The Parable of Jotham
The Trees and the Bramble
And Gideon said unto them, I will not rule over you, neither shall my son rule over you: the LORD shall rule over you.—Judges 8:23
By Carl Hagensick
The period of Israel’s kings and the period of its judges was the difference between a strong centralized government and one which gave more authority to individual tribes. Advocates of the two systems may be likened to the debate beween the Federalists and the anti-Federalists in early American history concerning states’ rights.
Gideon’s response in Judges 8:23 to being offered kingship was similar to that of George Washington in the early years of the United States. However with Gideon a higher principle was involved. Instead of recognizing tribal rights as supreme, he viewed the twelve tribes of Israel as being under the kingship of God himself.
Gideon’s life is a study of contrasts. The son of an idol worshipper, he destroyed his father’s altar, tore down the grove to Baal, and delivered Israel from the bondage brought on by national idolatry. But after turning down kingship, he levied a tax on the tribes to make for himself a golden ephod, which became an idol to Israel (Judg. 8:28).
Also the personal life of Gideon was also not above reproach. He had 72 children from a number of wives and one concubine (Judg. 8:30; 9:5). After his death a power struggle ensued. One of his sons, Abimelech, killed seventy of his brothers and, with the assistance of his fellow-townspeople in Shechem. He attempted to install himself as king of Israel. The sole survivor of the massacre of Gideon’s sons was the youngest, Jotham, and he voices one of the first parables in the Bible—the Parable of the Trees, found in Judges 8:7-20.
“And when they told it to Jotham, he went and stood in the top of mount Gerizim, and lifted up his voice, and cried, and said unto them, Hearken unto me, ye men of Shechem, that God may hearken unto you. The trees went forth on a time to anoint a king over them; and they said unto the olive tree, Reign thou over us. But the olive tree said unto them, Should I leave my fatness, wherewith by me they honour God and man, and go to be promoted over the trees? And the trees said to the fig tree, Come thou, and reign over us. But the fig tree said unto them, Should I forsake my sweetness, and my good fruit, and go to be promoted over the trees? Then said the trees unto the vine, Come thou, and reign over us. And the vine said unto them, Should I leave my wine, which cheereth God and man, and go to be promoted over the trees? Then said all the trees unto the bramble, Come thou, and reign over us. And the bramble said unto the trees, 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.”—Judges 9:7-15
The basic lesson of the parable is simple. The trees pictured Gideon and other worthy men of noble stature who felt that their calling was to serve in various capacities and not to assert rulership over their fellows. Only the lowly bramble, an unworthy scrub shrub—Abimelech—would be presumptuous enough to assume such a lofty office.
But, Jotham warns in his parable, if the bramble does become king and notes a lack of trust, he will persecute with such power as to devour the most noble of the land, pictured by the majestic cedar of Lebanon. Future events bore out the accuracy of Jotham’s predictions, for within a short while civil war broke out and continued until Abimelech was slain; a millstone was cast upon him from the top of a tower.
The Deeper Lesson
The choice of kinds of trees used in Jotham’s parable may have been random, but if so, that choice was overruled by Jehovah’s guiding spirit to couch a deeper lesson encompassing the entire plan of God for the human race.
As a central feature of the plan of God we see Satan promoting himself as earth’s ruler—”I will ascend into heaven . . . I will be like the Most High” (Isa. 14:13, 14). So successful has Satan been, as was Abimelech of old, that he has earned the titles “god of this world” (2 Cor. 4:4) and “prince of this world” (John 12:31).
Reviewing the history of the past six thousand years, we note three more worthy claimants were offered this position. They, like Gideon, declined the offer, esteeming their God-given roles as being more important than rulership.
The three noble trees—the olive, the fig, and the vine—are all standard Biblical symbols. The olive, in Romans 11, is used to picture the Abrahamic promise and the favored status to those in relationship with father Abraham. The fig tree is used in the Bible to designate the nation of Israel, as the vine is referred to by Jesus in John 15 to show the relationship between him and his church.
The Ancient Worthies
It was to Abraham, whose worthiness was shown by his faith, that the great covenant promise was made: “In thee and thy seed shall all the families of the earth be blessed” (Gen. 28:14). A parade of heroes of faith march through Old Testament history showing both the faith and the cost of full devotion to God—heroes certainly worthy of rulership positions. Yet rulership was not the role given to Abraham and other men of faith, often the very reverse. Their work was in furnishing the examples and the precepts for future generations. Many of them were the writers of the Bible, the others were the subjects of these writers.
Like the olive tree, whose root pictured the great promise to father Abraham (Rom. 11), their work was to produce “oil”—that “olive oil” which pictured the words of the holy Spirit uttered through the prophets of the Old Testament and the apostles of the New (Zech. 4; Rev. 11:4).
Somewhat less noble, yet uniquely favored by God (Amos 3:2), was the nation of Israel. Unto them was committed “the oracles of God” (Rom. 3:2). Theirs was the “sacrifice” and the “ephod” (Hos. 3:4). Their kings sat on the the “throne of the Lord” (1 Chron. 29:23). Certainly they were fit to exercise rulership.
Symbolically they declined the offer because of the work which God had given them during their period of favor—to provide examples and illustrations for ages to come (1 Cor. 10:6, 11; Heb. 10:1). Figuratively they were to learn the pitfalls of human experience and to “gather out the stones” so that future generations would not stumble over the same things (Isa. 62:10). This was to provide the “sweetness” and the “good fruit” of the “fig tree” of Jotham’s parable. (See also Jer. 24; Matt. 24:32; Luke 13:6-9.)
At his first advent Jesus wept over the city of Jerusalem with those sad words of rejection: “Behold your house is left unto you desolate” (Matt. 23:38). At the same time he turned to others, first to the publicans and sinners of that nation and shortly to the gentiles to “take out of them a people for his name” (Acts 15:14). These were to be groomed for rulership (2 Tim. 2:12; Rev. 20:6). But the present lifetime was not the time for these to presume such leadership roles. As Paul states “I would to God that ye did reign, that we also might reign with you” (1 Cor. 4:8).
Jesus chose the vine as a symbol of the church in John 15. The work of the vine was to produce grapes, used primarily for wine. It is this spiritual wine, as Jotham phrased it, “which cheereth God and man.” Literal wine may make men merry, but it hardly cheers the heart of God. The spiritual wine which does cheer both God and man is that represented in the memorial cup of the Last Supper: “And he took the cup, and gave thanks, and gave it to them, saying, Drink ye all of it; For this is my blood of the new testament, which is shed for many for the remission of sins” (Matt. 26:27, 28). It is of this cup that Paul wrote: “Is not the cup of blessing which we bless a sharing in the blood of Christ? Is not the bread which we break a sharing in the body of Christ?” (1 Cor. 10:16 NAS).
This is the cup which will cheer both God and man, for when the new covenant realizes its work complete it will bring full atonement between the two. The training for that work is certainly more precious than attempting to assume rulership now.
The bramble was only a lowly plant in comparison to the noble trees to which Jotham had referred; it was prickly, a nuisance, and considered as a weed. In all these attributes it was a fitting representation for the great adversary of mankind, Satan.
The threat to attack the cedars of Lebanon with fire is also significant. While the cedars of Lebanon are used in a wide variety of metaphorical phrases in the Old Testament, one of them is that of the proud and haughty, who stick their necks high above their brothers even as the cedars of Lebanon do above the neighboring trees. We find this usage in Isaiah 2:12, 13: “For the day of the LORD of hosts shall be upon every one that is proud and lofty, and upon every one that is lifted up; and he shall be brought low: And upon all the cedars of Lebanon, that are high and lifted up, and upon all the oaks of Bashan.”
It is these, who dare to assert their own independence, who feel the wrath of Satan when disagreement separates them. In keeping with this, in Isaiah’s portrait of Satan as “the prince of Tyre” he prefaces his remarks with a note about the “cedars of Lebanon” celebrating his fall: “Yea, the fir trees rejoice at thee, and the cedars of Lebanon, saying, Since thou art laid down, no feller [however—RSV] is come up against us” (Isa. 14:8).
While each of the trees in Jotham’s parable declined the offer to become a king, deeming present adtivities more appropriate, this does not mean that the classes pictured thereby never shall have a role in kingship and rulership. When circumstances change and the present “prince of this world” is replaced by the “Prince of peace” the new arrangement will elicit a far different response.
The “ancient worthies,” pictured by the olive tree, shall then become “princes in all the earth” (Psa. 45:16). The “fig tree” of restored Israel shall be centered in Jerusalem, the capitol city of the world, and “the word of the LORD shall go forth from Jerusalem” (Isa. 2:3). And the church, the “vine” of the parable, shall be “priests of God and of Christ, and shall reign with him a thousand years” (Rev. 20:6). As for the “bramble,” Satan shall be bound for that same thousand years (Rev. 20:2).
The remainder of mankind will be raised from the dead and pass before the great white throne, where they will be judged and separated as sheep and goats, according to the works which they then shall do. (See Rev. 20:11-15; Matt. 25:31-46.)