Here are a few observations from this very confusing chapter:
In spite of the fact that God had told the people that He would not save them from their enemies, the people went ahead and made a battle plan. In the past, it was God who had chosen the judge, raised them up, and then used that judge as a conduit for His justice on the enemy of Israel. In this case, the elders decided that they could set their own criteria for who got to be their leader and they moved ahead without God in front of them. In many ways this is like what happened after the nation blew it at Kadesh-Barnea with the 12 spies. God had already punished them, but, in an attempt to win God back, they went ahead and attacked the city without God’s blessing. It was the right action, but the wrong heart and the wrong timing. In this chapter, the elders of Israel were using “spiritual language” but were operating completely out of their own flesh and human wisdom.
Their choice of leader was based on externals. Even though Jephthah was the son of a prostitute and had been driven out of Israel by his brothers, now, because he was a mighty warrior, his brothers wanted him back in order to fight against the Ammonites. They were so focused on their physical needs that they were willing to betray their inner convictions (which is what motivated his exile in the first place) in order to gain short term success.
Half-baked theology led to tragic results. Jephthah is a confusing character. On one side he sounds very correct in his language about the Lord. He seems to want to honor the Lord in the correct way, according to the directions of Moses and Joshua. But then he turns around and makes a “vow” to God. He basically bartered with God. He promises to sacrifice whatever walked out of his house if only God would deliver the Ammonites. This action was based on a misunderstanding of God and was the result of Canaanite influence in Jephthah’s theology. In Canaanite religion the gods did not care about the people. The people had to manipulate and coerce the gods to pay attention to them and help them. By this time the Israelites were so polluted by the Canaanites that their theology had become a hybrid of Moses’ law and Canaanite superstitions. So, Jephthah made a pagan-like barter with God and ended up having to sacrifice his only daughter as a result.
Here is the take home for today. We need to be very careful when we start to move ahead and do something for God and make sure that we have our priorities right and our filters calibrated to the right settings. The problem in this story is that the people had their focus completely wrong. They were focusing on their physical needs (the Ammonites) and not on the proper worship of God (they still had idols). They didn’t listen to God. They reacted to their physical needs and made decisions based upon physical evidence and human wisdom. They thought, “If you have a battle to fight, hire a warrior, it doesn’t matter if his theology is off.”
Many times churches look at the path that they are on through physical lenses rather than spiritual ones. They look at the demographics of the neighborhood, the physical structure of the building, the “felt needs” of the hurting people, and they react to these physical indicators. Churches typically are quick to hire the bold and the beautiful who have the “right stuff” to meet these physical challenges head on do the “work of the ministry.” They operate under the philosophy that “we need a 10” in this position of leadership if we are going to be “successful.” The drive for success often leads a church to compromise on fundamental issues of integrity in order to “get the job done.” While that kind of behavior is done every day in corporate America and has been accepted as “good business sense” in our culture, it is just plain wrong and can lead to devastating spiritual consequences when employed within the body of Christ.
God does not operate like that. We will see this lesson again in 1 Samuel when it comes down to choosing a king for the nation. The people wanted the obvious choice of “tall Saul,” but God wanted the little shepherd boy, David, to lead His people.
So far in the story of the Bible, how many times has God worked for His people according to ordinary, human wisdom? When God does something He does it in a way that defies human wisdom. He calls a man from Ur to go to Canaan, but doesn’t tell him why or what to do when he gets there. He promises that man a child in his old age, and then tells him to kill the boy. He throws His number one draft choice into slavery and prison for many years before He is ready to use him. He calls a murderer and an exile to be the deliverer of His people from Egypt. He leads His people into the country where crops can’t grow, and then feeds them with Heavenly bread. He tells His general to defeat a city by walking around its walls for seven days and then blowing trumpets. He tells a judge to send the vast majority of his warriors home and only attack the enemy with 300 men armed with clay jars and torches.
If God is going to do something in the church you can guarantee that it will not be because of anything the leaders have done in their own strength and wisdom. Just like with Joshua, the church and its leadership is not called to exercise its fleshly prowess, it is called to focus on the Word of God, meditate on it day and night, and follow the leading of God. The theological and ethical compromises that Israel made in calling Jephthah to be their judge led to a tragic mistake that ended up in civil war. As the church today, let’s stop and examine our hearts and our motivations and our value systems. Are we following God’s leading in our personal lives and in the decision making process of the church, or are we reacting to the physical issues around us and making decisions based upon “conventional wisdom?”