And Abimelech the son of Jerubbaal went to Shechem to his mother's brothers, and communed with them…
This Divine parable is full of interest. It is the oldest complete example of a parable blending with literal history. It was spoken by Jotham, the youngest son of Gideon, to expose the unworthy conduct of the Israelites, and to arrest them in their course. The olive, the vine, and the fig-tree, in the metaphorical application, would be his father, his brethren, and himself, none of whom would be king. The bramble would be Abimelech, who would either reign or destroy, and who would in the end, as the parable teaches, introduce so wretched a system as to entail upon himself and people mutual destruction. And so it happened. And such is the eternal law. He whose throne is reached through falsehood and blood, who has no foundation of virtue and right and worth to rest upon, must continue to cement with fresh crime the edifice he has reared, and so to add to the fire of vengeance that is secretly gathering around him, until at length some additional blow breaks the cover under which it has been smouldering, and it bursts upon the wicked tyrant and destroys, as it was with this Abimelech, both reign and life. Such is the lesson yielded by this parable in its letter, as a warning against that destructive ambition which has so often desolated the earth, in ancient and in modern times. Before quitting this part of the subject, allow me to call your attention to the difference between metaphor and correspondence. Metaphor is a certain likeness which is perceived by the mind, between two natural things, which have in other respects no connection with one another. Correspondence is the analogy which exists between two things, one spiritual and the other natural, and which answer to one another in all their uses and in all respects. We might go further, and attempt to show that in all cases of true and complete correspondences the spiritual is to the natural as the cause to the effect, the soul to the body; but upon this we cannot now enlarge. We have dwelt upon the parable as a metaphor. The olive-tree stands in this respect for Gideon. Like him, it was most valuable and honoured, and like him it would not reign. In other respects there was no connection or relation between them, and both were natural visible objects. We come now to the spiritual sense of the parable, and to bring this out we must employ, not metaphor, but correspondence. Perceptions, or acknowledged principles of truth or error, grow up in the mind like trees in the soil, and answer to trees in all their progress. Instruction is like seed. Instruction in Divine things is the seed of all that is great and good in the soul. "The seed," the Divine Saviour said, "is the Word of God" (Luke 8:11). If we watch the reception and growth of knowledge in the mind, until it becomes a clear and enlarged view, and at length a productive principle, we shall discern the closest analogy to the progression of a tree from seed to fruit. In our text, however, we have not only the subject of trees in general placed before us, but three trees especially are singled out as valuable, but declining to reign — the olive, the fig-tree, and the vine: and one as worthless determined to rule or to destroy — the bramble. Let us examine these singly; and first, the olive. It is the tree most esteemed in Eastern countries, and especially in Palestine. Its wood yields a precious gum, its fruits are delightful and nutritious, and its oil, which is as it were the essence of the fruit pressed out, is used in food, also to give light, and as holy oil in the offerings of worship. As trees correspond to truths perceived as principles in the mind, the most worthy tree will correspond to the most valuable principle, that is, the wisdom which teaches love to the Lord. This principle when it has grown up in the soul, and given us to know the true character of our heavenly Father, shows us that He is not only loving, but love itself, infinite love unutterably tender, unchangeably merciful, good to all, whose tender mercies are over all His works. This is the celestial olive-tree which yields the oil, honoured both by God and man. It is of the olive-tree corresponding to the interior wisdom which conjoins the soul and its God together, and through which holy love descends, that we are informed in our text it refused to be king over the trees. The Divine Word teaches us by this that the spirit of rule is opposed to the spirit of love. Love desires to aid, to serve, to bless, but not to rule. If placed in positions of government and responsibility, it accepts them that it may minister, not that it may reign. If it were to enter into the desire of ruling it would lose its fatness; or, in other words, its richness and its joy. The fig-tree is next brought under notice. It was one of the most common fruit trees in Palestine, growing often on the wayside. It corresponds therefore to that natural perception which teaches the ordinary virtues of daily life. But even the common virtues of life, to be genuine, must be separated from the love of dominion. It is not always so. But unless this is really the case, there is no sweetness in doing good. Our good in fact is not good, but self in a disguise. A person will sometimes be liberal in his support of charities. He will profess the utmost sympathy for the poor. He will be generous in his support of public institutions for education and general improvement. His fig-tree seems to hear fine fruit, and yet it is quite possible that the love of applause, the desire to be paid by the suffrages of his fellow-citizens, being given to confer upon him political power, may be his aim. And if so, his figs have no sweetness, and are not good fruit. And oh, what is the applause of men compared with the sweetness of heaven? What are fruits worth if they are only gilded dust? (Jeremiah 24:8). Such, then, is the lesson conveyed in the reply of the fig-tree spiritually understood. Should we leave the sweetness of heavenly virtue, and the real goodness of works which will abide the scrutiny of eternity, for the empty pageantry of place and power, sought only from the love of rule, and entailing bitterness here, and misery hereafter? "Then said the trees unto the vine, Come thou and reign over us." Vines correspond to the truths of faith. The Church, especially as to its principles of faith, is commonly called in the Scriptures a vineyard. The reason is, no doubt, that the influence of principles of true faith is to the mind what wine is to the body — it strengthens the exhausted and cheers the weary. There are more that be with us than all that be against us: why then should we faint or despair? A God of love has created and prepared us for our work. His creation consists of innumerable channels, through which His benevolence descends. Loving friends are around, and a heaven of love before us. All things cheer us on. The mountains run down with new wine. The vine, in our text, speaks of its wine as cheering God and man. And when we perceive that wine is the emblem of encouraging truth, we appreciate the force of the Divine words. For when man is cheered by truth and saved, God rejoices with him. But the vine intimates that, if she sought to be ruler over the trees, she would leave her wine. "Should I leave my wine, which cheereth God and man, and go to be promoted over the trees?" And so it is. If any one, by means of heavenly truth seeks dominion, his truth ceases to be saving. It is poison, not wine, to him. We come now, however, to a plant of very different character, and you will find the reply quite different. "Then said all the trees to the bramble, Come thou, and reign over us." The reply takes it for granted that he is willing, and expresses his determination either to rule or destroy. This bramble is a low bushy tree with strong thorns, and whose wood is of a fiery nature easily set in flames. It is the emblem of the lust of dominion, which is also essentially unbelieving. The ambitious man believes in nothing but himself and his cunning. Everything which will contribute to his earthly aggrandisement is welcome; but he hates what will not come down to his level. Let us hear him. "If in truth ye anoint me king over you, then come and put your trust in my shadow: and, if not, let fire come out of the bramble, and devour the cedars of Lebanon." What an extraordinary invitation was that! The olive, the vine, the fig-tree, the lofty cedar, and all the noble trees of the forest, were to come and put themselves under the shadow of this contemptible shrub! How ridiculous an idea! Yet it is paralleled, in all respects, by the demands of ambition. It will deign to lend its protection to Divine things, only they must be subservient, and it must be chief. This principle in politicians makes religion an instrument of state policy; the ministers of religion a superior kind of police. But woe to the religion which stoops to it. It loses its own native life and vigour: it leaves its oil, and its figs, and its wine. The principle in an ambitious priest uses all the semblances of earnest piety to attain his selfish ends. He cares, however, nothing for them in themselves. That which he cannot bend to his selfish rule he burns to destroy. He says, like this miserable plant, "If not, let fire come out of the bramble, and devour the cedars of Lebanon." He burns with the mad rage of frenzy against whatever will not stoop to gratify his insane whim to rule over all things. From the whole of this Divine lesson we may gather the most invaluable impressions. We cannot too strongly imbue ourselves with the conviction that all heaven breathes humility, and everything heavenly is humble. The moment any sacred principle is turned to a selfish purpose, it loses its richness, its sweetness, its holiness, and worth. Love becomes flattery, virtue hypocrisy, faith deception. Oh let us shun this awful, desolating, soul-destroying sin. And, on the contrary, let us attend to Him who is at once the humblest and the highest. Bring often to mind the impressive and beautiful scene, when, surrounded by His disciples, He took a little child, and placed it in the midst of them. It was the day following that of the grand scene of the Transfiguration.
(J. Bayley, Ph. D.)
Parallel VersesKJV: And Abimelech the son of Jerubbaal went to Shechem unto his mother's brethren, and communed with them, and with all the family of the house of his mother's father, saying,