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Bible Commentaries
Judges 12

The Biblical IllustratorThe Biblical Illustrator

Verses 1-3

Judges 12:1-3

Wherefore passedst thou over to fight against the children of Ammon, and didst not call us to go with thee?

Shams and frauds

Though these Ephraimites are long since dead and gone, there are many Ephraimites alive. They are men who will not share the conflict themselves, but are angry when others succeed.

There are people still who think nothing can be done without them. We find these people everywhere--not a few of them at home. Ask that busy, bustling housewife to take her children out into the country for a day; or ask her to attend church on a Sunday morning; or ask her to give a few hours to visiting among the sick and the poor and the sorrowful, what will she say? “How can I leave my house? Who will attend to my affairs? If I were out of that house a few days it would all go to ruin.” That woman has grown daughters who could and would gladly see to things if she would only let them. But she goes on in her foolish whim that nothing can be done without her. And I verily believe that not a few would rather have nothing done at all if they could not do it. In business, too, the same thing occurs. There are men who are slaves to their business. Neither their sons nor their confidential men, who would suffer any loss rather than neglect the governor’s interest, can be trusted. They must see to it, or it won’t be done. Some day God puts such a man on his back. He is away six months with a serious illness. His sons, who have not been thought capable hitherto, have responsibility thrown upon them, and rise to the position. The man is humbled, shamed, or it may be, delighted to find that the business has done better with the infusion of the new blood than it did with the old. The Church of Christ, unfortunately, is afflicted with a large number of men who think nothing can be done without them. There are men who would rather the battle should be lost than others win it--who would almost wish that evil should remain rather than others have the honour of removing it. But what does it matter who gains the victory if it be gained? God can accomplish His purposes without any of us. Look over the pages of history, and you will find that workers fall, but the work goes on.

There are some who, though they can’t stop the work, try to prejudice the workers. The men of the text said in effect, “And who are you? You are fugitives, mongrels, not of pure blood. What business have the likes of you to think you can fight the foes of Israel? It is monstrous, and we won’t have it.” The same thing goes on to-day. There are men who seem to think they have said something clever and settling when they say that the popular useful man was not born in a palace. “Who’s he?” is their cry. “Why, don’t you know that he was a collier, and worked in a coal pit? His father died in a cottage. His mother was the daughter of a man who drove a horse and cart, and never had five pounds in his life.” And what of that? Is it not honest to get coal? Better be a collier and dig coal in the service of man, and thus the service of God, than be a loafer, an idler, a consumer, a drone. Some of the noblest of God’s servants have come from among the poor, and the obscure, and the unknown. Our Lord Himself was a toiler, and the Son of toilers, and has for ever consecrated and blessed all honest necessary human labour. So I say to you all, toil on, pray on, fight on, win victories for God. Beat back the enemies of Israel; and if the Ephraimites, lacking courage and genius themselves, despise you, let them.

There are some who can’t or won’t do much themselves, but hate, and scorn, and try to persecute those who do. “We will burn thine house upon thee.” Alas! This has often found expression in the bitterness of party strife and religious bigotry. Unable to silence men whose lips God had touched as with live coals from His own altar, and whose hearts had felt the power of the living God, they have erected their stakes, piled their faggots, and lit their fires, in which the saints of God, the excellent of the earth, have stood till their flesh was shrivelled and their bones cindered. “We will burn thine house upon thee with fire,” said these men; but they found themselves unable to do it. Some men are hard to kill, and some houses bad to burn. Many a tyrant has found this out. “We will burn thine house upon thee.” It does not seem to have occurred to these cowardly Ephraimites that men who burn other people’s houses sometimes burn themselves. It is dangerous to play with edged tools. It is not safe to toy with fire. It may become the instrument of your own torture, the weapon of your own destruction. “They that take the sword shall perish with the sword,” said Jesus Christ; and there is for us no higher authority. Some men who are fond of using fire do no harm except to themselves. Whilst it is in some sense only right and just that this should be so, there are cases in which we are sorry for the opposers. Well had it been for these Ephraimites had they shared in the universal rejoicing. Well had it been for them if they had learned wisdom, and ceased from opposition. Their wicked and senseless opposition brought ruin upon themselves. In sheer self-defence the victor turned the sword upon them. Alas for them! Forty and two thousand of them that day left their dead bodies upon the plains as victims of their folly, and in illustration of our saying that the wicked often injure themselves. And this is true with the Lord Jesus and His gospel. Some men oppose it, reject it, mutilate it, burn it. All such injure themselves. They can never hurt the truth. It will live. They cannot stop the power of Jesus Christ to save men. The waves of the ocean dash against the granite rock, but the rock does not move. But what of the waves? Broken, they roll back in spray to the ocean out of which they came. “Whosoever shall fall on this stone shall be broken: but on whomsoever it shall fall, it will grind him to powder.” (C. Leach, D. D.)

Verse 6

Judges 12:6

Say now Shibboleth: and he said Sibboleth:

Trifles indicate character

It is often just such a slight peculiarity which identifies men as belonging to a certain district or family.

You know whose son a man is by some motion of his hands or by his walk, by the fall of a lock of hair or the way he lifts his eye: so also some very slight peculiarity in our conduct or conversation is a sufficient index to our whole state. In our Lord’s account of the last judgment He describes all men as expressing astonishment that they should be so summarily dealt with, should be allotted to their irrevocable destinies on grounds apparently so trivial. Is it really reasonable that for some trifle of this kind a man should be everlastingly damned, irretrievably and once for all cast in judgment? You will think that it is quite reasonable if, in the light of this incident, you consider that the little things a man does or neglects to do are infallible symptoms of his character. These Ephraimites were not slain because the Gileadites thought it a heinous crime to drop the “h”; but their blood dyed the Jordan because it was Ephraimite blood, and this was manifested by their little peculiarity. And so in a thousand ways that God observes, and that even men of any spiritual insight or keenness of observation notice, we are in little things revealing our character, and in the final judgment one of these little things will be sufficient to condemn us. Try to put away these little faults; if you succeed, then you are safe. But the faults of your character, the little actions that truly express what is in you, you cannot so easily put off. There often arise circumstances even in this life in which a more holy and decided character than we possess were most desirable: we could pass through what has come upon us in a vastly more satisfactory way if only we were other kind of men than we are; but this is impossible. These Ephraimites could not for the nonce become Gileadites; nor for their life could they make that little change in their mode of speech. And so we cannot, on the sudden, change ourselves. If certain little things about you make you suspect you belong to the wrong tribe; if there are little flaws in your conduct which you find it extremely hard to remove, and which hint to you that perhaps or probably the very roots of your character are wrong; then go quickly to God, for you have but this one resource and way of escape, and offer to forsake your old tribe, to be born again, and beseech His grace to effect in you a thorough and real change of heart, such as He has effected in many. (Marcus Dods, D. D.)


That the language of Palestine was diversely spoken in its different provinces in the days of Christ, is evident from the ready recognition of Peter by the high priest’s servant as a Galilean, his “speech betraying him.” In the present day the Arabic of one part of Syria is so different from that of another, that a person well able to understand the people of Smyrna finds great difficulty in understanding those of Aleppo; and even in the small island of Malta, where a corrupt Arabic is spoken, the peasants of the several villages are said to be nearly unintelligible to each other. Our own country affords ample illustration. A vanquished army of Northumbrians, retreating across the Tees, might with equal facility be detected by being required to say the word “river,” as were the Ephraimites on the banks of the Jordan by being required to say the word “shibboleth,” or “stream.” As our Northumbrians cannot pronounce the “r,” but utter instead of it a guttural sound resembling a “w,” the Ephraimites, unable to pronounce the “sh,” discovered themselves at once by their saying sibboleth for shibboleth; and so fierce was the revenge of those whom they had taunted, that the blood of forty-two thousand men mingled with the stream of the Jordan. In this tragical scene the vindictive fury of the men of Gilead cannot escape heavy censure. They had been exasperated by bitter words; but in this, as in many other instances in history, we see the terrific madness of popular revenge. No contentions are so bitter as those which arise among brethren: “A brother offended is harder to be won than a strong city.” Civil wars are usually carried on under greater exasperation of feeling than wars between nations of a different race; nor is the breach, when once made, so readily healed. As the sweetest wine, when acetous fermentation has set in, turns to the sourest vinegar, so it is in families and in Churches. How dismally protracted are some family feuds! And how embittered against each other are the adherents of the two opposed parties in a riven Church! Let us not be too prodigal of our anathemas upon these cruel Gileadites at the fords of the Jordan, at least until we have taken leisure to compare the mutual aspect of civilised nations, and the mutual aspect of Christian Churches, in the later centuries, when a conduct so much less violent might have been expected. Are there not Church parties in our own day which set up shibboleths of their own, and refuse the interchanges of brotherhood to all who do not pronounce the test-word in precisely the same manner as themselves? (L. H. Wiseman, M. A.)


The word on which this tragical occurrence hangs has passed into a proverbial word. Were any casual reader of Scripture asked what the word signifies, he would hardly reply, a stream or flood. The incident mentioned in the text has given a new meaning to it. Shibboleth is now an English word, with an English meaning distinct from its root. It means any word, doctrine, form, or fashion which, whether we will or no, whether rightly or wrongly, justly or unjustly, we are required to pronounce or agree to as a test, in short, which is intended to try on whose side we wage war, whose leadership we acknowledge, whose dominions we belong to. There are God’s shibboleths and man’s. “Except a man be born again, he cannot enter into the kingdom of heaven.” “Without holiness no man shall see the Lord.” “Except ye repent, ye shall all likewise perish.” “No man can say that Jesus is the Christ, except by the Holy Ghost.” There are also man’s shibboleths. “You must believe that the world stands still while the sun revolves.” “No,” said the wise old man, “I cannot believe that, for I have discovered a new system.” “Then you must die, and your soul be lost.” So the poor discoverer was tortured into pronouncing the shibboleth of human ignorance. Notice, as a leading truth, that all are not Israel that are of Israel. However much we may speak, dress, and look alike, there is a hidden difference which time or a severe test will show. Also that difference may sound trifling, and yet be of such importance as to embrace the life or death of the soul. Also we may live in the same land, the same street, the same village, the same house; may fight in the same camp, and wear the same uniform; and yet be part Ephraimites and part Gileadites; part God’s people and part Satan’s; part hastening to destruction and part in a state of safety. The sight of any great swaying and swelling multitude, any waving ocean of humanity, causes many a quiet thought, and sorrow, and prayer to ascend from Christian souls, respecting the divided future of the ofttimes unanimous-looking crowd. For a Christian may lament and pray for his brother, without lapsing into the Pharisee’s censoriousness.

Look we now for the vain shibboleths of man, those heavy burdens which are laid on men’s shoulders, and laid too often by those who will not themselves touch them with the tips of their fingers.

1. “I believe that I am forgiven?’ This is one of the unfair shibboleths required by man. Seldom a saint departs without sight of the broad seal of God’s forgiveness. But he may be afraid to take it. Still he is forgiven. To be forgiven is of the first importance. To know we are forgiven is of importance too; but not indispensable.

2. “I am a member of this Church.” Here is another human shibboleth. The Lord will not ask what earthly Church--so it be but a branch of Christ’s vine--a soul belongs to. “Come with us and we will do thee good,” is the utmost length to which our invitation may go.

3. “I understand Scripture in the literal sense. I agree to no new interpretation. I admit no light from science.” These requirements form another human shibboleth; this shutting up of the Bible from that free, and full, and fair inquiry, which, if it were afraid of it, it would be well nigh worthless. Having first prayed reverently, “Lead me not, O Father, into temptation,” a man may wear away his Bible by the daily attrition of diligent study; for it contains what no study can wear down--the very truth of God. Such a reader Christ smiles upon as his fingers turn over the sacred page. For such a man, after God’s own heart, the Holy Spirit will strike forth new discoveries; will lead such an one by still waters, and feed him in pleasant pastures, far away from the rivers of Babylon; will guide such an one into all truth, and save his soul in peace.

There are also some true shibboleths of God, which we must pronounce with a full, round utterance, or we are lost.

1. Repentance. “If I were to die in the pulpit,” said Philip Henry, “I would desire to die preaching repentance; and if I were to die out of the pulpit, I would desire to die practising repentance.” “Except ye repent,” says the Holy Spirit, “ye shall all likewise perish.” Can we say, “shibboleth”? Have we repented? Or is it only the “sibboleth” of a worldly sorrow?

2. Another shibboleth of God is faith in Christ. Not the form of words, “I believe”; but the diligent, faithful life; the earnest, converted soul.

3. We must believe the Bible to be inspired. Reverently and freely interpreting it, we must take it from God’s gracious hand, and follow out its leading as the clue to salvation. Else it will hang like a millstone about our necks, and sink us to perdition, 4, We must learn the true language of heaven, the true ways of holiness. We must leave the lispings, formalities, and affectations of the world, and say, “Shibboleth,” as the angels and spirits of the just, and the just who yet live upon earth say it, and have said it before. (S. B. James, M. A.)

Sectarianism--its origin, evils, cures

The Church of God is divided into a great number of denominations, some of them founded by very good men, some of them founded by very egotistic men, and some of them founded by very bad men. But as I demand liberty of conscience for myself, I must give that same liberty to every other man, remembering that I advocate the largest liberty in all religious belief and form of worship. The air and the water keep pure by constant circulation, and I think there is a tendency in religious discussion to purification and moral health. In a world of such tremendous vicissitude and temptation, and with a soul that must after a while stand before a throne of insufferable brightness, to give account for every thought, word, action, preference, and dislike--that man is mad who has no religious preference. But our early education, our physical temperament, our mental constitution, will very much decide our form of worship.

1. In tracing out the religion of sectarianism, or bigotry, I find that a great deal of it comes from wrong education in the home circle. There are parents who do not think it wrong to caricature and jeer the peculiar forms of religion in the world, and denounce other denominations.

2. I think sectarianism and bigotry also rise from too great prominence of any one denomination in a community. All the other denominations are wrong, and his denomination is right, because his denomination is the most wealthy, or the most popular, and it is “our” Church, and “our “ religious organisation, and “our” choir, and “our” minister, and the man tosses his head, and wants other denominations to know their places.

3. Bigotry is often the child of ignorance. You seldom find a man with large intellect who is a bigot. It is the man who thinks he knows a great deal, but does not. That man is almost always a bigot. There is nothing that will so soon kill bigotry as sunshine--God’s sunshine. So I have set before you what I consider to be the causes of bigotry. What are some of the baleful effects?

1. It cripples investigation. You are wrong, and I am right, and that ends it. No taste for exploration, no spirit of investigation.

2. Another great damage done by the sectarianism and bigotry of the Church is, that it disgusts people with the Christian religion. Now, the Church of God was never intended for a war barrack.

3. Again, bigotry and sectarianism do great damage in the fact that they hinder the triumph of the gospel. Oh! how much wasted ammunition! how many men of splendid intellect have given their whole life to controversial disputes, when, if they had given their life to something practical, they might have been vastly useful! A quarrel in a beehive is a strange sight. I go out sometimes in the summer and I find two beehives, and these two beehives are in a quarrel. I come near enough, not to be stung, but I come just near enough to hear the controversy, and one beehive says, “That field of clover is the sweetest,” and another beehive says, “That field of clover is the sweetest.” I come in between them, and I say, “Stop this quarrel; if you like that field of clover best, go there; if you like that field of clover best, go there; but let me tell you that that hive which gets the most honey is the best hive!” So I come out between the Churches of the Lord Jesus Christ. One denomination of Christians says, “That field of Christian doctrine is best,” and another says, “This field of Christian doctrine is best.” Well, I say, “Go where you get the most honey.” That is the best Church which gets the most honey of Christian grace for the heart, and the most honey of Christian usefulness for the life. Besides that, if you want to build up any denomination, you will never build it up by trying to pull some other down. In England a law was made against the Jew. England thrust back the Jew, and thrust down the Jew, and declared that no Jew should hold official position. What came of it? Were the Jews destroyed? Was their religion overthrown? No. Intolerance never yet put down anything. Now, what is the remedy for sectarianism? I think we may overthrow the severe sectarianism and bigotry in our hearts, and in the Church also, by realising that all the denominations of Christians have yielded noble institutions and noble men. There is nothing that so stirs my soul as this thought. Moreover, we may also overthrow the feelings of severe sectarianism by joining other denominations in Christian work. Perhaps I might more forcibly illustrate this truth by Calling your attention to an incident which took place some years ago. One Monday morning, at about two o’clock, while her nine hundred passengers were sound asleep dreaming of home, the steamer Atlantic crashed into Mars Head. Five hundred souls in ten minutes landed in eternity! Oh, what a scene! Agonised men and women running up and down the gangways, and clutching for the rigging, and the plunge of the helpless steamer, threw two continents into terror. But see this brave quartermaster pushing out with the life-line until he gets to the rock; and see these fishermen gathering up the shipwrecked, and taking them into the cabins and wrapping them in the flannels snug and warm; and see that minister of the gospel, with three other men, getting into a lifeboat, and pushing out for the wreck, pulling away across the surf, and pulling away until they saved one more man, and then getting back with him to the shore. Can these men ever forget that night? And can they ever forget their companionship in peril, companionship in struggle, companionship in awful catastrophe and rescue? Never! Never! Well, our world has gone into a worse shipwreck. Sin drove it on the rocks. The old ship has lurched and tossed in the tempests of six thousand years. Out with the life-line! I do not care what denomination carries it. Out with the life-boat! I do not care what denomination rows it. Side by side, in the memory of common hardships, and common trials, and common prayers, and common tears, let us be brothers for ever. (T. De Witt Talmage.)

Social and religious tests

. Social life has its shibboleths. Goodness of heart and purity of life and language are not always the tests of admission to what is termed choice society. Anything before that. With some it is education. How much do you know? With others it is elegance of manners and accomplishments. We do not admit awkward people to our company. And some estimate the worth of their neighbours by the length of their purses. How much are you worth? With multitudes dress is the countersign. The idol of fashion is set up, and we are expected to bow down daily and offer devout homage. In many assemblies the garment decides the position. One of our great generals, it is said, went modestly to one of our fashionable churches on a great funeral occasion. Upon his applying for a place, it transpired that the plain cloak which wrapped his person was barely sufficient to gain him a seat inside the door. It was almost literally, “Stand thou there.” During the service the cloak fell back far enough to reveal the mark upon the shoulders. Then came most profuse apologies, with the pressing invitation, “Come up higher, and sit thou in a good place.”

Religious life has its shibboleths, and there is no place where the overbearing requirements are more unseemly or mere to be deprecated. The spirit of Christianity, as taught by its Divine Author, is a spirit of kindness, tenderness, forbearance. It commends and enjoins the charity that beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things. In the gospel we are to make allowance for each other’s differences, and bear with each other’s infirmities, and bid Godspeed to each other’s efforts. There are shibboleths which are legitimate, and essential to the maintenance of vital truth and goodness among men. There are principles which constitute the very foundation stones of God’s temple. These are to be defended and guarded without compromise. It is not our measuring line which is thus applied; it is not our standard set up; it is not our speech to which conformity is required. It is the pronunciation which God demands. And yet it becomes us to be extremely cautious in the pressing of the pass-words, lest we should substitute our own pronunciation for God’s and shut out any of the children of the kingdom. “Take heed lest ye offend one of these little ones.” There are different phases of the same doctrine; there are various explanations and interpretations which do not invalidate the truth. (Goyn Talmage.)

The shibboleths of the Churches

We may learn here the worth of the essence of a thing as it stands in contrast with the mere accent--something like that which Paul set forth in the noble words--I read and the need there is now, as there was then, that we shall stand free if we can from the letter and cling to the spirit. The letter may be, as it often is, the mere difference between the two sides, while the spirit is the Divine reality that lies and abides within them both, the only thing God ever did care for, as I believe, or ever will care for while the world stands. Shibboleth and sibboleth, you know, still make mischief when they can get a chance, as surely as they did on the banks of the Jordan, and they fall out, and divide, and weaken all the chances of right against wrong. Let others fall out as they will about the way to say the word, but be sure that the gates of life never did open and never can to this mere turn of the tongue, this sesame, but only to the grand old password: “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart and soul and mind and strength, and thy neighbour as thyself,” I notice, again, when I bring shibboleth and sibboleth home to my heart and life, that there is no other way open to me if I would be a man, let alone a Christian, but just to say what he says, the good apostle (1 Corinthians 12:13). Our belief is far less a matter of free-will than we imagine. If we are sincere in regard to truth we must believe as we do, and there is no ground for reviling. And as oaks grow best alone, and as vines need a standard, and as some flowers like a day with three quarters shadow, and others want all the sunshine that heaven can pour upon them; as all the fruits in Covent Garden Market to-morrow will be better than any one of them; as all herbs are good in their place, sweet and bitter, mellow and sharp; and as some love Rembrandt’s pictures with their deep shadows, and some Raphael’s, with their floods of glory and hosts of angels, and no great gallery could be complete if you leave out any of these great masters: so I think we must make up our minds that any Church which can include all these diversities of thinking and believing is better than those which leave any out, and breed “in and in,” like the chickens in Hawthorne’s story that were so careful of the separateness of their breed that there were only two of them left in the end, and they could do nothing but croak. We cannot always think alike or believe alike in the most sacred relations that men and women can sustain to each other in their homes; and we ought not to look for any finer harmony than the holy spirit of well-mated Christian people, least of all in the Churches where this bond of fellowship is maintained, against all comers, that every man may make something good enough for heaven out of the nature that God has given him and the life he has to live, and that the best form in the Churches and in the nation is that in which men can manage wisely and well to govern themselves. (R. Collyer, D. D.)

Verses 13-15

Judges 12:13-15

Abdon . . . had forty sons and thirty nephews.

The time of peace

For our instruction this we may learn, that in the time of peace, when there is freedom from war and persecution in a land, there is great prosperity in every kind, as multitudes of people, building, purchasing, and growing in wealth and promotion. For though the plague and famine sometimes sweep away and diminish the number of people, yet they through God’s goodness not continuing long, nor sore, are the sooner outgrown; but the other, I mean war and persecution, make strip and waste, as we say, even as the violent fire burneth all where it cometh, and the raging waters drown. But when they cease, there is plenty for the most part going with peace, and there is with both great outward prosperity. Which is to be acknowledged a singular great favour of God, and to such as are able to use it aright it giveth much liberty and encouragement to live well and happily. And otherwise what is all jollity and abundance, if we have not learned and be not fitted for the right use of it? The which how few regard or look after, but only seek to pass their precious time in ease, vanity, play, idleness, drinking and such like; and the civiller sort to mind little else than to increase and gather wealth, the most of them not knowing why, but to content and please themselves thereby; to see how fondly, nay madly, so many do use this peace and liberty of quiet living, it is much more to be bewailed than the benefit itself is to be rejoiced for. And to think how in this time of peace good preaching should be in use throughout all parts of the land to hold down atheism, profaneness, and other sin, and that which should be all in all with us to bring many people to God, and yet how little is done this way, it cannot without much bewailing be thought on. Now if in this earthly mansion of ours He can allow His people so liberal and comfortable a supply of earthly refreshings meet for them, until they shall no longer stand in need of them; then what is like to be their entertainment at home in heaven, and what provision will the Lord make for them there, where all sound rejoicing is without end or measure? A great means to provoke them to serve out their time with cheerfulness and faithfulness when they consider that all things are theirs, both here and hereafter. All good things serve to make up the happiness of them who are Christ’s, who is Lord of all. (R. Rogers.)


Bibliographical Information
Exell, Joseph S. "Commentary on "Judges 12". The Biblical Illustrator. https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/tbi/judges-12.html. 1905-1909. New York.
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