Judges 10:17-12:7 Jephthah
Judges Sermon # 15 September 24, 2017
“One Greater than Jephthah is Here”
Pastor Louis Prontnicki Maple Glen Bible Fellowship Church
Dr. Carl Ellis writes of his encounter with a gang leader in Baltimore, who insisted that God did not understand or care about people like him. Dr. Ellis challenged him by saying “If I could show you a gangster like yourself in the Bible, would you study the Bible with me?” Guess where in the Bible he took the young man? To the story of Jephthah, in Judges 11…. And that’s where we are going this morning.
Now the one thing that you may recall from the story of Jephthah is his rash vow to God, a vow which probably costs him the life of his daughter his only child. How tragic! But then we read in Hebrews 11:32 that Jephthah is listed in the Hall of Faith! And so we wonder if such a man – who offered up his virgin daughter – deserves to be emulated as man of faith! So let’s unpack his story, which is made up of four parts.
First, the deliverer is rejected by His family and town elders, but in desperation, they beg him to return and lead them in battle. (11:1-11)
The Lord has used unlikely people and unusual methods to deliver Israel from their enemies in the book of Judges, and here the Lord uses a person who is despised and rejected by his own family and by his hometown elders. Why do his brothers reject him? Because although they have the same father, Jephthah had a different mother, and she was a prostitute. So in order not to have to share the family inheritance with this half-brother, and so that he does not bring shame on the family, the rest of the family cuts him out of the will and drives him away to another town. In that town he attracts the local thugs to himself as their leader, so we could think of Jephthah as a gang leader. We read in v. 7 that the elders of the town were complicit in this action, even that they hated Jephthah.
So this despised and rejected Jephthah leaves town and is deprived of his inheritance… but God is going to turn things around, so that the people who rejected Jephthah will later need him to be their deliverer!
And here we get a foreshadowing of what happened to God’s own Son, Our Lord Jesus Christ, when he came to earth. Isaiah 53:3 prophesied that the Messiah would be “despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows, familiar with suffering.” The Gospels tell us that Jesus’ own brothers and family did not believe in Him (John 7:5), and that the Jewish leaders accused Jesus of being born out of fornication (John 8:41, in context). The Apostle Peter would later write of Jesus in 1 Peter 2:4 that He is the Living Stone, rejected by men.
So the rejection and despising of Jephthah is a foreshadowing of people’s rejection of Jesus… and yet, just as those same people desperately cried out to Jephthah, begging him to come back and be their leader against the Ammonites, so too, some who have despised and rejected Jesus later, in their desperation, cry out to God and ask Jesus to deliver them and be their Lord!
And here is the mercy and grace of God! For just as Jephthah was willing to come back and deliver those who once rejected and hated him, so in the same way, Jesus Christ is willing to forgive us and rescue us from our sin and from ourselves and the mess we have made of our lives… if we will call out to Him in faith! Is that where some of you are today? Have you rejected Jesus, but now you need Him? Call upon His Name! Turn from your sins and idols, and ask Him to save you! Jesus, the Ultimate Deliverer will rescue you, as you cry out to Him!
Second, the deliverer’s message is ignored by the pig-headed; they fail to heed his words, and so they bring condemnation upon themselves. (11:12-29)
Jephthah was gifted by God not only as a mighty leader, but also as a teacher, filled with great wisdom from God’s Word. Jephthah could not only lead an army into battle, but he could also understand the truth of God’s history with His people, and use that history very wisely.
So when the elders of Gilead call Jephthah to be their head and commander, against the threatening Ammonites, Jephthah tries diplomacy first. He seeks to reason with the king of the Ammonites, using a three-fold, carefully reason argument as to why Ammon has no claim over the land of Gilead, and why they should not go to war against Gilead. (“Come, let us reason together, that’s what God says” Isa. 1:18)
First he presents an argument from history (vv. 15-22). He points out that this land was Amorite land, not Ammonite land, and that Israel had defeated the Amorites (vv. 21-23).
Second he gives an argument from theology (v. 23-24). “Our God drove out the Amorites, so what right do you have to take it? “You’ll have to be content with what your god gives you!” But we’ll take what our God has given to us!
Finally Jephthah caps off his diplomatic approach by appealing to what happened 300 years ago (vv. 25-26), and wonders why, after 300 years, does Ammon want the land of Gilead now, after 300 years of doing nothing about it? Doesn’t Ammon realize that the statute of limitations has run out by now?
And if that weren’t enough for the king of Ammon to chew on, Jephthah declares that the Lord is Judge (27), and He will decide the dispute between the two nations, so be careful!
F.F. Bruce comments that “The message which he sent to the king of Ammon, with its historical retrospect reaching back to the Exodus and wilderness wanderings, expresses his appreciation of Yahweh’s guidance of His people in those early days, and His confidence that Yahweh will judge their cause today.”
Once again, Jephthah foreshadows Jesus’ approach, as we think about how Jesus carefully reasoned with the Jewish leaders and taught the people with authority, and as He masterfully used the Words of the Law, the Prophets, and the Psalms to point people to the truth of Who He was, as their Messiah, their Teacher, and their Lord! What an amazing Savior we have, who stoops down to reason with rebellious creatures He had made! This is grace and mercy again!
Yet most of the people Jesus sought to reason with were too pig-headed to receive His message.
This is what the King of Ammon did: he ignored Jephthah’s wisdom; he was too stubborn, too pig-header to humble himself before such godly wisdom (28), [The sin of pride blinded him to the truth of his words] and as a result he would be defeated and 20 of his towns would be destroyed by Jephthah. He brought condemnation upon himself as he failed to heed the words of the Lord’s deliverer.
What about you today? Are you ignoring God’s message to you? There are times when I am so pig-headed that I deliberately ignore God’s clear reasoning with me from His Word. And why is that? Because I want to do what I want to do!
What about you? Right now, as you listen to this sermon, are you engaged with God’s Word? Or are you so pig-headed and stubborn that you refuse to heed God’s warnings and invitations? If so, you are risking your own eternal destruction! “Today, if you hear His voice, do not harden your hearts” (Heb. 3:15)
Third, the deliverer is faithful to his vow to the Lord, but at the cost of his beloved. (30-40)
The Spirit of Lord comes upon Jephthah (29) and as he advances against the Ammonites he makes a vow to the Lord. “If you give the Ammonites into my hands, whatever comes out of the door of my house to meet me when I return in triumph from the Ammonites will be the Lord’s, and I will sacrifice it as a burnt offering.” (30-31).
By the way, it seems that Jephthah is bargaining with God here: “Lord, if you do this for me, I promised I will do this for you,” So we might ask: “Is it okay to bargain with God?” I preached a sermon on that question a few years back, but the quick answer is that on one hand, it’s not okay to try and bargain with God, because ultimately, we have nothing to bargain with! He owns everything! On the other hand, God is merciful and He will not turn us away when we vow to repent and serve him, because He knows that we are but flesh.
But what are we to make of Jephthah’s vow? And that his only daughter was the one who came to greet him after he returned victorious from battle?
Middle East scholar Ken Bailey thinks that given the culture, Jephthah would have expected one of his animals to come out the door, and he had no idea it would be his daughter. Some commentators think that his vow meant only that his daughter would be a virgin the rest of her life, but the passage shows us something more drastic. Others think that Jephthah had to know it would be his only child who would come out the door to meet him, and that for Jephthah, this would be the ultimate sacrifice to make.
Now if you consider the judges who came before and after Jephthah, this offering up of his daughter becomes even more tragic. For most of them had many sons and daughters. Gideon had 70. Jair and Ibzan had 30 sons, while Abdon was blessed with 70 sons/grandsons.
So while Jephthah is flanked by judges with large families/many offspring, Jephthah had only one daughter, who never married, and would never give Jephthah any grandchildren. All this underscores the sorrow and tragedy of Jephthah.
But what does the Scripture tell us about a situation like this, where a person is between a rock and a hard place, vowing to the Lord and yet unprepared for the consequences? On one hand, the Bible condemned offering up your children to idols, such as Molech (Lev. 18:21; 20:2-5; Deut. 12:31, 18:10). Yet God once commanded Abraham to offer up his son Isaac to the Lord (Gen. 22). At the same time, God requires that we are faithful to the vows we make (Ps. 15:4 “Who keeps his own, even when it hurts.”) “The lives of others are sacred, and cannot be terminated by the private goal of an individual. However praiseworthy that goal may be.”
Jephthah is mentioned in the Hebrew 11 Hall of Faith (v. 32). It is said he led or judges Israel for six years (12:7)… but is he a man to be emulated? “We remember him chiefly for his rash vow, yet, as rash as it was, it was a token of his sincere though uninstructed devotion to the God of Israel” says F.F. Bruce. Like the other judges, Jephthah had his faults. Yet listen to what Calvin wrote: “There was none of them whose faith did not falter… in every saint there is always to be found something reprehensible. Nevertheless although faith may be imperfect and incomplete it does not cease to be approved by God. There is no reason therefore why the fault from which we labor should break us or discourage us, provided we go on by faith in the race of our calling.” “God delights in choosing those who seem most unsuitable and using those who seem most rebellious.” – Raymond Brown.
Jephthah the deliverer remained faithful to his vow to the Lord, even though it cost him his only beloved child. In an imperfect way, this foreshadowed what God the Father did, as He willingly and knowingly offered up His only Son, as an atoning sacrifice for sinners. Not with a rash vow, but in a covenant from eternity, agreed upon by God the Father and God the Son. “For God so love the world that He gave His only Son…..”(John 3:16.
Again, such mercy and grace and love and now sacrifice, for us, from God! God the Father and God the Son gave up far more than Jephthah did, for our sakes! Our God is faithful! Our God is loving! Our God made the ultimate sacrifice… for you and for me!
Fourth, the deliverer judges the big-headed, as they are condemned by their own words (12:1-7)
The final aspect of Jephthah’s story has to do with the men of Ephraim, who are so full of sinful pride, who are so big-headed and who think that they have to be in on everything, that they threaten to burn down Jephthah’s house (v. 1)…Why? Because they falsely claimed that he didn’t notify them of battle against the Ammonites! After all, who did Jephthah think he was, trying to get all the glory for himself? Note: The men of Ephraim made the same complaint to Gideon (8:1). What was bugging the Ephraimites? We get a clue in 12:4 where we read that the Ephraimites had called the men of Gilead “fugitives” or “escaped fugitives” (ESV; NIV has “Renegades.”) Remember that the people of Gilead were descended from the tribe of Manasseh (Num. 26:29ff.), and Manasseh was the brother of Ephraim, the sons of Joseph. Ephraim may have resented the fact that when the tribes were settling into the promised land, half the tribe of Manasseh, including the people of Gilead, decided to stay on the east side of the Jordan River… and so now, centuries later, Ephraim is calling Gilead “escaped fugitives” as if Gilead had run away from the true promised land. Certainly, the men of Ephraim think they are superior to their brethren, and they don’t hesitate to mouth off!
Dale Davis comments: “Again it is Ephraim, in his pride, who fragments Israel. The Ephraimites always feel they must dominate, they must control, they must be recognized.” Some of us are like that, aren’t we? We want to have our names in the program. We want to be recognized as contributors. We need to be in on everything! How big-headed we can be!
We’ve seen God’s mercy and grace in the first three points. But now it is time for God’s just judgment, and it will be the mouths of the Ephraimites which will bring condemnation on their own head. By their own words they will be condemned. How is that? When Ephraim and Gilead fight a civil war, the men of Ephraim are cut off from their land on the other side of the Jordan, and as they tried to get back over the ford in the river, the men of Gilead made them say the word “Shibboleth” meaning an ear of corn or grain. Well, the Ephraimites had trouble with that “sh” sound; for them it came out “Sibboleth,” so they were easy to identify and to cut down. They were condemned by their own words.
It may remind us of what Jesus said in a parable about the servant who did nothing with his master’s money, in Luke 19:22: “His master replied, “I will judge you by your own words, you wicked servant.” Or it may echo Paul’s warning in Romans 2:1 “You, therefore, have no excuse, you who pass judgment on someone else, for at whatever point you judge the other, you are condemning yourself, because you who pass judgement do the same things.”
What about you? Is your desire to always be the center of attention actually repulsive to the Lord? If the Lord ran a video of your life on half a screen and a list of your judgments against other on the other half of the screen, would your own words condemn you? If you struggle with being big-headed and big-mouth, then I urge you to humble yourself before the Lord.
Getting back to our story, we see that the foolish pride of Ephraim, in demanding to be part of Gilead’s victory over the Ammonites, caused them to suffer the loss of 42,000 men in battle.
So we see tragedy in Judges 11-12: Even though Ammon the enemy is subdued, Jephthah’s daughter is dead, and 42,000 Ephraimites have been killed by their brothers. Tragedy overshadows the salvation the Lord gave.
Note the increasing tragedy in Judges 6-16 with each narrative ending in grievous tragedy. Gideon sows the seed of fresh apostasy (8:24-27); his son Abimelech leads a reign of terror (Chp. 9), and Jephthah’s success comes at the price of his daughter and a bloody civil war. Samson’s mighty acts (13-16) will be likewise tarnished. There is a pattern of disintegration.
How will this pattern of tragedy be broken?
It will be broken….
By the One who is greater than Jephthah.
By the One who was rejected and despised by men.
By the One who took our condemnation upon Himself.
By the One who was faithful to His vow, paying the ultimate price of His life.
Only by our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ!
If we desire a perfect and unblemished salvation, we must look to One greater than Jephthah; we