Now Jephthah the Gileadite was a mighty man of valor, and he was the son of an harlot: and Gilead begat Jephthah.…
It is common to regard Jephthah as one of the wildest characters of the Bible — a rough and heedless man; alike rash in vowing and heartless in fulfilling; one whom it is strange to find in the eleventh chapter of Hebrews. Jephthah was neither a godless nor a selfish man. Not godless, for we find in the brief annals of his life more copious recognition of God than in the case of most of the other judges; and not selfish, because, forgetting his private wrongs, he devoted his life to the service of his country, and, overcoming his strongest feelings of natural affection, he did with his daughter according to his vow. We shall be nearer the truth if we regard Jephthah as a good man, sadly misguided; a man roughly trained, poorly educated, and very deficient in enlightened views; wishing to serve God, but in great error as to what would prove an acceptable service; a man in whose religion the ideas of his neighbours of Moab and Ammon had a strong though unknown influence; one who, with the deepest loyalty to God, had unconsciously come under the delusion that Jehovah would accept of such an offering as the neighbouring nations offered to their gods. In trying to estimate Jephthah aright it is necessary that we bear his early history vividly in mind. He had the grievous misfortune to have a wicked mother, a woman of abandoned character; and as in these circumstances his father could not have been much better, his childhood must have been very dreary. No good example, no holy home, no mother's affection, no father's wise and weighty counsel. If Jephthah owed little to his parents, he owed less to his brothers. If he knew little of the sunbeams of parental love, he knew less of the amenities of brotherly affection. By his brothers he was, as we may say, kicked out from his father's house; he was driven forth into the wide, wide world, to shift as he might; and this under the influence of a motive all too common, but which in this case appears in all its native repulsiveness. It was to prevent him from sharing in his father's inheritance; to keep to themselves the largest possible share. A wretched revelation truly of family spirit! None of the dew of Hermon here. The life to which, in these circumstances, Jephthah resorted was wild and rough, but was not considered immoral in those wild times. He became a freebooter on the borders of Moab and Ammon, like many a borderer two or three centuries ago in Cumberland or Wigton; carrying on an irregular warfare in the form of raids for plunder; gathering to himself the riff-raff of the country-side. The occupation was very unfavourable to a religious life, and yet somehow (such is the sovereignty of grace) Jephthah evidently acquired deep religious impressions. He was strong against idolatry, and that not merely because it was the religion of his enemies, but because he had a deep regard for the God of Israel, and had been led in some way to recognise the obligation to serve Him only, and to be jealous for His glory. And, partly perhaps through the great self-control which this enabled him to exercise, and the courageous spirit which a living belief in such a God inspired, he had risen to great distinction as a warrior in the mode of life which he followed, so that when a leader was needed to contend with the Ammonites, Jephthah was beyond all question the man most fitted for the post. It is very singular how things come round. What a strange feeling Jephthah must have had when his brothers and old neighbours came to him, inviting and imploring him to become their head; trying as best they could to undo their former unkindness, and get him, for their safety, to assume the post for which not one of them was fitted! It is amazing what an ill-treated man may gain by patiently biding his time. In every history there are parallel incidents to that which now occurred in the ease of Jephthah — that of Coriolanus, for example; but it is not every one who has proved so prompt and patriotic. He gave way to no reproach over the past, but only made conditions for the future which were alike reasonable and moderate. His promptness supplies a great and oft-needed lesson for Christians; showing how ready we should be to forgive and forget ill-treatment; to return blessing for cursing, and good for evil. But let us now notice what was peculiar in Jephthah's mode of accepting office. In contemplating the prospect of the Ammonites being subdued, it is not he, but Jehovah, whom he regards as the victor. (Judges 11:9); and after he has been made head and captain he utters all his words before the Lord at Mizpeh (ver.11). And now it was that he made his fatal vow. He made it as a new pledge of his dependence on God, and desire to honour Him. The strangest thing about the transaction is, that Jephthah should have been allowed in these circumstances to make such a vow. It was common enough in times of great anxiety and danger to devote some much-valued object to God. But Jephthah left it to God, as it were, to select the object. He would not specify it, but would simply engage, if he should return in peace from the children of Ammon, to offer to the Lord whatever should come forth from the doors of his house to meet him. It seemed a pious act to leave to God the selection of that object. Jephthah's error lay in supposing that God would select, that God would accept the responsibility which he laid upon Him. What followed we hardly need to rehearse. But what became of Jephthah's daughter? Undoubtedly the weight of evidence is in favour of the solution that, like Iphigenia at Aulis, Jephthah's daughter was offered as a burnt-offering. It is a shocking thought, and yet not inconsistent with the supposition that essentially Jephthah was a sincere and loyal servant of God. We must remember that he was an unenlightened man, ill brought up, not possessing the cool, well-balanced judgment of one who had calmly and carefully studied things human and Divine with the best lights of the age, but subject to many an impulse and prejudice that had never been corrected, and had at last become rooted in his nature. We must remember that Gilead was the most remote and least enlightened part of the land of Israel, and that all around, among all his Moabite and Ammonite neighbours, the impression prevailed that human sacrifices were acceptable to the gods. This remarkable narrative carries some striking lessons.
1. In the first place, there is a lesson from the strange, unexpected, and most unseasonable combination in Jephthah's experience of triumph and desolation, public joy and private anguish. It seems so unsuitable, when all hearts are wound up to the feeling of triumph, that horror and desolation should come upon them and overwhelm them. But what seems so unseasonable is what often happens. It often seems as if it would be too much for men to enjoy the fulfilment of their highest aspirations without something of an opposite kind. General Wolfe and Lord Nelson dying in the moment of victory are types of a not infrequent experience. At the moment when Ezekiel attains his highest prophetical elevation, his house is made desolate, his wife dies. The millionaire that has scraped and saved and struggled to leave a fortune to his only son is often called to lay him in the grave. Providence has a wonderful store of compensations. Sometimes those who are highest in worldly position are the dreariest and most desolate in heart.
2. Another striking lesson of Jephthah's life concerns the errors of good men. It dissipates the notion that good men cannot go far wrong. But let us learn from Jephthah all the good we can. He was remarkable for two great qualities. He depended for everything on God; he dedicated everything to God. It is the very spirit which the gospel of Jesus Christ is designed to form and promote. Jephthah was willing, according to his light, to give up to God the dearest object of his heart. One thing is very certain. Such sacrifices can be looked for from none but those who have been reconciled to God by Jesus Christ. To them, but only to them, God has become all in all. They, and they only, can afford to sacrifice all that is seen and temporal.
(W. G. Blaikie, D. D.)
Parallel VersesKJV: Now Jephthah the Gileadite was a mighty man of valour, and he was the son of an harlot: and Gilead begat Jephthah.