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Bible Commentaries

Simeon's Horae Homileticae

Judges 11

Verses 30-31

DISCOURSE: 272
JEPHTHAH’S VOW

Judges 11:30-31. And Jephthah vowed a vow unto the Lord, and said, If thou shalt without fail deliver the children of Ammon into mine hands, then it shall be, that whatsoever cometh forth of the doors of my house to meet me, when I return in peace from the children of Amman, shall surely be the Lord’s, and I will offer it up for a burnt-offering.

VOWS were common under the Mosaic dispensation: they were even encouraged by God himself, in order that his people might have opportunities of manifesting the love that was in their hearts by offerings that were not enjoined, and services that were not commanded. In cases of difficulty, where it appeared of more than ordinary importance to secure the divine favour and protection, the patriarchs had resorted to vows, and bound themselves, in case he should vouchsafe to them the desired blessing, to render unto him according to the benefits he should confer upon them. Thus Jacob, when he had just left his father and family in order to seek in a foreign land a refuge from his brother’s vengeance, vowed, that, if the Lord would be with him and restore him to his home in peace, he would take God entirely for his God, and devote to him a tenth of all that he should possess [Note: Genesis 28:20-22.]. In the time of Moses, the whole people of Israel resorted to the same measure, in order to obtain success against the Canaanites [Note: Num 21:2]. This, it must be confessed, has a legal appearance, and looks like offering to make a bargain with God: but vows may certainly be made in perfect consistency with the liberal spirit of the Gospel: for it is intimated, that under the Gospel, yea even in the millennial age, such a practice should obtain [Note: Isaiah 19:21.]; and we know that Paul both made a vow himself [Note: Acts 18:18.], and united with others in services to which by a voluntary engagement they had bound themselves [Note: Acts 21:23-24.].

The vow of Jephthah has engaged the attention of learned men in all ages: but they are by no means agreed as to the import of it. We propose,

I.

To explain his vow—

It must be confessed, that the Jewish writers in general, together with their great historian Josephus, were of opinion, that Jephthah offered his daughter to the Lord as a burnt-offering. Of the same opinion also were the generality of writers in the early ages of the Christian Church. Multitudes also of the most approved authors amongst the moderns take the same side of the question. But we are constrained to differ from them; and the more attentively we have weighed their arguments, the more fully are we persuaded that Jephthah did not offer up his daughter as a burnt-offering, but only devoted her to the service, the exclusive service, of the Lord.

In confirmation of this opinion, we would call your attention to the particular circumstances of the vow:

1.

The making of it—

[In opposition to the idea of his offering her up for a burnt-offering, we say, that No pious man would have made such a vow. Jephthah was undoubtedly a pious man, as his whole history declares: for at his first acceding to the proposals of his countrymen to stand forth for their deliverance, he laid the matter before the Lord [Note: ver. 11.]: and his vow was expressive of his affiance alone in God for success: besides which, he is celebrated by St. Paul as one of those eminent men who obtained a good report through their faith [Note: Hebrews 11:32.]. Moreover, he was at this time under the influence of the Spirit of God [Note: ver. 29.]. Now can we suppose that such a man, under such influence, should deliberately vow to God that he would commit murder? that he would murder the first person who should come forth to congratulate him, whether it might be man, woman, or child, yea even if it should be his own, his only daughter? or, if a dog or other unclean animal should come forth, he would offer it up for a burnt-offering? Could he conceive that this would be pleasing to the Deity, and that such a vow as this would be likely to procure success? Had not the law said, “Thou shalt not kill [Note: Exodus 20:13.]?” and had not God expressly forbidden his people to imitate the heathen in offering human sacrifices [Note: Deuteronomy 12:31.]? Had not the law prescribed, that if a man should unintentionally kill his slave, he should be punished [Note: Exodus 21:20.]? and could he imagine that the law permitted him intentionally and deliberately to kill his own daughter? It may be said, that the Spirit ordered him to offer up this sacrifice, just as God commanded Abraham to offer up his son Isaac: but I ask, Where if any such thing expressed in this history? and why, if the Sprit of God had ordered a human sacrifice to be made, and he under the influence of the Spirit had vowed to offer one, whence came the rending of his garment, and all his vehement lamentation, upon finding that his daughter was the appointed victim? If he had been called to Abraham’s trial, we may well suppose that God would have given to him the faith of Abraham; or at least, that, if he had so greatly failed in this duty, he would not have been so highly commended as an example of faith. But, we say again, that there is not the smallest intimation that the Spirit of God did give any such order to him: nor can we conceive that if, for the trial of his faith, God had given it, he would have ever suffered it to be carried into execution; but would rather have interposed to prevent it, as he did in the case of Isaac.

But, as no pious man would have made such a vow, so, if Jephthah had made it, the law itself had provided a ransom for her. We have before said, that vows were encouraged under the law; and persons, as well as things, might be devoted to God. But if either persons, or things, were devoted to him, the law permitted that a valuation should be made of the devoted thing or person, and that the money should be regarded as a ransom for it, or an offering be presented in its stead. If a human being were devoted, the estimation should vary according to the sex and age of the person: but if it were a beast, then the offerer should give in addition one fifth more than the estimated value as the price of its redemption [Note: Leviticus 27:2-13.]. When the enemies of God and their cities or possessions were, as accursed things, devoted to destruction, they were not to be redeemed at all: they were accursed of God himself, as the Amalekites and Canaanites were, and were therefore not to be spared [Note: Leviticus 27:29.]: and Saul, in sparing Agag, whom God had devoted to destruction, sinned as much as if he had murdered one whom God had ordered to be spared [Note: 1 Samuel 15:3; 1 Samuel 15:9; 1 Samuel 15:22-23; 1 Samuel 15:32-33.]. Now, if we call to mind how eminently conversant Jephthah was with the history of Israel, so as to be able to refute all the claims of the king of Ammon [Note: ver. 12–27.], we can feel no doubt but that he was well acquainted with the law that prescribed the mode in which devoted things were to be redeemed: indeed his vow was evidently founded on the knowledge of that law: for if a dog had met him first, he would never have dared to offer that in sacrifice to God: consequently he would never have made his vow so indefinitely, if he had not known that the law admitted of an exchange, in case the devoted thing should be improper to be offered.

But supposing that he was ignorant of this law, were the high-priest and all the priests in the kingdom ignorant of it? and, when the execution of the vow was postponed for two months, and great lamentation was made all that time throughout the kingdom on account of the vow, was there no person in all Israel who once thought of this law? If but one person had thought of it, would he not have been very glad to mention it? and would not the mention of it have been most acceptable to Jephthah, when it would have put an immediate end to all his mourning and lamentation? Would he not have been glad enough to pay thirty shekels, about 3l. 8s. 6d., the sum prescribed by the law, to save the life of his daughter? But it may be said, that this was a period of gross darkness; and that idolatry with all its horrid rites prevailed to a great extent [Note: Judges 10:6.]. To this I answer, that though idolatry had recently prevailed, this was a time of singular reformation; for the people had put away the strange gods from among them, and served the Lord [Note: Judges 10:16.]:” and in such a state of mind, considering what obligations they felt to Jephthah, even if they had not thought of this law, they would have interposed to rescue his innocent daughter from destruction; just as the people, at a later period of their history, rescued Jonathan from the hands of Saul, when the sentence, to which his father’s oath had doomed him, was just ready to be executed [Note: 1 Samuel 14:45.].

These arguments, we grant, would have no weight against an express declaration of Holy Writ: but it is no-where said, that such a vow as doomed her to death was ever made. On the contrary we affirm, that the terms used by Jephthah do not imply any such thing. The word that is translated And, is not unfrequently used in a disjunctive sense, and should be translated Or. In many places it must of necessity be translated Or, and actually is so translated in our Bible [Note: See Exodus 21:16-17; Leviticus 6:3; Leviticus 6:5; 2 Samuel 2:19.]: and in the margin of our Bibles it is so translated in the very passage before us. Thus translated, the words of Jephthah involve no difficulty: he says, Whatsoever cometh forth of the doors of my house to meet me, shall surely be the Lord’s, or I will offer it up for a burnt-offering;” that is, it shall be consecrated to the Lord; or, if it be fit to be offered in sacrifice to the Lord, (as a lamb or kid would be,) it shall be offered to him as a burnt-offering. It is really strange, that, when so easy and obvious a translation occurs, any one should prefer one so replete with difficulties, as that which has been usually received.

Thus in relation to the making of the vow, we have shewn, that no good man would make such a vow as this is supposed to be; that, if made, the law admitted of an exchange; and that the terms used on the occasion do not imply that she should be put to death.]

2.

The execution of it—

[Observe the language used by all parties on this occasion, and it will manifestly lead to a very different conclusion from that which has been usually adopted.
Observe the language of his daughter’s acquiescence. There is a delicacy in it which throws considerable light on the subject. In noticing the effect of the vow upon herself, she studiously avoids the mention of it. This, if we understand the vow as subjecting her to a state of perpetual virginity, is what might have been expected from her; but, if she was to be offered in sacrifice to God, there is no reason whatever why so solemn an event should not have been expressed in plainer terms. In requesting a respite of the sentence, which involved in it a seclusion from the world, somewhat like that which has been practised by Nuns in later ages, she does express what in the first instance she had only glanced at; “Let me alone two months, that I may go up and down upon the mountains and bewail my virginity, I and my fellows.” Here she mentions that which constituted the substance of the vow. Had she been consigned to death, she would rather have bewailed her premature death, and not merely her virginity. If it be thought, that her piety kept her from bemoaning her death, and that she bemoaned her virginity merely as a circumstance that seemed to render her death opprobrious; I answer, that the same piety that reconciled her to death, would certainly have reconciled her to the opprobrium of dying in a virgin state; exactly as Isaac was willing to forego his prospects in relation to the promised Seed, when he yielded up himself to be slain in sacrifice to God.

If it be said, that, on a supposition she was doomed only to a state of perpetual virginity, there was no occasion for her having two months given her to bewail her fate, since she would have had her whole life wherein to bewail it; I answer, that, in the apprehension of Jewish women, it was a great calamity to be childless, since they had not the honour of increasing the number of the Lord’s people, or a hope that the Messiah might spring from them: and this was a peculiarly heavy calamity to her, because she was the only child of Jephthah [Note: ver. 34.]; and her doom cut her off from all prospect of raising up a seed who should inherit his honours, and follow his example. Therefore it was proper that there should be a public kind of mourning observed, not only in honour of her who thus freely sacrificed all her prospects in life, but in honour of Jephthah also, who in this instance exercised most eminent self-denial, and might be considered as almost dead.

Next observe the language in which is recorded his performance of his vow: “Her father did with her according to his vow which he had vowed: and she knew no man.” Why is this latter circumstance mentioned, but to shew wherein the accomplishment of the vow consisted? Is it not strange that this should be mentioned so often, and her death be never once noticed, if indeed she was put to death? But, if she was only doomed to a state of perpetual virginity, the reason of the expression is clear enough.

In addition to all this, observe the language in which the commemoration of the event is mentioned: “It was a custom in Israel, that the daughters of Israel went yearly to lament the daughter of Jephthah the Gileadite four days in a year.” If she was dead, there was scarcely any adequate reason for the daughters of Israel to go four times a year to one particular place to lament her; for they might as well have lamented her at home: but if she was alive, and secluded from company all the rest of the year, there was reason enough why they should visit her then. But the word which we translate to lament, is in the margin of the Bible translated to talk with: and this assigns the true reason of those stated convocations: her female friends went to condole with her on the occasion, and to do her honour. Even the manner in which she is mentioned in this passage seems to bespeak her a living person; they went to talk with “the daughter of Jephthah the Gileadite.” Had she been offered in sacrifice to God, there would probably have been something more descriptive of her character; but, if she was still living, this is the only description of her that we should expect to find.]

But there is yet a third source from whence we may derive arguments in confirmation of this point. We have noticed the vow in reference both to the making, and the execution of it: let us now proceed to notice,

3.

The honour God put upon it—

[In consequence of this vow, “God delivered the Ammonites into the hands” of Jephthah [Note: ver. 32, 33.]. But would God have sanctioned in this manner a gross act of deliberate murder? Would not this have been the very way to deceive his people, and to make them think that he was pleased with such offerings as the heathen presented unto Moloch? And when in future ages he punished his people for offering human sacrifices, might they not justly have pleaded, that he in this instance had both approved and rewarded them?

Again: St. Paul, in his catalogue of eminent believers, particularly mentions Jephthah, and with an express reference to this event. Jephthah had shewn his faith by looking to God for victory, and by going forth against the Ammonites in an assured dependence upon him, as the protector of Israel, and the rewarder of all that trust in him: and this act of his is a subject of high commendation with God himself. Now I ask, Would this act have been so commended, if it had been ushered in with such an impious vow, and been followed by such a deliberate murder? But if the vow imported only that whatsoever met him first at his return should be consecrated to God, and if, in consequence of that vow, he did with such steady self-denial proceed to the performance of it, then is God’s approbation easily accounted for, even whilst we condemn the indefiniteness and rashness with which the vow was made.
It may be objected to this, that no other instance of devoting a person to virginity occurs. It is true: but neither does any other instance of devoting a person to death. The instance of Abraham and Isaac is not at all in point: for there the determination to offer Isaac was not the result of a rash vow, but of a divine command: and God had a right to dispose of Isaac’s life in any way he pleased; but Jephthah had no right whatever over his daughter’s life. The right usurped by wicked Saul over his son Jonathan (which however was properly and successfully resisted) will scarcely be brought in justification and support of such a claim.
It may further be objected, that parents had no right to devote a daughter to perpetual virginity. This also may be true [Note: Some right of this kind however seems to be acknowledged; 1 Corinthians 7:37-38.]; but much less had they any right to devote her unto death.

The most specious objection however against our interpretation is, that, supposing he only devoted her to God, there was no reason why she should remain unmarried; since Samson and Samuel, both of whom were devoted to God from the womb, were both married. But the case is extremely different between a man and a woman: they were at liberty to serve God in any way that they judged to be agreeable to his will; but she, if she had married, would have been under the control of her husband, who might in a variety of ways have interfered with such a discharge of her duties as the vow implied: and therefore it was necessary that she should remain unmarried, and that she should also be secluded in a great measure from society itself; that being the way in which a woman might serve the Lord, as men served him by waiting on him continually in the tabernacle.

As to the objection, that if he had only devoted her in the sense that we maintain, he would not have so deplored her fate, it has no weight; for as she was his only child, all the distress occasioned to her came with double force on him, who was thereby doomed, and by his own folly too, to have his name and posterity cut off from Israel.]
Such, we are persuaded, was the vow that Jephthah made: we proceed,

II.

To suggest some instruction from it—

Both the father and the daughter afford us very instructive lessons. We may learn,

1.

To avoid the rashness of Jephthah—

[We cannot be wrong in condemning this, since Jephthah himself lamented it. It may be thought that we are in no danger of imitating it: but what do we in rash oaths? do we not tread in the very steps of Jephthah? There is scarcely an office to which we can be introduced, whether civil or religious, that is not entered upon by first taking an oath to fulfil the duties of it. Yet if there be a post of honour or profit to be obtained, how little do men in general think of the oaths by which they are to gain access to it! Would to God that this matter were considered by the legislature; and that penalties were substituted in the place of oaths! Verily “by reason of oaths the land mourneth,” and the consciences of thousands are greatly burthened. I cannot but consider the frequency of oaths, the ease with which they are administered, and the indifference with which they are taken, as among the most crying sins of the nation.
There is another way also in which we follow the steps of Jephthah, namely, by undertaking so lightly the office of sponsors for the children of our friends. The providing of sponsors to supply the place of parents who shall be removed, or disqualified for the instruction of their children in the fear of God, is excellent: but the engaging solemnly before God to perform their office is no light matter. Let any one read the baptismal service, and see what it is that he undertakes; and then let him see what little attention is paid to these vows in general, or, perhaps, what little attention he himself has paid to them. It will be well if we lay this to heart in future. Peradventure we have, like Jephthah, inconsiderately opened our mouths to the Lord: let us then at least, like Jephthah, proceed to the performance of our vows. The duty we have undertaken may be difficult and self-denying; but if he, after having unintentionally devoted his only daughter to the Lord, would not go back, notwithstanding the sacrifice was so exceeding great, so neither should we hesitate to perform the most difficult of our vows.
But there is yet another way in which we follow the steps of Jephthah. Who has not in a time of sickness, or danger, or trouble, or alarm, determined with himself, that, if he should be delivered, he would devote himself more unto the Lord, and to the pursuit of heavenly things? Look back, all ye who have been restored from sickness, ye who have been delivered from the pangs of childbirth, ye who have seen your friends or relatives cut off by death, ye who have been in a storm at sea, or been alarmed by thunder and lightning; look back, and call to mind the vows that are upon you; and see how Jephthah will rise up in judgment against you for your violation of them.
How this subject applies to Ministers, I need not say: but if I were addressing them, methinks the subject would apply with ten-fold force to them, seeing that their vows were all taken with foresight and solemnity, and involve duties more important than pertain to any other situation under heaven.

But, whatever be their office or character, two things I would say to all: first, Be cautious in making vows; and next, Be conscientious in performing them. Inquire into the nature and extent of any engagements before you enter into them: for, as Solomon says, “It is a snare to a man to devour that which is holy, and after vows to make inquiry [Note: Proverbs 20:25.].” If we have rashly engaged ourselves to do what the law of God positively prohibits, we must recede from our vow, and humble ourselves before God for our temerity. The forty conspirators who swore that they would neither eat nor drink till they had killed Paul, and Herod who swore that he would give his daughter whatsoever she should ask of him, had no right to bind themselves to such an extent, and would have sinned less in violating, than they did in keeping, their engagements. But where our vows are practicable, they must be kept, even though the observance of them be attended with great cost and trouble [Note: Deuteronomy 23:21-23.]: and the attempting to set them aside by the plea of inadvertence or of difficulties attending the observance of them, will only deceive our own souls, and bring upon us the heavy displeasure of our God [Note: Ecclesiastes 5:4-6.]. We remember the judgments which God inflicted upon the whole Jewish nation in the time of David, for Saul’s impiety in violating an engagement which had been hastily contracted by Joshua four hundred years before in favour of the Gibeonites [Note: Jos 9:19 with 2 Samuel 21:1.]: and much more will God visit upon us in the eternal world the violation of engagements entered into by ourselves. “Vow then unto the Lord,” if ye see it good, “but pay it [Note: Psalms 76:11.];” and say with David, “I will go into thy house with burnt-offerings; I will pay thee my vows, which my lips have uttered, and my mouth hath spoken, when I was in trouble [Note: Psalms 66:13-14.].”]

2.

To imitate the piety of his daughter—

[Very eminent was her deportment on this occasion. Great was her love of her country, great her love towards her father, great her reverence for an oath, and great her zeal for God. O that there were such a spirit in all the daughters of our land! Assuredly the conduct of this pious female may lead them to consider how much they are bound to consult the judgment of their parents in relation to marriage: for though we do not think that a parent’s authority extends to a prohibition of marriage, which is an ordinance instituted by God himself, yet we have no doubt but that it is the duty of children to pay a deference to the judgment of their parents, and never, unless in extreme cases, to form a connexion contrary to their commands.
Need I say however, that when engagements are formed, they are not to be broken? The whole world unites in condemning so base, so iniquitous a conduct, as that of repudiating a person betrothed. But it has been thought by some, that if one who has in his unconverted state formed an engagement, becomes converted, he may then break his engagement, because he is “not to be unequally yoked with an unbeliever.” But does religion justify the violation of our vows? God forbid! The very thought is a libel upon God himself. None but the person with whom the engagement is made, can liberate us from our vows. If indeed a woman to whom one was engaged, were to disgrace herself by some gross misconduct, it might be a reason for refusing to continue the engagement with her, because she has ceased to be the person with whom the engagement was formed. So, if an engagement were formed with a person on account of his supposed piety, and he were to cast off all regard for piety, his change of character would warrant a termination of the contract that had been made with him; because the very grounds of the engagement are subverted. But where, for the gratifying of our own inclination, excuses are sought out for receding from an engagement, God himself will be the avenger of the injured party.
There is one point in particular which the conduct of this pious virgin may well impress on the minds of all who belong to the Established Church; I mean, the observance of those vows which were made for us in baptism — — — Of those vows our parents will never have reason to repent; nor can we ever regret that they were made for us. No mournings, no lamentations will ever be excited by our performance of them. The ungodly world indeed may regret that we have renounced its ways and vanities; and Satan may regret that we have cast off his yoke; but all the saints and angels will rejoice; yea, “there is joy among the angels in the presence of God over one sinner that repenteth.” Even God himself will “be glad and make merry with us,” and will “rejoice over us to do us good.” True it is, that such a consecration of ourselves to God is difficult and self-denying; but it is our truest wisdom, and our highest joy. To all of you then I say, “Dedicate yourselves to God by a perpetual covenant not to be forgotten [Note: Jeremiah 50:5.];” yea, “I beseech you by the mercies of God that ye yield yourselves to God a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your reasonable service [Note: Romans 12:1.].”]


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Bibliographical Information
Simeon, Charles. "Commentary on Judges 11". Simeon's Horae Homileticae. https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/shh/judges-11.html. 1832.