Stay Anchored to Truth
Topic: Expository Passage: Judges 10:6–12:7
By any standard, the 20th century was a time of massive transition. At the turn of the 20th century America was filled with hope and optimism. We were making massive technological gains, and money was flowing. And among Christians revival was in the air. Churches were holding huge evangelistic campaigns, Bible conferences were popping up everywhere, and we were sending missionaries all over the world. As a result, many Christians began to believe that gospel will spread, and that the world would become more and more Christian until we create the Millennial Kingdom.
But then the horrors of the 20th century began coming one after the other. We endured WWI, the Great Depression, WWII, and the Cold War. And we were forced to come to grips with the depravity of the human soul and with the fact that only Christ is capable of establishing his kingdom.
Of course, Christians who have studied Judges knew this all along, because Judges demonstrates what depravity does when left to itself. It always ends in tragedy. Last Sunday, we saw that so clearly in the story of Abimelech. He was a godless man in cahoots with a godless city, and they ended up killing each other in a brutal civil war.
And today we are going to study another tragedy in the story of Jephthah. We are going to see that Jephthah has serious faults, and his story also ends in senseless tragedy. It serves as another reminder of our need to stay anchored to God’s truth. The story begins with another round of the Judges’ cycle, and ultimately of Israel’s downward spiral.
I. The Spiral Continues (10:6–16)
Remember that each story of Israel’s six major judges repeats the same cycle. Israel rebels, God sends retribution, Israel regrets their sin, and God rescues them. And this cycle begins again in v. 6 with…
Israel’s Rebellion (v. 6): Notice that the narrator gives a lot more detail regarding Israel’s rebellion than he has in any of the other cycles. In the first 4 cycles, he just says, “The children of Israel did evil in the sight of the Lord.” But here he takes time to list all the Canaanite gods they worshipped. Despite all that God has done, Israel rebelled more and more to the point that they had become thoroughly Canaanized. As a result, vv. 7–9 describe…
God’s Retribution (vv. 7–9): Notice that God’s patience is growing very thin. “The anger of the Lord was hot against Israel.” And this time, God judges Israel by means of the Philistines and the Ammonites (map).
The Philistines lived to the southwest along the Mediterranean, and Samson will deal with them in the next story. But the remainder of our current story addresses the conflict with the Ammonites. You can see that they lived along Israel’s eastern border, and so the Jephthah story has to do with Gad, Rueben, and Manasseh, all of whom are called the people of Gilead in this story.
And v. 9 notes that they were, “severely distressed” by the Ammonites. As usual doing things their way didn’t turn out nearly as well as simply obeying the Lord and trusting him to care for them, so when they got desperate, the cycle moved to the 3rd stage…
Repentance or Regret (?) (vv. 10–16a): I put a question mark up because Israel’s confession in v. 10 sounds more genuine than we have seen in the past. Every other time, it just says “they cried out to the Lord,” but this time, they actually say “we have sinned against You.”
However, God knows when we are just talking the talk, and his response in vv. 11–14, tells us he wasn’t buying their confession. God knew their hearts were still with the Canaanite gods, so he essentially says, “If these other gods are so great, then why don’t you let them help you? You can’t just come to me when you need someone to bail you out and think that’s true religion.”
I really like how Dale Ralph Davis applies God’s response to how many people today view God. “The theology of bomb-shelter religion teaches that—of course—God will help you in your need, that he is—helpfully enough—incredibly naïve and hopelessly soft. He’s like a great warm vending machine in the sky into which you need only drop a token or two of repentance before he spits out the relief you currently crave. Religion is a great game—you only need to know a few rules. And Yahweh is a great God—if you happen to need him and want to use him.
Yahweh must destroy these false images we fashion of him. Israel apparently assumed that whenever things became too bad she could always go back to Yahweh; and he says that she cannot. There is a difference between a prodigal who comes to his senses and returns home and a whore who pleads for her husband’s security only until she finds someone else to take her on” (Davis pp. 132–133).
That’ll preach because people treat God this way all the time. They really want to chase their own passions, but when they get in a bind, they expect God to bail them out, based on a token apology. But God sees right through it. He wants our hearts, not just our words. Therefore, if your devotion to God rises and falls with the things you need from him, then you don’t love God; you just want his stuff. You see God as your vending machine. And if that’s how you see God, then you need to repent, not just for some bad things you have done, but for the very foundation of how you function as a Christian. And then you need to give God your heart and live fully dedicated to him.
Israel sort of got the message, because vv. 15–16 say that they put away their idols; however, they are still begging God for deliverance, because that’s what they really want. And God’s response in v. 16b tells us that this is so.
Rescue (v. 16b): The text simply says, “His soul could no longer endure the misery of Israel.” It’s another beautiful picture of God’s grace. Israel still had a divided heart, but because God loves his people, he feels their grief (Isa 63:8–9). Praise the Lord that he cares deeply, and so he began working to rescue Israel from the Ammonites. This brings us to the second phase of the story, which I’m going to call…
II. The Rise of Jephthah (10:17–11:11)
Verse 17 says that after Israel had cried out to the Lord, they were determined to resist the Ammonites, and so they rallied an army. But they don’t have anyone who is qualified to lead them.
Therefore, Israel needs a leader (vv. 17–18), so they put out a call for a qualified leader who can lead them into battle, and they promise that he will become “head over all the inhabitants of Gilead.” In light of this call, 11:1–3 introduce us to Jephthah.
The Story of Jephthah (11:1–3): Like so many of the other people God has used, Jephthah is a broken man with real problems on his resume.
First, v. 1 tells us that his mother was a harlot/prostitute, so he started off behind the count. The Law strongly forbade prostitution, so his father and mother were almost certainly ungodly people who didn’t raise him to love the Lord. And as the son of prostitute, Jephthah was a blemish on the family, and he probably always felt like an outsider. It wasn’t his fault, but I’m sure he had a hard childhood.
And then his brothers pushed him out of the family so that they wouldn’t have to share their inheritance with him. As a result Jephthah turned to a life of crime. He became the head of a small gang of “worthless men” who raided communities and stole their things. He was a criminal. But Israel was desperate for an effective leader, and this leads to…
Jephthah’s Inauguration (11:4–11): Again, Israel desperately needed an effective leader, regardless of his character, so they turned to Jephthah. And it’s not quite this bad, but it’s sort of like Mexico turning to El Chapo, or the Chicago police calling on Al Capone. But Jephthah knew how to fight, so the eastern tribes ask him to lead them. And Jephthah agrees to lead them into battle if they will make him their ruler. And so 11 says that the people of Gilead made Jephthah “head and commander over them.”
Before we go on, I’d like to make 3 quick observations about this section. First, God is noticeably absent. Israel never asks God who should lead them, and God never tells them to choose Jephthah. And they don’t choose Jephthah for his spiritual qualifications, only his military prowess. It all points back to how paganized Israel had become.
As a result a second important observation is that Israel got the leader it deserved. Israel didn’t deserve much based on their neglect of the Lord, and they aren’t going to get much either. Sure Jephthah will drive out the Ammonites, but he won’t bring revival or any lasting change. Rather, God allows them to feel the pain of their own sinful choices. As Romans 1 says, all God has to do to judge a wicked society is just remove his hand of grace and just let them self-destruct. He doesn’t have to actively do anything.
But at the same time, God doesn’t entirely walk away. As v. 16 says he loves his people and feels their pain, so he continues to be gracious. And this brings us to a 3rd God again chooses an unlikely hero. Yeah, Jephthah is the son of a prostitute, and he has plenty of his own problems, but God isn’t nearly as concerned about appearances as we are. His grace is always greater than our problems, and he loves to use broken people.
And this fact should greatly encourage us. You might be very ashamed of your past or present and think that there is no way God could use someone like you. But God’s power and grace are always greater than our weakness, and if God could use someone like Jephthah, he can certainly use you, so stay faithful and keep serving. This brings us to the 3rd stage of the story…
III. Failed Negotiations (11:12–28)
After Jephthah is given authority, he tries negotiating with the Ammonites. We aren’t going to spend much time on this section, but we do learn a couple of important details about Jephthah in this section.
First, Jephthah knew some history, and he knew how to make an argument. I’ve been hard on Jephthah so far, but this section demonstrates that he wasn’t a bumbling fool. Rather Jephthah demonstrates that he has a good grasp of Israelite history, and he does a good job of putting the Ammonite king in his place when he claims the Israelite territory is his.
Jephthah clearly had spent some time in the Pentateuch reading Israel’s history. And not only that, Jephthah articulates himself very well here. He has pretty good negotiation skills even though the Ammonites don’t respond. And so from a human standpoint, you can see why Israel chose him. He had some leadership skill and he kind of, sort of knew the Law. But a second important detail we learn about Jephthah…
Jephthah had a syncretistic faith. Notice again what he says in vv. 23–24. Jephthah credits God with giving Israel their land, but then he turns around and speaks of Chemosh, the Ammonite god, as being on something of an equal plain. Again, it reflects how Jephthah and all Israel had been compromised. They believed in Yahweh, but they weren’t exclusively committed to him. They had learned how to blend in with the pagan nations. But again, that’s not good enough. God demands our whole hearts.
Well, as I said, the Ammonite king didn’t respond to Jephthah’s diplomacy, so a battle is inevitable, and this brings us to the section for which Jephthah is famous. Verses 29–40 describe…
IV. Jephthah’s Tragic Vow (11:29–40)
Jephthah’s Folly (vv. 29–31): Verse 29 starts on a positive note. As Jephthah prepares to defend God’s people against the evil Ammonites, and “The Spirit of the Lord came upon Jephthah.” Despite all that is wrong with this man, God places his hand upon him and turns him into a charismatic, inspiring leader. As a result, he goes up and down the eastern tribes and recruits a large army. And now he is ready to go to war.
But before he goes to battle, he stops and makes a very foolish and unnecessary vow. He tells the Lord that if God gives him the victory…(v. 31). I’d like to make 3 observations about this vow. First, Jephthah promises God a human sacrifice. That’s a tough one to stomach, so lots of people have tried to work around it, but it’s clearly what Jephthah is thinking, because the verb he uses indicates a kind of intentionality that only people have. As well, people didn’t keep pets like we do today, so he’s not expecting Spot to come after him. Furthermore, he doesn’t just promise to give something to God; he promises to use it as a burnt offering, meaning he would kill it and burn it. Of course that’s a hard one to swallow, which brings us to a second observation.
Jephthah did not understand God’s Law. Human sacrifice was widely practiced among the Canaanite nations, but God explicitly condemned it in the Law, because God values human life. The fact that Jephthah thought a human sacrifice would give him favor with God indicates he was shaped more by paganism than by God’s Law, leading to a 3rd observation…
Jephthah did not understand God. The very fact that Jephthah makes this vow indicates that he assumed it was up to him to buy God’s favor, as if God is some manipulative greedy master who takes bribes. That’s how the pagans saw their gods. They understood them to be just as self-centered and calloused as we are, so if bribes work with people, they ought to work with the gods.
But our God is different. He is a God of grace, truth, and justice who defends the weak and is faithful to his people. He doesn’t need to be bought, and he can’t be manipulated. But again, people so often make him out to be a vending machine. When I need something if I do some good works, attend church, or make a donation, I can buy God’s favor.
But we need to remember that he is a generous father. He wants to give good things, and he will stand for what is right and good. Therefore, when I am carrying a heavy burden, I shouldn’t be thinking, “How can I manipulate God to bend to my will?” Rather, I need to bend my will to his, trusting that he will do what is right, and I need to pray with biblical values, not selfish ones. But sadly, Jephthah didn’t understand God like this, and he made this awful vow. But God was gracious, and Jephthah went off to war. And vv. 32–33 describe…
God’s Deliverance (vv. 32–33): God gave Jephthah a resounding victory. Verse 33 says that Jephthah defeated 20 cities, which were probably walled fortifications along the disputed territory (map). In so doing he crippled the Ammonite military and eliminated their ability to oppress Israel.
And so despite Jephthah, and Israel’s continued sin, God again graciously answered their prayers and not only delivered them but eliminated a foreign threat for years to come. But that’s not what the narrator finds most compelling. After a brief record of Israel’s victory, he quickly turns to the resolution of Jephthah’s vow, and vv. 34–40 describe…
Jephthah’s Loss (vv. 34–40): Verse 34 describes an absolutely tragic scene. Jephthah has won an incredible victory, and I imagine him walking home on cloud 9 not even thinking about the vow. And somehow word had travelled ahead of him that Jephthah was a national hero. His house was buzzing with excitement, and his only daughter is ready to throw a party. She is watching out the window for dad to come home.
And when she sees him coming, she runs out the door dancing and playing music. But when Jephtha sees her coming, his heart sinks as he remembers his vow. And rather than greeting her with a warm hug, he tears his clothes in grief as he comes to grips with his belief that he must offer his only daughter as a sacrifice to the Lord.
It’s such a sad tale that many people have contended that he didn’t actually plan to kill and burn her but to commit her to a life of celibacy at the tabernacle, kind of like Hannah did with Samuel. They get this from the fact that she asks for 2 months to mourn her virginity. However, bearing children was a central life expectation for ancient women, so it makes sense that this is what she would mourn over the expectation of a premature death. As well, v. 31 was pretty clear about what Jephthah said he would do, and the text gives no indication that he changed course.
But sadly, if Jephthah had known God’s Law, he would have known that he had other options. Leviticus 27 told Israel how to buy a person back from a vow. As well, at the end of the day, God values human life far more than keeping a vow. God would have much preferred that he break the vow over killing an innocent child.
But Jephthah doesn’t know God like that, and so he assumes he has no other option, and he tells his daughter what he will do. Imagine that conversation. And his daughter responds with a remarkable grace (v. 36). And then she only asks for 2 months to mourn with her friends over the awful death that awaits her.
And then at the end of those 2 months, she willingly comes home, and because it’s such an awful story, the narrator spares us the terrible details and simply says, “He carried out his vow with her which he had vowed.”
It’s just awful isn’t it? And we are left to wonder how he could ever do such a thing. And the answer is that this is the kind of thing that happens when people forsake the Lord, a biblical worldview, and a biblical ethic. We’ll never improve on God’s way when left to ourselves; we will only make things worse. And we can’t be reminded of that too often when our sinful passions begin to take root. We like to think that I can do better with my life than God can. But God’s way is always the best way, so don’t believe Satan’s lie. But sadly, Jephthah’s story has one final tragic turn that again reinforces the importance of staying anchored in God’s truth. 12:1–7 describe…
V. Civil War (12:1–7)
Ephraim’s Pride (v. 1): With this verse, the scene shifts from Jephthah’s home back to the national scene. And sadly it centers again on jealousy and pride. The Ephraimites are angry that they weren’t called to the battle, so they assemble an army and march against Jephthah. It’s petty, but sinners are petty a lot of the time. And sadly Jephthah returns the favor.
Jephthah’s Brutality (vv. 2–6): Even though these are fellow Israelites, they go to war over a childish dispute, and v. 4 says that Jephthah won convincingly, so the Ephraimites began to flee toward the Jordan (map). But rather than just letting them go, Jephthah cuts off their escape route, and kills every Ephraimite soldier he can find. He even devises a rather interesting accent test to make sure he doesn’t miss any of them. In all, he kills 42,000 fellow Israelites.
And then v. 7 ends the story very quickly as if with a sense of shame. Jephthah judged for 6 years and died. He didn’t accomplish any great feats or leave any great legacy. He only leaves behind a trainwreck that will grow worse and worse.
And so this story is another tragedy of sin and destruction. Jephthah really did have great potential. He was a smart, skilled soldier, but he was mostly godless, and it destroyed his effectiveness. So what can we take home from this story? I’d like to close with 2 conclusions.
Stay anchored to God’s Word. The world, the flesh, and the devil tell you all the time that you know a little better than God what is true and what will bring joy. And I agree that at times sin brings great pleasure, but long-term God’s way is always best. So stay anchored to God’s Word. Live in the Scriptures, believe what God says, and obey God’s will. “Oh taste and see that the Lord is good, blessed is the man who trusts in Him” (Ps 34:8).
Long for the righteous reign of Christ. One of the most discouraging aspects of reading Judges is that it sounds a lot like our culture doesn’t it? And so it tells us where we are headed as move further and further from the Lord. But that’s a good thing if it reminds us that our hope is not ultimately in the USA or any human power. Our hope is in the fact that a righteous king is coming. Jesus is coming again, and he will fix what mankind can never fix. And we will reign with him over a righteous kingdom. And so turn your eyes toward him, be encouraged in the hope that Jesus is coming again, and lay up treasure with Christ that the world will never take away.