We'll see how God protects and reveals his glory even amidst the deepest regrets of sinners.
We enter into judges tonight at a time of intense persecution. God has allowed the Philistines and the Ammonites to oppress the Israelites for eighteen years as punishment for their adultery. The Israelites had abandoned God for the so-called gods of the pagan nations around them.
At the end of chapter 10 we see the Israelites repenting of their sin and crying out to God for forgiveness and rescue, they turn from the foreign gods and serve the Lord. In v16 we are told;
'And he (God) could bear Israel's misery no longer'
And so we meet Jephthah. Out of God's fury at Israel's sin and his co-existent redemptive love for them comes the next judge Jepthah and he's an unusual choice. So let's meet him.
Jephthah – The illegitimate leader
Verse 1 of ch 11 'Mighty warrior' – high position, the celebrity of the day.
BUT he has skeletons in the cupboard. Mother was a prostitute and so Jepthah's brothers had driven Jephthah away to cheat him out of his inheritance. And so when we meet Jepthah we do so West of Gilead in the land of Tob. J has natural leadership abilities it seems and so has gathered around him what is rather grandly termed in v3 'a group of adventurers' a better translation is something like; 'a group of empty men'. So here we have Jephthah, the mighty warrior, son of a prostitute, ex-brother of thieves, leader of empty men, a no one.
But times are tough, the Ammonites are attacking Gilead (Jephthah's original home) and so we have this fascinating exchange in v4-11. The elders of Gilead; Jephthah's brothers come to ask him to be there leader. This is an incredible turnaround the brothers who have driven Jephthah from his home, abandoning him entirely, now come cap in hand to ask Jephthah not only to come back but to lead them. Imagine the scene Jephthah the illegitimate no one is now the hope of Israel. Jephthah can't quite seem to believe it in v9 he asks;
"Suppose you take me back to fight the Ammonites and the LORD gives them to me—will I really be your head?"
Assured of this Jephthah is gracious, he doesn't lord it over his newly humbled brothers or refuse to help which surely would have been reasonable, I wonder if we would be prepared to do the same given similar circumstances? What we have here I think is a human shadowing, a personification if you like of God's relationship with Israel. As Jephthah was abandoned so to has God been ignored and as Jephthah's brothers have to come in humility, calling on Jephthah's mercy to lead them so Israel cries out to God that he would rescue them.
No doubt this experience was painful for the elders of Gilead. It was humbling, embarrassing almost for them to admit that the one they had betrayed was the very person they now needed. Repentance is like that; uncomfortable it requires us to become humble and face up to the sin we have committed and the God we have committed it against. However, as Jephthah illustrates imperfectly it is necessary to re-establish relationship with the one we have wronged.
The next 17 verses v11-28 see Jephthah installed as Israel's leader in a ceremony at Mizpah before the Lord and his subsequent diplomatic efforts. Jephthah is wise he doesn't go hot-headedly go after the Ammonites but rather attempts to diffuse the situation explaining that the Israelites have not taken land from the Ammonites as they insist but rather it is the Ammonites who are the aggressors.
We don't have time to delve into this section in detail but it's worth noticing that Jephthah despite being driven from his home and left isolated is aware of Israel's history, in his letter to the Ammonite king Jephthah is able to summarise over 300 years of history. Notice too that Jephthah understands Israel's history in terms of God's actions, for example in v23 Jephthah says;
Now since the LORD, the God of Israel, has driven the Amorites out before his people Israel, what right have you to take it over?
Jephthah's focus is on God, he doesn't threaten the Ammonite king with Israel's power or with his reputation as a mighty warrior but rather he says in v27;
I have not wronged you, but you are doing me wrong by waging war against me. Let the LORD, the Judge, [c] decide the dispute this day between the Israelites and the Ammonites.
God is the Judge, the architect of Jephthah and Israel's history; God is the master of his fate, the Lord the master of his Soul.
So that's Jephthah; Israel has humbles herself and God has given them a no-body leader, one who has been abandoned but who understands that God has never abandoned Israel.
Pride defeats Victory
Snatching defeat from the jaws of victory, as a Newcastle fan this is a familiar phrase to me. Uni team 70 Min top of the league, 90 Min mid table obscurity. More seriously, we are all familiar with spectacular 'falls from grace'. For example at the moment we seem to be witnessing the decline of golfer Tiger Woods. I'm sure many of us can relate to the concept of spectacularly messing up what seemed to be going so well.
Such is the next twist in the tale of Jephthah, we left Him calmly reasoning with the King of the Ammonites, leaving God to judge their dispute. And so we pick up the story in v29 at the beginning of our first reading;
Then the Spirit of the LORD came upon Jephthah. He crossed Gilead and Manasseh, passed through Mizpah of Gilead, and from there he advanced against the Ammonites.
God's Spirit empowers Jephthah to lead the Israelites into battle and in v32 and 33 we see that he or rather, the Lord through Jephthah, is victorious devastating twenty towns and subduing the Ammonite king. Victory! Israel's enemy is defeated, God has raised up a great and mighty warrior from nowhere and given him the ability to destroy the Ammonites and yet beneath the surface there is tragedy unfolding, take a look at v30;
And Jephthah made a vow to the LORD : "If you give the Ammonites into my hands, 31 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."
Now at first glance this might seem innocent enough, the kinds of thing teenagers do before exams; please God if you let me get an A I'll read my bible more etc. What we are actually seeing is Jephthah attempting to manipulate God and the creeping destruction of pride. Jephthah is attempting to bargain, offering sacrifice in return for God's blessing this is just like the pagan fertility gods of the surrounding pagan nations that Dan talked about last week where gods have to be coaxed and encouraged into doing what men want them to do. We see pride rearing it's ugly head; compare v27 where Jephthah tells the Ammonite king that God will be their judge to v30's 'If you give the Ammonites into my hands'. Jepthah's desperation to secure victory for himself leads him into this foolish vow, which has horrific consequences as we read in v34;
34 When Jephthah returned to his home in Mizpah, who should come out to meet him but his daughter, dancing to the sound of tambourines! (She was probably celebrating her father's victory) She was an only child. Except for her he had neither son nor daughter. 35 When he saw her, he tore his clothes and cried, "Oh! My daughter! You have made me miserable and wretched, because I have made a vow to the LORD that I cannot break."
36 "My father," she replied, "you have given your word to the LORD. Do to me just as you promised, now that the LORD has avenged you of your enemies, the Ammonites. 37 But grant me this one request," she said. "Give me two months to roam the hills and weep with my
friends, because I will never marry."
38 "You may go," he said. And he let her go for two months. She and
the girls went into the hills and wept because she would never marry.
39 After the two months, she returned to her father and he did to
her as he had vowed. And she was a virgin.
Some commentators have argued that Jephthah did not actually sacrifice his daughter but rather gave her up to serve at the temple, effectively making her a nun and this is why Jephthah's daughter weeps with her friends that she will never marry. This is unsatisfactory however and is not the straight-forward reading of the text, the language Jephthah uses in his vow; '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.', suggests a human sacrifice and makes Jephthah's vow even more offensive. We must deal with the text plainly; the shocking fact appears to be that Jephthah's foolish, pride induced vow leads him to murder his own daughter. This part of scripture is incredibly poignant and distressing. Jephthah who God had raised from obscurity, Jephthah the great warrior and wise diplomat, Jephthah Israel's new leader has fallen spectacularly.
There are cautions for us here;
Firstly; attempting to manipulate God is serious. This is not the way we relate to a holy, just and merciful God. We don't dare to bend his will with promises of sacrifices whatever they might be. Rather we are to be obedient and trust in God's goodness, trusting God to be the judge. Hebrews 10 shows us Christ perfect obedience to God and contrasts that with burnt offerings which God does not desire. We joked earlier about the teenager offering to read the bible more in exchange for an A grade. Isn't that often the way we deal with God; 'If you'll just do this, I promise to...'. God is like some curmudgeonly old man, who has to be bullied into doing what we want rather than seeing the creator of the universe who gives up his most precious possession to save us and make us his own.
Secondly pride is deadly. In this case it proved to be physically deadly but it is always spiritually deadly. Pride is behind Jephthah's insatiable desire to be victorious at any cost. It causes him to make this tragic vow. Pride prevents Jephthah's from acknowledging and facing up to his mistake. Jephthah's vow was not just rash it was ungodly he should have broken it. He should have been willing to face the consequences of breaking the vow and suffered them instead of his daughter suffering death. Pride leads us away from the ultimate safety of obedience to God and into the danger, disappointment and deadly consequences of grasping after that power for ourselves, we need to keep our pride in check.
Thirdly, even the mighty fall. Jephthah is described as a mighty warrior and in the first part of ch 11 he is given a very positive description; willing to fight for the brothers who abandoned him, an eloquent diplomat and historian and a successful military leader. And yet it is Jephthah who makes this tremendous mistake. We see this sadly too often in even the Christian world that even the standout leaders those who we respect most are capable of spectacular sins. We're all capable of them, however together we might appear from the outside we are all vulnerable when we fail to abide, to press into Christ.
However, there is encouragement for us here too I think and that's what I want to look at in my final point
Jephthah – A sinner used for God's glory
Chapter 12 is a strange chapter and not just because it introduces us to the word 'shibboleth'. In it we have another brotherly encounter this time between the tribes of Gilead and Ephraim, which descend from Joseph's sons Ephraim and Manasseh. The Ephraimites complain to Jephthah in v1;
"Why did you go to fight the Ammonites without calling us to go with you? We're going to burn down your house over your head."
Which is quite an introduction. If you cast your minds back to Gideon you would have seen the Ephraimites doing the same thing attempting to muscle-in on a military victory and steal the glory for themselves. Jephthah corrects them in v2;
"I and my people were engaged in a great struggle with the Ammonites, and although I called, you didn't save me out of their hands. 3 When I saw that you wouldn't help, I took my life in my hands and crossed over to fight the Ammonites, and the LORD gave me the victory over them. Now why have you come up today to fight me?"
Now notice what is happening here. Jephthah returns to the sort of tactics he used against the king of the Ammonites. Jephthah corrects the Ephraimites version of history and makes it clear that it was God who was victorious v3; 'and the LORD gave me the victory over them'.
We don't have a record of Jephthah's response to his daughter's sacrifice and we must be careful not to speculate without basis. However, it would seem reasonable to suggest that his sin and the death of his daughter has profoundly affected Jephthah. We don't know how or if Jephthah repented but his thinking does appear to have changed.
Even more remarkable though is that God chooses to use Jephthah for this next purpose. Jephthah will be the one who puts the glory-seeking Ephraimites to the sword. Jephthah who tried to manipulate God in to giving him victory, who's pride and desire for glory swallowed him up so that he was willing to sacrifice even his only daughter. God chooses this fool, this sinner, this illegitimate leader to defeat the Ephraimites so that glory is given to God alone. God uses a flawed, guilty murderer to bring himself glory.
Isn't this just typical of our God that he chooses Jephthah from obscurity a leader of empty men to lead Israel into victory. And isn't it typical of sinners that we are capable of spectacular sin and yet typically God picks this sinner again and uses that very sin to teach the Ephraimites about who deserves honour and glory. Nothing is lost God redeems Jephthah's sin making him the perfect tool for God to use to reveal the depth of his glory.