THE PARABLE OF THE TREES
A Sermon by Rev. Kurt Horigan AsplundhPreached in Bryn AthynFebruary 5, 1995
“And the bramble said to the trees, 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!'” (Judges 9:15).
This text is from the parable of the trees which we find in the book of Judges. Hidden in its words is the spiritual law that evil brings its own evil consequences. It is ever the case that to trust in the shadow of a bramble puts you in danger of a consuming fire. To follow unjust expediency brings later regret. To break the commandments for selfish gain brings eternal condemnation.
In considering a text from the book of Judges we are considering a troubled period in the history of Israel. The great leaders Moses and Joshua were dead, and the kingdom had not yet been established. So we read in the book itself: “In those days there was no king in Israel; everyone did what was right in his own eyes” (Judges 21:25). In other words, people took the law into their own hands to gain their ends.
Such was the case with Abimelech, son of Gideon. You will remember Gideon, the heroic but humble judge who was called by the Lord to save Israel from Midianite oppression. With a carefully chosen band of only 300 men, Gideon surprised the Midianite forces and drove them out. After this decisive victory the people had wanted to proclaim Gideon king of Israel, but he refused: “I will not rule over you, nor shall my son rule over you; the Lord shall rule over you” ( Judges 8:23).
The humility of Gideon did not pass to his son Abimelech, born of a concubine in Shechem. Abimelech sought a kingdom for himself. Not only did he go against his father’s will by seeking to rule over Israel; he achieved his end by the treacherous murder of the other seventy sons of Gideon, his brothers. Abimelech wanted no rival to his ambition.
But Abimelech did not succeed in killing all of Gideon’s sons. Jotham, the youngest, had hidden himself from the murderers and lived. Later, when the Shechemites had proclaimed Abimelech their king, he appeared before them on the top of Mount Gerizim, overlooking the city. From this mountain where Joshua had gathered the tribes in an earlier generation to read aloud all the laws and statutes of Israel, Jotham spoke his parable of the trees. His lightly veiled words about the bramble were directed against Abimelech.
It was well known that a parable is a story with a message, and the message was clear to the men of Shechem who had conspired with Abimelech. They were the trees who sought for a king. They were in danger of fire from the bramble. The good trees, such as the olive, fig and vine, who refused to rule, were the good men like Gideon who refused the kingdom. The bramble which chokes the trees with its embrace symbolized Abimelech who sought glory and honor for himself at the expense of others. The parable was a prophecy of the tragic result of self-will and greed. This prophecy was fulfilled after three years. The people of Shechem, then disenchanted with Abimelech, rebelled against him. In the battles which followed, Abimelech destroyed the people and the city of Shechem, and burned the tower of Shechem with fire before he himself was mortally hurt.
So ends a dark chapter in the history of Israel. The important thing that remains from this episode is Jotham’s parable. This parable, which had immediate application then, contains eternal truth of universal application. In the incident of Abimelech, blame could be placed on the men of Shechem as well as on him, for they had agreed to his treachery and were a party to it. Evil returns its just reward on all who co-operate in it. Do you see a lesson in this parable for yourself? Whenever you support or allow injustice or lawlessness in hope of some favor or benefit, you are like the people of Shechem and must pay the price.
The doctrine of the church teaches that the parables of Scripture are more than moral fables. They have more than a simple general lesson to teach us here, for example, that evil brings its own reward. This is true enough but, in addition, the parables carry an inner correspondential message related to spiritual life. It is the purpose of the Heavenly Doctrine, now revealed for the New Church, to disclose these inner principles of spiritual law for you to see and apply. We now turn to this exposition of Jotham’s parable.
Trees are mentioned throughout the Word from beginning to end, from trees in the garden of Eden to the tree of life described by John in the midst of the Holy City New Jerusalem. The Heavenly Doctrine teaches that “man himself, in all that belongs to him, is like a tree” (TCR 374). This is indicated where we read of the man who trusts in the Lord being “like a tree planted by the waters” (Jer. 17:8 and in other places).
Noble fruit trees signify the useful and productive qualities of mankind; lofty cedars signify the intellectual and rational abilities which build the framework and structure of true thought. Thorn bushes, on the other hand, and trees with poisonous fruit signify those in falsity and evil. These correspondential representations give new meaning to Jotham’s parable.
Specifically, we are taught that the olive tree of the parable signifies a celestial or heavenly goodness; the vine, true principles of that good. The fig signifies a more external goodness or morality of life, whereas the bramble or thorn signifies a life of apparent or “spurious” good which is based on false principles. The fire from the bramble signifies the evil of lust that flares up when its longings are opposed; and the cedars of Lebanon which this fire devours are rational truths, the landmarks of a good life (see AE 638c). The parable describes a state of life in you when you are unwilling to be led by heavenly good, spiritual principles, or even moral principles. You choose instead, “spurious” good in preference to these (AC 9277:4).
What is this “spurious” good that was chosen over other goods and is symbolized by the bramble? It is that which appears to others as good but is, in reality, self-seeking. Those are in spurious good, we are told, who are “in good as to life, and in falsities as to doctrine” (AR 97). “If . . . there are falsities instead of truths with man,” the doctrine states, “then he does the good of falsity, which is not good . . . . ” The doctrine adds examples. Here is one: “He who is in this falsity, that he can do good which is in itself good without a knowledge of what evil is in himself, thus without repentance, although he appears to do good, yet he does not do good, because without repentance he is in evil.” Here is another: “He who is in this falsity, that good purifies him from evils, and does not know anything of the evils in which he is, does no other good than spurious good, which is inwardly contaminated by his evils” (AR 97).
Spurious good is also illustrated by Abimelech’s appeal to the self-interest of the people of Shechem. He made it appear to them that they would benefit from his rule, being kinsmen. However, this apparent advantage springs only from the falsity that a king is above the law of the land, that he can exercise favoritism instead of justice in his administration. The fact is, if he acts in this way his kingdom must eventually suffer for it. So the Writings of the church teach that the king “who regards himself as above the laws . . . is not wise” (AC 10803). Abimelech was not wise.
Genuine good, in contrast to spurious good, is from the Lord. It is not directed by false principles but is exercised by those who place the Lord’s laws above their own interests, who direct their lives according to His commandments. The life and delight of this goodness is found in uses and service to the Lord and the neighbor rather than to self. This is expressed in the parable by the answers of the other trees: “Should I cease giving my oil, with which they honor God and men, and go to sway over trees?” said the olive. “Should I cease my sweetness and my good fruit, and go to sway over trees?” said the fig. “Should I cease my new wine, which cheers both God and men, and go to sway over trees?” said the vine (Judges 9:9-13). These answers show the superiority of the life of use to the life of dominion or self-love.
But how often do you choose a spurious good over a genuine good? How often, in the pursuit of what seems good to you, do you forsake the oil of love and the sweetness of bearing useful fruit and put your trust instead in the shadow of an evil lust?
The consequence of this is told in the parable. Fire comes from the bramble to devour the cedars of Lebanon. This destructive fire is the ardent desire of every evil love. When you want your own way over the Lord’s way, self-love burns with hatred against any obstacle. Fire erupts to destroy whatever stands in the way. But as you allow that fire to burn, it also consumes something in you, the lofty “cedars of Lebanon.”
These stately trees, whose valuable wood was used for pillars and beams in the construction of Solomon’s temple, have a noble significance. We are told they signify “things rational which are from truths” (AE 683c). Such rational things ought to form the framework of your thought and action. Think of them as principles of life and action which you have learned from the Word and built into your daily life. These are what you stand to lose when you allow spurious goods to rule your life. It is inevitable that undisciplined self-love destroys the uniquely human qualities of wisdom and rationality. These stand in the way of all selfish interests. They are incompatible with spurious good. So long as you place trust in yourself and pursue questionable ambitions in life, you risk the threat of Jotham’s parable of the fire that will come out of the bramble to devour the cedars of Lebanon.
The offenders of Israel in this case were the inhabitants of Shechem. Let us consider, for a moment, the historical place of this city. It too carries a significance which is relevant to our concern. Shechem was an important city in central Canaan. Here ancient worship had flourished long before the time of Abraham and Israel. The Writings reveal that the church there, as well as in other places in the land, was in spiritual light. Shechem signifies, we are told, “interior truths,” the “first of light” in the mind, and “the truth of the church from ancient time” (AC 1441, 4430, 4433).
So when the Lord called Abram to the land of Canaan that he might build a church from his descendants, Shechem was the first place to which he came, and the first where he built an altar to the Lord. Later, it was appropriate that Shechem was assigned to the priests and made a city of refuge in the land. Representing, as it did, interior truths and doctrines, it was there that the true nature of a fugitive’s motives could be judged when he sought refuge after an accidental homicide. In this place too Joshua had stood many years before and made Israel swear to their covenant with the Lord that they would not worship false gods. You can see, then, how much the people of Shechem had to lose by swearing allegiance to Abimelech. From ancient times they had a precious heritage of spiritual light which they now chose to put in shadow. They fell from wisdom in making Abimelech their king.
Truly, those who are of the New Church are people of Shechem above others. The New Church has been given a precious heritage of “interior truth” now opened and revealed in the spiritual sense of the Word. The New Church too is a place of refuge for all who seek peace from the evil of falsity. It is a city of priests apostles of the new Gospel. You who are of this church can serve to teach and lead others to the New Jerusalem where all things of life are to be made new. Therefore, those of the New Church especially must heed the parable of the trees. Those of the New Church especially must beware the devouring flames of the evils of self-will. For these will destroy the rational things of the church which are so precious, so vital, and so rare today.
The hope of the church, and the hope for a new age of religion, is in the preservation and increase of these rational things which are from truths. It is only by means of these that the human race can be saved. ” . . . for unless there are internal things within external ones, that is, unless men think of internal things when they are in external ones, and unless they are at the same time affected by the internal things . . . there is not anything of the church. For internal things make the church, because in these is the Lord; [and] . . . in these are the spiritual and celestial things which are from Him” (AC 4433).
It is only by rational things which are from truths given by the Lord that you can see the nature and threat of spurious good and have the doctrinal basis with which the angels of heaven can be with you to curb your evil desires. We live in a world full of the likes of Abimelech. More to the point, the ambitions and evils of Abimelech live in you. These can be countered by no other means than by rational principles derived from the Word. Do not, like the people of Shechem, bargain away the heritage of truth that is your only true defense.
Whenever you reject the tempting call of Abimelech, the bramble, then new principles of life may be implanted by the Lord. The cedars of Lebanon will remain as silent sentinels against every false promise of hell.
It is said of the Lord, “He causes the grass to grow for the cattle, and vegetation for the service of man, that he may bring forth food from the earth, and wine that makes glad the heart of man, oil to make his face shine, and bread which strengthens man’s heart. The trees of the Lord are full of sap,” we are told, “the cedars of Lebanon which He planted . . . ” (Psalm 104:14-16, 35b).
This picture of fruitfulness in the Word is a parable of spiritual fruitfulness that stands in contrast to the sad parable of Jotham, the bereaved son of Gideon. So it is, where evils are shunned and goods and truths are loved, there will be the fruitfulness of eternal blessing. We give thanks to the Lord for His spiritual blessing. “O Lord, how manifold are Your works! In wisdom You have made them all. The earth is full of Your riches. Bless the Lord, O my soul! Praise the Lord!” (Psalm 104:24, 35). Amen.
Lessons: Judges 9:1-15, 22, 23, 47-57; Luke 6:43-45; AC 9277:4
Arcana Coelestia 9277:4
. . . what these things specifically involve cannot be known unless it is known what is signified by “the olive-tree,” “the fig-tree,” “the vine,” and “the bramble.” “The olive-tree” signifies the internal good of the celestial church, “the fig-tree,” the external good of that church (n. 4231, 5113); “the vine,” the good of the spiritual church; but “the bramble” signifies spurious good. These words therefore involve that the people who are here meant by the trees were not willing that either celestial good or spiritual good should reign over them, but spurious good, and that they chose this in preference to the other goods. “Fire out of the bramble” signifies the evil of concupiscence; “the cedars of Lebanon that it would consume” signify the truths of good.