Today’s episode about Jephthah must rank as the mother of all foot-in-mouth stories. I’ve got some sympathy for Jepthah – I’ve been known to put my foot in my mouth on the odd occasion. I’m WORKING on it. It’s only taken about 30 years so far!
Perhaps you’ve heard a few good foot-in-mouth stories. Like the man who offered to help a large lady get down from a ladder. “Let me help. You shouldn’t be climbing a ladder in your condition. How long until you have the baby?” I’m not pregnant came the icy reply.
Or the mother of twins who was complimented by another mum on her gorgeous twins. “What beautiful boys! I have twins at home, too. What are your sons names?”
“Caleb and Austen,” the first mother replied. then added recklessly, “Don’t you just hate it when people give their twins cute sound-alike names like ‘Brandon’ and ‘Brandi’ or ‘Marlene’ and ‘Charlene’?”
The second mum frowned, but offered no response. The first mum should have recognised the signs, but continued blithely on “So . . . what are your twins’ names?”
“Jimmy and Jamie,” can the sharp reply before the second mum stomped off.
But as foot-in-mouth stories go, those ones pall into insignificance with the clanger Jephthah drops. Which we’ll get to in a moment.
But SHOOTING YOUR MOUTH OFF is a bit of a theme in today’s chapters.
It begins even before Jephthah’s introduced. The Israelites have gone astray… AGAIN. Following other gods. And God’s angry – he hands them over to the Philistines and Ammonites who oppress them for 18 years.
And listen to what the people cry. The FIRST example of recklessly shooting your mouth off. V15 of ch 10.
“We have sinned. DO WITH US WHATEVER YOU THINK BEST, but please rescue us now.”
In other words, “Sure – we deserve judgment. DO WHAT YOU HAVE TO DO. Just save us from THIS crisis.”
And they’re words that’ll come back to bite them.
God DOES rescue them. His compassionate heart can bear their misery no longer (v16). But he DOES it using Jephthah, who visits them with tragedy and revenge, AS WELL AS salvation. God’s rescue AND his judgment all rolled into one package.
Jephthah is THE RULER THEY DESERVE.
The ruler they deserve
We’re introduced to him in Ch 11. He’s big and tough and he’s from the wrong side of the tracks. He’s a mighty warrior, and his Dad’s Gilead, the head of the clan. And we find out he’s got THE MOUTH to go WITH the muscles. He talks the talk as well as walking the walk.
But he’s the son of a prostitute. And so he’s also looked down on. Grows up an outcast. Then his half-brothers run him out of town, “You’ll never get any inheritance, so just disappear and make life easier for everyone!”
It seems to be a defining moment for him. He flees to the land of Tob, gathers a gang around him. Adventurers is too polite a description. It’s literally “empty men”. Worthless.
Some people might just try to get on with their life, but not Jephthah. Being put down like that EATS at him. And he wants the power and the privilege he’d missed out on. He wants to get even. To prove himself. And he’ll DO anything, and SACRIFICE anything to GET it.
Jump forward some time later. The Ammonites are invading, so the Gilead elders come crawling back to Jephthah. “We know we told you to push off. But now we NEED you. V6. Come and be our COMMANDER.
They’re offering the very thing Jephthah’s hungry for – POWER. Jephthah points out their hypocrisy
“Didn’t you hate me and drive me from my father’s house? Why do you come to me now, when you’re in trouble?”
But they’re willing to eat whatever humble pie they need to. “Come back, we’ll not only make you COMMANDER, but LEADER over us ALL.
There’s nothing like making a comeback when everyone’s written you off. In 1962, Dick Rowe, a music exec at Decca records decided NOT to sign a young band from England called the BEATLES, because he thought guitar bands were on the way out.
Of course, they proved him wrong in THE BEST WAY POSSIBLE. Going on to become the world’s BEST band ever. I wonder how many times over the next ten years he wished he could come crawling back, and apologise.
Same thing here with Jephthah. He’s making his comeback. Wants to prove all those people wrong who said he was worthless.
He makes sure he gets a firm promise from the elders. Using his WORDS to get the POWER and RECOGNITION he hungers for.
And when he comes back, he uses his WORDS before GOD, promising to do the job (v11).
Then he uses MORE words to try to convince the Ammonite king (v12). It’s a long waffly letter we won’t look at now. Perhaps he can get out of fighting AT ALL.
But in v28 we read.
28 The king of Ammon, however, paid no attention to the message Jephthah sent him.
Doing deals with God (11:29-40)
And it’s with that background of using WORDS TO MANIPULATE. To get what he wants. That brings us to Jephthah’s GREATEST blunder. Doing deals with God.
In v29 we’re told the Spirit of the LORD is on Jephthah. He’s God’s chosen deliverer. And he’s making progress – he’s advancing against the Ammonites.
But for some reason – He offers God a DEAL. Perhaps his nerve doesn’t hold. Doubts God’s power, or promise. Or perhaps, and this is MORE likely, his MOTIVES get in the way. The whole battle has more to do with a PERSONAL AGENDA than with DELIVERING GOD’S PEOPLE.
He’ll risk whatever he’s GOT / to get what he HASN’T got, but wants so badly. Using HIS WORDS to DO IT. It’s worked for him SO FAR. So why not NOW? V30.
30 And Jephthah made a vow to the LORD: “If you give the Ammonites into my hands, 31 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.”
- The tragedy is God’s GOING to give them into his hands ANYWAY. There’s no NEED for the deal.
- The tragedy is he trades his FAMILY for a STUPID PLEDGE. Switches the price tags on what’s VALUABLE and what’s NOT.
- The tragedy is/ that in his over-powering desire to achieve power and influence/ he clings to the WRONG things, and ends up destroying the RIGHT things.
Like thief Edward McBride, who, in 2002, was running from Tulsa police with pockets and a 30 kg duffel bag stuffed full of stolen goods. He tried to escape by swimming across the muddy Arkansas River.
He got about 40 m out when he started yelling for help. He could have easily let go of the bag, and emptied his pockets. But he didn’t.
The chasing police officers took off their shirts, shoes and belts, and jumped in after him. By the time they got there, he’d gone under. Rescue workers retrieved his body, as well as the duffel bag, about an hour later.
The foolishness of holding onto the WRONG things. And letting go of the RIGHT things.
And Jephthah does the same thing. Letting go of FAMILY to grab hold of POWER AND POSITION.
The writer passes quickly over the battle and the victory as if it’s a minor matter. Which in a sense it IS because GOD’S fighting for them. And takes up the tragic story AFTER the battle. Played out in all its horrible detail. V34.
34 When Jephthah returned to his home in Mizpah, who should come out to meet him but his daughter, dancing to the sound of tambourines! She was an only child. Except for her he had neither son nor daughter.
Any of you fathers out there, You all know what it’s like when you’ve been away, and you can’t wait to see your kids, and they can’t wait to see you. This scene is enough to break your HEART. A daughter comes racing out of the house, full of innocent joy and bubbly enthusiasm, wanting to share good times with her daddy.
And while OUR thoughts might go out to the daughter, the only one Jephthah can think about is himself.
35 When he saw her, he tore his clothes and cried, “Oh! My daughter! You have made me miserable and wretched, because I have made a vow to the LORD that I cannot break.”
He literally says, I have opened my mouth to the LORD. Opened his mouth. That’s when the problems started. The moment he OPENED his MOUTH.
It’s almost FITTING really, that Jephthah will put his foot in his mouth like that. Because his name means “He who OPENS”. Opens his mouth by NAME, opens by NATURE. It’s what he’s spent his LIFE doing. Using his MOUTH to get ahead.
But the tragedy and loss is made worse when his daughter RESPONDS. Because her graciousness and obedience and faith put her father TO SHAME.
36 “My father,” she replied, “you have given your word to the LORD. (You’ve OPENED YOUR MOUTH TO THE LORD) Do to me just as you promised, now that the LORD has avenged you of your enemies, the Ammonites.
Which is what happens. After a period of mourning with her friends, Jephthah does the terrible deed. The deed he’d promised because he’d opened his BIG MOUTH / ONE TIME TOO OFTEN.
And even the fact he GOES THROUGH with it says something about Jephthah. His WORDS are so important to him, nothing will get in the way of them. Even though it’s directly breaking a law of God. Deut 12:31. Moses is talking about what happens when the people conquer the nations who are in the Promised Land, and how they’re not to follow their gods
Be careful not to be ensnared by inquiring about their gods, saying, “How do these nations serve their gods? We will do the same.” 31 You must not worship the LORD your God in their way, because in worshiping their gods, they do all kinds of detestable things the LORD hates. They even burn their sons and daughters in the fire as sacrifices to their gods.
God had SPOKEN. To sacrifice your children was ABOMINABLE. But Jephthah wasn’t listening. Which is often the problem with people with BIG MOUTHS. They’re too busy TALKING to LISTEN.
And, although the story of Jephthah continues for another chapter, this is where we finish today.
So what do we LEARN from Jephthah? Let me suggest FOUR LESSONS.
1. Watch your mouth
One. Watch your mouth. Be careful what you say. Listen lots, talk less. There’s a good REASON God gave us TWO ears and only ONE MOUTH.
Talking can do GREAT and USEFUL things! Words can praise God, they can pray. They tell people about Jesus, they encourage, and teach and build up.
But foolish and hasty words can do GREAT DAMAGE. It’s so easy to hurt with your tongue. Aussie culture is all about taking the mickey out of people. Putting people in their place. Cutting down the tall poppy. James 3 puts it like this v4-6
Take ships as an example. Although they are so large and are driven by strong winds, they are steered by a very small rudder wherever the pilot wants to go. 5 Likewise the tongue is a small part of the body, but it makes great boasts. Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark. 6 The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. … 7 All kinds of animals, birds, reptiles and creatures of the sea are being tamed and have been tamed by man, 8 but no man can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison.
And you don’t need to look any further than Jephthah for how THAT’S true. Watch your mouth.
2. Don’t switch the labels
Second lesson. Don’t switch the labels. Don’t mix up what’s NOT important with what’s MOST important. Don’t hold onto WRONG THINGS so tightly, you end up losing your grip on the RIGHT THINGS.
Jephthah sacrificed his FAMILY for POWER AND INFLUENCE. If you read on into ch 13 he DOES become ruler. Number one man over all of Israel.
But he’s lost his FAMILY in the process. Not the first man to make it to the top, and then find he’s got no one left to SHARE it with.
It’s foolishness. A whole range of small decisions over years probably. That put the people you value MOST below things that don’t REALLY matter.
And it’s not just AT WORK. It could be hobbies, or sport. It could even be ministries at CHURCH. Plenty of MINISTERS have given themselves so completely to their CHURCH family, and all but abandoned their REAL family.
And the tragedy is it’s often more about a minister serving the idols of APPROVAL and ACCEPTANCE than it is about doing ministry. And so minister’s kids have grown up resenting the church, and wanting nothing to DO with it.
Don’t let that be YOU!
And if you’re YOUNG, and you can’t imagine ever DOING that. THINK AGAIN. Those older people never STARTED OUT thinking that’s where they’d end up.
Get it clear in your head NOW/ what matters most. Burn the picture of Jephthah and his daughter into your head so you never forget it.
3. Don’t make deals with God.
Third lesson we can learn from Jephthah is / DON’T MAKE DEALS WITH GOD.
God was going to bring victory through Jephthah. But Jephthah thought he had something to contribute to the deal. Truth be told/ we have NOTHING to offer God that will make us any more acceptable. Nothing that will warrant his closer attention to our prayers. Nothing that will make the slightest bit of difference. No donations, no church attendance awards, no amount of hail Marys or Our Fathers, no classified ads praising the saints. NOTHING.
It’s all about what Jesus achieved in his death and resurrection. It’s what HE did that guarantees God’s open arms and open ears. Hebrews 10:19-23. Listen to the confidence and joy in these words.
19 Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus, 20 by a new and living way opened for us through the curtain, that is, his body, 21 and since we have a great priest over the house of God, 22 let us draw near to God with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience and having our bodies washed with pure water. 23 Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful.
We can’t do deals with God. SO don’t try. Rejoice in the deal done FOR us by Jesus.
The Reverend Augustus Montague Toplady might have a funny name, but he got it 100% right when he wrote Rock of Ages:
Nothing in my hand I bring,
Simply to the cross I cling;
Naked, come to Thee for dress;
Helpless look to Thee for grace;
Foul, I to the fountain fly;
Wash me, Savior, or I die.
It’s seems strange for Christians to sing about being FOUL. But, rather than being BAD news/ it’s actually the GREATEST NEWS EVER. Because when you understand this/ it’s incredibly FREEING. Because you realise it’s NOT ABOUT YOU. And all about Jesus.
Don’t do deals with God. Rest on Jesus.
4. Jesus the servant king
Which brings us to the final lesson we can learn. Jephthah provides us with an example of what a king SHOULDN’T be like. So we can contrast him with the TRUE KING. Jesus the SERVANT king.
Jephthah is the black cloth we lay the sparkling diamond of Jesus on so we can see his brilliance so much better.
Jephthah was a ruler who sacrificed OTHERS for the sake of himself. To achieve HIS goals. But Jesus, the ultimate king, looks very different. He sacrifices HIMSELF for the sake of OTHERS. In Mk 10:45 Jesus says this about himself.
45 For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
Jesus, the ULTIMATE king was a SERVANT king.
And he calls us to DO THE SAME. This verse is at the end of a long section where the disciples are arguing about who is the greatest. And about who’s going to sit next to Jesus in heaven. And Jesus says, “MY way isn’t the way the WORLD works”. People, like Jephthah, STRIVE for power and influence. Then they LORD it OVER people.
Then he says. Mark 10:43-45
43 NOT SO WITH YOU. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, 44 and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all.
Jephthah sacrificed OTHERS for the sake of himself. Jesus sacrificed himself for the sake of OTHERS. And he says to you and to me, “If you’re coming with me, then you’re to be doing the same.”