On the basis of the statements that “Israel had no king” in the days of the judges (17:6, 18:1, 19:1, 21:25) it has often been asserted that the book of Judges is showing why Israel needed a human king to order its affairs and keep it from falling into anarchy.
However, as commentator Daniel Block has aptly observed, the book of Judges itself does not have a positive evaluation of kingship. This is most clear in the story which is situated roughly in the middle of “the lives of the judges” section of the book (3:7 – 16:31): the story of Abimelech as narrated in Judges 9.
Abimelech was one of the seventy-plus sons of Gideon (8:29-31). Abimelech was not a judge. He did not lead Israel in defeating an enemy nation which was oppressing them. Instead, Abimelech was a man who attempted to make himself king. Abimelech’s mother was a concubine from the town of Shechem. After his father’s death, Abimelech went to Shechem to rally his relatives there to his cause (9:1-3). The Shechemites gave him ‘idol-money’ and with that money Abimelech hired ‘worthless and reckless fellows, who followed him’ (v. 4). Then Abimelech and his mercenaries went to his father’s house at Ophrah and they slaughtered all seventy of his brothers. Only the youngest, Jotham, escaped (v. 5). After getting rid of his potential competitors, Abimelech assumed the royal position he sought: “And all the leaders of Shechem came together, and all Beth-millo, and they went and made Abimelech king, by the oak of the pillar at Shechem” (v. 6).
Note the self-assertiveness at the heart of this story: In contrast to the judges “whom God raised up” (Judg. 2:16, 18), Abimelech raised himself up: he had royal ambition and he made a brutal and bloody grab for power. The role which God played in this story was not to bless or use Abimelech’s thirst for power, but rather to judge him and the people of Shechem for their murderous violence and attempt to grab power for themselves (God’s judgement is what plays out in the rest of Judges 9, beginning with Jotham’s curse in v. 7-21; note especially v. 56-57).
We need to learn this lesson well. As OT scholar Paul House once wrote, “God’s leaders are not self-electing. They are the chosen heads of the chosen nation.” Within the church, we must be on guard against anyone who self-assertively seeks for power, position, and control. Such a self-seeking spirit is not the Spirit of Christ, for Christ did not come to be served, but to serve (Mark 10:35-45). Abimelech’s story graphically shows us the folly and destructiveness of grabbing for power within the family of God’s people.
So, brothers and sisters, let us check our hearts. Is our ambition self-centered? Is it about promoting ourselves and gaining power for ourselves? Is it about getting our own way? Or, is our ambition to serve God and others? Is our desire to know and respond to God’s call on our lives, rather than to assume we know what is best and try to take it by force of will?
Abimelech’s story also illustrates another truth of Scripture: God opposes the proud (James 4:6). Abimelech’s end was that the Shechemites who originally supported his bid for the kingship ended up turning against him and a fierce battle ensued in which many of the people of that town were destroyed (9:22-49). Then Abimelech went to war against the city of Thebez, but in the midst of that siege “a certain woman threw an upper millstone on Abimelech’s head and crushed his skull. Then he called quickly to the young man his armor bearer and said to him, ‘Draw your sword and kill me, lest they say of me, ‘A woman killed him.’’ And his young man thrust him through, and he died” (9:53-54). Then, with the action ended, the narrator issued the final verdict: “Thus God returned the evil of Abimelech, which he committed against his father in killing his seventy brothers. And God also made all the evil of the men of Shechem return on their heads, and upon them came the curse of Jotham the son of Jerubbaal” (9:56-57).
In view of this, let us flee pride and self-assertion and grabs for power and control. Instead, let us pursue humility and lowliness and the practice of serving and blessing others.