A democracy is a system of government in which the entire population has a chance to take part in electing their leader. It works best when there is an informed electorate coupled with candidates for office, whose best interests are the interests of the people whom he or she expects to serve. Before elected, candidates are generally given the chance to present their vision of government to the populace, and after much thought – and hopefully prayer – eligible citizens cast their ballot in favor of the one they think most suited to lead them effectively and efficiently. Problem is, the system is not flawless and in a deeply polarized society such as ours, it becomes even less so.
The Old Testament book of Judges chapter 9 relates the story of a leadership selection process that ended in disaster because the people did not make an informed choice, and because the leader in question lacked integrity and character. It happened at a critical time in the history of Israel when the aging Gideon, a man chosen by God to lead, was getting ready to ride off into the sunset. Gideon, unfortunately, did not name successor, thinking that the people would defer to God’s leadership. They did not and a leadership vacuum was created. And leadership, like nature ‘abhors a vacuum.’ Into this leadership blank-space steps Abimelech, one of Gideon’s sons by his concubine. Abimelech goes to his mother’s family and makes a proposal that he should be their leader as opposed to all seventy of Gideon’s sons. The people thought it was a great idea and after conferring with the clan, they appoint Abimelech to lead them on the simple criteria that “he is our brother.” But Abimelech was a ruthless man. His first act was to take money that the people gave to him and hire “worthless and reckless men.” With his band of cutthroats behind him, Abimelech goes over to his father’s house and summarily executes all seventy of the sons of Gideon (his brothers and potential rivals). The only one who escapes is Jotham a young son of Gideon, who hid himself.
In response to this questionable leadership selection process, Jotham at an opportune time tells the parable of the trees. Using anthropomorphic language in his parable, Jotham says “the trees went forth to anoint a king over them…” First they approached the olive tree saying: “reign over us.” But the olive tree refused because it has an important function, giving oil which is used to “honor God and men.” The olive tree will not hold sway over the trees! Next the trees approach the fig tree, then the vine. Both times they are rebuffed because these trees – like the olive tree – understand their place in the world and the importance of their designated functions. Finally – in desperation it would seem – the trees approached the bramble: “You come and reign over us.” The bramble, full of arrogance – and with nothing to give – responded: “If in truth you anoint me as king over you, Then come and take shelter in my shade; But if not, let fire come out of the bramble and devour the cedars of Lebanon!”
In reference to Abimelech as the popular choice Jotham tells the people who are listening to him that if they have acted “in truth and sincerity” in making Abimelech King, and if they “have dealt well with Jerubbaal (Gideon) and his house, and have done to him as he deserves” then they should rejoice in their choice of Abimelech as king. But if they have not, Jotham warned, “let fire come from Abimelech” and ” let fire come from the men of Shechem and Beth Millo.”
Jotham’s parable was analogous to the selection of Abimelech as the people’s leader. It was also prophetic as he would reign only three years before conflict arose between his clan and the same people who made him king. The conflict escalated until it ended in disaster and literal fire, as Jotham prophesied. Abimelech himself met his death at the hands of a woman and his own armor bearer.
There are several observations that can be made from this account. Firstly people crave leadership! There is no doubt that people want to be led. That’s why there are elections. In democratic societies nations are blessed to be able to pick their leaders. Secondly, people don’t always make the right choice. Very often they they are led astray by silver-tongued politicians who woo them with empty promises, and because they crave leadership over them, they make unwise selections. Sometimes the most qualified pass over the job and people who have only their own interests at heart jump at the chance to lead. Thirdly, leaders who lack integrity, and who violate the trust of the people will pay a price for if. Unfortunately they can do much damage during their time in office.