Guest Writer Thomas DeWitt Talmage
“And Abimelech got up to Mount Zalmon” (Judges 9:48).
We read, “And Abimelech got up to Mount Zalmon, he and all the people that were with him, and Abimelech took an ax in his hand, and cut down a bough from the trees, and took it, and laid it on his shoulder …. And all the people likewise cut down every man his bough, and followed Abimelech, and put them to the hold, and set the hold on fire on them; so that all the men of the tower of Shechem died also, about a thousand men and women” (Judges 9:48, 49).
Abimelech is a name malodorous [bad odor] in Bible history, and yet full of profitable suggestion. Buoys are black and uncomely, but they tell where the rocks are. The snake’s rattle is hideous, but it gives timely warning. From the piazza of my summer home, night by night I saw a lighthouse fifteen miles away, not placed there for adornment, but to tell mariners to stand off from that dangerous point. So the iron-bound coast of moral danger is marked with Saul, Herod, Rehoboam, Jezebel, and Abimelech. These bad people are mentioned in the Bible, not only as warnings, but because there were sometimes flashes of good conduct in their lives worthy of imitation. God sometimes drives a straight nail with a poor hammer.
The city of Shechem had to be taken, and Abimelech and his men were to do it. I see the dust rolling up from their excited march. I hear the shouting of the captains and the yell of the besiegers. The swords clack sharply on the parrying shields, and the vociferation [shouting] of two armies in death-grapple is horrible to hear. The battle goes on all day, and as the sun is setting Abimelech and his army cry “Surrender!” to the beaten foe.
Unable longer to resist, the city of Shechem falls. There are pools of blood, severed limbs, glazed eyes pleading for mercy, and dying soldiers with their head on the lap of mother, wife, or sister, who have come out for the last offices of kindness and affection. A groan rolls across the city, stopping not, because there is no spot for it to rest, so full is the place of other groans. A city wounded! A city dying! A city dead! Wail for Shechem, all you who know the horrors of a sacked town!
As I look over the city, I can find only one building standing, and that is the temple of the god Berith. Some soldiers outside of the city, in a tower, finding that they can no longer defend Shechem, now begin to look out for their own personal safety, and they fly to this temple of Berith. Once inside the closed door, they think, “Now we are safe. Abimelech has taken the whole city, but he cannot take this temple of Berith. Here we shall be under the protection of the gods.”
O Berith, the god! do your best now for these refugees. If you have eyes, pity them. If you have hands, help them. If you have thunderbolts, strike for them.
But how shall Abimelech and his army take this temple of Berith and the men who are there fortified? Will they do it with sword? No. Will they do it with spear? No. With battering-ram, rolled up by hundred-armed strength, crashing against the walls? No. Abimelech marches his men to a wood in Zalmon. With his ax he hews off a limb of a tree, puts that limb on his own shoulder, and says to his men, “You do the same.” They are obedient to their commander.
Oh, what a strange army, with what strange equipment! When they come to the foot of the temple of Berith, Abimelech takes his limb of a tree and throws it down. The first platoon of soldiers come up and throw down their branches; the second platoon, and the third, until all around about the temple of Berith there is a pile of tree-branches. The Shechemites look out from the windows of the temple on what seems to them childish play on the part of their enemies.
But soon the flints are struck, the spark begins to kindle the brush, the flame ascends through the pile, the red elements leap to the casement, the woodwork begins to blaze, one arm of flame is thrown up on the right side of the temple, another arm of flame is thrown up on the left side of the temple, until they clasp their lurid palms under the wild night sky, and the cry of “Fire!” within, and “Fire!” without, announces the terror, the strangulation, the doom of the Shechemites, and the complete overthrow of the temple of the god Berith.
Then up comes a shout, long and loud, from the stout lungs and swarthy chests of Abimelech and his men, as they stand in the ashes and the dust, crying, “Victory! Victory!”
THE FOLLY OF STALE TACTICS
Now, I learn, first, from this subject the folly of depending on any one form of tactics in anything we have to do for this world or for God. Look over the weaponry of olden times—javelin, battle-ax, habergeon [coat of mail]—and show me a single weapon with which Abimelech and his men could have gained such complete victory. It is no easy thing to take a temple thus armed.
I saw a house where, during revolutionary times, a man and his wife, inside, kept back a whole regiment, outside, as hour after hour soldiers assaulted the place. Yet here Abimelech and his army come up, surround this temple, and capture it without the loss of a single man. Before the assault I suppose some of the old Israelite heroes had forewarned Abimelech: “You are only going up there to be cut to pieces.” Yet we are willing to testify today that by no other mode—certainly not by ordinary modes—could that temple so easily, so thoroughly have been taken.
We are apt to stick to the old modes of attack, but fathers and mothers, brothers and sisters in Jesus Christ, what the Church most needs to learn this day is that any plan is right, is lawful, is best that helps to overthrow the temple of sin and capture this world for God.
We put on the old-style coat of mail. We come up with the sharp, keen, glittering steel spear of argument, expecting in that way to take the castle, but they have a thousand spears where we have ten. And so the castle of sin stands. O my friends, we will never capture this world for God by any keen saber of sarcasm, by any glittering lance of rhetoric, by any sapping and mining of profound disquisition [elaborate words], by any gunpowdery explosion of indignation, by sharp shooting of wit, by howitzer of mental strength made to swing shell five miles, or by cavalry horses gorgeously caparisoned [adorned] pawing the air. In vain all the attempts on the part of these ecclesiastical foot soldiers, light horsemen, and grenadiers [grenade launchers].
My friends, I propose this morning a different style of tactics. Let each one go to the forest of God’s promise and invitation, hew down a branch, and put it on his shoulder, and let us all come around these obstinate iniquities; and then, with this pile, kindled by the fires of a holy zeal and the flames of a consecrated life, we will burn them out. What steel cannot do, fire may. And I, this morning, announce myself in favor of any plan of spiritual attack that succeeds—any plan of spiritual attack, however radical, however odd, however unpopular, however hostile to all the conventionalities of Church and State. We want more heart in our song, more heart in our almsgiving, more heart in our prayers, more heart in our preaching. Oh, for less of Abimelech’s sword and more of Abimelech’s conflagration!
I have often heard “There Is a Fountain Filled With Blood” sung artistically by four birds perched on their Sunday roost in the gallery, until I thought of Jenny Lind, Nilsson, Sontag, and all the other warblers; but there came not one tear to my eye, nor one emotion to my heart. But one night I went down to the African Methodist meetinghouse in Philadelphia, and at the close of the service a black woman, in the midst of the audience, began to sing that hymn, all the audience joined in, and we were floated some three or four miles nearer heaven than I have ever been since. I saw with my own eyes that “fountain filled with blood”—red, agonizing, sacrificial, redemptive—and I heard the crimson plash of the wave as we all went down under it:
For sinners plunged beneath that flood
Lose all their guilty stains. ~William Cowper (1772)
O my friends, the gospel is not a syllogism [formal reasoning]; it is not casuistry [clever reasoning], it is not polemics [criticism], or the science of squabble. It is blood-red fact; it is warm-hearted invitation; it is leaping, bounding, flying good news; it is efflorescent [blossoming] with light; it is rubescent [blushing] with glow; it is arborescent [leafy] with sweet shade!
I have seen the sun rise on Mount Washington, and from the Tiptop House; but there was no beauty in that compared with the “dayspring from on high” (Luke 1:78) when Christ gives light to a soul.
I have heard Parepa sing; but there was no music in that compared with the voice of Christ when He said, “Your sins are forgiven you” (Matthew 9:2). “Go in peace” (Mark 5:34). Good news!
Let everyone cut down a branch of this tree of life and wave it. Let him throw it down and kindle it. Let all the way from Mount Zalmon to Shechem be filled with the tossing joy. Good news!
This bonfire of the gospel shall consume the last temple of sin and will illumine the sky with apocalyptic joy that “Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners” (1 Timothy 1:15). Any new plan that makes a man quit his sin, and that prostrates a wrong, I am as much in favor of as though all the doctors, the bishops, the archbishops, the synods, and the academical gownsmen of Christianity sanctioned it. The temple of Berith must come down, and I do not care how it comes.
THE POWER OF EXAMPLE
Still further, I learn from this subject the power of example. If Abimelech had sat down on the grass and told his men to go and get the boughs, and go out to the battle, they would never have gone at all, or, if they had, it would have been without any spirit or effective result; but when Abimelech goes with his own ax and hews down a branch, and with Abimelech’s arm puts it on Abimelech’s shoulder, and marches on—then, my text says, all the people did the same. How natural that was!
What made Giuseppe Garibaldi and Stonewall Jackson the most magnetic commanders of this century? They always rode ahead. Oh, the overcoming power of example! Here is a father on the wrong road; all his boys go on the wrong road. Here is a father who enlists for Christ; his children enlist.
I saw, in some of the picture-galleries of Europe, that before many of the great works of the masters—the old masters—there would be sometimes four or five artists taking copies of the pictures. These copies they were going to carry with them, perhaps to distant lands; and I have thought that your life and character are a masterpiece, it is being copied [imitated]. Long after you are gone, it will bloom or blast in the homes of those who knew you, and be a Gorgon or a Madonna. Look out what you say. Look out what you do. Eternity will hear the echo. The best sermon ever preached is a holy life. The best music ever chanted is a consistent walk.
I saw, near the beach, a wrecker’s machine. It was a cylinder with some holes at the side, made for the thrusting in of some long poles with strong leverage; and when there is a vessel in trouble or going to pieces out in the offing, the wreckers shoot a rope out to the suffering men. They grasp it, the wreckers turn the cylinder, the rope winds around the cylinder, and those who are shipwrecked are saved. So at your feet today there is an influence with a tremendous leverage. The rope attached to it swings far out into the billowy future. Your children, your children’s children, and all the generations that are to follow, will grip that influence and feel the long-reaching pull long after the figures on your tombstone are so near worn out that the visitor can not tell whether it was in 1885, or 1775, or 1675 that you died.
THE ADVANTAGE OF CONCERTED ACTION
Still further, I learn from this subject the advantage of concerted action. If Abimelech had merely gone out with a tree-branch, the work would not have been accomplished; or if ten, twenty, or thirty men had gone. But when all the axes are lifted, all the sharp edges fall, and all these men each carry his tree-branch down and throw it about the temple, the victory is gained—the temple falls. My friends, where there is one man in the Church of God at this day shouldering his whole duty, there are a great many who never lift an ax or swing a blow.
Oh, we all want our boat to get over to the golden sands, but most of us are seated either in the prow or in the stern, wrapped in our striped shawl, holding a big-handled sunshade, while others are blistered in the heat, and pull until the oar-locks groan, and the blades bend till they snap. O spiritual sleepy-heads, wake up! While we have in our church a great many who are toiling for God, there are some too lazy to brush the flies off their heavy eyelids.
Suppose, in military circles, on the morning of battle the roll is called, and out of a thousand men only a hundred men answer. What excitement there would be in the camp! What would the colonel say? What high talking there would be among the captains, majors, and adjutants!
Suppose word came to headquarters that these delinquents excused themselves on the ground that they had overslept, or that the morning was damp and they were afraid of getting their feet wet, or that they were busy cooking rations.
My friends, this is the morning of the day of God Almighty’s battle! Do you not see the troops? Hear you not all the trumpets of heaven and all the drums of hell? Which side are you on? If you are on the right side, to what cavalry troop, to what artillery service, to what garrison duty do you belong? In other words, in what Sabbath school do you teach? in what prayer meeting do you exhort? to what penitentiary do you declare eternal liberty? to what almshouse do you announce the riches of heaven? What broken bone of sorrow have you ever set? Are you doing nothing? Is it possible that a man or woman sworn to be a follower of the Lord Jesus Christ is doing nothing!
Then hide the horrible secret from the angels. Keep it away from the book of Judgement. If you are doing nothing, do not let the world find it out, lest they charge your faith with being a false-face. Do not let your cowardice and treason be heard among the martyrs about the throne, lest they forget the sanctity of the place and curse your betrayal of that cause for which they agonized and died.
May the eternal God rouse us all to action! As for myself, I feel I would be ashamed to die now and enter heaven until I have accomplished something more decisive for the Lord that bought me. I would like to join with you in an oath, with hand high uplifted to heaven, swearing new allegiance to Jesus Christ, and to work more for His kingdom. Are you ready to join with me in some new work for Christ? I feel that there is such a thing as claustral [cloister] piety, that there is such a thing as insular work; but it seems to me that what we want now is concerted action.
The temple of Berith is broad and high. It has been going up by the hands of men and devils, and no human enginery [machinery] can demolish it. But if the fifty thousand ministers of Christ in this country should each take a branch of the tree of life, and all their congregations should do the same, and we should march on and throw these branches around the great temples of sin, worldliness, and folly, it would need no match, coal, or torch of ours to touch off the pile; for, as in the days of Elijah (1 Kings 18), fire would fall from heaven and kindle the bonfire of Christian victory over demolished sin. It is kindling now! Huzzah! [Hurrah!] The day is ours!
THE DANGER OF FALSE REFUGES
Still further, I learn from this subject the danger of false refuges. As soon as these Shechemites shut themselves up in the temple, they thought they were safe. They said, “Berith will take care of us. Abimelech may batter down everything else; he cannot batter down this temple where we are now hid.” But soon they heard the timbers crackling, they were smothered with smoke, and they miserably died.
And you and I are just as much tempted by false refuges. The mirror this morning may have persuaded you that you have a comely cheek; your best friends may have persuaded you that you have elegant manners. Satan may have told you that you are all right; but bear with me if I tell you that, if unpardoned, you are all wrong. I have no clinometer [gauge] by which to measure how steep is the inclined plane you are descending, but I know it is steep.
“Well,” you say, “if the Bible is true I am a sinner. Show me some refuge; I will step right into it.”
I suppose every person in this audience this moment is stepping into some kind of refuge. Here you step in the tower of good works. You say, “I shall be safe here in this refuge.” The battlements are adorned; the steps are varnished; on the wall are pictures of all the suffering you have alleviated, all the schools you have established, and all the fine things you have ever done. Up in that tower you feel you are safe. But hear you not the tramp of your unpardoned sins all around the tower? They each have a match. They are kindling the combustible material. You feel the heat and the suffocation. Oh, may you leap in time, the gospel declaring, “By the works of the law shall no flesh living be justified” (Galatians 2:16).
“Well,” you say, “I have been driven out of that tower. Where shall I go?” Step into this tower of indifference. You say, “If this tower is attacked, it will be a great while before it is taken.” You feel at ease. But there is an Abimelech, with ruthless assaults, coming on. Death and his forces are gathering around. They demand that you surrender everything. They clamor for your immortal overthrow. They throw their skeleton arms in the windows, and with their iron fists they beat against the door; and while you are trying to keep them out, you see the torches of judgment kindling. Every forest is a torch, every mountain a torch, and every sea a torch; and while the Alps, the Pyrenees, and the Himalayas turn into a live coal, blown redder and redder by the whirlwind breath of a God omnipotent, what will become of your refuge of lies?
“But,” says someone, “you are engaged in a very mean business, driving us from tower to tower.”
Oh, no. I want to tell you of a Gibraltar that never has been and never will be taken, of a wall that no satanic assault can scale, of a bulwark that the Judgement earthquakes cannot budge. The Bible refers to it when it says, “In God is your refuge, and underneath are the everlasting arms” (Deuteronomy 33:27).
Oh, fling yourself into it! Tread down unceremoniously everything that intercepts you. Wedge your way there. There are enough hounds of death and peril after you to make you hurry. Many a man has perished just outside the tower, with his foot on the step, with his hand on the latch. Oh, get inside! Not one surplus second have you to spare. Quick, quick, quick!
Great God, is life such an uncertain thing? If I bear a little too hard with my right foot on the earth, does it break through into the grave? Is this world, which swings at the speed of thousands of miles an hour around the sun, going with tenfold more speed toward the Judgement Day? Oh, I am overborne with the thought; and in the conclusion I cry to one and I cry to the other: “O Time! O Eternity! Oh, the dead! Oh, the Judgement Day! O Jesus! O God!”
But, catching at the last apostrophe, I feel that I have something to hold on to: for “in God is your refuge, and underneath are the everlasting arms.” And exhausted with my failure to save myself, I throw my whole weight of body, mind, and soul on this divine promise, as a weary child throws itself into the arms of its mother; as a wounded soldier throws himself on the hospital pillow; as a pursued man throws himself into the refuge; for “in God is your refuge, and underneath are the everlasting arms.” Oh, for a flood of tears with which to express the joy of this eternal rescue!
“When my heart is overwhelmed, lead me to the Rock that is higher than I, for You have been a shelter for me, and a strong tower from the enemy” (Psalm 61:2, 3).
Copyright © 2014 Alexandra Lee
Photo Credit: St Patricks Cathedral (Easter 1910)
Featured for this series are photographs of old New York.
*Adapted from “Stormed and Taken,” Thomas DeWitt Talmage [1832-1902], New Tabernacle Sermons Vol I (New York: George Munro, 1886). Quotes, scriptural locations, photos, links, emendations added.