak deceit” (Psalm 5:8-9). Paul could condemn the words and actions of his government, just as you or I can say and confess when our government—national, state or local—has sinned. And yet Paul submitted to the authority of wicked Caesars and to that of Rome, even to the point of submitting to the sword that ended his life, writing: “the time has come for my departure” (2 Timothy 4:6). 
Is it permissible for a Christian to make a public protest against the government or one of its policies? Certainly it is, and not only because it is allowed by the constitution. However, the Christian must take care to make it clear what he is protesting, and that he still has respect for his God-given leadership. If this is not made clear, he may risk leading weaker Christians into sin, and in any nation, including ours, that unfortunately might lead a weak and frustrated person into violence, and sins against the fifth, seventh, eighth, ninth and tenth commandments. Remember Luther’s simple words at the end of his tenth commandment explanation: “We should urge them to do their duty.”
What we owe our government, both obedience and honor, is not earned by the government any more than a father earns the love of his children. It is given because we love Christ, not any Caesar or President. Christ’s love covers our sins of disobedience and rebellion, and his love shows us that despite these sins and many, many more, we have a place with God forever in heaven, all because of God’s mercy and love.
In Christ,
Pastor Timothy Smith
Archives by Wisconsin Lutheran Chapel: http://www.wlchapel.org/worship/daily-devotion/
Pastor Smith serves St. Paul's Lutheran Church, New Ulm, Minnesota

Judges 9:30-36 Lies at sunrise

JUDGES 9:30-36
30 When Zebul, the ruler of the city, heard what Gaal son of Ebed said, he became angry. 31 So he secretly sent messengers to Abimelech, saying, “Be careful! Gaal son of Ebed and his brothers have come to Shechem and are turning the city against you. 32 Come and hide in the fields tonight, you and the troops with you. 33 Then early in the morning, at sunrise, attack the city. When he and the troops with him come out against you, do whatever your hand finds to do.” 34 So Abimelech and all his troops got up at night and waited in ambush for Shechem in four companies.
Zebul, Abimelech’s lieutenant, had been given authority over the city of Shechem. So it’s understandable that he would send word to his boss. “Secretly” is the usual translation for tormah in verse 31, although it could possibly be a place name. It would be the difference between “He sent messengers to Abimelech in secret” and “He sent messengers to Abimelech in Tormah.” Commentators all the way back to Rashi (1040-1105 AD) have understood this to be “in secret.”
Zebul can only make a suggestion to his king, so he summarizes the proposed attack with the phrase, “do whatever your hand finds to do.” Abimelech agreed, and posted his mercenaries (the worthless and reckless men of verse 4) in four companies outside the city. Both of the mountains, Ebal and Gerezim, offer enough hiding places for dozens of such companies. By splitting his men into four groups, he had an excellent chance of success. 
35 Gaal son of Ebed went out and stood at the entrance of the city gate. Then Abimelech and the troops with him got up from their hiding places. 36 When Gaal saw the troops, he said to Zebul, “Look, troops are coming down from the mountaintops! ” But Zebul said to him, “You’re mistaking the mountain shadows for men.”
Morning came. Gaal found Ebed watching the sun rise over the shoulders of the mountains from the city gate. As the shadows began to move, Gaal thought he saw other movement. But Zebul was ready. “Your eyes are playing tricks on you. It’s just shadows moving.” It was disarming enough that Gaal didn’t do anything for several minutes. Could Zebul be right? He could see that the shadows were retreating toward the east as the sun rose higher, but the forms he thought we men were creeping slowly toward him, to the west, away from the shadows…
Zebul’s lie wasn’t meant to fool Gaal completely. It was only to make him lose a little time; to confuse him for a few precious minutes. The devil’s lies can be like that. They can be as thin as tissue paper, but we forget that he is a liar, and the father of lies (John 8:44). The devil is always our enemy, just as he is David’s enemy in Psalm 62, putting lies into the mouths of people all around the king: “They take delight in lies. With their mouths they bless, but in their hearts they curse” (Ps. 62:4). 
When the devil lies to us, he does it through wicked men, or through our own fallen human natures. We are tempted to believe his lies for many reasons, but sometimes like Eve we’re just plain taken in. Sin isn’t just a poison that can be extracted from our flesh, something blended with our human nature or set upon our heads like a hat. Our Confession teaches: “This deprivation and lack [that is, the corruption of the human nature by sin], this corruption and wounding which Satan brought about, this loss has so perverted and corrupted human nature that all men, conceived and born in the natural way from a father and mother, now inherit a nature with the same lack and corruption. For since the Fall human nature is not at first created pure and holy and is corrupted only subsequently through original sin, but in the first moment of our conception the seed from which man is formed is sinful and corrupted” (Formula of Concord, Solid Declaration, Art. I, 27-28). 
The gospel for all mankind is that we have been freed from the sticky spider’s web of the devil’s lies by the grace of God. The devil stands condemned; mankind stands acquitted by Christ. The devil tries to reject his condemnation by dragging down men and women, and some men and women try to reject their acquittal by embracing the devil; all of them have a place prepared for them together forever in agony in hell. But as far back as Adam and Eve, mankind has had the promise of forgiveness and peace in Christ. Luther said, “[Adam and Eve] even hear themselves drawn up, as it were, in battle line against their condemned enemy, and this with the hope of help from the Son of God, the Seed of the woman. Forgiveness of sins and full reception into grace are… pointed out to Adam and Eve. Their guilt has been forgiven; they have been won back from death and have already been set free from hell and from those fears by which they were all but slain…” (LW 1:190). 
So: Have your been lied to? Have you fallen for it, fallen into sin, or doubt, or despair? Run to Jesus and be forgiven. What he already accomplished on the cross has covered your guilt forever. “Everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name” (Acts 10:43). 
In Christ,
Pastor Timothy Smith
Archives by Wisconsin Lutheran Chapel: http://www.wlchapel.org/worship/daily-devotion/


Pastor Smith serves St. Paul's Lutheran Church, New Ulm, Minnesota

Judges 9:22-29 Gaal’s rash plan

JUDGES 9:22-29
22 When Abimelech had ruled over Israel three years, 23 God sent an evil spirit between Abimelech and the citizens of Shechem. They acted treacherously toward Abimelech, 24 so that the crime against the seventy sons of Jerub-Baal might come to justice and their blood would be avenged on their brother Abimelech, who killed them, and also on the citizens of Shechem, who had helped him kill his brothers. 25 The citizens of Shechem rebelled against him by sending men to the hilltops to ambush and rob everyone who passed by. This was reported to Abimelech.
From this point, the end of Abimelech’s reign will come quickly. We’re told that his reign lasted three years, which might be portions of three years, the same way that Jesus’ three days in the tomb count the hour or so before sundown on Good Friday, all of Saturday, and then just a few hours of Sunday morning until “Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark” (John 20:1) when we learn that Jesus had already risen from the dead. So Abimelech’s reign may have been anything between fourteen and thirty months. 
The evil spirit sent by God was an actual an evil spirit, a demon, but not the devil himself. God holds the devils and the devil’s evil fallen angels (the demons) at bay with the everlasting chains of his commanding power (Jude 6). Here, God lengthened out the chain of one of these evil demons, enough to plague Abimelech by stirring up the noble citizens of Shechem. God would also allow this to happen with King Saul (1 Sam 16:14-23; 18:10-12; 19:9) and also with the King of Assyria (2 Kings 19:9).
The unleashing of this demon shows that God retains command and control over all things. “At the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth” (Philippians 2:10). And as James says, “You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that—and shudder” (James 2:19). So the evil spirit was obedient to God’s boundaries, but was permitted to waylay souls and stir up dissent (Prov. 1:11). This would teach a lesson to everyone: If this is how bad things get when God permits one demon a little bit of leeway, what would things be like in the world if God were not in control at all times? Thank God that “he who watches over Israel will neither slumber nor sleep” (Ps. 121:4). 
26 Now Gaal son of Ebed had arrived with his brothers and crossed into Shechem, and the citizens of Shechem trusted him. 
Suddenly we meet someone new, a man named Gaal.  He seems to come out of nowhere, but the people of Shechem knew him and trusted him. He seems to claim descent from Hamor that father of Shechem in verse 28 (Gen. 33:19), which means that he was from one of the oldest established families of the region, and that he was not an Israelites, but a Hivite, as Moses says: “Shechem son of Hamor the Hivite,” Gen. 34:2. 
27 After they went out into the fields and harvested grapes from their vineyards, they stomped the grapes and had a celebration in the house of their god. While they were eating and drinking, they cursed Abimelech.
The harvest festival was an important celebration, a time when people praised God for his gifts. Here they were celebrating, but in the temple of a false god. The workers and the vineyard owners would stomp grapes and make new wine (Luke 20:10). But in this case, the Lord had permitted a demon to tempt the people, and they began to break the eighth commandment by curding Abimelech their king. They had made him king themselves, and so under the fourth commandments they were bound by God’s will to serve him. “There is no authority except that which God has established” (Romans 13:1). But now they were finding out just how discontent they all were with this king. The right course would have been for them to act as a unified group, as a people, and ask him to repent and reform his ways or even to ask him to step down. But the evil spirit tempted them to trespass against God’s will.
28 Gaal son of Ebed said, “Who is Abimelech and who is Shechem that we should serve him? Isn’t he the son of Jerub-Baal, and isn’t Zebul his lieutenant? You should serve the men of Hamor, the father of Shechem. Why should we serve Abimelech? 29 If these people were under my command, I would remove Abimelech.” Then he sent word to Abimelech, “Gather your army and come out.”
Gaal was a loudmouth, and in the end we will see that he had a lot more bark than bite. For the first time we hear about Zebul his paqid or lieutenant (cp. Neh. 11:9 and Jer 52:25, “chief officer”). Was Gaal making a play on the names of Gideon and this man? When you put Jerub-Baal together with Zebul, you come close to Beelzebul. That’s a mispronunciation of Beelzebub, “Lord of the flies,” a name for a Philistine god (2 Kings 1:1-16) and a nickname for the devil. It is misspelled like Beelzebul throughout the New Testament (Matt. 10:25; 12:24,27; Mk 3;22; Lk 11:15,18-19). As Beelzebul, it means “lord of filth” or “lord of lies.” Whether Gaal meant this or not is a question, but it may shed some light on the kind of man he was. 
Another example of Gaal’s rash impetuousness was the message he sent to Abimelech before he was sure he had the support of the people or at least their soldiers. He had their trust, but did he have a plan? “He who guards his lips guards his life, but he who speaks rashly will come to ruin” (Prov. 13:3). 
All this was the work of the evil spirit permitted by God. Remember that God is not the author of sin, but when he takes away his protecting hand, evil flows in like the tide. “Our churches teach that although God creates and preserves nature, the cause of sin is the will of the wicked, that is, of the devil and ungodly men. As soon as God withdraws his support, the will turns away from God to evil, as Christ says in John 8:44, ‘When the devil lies, he speaks according to his own nature’” (Augsburg Confession article XIX). Our comfort comes from this: “The eyes of the LORD are everywhere, keeping watch on the wicked and the good” (Prov. 15:3). His wisdom protects and watches over us always (Prov. 4:6). May our heavenly Father protect you and watch over you all the days of your life, and forever with him in heaven.
In Christ,
Pastor Timothy Smith
Archives by Wisconsin Lutheran Chapel: http://www.wlchapel.org/worship/daily-devotion/
Pastor Smith serves St. Paul's Lutheran Church, New Ulm, Minnesota

Judges 9:16-21 Jotham's wisdom

JUDGES 9:16-21
In his parable, Jotham focused his attention on Abimelech’s unworthiness. Now the surviving son of Gideon shifts his attention to the baals (the lordly citizens) of Shechem. If you are preparing to read this aloud, be warned: verses 16-19 are all one sentence.
16 “Now if you have acted honorably and honestly in making Abimelech king, if you have done well by Jerub-Baal and his family, and if you have dealt with him as he deserved— 17 for my father fought for you, risked his life, and rescued you from Midian, 18 and yet you have attacked my father’s family today, killed his seventy sons on one stone, and made Abimelech, the son of his slave woman, king over the citizens of Shechem because he is your brother — 19 so if you have acted honorably and honestly with Jerub-Baal and his house this day, then rejoice in Abimelech and may he also rejoice in you. 20 But if not, may fire come out from Abimelech and consume the citizens of Shechem and Beth Millo, and may fire come from the citizens of Shechem and Beth Millo and consume Abimelech.” 
The gist of this final message from Jotham is this: If you’ve handled this well, then may Abimelech be a good king for you, and may he be happy with all of you. But if not, then watch out. You were already treacherous when it came to my brothers you helped to murder, and Abimelech (“your brother”) is the ringleading murderer, killing everyone (not just ‘anyone,’ but ‘everyone’) who he thinks is standing in his way. So if he gets suspicious of you, you Shechemites and Abimelech are going to destroy each other.
Jotham understood Abimilech. Abimelech was a gangster, involving other people in his plots to gain leverage over them, killing whomever he wanted to, and using threats to gain more and more power. He fits the description given by an associate of the early 20th century gangster Bugsy Siegel: “Bugsy never hesitated when danger threatened. While we tried to figure out what the best move was, Bugsy was already shooting.”  Had Abimelech lived longer, would he have tried to gain power over more than just a handful of cities in Manasseh? Happily, we don’t need to answer that question. 
When Luther preached on the fifth commandment, he needed to spend time explaining the more subtle applications: holding grudges, causing harm, hatred, and failing to do good. He says, “Therefore God rightly calls all persons murderers who do not offer counsel and aid to men in need and in peril of body and life. He will pass a most terrible sentence on them in the day of judgment, as Christ himself declares (Matthew 25:42-43)” (Large Catechism, Fifth Commandment, par. 191). In the case of Abimelech, such subtle words are too gentle. He was a murderer, and a fratricide with seventy counts against him. Why? Because he wanted a job that they didn’t even think about? Nobody was king in Israel, so he killed his brothers in case they didn’t think he should become king? There aren’t words to describe how deplorable this man was. 
He forgot the lesson his father Gideon had taught. After rescuing Israel from Midian, Gideon sought justice for the murder of his own brothers (Judges 8:19). Now one of Abimelech’s brothers had escaped. Jotham knew he couldn’t penetrate Abimelech’s mob to get close enough to strike a blow, but he could still proclaim the truth.
21 Then Jotham fled, escaping to Beer, and he lived there out of sight of his brother Abimelech.
We’re not told whether Jotham was afraid of Abimelech, but he had cause to be. Some translations get somewhat interpretive here, saying that Jotham lived in Beer “because he was afraid,” but the Hebrew text just says that he lived “(away) from the face of his brother Abimelech.” Out of sight, he hoped, would put him out of Abimelech’s mind. It was a wise move. 
We don’t know where this Beer was. Beer is Hebrew for “well,” and it is usually accompanied by another name such as Beer Sheba “the well of the seven” (or “of the oath,” Genesis 21:31) or Beer Lahai Roi “the well of God who sees me” (Gen 16:14). Another well simply known as Beer “the well” was the one visited by Moses and the Israelites while on their way to crossing the Jordan (Numbers 21:16-17). It was north of the river Arnon, in Moab (Num. 21:13-16). It was about twenty miles from Shechem, but it’s just possible that it was the very well to which Jotham ran. If this was indeed a time of peace between Israel and Moab (allowing Jotham to enter Moab easily), then this might also have been a time when Naomi and her family might have gone to Moab to find food during their famine (Ruth 1:1-2; 1:6). 
Running for his life, Jotham had no one left to turn to but the Lord. “Look on me and answer, O LORD my God. Give light to my eyes, or I will sleep in death; my enemy will say, ‘I have overcome him,’ and my foes will rejoice when I fall” (Psalm 13:3-4). There are times when the people around us become wrapped up by selfishness, or sinful pursuits, or they may even be overwhelmed by godly tasks that pull them away from us when we need their help. We feel left all alone. But God is still watching over us. The Lord Almighty is with us always. Jotham could have prayed with David: “May those who seek my life be put to shame and confusion” (Ps. 70:2; cp. Pss. 35:4, 63:9 and 40:14). Our prayer only needs to be, “Come quickly to help me.” The Lord has heard you. He has understood you. He will send his holy angels to protect you from unseen dangers, and wisdom and foresight to avoid those dangers that can be seen with human eyes. Trust in him, and he will lift you up.
In Christ,
Pastor Timothy Smith
Archives by Wisconsin Lutheran Chapel: http://www.wlchapel.org/worship/daily-devotion/
Pastor Smith serves St. Paul's Lutheran Church, New Ulm, Minnesota


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