Then the Spirit of the LORD came on Jephthah, and he passed over Gilead, and Manasseh, and passed over Mizpeh of Gilead…
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.
Parallel VersesKJV: Then the Spirit of the LORD came upon Jephthah, and he passed over Gilead, and Manasseh, and passed over Mizpeh of Gilead, and from Mizpeh of Gilead he passed over unto the children of Ammon.