In Judges 11 we read that Jephthah was a mighty man who was asked by the elders of Gilead to lead the people in a fight against the Ammonites, but who also attracted the company of worthless men (11:3-5). Prior to the battle, Jephthah made a vow to the Lord. He prays, “If you will indeed deliver the people of Ammon into my hands, then it will be that whatever comes out of the doors of my house to meet me, when I return in peace from the people of Ammon, shall surely be the Lord’s, and I will offer it up as a burnt offering.”
HE IS VICTORIOUS AND RETURNS
The victory would be short lived, however, as we read, “Alas, my daughter! You have brought me very low! You are among those who trouble me! For I have given my word to the Lord, and I cannot go back on it” (11:35)
There has been a lot of debate concerning the end of this account. Did he sacrifice his daughter? Did he go through with this horrible thing?
The account seems to indicate that he did indeed sacrifice his daughter, but if that is the case it wouldn’t have been approved by Him. Jepthah’s character hints to his own spiritual life. Not all of the men and women God raised up to fulfill His will were righteous. If Jepthah went through with the sacrifice it would have been out of ignorance. If he knew the God of Israel, he would have known that God would have never asked him to do such a thing.
The question we should ask when we read this account is not whether or not Jepthah murdered his daughter, but rather, how well do we know God?
Judges 12 details a civil war between Ephraim and the Gileadites of Manasseh. God used Jephthah and the Gileadites to humble Ephraim. The haughty Ephraimites felt they could bully Jephthah and the Gileadites as they had previously bullied Gideon (Judges 8). Jephthah and his men ended up slaying 42,000 Ephraimites. One of the keys to the Gileadites’ lopsided victory was seizing the fords over the Jordan River. And when fleeing Ephraimites tried to cross, they were asked for a “password.” The password was “shibboleth.” Various commentators have offered different definitions for the word, but its meaning is not necessary to understand the text. Here is what we need to know: The Ephraimites could not pronounce the word “shibboleth,” as the Gileadites. Thus, they replied, “sibboleth.” Having been betrayed by their dialect, the Gileadites then slew the Ephraimites.
Wordsmiths know that, beyond its Biblical source, shibboleth has come to mean any word or practice separating one group from another. Christians should have shibboleths, correct? They are called upon to transform themselves from the world rather than conform to it (Romans 12.1-2). However, while perusing several online dictionaries, I noted that they also tended to look upon a shibboleth unfavorably, calling it an “old-fashioned” or “outdated” idea still clung to by some. In the example sentences provided by those aforementioned dictionaries, shibboleths seem connected with “conservative-thinking” people. So, evidently, “progressives” must not be hampered by them. Frankly, it is hard to keep up with the self-righteousness of progressives. Their mores change so swiftly that sometimes they snare even themselves when a past tweet or video surfaces. It reminds me of the foolish man building his house upon the sand (Matthew 7.26-27).
God is aware of the mindset that mocks established standards. Jeremiah records God’s words: “Stand by the ways and see and ask for the ancient paths, where the good way is, and walk in it; and you will find rest for your souls.” (6.16) Not unlike those living today, Jeremiah’s contemporaries replied, “We will not walk in it.” (ibid.) To borrow modern parlance, those in ancient Judah found the old paths “shibboleth.” But who gives such persons the right to esteem something as antiquated? Honestly, it seems like it is the “right” of the squeakiest wheel, those with the largest echo chamber. Those of us with our shibboleths abandoned the arena of popular culture, education, and media. Hence, we can only blame ourselves for allowing the castigation of truth as incompatible with temporary society.
But lest we forget, the victors from the source material had their shibboleth while the defeated had their sibboleth. As someone has said in summation of the book of Revelation, the message is that in the end, God wins. That is applicable here as well. God brings victory to those with the shibboleth, not sibboleth. No, it is not a superior concept because it is older. We can find new ways to do something that is “old.” (e.g., We may use new mediums to teach the “old Jerusalem Gospel.”) The shibboleth is what was given by God in His inspired word. Sibboleths reflect the precepts of men (cf. Matthew 15.8-9). We must not drop even one consonant sound (cf. Deuteronomy 4.2; 12.32; Proverbs 30.6; Revelation 22.18).
When I eventually cross the Jordan River ford, I want to find life, not death. Don’t you agree? To safely cross, an obedient life is our “password.”
If he was nervous, it was clear that the king’s palace guards couldn’t tell. They checked his left thigh for a weapon, and when they were satisfied they allowed Ehud to enter the throne room chamber. Ehud is just steps away from going down in history as the man who delivered the Israelites from the Moabite oppression. If he can pull this off, he and his people will enjoy eighty years of peace. It was a big job, and if you know this account, it was a big in more than one way. Hanging from his right side, unknown to anyone but him, is an eighteen inch double-sided sword. It was a weapon made for stabbing, and Ehud planned to use it for it’s created purpose. The guards stationed outside the chamber open the door for him. The room is filled with servants and more armed security, but this is probably not the first thing to catch your eye. There, in the middle of the room on the throne sat an extremely obese man. He’s been the ruling power over God’s people for eighteen years now and as king, he clearly took advantage the royal food supply. His name was Eglon. He, along with the sons of Ammon and Amalek, defeated the Israelites and then claimed the city of palm trees, Jericho.
Ironically, the palm tree was considered a symbol of peace and victory. Many years later, people would lay the branches of these trees down before Jesus the Nazareth as He enters Jerusalem. It seems reasonable to assume that Eglon was glad when he saw Ehud walk towards him. After all, Ehud was the man in charge of gathering Israel’s tribute and delivering it to him. With these funds, the king was free to continue living his life of gluttony and leisure. However, this time God was about to give a gift to the Israelites— Eglon’s life.
Ehud begins to look for the perfect opportunity to kill the king. He says to Eglon, “I have a secret message for you.” At this, Eglon clears the room. Now it’s just Ehud and the king. They’re alone in Eglon’s roof chamber. Ehud continues, “It’s from God.” This is out of the ordinary, and the king seems to have some level of respect for Jehovah, because he then stands up. I would imagine, a man of his size didn’t usually make a habit of standing unless it was absolutely necessary. Ehud pulls from his right thigh the hidden sword and quickly thrusts it into Eglon’s belly. The fat closes over the blade, and his insides spill out. Ehud locks the door and makes his escape. The guards assume Eglon is relieving himself in the coolness of his roof chamber. They wait until the point of embarrassment before opening the door, only to find their king dead. Ehud manages to rally the Israelite troops— slaying ten thousand mighty Moabites. Peace fell on the land for the next eighty years until the children of Israel once again fell away from God.
This account is found in Judges 3, and it’s an interesting, perhaps disgusting account, of how God delivered His people. Believe it or not, there are a few takeaways for us today. Sometimes Christianity involves bravery on our part. God was with Ehud, and He’s still with us today. Even so, humans still face very real fears. Whether you’re asked to lead a prayer in worship, or you’re thinking about talking with those in your social circles about Christ, or making an uncomfortable hospital visit, faithful service requires courage. It’s always been that way. Another lesson we can learn from this account is that God strengthens our faith by testing that faith. Just look at how zealously Ehud conquers the strong and valiant Moabites after Eglon’s death. When we can witness how God has worked in our past, it can build our faith in God’s ability to assist us in the future. If God is for us, who can be against us? Absolutely nobody.
The theme of our recently completed lectureship was, “Every Man Did What Was Right In His Own Eyes.” This seems to be the summary statement of this entire period of Bible history. It is interesting that this idea shows up more than in just the two verses where the statement appears (Judges 17:6; 21:25). Samson wanted the woman of Timnah because “she looked good to” him (Judges 14:3,7; literally, “she was right in his eyes”). In reality, she was a loose, treacherous, and idolatrous woman, but she seemed right to him. In that dark story about the Levite man, the elderly Ephraimite man, the Levite’s concubine and the Ephraimite’s virgin daughter, the old man, seeking to placate the wicked Benjamites, offered the women to them “to do with them whatever” they wished (Judges 19:24; literally, “the good in your eyes”). Obviously, what was right in these men’s eyes was reprehensible and vile. It is one of the most extreme examples of wickedness recorded in the Bible.
Elsewhere, the Bible says, “The way of a fool is right in his own eyes” (Proverbs 12:15a), and “Every man’s way is right in his own eyes” (Proverbs 21:2a). We often think things seem right when they are far from it (Proverbs 14:12; 16:25; 18:17). After talking about those who mix up right and wrong and good and evil, Isaiah tells us why they do this. He warns that they “are wise in their own eyes and clever in their own sight” (Isaiah 5:21).
In the world, the church, and our own lives, we are tempted to do what is right in our own eyes. We justify habits, relationships, desires, religious practices, lifestyles, and choices about which God warns in His Word by ignoring that and rationalizing, rewording, and reframing them. We use emotional arguments. We twist Scripture. In the end, when we do these things, we reject God’s authority and seek to become the standard ourselves. The book of Judges was written, in part, to show us what happens when we do it and how God feels when we do it. The well-worn phrase goes, “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” That may be. But right and wrong is not such as is in the eye of the beholder. That is determined by the One who possesses “the all-seeing eye” (Proverbs 15:3).
It has been called “The Dark Ages Of The Old Testament.” During the period of the judges, there was moral, economic, social, political and religious decline. We often read that, during this time, the children of Israel did that which was evil in the sight of the Lord.
History keeps repeating itself in the book of Judges. The people do evil, God allows and oppressor to persecute them, the people turn back to God and plead for deliverance, and God raises up a deliverer to defeat the oppressor and deliver Israel. Here, we speak of the “cycle” of Judges: sin, servitude, sorrow, supplication, and salvation.
Their enemy invaders came from the East (Mesopotamia), the Southeast (Moab), the North (Canaan), the East (Midian and Ammon), and the Southwest (Philistia). It is interesting that Israel overcame Canaan in the militarily brilliant strategy orchestrated by God (Central Canaan—Josh. 7-8, Southern Canaan—Josh. 9-10, and then Northern Canaan—Josh. 11-12). As a result of Israel’s failure to utterly destroy the inhabitants of Canaan, the six oppressions came from the central, south, and north—each places where God had given them victory. What a reminder that when we don’t defeat the enemy, he will return! The enemy was sin!
Here is my summary of the book of Judges, as seen in Judges 2:16-19:
The rescued—“Them” (Israel)
The rivals—“Those” (God’s enemies)
The ruination—“Plundered them” (oppression)
The refusal—“They did not listen to their judges”
The reveling—“Played the harlot after other gods”
The retreat—“Turned said quickly”
The right road—“In which their fathers had walked”
The role models—“Father, obeying the commands of the Lord”
The resolution—“They did not so”
The raising—“The Lord raised them up judges”
The relationship—“The Lord was with the judges”
The restoration—“Delivered them from the hand of their enemies”
The repentance—“The Lord was moved to pity” (KJV—“It repented the Lord because of their groanings…”)
The return—“When their judge died, they would turn back”
The retrogression—“Acted more corruptly than their fathers”
The resilience—“Didn’t abandon their practice or stubborn ways”
The judge was the savior of the people. Time and time again, the people put themselves in a position to need some serious rescue, and our long-suffering God was willing to soften His heart to their cries. Eventually, His patience ran out and even in this time period there were severe consequences. How often do we need the blood of Christ and the forgiveness of the Father? Often, we need forgiveness for the same sins repeatedly. We wonder how Israel could fall into the same traps, but we do well to identify and avoid them in our own times. We have the benefit of both Old and New Testament Scripture, and they would have only had the writings of Moses and Joshua when they lived. May we learn from these ancient lessons (cf. 1 Cor. 10:11) and stay off that ancient cycle.