Judges 11
Pulpit Commentary Homiletics
These different in their nature from that of which the poet speaks - "There's a divinity that shapes our ends, rough-hew them how we will" (Hamlet, 5:2) It is an anticipative part they play. In many lives the manner in which they are thus influenced is apparent; but even when otherwise the effect is none the less powerful and lasting. It has been questioned whether this be not the most important part of the work of creation. Of these influences, notice -


1. In Jephthah's birth. He was a child of shame, the fruit of an age of licentiousness and idolatry. He receives the title Gileadite, yet it is said Gilead was his father; he must therefore either have had a father with such a name, a member of the tribe of Manasseh, living in Gilead, or, having no clear proof of his paternity, have received the tribal name in that relation. A foundling, with a shameful mystery lying behind his life.

2. In the behaviour of men towards him. Those who were his brethren according to the flesh acted a most unbrotherly part. Either from selfishness or a false feeling of shame, they expelled him from his father's house, closing the door of peaceful, honourable toil, and compelling him to resort to a career of bloodshed and irregularity. The very men who might, any of them, have committed a like sin to that of Jephthah's father are forward to rid themselves of its results. The world judges of men rather from their misfortunes than from their personal misdeeds. And where nature has been unkind, "man's inhumanity to man" is only the more signal. A social stigma is worse to bear up against than many of the greatest calamities which do not involve it.

3. In the force of his circumstances as they arose. He is compelled to take up his abode in a far off border town, near to Ammon, the hereditary enemy of Israel, and surrounded by the conditions of a desert life, where he had to be "a law unto himself." A life of guerilla warfare, with its comparatively loose morale, is thrust upon him. Men of like misfortune and disposition, all more or less compromised with their tribes or nations, gather about him, and look to him for direction and initiative. But -

II. NEVERTHELESS, THEY DO NOT DETERMINE DESTINY. He has somehow managed to preserve a measure of morality and religious observance, even in that wilderness stronghold. The worship of Jehovah is maintained, and the heart of the chieftain beats true to all the traditions of Israel. His personal influence and warlike prowess are at its service. His greatest exploits are not those of the private marauder, but of the patriot. It is character alone that determines destiny, and character is in our own keeping. One is continually meeting with such people - people who in difficult circumstances are yet kept on the whole pure and faithful. Such were "they of Caesar's household." And -

III. IF RIGHTLY ENCOUNTERED THEY MAY REDOUND TO ADVANTAGE AND HONOUR. In the hour of Israel's need, repentant and humble, its elders approach the outlaw whom they had expelled. The man himself is not prepared for the singular conversion. He questions them suspiciously, nay, with all his magnanimity, reminds them of their different behaviour in years gone by. They admit all; but they are too humbled to make evasion and to conceal their real motive. He is master of the situation. His whole previous training and reputation now stand him in good stead, and he understands a little of God's dealings with him. The Bible is full of instances of men who have gained power and fame through the overcoming of difficulties. Time and God are on the side of them who, notwithstanding temptation, are found faithful. And is there not One who outshines all others in this? "The stone which the builders rejected is become the head stone of the corner." His career is our incentive and example (Philippians 2:5-11). Have not all rejected Christ? In our need let us go to him, a nobler than Jephthah. - M.

In the behaviour of Jephthah on this occasion we have a noble illustration of the blending of the religious and the patriotic spirit.

I. PERSONAL WRONGS ARE FORGIVEN. He might have brooded over them, sulked, and rejoiced over the elders in their trouble. But he felt that his country's distress was not a time or occasion for revenging the contumely and wrong that were past. This is the true spirit of the patriot. The individual is lost in the commonwealth.

II. HIS COUNTRY'S NEED IS GENEROUSLY RESPONDED TO. What an opportunity for an. unprincipled, irreligious man! He might have turned Israel's loss to his own gain.

III. HIS OWN FORTUNES ARE LOST SIGHT OF IN THE GREATER AMBITION Of BEING THE SAVIOUR OF HIS COUNTRY. Rank he does not value. He refuses leadership until it is shown that he is the Divinely revealed leader. He gives all the honour to Jehovah. From that moment he was at the service of his people, and the unselfish "servant of Jehovah." Men are found who will behave thus for earthly fatherlands and temporal attachments. Often the human tie and the Divine conflict. Jephthah was serving God and country at once. The Christian will serve his friends and his country best by serving God first. How dear should the Church and kingdom of God on earth be to us! All other considerations should be lost sight of in the zeal for our Master's glory. - M.

I. THE VALUE OF A TRUE FRIEND IS SEEN IN THE TIME OF ADVERSITY. Jephthah was hated by the elders of Israel in prosperous times, but when trouble came he was discovered to be their best friend. The wise man will endeavour to cultivate the friendship of the good and great. It is foolish to let valued friends pass away from us through negligence or slight offence. There are few forms of earthly riches more valuable than that of a treasury of friendships. We may be careless of this in circumstances of ease; but if so, trouble will reveal our mistake. Christ is a Friend who sticketh closer than a brother, too often neglected in prosperity, but found to be the one needed Helper in the hour of darkness (Isaiah 32:2).

II. THE BEST FRIEND IS NOT ALWAYS THE MOST POPULAR. He may be poor, unpretending, eccentric, or dull It is foolish to choose our friends by the superficial attractions of social amusement. The boon companion may prove a shallow friend. Sterling qualities of fidelity, self-denying devotion, etc. are not always accompanied by brilliant conversational gifts and such other pleasing characteristics as shine in festive scenes. Christ, the best of friends, was despised and rejected of men. It may be that the very excellency of the friend is the cause of his unpopularity. He will not lend himself to low pursuits, and so is considered morose; he refuses to flatter our weakness, - perhaps bravely and disinterestedly rebukes our faults, - and is therefore thought censorious and offensive; he aims at raising us to what is worthy of our efforts, and is voted "a bore." The time of trouble will destroy this unjust estimate, but it would be more wise and generous in us to value our friends at all times for their best qualities, even though the sobriety of them may appear dull.

III. THE TRUE FRIEND WILL NOT REFUSE HELP IN NEED, ALTHOUGH HE MAY HAVE RECEIVED UNWORTHY TREATMENT IN PROSPEROUS TIMES. Jephthah naturally reproaches the elders of Israel, but he is too noble to refuse to come to their help. True friendship is generous, unselfish, and forgiving. It does not stand "on its rights," "on its dignity." It is more concerned with the welfare of those in whom it is interested than with their deserts. The patriot will not let his country suffer because he is personally piqued at the conduct of its leaders. The Christian should learn not to injure the cause of Christ through the pride and offence which the wrong conduct of responsible persons in the Church may excite. Israel is larger than the elders of Israel. The Church is greater than her doctors and ministers. Jephthah is a type of Christ, who does not refuse to help us though we have rejected him in the past. - A.

How many would have at once swollen with self-conceit! etc. It is a test of the inner life of Jephthah. We may all be more or less tested in this way.

I. HE ENTERED UPON HIS GREAT TASK WITH A SENSE OF SOLEMN RESPONSIBILITY TO GOD. Mizpah was the reminder of an ancient covenant, and its associations are honoured.



I. THE PROFOUND SAGACITY AND SENSE OF INTERNATIONAL COURTESIES AND OBLIGATIONS DISPLAYED BY JEPHTHAH. An historical site is chosen, which had significance to all the nations neighbouring upon it. At Mizpah had Jacob and Laban made solemn covenant. To their descendant nations the place could not but possess a religious interest. It was a distinct advantage, therefore, to take up his head-quarters there. All his soul is possessed by the old associations of the place. It appears even in his language (vers. 10, 11). This persistent reference to the place was a guarantee of good faith and brotherly feeling. He speaks of the gods of Ammon and Israel from a neutral point of view.

II. HIS APPEAL TO HISTORY. It is sacred history, with the seal of God upon it. He recounts the details of the conquest by Israel, so far as they are relevant; shows that their own land is held by that title, and asks why for 300 years Israel's occupancy of the disputed territory had not been contested. The example of Balak, who saw that it would be destruction for him to contend with Israel, and forbore, is quoted aptly. The geographical limits are carefully indicated.

III. ALL THIS WAS WORTH WHILE, even with a heathen adversary. It stated the case upon broad, intelligible grounds; it raised no irrelevant questions, but was conciliatory; and there was no attempt at compromise. It is a moral gain when a point in dispute is thus clearly and dispassionately argued. It did not avert war, but it justified it. And Israel were strengthened and encouraged. The people could grasp the outlines of this great claim. They could go forward with confidence that their cause was righteous, and therefore the cause of God. Disputes between individuals and nations should be settled -

(1) upon common grounds and associations;

(2) courteously and kindly;

(3) with careful regard to facts; and

(4) God should be the great Witness. - M.

There is much at which the modern reader stumbles in the stories of Old Testament warfare. The pitilessness, the assumption that all the right of the question between the belligerents is on one side, the carnage even to extermination, are all repugnant to modern feeling. It is well to look at the Divine background and relation of these wars: therein, and therein alone, will be found their apology, if apology be forthcoming. In the Ammonite war of Jephthah -

I. JUSTIFICATION IS FOUND IN THAT, ON THE LOWEST GROUND, IT WAS A WAR OF SELF-PRESERVATION; AND, ON THE HIGHEST, ISRAEL WAS DEFINITELY AND AUTHORITATIVELY IDENTIFIED WITH THE CAUSE OF GOD'S TRUTH AND RIGHTEOUSNESS, AND APPOINTED THE INSTRUMENT OF HIS JUDGMENTS. In a sense there was "no quarter" in these wars. The claims of the foes of God's people were of the most extreme and exacting character. The barbarians had no pity. It would have been of small moment to them to have "utterly cut off" every man, woman, and child. The greatest crimes were perpetrated by them on the smallest provocation; and they could not be trusted. There was one argument, and one alone, that could be understood - the sword. But there were also weighty interests represented by Israel, for the sake of which it was pre-eminently important that it should continue to exist, and that under conditions of freedom and religion. It was its mission to reveal the will of God to men, not only as a verbal communication, but as a law illustrated in life and conduct. These interests were the highest interests of the world, and Israel was custodian of them for all future ages. There is a humanitarianism that discounts truth, and would reduce all duty to the nearer and more external utilities of life. The Bible, whilst not ignoring the brotherhood of men (no book guards this so jealously), is careful to ground it upon a Divine fatherhood, and to secure its true observance by enforcement of morality and righteousness. Israel, too, was not at liberty to exercise forbearance. "The iniquity" of these nations "was full." They were guilty of unnameable crimes, rejecters of Divine revelation, and cumberers of the ground yet to be occupied by God's gracious purposes.

II. ALL THROUGH JEHOVAH WAS RECOGNISED AS THE TRUE ARBITER. Nothing could be more impressive than the attitude of Jephthah. He is anxious to obtain a just settlement without recourse to arms. He sets forth his statement of the case with the utmost courtesy, exactitude, and forbearance. Every opportunity is given for peaceful understanding; but Ammon turns a deaf ear. Solemnly then, under the peculiar dispensation in which they lived, they put the question in the hands of God. Jehovah is to witness between the disputants, and the war is no longer a confused strife, but a punitive judgment. Israel, under such circumstances, was not at liberty to waive its moral claims, and to grant a truce ere the enemy had yielded the point at issue. Israel is the instrument of Divine vengeance upon a wicked and obstinate nation. It is an anachronism of the gravest consequence to judge of the wars of the ancient world by the ameliorated conditions of modern life.

III. THE LEADER OF ISRAEL RECEIVED HIS COMMISSION DIRECTLY FROM THE HANDS OF GOD. Nothing else can be meant by "then the Spirit of Jehovah came upon Jephthah." Divine impulse, Divine wisdom, Divine obligation are all implied. It is no longer a war whose main issues and movements are subject to fallible human conditions; it is really in God's hands. He bears the blame, so far as his commands are observed. If the mode of warfare, etc. appear inhuman, it will be because our minds fail to grasp the tremendous importance of that righteousness of which they were the slow precursors and rude witnesses.

IV. THE WAR IS CARRIED ON IN THE SPIRIT OF SELF-SACRIFICE AND IMPLICIT DEVOTION. The vow of Jephthah shows this. He anticipates his return in victory, and the people's enthusiastic welcome to him as their deliverer. Like Gideon, he will not accept this; it is Jehovah's alone. To Jehovah, therefore, he vows of his own "whatsoever cometh forth (out) of the doors of my house to meet me." No gratification of self, therefore, could be the motive of such a campaign. If, on the other hand, there is not that repugnance to bloodshed displayed by Jephthah that might be looked for in a Christian leader, we must remember that the religious nature developed slowly in human history, and God chose his instruments not because they were perfect, but, such as they were, to bring on higher possibilities and a better time. - M.

I. THE SPIRIT OF THE LORD IS NOT A MERE INFLUENCE, BUT A LIVING PRESENCE. It is taught throughout Scripture that God does not only bestow graces, but also comes personally into our souls (John 14:16, 17). This Divine presence may not be perceived by the senses, as in the visions of the dove (Matthew 3:16) and of the cloven tongues of fire (Acts 2:3). It need not give rise to any ecstasy or visible excitement, as in the case of the Corinthian Church (1 Corinthians 14:2). It may be without the immediate consciousness of the subject. But it will be proved by its effects.

II. THE SPIRIT OF THE LORD COMES UPON A MAN TO INSPIRE HIM FOR SERVICE. God does not simply inhabit a man as a temple; he infuses his life into the very being of the man; transforms, elevates: enlightens, strengthens. Thus Jephthah found the Spirit to be the source of his power for battle. God's Spirit is always the spring of the Christian's highest energies. It is foolish to attempt to do any good work without the aid that is given by the indwelling power of God.


1. God's Spirit affects us differently, according to our natural differences. To the thoughtful man he is a spirit of understanding. To him who hungers and thirsts after righteousness he is a spirit of holiness. To the sympathiser, the comforting friend, he is a spirit of love. To the active worker he is a spirit of power.

2. God's Spirit also affects us differently according to the needs of the times. God does not waste his influence; he adapts it to requirements. Therefore we must not think that his Spirit is less with us than with men of old because the manifestation is different, nor that he is less with those who have not the form of spiritual influence which we esteem most than with those who possess it (1 Corinthians 12:6).

IV. THE SPIRIT OF THE LORD DOES NOT ANNIHILATE THE INDIVIDUAL CHARACTERS OF MEN. Jephthah retains his natural characteristics, and still shows them.

1. God's Spirit does not supersede natural talent, but enlightens, purifies, and strengthens.

2. God's Spirit does not destroy human weakness. Jephthah has the Spirit of the Lord, yet he may be rash and may err. The spirit of wisdom does not necessarily accompany the spirit of strength. We may have the presence of the Spirit, and yet not be filled with the Spirit, so that human weakness may linger by the side of Divine power. - A.

What it involved has been much disputed. But the wording of the vow certainly admits of an interpretation consistent with the highest humanity. The object is expressed neutrally, as being more comprehensive; but there is a distinction introduced into the consequent member of the sentence which shows that regard is had to a dual possibility, viz., of the object being either personal or otherwise. If the former, he or she was to be "Jehovah's," an expression unnecessary if it was to be made a burnt offering, and which could only mean "dedicated to perpetual virginity or priesthood." If the latter, he would "offer it for a burnt offering." It bears out this that his daughter asks for two months "to bewail her virginity." The inference is imperative. It was not death, but perpetual virginity, to which she was devoted. In this vow we observe -

I. THE SPIRIT OF CONSECRATION IT EVINCED. Its meaning was evident. Jehovah was the true Judge and Deliverer of Israel. His, therefore, should be the glory when Israel returned in victory. There was to be no diverting of honour from him to Jephthah. A sacrifice, therefore, should be made before all men to acknowledge this. But as Jephthah is the person most in danger of being tempted to forget God's claim, he himself gives anticipatively of his own, and of his own, especially, which might be considered as specially for his honour. It was a "blank form" to be filled up by Providence as it would.

II. THE UNEXPECTED FORM THE SACRIFICE ASSUMED. How it astonishes men when God takes them at their word! Not that they do not mean what they say, but they do not realise all it implies. God ever does this that he may educate the heart in loving sacrifice, and reveal the grandeur and absoluteness of his own claim upon us.


1. The mutual love of parent and child. They both sorrow because she is an only child, and they are all in all to one another. It was a keen, real sacrifice.

2. The unquestioning and cheerful obedience of the child. Like Isaac and Christ.

3. The unwavering fidelity of Jephthah to his vow. It was the wisest course, and the one that proved best the fidelity and infinite love of God. There was sorrow, but who will say that there was not a compensating blessedness in the act, and a "more exceeding weight of glory" in the ages to come? This is what God expects. Have we ever vowed to him? If so, have we paid our vows? Negligence in this matter will explain much that distresses and perplexes us. Honesty towards God - how few practise it! Yet this is the true proof of him (Malachi 3:10).

IV. HOW AN ABSOLUTE PERSONAL SACRIFICE MAY BECOME A NATIONAL IDEAL AND ATONEMENT. The circumstances were such that all Israel sympathised with the act of self-devotion. It fell in with the national mood and carried it to heroic pitch. The "custom in Israel" shows how profoundly the spirit of the people had been touched. The maiden offered to Jehovah is adopted as the offering of her people, a vicarious sacrifice of their repentance and faith. So does the Lord Jesus, the Son of God, become the world's atonement (2 Corinthians 5:14, 15). - M.

Jephthah's conduct should be viewed in the light of his age and of his own conscientious convictions, and not judged by the clearer light and changed convictions of Christendom. Measured by modern standards, it may appear superstitious, cruel, insane; but measured by the only standards to which Jephthah could bring it, his conduct was noble beyond expression. From the incident generally we may gather the following lessons: -

I. THE HAND OF GOD SHOULD BE RECOGNISED IN OUR GOOD AND FRUITFUL WORKS. The eiders had called upon Jephthah to deliver them from the Ammonites. Yet the warrior saw that his own right hand could not secure the victory; if this came, it must be from God. Such conduct shows humility - a difficult grace for a popular hero to practise in the midst of his triumph; and faith in discerning the secret of success in the presence of God, and trusting to this before entering the battle.

II. IT IS RIGHT THAT WE SHOULD RECOGNISE GOD'S CLAIMS IN RETURN FOR THE RECEPTION OF HIS GRACE. The thank offering belongs not to the Levitical law alone, but to all religion (Romans 12:1). It is foolish to think to buy the help of God by promising him devotion in return (Genesis 28:20-22). But it may be helpful to our fulfilment of the duties of gratitude if we recognise the obligation of thankfulness even before we receive the special blessing of God, as we are more likely to realise it fully then than after we are relieved and satisfied. It should always be remembered that we have already received such great bounties from God that we are under constant obligations to him, that he claims our hearts, our possessions, our all, and that our true blessedness is only found in perfect surrender to him.

III. IT IS GENERALLY FOOLISH AND WRONG TO MAKE A VOW THE CONSEQUENCES OF WHICH WE DO NOT FORESEE. There may be an occasional advantage in the vow to bind the soul by a solemn recognition of its obligations; but we are equally required to give God our all whether we make a vow or no. Nothing is more weak than to vow at a time when we axe not called to make a sacrifice, and then to prove unequal to the sacrifice when this is required. It is better to count the cost and refrain from making the vow if necessary (Luke 14:28). The vow is often only a sign of presumption. It would be well for us to turn our vows into prayers, and instead of promising that we will do some great thing, to ask God to give us grace to do it. Still, viewed from the standpoint of devotion, there is something noble in the perfect surrendering of self, and the brave trustfulness of Jephthah's vow.

IV. WE SHOULD CONSIDER OURSELVES BOUND TO KEEP THOSE VOWS WHICH WE MAKE TO OUR OWN HURT SO LONG AS WE DO NOT FEEL THIS TO BE WRONG. Our own inconvenience is no excuse for declining to fulfil an obligation, just because we did not anticipate the trouble in entering into the obligation (Psalm 15:4). But our conviction of wrong is a reason for not keeping our promise. A promise to do evil is void from the first. It is wrong to make such a promise; to fulfil it is to add a second wrong. We can never bind ourselves by vow to do that which it would not be right for us to do without the vow. Therefore for us, with our Christian light, it would be sinful to fulfil such a vow as Jephthah's. Nevertheless, the great Hebrew hero clearly felt that it was his duty to fulfil it, and therefore to him the vow was binding. If we blame him, it must be

(1) for the rashness which allowed him to contract himself into an obligation which he would never have entered with his eyes opened, and

(2) for the ignorance of the character of God which is shown in his supposition that God could be pleased with the sacrifice of his daughter. Even the imperfect revelation of God then vouchsafed should have prevented such a frightful misconception if it had been rightly used (Genesis 22:12). But we may find more of good example than of warning in the whole incident. Pathetic as is the error of Jephthah, his magnificent fidelity is a model of religious heroism. - A.

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