The four plants to which Jotham refers in his parable are spiritually significant. With Gods help we shall consider their distinctive features and endeavour to understand the divine message God brings to us through the narrative.
In Judges 6 we are told that the children of Israel did evil in the sight of the Lord (v.1). To punish the nation, the Lord allowed the people to be harassed by the Midianites for seven years. At the end of the period, the Lord raised up Gideon and made him a judge in Israel. The angel of the Lord had told Gideon he would be used to deliver Israel from the Midianites. Notwithstanding Gideons initial hesitancy, the Lord through him wrought a mighty victory. However, the nation attributed the victory to Gideon, rather than to the Lord who had safely brought them out of Egypt, had carried them for forty years through the wilderness, and had brought them into the Promised Land. Accordingly, their desire was to make Gideon their ruler and king. But Gideon said, "I will not rule over you, neither shall my son rule over you: the Lord shall rule over you" (Judg 8.23).
Jotham, Gideons youngest son who escaped the massacre of his 69 brothers by Abimelech (9.1-6), later returned to Mount Gerizim to tell out his prophetic parable under the guidance of the Lord. While the parable foretold the apostasy of the nation, Jotham himself represented a faithful remnant. The spiritual teaching of the parable not only has a serious lesson for us in respect of the exercise of gifts, but also carries a salutary warning for those who seek a name and power among the saints of God. Abimelech was Gideons son by one of his concubines and therefore a product of the flesh (8.31). He was a man devoid of godly principles, and in pursuing his selfish, personal ambition hired worthless and unimportant men of Shechem to commit a heinous crime to secure his anointing as king. The fall of those who unrighteously arrogate to themselves power and authority always comes in Gods time; in the case of Abimelech it was three years later. The spirit of dominance was an evil trait in the character of Abimelech. Let us not overlook the fact that the fall of Abimelech and the nation was occasioned by internecine conflict. Are we not ourselves witnessing the weakening and destruction of the Christian testimony - not by the world but through strife among the saints of God?
Let us, first, briefly highlight the spiritual significance of the plants referred to in Jothams parabolic message. The olive, fig, and vine trees chose rather to serve than to rule; and therein lies the key to a godly movement in the exercise of spiritual gifts today (Rom 12.6-8; 2 Cor 12.15). We should always be happy to acknowledge that in a company of Gods people there may be believers (brothers and sisters) with divine qualities typical of the nature and fruit of the olive, the fig, and the vine. May our gracious Lord help us to discern such gifts in the saints, and to nurture their exercise prayerfully. For so long as such gifts are discharged in the spirit of humility and dependence on the Lord the Abimelech disposition of domination will not appear.
The primary product of the olive is oil. The typical teaching of the oil is the outpouring of the Holy Spirit of God at Pentecost. A Christian believer, whose service reflects the characteristics of the rich fruit of the olive, would be one full of the spiritual fatness which honours God and man. Olive fruits are harvested by beating the trees. The harvesting would speak of the deep soul exercise which was a personal, unique, and daily experience of our blessed Lord, culminating in Gethsemanes garden. The oil-press, through which the olives were passed, typified the unparalleled crushing forces of Gods unmitigated judgment against sin which our Lord sustained throughout His atoning sufferings on the Cross. The end result of such divine bruising was the advent of the Holy Spirit fifty days after our Lords resurrection. The Holy Spirit of God now indwells every soul redeemed back to God by the blood of Christ (1 Jn 2.20). All the spiritual gifts bestowed on the Church should be exercised for the spiritual wellbeing of the assembly as a whole. One employing a spiritual gift under the guidance of the Holy Spirit would be a pillar of strength, a beacon of light, and a mainstay in an assembly; but the value of a gift that is used with a view to ruling the saints would be cancelled out.
Those exercising the spiritual qualities of the fig are enriched with the sweetness and goodness of the nature of God through Christ. The spiritual well-being of an assembly is greatly ameliorated by brothers and sisters who are daily sustained by the Word of God, and who can readily say with the Psalmist, "How sweet are thy words unto my taste! yea, sweeter than honey to my mouth!" (Ps 119.103; see also Jer 15.16). The practical righteousness and godly works of such brethren will, by the power of the Spirit, enrich and sustain the saints with the goodness of God, that goodness which first led us to repentance (Rom 2.4). Servants who are sustained by their own opinion, goodness, and works cannot possibly nourish the saints or convey to them "the fruit of the Spirit [which] is in all goodness and righteousness and truth" (Eph 5.9).
All the redeemed should witness to the possession of the fruit of the vine, fruit which ministers joy to cheer both God and man. Nevertheless, we greatly value those among us who from time to time are able to bring to the people of God spiritual comfort and joy in a very special and practical way. Saints who have readily accepted the chastening hand of the Lord, or have been sorely tried and battered by Satan while remaining faithful, will have experienced the preciousness of the in-pouring of the oil and the wine (Lk 10.34). Those who have endured trauma, and with the Lords help have come through triumphant, will most likely have a very special gift in caring for and comforting the saints. Such will also be able to say with the Apostle Paul, "I am exceeding joyful in all our tribulation" (2 Cor 7.4). Furthermore, the True Vine with the branches abiding in the stem speaks of the redeemed being in Christ and wholly sustained by all the fullness of God through Christ. The Father is glorified only when we bear much fruit (Jn 15.8).
Although the bramble typifies unregenerate man, features of the plant are sometimes seen in the saints of God. The bramble offers no service to, nor provision for the trees, but boasts of a false gift as it asks them to "trust in my shadow". One could not possibly safely shelter under such a tree; it is more likely to hurt, injure, and suppress rather than comfort, heal, and protect. A worthless plant, the ambition of the bramble was to dominate. If I strive to be someone of note among the saints of God it will show I am exercising a characteristic of the bramble (Lk 14.11; Rom 12.3).
To be continued.