Once the trees went forth to anoint a king over them, and they said to the olive tree, ‘Reign over us!’ 9 But the olive tree said to them, ‘Shall I leave my fatness with which God and men are honored, and go to wave over the trees?’ (Judges 9:8-9 NASB)
There is a simple answer to the question posed in the title. I want to be great and useful. But if you had to choose one, which would it be?
The context for the scriptural passage is as follows. Abimelech, the son of Gideon’s concubine, has through self-promotion and manipulation become the King in Shechem of Israel. He found worthless mercenaries to be his followers. They traveled to the house where Gideon had lived in Ophrah and killed all of Gideon’s seventy son’s, save the youngest, Jotham. When Jotham returned and learned of slaughter he climbs to Mt. Gerizim and cries out a fable, a story where plants and animals take on human characteristics to teach a moral lesson.
The story went something like this. The trees ventured out to find a king. The olive tree along with the fig tree and grapevine were the three main characters. They were valuable to the economy and added beauty of this area. Reign over us, olive, fig, vine plants. But they refused, choosing to be useful rather than just to exercise authority. Finally, the same question is put to the bramble (thorn bush) (v.14); reign over us. The bramble bush replied, come and take refuse in my shade. Bramble was neither useful nor beautiful, but accepted their offer and promised to provide what it did not possess, protection from the desert sun.
Jotham was drawing a comparison between the character of Gideon and that of Abimelech. Gideon, when asked to rule over Israel, refused the offer. “I shall nor rule over you, nor shall my son rule over you; the LORD will rule over you” (Judges 6:23 NASB). Gideon could serve better as a judge rather than a king. The Lord was their King. He chose to be useful not just great. Abimelech, on the other hand, though not useful or fruitful sill lusted after greatness. It has been said, if your find people looking for authority give them responsibility. If you find someone looking for responsibility give him or her authority.
I am not suggesting that you cannot be great and useful. You can serve by leading, as many a pastor or spiritual leader does every day. But I do submit to you that godly leadership will involve the relinquishment of many private interests and advantages for the good of those who they serve. And a thorn bush is ill prepared and motivated to make these types of sacrifices.
Ken Barnes, the author of “The Chicken Farm and Other Sacred Places” YWAM Publishing