Live by the Sword, Die by the SwordSermon passage: (Judges 9:25-41) Spoken on: April 6, 2009
More sermons from this speaker 更多该讲员的讲道: Rev. Wong Siow Hwee For more of this sermon series 更多关于此讲道系列: Judges
Sermon on Judges 9:25-41
Last week’s sermon topic was a reflection of the phrase “Power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely”. 权力使人腐化；绝对的权力使人绝对的腐化。I would like to introduce another phrase as the reflection topic for today: “Those who live by the sword, die by the sword.” 凡动刀的必死在刀下. This phrase comes from Matthew 26:52. After Judas betrayed Jesus, a large crowd armed with swords and clubs came to arrest Jesus. Peter reached for his sword, drew it out and struck the servant of the high priest, cutting off his ear. Then Jesus said, “Put your sword back in its place, for all who draw the sword will die by the sword.” The phrase “live by the sword, die by the sword” was then used as a common idiom to mean those who live by violence will die by violence. The expression is further generalized to mean that living one's life in a certain way will in the end affect one's destiny. Its meaning is similar to a Chinese phrase “if you play with fire, you will get burnt by it.” 玩火自焚。Your methods will predict your final outcome.
So, what is the “sword” or “fire” that is found in today’s passage? To me it is politics, and more specifically to play politics 玩弄权术. What is described in the portion of the story today is a classic depiction of the concept of poetic justice. In literature, poetic justice describes a situation in which virtue is ultimately rewarded or vice punished, often by an ironic twist of fate intimately related to the character's own conduct. Simply put, what goes around comes around. In its purest form, poetic justice is when one character plots to undermine another and then ends up caught in his own trap. All the characters in today’s story thought that they could play politics to their advantage but in the end, it was politics that resulted in their destruction. Let us now look at the story in detail to see how this concept plays out.
The story starts with a political game between Abimelech and the Shechemites. Abimelech offered two convincing arguments to appeal to their political interest. One, they would be better off having one ruler instead of seventy rulers. Two, it would be better for this ruler to be related to them by kinship than without. Now, let’s consider the weight of these two arguments. Is the rule of a monarch better than a coalition of aristocrats? Well, not really. Monarchial rule is too dependent on the abilities of one person whereas a coalition can take opinions from more representatives. In fact, the later minor judge Jair would rule in this manner together with his 30 sons without any problems (Judges 10:3-5). As for the second argument, a relative does not mean that that person is a better ruler. It is true that if your relative is a ruler, he may have more reason to act favorably towards you. But if this person is a scumbag, then relative or not, he will only bring misfortune in his rule.
Yet, the Shechemites buy the arguments of Abimelech to make him king. Why? Because they are not interested in getting a good ruler. Their main consideration is a political one, which is how much influence and control they have over the new leadership. One ruler is easier to manipulate than 70, and one that depends on your sponsorship to gain power even more so.
Abimelech is able to execute this sway of allegiance from the Shechemites also by playing into the political rivalry between the original inhabitants Canaanites and the new migrants Israelites. Shechem is a prominent Canaanite city in Manasseh. Yet, prominence is now going to Gideon’s hometown Ophrah, a nearby rival town. So Abimelech plays towards this conflict in the fight for regional supremacy, between the old timers and the newcomers, between the old money people and the newly-rich. Abimelech succeeds because he is able to spot the underlying struggle and offer himself as a way to gain the upper hand in the rivalry.
This kind of political play is no stranger to us. It is not just the politicians who do it, we do it as well. We all do it because we think it is necessary for survival. If there is a vacancy in a position of leadership, who do we elect? Who do we recommend for promotion? Very often, we pick the one who is “one of us”. We want a yes-man because he will be easier to manipulate in future. Leaders also know how to play to our vulnerabilities in wanting to be one-up on our opponents in life. Oscar Ameringer said “Politics is the gentle art of getting votes from the poor and campaign funds from the rich, by promising to protect each from the other.” How many times have we seen politicians claiming to be “one of us” and play up the rivalry between different groups of men?
But he who lives by the sword dies by the sword. We can play politics to get what we want, but it will also be politics that will cause our downfall. In the same manner that Abimelech sways the Shechemites, Gaal son of Ebed the newcomer politician attempts to sway them to his side. “Who is Abimelech that we should be subject to him? Isn’t he Jerub-Baal’s son?” Good point! If you want to pick a relative to be king, why pick a distant relative? Why pick a half-blood Abimelech son of Jerub-Baal when you can get a full-blood Shechemite Gaal son of Ebed? And the Shechemites who only cared about their self interest betrayed Abimelech. They see the political advantage in choosing Gaal as their leader because he is fully Shechemite.
Unfortunately for Gaal, he who lives by the sword, dies by the sword. In his power play, he forgot to factor in Zebul, the governor of the city, Gideon’s deputy. When insulting Abimelech, he insulted Zebul as well. Zebul may be one of the Shechemite lords but he gained his position because of Abimelech. If Gaal was going to be king, he would lose his position. So he sent word to Abimelech to send his army and ambush the betrayers so that he could retain his power in Shechem. Thus Gaal who thought he could gain by a power play failed in the end because of a power play by Zebul. All the Shechemite lords who thought they were smart in switching their allegiance were killed by Abimelech, the very person they thought they could control. Next week, we will learn that Abimelech gets killed when he tries another power play to increase his influence by attacking another nearby town. He who lives by the sword dies by the sword. Nobody is spared in the end.
Here, I am not saying that all politics is bad, but we must be cautious not to fall into Machiavellianism. Machiavellianism is the employment of cunning and deception in governing a state or in general conduct. Machiavelli, according to the popular view, held that people were by nature untrustworthy, malevolent and self-serving, and thus those in power could only maintain their position through exploitative and deceitful actions. Is this the way we want to look at the world? In Deuteronomy it says that the king must “not consider himself better than his brothers and turn from the law to the right or to the left.” (Deut 17:20) Interesting! Fellow human beings are brothers, and not pawns to be manipulated. And the law is to guide us straight, and not for twisting to our advantage. To play politics is to allow politics to dominate in matters where principle should prevail. It is to say or do things for political reasons instead of doing what is right or what is best for other people. It is not politics that is wrong in itself but are we being honest in dealing with people and doing what is best for them? Many issues should be a matter of principle and not a matter of political power play. I think Pastor Daniel has largely spelt out the applications of what to do with power in his sermon last week and you can revise it again online.
But Daniel is a kind-hearted man who can bring you towards the light, but his gentle soul cannot fully imagine the horrors of darkness. Thankfully, I am a scheming crafty expert who has descended into the depths of hell and yet by the grace of God rose again to warn you of the dangers that lie ahead. Politics is unavoidable. Mahatma Gandhi said, “If I seem to take part in politics, it is only because politics encircles us today like the coil of a snake from which one cannot get out, no matter how much one tries. I wish therefore to wrestle with the snake.” I am not so naïve to think that we can do without politics, but I am idealistic enough to think that we can do without political play. There is a big difference here. The lesson from today’s passage is that “any leader who raises himself up through evil processes can expect that the Lord will eventually bring retribution. This may be much sooner than later, but whatever the case, it will take place.” This is the price you pay to play politics. Instead, we are called for a greater ideal. Reinhold Niebuhr says, “The sad duty of politics is to establish justice in a sinful world.” That is the Christian calling. When that is forsaken, “the Lord, who is blameless and always acts with utter integrity in his dealings with human beings, will raise up sovereign opposition to such individuals. As an adversary to the wicked, God raises up opponents.”
I would like to end with a harrowing image to fully describe the story today. In researching for the best possible translation for the phrase “live by the sword, die by the sword”, I came across a Chinese idiom. It’s literal meaning is to lick blood from the knife’s edge. 刀口舔血 This idiom is derived from how Chinese hunters capture wolves during winter. They plant very sharp blades in the snow dribbled with goat’s blood. A wolf attracted by the blood would lick the blood off the blade. In the process, the wolf unknowingly cuts its own tongue and its own blood now dribbles the blade. But the wolf continues to lick the blade enjoying the blood until it finally dies from hemorrhage and is captured by the hunter. That is the imagery of playing politics. We may enjoy the initial benefits in manipulating people to our advantage. But the game has its demands and we often must bleed to continue the process. After a while, we do not know if we are licking our own blood or the blood of others. By the time you realize that it is not you playing the game but the game playing you, it might be too late. And all who live by the sword will eventually die by the sword.