“And Jephthah made a vow to the Lord. He said, ‘If you give me victory over the Ammonites, I will give to the Lord whatever comes out of my house to meet me when I return in triumph. I will sacrifice it as a burnt offering.'” – Judges 11:30-31 (NLT)
The story of Jephthah in the book of Judges is one of the saddest in the Old Testament to me. Judges 11 tells us that Jephthah had a rough time growing up. His half-siblings treated him poorly since his mother was a prostitute, and they chased him off his father’s land. Ironically though, the same folks who had no use for him come to him later on and ask for his fighting skills as they prepare to battle the Ammonites. The elders even promise to make him ruler if he’s successful. Jephthah then has messengers go to confront the king of Ammon, but the king disregards the message.
Maybe the king’s actions got Jephthah fired up. Or maybe he felt he was unstoppable with his new-found mandate from the people. But as he prepares to finally take the battle to the Ammonites, his zeal overcomes him and he makes a vow to God that he can’t take back. In his book Practical Religion, J.C. Ryle noted that, “If zeal is true, it will be a zeal according to knowledge. It must not be a blind, ignorant zeal. It must be a calm, reasonable, intelligent principle, which can show the warrant of Scripture for every step it takes.”
At that point, Jephthah was probably anything but “calm” or “reasonable”. Following the vow, God does in fact give him and his men the victory over the Ammonites, but it comes with a very heavy price. Jephthah’s daughter is the first to greet him as he returns home, and in keeping with his vow to God, he must give her over to God as an offering. This was probably doubly painful for Jephthah, since he had no other children. But he had no choice. As a father, this must have torn him apart inside. Even though Jephthah was judge for only six years, they were probably six long years for him knowing the manner in which he had lost his only child.
Jephthah was a great warrior of God, and he’s given special mention in the “Hall of Fame” of Hebrews 11. He certainly meant well. But his zeal had overcome him at a crucial point in his life and he had to live with the tragic consequences.
Good reminders today from the book of Judges….