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Bible Commentaries
Judges 12

Preacher's Complete Homiletical CommentaryPreacher's Homiletical

Verses 1-15


(Judges 12:1-15.)

CRITICAL NOTES.— Judges 12:1. Gathered themselves together.] Not in a disorderly or tumultuous manner as some would take it, but assembled in force, for the purpose of fighting if necessary (ch. Judges 7:23-24; Judges 10:17). Passed over (Jordan) northward, or it may mean to Zaphon, for such is the Hebrew word. Zaphon was a town in the tribe of Gad, mentioned along with Succoth.

Wherefore, etc., didst thou not call us to go with thee?] This was nothing but the old haughty and jealous spirit of the most ambitious of the tribes, which was constantly reappearing when the honours seemed to be going in the direction of others. We see it in Joshua’s days at the division of the land (Joshua 17:14-18), we see it in the days of Gideon (Judges 8:1-3), and we see it now. We will burn thine house on thee with fire.] Such was the depth of their hatred. This was not uncommon in that rough age (ch. Judges 14:15; Judges 15:6; Joshua 7:25; Genesis 38:24; Joshua 8:8; Joshua 8:19; Jude 1:8).

Judges 12:2. When I called you, ye delivered me not, etc.] This is not told before, probably because they met the request with a point-blank refusal. They would refuse to fight under the leadership of a man like Jephthah, who had not the pure blood of an Israelite. Though God had acknowledged him, they would not. Also they felt that the danger was very serious, and so they kept within their own borders (Psalms 78:9-11). Put my life in my hands] a phrase meaning, I risked my life, and you did not assist me (1 Samuel 19:5; Job 13:14; Psalms 119:109). This was the wolf and the lamb policy on the part of the Ephraimites, but they found Jephthah a rough lamb to deal with. His language, however, is not defiant. He would willingly have taken their help, but when they did not give it. he sought the special help of his God, and that was not refused.

Judges 12:3. Wherefore then are ye come up to fight against me?] Since God Himself has succoured me, why do you come to fight with me? Why not rather be grateful that the whole land is rid of the dark shadow of the oppressor? There was nothing here to give just cause of offence, and if the issue was tragic, compared with the parallel case of Gideon’s dealings with them, the circumstances were very different. Thus in Gideon’s days, the Ephraimites had really done much to gain the large success of the occasion, but here they had done nothing. Gideon had good reason to thank them for the share they had in the defeat of the common enemy; Jephthah had not a word to say of any good they had done, because they really had done nothing. Gideon, though called to task for overlooking these proud people, was not threatened with anything against his personal safety, but against Jephthah they came up in force, and vowing the direst vengeance. They would indeed not wait for any explanation. The attack began on their side.

Judges 12:4. The men of Gilead smote Ephraim, etc.] It would seem as if the feeling of resentment in this case were cherished more by “the men of Gilead,” than by Jephthah himself. For what was done is put chiefly in their name, both in Judges 12:4 and Judges 12:5. Jephthah led them in self-defence but did not instigate them. The supercilious contempt with which the Ephraimites looked down upon the Gileadites, and their disdaining to acknowledge Jephthah’s leadership, notwithstanding his victorious closing of the war, was keenly felt by the Gileadites. It was a sting to their tribal character, and led to a spirit of bitter retaliation. They thirsted for an opportunity of taking revenge.

Ye are fugitives of Ephraim, etc.] This statement is not very clear as it stands; but the meaning seems to be—Ye are the scum of Ephraim, and counted as such both among the common Ephraimites and Manassites—a bad lot, who have no position as good citizens, but are nondescripts. The Gileadites, in fact, were not a tribe, but the descendants of a powerful family in Manasseh. But both Manasseh and Ephraim were the children of Joseph, and so there ought to have been a family kindred feeling. Instead of this, there was nothing but jealousy and desire for superiority on the side of Ephraim, because of the greater blessing which the patriarch Jacob bestowed on his younger grandson (Genesis 48:17-19). Presuming on this advantageous position, which their ancestor left them in legacy, the men of Ephraim claimed to represent the whole of the children of Joseph, that is—Ephraim proper and all Manasseh, thus including the men of Gilead as well. They regarded themselves as the people of high caste, the Manassites as a sort of plebeians, and the Gileadites as nothing better than pariahs. In the collective mass of the children of Joseph, the Gileadites were regarded by these men of pride as menials or cads, because they were properly not a community at all, but only a “set of fugitives,” and yet they presumed to hold up their heads as if they were a tribe. Hence they were goaded on to be resentful.

Judges 12:5. Took the passages of Jordan.] They lived on both sides of the river, though chiefly on the east side (see Numbers 26:29-30, etc.). They seemed to be better acquainted with the crossings than the Ephraimites; and they were in no mood to give quarter, for they were high-spirited, and could not bear the taunts that were flung at them.

Judges 12:6. Say now Shibboleth, etc.] How greatly is the pride of the Ephraimites humbled, that now they are glad to renounce the tribal connection, and to say they are not Ephraimites, to save their lives! This too was said to Gileadites! But the dissemblers were discovered. “The wicked is snared by the transgression of his lips.” The sound of sh seems to have been common among the dialects spoken to the east of Jordan, but it had not yet got a place in the spoken language of the Ephraimite. By his inability to pronounce this sound an Ephraimite was easily discovered. In the day of reckoning, what a variety of witnesses can God bring against a guilty man! They lie on all sides. Every stone, every straw, the very winds of heaven, or the clods of the dust (Job 20:27; Job 18:8-10).

In different communities among the same people, nothing is more common than to hear different dialects spoken. The guttural sound of the letters ch as known and pronounced in Scotland is impossible of pronunciation by an Englishman, as in the words Ecclefechan or Auchtermuchty. Again, the letter r, as in river cannot be pronounced by a native of Northumberland. The sound of th cannot be given by many foreigners, though quite easy of utterance to the English-speaking race. Many German Jews pronounce the Hebrew word Beth as Baiss, and Bereshith they pronounce as Beresiss or Bereshiss. Peter, as a Galilean, often brought in his broad inelegant phrases which grated on refined ears, so that bystanders knew him to be a Galilean from his tongue. “Thy speech bewrayeth thee” (Mark 14:70). So is the Arabic tongue different as spoken in Aleppo, in Cairo, and in Bagdad. The word Shibboleth itself means “a stream,” or sometimes “ear.” But the sole reference here, is to the pronunciation of the first combination of letters in the word. When, during the Flemish war, the insurrection against the French broke out (1302), the gates were guarded, and no one was suffered to pass out except those who were able to say, “Scitt ende friend.” which words no Frenchmen could pronounce.—(Cassel.)

There fell of the Ephraimites forty and two thousand.] Certain numbers had a special significance among the Israelites. Forty-two mockers of the prophet Elisha were torn to pieces by the bears (2 Kings 2:24); when God’s judgments descend on Ahab’s house, 42 brethren of Ahaziah are put to death by Jehu (2 Kings 10:14).

Judges 12:7. He was buried in one of the cities of Gilead.] God takes care of His own—even “their dust is precious.” Jephthah has been harshly judged by many. But it is manifest that God makes much of him, according to His own rule. “Them that honour me I will honour.” How small a matter to be judged—rather misjudged of man! “He that judgeth us is the Lord.”

In his city.] So the Sept. reads. It uses ו for י. In that case Mizpah would be the place where he was laid, for it was the city of Jephthah.

Judges 12:8. Ibzan of Bethlehem]. Some think this was the same with Boaz, for it seems to have been in Judah. The thought was common among the Jews, yet it rests purely on supposition. The eference is rather to a town in Zebulun.

Judges 12:9-15. The lives of the three judges mentioned here were short and uneventful. All that is said of them is that they lived a little while, they passed across the stage, and then disappeared. two of them had large families, but no names are given, and nothing is recorded as to what they did. It is said of Abdon’s sons and nephews, or rather grandsons, that they rode on ass colts, which in those days implied wealth and high station alike (Ch. Judges 5:10; Judges 10:4).


I. It is impossible to satisfy the cravings of pride and envy.

They are like the daughters of the horse-leach that continually cry, Give, give. Nothing would please these Ephraimites. Jephthah offered at the outset to give them a large share of the honours of the fight, but then they kept in the background; for it was by no means certain whether they should overcome or be overcome, and now when the battle is over and won, they turn round and murmur because they were not called (comp. Matthew 11:16-19). See remarks on Judges 8:1-3.

II. Deadly results flow from a malicious use of the tongue.

Malicious words sting a man usually in his character, that is, in “the apple of his eye.” For nothing about him is so sensitive as his character. Hence the consequences are often most destructive (James 3:2-8). You are the refuse of Ephraim, worthless as the rubbish under our feet. Such was the taunt of the imperial tribe towards the poor Gileadites, who, however, could as keenly resent a barbed arrow thrown at them by the tongue as any other class. Their rage became a frenzy, and, those who had so thoughtlessly flung the shaft of reproach, little reflected on the terrible rebound their evil words would produce. “There fell at that time of Ephraimites 42,000 men.” Some would indeed reduce the number to 2,040 men. But the A.V. is most generally taken as correct. “Behold how great a matter a little fire kindleth!”

There is no limit to the ruinous effect of an evil tongue. “It is the instrument of all strife and contention, the inventor of law suits, and the origin of wars. It is the origin of error, of lies, of calumny, and of blasphemies.” [Æsop]. A large manufactory is burnt down to the ground, notwithstanding that many engines are employed to pour water upon it. That fire is kindled by a rushlight. A splendid farmyard, with hay ricks, corn stacks, stables, and other buildings, is reduced to blackened ruins by a destructive fire: and that is the doing of a lucifer match! “Life and death are in the power of the tongue.” What need to offer the prayer, “Set a watch, Lord, before my mouth; keep the door of my lips.”

III. Sinful passions, long-cherished, will in the end bring dire punishment.

The same pride and envy, superciliousness of manner, and arrogance of spirit, with resentfulness of feeling, which were shown on this occasion, were exhibited many years before to Gideon. During all those years such dispositions were cherished by the Ephraimites, and though the Ruler in Providence permitted them long to pass with impunity, the time came round at last for these wicked to receive the due reward of their iniquities (2 Peter 2:3; Proverbs 29:1). The long delay to bring punishment, means that “God’s goodness would lead men to repentance.”

IV. The Redeemer cares for the bodies as well as the souls of those whom He redeems.

The very burial place of the good man is worth mentioning. His dust is precious, however great may be the humiliation of the grave. His grave is known to Him by whom he is redeemed; and, when the time comes for the gathering up of the jewels, there will be no difficulty in finding out the spot where every jewel is to be found. “This is the Father’s will, that of all which He hath given me, I should lose nothing, but raise it up again at the last day.” “—We wait for the adoption, to wit, the redemption of the body.” Every part of the man must be redeemed, for it is for the honour of Him whose the work is, that it should be done with perfection. As Moses said to Pharaoh, “not a hoof shall be left behind,” so will a greater than Moses, who is the author of a greater redemption require from Death, that he yield up all the parts and fragments of the “vile body,” so that not a limb shall be left in the grave. All now sleep under the eye of Jesus, and the moment is advancing when at His Almighty whisper, all that has been so long in the dark charnel-house held bound in the sleep of death, shall awake singing, each one rising on the wing like the lark, but with sweeter song, to meet their Lord in the air, and surround his throne with adorations and praises as their never-ceasing employment.

Bibliographical Information
Exell, Joseph S. "Commentary on Judges 12". Preacher's Complete Homiletical Commentary. https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/phc/judges-12.html. Funk & Wagnalls Company, 1892.
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