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.