He was a man’s man. He was a fighter with a checkered past. He was kicked out of his family’s home by his half-brothers because he was not the son of their mother, and they wanted him to have no part in the family inheritance. He became a thug, associating with other thugs, but quickly developed acumen as a leader and a fighter. His reputation grew to the point that even his family called on him to lead and fight for them in their time of need.
The story of Jephthah is recorded in Judges 11, and as the narrative goes, Jephthah agreed to aid his people in their fight against Ammon. He seemed to fear the Lord, and to have some street sense. But he exhibited neither at one particular key moment in his life.
Prior to that moment, Jephthah demonstrated wisdom – he tried to diffuse the situation with Ammon, communicating to the king of Ammon that Israel had not infringed upon Ammon, and that there was no cause for war between the two nations (11:12-27). But the king of Ammon rejected Jephthah’s appeal (11:28). The narrative explains that the Spirit of the Lord was with Jephthah (11:29). But for some crazy reason, Jephthah saw fit to make a vow to the Lord: “If you will indeed give the sons of Ammon into my hand, then it shall be that whatever comes out of the doors of my house to meet me…I will offer it up as a burnt offering” (11:30-31).
God was already with Jephthah, and God had earlier promised deliverance from foreign nations if Israel would simply follow God (e.g., Josh 1:1-10). God had already committed Himself, but yet Jephthah played “let’s make a deal.” When Jephthah returned from a successful campaign, coming out of his house to meet him was…his daughter – his only child. Jephthah, like many of us, tarnished God’s success with his own failure. While the text doesn’t directly condemn Jephthah’s offer, human sacrifice was not only repulsive to God, but also expressly prohibited in the Mosaic Law (Deut 12:31).
Evidently, Jephthah had not considered the possibility his vow could turn out so poorly, but notice who he blames: “Alas, my daughter! You have brought me very low, and you are among those who trouble me; for I have given my word to the Lord, and I cannot take it back” (Judg 11:35). No, Jephthah, you brought this upon yourself! Why couldn’t you just take God at His word? Why did you see the need to offer Him some token to earn His support? He had already given it!
Not too long after Jephthah’s day, Samuel reminded, “to obey is better than sacrifice.” Micah later recorded that God “has told you, O man what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God” (Mic 6:8).
If God doesn’t require bobbles from His people, then what influenced Jephthah to make such a foolish vow? My guess is that it was probably the same thing that causes us to think that we are somehow holier when we are giving back to God. After all it is very humbling to receive from God – but if we can somehow merit His kindness, then we can feel as we’ve accomplished something for Him. What idiots we are to think we have anything to offer God? What fools to think that we should even make the attempt?
This is, in my humble estimation, one of the great flaws of the present radical-Christianity movement: it puts us in the mindset to attempt great things for God, and when the things He has for us don’t seem so lofty (as they often don’t), we try to make them so by our own efforts. It is pure foolishness. Paul agrees: “I count all things to be loss in view of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them but rubbish so that I may gain Christ…” (Php 3:8).
Paul recognized that he had nothing to offer God. All that he had was rubbish in comparison to Christ. Consequently, Paul simply sought to be faithful with both the big and little opportunities. He labored with his hands when he needed to, and he preached the gospel faithfully when he could. He didn’t offer God silly and self-aggrandizing promises, on the contrary, he viewed himself simply as a bond servant.
Jephthah’s mistake is a common one, though when we fall into the same error, we don’t necessarily lose our kids. But sometimes we do. Ever heard of the missionary who was so concerned for a particular people group that she left her children to be a mother figure to that people group? (Here’s an idea…take your kids with you in ministry if at all possible. They will thank you for it later!) Ever heard of the pastor who said, “Sorry, family, I can’t…the church needs me right now”? Ever heard of the company man who was so concerned about appearing a diligent Christian that he sacrificed the childhoods of his kids to achieve it?
God doesn’t always ask us to make sacrifices. He asks us to be obedient (1 Sam 15:22). We usually love God enough to have highlight moments with Him, but do we love Him enough to simply engage in loving, diligent, and unheralded labor for His glory? If not, we are more committed to our own spiritual pride than to loving Him. Perhaps this is why Jesus challenged the spiritually proud to “…go and learn what this means: ‘I desire compassion and not sacrifice…’” (Mt 9:13).