Summary: Jephthah rises above being an outcast due to confidence in God and in himself.
“Jephthah, a dirty $20-dollar bill”
Pastor Bob Leroe, Cliftondale Congregational Church, Saugus, Massachusetts
A young child was saying his bedtime prayers, thanking God for the day. He ended his prayer with: “And thank You, God, for the nice boy you gave this family—Amen.” His mother asked, “What nice boy?” He grinned, pointing to himself and said, “Right here—I was thanking God for me!” This positive attitude sounds a lot like Jephthah.
Once again Israel was trusting idols instead of the living God. Pagan deities offered ample opportunity to sin, but provided no means of salvation. The people cry out to God again because they’re in trouble; their devotion is one of convenience, not commitment. They only want God when they need Him. Note the biting sarcasm of God’s response, back in 10:14, “Go and cry out to the gods you have chosen. Let them save you when you are in trouble!” In other words, “Let the things you’ve trusted shelter you, since you’ve refused to trust in Me!” Our modern-day gods fail us—the gods of health, fame, power, wealth and comfort. When we rely on them instead of the True God, we find ourselves as lost as Israel in the distressing days of the Judges. Nonetheless, God doesn’t desert His people; instead He raises up another unlikely leader to deliver His people.
Jephthah is a striking example of rising from humble circumstances. He’s been called “the loser who became a winner” (Donald Campbell). His less-than-stellar qualifications perhaps reflect the infidelity of Israel. He was the illegitimate son of Gilead. We can assume he didn’t have a happy childhood. He was forced to leave his homeland, an outcast, driven away by his 30 half-brothers. In spite of being rejected and exiled, he rises above his circumstances and establishes himself. He gained experience and a reputation as a warrior and leader. In God’s eyes, everyone has worth. We may feel like outcasts, but we can be assured that God loves us. Jephthah’s life teaches us that we can rise above our circumstances. The most motivated people are those with confidence in God and in themselves. When we feel shattered, forsaken and lacking, we learn that the approval of others isn’t what keeps us going—we need first and foremost God’s approval to achieve true success in life.
Jephthah became the only hope to stop the Ammonite invasion. His fame grew through organizing a band of warriors (perhaps fellow outcasts and misfits), which—in hindsight we see as God’s preparation for greater responsibilities. His half-brothers soon arrive, desperate for their estranged brother’s help. He agrees, but with a condition: if he is successful in driving out the enemy, they must vow to accept him as their leader. They haggle with him over this, and finally agree to raise Jephthah’s status as a full citizen of Gilead with a reinstated family inheritance. Jephthah the outcast becomes Jephthah the judge. He finally gains the respect of his family…but first, he had to believe in God and in himself. We can learn to heal the pain of the past. The past doesn’t have to weigh us down. The author of Hebrews encourages us to “throw off every weight that hinders us and the sin that so easily entangles, and run with perseverance the race marked out for us” (12:1). What baggage from our past is hindering us from living for the Lord?
Jephthah doesn’t immediately storm into battle; he first attempts a diplomatic solution by negotiating with the Ammonite king. To his credit, he tries to resolve the conflict without bloodshed. His line of reasoning is recorded in vss 14-27. The inhabitants of Canaan regarded the Jews as invaders, and Jephthah uses this opportunity to explain their legitimate claim and divine right to possess the land. The enemy is given an opportunity to yield to God’s will before force is used. Jephthah is not afraid to combat the enemy, but he sought to avoid an unnecessary war. It’s not surprising that the king rejects Jephthah’s reasoning, so both sides prepare for battle.
We’re told in verse 29 that “the Spirit of the Lord came upon Jephthah.” He was anointed and empowered by God for the task before him. It is evident that the hand of God was enabling Jephthah to deliver Israel. So why does Jephthah make what many regard as a rash, foolish vow? Verses 30-31 are puzzling to many: “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.”
Vows in the Bible are binding obligations, not to be taken lightly. They are oaths, pledges, obligations, even prayerful transactions between God and individuals. I stress the significance of vows when I conduct premarital counseling. Unfortunately some regard vows as bargains made with God. We’ll learn more about vows when we study Samson, who took a Nazarite vow, with detailed requirements. In the Bible, vows are not commanded, but they were tightly regulated. Once made, they were binding. Jephthah didn’t rashly go to war, and perhaps his vow isn’t rash. Vows are very serious matters in Scripture. Ecclesiastes 5:5 warns, “It is better not to vow, than to make a vow and not keep it.”