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.