Finally all the trees said to the thornbush, ‘Come and be our king.’
In the book of Judges, there is a very interesting passage where a fable of Jotham, the youngest son of Jerub-Baal, was recorded. Jerub-Baal is another name for Gideon, and Jotham was the only one amongst his seventy brothers to escape the wrath of Abimelek, who was crowned king over Shechem after killing his 70 brothers. In the midst of his escape, Jotham used a fable to depict the situation that the people have placed themselves in – it’s a fable, and yet a curse at the same time, a curse which, according to the Bible, came true in the end – God also made the people of Shechem pay for all their wickedness. The curse of Jotham son of Jerub-Baal came on them [Judges 9:57]. In this study, we will look at this fable in respect to the hearts of the people, who followed an unrighteous man as king.
According to Jotham’s story, prior to asking the thornbush, the other trees had also asked the olive tree, the fig tree, and the vine. It has been recorded that Gideon has rejected the opportunity to be king over the Israelites – But Gideon told them, “I will not rule over you, nor will my son rule over you. The Lord will rule over you.” [Judges 8:23] By the way, despite having 70 sons, and despite famously (or infamously) having asked God for signs to quell his doubts [Judges 6], Gideon was by and large a very notable man of God. He was a judge in the era of Judges – when the Israelites were ruled by a somewhat ad-hoc organisation of central judges, after Joshua had led the Israelites into Canaan and before the Kingdom of Israel was established. He was also listed as a man of faith [Hebrews 11:32] in the Hall of Faith in Hebrews 11. I must admit that I’m still a bit mind-blown at how he could have had 70 sons though – even the Chinese Emperors of Ancient China with harems of hundreds of concubines might not have managed such a feat. And that was just a number for his sons – what about daughters! My goodness. Well, that was out of point, but I just had to say it.
There is no real indication that any of the first three trees that Jotham used was a metaphor for Gideon, and there was only a record of Gideon’s refusal of royalty in the context of this story in the Bible – hence instead of guessing who was which tree, it is perhaps more apt to examine why Jotham used those three trees – the olive tree, the fig tree, and the vine. Now these were good trees – useful trees, rich and fruitful trees. When Moses described the extent of the goodness of the land that the Lord had promised to them, all three of the trees that Jotham mentioned were included – a land with wheat and barley, vines and fig trees, pomegranates, olive oil and honey [Deu 8:8]. Jotham himself described the positive attributes of each of these tree trees in his story – the olive tree produces olive that honours both God and men; the fig tree produces fruit that is so good and sweet; the vine produces wine that cheers God and men. In essence, these were description of men who were honorable, good, righteous; men whom God delights in; men whom the people can find no fault with. And while we are not given any indication about the characters of Gideon’s 70 sons, the general assumption is that Jotham was referring to them – sons of Gideons who were by and large righteous, but yet so cruelly wronged and killed by Abimelek, the thornbush.
A thornbush, or a bramble, is basically just a bush of thorns. Touch it, and you get hurt. Wait for it to bear fruit, and well, you can wait forever. Doesn’t do any good for you. Probably hurts other trees too. In their desperation for a King, to become like the nations around them, nations that all have kings, nations that worship the same idols that they’ve begun to worship, namely Baal. First the Israelites bring their idols over. Next, they bring their government structure over. They want a king, so badly that they are blinded to the terrible faults and the lack of righteousness in Abimelek. And in that blind choice of theirs, Abimelek became the source of their destruction.
Many times we too, conform to the society around us. We feel awkward as the odd one out when we are the only ones without a king – everybody else around us has a king! We need a king too! In seeking to conform to the norms of this sinful world, we compromise the word of God. We compromise God. We compromise the good things that God has promised for us – we compromise ourselves, we shortchange ourselves. Because the Israelites refuse to be contented with an almighty God – though invisible to our eyes – and they were desperate for a king whom they could see and whom they could show off and call their king, they settled for a murderer, an unrighteous man, an evil man as king. Today, because we refuse to be contented with the good things that God give us and insist on the one of two things that allows us to conform with society, we lose the gifts that God has already prepared for us, and we put a foot into sin and into destruction.
This is a little story, a fable, an analogy by Jotham, the youngest son of Gideon. Very overlooked in the Bible, perhaps, but from stories like these I believe we can gain much insight. No matter how hard it is to follow God’s precepts, let us not settle for what’s temporarily easier. No matter how dreaded the road ahead is, let us not be swayed or tempted by the rest of the trees in settling for a thornbush that can only harm us. Notice the rejection of the olive tree, the fig tree, and the vine? Why should they give up the good things that they have to be swayed by a forest of trees? Why should they give up their honorable and good ways and lead a people so evil in their own regards? Why should we, today, compromise God’s words and shortchange ourselves, too?
Be wary of the thornbush. Don’t let it become your king.