Introduction: “There is a way which seems right to a man, but its end is the way of death.” (Prov. 14:12; 16:25). The people of Gilead needed a deliverer to free them from the oppression of their enemies. But they failed to ask God in prayer to raise up a deliverer for them. Instead, they did what they thought was right in their own eyes. They picked one of the most violent men they knew, Jephthah, to lead them. They picked Jephthah even though they had previously rejected him and turned him into the violent and manipulative man that he had become. Out of mercy and grace, God gave the people of Gilead what they wanted by empowering Jephthah with His strength to defeat their foreign enemies. But the Jews were then stuck with a violent and evil man as their leader. From this account, God reveals seven lessons on the dangers of relying upon your own understanding instead of His will, as revealed through prayer and the Word.
First, through Jephthah’s rejection and violent life stemming from his father’s adultery with a prostitute, He reveals that His laws against immorality exist for your protection. Second, through Gilead’s selection of Jephthah as deliverer based upon his violent reputation, He reveals that He will guide you from making poor choices when you turn to Him in prayer. Third, through Jephthah’s inability to deter the Ammonites after citing the Bible, He reveals that His Word will only rebuke when it is used in faith and with the right motives. Fourth, by empowering Jephthah with His Spirit to gather an army of soldiers to defeat the Ammonites in battle, He shows that His love, mercy, and grace is greater than your failures. Fifth, through His silence in response to Jephthah’s misguided vow to make a human sacrifice, He reveals that sin can hinder your prayers. Sixth, through His grace in defeating Israel’s enemy, He reveals that He is faithful even when you are not. Finally, through Jephthah’s unlawful sacrifice of his daughter, He reveals that failure to know His Word can result in poor or tragic decisions.
Jephthah’s violent life caused by his people’s rejection of him and his illegitimate status. Jephthah was the eighth of Israel’s 12 deliverers. But He was unique amongst the deliverers because God did not select him. Instead, the people selected him because of the violent man that he became as a result of the way they had treated him: “1 Now Jephthah the Gileadite was a valiant warrior, but he was the son of a harlot. And Gilead was the father of Jephthah. 2 Gilead’s wife bore him sons; and when his wife’s sons grew up, they drove Jephthah out and said to him, ‘You shall not have an inheritance in our father’s house, for you are the son of another woman.’ 3 So Jephthah fled from his brothers and lived in the land of Tob; and worthless fellows gathered themselves about Jephthah, and they went out with him.” (Jdgs. 11:1-3). “Gilead” was not only the name of Jephthah’s father, it was also the name of both his tribe and a Jewish territory in Jordan (Jdgs. 10:8). It was also the name of the grandson of Manasseh (Joseph’s son) and the son of Machir. The tribe of Gilead decided to forgo an inheritance in the Promised Land and live in what is today northern Jordan (1 Chr. 7:14, 17; Nu. 26:29-30). While Gilead symbolized a man of pure Jewish heritage, his pure pedigree did not correlate to pure conduct. He broke God’s covenant in multiple ways by committing adultery with what most believe was a Canaanite prostitute. First, adultery violated God’s Seventh Commandment (Ex. 20:14; Dt. 5:18). Second, sex with a prostitute violated God’s Tenth Commandment against coveting (Ex. 20:17; Dt. 5:21). Third, prostitution by God’s people profaned His name and thereby violated the Third Commandment as well. Prostitution also violated other laws as well. Jews were forbidden from allowing their daughters to become prostitutes (Lev. 19:29). The Jews were also forbidden from being with Canaanite prostitutes (Ex. 34:15-16; Dt. 7:1-5). Because most Canaanite prostitutes were temple prostitutes for Baal, sleeping with a temple prostitute also violated God’s Second Commandment against idolatry (Ex. 20:4-6; Dt. 5:8-10). Israel’s prostitution and its sexual immorality were among the many reasons that God ultimately judged it: “Why should I pardon you? Your sons have forsaken Me and sworn by those who are not gods. When I had fed them to the full, they committed adultery and trooped to the harlot’s house. They were well-fed lusty horses, each one neighing after his neighbor’s wife.” (Jer. 5:7-8; 13:27; 29:23). To eliminate any doubt amongst Christians about whether they are freed from these laws, Paul reaffirmed them (1 Cor. 6:16). Thus, Jephthah was the offspring of an unholy union.
Jephthah grew up despised and rejected because of his background1
God’s laws against adultery and prostitution are for your protection. Because Jephthah was the son of a presumed Canaanite prostitute, his siblings hated him. Motivated by greed so that they would not have to split their inheritance, his siblings rallied the town elders to drive Jephthah out of Gilead (Jdgs. 11:2). Jephthah was forced to live as a refugee in the Canaanite town of Tob (Jdgs. 11:3). There, he joined together with criminals and became a violent man (Jdgs. 11:1, 3). Thus, Gilead’s adultery brought only sorrow to Jephthah and conflict within his family. Gilead was just one of many Old Testament men to elect to have multiple wives. In every other instance of a man sleeping with more than one woman, the man, his wife and their family experienced only conflict and sorrow. The list of troubled families following adultery or polygamy include: (1) Abram’s decision to sleep with Sarai’s servant Hagar and later take on additional wives (Gen. 16:4-5; 16:12); (2) Jacob’s marriage to Rachel and Leah (Gen. 30); (3) David’s adultery with Bathsheba (2 Sam. 11); and (4) Solomon’s decision to take on 700 wives and 300 concubines (1 Kgs. 11). Through these many lessons, the New Testament is clear that a man should have only one wife (Matt. 19:4-6; 1 Tim. 3:2). God’s laws on morality are meant for your protection. Failing to follow them brings only sorrow.
Gilead’s selection of Jephthah as deliverer based upon his violent reputation. The elders of Gilead never turned to God for help in finding a deliverer. Instead, after their efforts to find a volunteer failed, they turned to Jephthah because of his reputation as a fearsome and violent warrior: “4 It came about after a while that the sons of Ammon fought against Israel. 5 When the sons of Ammon fought against Israel, the elders of Gilead went to get Jephthah from the land of Tob; 6 and they said to Jephthah, ‘Come and be our chief that we may fight against the sons of Ammon.’ 7 Then Jephthah said to the elders of Gilead, ‘Did you not hate me and drive me from my father’s house? So why have you come to me now when you are in trouble?’” (Jdgs. 11:4-7). Although the elders of Gilead were desperate for help, they were not ready to fully embrace Jephthah. Thus, they made a limited offer to him. They offered him the opportunity to become the “chief” of their military forces, not their ruler (Jdgs. 11:6). Jephthah, however, did not trust the elders because they had previously driven him out (Jdgs. 11:7). He knew that the Jews were desperate. He also knew that they had no love or trust in him. They only wanted him solely because of the violent skills he had acquired from their prior mistreatment of him.
Gilead’s elders selected Jephthah as their deliverer based upon his violent reputation2
Jephthah’s manipulation of the elders for personal gain. Like the elders of Gilead, Jephthah never brought the offer to lead to God’s attention through prayer. Instead, because he knew that the elders were desperate and in a weak bargaining position, he manipulated them to make him their permanent leader if he helped them: “8 The elders of Gilead said to Jephthah, ‘For this reason we have now returned to you, that you may go with us and fight with the sons of Ammon and become head over all the inhabitants of Gilead.’ 9 So Jephthah said to the elders of Gilead, ‘If you take me back to fight against the sons of Ammon and the Lord gives them up to me, will I become your head?’ 10 The elders of Gilead said to Jephthah, ‘The Lord is witness between us; surely we will do as you have said.’ 11 Then Jephthah went with the elders of Gilead, and the people made him head and chief over them; and Jephthah spoke all his words before the Lord at Mizpah.” (Jdgs. 11:8-11). Jephthah most likely knew that the people had agreed to appoint as their ruler anyone who could defeat the enemy in battle: “The people, the leaders of Gilead, said to one another, ‘Who is the man who will begin to fight against the sons of Ammon? He shall become head over all the inhabitants of Gilead.’” (Jdgs. 10:18). Because the Jews failed to pray before selecting Jephthah, they were later stuck with him as their leader when he became a tyrant and inflicted pain upon the people.
God wants to guide you through the Word and prayer. God does not want you to become yoked together with men and women who do not follow after Him. To help you from making similar mistakes, He has left you both His Word and His Spirit to guide you. “Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path.” (Ps. 119:105). Through the Word, the Holy Spirit will then guide you in the different circumstances that you will face in life: “But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in My name, He will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all that I said to you.” (Jo. 14:26). Yet, in order for the Holy Spirit to remind you, you need to know the Word. Have you given the Spirit a lot of verses to work with? What can He tell you if you have only memorized a few verses?
Jephthah’s rebuke to the territorial claims of the Ammonites. Before engaging his enemy in battle, Jephthah first sought to undermine the enemy’s morale by debunking their claim to the land occupied by the tribe of Gilead. The Ammonites had made a claim to a land previously occupied by the unrelated nation of Ammorites, not the Ammonites: “12 Now Jephthah sent messengers to the king of the sons of Ammon, saying, ‘What is between you and me, that you have come to me to fight against my land?’ 13 The king of the sons of Ammon said to the messengers of Jephthah, ‘Because Israel took away my land when they came up from Egypt, from the Arnon as far as the Jabbok and the Jordan; therefore, return them peaceably now.’ 14 But Jephthah sent messengers again to the king of the sons of Ammon, 15 and they said to him, ‘Thus says Jephthah, ‘Israel did not take away the land of Moab nor the land of the sons of Ammon. 16 For when they came up from Egypt, and Israel went through the wilderness to the Red Sea and came to Kadesh, 17 then Israel sent messengers to the king of Edom, saying, ‘Please let us pass through your land,’ but the king of Edom would not listen. And they also sent to the king of Moab, but he would not consent. So Israel remained at Kadesh. 18 Then they went through the wilderness and around the land of Edom and the land of Moab, and came to the east side of the land of Moab, and they camped beyond the Arnon; but they did not enter the territory of Moab, for the Arnon was the border of Moab. 19 And Israel sent messengers to Sihon king of the Amorites, the king of Heshbon, and Israel said to him, ‘Please let us pass through your land to our place.’ 20 But Sihon did not trust Israel to pass through his territory; so Sihon gathered all his people and camped in Jahaz and fought with Israel. 21 The Lord, the God of Israel, gave Sihon and all his people into the hand of Israel, and they defeated them; so Israel possessed all the land of the Amorites, the inhabitants of that country. 22 So they possessed all the territory of the Amorites, from the Arnon as far as the Jabbok, and from the wilderness as far as the Jordan. 23 Since now the Lord, the God of Israel, drove out the Amorites from before His people Israel, are you then to possess it? 24 Do you not possess what Chemosh your god gives you to possess? So whatever the Lord our God has driven out before us, we will possess it. 25 Now are you any better than Balak the son of Zippor, king of Moab? Did he ever strive with Israel, or did he ever fight against them? 26 While Israel lived in Heshbon and its villages, and in Aroer and its villages, and in all the cities that are on the banks of the Arnon, three hundred years, why did you not recover them within that time? 27 I therefore have not sinned against you, but you are doing me wrong by making war against me; may the Lord, the Judge, judge today between the sons of Israel and the sons of Ammon.’ 28 But the king of the sons of Ammon disregarded the message which Jephthah sent him.” (Jdgs. 11:12-28). Jephthah’s partial summary of the Jews’ conquest of Jordan had three key points. First, he emphasized that the Jews were a peaceful people who sought to avoid war with all the nations of Jordan. With great difficulty, they traveled around the land of Moab in southern Jordan when their king denied the Jews’ request for safe passage (Nu. 20:14-22; 21:4-5). The Jews only conquered the Amorite territory of northern Jordan after King Sihon and King Og refused to let them pass freely (Nu. 21:21-35). Second, the Ammonites had no historical claim to the land of Gilead. Jephthah intentionally omitted the Ammonites from his historical survey because they were not in Jordan when the Jews passed through. Nor had then been there for the prior 300 years while the Jews lived there (Jdgs. 11:26). The land previously belonged to the Ammorites, not the Ammonites: “Sihon king of the Amorites, who lived in Heshbon, and ruled from Aroer, which is on the edge of the valley of the Arnon, both the middle of the valley and half of Gilead, even as far as the brook Jabbok, the border of the sons of Ammon;” (Josh. 12:2). “From Aroer which is on the edge of the valley of Arnon and from the city which is in the valley, even to Gilead, there was no city that was too high for us; the LORD our God delivered all over to us.” (Dt. 2:36). Third, God gave the defeated King Sihon and Og’s lands to the Jews, not the Ammonites: “So we took possession of this land at that time. From Aroer, which is by the valley of Arnon, and half the hill country of Gilead and its cities I gave to the Reubenites and to the Gadites.” (Dt. 3:12). “So Moses gave Gilead to Machir the son of Manasseh, and he lived in it.” (Nu. 32:40; Dt. 3:13-5). But Jephthah’s rebuke was ineffective. The lesson is not that God’s Word is ineffective. “For the word of God is living and active and sharper than any two-edged sword, and piercing as far as the division of soul and spirit, of both joints and marrow, and able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart.” (Heb. 4:12). Instead, the Word is ineffective when it is not used in faith or with the wrong motives.
Jephthah’s failure to use God’s Word properly. William Shakespeare once said: “The devil can cite Scripture for his purpose.” Indeed, Satan quoted Scripture in a failed effort to tempt Jesus (Matt. 4:5-6). Jephthah made three key mistakes in attempting to use Scripture. First, he failed to cite it in faith. He instead treated it like a dead history document. He did not rebuke the enemy in God’s name. Second, he failed to cite it accurately. He called “Chemosh” the god of the Ammorites. But Chemosh was the god of the Moabites, not the Ammonites: “Woe to you, O Moab! You are ruined, O people of Chemosh! He has given his sons as fugitives, and his daughters into captivity, to an Amorite king, Sihon.” (Nu. 21:29). “Woe to you, Moab! The people of Chemosh have perished; for your sons have been taken away captive and your daughters into captivity.” (Jer. 48:46). “Then, like fleeing birds or scattered nestlings, the daughters of Moab will be at the fords of the Arnon.” (Is. 16:2). “Milkom” was the god of the Ammonites (1 Kgs. 11:5-7, 33; Zeph. 1:4-6). Third, he cited Scripture with the wrong motives. He most likely cited to the wrong pagan god to taunt and offend the Ammonites. He also asked if they were stronger than Balak as a taunt (Jdgs. 1:25). God’s Word rebukes evil. Yet, it does so with the goal of repentance and restoration, not antagonism: “but sanctify Christ as Lord in your hearts, always being ready to make a defense to everyone who asks you to give an account for the hope that is in you, yet with gentleness and reverence;” (1 Pet. 3:15). “Let your speech always be with grace, as though seasoned with salt, so that you will know how you should respond to each person.” (Col. 4:6). “Let no unwholesome word proceed from your mouth, but only such a word as is good for edification according to the need of the moment, so that it will give grace to those who hear.” (Eph. 4:29). Are your words of correction spoken with love and with the goal of restoration? Or, do you cut people down when they offend you?
God’s grace in anointing mankind’s appointed deliverer. Jephthah was not worthy to be God’s deliverer. But God showed His mercy and grace in empowering Jephthah with the Holy Spirit to gather an army of Jewish soldiers to defeat the Ammonites in battle: “29 Now the Spirit of the Lord came upon Jephthah, so that he passed through Gilead and Manasseh; then he passed through Mizpah of Gilead, and from Mizpah of Gilead he went on to the sons of Ammon.” (Jdgs. 11:29). Even though mankind selected Jephthah, the Bible makes clear that God agreed to anoint him out of grace to be one of His deliverers: “Then the LORD sent Jerubbaal and Bedan and Jephthah and Samuel, and delivered you from the hands of your enemies all around, so that you lived in security.” (1 Sam. 12:11). “And what more shall I say? For time will fail me if I tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets,” (Heb. 11:32). But God showed that He was not close to Jephthah through His silence. Unlike the other deliverers, God did not speak with him. He empowered Jephthah despite his character, not because of it.
God is filled with mercy and grace even when you fail Him. God also empowers believers with His Holy Spirit out of love, mercy, and grace. Like Jephthah, you are not deserving of this gift. “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,” (Ro. 3:23). “Indeed, there is not a righteous man on earth who continually does good and who never sins.” (Ecc. 7:20). If you are grateful for God’s gifts to you, how are you thanking Him?
Through God’s grace, He allowed the Spirit of the Lord to came upon Jephthah3
Jephthah’s misguided vow. Jephthah never thanked God for the army that He assembled for him. Instead, he worried out of a lack of faith that the people would abandon him if he lost in battle. Thus, in an effort to manipulate God, he made an illegal vow of a human sacrifice if God helped him: “30 Jephthah made a vow to the Lord and said, ‘If You will indeed give the sons of Ammon into my hand, 31 then it shall be that whatever comes out of the doors of my house to meet me when I return in peace from the sons of Ammon, it shall be the Lord’s, and I will offer it up as a burnt offering.’” (Jdgs. 11:30-31). The Jews had made vows to destroy the Canaanites if God helped them in battle: “So Israel made a vow to the LORD and said, ‘If You will indeed deliver this people into my hand, then I will utterly destroy their cities.”’ (Nu. 21:2). But they had never vowed to sacrifice their people because it was against God’s Law. Although Jephthah would express surprise when his daughter would be the one to pass through his door, he could not have expected the sacrifice to be an animal. God did not respond to Jephthah’s vow. The lesson is that He does not always respond when your heart is not right with Him.
God’s warning that He would hide His face from the Jews when they sinned. God promised that He would never permanently forsake the Jews (Dt. 31:6). But He warned that their disobedience could cause Him to temporarily “spurn” them and hide His face from them: “19 The Lord saw this, and spurned them because of the provocation of His sons and daughters. 20 Then He said, ‘I will hide My face from them, I will see what their end shall be; for they are a perverse generation, sons in whom is no faithfulness.” (Dt. 32:19-20). “But I will surely hide My face in that day because of all the evil which they will do, for they will turn to other gods.” (Dt. 31:18). If Jews were in open rebellion, He would not “hear” their prayers: “So when you spread out your hands in prayer, I will hide My eyes from you; yes, even though you multiply prayers, I will not listen. Your hands are covered with blood.” (Is. 1:15; 8:17). When you follow the Law, God can clearly hear your prayers (Jam. 5:16). Conversely, when you openly sin, your prayers may be “hindered” (1 Pet. 3:7; Jo. 9:31). The reason for this is that sin cannot be in God’s presence, and He “cannot look on wickedness.” (Hab. 1:13). When you act righteously, your prayers are a sweet aroma (Ps. 141:2; Rev. 5:8; 8:3). Thankfully, if you are sinning and you repent of your sins, God is faithful to forgive you (1 Jo. 1:9). Are there any sins in your life that you need to repent of so that your prayers will not be hindered?
God’s grace in defeating Israel’s enemy. Even though Jephthah had prayed amiss, God again showed mercy and grace in defeating the Jews’ enemies: “32 So Jephthah crossed over to the sons of Ammon to fight against them; and the Lord gave them into his hand. 33 He struck them with a very great slaughter from Aroer to the entrance of Minnith, twenty cities, and as far as Abel-keramim. So the sons of Ammon were subdued before the sons of Israel.” (Jdgs. 11:32-33). God had promised to protect the Jews (Dt. 28:7). He fulfilled His Word, even though neither Jephthah nor the Jews were worthy of it.
God empowers Jephthah to defeat the Ammonites4
God is faithful even when you are not. Believers can read this account and give thanks that God’s faithfulness is not conditioned upon your faithfulness. “If we are faithless, He remains faithful, for He cannot deny Himself.” (2 Tim. 2:13). “God is not a man, that He should lie, nor a son of man, that He should repent; has He said, and will He not do it? Or has He spoken, and will He not make it good?” (Nu. 23:19). “My covenant I will not violate, nor will I alter the utterance of My lips.” (Ps. 89:34). “Know therefore that the LORD your God, He is God, the faithful God, who keeps His covenant and His lovingkindness to a thousandth generation with those who love Him and keep His commandments;” (Dt. 7:9). Do you give thanks for His faithfulness when yours fails?
Jephthah’s misguided and unlawful sacrifice of his daughter. After defeating his enemies, Jephthah fulfilled his misguided vow by sacrificing his daughter when she walked through his door to greet him: “34 When Jephthah came to his house at Mizpah, behold, his daughter was coming out to meet him with tambourines and with dancing. Now she was his one and only child; besides her he had no son or daughter. 35 When he saw her, he tore his clothes and said, ‘Alas, my daughter! You have brought me very low, and you are among those who trouble me; for I have given my word to the Lord, and I cannot take it back.’ 36 So she said to him, ‘My father, you have given your word to the Lord; do to me as you have said, since the Lord has avenged you of your enemies, the sons of Ammon.’ 37 She said to her father, ‘Let this thing be done for me; let me alone two months, that I may go to the mountains and weep because of my virginity, I and my companions.’ 38 Then he said, ‘Go.’ So he sent her away for two months; and she left with her companions, and wept on the mountains because of her virginity. 39 At the end of two months she returned to her father, who did to her according to the vow which he had made; and she had no relations with a man. Thus it became a custom in Israel, 40 that the daughters of Israel went yearly to commemorate the daughter of Jephthah the Gileadite four days in the year.” (Jdgs. 11:34-40). Many commentators doubt that Jephthah as a deliverer could have actually killed his daughter. Thus, some believe that he merely forced his daughter into a life of celibacy. Yet, this is not what the text says. Normally, a person is obligated to fulfill his or her vows: “If a man makes a vow to the LORD, or takes an oath to bind himself with a binding obligation, he shall not violate his word; he shall do according to all that proceeds out of his mouth.” (Nu. 30:2; Dt. 23:21; Ecc. 5:4; Ps. 66:13; 50:14). Even Jesus commanded believers to fulfill their vows to God (Matt. 5:33). Yet, Jephthah’s vow was not an act of piety to God. It was an act of idolatry. God’s Law expressly forbids child sacrifices of all forms. This was amongst the many detestable things in Canaan that the Jews were to avoid (Lev. 18:21; 20:1-5; 1 Kgs. 11:7; 2 Kgs. 23:10; Jer. 32:35). Jephthah was not bound to fulfill an unlawful vow (cf., Lev. 27:26). Even if the vow were lawful, the Law allowed him to break a “difficult vow” by paying the redemption price of the vow in silver (Lev. 27:1-8). But the price would have likely required that he become an indentured servant. This was apparently too high a price to save his daughter’s life. If Jephthah had known God’s Word, none of this would have happened. His Word will protect you from foolish vows.
Jephthah’s foolish vow5
Jesus can also annual our false or foolish vows. Through faith in Jesus, you will one day also be married to Him in heaven (Eph. 5:23-30; Rev. 19:6-8; 21:2). As a future bridegroom, He can annul a vow that you make if it is not Biblical (Nu. 30:5, 8). If you have made a foolish vow, He can also annul them when you repent.