The following has been one of my favorite devotional thoughts for years. I have used it in many settings, usually with teens. However, it is a lesson we all can use and a great reminder to me.
How many times have we made deals with God? When we were young we would say things like, “God, if you would get me out of this, then I will never sin again.” Or, “Help me pass this test and I promise I will study from the beginning next time.” Or, “If you will get me through this situation, I will be more devoted to you.” The list can go on and on. Of course, when we were young, many of these deals were the kind we could not keep. Even though we are a new creation in Christ, the remnant of sin is still being flushed out of our system and we will fail to keep some promises, deals, or vows. Even now I make my deals with God. Those deals may not be out loud like in my youth, but they are deals just the same. I think, “If I just pray more, God will bless me.” “If I follow this ‘method’ I will draw near to Him and Him to me.” Maybe this jars some memories for you and your deals with God. The thing about making deals with God is…He may hold you to your end of the deal. And sometimes that is not pleasant.
Several years ago a passage of scripture I had read over many times really began to stick to my heart. As I re-read and study this passage I continue to gain new insights into God and how he works. It gave me chills to think about the deals I had made with God. It is the story of the judge Jephthah (Judges 11 and 12). Jephthah is about to go into battle with the Ammonites. Beginning in Judges 11:30, Jephthah makes a vow with God as he enters into this battle.
30And Jephthah made a vow to the Lord: “If you give the Ammonites into my hands, 31whatever comes out of the door of my house to meet me when I return in triumph from the Ammonites will be the Lord’s, and I will sacrifice it as a burnt offering.”
God gave Jephthah the victory he asked for. In fact, he routed the Ammonites. God kept His end of the deal…now comes Jephthah’s part.
34When Jephthah returned to his home in Mizpah, who should come out to meet him but his daughter, dancing to the sound of tambourines! She was an only child. Except for her he had neither son nor daughter. 35When he saw her, he tore his clothes and cried, “Oh! My daughter! You have made me miserable and wretched, because I have made a vow to the Lord that I cannot break.” Judges 11:34-35
Now before I get to the ‘deal’, I want to go down a quick rabbit trail here. I’m not sure if this is just how it is translated to English or if there is any intent of this phrase toward how I will critique it but notice what Jephthah says, “Oh! My daughter! You have made me miserable and wretched…” Notice how it is phrased. How many times have I done something rash, and the result made me realize how rash it was, and in an emotional outburst, cast the blame on someone else? Wow, that one hit me square between the eyes. Initially, one of God’s appointed did not own his decision, he blamed his daughter. That phrase is both comforting and scary. Comforting because I know I am not alone, nor the first, when casting blame in an emotional moment. Scary because a righteous man of God can fall into that trap even though it is a natural reaction.
Now, back to the ‘deal’ Jephthah made. I fantasize that Jephthah envisioned that when he would get home coming to meet him at the gate would be one of the sheep or goats or even his trusty dog Rover. But no, it is his only daughter. It could have even been his wife. Jephthah made a deal with God and God kept His end of the bargain. What is interesting is the vow Jephthah made. He could have stopped at: “…whatever comes out of the door of my house to meet me when I return in triumph from the Ammonites will be the Lord’s…” It’s a reasonable deal to dedicate whatever he met at the gate to the Lord. That’s a safe play. I mean, Hannah dedicated Samuel to the Lord. She didn’t get to raise him, but he didn’t die either. So, why did Jephthah go to the extent of not only dedicating to the Lord, but also offering to sacrifice to the Lord? Scholars are divided in their interpretation of this story. Some believe that because the Spirit of the Lord (vs. 29) had come upon Jephthah he could not sacrifice his daughter. They look at the text as saying just making a sacrifice (burnt offering) in general and essentially cursing his daughter to never marry or bear children the rest of her life. They also believe that human sacrifice is against God’s law (easy to believe). However, these same scholars believe that the vow was to sacrifice a human because a dog and/or many other animals would have been unacceptable sacrifices. Others believe that Jephthah took inspiration from Abraham and how God rescued Isaac from his hand, hoping that God would do the same for him. Even others believe that he did go through with his vow because he had made it to God and had no choice. Jephthah also lived in area where the Israelites had begun some of the practices of the neighboring countries and that Jephthah was influenced by them.
Regardless of the interpretation of Jephthah’s final decision, what are some lessons we can take from this text? One, I must be intentional and discerning about promises and vows that I make with God. This is God, the one true God that I am dealing with. As I continue to read scripture, God is a God of mercy and grace. However, when it comes to oaths, there are many passages where he holds his people to their oaths. God does not give us a pass on a rash vow or oath. Jesus talks about oaths and letting your “…Yes be Yes, and your No, No.” (Matthew 5:37) God takes vows seriously. Vows to God are not all bad…but what is our intent? Is it to gain the blessing am I vowing for and is my want misguided to the point that I am not thinking about what I am promising God? I am not saying “play it safe” here by choosing something to vow that is easy to follow through with. There must be some sacrifice to a vow of this nature. What I am asking here is, “What is my intent?” Is my vow to gain blessing or is my vow to honor God regardless the answer?
Secondly, are my vows rooted in my lack of trust for God? Am I so lacking in faith at times that I have to make a deal with God thinking it will prompt him to action? Again, lacking in faith is normal as we have seen in many of the great men and women of the Bible. Sometimes the vow gives us focus and clarity we may not have had before.
Third, when I make a vow, I need to follow through in order to stay in integrity. If it is up to me, I must fulfill the vow. In some circumstances when obvious blocks to finishing the vow keep me from it (I am not condoning looking for those blocks as a cop out) it must be God either saying, “You’ve done enough” (like I envision he felt for Abraham and his willingness to sacrifice Isaac), or, “This is not what I wanted from you.” Otherwise, I am to finish or keep my vow to God.
Fourth, my vows to God can affect those around me. Just like making choices can affect my family, friends, and others (even long term), so can my vows to God. Jephthah’s vow affected more than just him. Imagine the conversation with his wife. Wife: “I don’t know if this is a good idea.” Jephthah: “God will take care of me.” Later…Wife: “I told you so!” Jephthah: “Maybe I should listen to your intuition.” There are vows to ministries that have affected my family and still do. My current job is a ministry that puts us in a position that my wife has to work full time. There are times where that puts a strain on us. Think long term when considering a vow with God. It does not mean, do not vow, but be intentional and discerning.
Finally, notice the attitude and submissiveness of Jephthah’s daughter. Now, I am well aware that the time in history and the Israelite culture was very patriarchal. Children were trained to be submissive. However, what an awesome example of submissiveness to authority this example is for us. Ultimately, we must submit to God’s authority. Even in times of trouble, like Job, God asks for submission, expects submission. Some of this submission is out of fear. Some of this submission stems from faith. Some of this submission is for our own good…God knows what is best for us. Some of this submission is so we can understand authority and be in authority ourselves. God will further His kingdom with or without us. Our submission allows us to join Him in His work. I have always been amazed by Jephthah’s daughter’s submissiveness. I do not know many daughters today who would be that submissive.
In conclusion, the story of Jephthah and his vow to God is choke full lessons. I am sure there are many more stories and lessons to be learned out of these few verses in the Old Testament. I encourage all to review Old Testament stories we all grew up with and look at them from more mature eyes. God has revealed to me many new insights into His nature, character, and personality. Obviously, I am only scratching the surface of such an ominous God. But, this little piece draws me closer.
Peace and Grace