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‘Jephthah the Gileadite.’
I. One thing is plain on the surface of the history: 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.
II. 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 Amnion 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.
We may, perhaps, class him with the woman in the Gospels with the issue of blood, in whom a powerful faith was combined with a miserable superstition; faith in the power of Jesus to heal, with a superstition that fancied that a cure might be snatched from Him before He knew. In this case Jesus, with admirable discrimination, at once rewarded the faith and rebuked the superstition. So in Jephthah a fearless loyalty and complete surrender of himself to God were united with a terrible fanaticism—a fanaticism that in the very height of triumph plunged him and his friends into the depth of anguish; that at the moment when his most eager desires were gratified inflicted on him the cruellest loss; that brought on his name a terrible stigma, and has made him from generation to generation an object of horror to almost every reader of the Bible.
III. 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. It is as true now as then, that children born in such circumstances usually prove the scum of society, furnishing the largest share of dangerous and disorderly men and women. And no wonder, removed as they are from nearly all loving influences; never welcomed into the world as blessings, but regarded as troubles and burdens; the very stigma which attaches to them breaking down their self-respect, and making them an easy prey to those whose interest it is to drag them into the ways of sin. And even when, by God’s great mercy, such unfortunate children are brought under the power of grace, they often come before the world with a deformed or twisted religious character; great faults or flaws remain in it; it wants the roundness or completeness found, for example, in such men as Samuel or Timothy, who not only belonged to the Lord from childhood, but were brought up under the holiest influences, and in an atmosphere warm with all love and goodness.
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.
(1) ‘You may be disreputable in birth, but illustrious in faith! You may have entered life by the back door, and in the dark, but you go forth into eternity by the front door amid the regret of hundreds, and be mourned as a hero and a saint. Remember that the sacred writer says: “What shall I more say? for time would fail to tell of Gideon, of Barak, of Samson, and of Jephthah.” Take heart; men will be quite glad to catch up any brickbat to throw at you, when they find that you are distancing them: but no weapon that is formed against you will prosper—by faith you will conquer.’
(2) ‘Jephthah the Gileadite was the most ill-used man in all the Old Testament, and he continues to be the most completely misunderstood, misrepresented, and ill-used man down to this day. Jephthah’s ill-usage began before he was born, and it was continued down to the last Old Testament Commentary and the last Bible Dictionary that treats of Jephthah’s name. The iron had entered Jephthah’s soul while yet he lay in his mother’s womb; and both his father and his brothers and the elders of Israel helped forward Jephthah’s affliction, till the Lord rose up for Jephthah and said, It is enough; took the iron out of His servant’s soul, and poured oil and wine into the lifelong wound. If at the death of his father Jephthah had got his proper portion of his father’s goods, then Jephthah might have become as great a prodigal as his brothers became. But the loss of earthly inheritance was to Jephthah, as it has been to so many men since his day, the gaining of an inheritance incorruptible and undefiled, eternal in the heavens.’
‘Alas, my daughter! thou hast brought me very low, and thou art one of them that trouble me: for I have opened my mouth unto the Lord, and I cannot go back.’
There are few names better known in history than Jephthah’s; and the allied arts of painting and poetry have served to keep him fresh in the minds of many generations.
I. Jephthah, it is true, betrayed ferocity and hardness, but must surely have had within him the spirit of the faithful, all the more remarkable when we consider his birth and upbringing.—In studying these we come to the two great laws of heredity and environment, great facts which exist and are working in you and me to-day. By heredity we mean the sum of impulses received from our forefathers and transmitted to us through our parents; while by environment is meant external conditions or the sum of influences affecting us from without. These are generally admitted and familiar to all of us, proving that beneath and behind there is a personal will influencing men by law. There are always certain dangers which arise from looking at anything from one point of view; and when men discover new principles they become so fascinated by them that they see nothing else, interpreting everything to suit their discovery and drawing all sorts of generalisations and inductions therefrom. Look at the history of any science and you will find it is the one great and common error to make too wide generalisations and too swift inductions, that men are too ready to form theories, too ready to draw inferences. With regard to these laws the same huge mistake has been made, and people go the length of saying that given certain parents, education, and companions, and they will infallibly foretell the life and history of that person. Now you will easily see the danger here, how despairing and fatalistic this view is; and life itself shows how really untrue such conclusions are, for all here must have seen again and again exceptions to the rule. There is no lesson in this story of Jephthah more important than that the grace of God is all-powerful, raising a man from the lowest deeps to the highest heights and entirely changing his moral character. What did Jephthah owe to his friends? He was driven from his father’s house by the covetousness of his brethren, and there is nothing so warps the character as injustice. With a heart burning with indignation he left home and dwelt on the borders of Moab, living as a freebooter at the head of a band of desperate men. One could not imagine a man less fitted for the work he afterwards was called to do, not being even a decent man, far less a strong and conscientious judge. Such is the influence of God on the free spirit of man that no one is so unfortunate as to be utterly beyond it, nor so depraved as to be utterly lost. If we would but remember this we should be less despairing over those who have gone far astray, and with such comfort in our hearts be likely to do more work.
II. That Jephthah really sacrificed his daughter, Iphigenia-Iike, was the received opinion of tradition and that of Josephus; but in the twelfth century this idea was questioned.—It was then said that Jephthah had secluded her as a nun; but this refutes itself. Yet the dark tragedy is not unrelieved, for on the one hand are the heroism and fortitude of the girl, and on the other the stern faithfulness of the father, loving his child with a strong, true love. ‘Alas, my daughter!’ He was of that old heroic type to which our fathers belonged, and which people say has died out in the land. Of the daughter, Tennyson fitly makes her sing:—
‘The readers of Mark Rutherford cannot have forgotten his marvellous sermon on the death of Jephthah’s daughter, “Aye, and perhaps God wanted the girl.” We say,
They surely have no need of you
In the place where you are going;
Earth has its angels all too few,
And heaven is overflowing.
But heaven is not overflowing, and it never will be. “In My Father’s house are many mansions. I go to prepare a place for you.” ’
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Nisbet, James. "Commentary on Judges 11". The Church Pulpit Commentary. https://www.studylight.org/
the Week of Proper 8 / Ordinary 13