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Shibboleth

July 7, 2024 Preacher: Kevin Godin Series: Judges (Broken People, Unbroken Promises)

Scripture: Judges 12:1–7

Sermon Transcript:

This morning we come to the end of the saga of the judge Jephthah. As you recall, this is a man who started out without much going for him. Then God blessed him and it looked as though Jephthah might be the one to finally bring lasting deliverance, but then it took a tragic turn. He is a worshiper of God, but his story ends up demonstrating just how far Israel had fallen and how much they had let the nations around them influence their view of God. 

Throughout the story of Jephthah the importance of words has been highlighted. Jephthah is always trying to use words to accomplish his goals and it often doesn’t work for him. His words lead to devastation, as his prideful vow results in the death of his only daughter. The importance of words will continue to be highlighted as we finish his story.

After fighting against the Ammonites, Jephthah becomes embroiled in a conflict with his own countrymen. We pick up in verse 1, shortly after the victory over the Ammonites.

1 The men of Ephraim were called to arms, and they crossed to Zaphon and said to Jephthah, “Why did you cross over to fight against the Ammonites and did not call us to go with you? We will burn your house over you with fire.”

God has just used Jephthah to push back the Ammonites and now that victory is established, the men of Ephraim are upset they are not able to share in the glory. This is a pattern with them. Remember, the same thing happened back in chapter 8 when Gideon defeated Midian without them. The Ephraimites were a proud people and saw themselves as a leading tribe. They act as though no important action should take place without their involvement or leadership. 

In this case, they are furious. It isn’t just that they are disappointed, they are belligerent and tell Jephthah they are going to burn his house down with him in it. Gideon had used his silver tongue to calm them down, but Jephthah will take a different approach.

But before we get to that I want to reflect a bit on Ephraim. Ephraim is one of the twelve tribes of Israel. They begin as a small tribe, just over 40,000 people listed in the Exodus, but are given a place of prominence. Eventually the name Ephraim would be used as a catch all to refer to all the northern tribes. These Ephraimites were certainly proud of their heritage and filled with self-importance. 

The spirit of Ephraim is common in the world, but is sadly also not absent among those who profess to follow Jesus. There are some who if they cannot be the captain, will sink the ship. They have a scorched earth mentality that says “if I can’t have it, nobody can”. Churches have split and ministries have been destroyed because of this. It is unthinkable to these people that they should submit in humility. They cause divisions and stir the pot. There will be no peace unless they get their way.

They will not sit under preaching unless they can control the messaging. They will not submit to teaching unless it is to their liking. They use their influence as a source of power to ensure they are at the center of things.

It is much easier to see this in its extreme form, but brothers and sisters, we must guard our hearts against the first movement of this kind of spirit. It has a subtler form that can be incubated in our hearts that resists sacrifice and humility. We only help when it is convenient to do so. Rather than give generously, we only give to specifically defined projects that we approve. Rather than bear with what blesses others, we only engage when it is on our terms.

Don’t misunderstand what I am saying. I don’t want you to serve if it isn’t joyful service to the Lord. We don’t want anyone to volunteer or give under pressure. What I am saying is if serving others, without recognition, so they are blessed does not bring us joy, we need to pray about that. If we are only willing to serve when it is convenient, that ought to catch our attention. I am saying we should pursue a spirit of love and joy for what God is doing rather than using the church to satisfy our own interests.

When we notice the spirit of Ephraim creeping into our heart, the solution is not to try and transform ourselves, but to look to Jesus Christ. Listen to how the apostle Paul instructs us in Philippians 2:3–8,

3 Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. 4 Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. 5 Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, 6 who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, 7 but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. 8 And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.

Paul’s logic is that since we are Christ’s we are to live like Christ. The humiliation of Jesus leads to his exaltation so we must be willing to be humbled with him if we are to be exalted with him. The method Paul gives us is not one of self-improvement, but of looking to Jesus. This is accomplished in us by our meditation on the life and work of Jesus. This is why learning the Bible has a direct connection to our spiritual growth. The more we think about who Jesus is and what he has done for us, the more these truths will transform our thinking.

But meditating on these things isn’t like learning history or science. There are certain physics problems that no matter how much I study and how much I think about them, I will never be able to understand them. I just don’t have that capacity. This isn’t like that. Listen carefully to what Paul says in verse 5,

have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus” 

If you have put your faith in Jesus Christ, you are a new creation. You have been born again and are being transformed by the renewing of your mind in Christ Jesus. The Bible is God’s revelation of himself and if you are a child of God, the Spirit of God dwells in you. You are being conformed to the image of Jesus Christ. You are being made like Jesus by the power of the Holy Spirit using the truth of the word. This is not our work, it is the work of God and it is marvelous.

So, if you want to grow spiritually, keep your eyes fixed upon Jesus. Meditate upon the truth of who he is and what he has done for you. Pray, asking God to continue the good work he has begun in you and you will be increasingly free to find joy in humility. You will find satisfaction in putting aside your natural desires and living for others as you follow Christ.

Yes, there will be theological questions you will never understand, but unlike physics, these will never prevent you from experiencing fullness in the pursuit of Christlikeness if you are a child of God. We tend to focus on the first part of 2 Timothy 3:16–17, but look at the second part,

16 All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, 17 that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.

The scripture points us to Christ and it is by pursuing our satisfaction in him alone that we are equipped to glorify him in whatever situation he puts us in. When we look at our lives, we will find much to disappoint us, but we rest in the promise God himself is at work and since we have Christ, we have everything we need. We don’t need to thirst for glory like the Ephraimites, because we have Christ. 

The Ephraimites threaten Jephthah because they didn’t get to be the center of attention, but Jephthah is a rough man and he isn’t going to stroke their ego like Gideon did. He just lays it out there

2 And Jephthah said to them, “I and my people had a great dispute with the Ammonites, and when I called you, you did not save me from their hand. 3 And when I saw that you would not save me, I took my life in my hand and crossed over against the Ammonites, and the Lord gave them into my hand. Why then have you come up to me this day to fight against me?” 

Jephthah says he did call them and they never answered. If he did, the message isn’t recorded so we aren’t sure. One side or the other is lying or there was some confusion but in either case, Jephthah went in without them and put his own life in danger. He says they have no reason to be upset and the validation of his actions is that God gave him victory. Jephthah basically says, “what is your problem?”

He has just come through a fierce battle, he has just lost his only daughter at his own hand, and now he is being threatened by those who should have been his allies. He is in no mood to deal with this nonsense. As usual, he tries to diffuse the situation with his words but is willing to fight if necessary. Verse 4 says,

4 Then Jephthah gathered all the men of Gilead and fought with Ephraim. And the men of Gilead struck Ephraim, because they said, “You are fugitives of Ephraim, you Gileadites, in the midst of Ephraim and Manasseh.”

Jepthah isn’t intimidated and when they refuse to be reasoned with he goes to war. We see the obstinance of Ephraim in how they respond in calling the Gileadites. This is a slur, condescending language intending to belittle them. This insult reflects deep tensions and divisions among the tribes of Israel and shows how bad things have become. Gilead isn’t a tribe, it is a region. 

Gilead is east of the river and so Ephraim is saying that they are not really Israelites, they are those who are not wanted, those without a place, those who are insignificant. Given his past, this may have hit Jephthah particularly hard. Diplomacy fails and fighting starts.

5 And the Gileadites captured the fords of the Jordan against the Ephraimites. And when any of the fugitives of Ephraim said, “Let me go over,” the men of Gilead said to him, “Are you an Ephraimite?” When he said, “No,” 6 they said to him, “Then say Shibboleth,” and he said, “Sibboleth,” for he could not pronounce it right. Then they seized him and slaughtered him at the fords of the Jordan. At that time 42,000 of the Ephraimites fell.

Jephthah and the Gileadites push them back and cut off the escape routes over the river. The Ephraimites can’t get back and are trapped in Gileadite territory. They are scattered and will have to pass through checkpoints to escape. To avoid being killed, the Ephraimites will have to try and sneak back across the border.

To prevent them from escaping, the Gileadites came up with a test. They required them to say the word Shibboleth. The Ephraimites had a hard time with this word. They pronounced it Sibboleth, rather than the standard Hebrew Shibboleth. Their dialect made it nearly impossible for them to say the word with the standard pronunciation. 

In our day, we share so much media that regional dialects are not as pronounced as they used to be, but when I am traveling I can often pick out another person who grew up in the Great Lakes region because we drop g’s, have very nasally a’s and if a word has a “t” squeezed between vowels we change that t to something that sounds more like a d.

We are not going or meeting, we are goin’ or meetin’. We don’t have aunts, we have ants. We don’t say city or water, we say ciddy, or wadder. We do this unconsciously and we don’t notice it because nearly everyone around us sounds the same way, but we can quickly tell if a person is from Brooklyn, down south, or Boston, right? In Boston khaki’s aren’t pants, they are what you use to start your car. Well, these guys literally couldn’t say shibboleth to save their lives.

They were proud they were not like the people of Gilead, but it turns out one of those differences sealed their doom. Proverbs 26:27 says,

27 Whoever digs a pit will fall into it, and a stone will come back on him who starts it rolling.

God’s judgments are often ironic and we see that here. These guys were so proud of their tribe. They gloried in that they were Ephraimites. One of the most important tribes, people to be reckoned with, not like those lowly Gileadites. Yet, they are brought to the place where they were ashamed and afraid to call themselves Ephraimites. Imagine them coming up to the crossing… “Are you an Ephraimite”, oh no, I have nothing to do with those guys.” Oh, really, say Shibboleth?”

They threatened to destroy the home of Jephthah and yet here they are, cut off from their own homes. They said the Gileadites were not real Hebrews, and now they are caught in a strange quirk of their own country that they could not pronounce a Hebrew word properly. 

They unjustly called the Gileadites fugitives as if the only people who would live there are vagabonds and those running from something, but in verse 5, the same exact word is used to describe them. They have become the ones who are fugitives. They have fallen into the pit they dug and the stone of reproach they tried to roll on others has rolled back on their own heads. 

This is the fate of all those who oppose God and his work, they will be caught up in a net they have woven themselves. The irony of Ephraim's downfall serves as a stark reminder that pride and arrogance are often met with a humbling reversal of fortune. As they cower in shame, unable to utter even a simple Shibboleth, they exemplify the glorious wisdom of God’s truth: those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.

This passage illustrates another fundamental spiritual truth, which is that one’s identity will eventually be made clear. We may be able to convincingly pretend to be something we are not for a while but the time comes when who we really are becomes clear.

Try as they might, the Ephraimites could not deny who they were at the fords of the river. It reminded me of the apostle Peter in Matthew 26:69–73 after Jesus was arrested,

69 Now Peter was sitting outside in the courtyard. And a servant girl came up to him and said, “You also were with Jesus the Galilean.” 70 But he denied it before them all, saying, “I do not know what you mean.” 71 And when he went out to the entrance, another servant girl saw him, and she said to the bystanders, “This man was with Jesus of Nazareth.” 72 And again he denied it with an oath: “I do not know the man.” 73 After a little while the bystanders came up and said to Peter, “Certainly you too are one of them, for your accent betrays you.”

Both of these events involve accents of language, but there are also spiritual accents that testify to who and what we are. A day comes when we too must cross the river and our words and our lives will either reveal us to be enemies of God, under a judgment of death, or citizens of the kingdom of heaven, on our way to safety and rest. Every one of us were born citizens of the world. Enemies of God. Children of wrath. Some learn to fake the accent of the kingdom of heaven, but we cannot change who we are. Sin is so common to us that, like our accents, we do not even recognize it.

But that is the good news of the gospel. We cannot change ourselves, but God has the power to create new life. The gospel is that by faith in Jesus we are made citizens of a new nation and we are given a new testimony. When we come to the ford and face the judgment we know we will cross over because Jesus himself testifies for us. His word is perfect and ushers us across to eternal life and treasures that can never be taken away from us.

That is our only hope of crossing over. Jesus is the only solution and the only one who can remove our sin. Jesus is God, come down to Earth as one of us, to rescue us from our sins and bring us back to God. That was his mission. That involved him living a perfectly sinless life and then dying on the cross to make atonement on our behalf. The sins of everyone who will ever believe were actually placed on Jesus so that he suffered the punishment for them instead of us. Jesus then continues his saving work by rising from the dead. As a result, Romans 8:1 tells us, 

There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.

Paul says in Colossians 2:14 God forgave us of all of our trespasses,

...by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross.

As a result of our sin, there was a record of debt that stood against us. We owed a debt far beyond our ability to repay. Like a checkbook register God recorded every sin and the debt we owed as a result. But then something amazing happened. Paul says Jesus took that record of debt for everyone who puts their trust in Jesus and he and nailed it to the cross. If you do that, the record of all of your sins, all of your shame, all you owe to God is nailed to the cross of Jesus, never to be seen or read again.

We have a choice. We can stand at the edge of the river of eternity and speak for ourselves. We can try to explain away our sins and transgressions, which will result in us being found out as an enemy of God. Or, we can renounce our citizenship in this world, repent, and trust Jesus to speak for us. 

Some people are troubled by the fact that we proclaim that this is the only hope. They do not like it that we say there is only one way, but what should astonish us if we are thinking clearly, is that there is any way at all. We were enemies of almighty God. Our sin marred his perfect creation and led to increased pain and suffering in this world. We were fugitives. A man who is drowning and knows he is going to die is thankful that there is even one lifeline.

Our only hope is Jesus Christ. God has sent his only son to save those who were hopelessly lost. Acts 4:12 says,

12 And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.”

He is the only way across, but he is enough because through him is eternal life. We cannot be good enough on our own. We cannot make ourselves what we are not. Only God himself has the power to transform our hearts and breathe new life into what was dead. If you haven’t already, I plead with you, put your faith in Jesus to save you now while salvation is offered. If you are pretending to be what you are not, I plead with you to surrender, confess your sins. It is better to be nothing in Gilead than something in Ephraim.

Verse 7 says,

7 Jephthah judged Israel six years. Then Jephthah the Gileadite died and was buried in his city in Gilead.

The story of this ambiguous judge ends. He only ruled for 6 brief years. There is no mention of peace in the land. He pushed back the Amorites, but at what cost. His line ends and his only daughter is killed. Israel is at war with itself. Even this last line reinforces the disunity. Jephthah judged Israel, but it is Gilead that is emphasized. He is not called an Israelite, but a Gileadite. His resting place is “his city” in Gilead. 

 

The situation in Israel has continued to deteriorate. There is no king and everyone does what is right in their own eyes. Jephthah is only a temporary deliverer. The peace he brought was only local and temporary. He is not the deliverer Israel is waiting for. He is not the one that will unite the people and judge the enemies. The promise must be fulfilled by another. 

 

The whole saga of Jephthah is a continuation of the spiraling sadness of the book. Jephthah's life, marked by both victory and tragedy, mirrors the complex relationship between Israel and God during this tumultuous period. His rise from obscurity to leadership underscores God's unexpected choices and his willingness to graciously use imperfect people for his purposes.

We also see that just because God graciously uses someone does not mean He is pleased with all they do. Jephthah’s foolish vow tragically leads to the loss of his daughter, highlighting the destructive power of pride and the consequences of thinking God can be manipulated through our worship, like pagan Gods. The conflict with Ephraim exposes the deep-seated divisions and pride among God's people, where self-importance and entitlement overshadow unity and humility. This reminds us of the goodness of God and his grace. His faithfulness to keep his promises doesn’t depend on the faithfulness of his people, but his own.

The fate of Ephraim, unable to pronounce a simple word correctly in their moment of judgment, serves as a poignant reminder of God's ironic justice. Those who exalted themselves were humbled, caught in their own schemes and unable to escape the consequences of their arrogance. This irony extends beyond ancient Israel; it speaks to the universal truth that pride and self-righteousness blind us to our own faults and lead us into destructive paths. The most destructive of which is to trust in ourselves rather than God for our salvation and our walk.

Yet, amid the turmoil and horror of this book of Judges, there shines a beacon of hope: the gospel of Jesus Christ. God is at work every step to save a people for himself. Just as Ephraim's pride led to downfall, our own sinful nature separates us from God. But through faith in Jesus, we find forgiveness and reconciliation. Jesus, the perfect Lamb of God, bore our sins on the cross, offering us a way to cross over from death to life, from condemnation to eternal peace.

I would like to finish with the words of Romans 15:4–6,

4 For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that through endurance and through the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope. 5 May the God of endurance and encouragement grant you to live in such harmony with one another, in accord with Christ Jesus, 6 that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.

More in Judges (Broken People, Unbroken Promises)

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