My title is ‘Despised and Rejected. It relates to Jephthah, whose story we come to as we settle in to this series on the Book of Judges. This evening we’re looking at Judges 10.17 – 12.15. Please turn that section up. It starts on page 254 of the Bibles.
It’s a dramatic section, full of warfare, family strife, flashbacks, international diplomacy, triumph and tragedy. Think in terms of an action film – maybe a thriller or a war film. It reminded me of two films by Clint Eastwood about the American attack on the Japanese island Iwo Jima at the height of the war in the Pacific in 1945. One of the films is called Flags of our Fathers and sees that ferocious battle from the American perspective. Its sister film, Letters from Iwo Jima, tells the story again from the perspective of the Japanese defenders.
This dramatic story in the Book of Judges also needs to be seen from different perspectives – with a human’s eye view, but also with a God’s eye view. It’s quite long and complex, with a main plot line, a flashback, back-stories and sub-plots. For clarity I’m going to separate out these different elements and summarise as we go through. To get all the detail you’ll need to go home and read it yourself, as if you’re watching a brilliant, heart-rending movie telling a true story.
So I have four simple headings: first, The Main Plot; secondly, The Back-Story; thirdly, The Sub-Plots; and fourthly, The Lessons. But of course this is more than just a great story. This exposes the sometimes harsh realities of our own lives and shows us how to survive and ultimately thrive now and into eternity.
Let me go through the main characters so you can hopefully get a handle on who’s who. There are the Israelites – God’s people. But to complicate matters there are two different groups of Israelites – the Gileadites who lived east of the River Jordan, and the who lived to the west of the Jordan. They don’t get on well, to say the least, but they’re all God’s people. There are the Ammonites – the enemies of God’s people to their east. There are two individuals – Jephthah, who is a mighty warrior and a Gileadite, and Jephthah’s unnamed daughter. Then finally, but most important of all, there is the living God, the unseen King of kings and Lord of lords.
How do we relate to this? There’s no exact parallel in our times, but maybe you can think of the church and the non-Christian world as a rough equivalent. Think of Bible believers, revisionist liberals, atheist materialists, and any high profile Christian leader from the last couple of centuries, such as John Wesley, Billy Graham, John Stott or Rick Warren.
The panoramic opening scene in 10.17 is a wide-angle landscape. Imagine the River Jordan slicing through it. On one side the army of the Ammonites is arrayed. On the other side, the Israelites are encamped. The Ammonites and the Gileadites are at war.
So to my main headings, as I steer us through these dramatic events.
First, THE MAIN PLOT
The Gileadites call Jephthah to lead them. He does. The Ammonites won’t listen to reason. Jephthah attacks the Ammonites with the Gileadite army, defeats them, and subdues them. Jephthah rules Israel until he dies 6 years later.
Let me take you through that in the passage by stripping out everything else for now. Begin at 10.18:
The leaders of the people of Gilead said to each other, Whoever will launch the attack against the Ammonites will be the head of all those living in Gilead.
Then jump to 11.5-6:
the elders of Gilead went to get Jephthah from the land of Tob. Come, they said, be our commander, so we can fight the Ammonites.
So Jephthah went with the elders of Gilead, and the people made him head and commander over them.
Then we’ll skip the diplomatic exchanges. They show that the Ammonites have no intention of being reasonable. Jump down to v29:
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.
On to 32:
Then Jephthah went over to fight the Ammonites, and the LORD gave them into his hands.
And finally, to 12.7:
Jephthah led Israel for six years. Then Jephthah the Gileadite died, and was buried in a town in Gilead.
Jephthah’s leadership brought about a dramatic change in the experience of God’s people. Their implacable enemy was subdued. Life was better.
In a different context you could think of the way that the Evangelical Revival in the 18th Century, led by John Wesley, brought about a dramatic change in the experience of God’s people in this country, and on the whole life of the nation – to the point where a recent history was called ‘The Age of Atonement’ because of the profound evangelical influence on the national life.
Under the impact of the leadership of Wesley and others the church and the Christian faith effectively created the national culture – just as Jephthah transformed Israel. That’s what we need to be praying and working for in our day.
That’s the main plot.
Secondly, THE BACK-STORY
To understand the main plot properly, we need to know what’s been going on in the run up to it. This back-story has two parts.
The Back-Story Part One covers what’s been going on the life of Israel. The Ammonites had occupied Gilead and oppressed the Gileadites for the previous 18 years. Ramzi told us about last week. It’s summed up in 10.8-9:
8…[The Ammonites] that year shattered and crushed [the Israelites]. …For eighteen years they oppressed all the Israelites on the east side of the Jordan in Gilead… 9The Ammonites also crossed the Jordan to fight against Judah, Benjamin and the house of Ephraim; and Israel was in great distress.
Think of atheist materialists taking over the dominant positions in our culture, driving Christians and the Christian faith to the margins and the corners of national life, and penalising and persecuting Christian living.
The Back-Story Part Two covers what’s been going on in the life of Jephthah himself. Jephthah as a young man had been thrown out by his family because his mother was a prostitute. But he made a new life abroad, and proved himself to be a formidable leader. That’s there in 11.1-3:
1Jephthah the Gileadite was a mighty warrior. His father was Gilead; his mother was a prostitute. 2Gilead's wife also bore him sons, and when they were grown up, they drove Jephthah away. You are not going to get any inheritance in our family, they said, because you are the son of another woman. 3So Jephthah fled from his brothers and settled in the land of Tob, where a group of adventurers gathered around him and followed him.
Winston Churchill was cast out into the political wilderness by the appeasers in the 1930s because he was thought to be worse than useless. Jephthah was also thought to be a liability. He’d been cast out by his people who didn’t want him around. That’s the two parts of the back story.
Thirdly, THE SUB-PLOTS
There are three sub-plots set into the main narrative here like beads on a string. They all concern Jephthah.
Sub-Plot One: Jephthah and the Gileadites. What happens here is that Jephthah confronts the Gileadites over their hypocritical treatment of him. It’s there in 11.7-8. Take a look:
7Jephthah said to them, Didn't you hate me and drive me from my father's house? Why do you come to me now, when you're in trouble? 8The elders of Gilead said to him, Nevertheless, we are turning to you now…
There is a really nauseating hypocrisy in the way the Gileadites approach Jephthah here. When they thought he was useless and was just going to take a slice of their inheritance, they got shot of him with great cruelty. Now that they need him, because none of them has got the guts to take a lead themselves, they come running. Jephthah exposes that hypocrisy and tests the reality of their new found admiration for him. It would have been easy for him to laugh in their faces and send them packing. But he behaves with great grace, and takes his opportunity to move back home and take the reigns of leadership.
Churchill was in the wilderness until he was shown to have been right and his leadership was needed. Then he was called on.
Isn’t this how so many of us think we can behave towards Christ? We shut him out of our homes and families and lives when we think he’s going to want stuff from us and challenge the way we live. But then the going gets rough in our lives, we find we need him after all, and our prayer life sudden revives. Thank God Jesus is yet more full of grace than Jephthah. He is always ready to take us back if we’re serious, whatever the history of our dealings with him. Sure, the Holy Spirit will expose our hypocrisy. But he won’t shut his ears to our cry.
Sub-Plot Two: Jephthah, his vow and his daughter. This is the story of how Jephthah behaves in a catastrophic way that costs his daughter her life. The rot sets in at the point where Jephthah is advancing against the Ammonites. In other words, this is the moment of maximum stress. This is when his trust in God is being tested to the hilt. And he feels the need to try and pin God down just a little more firmly. So he tries to set up a deal with God. 11.30-31:
30And Jephthah made a vow to the LORD: If you give the Ammonites into my hands, 31whatever 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.
There’s a warning about this kind of thing in the 39 Articles of the Church of England, no less. The 39 Articles says that…
…vain and rash swearing is forbidden Christian men by our Lord Jesus Christ, and James his Apostle…
That’s swearing in the sense of making vows, like Jephthah here. And just how vain and rash his vow is becomes horribly clear later on when he returns home victorious. Look on to 11.34-35:
34When 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 an only child. Except for her he had neither son nor daughter. 35When 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.
She’s made him miserable! That would be laughable if it wasn’t so horrible. What’s more, isn’t it horribly familiar? It’s amazing how easy we find it to blame other people for our own faults.
Jephthah ever so kindly gives his daughter, at her request, one last holiday to give her time, as she puts it,
“to roam the hills and weep with my friends, because I will never marry.” (11.37)
And then, as Judges puts it with concise and stark horror:
… he did to her as he had vowed. (11.39)
In other words, sacrificed her as a burnt offering. A holocaust. Only the very worst of the pagans did that kind of thing. And Jephthah did it in the name of the living God. What a blasphemy. As my grandmother used to say:
Two wrongs don’t make a right.
This doesn’t negate the good and Godly things Jephthah’s done. But at this point in his life, he piles sin upon sin. No doubt we haven’t done quite the same – though the complicity of our society in mass abortions is hardly a moral improvement. But before we look in self-righteous indignation at Jephthah’s big sin, let’s pause to look at the dark places in our own lives. As Jesus said:
“If any one of you is without sin, let him be the first to throw a stone…” (John 8.7)
There’s one more twist to this tale.
Sub-Plot Three: Jephthah, the Gileadites and the Ephraimites. You can read the details of this for yourselves. You’ll find it in 12.1-6. Suffice it to say that once the victory of Jephthah and the Gileadites over the Ammonites has been secured, the Ephraimites decide to pick a fight with them. They’ve been sitting on their backsides during the war, refusing to help, but now they want to share the benefits of the peace. The long and the short of it is that a bloody civil war breaks out in Israel and tens of thousands are slaughtered.
I can’t help but be reminded of the bloodbath in Iraq after the removal of Saddam as Iraqis blew up Iraqis by their thousands. When we read the Book of Judges it can seem like a brutal world from Ancient History. But as Robert Burns put it:
Man’s inhumanity to man
Makes countless thousands mourn!
(from his poem ‘Man Was Made to Mourn’)
And that’s still true of our world today. Which brings me to my final heading.
Fourthly, THE LESSONS
Here are three lessons for us to take away from this account of Jephthah.
Lesson number one: God is the unseen but active character in every situation.
God’s people acknowledge him. God’s enemies ignore him. The Book of Judges is crystal clear that behind Jephthah’s eventful life, God is at work. The most significant relationships here are the relationships between God and each of the main characters.
There are these continual little outcrops in the text that make this clear. Jephthah knew it. So, for instance, he says to the Gileadites who want him to lead them, in 11.9:
“Suppose you take me back to fight the Ammonites and the Lord gives them to me – will I really be your head?”
He know that if he wins it will be the Lord’s doing. And 11.29 says:
Then the Spirit of the Lord came upon Jephthah.
And again in 11.32:
Then Jephthah went over to fight the Ammonites, and the Lord gave them into his hands.
We must be alert to God’s sovereign activity in history, in the church and in our own lives. The best way to make sure that we are alert to that is to talk to God in every situation. That way we won’t be able to forget that he’s in charge of it all; that trusting him is the most important thing we can do in any situation; and that he is one we must look to for help. God is the unseen but active character in every situation.
Lesson number two: Some people behave worse than others, but everybody behaves wickedly.
These incidents end up revealing the evil in the heart of all the main players. The deep sinfulness of the Israelites, the Ammonites, the Gileadites, the Ephraimites and even of Jephthah himself is systematically exposed. That’s something we need to face up to. John Newton, the author of the hymn Amazing Grace, said towards the end of his long life:
“My memory is nearly gone, but I remember two things, that I am a great sinner, and that Christ is a great Saviour.”
We must never underestimate the depth of our own sinfulness or our capacity for evil. And we must never underestimate that capacity in others.
One consequence of that is a realistic view of Christian leaders. They should be honoured. But they must never be idolised. And in the light of Jephthah’s example, we must understand the victor’s vulnerability to defeat. When we are at our apparently most spiritually successful, we are wide open to spiritual defeat. We are never far from a fall. So we need to take great spiritual care. Some people behave worse than others, but everybody behaves wickedly.
Lesson number three: God saves his sinful people who cry out to him.
Jephthah points us to Jesus. He started off despised and rejected. But he was a mighty, God-driven warrior. There was failure and sin in his life, but even that points to Jesus, because it makes it quite clear that we need more than a saviour like Jephthah. We need Jesus. So never despair of God’s rescue, however distressed you become by any situation that you face. But look to Jesus alone to be our sinless, sin-bearing saviour.
Charles Simeon, was one of John Newton’s contemporaries and another of the key leaders of the world-changing evangelical revival. He said this:
I have continually had such a sense of my sinfulness as would sink me into utter despair, if I had not an assured view of the sufficiency and willingness of Christ to save me to the uttermost.
Their awareness of their sinfulness, far from crushing them, was the root of their usefulness to the Kingdom of God, because it caused them continually to rely on Christ. They knew just how much they needed a sinless, sin-bearing saviour. They knew Jesus was the one. They had learned this lesson. God saves his sinful people who cry out to him.