The last chapter closed with the Israelites making preparations to fight the Ammonites, but they had no leader! Here at the beginning of this chapter, we see how the Lord raised up His instrument to meet that need. Jephthah was the son of a Manassite named Gilead. Some years before the oppression of the Ammonites, Jephthah had been expelled by his brothers from sharing in the family inheritance; so he had fled northward into the region of Syria and become the leader of a band of poor men. Jephthah’s achievements had gained him fame – even among his relatives who had driven him away. And so it came to pass that in their present emergency, the elders of Gilead came with a message to him – urgently requesting him to be their leader in the battle against the Ammonites. Jephthah stipulated that if he was successful in the battle against the Ammonites, he was to be made the permanent leader of Gilead. The question that Jephthah asked the elders of Gilead, in verse 9, is the same question that is put to those who desire salvation by Christ. If He saves you, will you be willing that He shall rule over you? On no other terms will He save you! If He makes you happy, are you willing that He should make you holy?
Jephthah would not return with the elders of Gilead until they had agreed to his stipulation, and bound themselves to keep their promise by a solemn oath before Jehovah. And their promise was punctually performed in the presence of all those who were encamped at Mizpeh. Thus a backsliding but penitent people received proof, once again, that the Lord regards the prayer of the humble! Their anxious suspense was at an end; for God had given them a captain, under whom they could confidently march to the battle with their foe. Let us observe the fact that Jephthah, in order to obtain a little worldly honor, was willing to risk his life; and shall we be discouraged in our Christian warfare by the difficulties we may meet with, when Jesus has promised a crown of life to those who overcome?
Upon his return to his homeland, Jephthah’s first act was not to rush into battle; rather, he sent an embassy to the king of Ammon, expostulating with him over his invasion of Israel’s land. He restrained his ardor until he was satisfied of the justice of the cause upon which he was entering. Moreover, the law of Moses commanded an offer of peace to be made before proceeding to battle with an enemy. And in this, Jephthah was a picture of Christ, Who proclaims peace and offers pardon to His enemies before taking vengeance upon them!
In reply to Jephthah’s messengers, the Ammonite king declared that the territory which he was invading belonged to him, and that it had been taken by the Israelites in former days. Jephthah responded that the land in question had been lawfully taken by conquest from the Amorites, not the Ammonites (Num. 21:21-31); for Israel had taken nothing from either Moab or Ammon! In Jephthah’s rejoinder, we have an admirable specimen of historical and political reasoning. The Israelites could not have taken this land away from the Ammonites; for during the period in question, the Ammonites were not even in possession of it! It was held in possession by the Amorite kings when Israel became its new owners. Furthermore, Jephthah pleaded the right of conquest. In this argument, Jephthah reasoned with the heathen king upon his own principles. If the king of Ammon would consider conquest – which was supposedly obtained through the favor of his idol – a sufficient reason for possessing a piece of land, then why should not the Israelites do the same when Jehovah had allowed them to conquer it? Having thus appealed to history and to reason, Jephthah concluded his reply to the king with a significant hint of the impossibility of overcoming God’s people. And he asked how it had come to pass that this dispute over the land had been allowed to slumber for 300 years, and restoration had never been demanded before this point. Thus, appealing to the Most High concerning the justice of his nation’s cause, Jephthah left its outcome with Him.
This discussion, however, failed to make peace. The Ammonites prepared for attack; and Jephthah – inspired by Divine impulse – put himself at the head of his people and then came south to Mizpeh. And it was at this time that Jephthah uttered his remarkable vow, which has been the subject of debate for many centuries since. He solemnly declared that whatever came out of his house to meet him upon his return from victory would be the Lord’s. He attacked the Ammonites and the Lord enabled him to defeat them with a great slaughter. But as he returned home to Mizpeh in triumph, he was horror-stricken to behold his only daughter coming forth to meet him with innocent mirth and rejoicing! With bitter sorrow, he told his beloved child of his vow to Jehovah. The noble-hearted maiden begged him not to grieve, but to be thankful for the success which the Lord had granted him. The inspired narrative leaves it unclear whether Jephthah actually carried out the terms of his vow to the letter, or whether he consecrated his daughter to an unmarried lifelong service to Jehovah. To offer a human sacrifice – especially a child sacrifice – was an abomination to the Lord; and the law of Moses (Lev. 27) did make provision for the redemption of vows which might be regretted afterwards, or which would be unsuitable to perform literally. Let us thank the Lord that those things which are necessary for our salvation are plain for us to understand!
Lord Jesus! We thank You for being the Captain of our salvation; for under Your banner of love, we find peace and safety from our spiritual foes. Amen.
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illustration by Charles Foster, 1915