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Jephthah- Judges 11-12:7

(Given at Campus Outreach Samford 1/30/13)


If you haven’t been around these last few weeks, we’ve been exploring the Book of Judges, which is famous for its gore, intrigue, and fallible quasi-heroes. Thus far, we’ve examined the lives of Ehud, Deborah, and Gideon. This week, we’re going to look at the questionable character of the pirate king Jephthah.

“To say that these heroes had some measure of faith is not to say that they were consistent models of faith and virtue. Undoubtedly they demonstrated faith (at times) that allowed God to ‘conquer kingdoms’ through them, but just as surely, the book of Judges focuses more on other aspects of their character to make a point about the widespread apostasy during the period. But despite their flaws, the judges often acted heroically. The book of Judges does not exaggerate or romanticize their exploits. These stories are not primarily about the judges as individuals: the judges’ main function is to dispense God’s justice and merciful faithfulness to his people, usually by military deliverance. All servants of God’s purposes for his people have their flaws; the question is whether God should choose to allow those flaws to bear their bitter fruit. Even in these circumstances, God is working out his plan; he is not thwarted, even by human failure.” –ESV Study Bible

As we’ve read Judges, we’ve seen a pattern of ABC’s emerge again & again. What are the ABC’s you ask? Well, if you don’t know those, I’m not sure that anyone here can help you.

A. Apostasy– Basically this is a fancy theological word for abandoning God & turning to other gods, which Israel does again & again.

B. Bondage– God, disciplining his children, puts them in bondage to another nation to wake them up to the horror of their sin

Our background tonight is found in Judges 10:6, “The people of Israel again did what was evil in the sight of the Lord & served other gods.”

10:7- God’s anger was kindled against them & he “sold” them into the hand of the Philistines & the Ammonites

“Every time Israel worshipped the idols of a nation, that nation ended up oppressing them. In this passage, we read in v.6 that they ‘served… the gods of the Ammonites, and the gods of the Philistines’ and then in consequence, v.7 they were ‘sold… into the hands of the Philistines and the Ammonites.’ So idolatry leads to enslavement… God says, ‘If you want to live for money, instead of for me, then money will rule your life. It will control your heart and emotions. If you want to live for popularity instead of for me, then popular acclaim will rule and control you. If you want another god besides me — go ahead. Let’s see how merciful it is to you, how effective it is in saving and guiding and enlightening you.’ So to be ‘sold’ means to be ‘owned’ by the things that you make more important than God” –Tim Keller

C. Cry– The people cry out to the Lord their God & ask for forgiveness

10:10-“The people of Israel cried out to the Lord, saying, ‘We have sinned against you, because we have forsaken our God.”

D. Deliverance– God sends a deliverer, a savior to rescue his people from their oppression

Here God hears their cry and mockingly asks them, “Why don’t you call out to your gods to save you?” Israel confesses their errors, puts away their idols, and says, “Even if you don’t deliver us, we know that you are God.” This shows that they were going beneath the surface to change their hearts, not just change their superficial behavior.

Judges shows that the Israelites often changed their behavior in order to curry favor with the Lord, but they kept their idols in their homes, as “insurance.” But repentance gets beneath the surface. It does not just focus on behavior but on motives… So the two signs of real repentance are 1) a sorrow for sin, rather than just for consequences, and 2) a sorrow over idolatrous motives, not just behavioral change.” –Tim Keller

E. Ease– What I really want to say here is “peace,” but I couldn’t think of an “e” synonym, but I think “ease” works, because their security leads to their inevitable return to sin.

The Meat

Now we come to Jephthah:

“[1] Now Jephthah the Gileadite was a mighty warrior, but he was the son of a prostitute. Gilead was the father of Jephthah. [2] And Gilead’s wife also bore him sons. And when his wife’s sons grew up, they drove Jephthah out and said to him, ‘You shall not have an inheritance in our father’s house, for you are the son of another woman.’ [3] Then Jephthah fled from his brothers and lived in the land of Tob, and worthless fellows collected around Jephthah and went out with him” (Judges 11:1-3).

Jephthah was a mighty warrior, but he was the son of a prostitute & a man named Gilead. He grew up around his half-brothers, but they despised him, kicking him out before he could have an inheritance. He fled & “worthless fellows collected around Jephthah and went out with him.” He attracted, as the NIV says, a “gang of scoundrels.” In other words, Jephthah was involved in organized crime, a kind of Godfather or Sopranos underworld boss. You could think of him essentially as a pirate who’d been driven into a life of crime. He was a complete outcast and a criminal from a broken home.

“[4] After a time the Ammonites made war against Israel. [5] And when the Ammonites made war against Israel, the elders of Gilead went to bring Jephthah from the land of Tob. [6] And they said to Jephthah, “Come and be our leader, that we may fight against the Ammonites.”

-These very same men who had rejected Jephthah now realize their deep need for him. And they beg him for mercy. Now notice, where does this call come from: God or men? It comes from men. This does not bode well for either Israel or Jephthah. Jephthah is never declared to have been “raised up” as a deliverer like the others we’ve studied.

[7] But Jephthah said to the elders of Gilead, “Did you not hate me and drive me out of my father’s house? Why have you come to me now when you are in distress?” [8] And the elders of Gilead said to Jephthah, “That is why we have turned to you now, that you may go with us and fight against the Ammonites and be our head over all the inhabitants of Gilead.” [9] Jephthah said to the elders of Gilead, “If you bring me home again to fight against the Ammonites, and the LORD gives them over to me, I will be your head.” [10] And the elders of Gilead said to Jephthah, “The LORD will be witness between us, if we do not do as you say.” [11] So Jephthah went with the elders of Gilead, and the people made him head and leader over them. And Jephthah spoke all his words before the LORD at Mizpah” (Judges 11:4-11)

Now Jephthah agrees to deliver his people after they have committed to let him rule over them.

The Spirit of the Lord comes upon Jephthah (11:29) to empower him for the battle, but Jephthah makes a tragic, rash vow that will define the rest of his life: “If you will give the Ammonites into my hand, then whatever comes out from the doors my house to meet me when I return… shall be the Lord’s, and I will offer it up for a burnt offering” (11:30-32).

This is a most vivid and horrible example of how believers can profess faith in God and hold on to some truth, yet let the world “squeeze them into its mold.” Jephthah had seen how the other “gods” around operated- they gave you what you want if you give them what they want. He’s basically following the patterns of the men around him, saying, “God, if you grant me victory in battle today, I’ll pay you back with a sacrifice.” This is how you buy off a pagan god. How often do we let our culture’s attitudes shape our beliefs and actions more than we let God shape us? How much are our attitudes towards what is acceptable & what is good shaped by what the world says? And Jephthah here falls into a terrible trap.

Jephthah crushes the Ammonites because “the Lord gave them into his hand” (32). 

“[33] And he struck them from Aroer to the neighborhood of Minnith, twenty cities, and as far as Abel-keramim, with a great blow. So the Ammonites were subdued before the people of Israel. 

[34] Then Jephthah came to his home at Mizpah. And behold, his daughter came out to meet him with tambourines and with dances. She was his only child; besides her he had neither son nor daughter. [35] And as soon as he saw her, he tore his clothes and said, “Alas, my daughter! You have brought me very low, and you have become the cause of great trouble to me. For I have opened my mouth to the LORD, and I cannot take back my vow.” [36] And she said to him, “My father, you have opened your mouth to the LORD; do to me according to what has gone out of your mouth, now that the LORD has avenged you on your enemies, on the Ammonites.” [37] So she said to her father, “Let this thing be done for me: leave me alone two months, that I may go up and down on the mountains and weep for my virginity, I and my companions.” [38] So he said, “Go.” Then he sent her away for two months, and she departed, she and her companions, and wept for her virginity on the mountains. [39] And at the end of two months, she returned to her father, who did with her according to his vow that he had made. She had never known a man, and it became a custom in Israel [40] that the daughters of Israel went year by year to lament the daughter of Jephthah the Gileadite four days in the year. 

-Judges 11:33-40

Jephthah’s daughter comes out to meet him & he realizes the tragedy of his vow. He tells his daughter that he cannot take it back now, because he has opened his mouth to the Lord. Here’s the thing: Leviticus 22:19 tells us that an acceptable sacrifice had to be a male without blemish. Now, vows were meant to be kept, but any vow that would end in sin was not binding, since keeping it could not please God. As Leviticus 5:4-6 says, “If anyone utters with his lips a rash oath to do evil… when he comes to know it, and he realizes his guilt… and confesses the sin he has committed, he shall bring to the Lord… a sin offering.”

But Judges 11:36-40 tells us that Jephthah and his daughter seem to go through with his tragic vow, most likely meaning that she was killed as a burnt offering (though some interpreters say that she was dedicated to perpetual virginity, which is why they think that phrase is repeated here). Either way, this is an absolutely horrible tragedy.

Here’s why I think it’s the worse of the two: The text could in 11:30-32 could rightly read, “Whatever or whoever comes out.” The wording “whatever” here, seems to indicate that Jephthah is intending sacrificing an animal here. Many people believe that he was expecting an animal to come out and meet him, but there are several reasons why this is unlikely. First, it’s unlikely he had animals roaming around in his house that would come out at his arrival. Secondly, and more importantly, if he had simply promised God an animal, then when his daughter came through the doors, he never would’ve conceived the promise to be binding to her. No, the grammar here allows for “whatever” to also be “whoever,” which would mean that Jephthah would be intending a human sacrifice here. Also, if she’d been sentenced to a single life, she wouldn’t have needed these two months, because her whole life was ahead of her.

But here’s the bigger question, why would he keep such a terrible vow? It seems that he has no concept of a God of grace. Jephthah has never been shown any kind of grace or favor from another human, so perhaps he cannot imagine that God would be forgiving. He doesn’t trust God- which is why He made the vow in the first place. Now, he’s thinking, “If this is whom God brought forth from my house, this is whom God has claimed. I must go through with it. It is better to kill my daughter than to break my vow. God is to be blamed, since He brought her out.” And so, mournfully, regrettably, this is what he does.

I feel I must assure you that this is most assuredly not what God would have wanted. Why? God’s will never leads us to contradict His Word. And Jephthah, it seems, never gets over this tragedy. He is a faithful judge over Israel for six more years, presiding over a civil war, before he dies & is buried in Gilead.

What can we learn?

1.    God uses our circumstances to prepare us to be used for his glory.

Just like with Ehud, Deborah, & Gideon, Jephthah’s unfortunate past prepared him to be used by God. Because of his suffering, he became a resourceful warrior & a great leader. If he’d lived a comfortable life, who knows how he would’ve turned out?

“One would not have thought this abandoned youth was intended to be Israel’s deliverer and judge, but God often humbles those whom he designs to exalt, and makes that stone the head of the corner which the builders refused; so Joseph, Moses, and David, the three most eminent of the shepherds of Israel, were all thrust out by men, before they were called of God to their great offices… If Jephthah had not been put to his shifts by his brethren’s unkindness, he would not have had such occasion as this gave him to exercise and improve his martial genius, and so to signalize himself and become famous.” –Matthew Henry

2.    Our tongues can do great damage.

We should be wise in how we speak, because the tongue is a fire, James tells us. Our words are to be the aroma of Christ, encouraging to believer & challenging to unbelievers. Jephthah’s foolish words, spoken in the presence of others, led to the death of his daughter.

3.    Sin splatters.

Your sin never affects just you. All our sin splatters & deeply affects all those around us. This should also remind us that just because God is using us doesn’t mean that we aren’t prone to deep sin or failure.

4.    When you try to “buy” salvation, it costs you something & gains you nothing.

God will not be manipulated or mocked. When we try to manipulate God, he ceases to be God to us & becomes a means to an end. What did Jephthah really want? It seems that he wanted victory at any cost. Why? To prove to the people of Gilead that he was worthy? To gain their acceptance? To take pride in his might? We can’t know for sure, but it’s clear that, more than wanting God- the only true source of life, hope, peace, & joy- Jephthah wanted victory. He got it, but it did not satisfy; it left him broken. So it is with all our “counterfeit” gods.

5.    God is always in control, working out His purposes.

Philippians 4:6-7 tells us, “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. [7] And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”

We grow anxious & full of fear because we forget that God is sovereign, good, or gracious. Praise the Lord that He is all of these things! If He was willing to sacrifice His own Son to bring us to God- we who were His enemies- why would we begin to think that He would not do whatever it takes to sanctify us & present us blameless before Him? If He takes care of the sparrows & lilies, how much more will He take care of us! It is His good pleasure to give us the Kingdom!

Jephthah lost sight of this as He made His vow. He’d forgotten that following Yahweh was not like following other gods. Our God loves us in spite of what we bring to the table, not because of it. He has chosen to love us & act for our good simply because He wanted to.

6.    God’s Will Will Never Contradict God’s Word

We spend so much time trying to decipher God’s will for our lives, when so much of His will is right before us in His word. If we would just read it, memorize it, meditate on it, and let it speak into every area of our lives, following Him in the little things, He would lead us in the big things.

Jephthah should’ve known that it was not God’s will for Him to sacrifice His daughter, because the Bible forbade it & even offered Him a way out from His foolish vow. He just simply didn’t take it.

7.    Even Jephthah can point us to Christ.

The Bible, from beginning to end, is meant to point us to Christ’s life, death, resurrection, ascension, and second coming. And I know this begins to feel like a stretch, but remember that Jephthah is mentioned in Hebrews 11 in the “Hall of Faith.”

“[32] And what more shall I say? For time would fail me to tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets—[33] who through faith conquered kingdoms, enforced justice, obtained promises, stopped the mouths of lions, [34] quenched the power of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, were made strong out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight.” -Hebrews 11:32-34 

First, there’s a strong similarity between Judges 10, where the people beg God for a deliverer, and Judges 11, where the people beg Jephthah to be their deliverer. They had thrust out God through their idolatries, yet in their distress, they beg for His help. God told them how He would be justified in rejecting them, they put away their idols & declare that God should rule them. God, then, graciously acts on their behalf. So too with Jephthah.

Jephthah was “despised and rejected” by his people. They had “hated” and “driven him out” (v.7). No one expected this man to be a deliverer. But he arose on behalf of the people, liberating them though they hated him & set them free to worship the Lord their God.

Ultimately, Jesus himself was “despised and rejected,” and came to his own but “his own knew him not.” Jesus did not save us in spite of his rejection and marginality but through it. God saved us through his defeat and weakness. Here, then, we see that this judge is very much like the great judge.

Jephthah says to them, “If I deliver you, shall I rule over you? For you cannot have me be savior without my rule.” The same question is put before those who desire salvation: “If He should save you from ultimate bondage to sin & death, are you willing that He should rule over you? For He will not come as Savior & not as Lord. If you want Him to make you happy, you must be willing that He would also make you holy. If you want Him to be your helper, you also must submit to him as your head” (adapted from Matthew Henry).

Lastly, think for a moment about Jephthah’s daughter. It was her father who sinned, right? Not her. If anyone should die for his foolish vow, it seems it should be him, right? But no, her is Jephthah’s daughter, as innocent of as she is aware of her father’s sin, stepping forward to bear the punishment that rightly belongs to him. It outrages us, doesn’t it? It should: the innocent dying for the guilty. And as little as Jephthah deserved to have his daughter take his place, how much less do we deserve for Jesus to die in our place, we who hated God with our whole hearts, whose sin marred every action of our whole lives? And yet Jesus, the only perfectly innocent one, did not count his life of any value nor as precious to Himself, but became obedient to death, even death on a cross, so that you and I could become His brothers & sisters, co-heirs with Him, dressed in His righteousness, and prepared as His bride.