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The Rise of Jephthah

June 9, 2024 Preacher: Kevin Godin Series: Judges (Broken People, Unbroken Promises)

Scripture: Judges 11:1–28

Sermon Transcript:

This morning, as we travel through the Judges we come to Jephthah, one of the most interesting and difficult to understand leaders in the book. He is listed in Hebrews 11 as one of the heroes of the faith, and nothing explicitly negative is said about him, but nearly everything he does and says can be interpreted two different ways. Read in one way, he is a strong and faithful leader, but read differently, he is a shocking example of how low Israel has fallen.


The difficulty with Jephthah will become more clear as we get deeper into his story, but today we will look at his rise to power. Even here there is some ambiguity, but today I want to focus on how Jepthah illustrates the unpredictability of God’s grace. Regardless of if you see him as a great man or as a tragic figure, Jepthah is a deliverer and he prepares us for the ultimate unexpected and unpredictable savior, our lord Jesus Christ. That is the main point of the message today:


Jephthah points us to the unexpected and unpredictable salvation God provides in Jesus.

We begin at verse 1 of chapter 11,

1 Now Jephthah the Gileadite was a mighty warrior, but he was the son of a prostitute. Gilead was the father of Jephthah. 2 And Gilead’s wife also bore him sons. And when his wife’s sons grew up, they drove Jephthah out and said to him, “You shall not have an inheritance in our father’s house, for you are the son of another woman.” 3 Then Jephthah fled from his brothers and lived in the land of Tob, and worthless fellows collected around Jephthah and went out with him.

Immediately the author invites comparisons between Jephthah and previous leaders. He is greeted as a mighty warrior just like Gideon, but he was already a fighter. Like Abimelech, his mother was of a lower status than the mother of his brothers but he is even lower, being the illegitimate son of a prostitute. There is already ambiguity. Will he be a great judge like Gideon or a disaster like Abimelech?

His brothers, not wishing to share their inheritance, drove him out from Gilead which is in modern day Jordan, into the land of Tob, which today is in the area of the Golan Heights. He is something of a gang leader, known for his fighting ability, living in a rough area. Like Abimelech, worthless men collected around him. Unlike Abimelech, we see no treachery in him and a similar thing will be said about the young king David, so we are still not sure what to make of him. He is presented as a kind of unfortunate person. He has been rejected by proper society, pushed to the margins, and forgotten, but then,

4 After a time the Ammonites made war against Israel. 5 And when the Ammonites made war against Israel, the elders of Gilead went to bring Jephthah from the land of Tob. 6 And they said to Jephthah, “Come and be our leader, that we may fight against the Ammonites.”

They needed someone to lead them in battle and he had a reputation for fighting so they invited him to come and be their leader. It shows how bad things must have been for them to do this. There are clues though that even now they do not consider him on their level. In chapter 10 verse 18 they offered headship to any man from Gilead who would lead them. When they first come to Jephthah, however, the word they use for leader is a word that implies military leadership rather than general authority. 

They don’t use the leadership word for head or supreme leader, they use the leadership word for commander. Jephthah isn’t naive, he recognizes they are not coming in acceptance of him, they are coming because they intend to use him

7 But Jephthah said to the elders of Gilead, “Did you not hate me and drive me out of my father’s house? Why have you come to me now when you are in distress?” 

It sounds like he went to them when his brothers were unjustly driving him out and they ignored his pleas and sided with his brothers. He highlights the irony that they are now coming to him in fear they will be unjustly driven out. It isn’t clear if he is truly dismissing them or if he is negotiating with them to get the terms he wants. Either way, the result is that the elders improve their offer.

8 And the elders of Gilead said to Jephthah, “That is why we have turned to you now, that you may go with us and fight against the Ammonites and be our head over all the inhabitants of Gilead.”

This time they offer him to be their overall leader, their head. But even in this they just can’t seem to bring themselves to honor him fully. They are coming to him, but they phrase it as inviting him to go with them rather than just accepting they will follow him.

9 Jephthah said to the elders of Gilead, “If you bring me home again to fight against the Ammonites, and the Lord gives them over to me, I will be your head.” 10 And the elders of Gilead said to Jephthah, “The Lord will be witness between us, if we do not do as you say.” 11 So Jephthah went with the elders of Gilead, and the people made him head and leader over them. And Jephthah spoke all his words before the Lord at Mizpah.

Jephthah agrees to help, but his comments clarify his terms. If he does this, he will be the ruler. The elders accept this and vow before God they will honor the agreement. Jephthah shows himself to be a skilled negotiator and uses his words effectively to accomplish his goal. He is installed as the leader in a public ceremony in the town of Mizpah, that included him also taking an oath before the lord.

This distinction between just being the leader who fights to rescue them or being the head they follow provides an important spiritual illustration. If the elders are to have Jephthah as savior, they must also have him as lord. Just like if Israel expects Yahweh to deliver them, they cannot continue to serve their false gods. In the same way, if we have not accepted Jesus as our lord, we have no reason to think he is our savior.

People cry out to God when they are in trouble or when they want help. Then when the trouble passes or they get what they wanted they forget about him. Our Lord is merciful, and he saves those who believe in him even though we frequently sin. He is forgiving and his blood covers all the sins, past, present, and future of those who put their faith in him. But this faith is recognizing Jesus as lord, not thinking he is a servant.

Christ is not a butler that comes running whenever we ring a bell. He is a gracious and patient lord, but he is a lord. The Bible warns us that the benefits of Christ are only for those who are born again and are united to him by faith. We need salvation from God not only on our worst days, but on our best days. It is obvious we need to repent of the bad things we do, but salvation comes to those who recognize we must also repent of our good works. In fact, especially those.

We have no hope in anything other than the righteousness of Christ. The name of Jesus isn’t a magical spell we can just say and somehow tap into God’s power for help. To be saved we must possess the faith we profess. In Matthew 7:21 Jesus says,

21 “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven…

In his letters to younger pastors the apostle Paul warns them about people who say one thing but live another. In Titus 1:16 he says,

16 They profess to know God, but they deny him by their works. They are detestable, disobedient, unfit for any good work.

And in 2 Timothy 3:5 he talks of them

5 having the appearance of godliness, but denying its power. [and says] Avoid such people.

Our works contribute nothing to our acceptance before God, but if we have received Christ, we have also received the Holy Spirit and one of the fruits will be an imperfect, but growing, desire for obedience and the glory of God. To accept Jesus by faith is to accept him as savior and lord. 

That is just one illustration Jephthah gives us. In fact, it is interesting that so much detail is recorded around the elders calling for Jephthah’s help and we cannot help but notice the similarities with what chapter 10 recorded about Israel calling to God for help. I don’t want to press this too far, but I think the parallels are too strong to be coincidental.

Israel rejects Yahweh by serving strange gods and Gilead rejects Jephthah by robbing him of his inheritance and driving him out. Israel is oppressed by strong enemies and strong enemies wage war on Gilead. Israel cries out, acknowledging their sin and Gilead reaches out acknowledging they drove Jephthah away. Both Yahweh and Jephthah question why the people are coming to them to help after previously rejecting them. Israel asks for help and puts away her idols showing she accepts God as her leader. Gilead asks for help and confirms their desire for Jephthah to be their leader. Finally, both God and Jephthah respond to the need.

In all this, Jephthah is not only an illustration of Israel’s relationship with God in the Old Testament, but also of her relationship with Jesus in the New. Jesus is the Jewish Messiah. He came to deliver his own people, but his own people rejected him. In his sermon at Pentecost, the apostle Peter makes it clear that Israel rejected the Messiah, putting him to death. Peter then calls them to repent and be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for their sins to be forgiven. Their only hope is to seek the help of the very one they have cast out. 

The same is true for us. Jesus is God and he is the creator of the world. He is the lord of the universe and yet each of us have rejected the lordship of Jesus Christ over our lives by rejecting his law and pursuing our own selfish desires. God is just in punishing such rebellion and yet the very one we have rejected turns out to be our only hope of salvation.

Jesus left the glory of heaven and came to earth, adding humanity to his divine nature. He fulfilled the law of God with perfect obedience and love. There was no accusation that could be made against him. Then he exchanged his perfect righteousness for the sins of all who would accept him as their lord and savior. He suffered and died to remove the penalty of sin from everyone who accepts his life as their testimony before God. This is the good news, God’s wrath against sin is satisfied if you set aside your own attempts to earn righteousness and instead accept his perfect righteousness as a gift of grace. Jesus Christ is the true deliverer of Israel. He is the ultimate savior of the world which Jephthah, and every other judge, anticipates.

We have already seen that Jephthah is a skilled negotiator and after he becomes the leader, he first attempts to use diplomacy to resolve the issue with the Ammonites. Verse 12 says,

12 Then Jephthah sent messengers to the king of the Ammonites and said, “What do you have against me, that you have come to me to fight against my land?” 13 And the king of the Ammonites answered the messengers of Jephthah, “Because Israel on coming up from Egypt took away my land, from the Arnon to the Jabbok and to the Jordan; now therefore restore it peaceably.”

We know that God is sovereignly using the Ammonites, but he works out his plans in such a way that their actions are the result of their own choices. God intends what they do for good, but they have their own motivations. The argument is one that will sound familiar to anyone who pays attention to the news. Israel sees the Ammorites as invaders and they argue they are liberating land that Israel stole and was unjustly occupying. (So the next time some politician tells you they have the solution to the land disputes in the Middle East, just remember that this text was written over 3,000 years ago. The only true lasting peace will come when Jesus does.)

14 Jephthah again sent messengers to the king of the Ammonites 15 and said to him, “Thus says Jephthah: Israel did not take away the land of Moab or the land of the Ammonites, 16 but when they came up from Egypt, Israel went through the wilderness to the Red Sea and came to Kadesh. 17 Israel then sent messengers to the king of Edom, saying, ‘Please let us pass through your land,’ but the king of Edom would not listen. And they sent also to the king of Moab, but he would not consent. So Israel remained at Kadesh.

Jephthah disagrees and recounts the history of how Israel came into the land. This shows us that Jephthah or at least his advisors were familiar with the writings of Moses. Israel requested permission before moving into these territories and neither the king of Edom or Moab were willing to let them come through.

18 “Then they journeyed through the wilderness and went around the land of Edom and the land of Moab and arrived on the east side of the land of Moab and camped on the other side of the Arnon. But they did not enter the territory of Moab, for the Arnon was the boundary of Moab. 19 Israel then sent messengers to Sihon king of the Amorites, king of Heshbon, and Israel said to him, ‘Please let us pass through your land to our country,’ 20 but Sihon did not trust Israel to pass through his territory, so Sihon gathered all his people together and encamped at Jahaz and fought with Israel.

The Hebrews went the long way around Edom and Moab and when they came to the edge of the territory of the Amorites, they reached out to ask permission to pass through peacefully. This time Sihon, the king of the Amorites, attacked Israel.

21 And the Lord, the God of Israel, gave Sihon and all his people into the hand of Israel, and they defeated them. So Israel took possession of all the land of the Amorites, who inhabited that country. 22 And they took possession of all the territory of the Amorites from the Arnon to the Jabbok and from the wilderness to the Jordan. 23 So then the Lord, the God of Israel, dispossessed the Amorites from before his people Israel; and are you to take possession of them?

We can see Jephthah’s tone. He says, “you attacked us” and we are in this land because you were defeated. More than that, Jephthah points to divine blessing as the reason. He says “the God of Israel” gave us this land by defeating your ancestors. His argument is that the Amorite land was taken, but it was not taken unjustly.

In the ancient world, there wasn’t the kind of division between the physical and spiritual world typical in western culture today. Jephthah says Israel won because God fought for her. Then in verse 24 he presses the point even harder,

24 Will you not possess what Chemosh your god gives you to possess? And all that the Lord our God has dispossessed before us, we will possess.

Jephthah lays down the gauntlet, the false gods he worships are not powerful enough to defeat Yahweh. They will have to be content with what they have. He adds a third argument that the statute of limitations has also passed.

 25 Now are you any better than Balak the son of Zippor, king of Moab? Did he ever contend against Israel, or did he ever go to war with them? 26 While Israel lived in Heshbon and its villages, and in Aroer and its villages, and in all the cities that are on the banks of the Arnon, 300 years, why did you not deliver them within that time?

He says their claim would have been stronger in the past but those kings never pressed it. This dovetails with his prior point that Yahweh’s had given them victory. They had 300 years to address this and never did. This isn’t a legitimate claim, it is just a pretext to take what rightfully belongs to Israel. 

They didn’t steal the land, they were unjustly attacked. God gave them victory in a righteous cause. Their ancestors at the time recognized God was with Israel and did nothing and the land has been Israel’s for hundreds of years and they did nothing. So, in verse 27 he says,

27 I therefore have not sinned against you, and you do me wrong by making war on me. The Lord, the Judge, decide this day between the people of Israel and the people of Ammon.” 28 But the king of the Ammonites did not listen to the words of Jephthah that he sent to him.

Jephthah tries to reason with them and warns them that their aggression is unrighteous. He appeals to God as a righteous judge who will decide between them. Having recounted God’s faithfulness in the past, and presenting himself as a faithful leader who depends upon the lord this should have been taken seriously by the Ammonites but they do not listen.


Although his diplomatic efforts fail, we observe several promising things about Jephthah as he rises to power. He has a reputation as a warrior but he is not a rash man. He first tries to resolve the situation without violence. He appeals to facts and history to make his case. He prefers the enemies of Israel submit to the will of God rather than fight them. 


Similarly, God now appeals through his word to the whole world to lay down their arms against him and come in peace. He points us to facts and history. To who he is as creator, to who he is as a glorious, loving, and patient God and yet so many sadly do not listen. I pray that if you hear this message and you have not yet accepted Jesus as your lord and savior that you do so today. If you try to obtain an inheritance through your own strength you will be left devastated but if you stop resisting and accept Jesus as lord, you will receive an inheritance that is glorious and eternal and that you can never lose.


It never says Jephthah was raised up by God as it does the other judges, but neither does he take power deceitfully like Abimelech. He is far from perfect, as we will see as we learn more about him, but at least in his coming to power, he illustrates many gospel truths. He shows us that God in his sovereignty is pleased to use flawed individuals. Jephthah had nothing in his past that would make him worthy of ruling. He was the illegitimate son of a prostitute and was despised by his own family and community. Yet God will use him to do great things.


He reminds us of God’s covenant faithfulness. The people of Israel, including Gilead were not faithful and did not deserve the salvation God will provide in Jephthah. God, however, keeps his promises and he will protect and even bless these stiff necked people because he has promised through them to bring a savior. Friends, we are blessed to live at a time when we have seen the salvation the lord has promised. His patience has brought us a double blessing. First, Jesus has come and purchased the salvation of all who will believe. Second, he has poured out the gift of the Holy Spirit so that we would serve him not by the way of an external law, but with our heart.


The greatest promise of the Old Covenant that God made was the promise of the New Covenant. God said in Jeremiah 31:31–34,

31 “Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, 32 not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, declares the Lord. 33 For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people. 34 And no longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the Lord. For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.”

We see the patience of God with his people under the old covenant. How much more confidence should we have in his faithfulness to the new covenant that was purchased with the blood of his beloved son. This is the promise we have that we have received a new birth, sealed by the Spirit for the day of redemption and it is our desire to walk every day by faith.


Brothers and sisters, it may seem at times like the world is winning. It may appear that the work of God is being trampled underfoot by enemies but do not lose heart. God is sovereign, he is on the throne, and he is working all things to his glory and the good of those who love him and are called according to his purpose. Jephthah reminds us that though the armies of Chemosh may appear to be advancing, it is Yahweh who is the lord and judge. 


The people of Gilead thought the enemies of God were winning but God was preparing to deliver them. The apostles were devastated as they saw Jesus beaten and hanging on the cross, but this was not defeat. This was the greatest victory ever achieved by God for his people. Christ is risen, though the fighting continues, he has already won.


Jephthah reminds us that redemption comes through sacrifice and obedience. Jephthah was willing to deliver his people despite the fact they rejected him and that it would come at great personal cost. Jesus Christ is our brother. He is a human, just like us, but he comes from a far away country to save us. In our sin, we have all rejected him and driven him away, but by God’s grace, he is obedient to come down to us and deliver us from our sin. Like the elders of Gilead, we cannot save ourselves, we must repent, be humbled, and receive the one the world rejected as our lord and savior.


As we conclude, let us take a moment to meditate on these truth as we hear the apostle Paul summarize them in Romans 5:6–11.

6 For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. 7 For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die— 8 but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. 9 Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God. 10 For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life. 11 More than that, we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation.


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