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.