As if the sorrow over his daughter had not been a sufficient cup of bitterness, the haughty tribe of Ephraim now assailed Jephthah with threats and reproaches – just as they had assailed Gideon after the defeat of the Midianites, less than a century before. They met with Jephthah and angrily reproached him for not making them sharers in his victory, and they threatened to set his house on fire and burn him and his family. The Ephraimites’ reputation for courage was certainly not the highest. “The children of Ephraim, being armed, and carrying bows, turned back in the day of battle” (Ps. 78:9). But they also had a tendency to be very haughty. During the whole period of the Judges, they enjoyed a position of precedence among the rest of the Israelites; and the sanctuary of God was in Shiloh, which was located in their tribe. They did not disguise their jealousy when other tribes were preferred above them. And now that a despised Gileadite had been raised to the supreme authority and had succeeded in defeating a dreaded enemy without any help from them, they could stand it no longer.
The Ephraimites’ language in this situation was more fierce and cruel than that of their predecessors, and Jephthah’s reply was not quite as peaceful as Gideon’s – although it was by no means unjust. Jephthah had given a general summons to the battle with the Ammonites, and the Ephraimites had not responded. But the Ephraimites persisted in their hostility. With taunts and reproaches, they attacked those who had so lately fought in their defense. “Ye Gileadites,” they said deridingly, “are fugitives of Ephraim” – mere fragments of the noble house of Joseph! Exasperated by this ungrateful taunt, the men of Gilead fell upon their Ephraimite brethren and put them to flight. After their defeat, the Ephraimites fled toward the Jordan River; and the Gileadites, being forgetful of the claims of mercy at such a season, intercepted them as they tried to cross the Jordan River. In order for the men of Gilead to distinguish friend from foe, the Ephraimites were tested by their ability to pronounce the “sh” sound in the word Shibboleth – a dialectic difference that was already prevailing between the eastern and western Israelites. Sadly, 42,000 lives were lost in this needless and untimely outbreak of civil war. How much we need to watch and pray against evil tempers! May the Lord incline all His people to follow after those things which make for peace. In this tragic scene, the Ephraimites are certainly not to be excused for their provocative insults and their pride. But the vindictive fury of the men of Gilead cannot escape heavy censure, either. It is true that they had been irritated and exasperated by bitter words; but in this, as in many other instances in history, we see an example of the terrible madness of popular revenge! And no contentions are so bitter as those which arise among brethren; “a brother offended is harder to be won than a strong city.” When such a breach is made, it is not quickly and easily healed. This is the case in both families and churches. How many Shibboleths have been invented to divide the members of the Bride of Jesus! Let us pray that the spirit of Christ-like love may rapidly spread, and that the divisive Shibboleths of sectarian warfare may be forgotten, so that the people of God may unite in successful invasion of every point of the devil’s kingdom!
After judging Israel for six years, Jephthah passed into heavenly glory. It is a mark in favor of the manner of his administration that no traces occur of a public relapse into idolatry during either his own time, or that of his successors, until the commencement of the period of Israel’s kings. And Jephthah’s name has been forever honored by being included in the list of men and women who are labeled as “heroes of faith” (Heb. 11:32).
Ibzan of Bethlehem succeeded Jephthah as Judge of Israel for seven years (1146-1139 BC). Then followed Elon, who judged God’s people from 1139- 1129 BC (10 years); and after him was Abdon, an Ephraimite, who governed the land for eight years (1129-1121 BC). The Holy Spirit has been pleased to record nothing more of these men except that they lived, governed, provided for themselves and their families, and then died and were buried. The happiest life of individuals, and the happiest state of society, is that which provides the fewest remarkable events. To live in quietness, to be peacefully useful to those around us, to possess a clear conscience, and chiefly to enjoy communion with Jesus while we live, and to die at peace with God and man – these things form the substance of all that a wise person can desire!
Lord, as we see Jephthah returning and become head over those who had rejected him, conquering and driving away their enemies; we pray that we may see him as a picture of our Savior, Who is the Conqueror of Satan, sin, and hell. We pray to You for grace so that we may submit ourselves to His headship forever. Amen.
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