Examined like this, we can see the gospel application in Jotham’s parable for us today. Our hearts are desperate for a king. We will make an idol of nearly everything, and indeed, the abundance of possessions and the security of comfort and the assumption of God’s favor for our self-righteousness are the most common. But God’s gifts are good gifts and terrible gods. In the end, if we will not serve God as God, we will find our refuge no refuge at all, but a house of brambles—dry and thorny and reserved for the fires of hell. Several of Jesus’s parables make the same point, and it is not for no reason that he curses the fig tree and tells stories about dead trees ready for the fire. His warning is Jotham’s, and vice versa.
The world of the book of Judges is a sordid, nasty, utterly broken place. Some of the most horrific accounts of sin detailed in the Bible are found in the book of Judges. We are told quite plainly: “In those days there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes” (Judges 14:7, 17:6). In Judges 9, the people of Israel are beginning to reap what they’ve sown in discord and disobedience. After the death of Gideon (referred to as Jerubbaal in Judges 9), the nation has descended into apostasy, and God’s judgment looms. But it is not as so often judgment in the guise of an invading army but more along the lines of what we see detailed in Romans 1:24, or Psalm 81:12—“ So I gave them over to their stubborn hearts, to follow their own counsels.”
Abimelech, who was a son of Gideon by one of Gideon’s concubines, saw an opportunity to fill a void in power, and making an appeal to his family for support, he made a shrewd and self-interested case for himself as a king. “Would you rather be ruled by seventy men?” he argued (Judges 9:2), referring to the totality of Gideon’s sons. “Or by one?” What ensued was a succession of hits that makes The Godfatherlook like Strawberry Shortcake. Using money from a house of Baal-worship, Abimelech hired seventy assassins. “Worthless and reckless fellows,” Judges 9:4 calls them. Together they murdered all of Abimelech’s brothers “on one stone” (9:5). All, that is, except one. The youngest, named Jotham, escaped.
The brazen act of murder, nearly sacrificial in its overtones, is certainly devil worship, whether explicitly or implicitly. The root of pride if left unchecked will grow into a murderous tree. Through this wicked use of force, Abimelech was made king.
We pick up the story here:
When it was told to Jotham, he went and stood on top of Mount Gerizim and cried aloud and said to them, “Listen to me, you leaders of Shechem, that God may listen to you. The trees once went out to anoint a king over them, and they said to the olive tree, ‘Reign over us.’ But the olive tree said to them, ‘Shall I leave my abundance, by which gods and men are honored, and go hold sway over the trees?’ And the trees said to the fig tree, ‘You come and reign over us.’ But the fig tree said to them, ‘Shall I leave my sweetness and my good fruit and go hold sway over the trees?’ And the trees said to the vine, ‘You come and reign over us.’ But the vine said to them, ‘Shall I leave my wine that cheers God and men and go hold sway over the trees?’ Then all the trees said to the bramble, ‘You come and reign over us.’ And the bramble said to the trees, ‘If in good faith you are anointing me king over you, then come and take refuge in my shade, but if not, let fire come out of the bramble and devour the cedars of Lebanon.’” (Judges 9:7-15)
Jotham’s story is a crypto-parable. His employment of trees and vines and fire are elemental to several of Jesus’s more prominent parables. Jotham includes three symbols of national flourishing that lay at the, for lack of a better word, root of Jesus’s own promises and warnings. They are the olive tree, the fig tree, and the grapevine. Each, personified by Jotham, is asked by the trees to come reign over them. In general, Jotham is indicting the people’s God-offending demands for a king. They should have no king over them but YHWH, yet still they stamp their foot. More specifically, however, there is a lesson to learn in each of the parable’s would-be rulers.