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Power Corrupts

March 30, 2009, More from this speaker 更多关于此讲员: Pastor Daniel Tan (Judges 8:33-9:24) For more of this sermon series 更多关于此讲道系列: Judges
Preached at a Bilingual (Mandarin-English, Sunday) service

Tags: Judges

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Sermon on Judges 8:33-9:24

“Power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely” this famous saying came from Lord John Acton, the 19th century English historian and moralist. In 1870 came the great controversy in Roman Catholicism when Pope Pius IX made the Papal infallibility a dogma of the Church. It was in this context, in a letter he wrote to Bishop Mandell Creighton (dated April 1887), Lord Acton made his most famous pronouncement:

“I cannot accept your canon that we are to judge Pope and King unlike other men with a favorable presumption that they did no wrong. If there is any presumption, it is the other way, against the holders of power, increasing as the power increases…Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men, even when they exercise influence and not authority: still more when you super-add the tendency or certainty of corruption by authority. There is no worse heresy than that the office sanctifies the holder of it.”

In the scriptural passage we read just now, it is indeed a biblical exposition of this famous saying “Power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely”. Hence, it is the title of the sermon this morning. But more importantly we want to examine in today passage the causes that make power corrupt, and is there any other priority in life that should take precedence over power attainment? The first point I want to make now is: Power corrupts when it becomes self-serving.

1. Power corrupts when it becomes self-serving

Today passage concerns the story of Abimelech, a new character in the book of Judges. Abimelech is described neither as judge nor as deliverer: not at the beginning or end, nor during the course of his story. So what is he doing here in Chapter 9 and who is Abimelech? In last week scriptural passage, we were told that he was not one of the seventy sons of Gideon’s many wives, but the son of his concubine from Shechem, a Canaanite woman. This provides us the background for the confrontation between the sons of the wives and that of the concubine in today’s passage. So, although Gideon has died, the events of chapter 9 are still very much a part of Gideon’s story. Abimelech’s usurped power is in fact a continuation of his father’s violent legacy. So, the negative assessment of Gideon’s legacy does not end at his death, but continues in his son’s story.

It is worthy to note that chapter 8 does not conclude at verse 28 where it should be, stating that during Gideon’s life time, the land enjoyed peace forty years. But instead, it ends in a negative assessment given from verses 33 to 35. In other words, it concludes with a very explicit description of the people’s idolatry, their failure to recognize God’s sovereignty, and their neglect of what good Gideon had done. This is indeed an indication that Gideon’s story is a pivotal turning point—a turn for the worse as chapter 9, his son’s story, begins to unfold. What causes the wrong turn in Gideon’s life which later affects his son, Abimelech as well? Abimelech is simply following the wrong direction that Gideon himself had taken. This wrong direction is clearly manifested in Gideon’s misuse of power. The power that God has given him has become corrupted. Gideon becomes alarmingly self-assertive and prideful. Let me trace the change of his attitude as the power God has enabled him begins to corrupt.

Gideon was once a soft boy, who was afraid and without faith in himself or Yahweh. All of the best confirmations which Yahweh had to offer, could barely activate him. But once he caught onto it, nothing could stop him from applying his power. I will only quote few verses indicative of a change in his attitude:

7:18,20 When I and all who are with me blow our trumpets, then from all around the camp blows yours and shout, “For the LORD and for Gideon.” They shouted, “A sword for the LORD and for Gideon!”

8:7,9 “I will tear your flesh with desert thorns and briers.” “When I return in triumph, I will tear down this tower.” (Because the men of Succoth and Peniel refused to give bread to his troops)

8:20,21 Turning to Jether, his oldest son, Gideon said, “Kill them!” But Jether did not draw his sword, because he was only a boy and was afraid. (Subsequently, Gideon stepped forward and killed Zebah and Zalmunna, the kings of Midian)

So, we see that a shy boy had become a bully. In the rest of Chapter 8 layers of perspective on revenge and violence are added. This is contrasted with the meekness of his oldest son, Jether, who could not kill the captured enemy because he was afraid as he was only a young boy. Ironically, this is a reflection of Gideon who was once afraid and the youngest of the smallest family. It is obvious that Gideon now could not see his former self in his son, because he had changed too much. He has become a ‘monarch’ who delights in power play. He now tolerates no opposition. The world of Gideon is initially a world of commoners, of suppressed people, of the smallest and weakest clan, but it ends in power play, no-nonsense ruler, violence for the sake of violence, revenge beyond reason. Gideon was enabled in all respects by Yahweh, now having tasted power, turns on his God and becomes self-assertive. He has refused to show to others the patience that God had shown to him. It appears that Gideon has not moved from fear to faith, but rather from fear to self-assertion after tasting the power God has given him.

Even though in 8:22-23, after the notable victory he has achieved over the Midianites, Gideon refuses the offer of kingship to himself and his sons, declaring “Yahweh shall rule over you”, yet he asks for a different power: the gold earrings of the spoil they have taken. If we recall the previous battle Moses had fought against the very same people, the Midianites in Numbers 31, we notice that Moses observes the laws regarding the spoils of war. Moses determines only the fate of human captives; he has nothing to do with the spoils of war. He neither takes it nor presides over its allocation. In contrast, we see that after killing the kings of Midian out of personal revenge, Gideon immediately takes the ornaments off their camels’ necks. After the victory over the Midianites, the weight of gold that Gideon requested from his people was made into an ephod. The ephod is supposed to be a priestly garment described in Exodus 28. But by setting it up in Orphah, Gideon’s city, it becomes his self-glorification for the object he has made from the gold is one associated with kingship. Gideon has clothed himself now with the golden ephod instead of Yahweh’s spirit. The ephod does not memorize Yahweh or even the people of Israel, it is Gideon’s ephod, the display of his power for his self-glorification. It is therefore not surprising that a warning is given that the ephod has become a snare to Gideon and his family. Why a snare to his family? Today’s passage provides us the answer.

Because the golden ephod is associated with kingship, Abimelech, more Canaanite than Israelite, is familiar with this idea. Kingship has been a Canaanite practice for long. Since it had been offered to his father before, and was now symbolically evident with the setting up of the ephod, Abimelech went after the bait. The name Abimelech which means ‘my father is king’ is given by Gideon. So, Gideon not only physically created a son who was only half-Israelite, he also ‘determined’ or ‘set’ his son’s future by putting this name upon him. It is an age-old belief that individuals tend to fulfill their names. Failing to recognize God’s sovereign claim, Abimelech therefore simply assumes that after his father’s death, the authority to rule will be either his prerogative or the prerogative of all his half-brothers, the seventy sons of Gideon’s many wives. When God is not sovereign, someone else will be. In this case, the would-be sovereign is Abimelech. Like his father, he can tolerate no competition. According to his logic, he must kill other potential sovereigns; and he does. So, in his hunger for power, Abimelech determined to carve out his own kingdom by creating a major conflict within families and houses. It is houses and families of his mother’s clan against other houses and families of his father’s side. For him, in his struggle for power, any action is considered legitimate. The one with the most power, or the best alliances, becomes the new king. So, by his name, Abimelech bears testimony to his father’s corrupted power. He is a usurper, claiming a position for himself, without Yahweh’s orders and without any need (there is no military threat). He made himself king because he, and he alone, felt the need for kingship and for individual power. Later in a series of wars against the people who formerly supported him, we see his brutal use of power causing more destruction and bloodshed. Again, it is nothing more and nothing less than another example of irrational craze for revenge and violence.

So, we see that Gideon/Abimelech-story is about the corruption of power; of power becoming self-serving. It therefore leads to more violence and the degeneration of society. But what causes the power to be corrupted, to become self-serving? And this is the second point I want to highlight: Power corrupts when there is no faithfulness and integrity towards God and humankind.

2. Power corrupts when there is no faithfulness and integrity towards God and humankind

With a calculated brutal act, Abimelech led his team of assassins and murdered sixty nine of Gideon’s seventy sons. Jotham, the youngest son of Gideon, however escaped. Upon hearing that Abimelech was officially proclaimed king by the leaders of Shechem, Jotham went atop Mount Gerizim to confront the leaders of Shechem with the evil they have done. He addressed them in a parable of the trees looking for a king. I will touch on its content in a little while. Now I just want to draw your attention to a conditional phrase Jotham had used twice in his speech. The phrase is: If you have acted honorably and in good faith (‘honor’ can also be translated as ‘integrity’ in NAS Bible), which is crucial for the understanding of Gideon/Abimelech- story. It is the key phrase because it spells out the reason for the corruption of power manifested in the leadership of Gideon and Abimelech. In other words, power tends to corrupt if leaders do not act with faithfulness and integrity towards God and their human fellows.

Let us first look at Gideon’s case. In his life we see the climax of Yahweh’s participation in making him a powerful man. Gideon is not ‘raised up’ by Yahweh unlike other judge, Yahweh in fact comes (down) and sits with him! Yahweh not only grants Gideon the divine spirit, He clothes and surrounds Gideon with it. In other words, Gideon receives more from Yahweh than does any other judge. He was enabled in all respects by Yahweh, but after tasting power he turns on his God and becomes his own god. As a result, he exercises his leadership unfaithfully giving no honor to God. That is why Gideon while refusing to be king, can call his son “My father is king”. That is why Gideon can refuse to be a ruler, but can take all the gold, and then make an ephod. He in fact lives like a king with many wives, and still not enough he must also have a foreign concubine from Shechem. He has indeed violated Moses’ law. By making for himself a worldly symbol of rule, the golden ephod, Gideon thereby leads his people into a new kind of apostasy, for we are told that all Israelites prostituted themselves by worshipping it. In short, Gideon’s leadership has not only corrupted the power God has enabled him, but also resulted in idolatry. Gideon began his career by combating idolatry when he tore down the altar of Baal, but had ended up leading his people into a new kind of spiritual prostitution. He who has seen Yahweh, and who has the experience of Yahweh as savior, now turns to Baal in an irrational move. All because he did not honor God’s sovereignty and failed to serve Him faithfully. It is therefore not surprising to note the silence of Yahweh once Gideon started to believe in himself and his own power. After all, Gideon himself displaced the spirit of Yahweh with an ephod of gold. Without acting faithfully and giving no honor to God, Gideon thus becomes self-assertive and applies his power in a cruel way to any people who are against him. Power has gone to his head and he has indeed become a bully.

What about his son, Abimelech? Abimelech does not do one good thing or have one positive character trait. Abimelech depicts a world that is evil, degenerative and full of violence. It is a world of power struggle and strife. In term of his faithfulness to Yahweh, he leaves the LORD out of his life entirely. He took silver pieces from the temple of Baal-berith in order to hire worthless and reckless hit men to murder his seventy half-brothers. Baal-berith means literally “Lord/Master of the covenant”. As we know very well that it is Yahweh who made the covenant with the Israelites and they are to be loyal to Him as His covenantal people. But by taking money from the Baal’s temple to finance his murder plot, it shows very clearly that Abimelech is directing his loyalty and allegiance to the foreign gods. He is no longer in covenant with Yahweh, but rather with the people and gods of Canaan. Furthermore, he killed his sixty nine half-brothers one after another on the same single stone. In ancient time a slaughter stone was often used to offer animal sacrifices (1 Sam 14:33-35). So, Abimelech is in fact carrying out a perverted act of sacrifice on the slaughter stone reserved for animals, in contempt of Yahweh’s instruction which forbids human sacrifice. The anointing of Abimelech as a king is also done in an unholy, anti-holy way. The installation ceremony is conducted beside the great tree at the pillar. The nature and significance of this tree is unclear. But its association with the pillar, which is a propped up stone representing Baal in Canaanite cult installations, suggests a kind of ceremonial tree. The anointment, following the murder of the other heirs, indicates Abimelech’s intention to dominate all the areas of influence of his father. His strife for power is evil all because he fails to show his loyalty to Yahweh and to serve him faithfully.

Not only has Abimelech denied God’s ultimate sovereignty, he is also clearly among those who did not exhibit loyalty to the house of Jerubbal(Gideon) in return for all the good that he had done to Israel. Instead of acting in good faith and with integrity towards his father’s families, he wiped them out. He deliberately splits his next-of-kin into two irreconcilable groups: the mother’s side and the father’s side. Then to the leaders of Shechem, he appeals to their self-interest by persuading them that the rule of one man is preferable to the rule of seventy. He further identifies himself as being of their own flesh and blood. So, it is better for him who is related to them to rule than for outsiders to do so. Abimelech’s manipulative speech thus appeals to the self-interest of the leaders of Shechem. Like him, they are opportunists and see in his suggestion something that might benefit them. They show no loyalty or gratitude to Gideon who in conquering the Midianites had benefited the Canaanites as well as the Israelites living in the land. But as the later part of story has unfolded, given the kind of person that Abimelech apparently was, a man of no honor and integrity, the leaders of Shechem eventually acted treacherously against him. As Jotham has suggested in his speech: If the people have acted in good faith and with integrity towards the family of Jerubbaal(Gideon), then they should rejoice in one another. If not, he predicts, they will devour each other in fire. Jotham’s prediction finally comes true as the end of chapter 9 states that: Thus God repaid the wickedness that Abimelech had done to his father by murdering his seventy brothers. God also made the men of Shechem pay for all their wickedness.

Yes, brothers and sisters, we all possess some kind of power over others. Your power may be in a form of a parent to your children, teacher to your students, boss to your employees, senior to your juniors in school, pastor, elder or deacon to your congregation, leader to your cell members etc. Be aware of how we use our power! The Gideon/Abimelech-story has clearly instructed us that power tends to corrupt if it becomes self-serving. Leadership itself is not a subject of criticism. More at issue than a particular form of leadership or power is whether we can be loyal to God and to relate to one another in good faith and with integrity. God wills faithfulness and integrity among humans. So God will stand solidly against any leaders who use their power for self-serving as is evident in the Gideon/Abimelech-story. Nevertheless, power is not everything and it does not elevate you above others in the eyes of God. This is the third point I want to highlight from today passage. It should also serve as a life-long application for us: Serving God and humanity should take precedence over power attainment.

3. Serving God and humanity should take precedence over power attainment

In the parable of Jotham, the trees went out to anoint a king for themselves. First, they said to the olive tree, “Be our king.” But the olive tree declined because it was too involved with fulfilling what olive trees do best, producing oil by which both gods and men are honored. Olive oil was probably the most valuable agricultural product in the ancient world. It was used every day as cooking oil, medicine, fuel in lamps and as in sacred rituals and in anointing ceremonies. So, the olive tree rightly discerns that its appointed place in the economy of God is to bear fruit in accordance with its nature. If it accepts this invitation, it will cause to cease the very function by which God is honored and man is served. The next tree to be approached with the invitation of kingship is the fig tree. Likewise, it recognizes its place in God’s creative design to produce sweetness and fruit for others, thus declines the offer. The fruit of the fig could be eaten fresh, made into fig wine and used as a sweetener. The third tree to be tempted with a position of power and authority is the vine. Once again the vine sees the divine appointment in its natural function to cheer gods and humans with its wine. It, too, declines. The olive, the fig and the vine, all are perfectly content to fulfill the purpose God has ordained. None of them aspire to a position of kingship over the others. In desperation, the trees turn to the thornbush. Whereas the other three candidates contributed positive joys or values to the human or divine life, the thornbush contributed nothing but prickles. But the thornbush gladly accepts the offer and invites them to take shelter in his shade. The thornbush however warns them that if they attempt to abandon him, he will consume them with fire. This is a physical absurdity. How could the thornbush provide cover or shade to the trees? And worse, to attempt to do so would only bring pain of being pricked by its thorns. Yet in their desire to have a king, the trees choose the thornbush. The thornbush is clearly Abimelech. A worthless thornbush cannot be made king in good faith. So, the only possible result of making him a king is disaster—for himself and for those who choose him. Eventually we see Abimelech destroy the leaders of Shechem by fire (9:46-50) as was forewarned by the thornbush. And Abimelech himself suffered great humiliation when in one of the battles a woman dropped a millstone on his head. He chose to commit suicide rather than dying at the hands of a woman. The parable is in fact a representation of the history of Abimelech’s coming to power by virtue of his own desire to rule, and with the support of the leaders of Shechem. Thus, the aim of it is to condemn Abimelech and the leaders of Shechem of not acting in good faith and with integrity.

But at the same time, Jotham’s parable also allow us, the modern readers, to decide on its significance. There will always be a continuing need for human leadership in any society. One may argue that the parable criticizes the avoidance by those who are qualified and capable from taking the positions of leadership. By closing themselves off, the positions of power are sized by those who are undeserving, resulting in destruction and ruin. But it is nowhere in the parable that implies it is better to make the olive tree king than to make the fig tree king. Nor it is better to make the fig tree king than to make the vine king. Their values to the society are not to be compared with one another. All of them are not avoiding the leadership role, rather it is the nobility to control others that they are refusing. It would be unwise for them to abandon their true public service just to attain power over others. For them leadership can be exercised in the form of service to the Divine and humans, and not to be equate with status or how much power they attained. In other words, one can be an effective leader if serving God and humankind take priority over status and power attainment. In Jotham’s parable, it is not the leadership itself that is criticized. Rather, it condemns those who in their lust for power and self-serving interest corrupt the true nature of leadership. So, brothers and sisters, if we want to please God we must not only avoid the lust for power but also understand His plan and purpose for our lives. We each have a function ordained by God. As with the olive, fig, and vine, God has given us gifts that we are to use for His glory and to benefit others. When we recognize God’s sovereignty in us, we will get to know Him better day after day, hence his plan and purpose in our lives. But we must also interact with others, to act in good faith and with integrity, only then can we perform our role of public service and bring glory to God.

Judges 8:33–9:24 (Listen)

33 As soon as Gideon died, the people of Israel turned again and whored after the Baals and made Baal-berith their god. 34 And the people of Israel did not remember the LORD their God, who had delivered them from the hand of all their enemies on every side, 35 and they did not show steadfast love to the family of Jerubbaal (that is, Gideon) in return for all the good that he had done to Israel.

9:1 Now Abimelech the son of Jerubbaal went to Shechem to his mother's relatives and said to them and to the whole clan of his mother's family, “Say in the ears of all the leaders of Shechem, ‘Which is better for you, that all seventy of the sons of Jerubbaal rule over you, or that one rule over you?’ Remember also that I am your bone and your flesh.”

And his mother's relatives spoke all these words on his behalf in the ears of all the leaders of Shechem, and their hearts inclined to follow Abimelech, for they said, “He is our brother.” And they gave him seventy pieces of silver out of the house of Baal-berith with which Abimelech hired worthless and reckless fellows, who followed him. And he went to his father's house at Ophrah and killed his brothers the sons of Jerubbaal, seventy men, on one stone. But Jotham the youngest son of Jerubbaal was left, for he hid himself. 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.

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?’ 10 And the trees said to the fig tree, ‘You come and reign over us.’ 11 But the fig tree said to them, ‘Shall I leave my sweetness and my good fruit and go hold sway over the trees?’ 12 And the trees said to the vine, ‘You come and reign over us.’ 13 But the vine said to them, ‘Shall I leave my wine that cheers God and men and go hold sway over the trees?’ 14 Then all the trees said to the bramble, ‘You come and reign over us.’ 15 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.’

16 “Now therefore, if you acted in good faith and integrity when you made Abimelech king, and if you have dealt well with Jerubbaal and his house and have done to him as his deeds deserved—17 for my father fought for you and risked his life and delivered you from the hand of Midian, 18 and you have risen up against my father's house this day and have killed his sons, seventy men on one stone, and have made Abimelech, the son of his female servant, king over the leaders of Shechem, because he is your relative—19 if you then have acted in good faith and integrity with Jerubbaal and with his house this day, then rejoice in Abimelech, and let him also rejoice in you. 20 But if not, let fire come out from Abimelech and devour the leaders of Shechem and Beth-millo; and let fire come out from the leaders of Shechem and from Beth-millo and devour Abimelech.” 21 And Jotham ran away and fled and went to Beer and lived there, because of Abimelech his brother.

22 Abimelech ruled over Israel three years. 23 And God sent an evil spirit between Abimelech and the leaders of Shechem, and the leaders of Shechem dealt treacherously with Abimelech, 24 that the violence done to the seventy sons of Jerubbaal might come, and their blood be laid on Abimelech their brother, who killed them, and on the men of Shechem, who strengthened his hands to kill his brothers.

(ESV)