A while back, a friend of mine, Lloyd Phillips who heads Fellow Laborers International, wrote an email which told of churches in Africa which make a terrible application of the story of Jephthah. Apparently, some churches Lloyd was visiting had praise songs which extolled Jephthah the man of faith who literally sacrificed his daughter. And unfortunately this was misunderstood by some to support the cultural practice of killing infant daughters. Lloyd prophetically taught to reprove their error. And while I agreed with this need for prophetic correction, I questioned how the account of Jephthah should be understood and applied. At various times I have studied this passage and am now ready to dig into a multi-part study of Israel’s ninth judge, Jephthah.
The Book of Judges saddens me every time I read of Israel’s seven-stepped descent into depravity. The wonderful success Joshua won through an obedience in faith followed the true Darwinian course of “devolution.” The people did not follow God’s plan for Israel, revealed in the Law. They instead turned to what was right in their own eyes and to what seemed like better answers for life’s questions which they found in false gods and the surrounding cultures. (Oh, that Israel today would recognize that the gods and cultures of the modern world are far inferior to what they received thousands of years ago!) Through Israel’s desperate times and God’s merciful interventions, there is an down and up and down path Israel pursued until the time of the Judges came to an end. This is sad to me both for what Israel had to go through (especially when compared to the blessings that they potentially could have enjoyed) and what it says about our own country and the downward spiral that seems to be leading us in a down-up-down course to desperate times.
In Judges 10:6-18 we read of the descent into desperate times which took place in the day of Jephthah. The sons of Ammon were coming against Israel. There were 18 years of oppression and suffering. The things that seemed to work in better times, seemed, in the light of their helpless suffering, to be worthless lies. Israel at these times of despair called on the Lord, “We have sinned against You, for indeed, we have forsaken our God and served the Baals.” (Judges 10:10) This is a good first step, saying honestly what we have done and where we are. But it isn’t adequate in itself. Those deep in sin tend to see their sin as insignificant personal choices that really are not that bad when compared to other sins which are much worse. But God’s reply to Israel points to the seriousness and significance of their sin. (Judges 10:11-15) He points to his effective help in the past, in the exodus, in the wilderness and in entering Canaan. Since Israel turned from God’s historically proven effectiveness to chose other gods, God tells Israel to look to their new chosen gods and ways to solve their current problems. But of course, those things could not help, they in fact had been part of the life dynamic which got them in their current problems. Much like government programs of today which try to address a social problem but end up reinforcing and enlarging the problem, and then as the problem deepens, the cry goes out to expand this program to really solve the growing societal problem. At some point perhaps we will recognize we are actually feeding the problems and not funding the solutions. Anyway, at this point Israel moved from words to actions, “they put away the foreign gods from among them and served the Lord.” (Judges 10:16) I have wondered how today in the church there can be so many good preachers and teachers yet our country seems to continue to be in a serious downward slide. Perhaps, like Israel, we are in the place where we are talking about what is wrong rather than taking the real steps of action which manifest true repentance.
With Israel’s words and actions of repentance we are told that the Lord “could bear the misery of Israel no longer.” (Judges 10:16) This is great news. At this point we can rightfully expect a solution. What may be surprising, however, is that this path of God’s mercy, which Israel had to walk, took them into a place of greater difficulty. Our expectation is that if God hears our cry, our solution should be there, the problem solved, things are better, the sun sets beautifully and peacefully and all is again right with the world. But rarely do things work according to this expectation. And it did not work this way for the Israelites. “Then the sons of Ammon were summoned and they camped in Gilead. And the sons of Israel gathered together and camped in Mizpah. The people, the leaders of Gilead, said to one another, ‘Who is the man who will begin to fight against the sons of Ammon? He shall become head over all the inhabitants of Gilead.'” (Judges 10:17-18) Things were getting worse before they could get better. Their repentance seems to have spurred a great armed conflict. The battle lines are drawn up and war is set to begin. For eighteen years Israel had not held its own. It was even less likely on that day as they did not even have somebody to lead their army, such as it was. Things looked very grim for the sons of Israel. If we are working with somebody who is in the process of truly turning from sins or addictions, we need to warn them that the path of repentance may lead to an intensification of the battle. This is normal. There are things we may need to do or things we need to pass through that we will avoid until pushed by unpleasant circumstances. The last place the Gileadites wanted to look for a leader was now the place they were willing to look, they were willing to look for Jephthah.
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