It is unfortunate that in this world we are sometimes asked to choose the lesser of two evils. During elections we hear this phrase quite a bit, especially in our two-party political system. When it comes to spiritual matters, Satan would also like us to think that we have only two options; evil and not quite as evil. That crafty devil would like us to see compromise at every corner, dissatisfaction with traditional religion, concessions in matters of morality. For example, there seems to be some sense in the religious world that we all must make a choice between stuffy, boring, old styles of worship and slightly extra-biblical new styles. Neither one is perfect, but we do not live in a perfect world, anyway, right? But there is no need to pay attention to Satan’s lies because we do not always have to face evil and not quite as evil – there is a third option, which is simply to follow no evil at all.
I want to examine a biblical example of this principle, found in Judges 9, about a man named Abimelech. In the text, this man presents two undesirable alternatives to the people of Israel, arguing that they must choose between the lesser of two evils. Ironically, it was Abimelech’s own father, the great judge Gideon (Jerubbaal), who had denounced such a poor decision, he himself choosing God over any apostasy.
Using this text I hope to clarify the choice that we all must make in life. Will we follow after God, or will we compromise and spend our days wavering between different forms of wickedness, hoping that our “mild sinfulness” is tolerable to the Lord? Every decision we are forced to make has a good outcome and a bad outcome, and we must never let ourselves be deluded into thinking that God is ever going to make us choose the lesser of two evils (indeed, the Lord will never tempt us to do anything sinful [James 1:13]) – we need not ever choose the lesser of two evils because we can always choose good if we look for it!
Judges 9:1-2 – “And Abimelech the son of Jerubbaal went to Shechem to his mother’s relatives, and spoke to them and to the whole clan of the household of his mother’s father, saying, ‘Speak now, in the hearing of all the leaders of Shechem, “Which is better for you, that seventy men, all the sons of Jerubbaal, rule over you, or that one man rule over?” Also, remember that I am your bone and your flesh.’”
Abimelech was one of the sons of Jerubbaal (Gideon), but not from one his many wives. Rather, it was through a concubine from Shechem that Abimelech came into this world (Judges 8:31). Besides any sons he had through concubines, Gideon also had seventy sons by his many wives, all of them considered direct descendents (8:30). It is likely that Abimelech and his father did not have a very strong relationship. Naturally, no son of a concubine would be regarded higher than a legitimate son of a wife. He may not have devoted a great amount of time to educating, instructing, and maturing Abimelech. It is clear that the faith of Gideon was not passed on to Abimelech! As for Gideon, he was one of the most remarkable men of the Old Testament, though not without his faults. He fought bravely for the cause of God, and judged Israel for forty years, most of them very peaceful. He was allowed to die at a very old age in his home city, surrounded by wealth and prosperity. It was, perhaps, this prosperity that spoiled the last few years of his life and set up the apostasy of his progeny. Here is the very first lesson that can be learned about Abimelech; he was born wealthy and affluent but was never taught how to use those gifts for good. It is so easy for children of wealthy parents to disregard the faith and fall into apostasy (Matthew 19:23-24). We must always take special care not to let our children become apathetic to the needs of the saints, to the ultimate decision to be faithful, and to take for granted every wonderful blessing that their brothers and sisters in the rest of the world do not have.
After the death of Gideon, it seems that the entire generation of Israelites forgot the deeds of their forefathers (Judges 8:33-35). They served idols, treated each other wickedly, and blatantly abused the kind deliverance of God. Abimelech certainly would be a witness this chaos, and probably saw a golden opportunity. He gathers together his mother’s relatives – naturally, he would not be interested in gathering together Gideon’s relatives because they would not be keen on the idea of conceding power to their half-brother – and presents a choice to them. This is where his speech becomes slick, and we must be careful to separate fact from fiction. First of all, he asks the wrong question to the people, “Which is better for you?” Since when is it about them? This seems an awfully selfish question to ask of oneself – it disregards God completely! Do we ever find ourselves asking this same question? Some will consider worship practices and ask what is better for themselves; “Is it more fun for me to have a rock band instead of congregational singing? Is it more encouraging for me to have a preacher who always pats me on the back and tells me that I’m doing nothing wrong? It is better for me that I just don’t go to church at all?” Since when is worship man-centered? Consider 2 Thessalonians 2:4, “…Who opposes and exalts himself above every so-called god or object of worship, so that he takes his seat in the temple of God, displaying himself as being God.” Contextually, this verse is talking about the great apostasy, but does this not describe what happens whenever anybody makes himself the center of worship?
As for the choice presented, it is specious. There is no reason to believe that the people of Israel ever had to choose between serving the seventy sons of Gideon and Abimelech. This is the way a lot of folks like to talk – it is very slick. Abimelech made these people believe that they faced a grave decision – although neither is perfect, he believes that at least his kingship would have a few advantages. But people from every generation are faced with the same kind of decisions. When Gideon delivered Israel from the hands of its enemies, the people wanted to make him king, but the judge simply responded, in Judges 8:23, “I will not rule over you, nor shall my son rule over you; the Lord shall rule over you.” The people did not have to choose between the lesser of two evils because they could have just chosen God!
Judges 9:3 – “And his mother’s relatives spoke all these words on his behalf in the hearing of all the leaders of Shechem; and they were inclined to follow Abimelech, for they said, ‘He is our relative.’”
Now there is a good reason to make somebody king! “He is our relative.” This shows the utter gullibility of the Shechemites, a people who would listen to the hollow reasoning of a crooked usurper and his family members. This should make all of us stop and consider why we place anybody in a leadership position. Why do we vote for a certain person, because he is a family member? Why do we hire a person to a management staff? Why do we appoint a certain man to be a deacon or an elder? If a man’s best qualification is his familial tie, then we ought to reconsider his appointment, friends! Once again, this is the result of the slick-talking Abimelech, who has made the people so nervous and stupid that they believe they have no other choice but to accept the reign of this unscrupulous man.
Consider Abimelech’s motives in this scenario. He knew what he wanted, and was willing to say or do whatever it took to get it. On writer put it well, “Worthy men seek to emulate the moral and intellectual excellence of the great deceased; unworthy merely to succeed to their office and to enjoy their honors” (Pulpit Commentary, Vol. III, Muir). Abimelech was not interested in the faith of his father Gideon, only in the thing that he was not willing to take for himself – royalty.
Judges 9:4 – “And they gave him seventy pieces of silver from the house of Baal-berith with which Abimelech hired worthless and reckless fellows, and they followed him.”
Having been appointed king, Abimelech predicted great opposition, especially from the seventy brothers who he had just usurped. With money from an idol’s temple, Abimelech hires “worthless and reckless fellows.” Essentially, he creates a mob who will do his bidding. We see evil men gathering hordes of worthless grunts throughout the Bible (2 Chronicles 13:7, in particular). But any person who truly has God on his side would never need to hire scoundrels to fulfill his charge. The very fact that Abimelech needs thugs, though, is evidence of the weakness of his position. There are many people in the world just like him who feel insecure in their arguments and have to use force to compensate for this insecurity. A person who is obedient to God, however, needs no physical force to prove he is right – the Word of God stands on its own, as a weapon mightier than anything manmade (2 Corinthians 10:3-6). I do not need “worthless and reckless fellows” to preach the Gospel!
Judges 9:5 – “Then they went to his father’s house at Ophrah, and killed his brothers the sons of Jerubbaal, seventy men, on one stone. But Jotham the youngest son of Jerubbaal was left, for he hid himself.”
The stone described here would be a single slab on top of which each son would be executed, one after the other. A.C. Hervey writes, “Compare the similar wholesale murders of the seventy sons of Ahab by the order of Jehu (2 Kings 10:7), of the seed royal of Judah by Athaliah (2 Kings 11:1), of the whole house of Jeroboam by Baasha (1 Kings 15:29), of the whole house of Baasha by Zimri (1 Kings 16:11-12). Timour, on his conquest of Persia, is said to have destroyed the whole family of the king. At the conquest of Baghdad he is said to have made a pyramid of 90,000 human heads. In Persia and Turkey in modern times it has been a common practice for the sovereign to slay or put out the eyes of all his brothers and cousins. So destructive of natural affection is polygamy, and so cruel is power” (Pulpit Commentary, Vol. III, 97). Yes, power is cruel when it is used by cruel people. It corrupts so many people and leads to the heartless bloodshed of so many! This story should open our eyes to the foolishness of polygamy, among other things. Because Gideon had so many children, by so many different wives, none of these boys ever learned about righteousness, humility, and self-control. Instead of bringing strong children into this world, all Gideon did was set up a scenario in which seventy half-brothers were fighting with each other over a crown that Gideon was unwilling to take for himself.
Let us learn the hardening effect of ambition. :It bursts the bonds of mutual affection and of conscience. It will sacrifice the dearest and most sacred objects to gain its unhallowed end… It will use the holy names of justice and religion to justify its violent deeds… On the very spot where Joshua erected the memorial of Israel’s covenant with Jehovah, there degenerate Israel covenants with a Baal-berith and Baal’s hireling Abimelech” (An Expository Commentary On The Book Of Judges, Fausset, 171). Abimelech used lies to convince the Shechemites to follow after him: it was a lie to say that Gideon’s seventy sons were even interested in ruling; it was a lie to assume that the country would be better under his rule; it was a lie to justify the slaughter of these seventy men by accusing them of ambition, even while he was the ambitious one!
Imagine the agony of seeing each of your half-brothers murdered before your own eyes, only to know that at some point you would be next! Only the youngest of Gideon’s sons escapes, a man named Jotham.
We must always be aware of how cruel our enemies can be. When a wicked person sets a plan in his heart he is not easily persuaded to relent, but will seek victory at every cost. The ambitious politician eventually becomes a tyrant, and a tyrant will often become a man obsessed with only one end, regardless of the means. It does not seem to phase Abimelech when he murders his brothers, and we can perceive that few things would! In the case of Christianity, we must consider that apostate preachers, when completely motivated, will destroy almost anybody to win their spiritual battles – false accusations against competing preachers, enmity between old friends or former allies, bribery, infidelity, lies and deception. Our enemies from the outside are even worse! Consider the suffering of Christians in the first century, as discussed in detail in Hebrews 11:35-38. It is quite a sobering thought to read that “the world lies in the power of the evil one” (1 John 5:19), and that Satan has great power in this temporal world. He has schemes and powerful angels who disguise themselves as good people (2 Corinthians 11:13-15). When it comes to our enemies, there is no Geneva convention protecting us from their weapons. There is no amnesty or neutrality. They will use whatever tools and whatever means to halt the work of the Lord!
“Now when they told Jotham…” (Judges 9:7). Jotham is the only one of Gideon’s sons who is left, aside from Abimelech, after the slaughter of their half-brothers. Having heard the news of Abimelech’s success in being appointed king of Shechem, Jotham knows that it is time to respond. With great courage, he proceeds to the top of Mount Gerizim to declare the certain doom of transgressors, as well as those who conspire with a wicked man like Abimelech. Being coronation day for the usurper, this would serve as a marvelous occasion for the curse that soon follows his opening remarks, “Listen to me, O men of Shechem, that God may listen to you.” Notice that if we ever expect God to listen to us in our prayers, we ought to first hear what He has to say. The correction of the Lord may seem harsh to those at fault, but in the end it produces something much more desirable than the alternative, that is, the removal of the grace of God (Proverbs 1:24-27). We must always make our hearts open to exhortation when it is needed, lest the Father say on that last day, “Because I called, and you refused.”
God is now giving the Shechemites a chance to repent, through the fable of the trees presented by Jotham. Read Judges 9:8-15 and consider what all these trees represent. First, we are witness to the error of the trees in their haste to anoint a king over themselves, although it was “in hot haste and ill-timed eagerness” (Fausset, 172) that they did this. Why did these trees need a king in the first place? Are they not all “trees of the Lord, which He has planted” (Psalm 104:16)? Do they not all have the same promise of care by the Father? A king was an unnecessary addition to a peaceful, successful system already established by God. Is this not the same situation found amongst the Israelites? Why would they need an earthly king when the Lord already filled the job? Christians did the same thing in the last half of the Roman Empire, when they became dissatisfied with having no visible head of the church, thus establishing the physical leadership of the papacy.
In contrast to the foolishness of the hasty trees, the wise trees make it very clear that they are not interested in the places of authority amongst the worldly throngs. Not only that, but these trees certainly are most worthy and deserving – by virtue of their great fruitfulness – of royal positions (olives, figs, and vines are very productive plants) but their wisdom and humility leads them to decline. They feel content to stay in their divinely-ordained places. The olive tree is content to be an olive tree because he knows the good that can be done by his work. The same is true with the figs and the vines. Like Paul, we should each be content with our status in life (Philippians 4:11, Ephesians 6:5-8), for we each possess some unique quality that can be used in the service of man and God. Interestingly, one writer suggested that the use of these three plants in this fable has still another level of meaning. “The olive represents the honors, the fig the sweetness, the vine the cheering power which a good man possesses in the sight of God and man. For man’s true calling is to honor God and to benefit his fellow-men” (Fausset, 173).
Finally, the fable uncovers the villainous mischief of the bramble. “finally, all the trees said to the bramble, ‘You come, reign over us!’ And the bramble said to the trees, ‘If in truth you are anointing me as king over you, come and take refuge in my shade; but if not, may fire come out from the bramble and consume the cedars of Lebanon” (Judges 9:14-15).Worthless and bad people often aspire to the exaltation which good people in their wisdom deny. Those who are least fit to lead are often the most ambitious to rule (Ecclesiastes 10:5-7), and the populace are too often eager to court such as their leaders. The bramble is an invasive, disgusting shrub, not worthy to be exalted as king – it surely offers little shade, in spite of what it might say, and it definitely gives no fruit to the world. It is a consuming plant, feeding off the hard work of others. Thus is Abimelech – a cruel, wicked man with too much ambition and not enough humility. He did not share the love and fidelity of his father, but wanted to surpass him in greatness.
Abimelech had convinced the people of Israel that they had only two choices. Either they would have to choose evil or not quite as evil. Today, the phrase that is most commonly said is that we must choose the lesser of two evils. The problem with this, however, is that the lesser of two evils is still evil. We do not have to choose between two flawed options – “traditional” and “contemporary” worship, missing church on Sundays for work or starving to death, salvation by faith or salvation by works. We always have a third choice that the devil does not want us to know. We can simply choose God – complete, pure good. We never have to choose evil.
Today, we can all choose salvation. If you have heard the message tonight, and believed it with all your heart – that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God (1 John 3:23); if you will confess that believe before God and man (Romans 10:9-10); if you repent and live a life that is renewed and in the strength of God (Luke 3:8); and if you will be baptized for the removal of your sins (Acts 2:38, Romans 6), then why will you not obey the invitation?