The day was overcast. That didn’t prevent the pilot from taking off. It should have. He had no business flying in that kind of weather. He didn’t have the training to fly in conditions which prevented him from seeing the horizon. He had three friends with him. They all wanted to get home.
As he climbed from his takeoff he was immersed in clouds. Not being able to see the horizon he became confused and a victim of vertigo. He did not know whether he was heading up, or down, or straight and level. The recorded radio conversation between the pilot and tower, punctuated by his panicked voice, indicated he was in trouble.
Shortly after that radio exchange the plane dove into the ground instantly killing the pilot and the other three people aboard. It was tragic. That tragedy could have been easily avoided. If the pilot hadn’t taken off, if he had simply decided to wait until the whether cleared, he and three others would be alive today. That pilot’s foolish judgment cost him and his three friends their lives.
Judges 11:29-40 detail a similar fatal mistake in judgment. Jephthah’s foolish judgment cost the life of his only child, his only daughter. I don’t know which is more tragic; the fact that this event happened; or the fact that it didn’t have to happen. If Jephthah had only trusted God he could have avoided this catastrophe altogether. He would have had both his daughter and his victory over the Ammonites. What do we learn from this account? What does such a tragic account teach us? Let us begin by understanding two things about Jephthah.
First, Jephthah did the wrong thing. That’s why his story is in the book of Judges. He provides an example we’re not to follow. You might assume that every example in the Bible is a good example. That’s not always the case. There are examples in the Bible that we’re not to follow. That’s particularly true in the Old Testament narrative books, like Judges. Accounts in this book are often reported without comment. Some of the examples are obviously bad and common sense dictates that one not follow them.
It is very similar to how a journalist should report a story. When a journalist writes a story about a horrible case of child abuse she need not tell you that this was a terrible thing. Common sense informs us that it was terrible. That is how many Old Testament narratives work. In Jephthah’s case common sense tells us that sacrificing his daughter was not a good thing. Jephthah’s vow is a bad example. First, Jephthah’s vow is a bad example. Second, the book of Judges describes a pattern in the life of Israel.
From the beginning of the book a pattern develops. The people of Israel forsake God and begin worshiping other gods and goddesses. As a result God judges them by handing them over to invaders and pestilence. The people realize this as God’s judgment, repent and turn again to God. God, in turn, raises up a judge who delivers the people from the invaders. Some years pass and the people again return to their evil ways. The pattern repeats itself. A judge was one who was a temporary leader of the people. The judge would rally the people together, form them into some sort of army, and defeat the invaders. Jephthah was one such judge. The Ammonites invaded Israel and oppressed its people. Together with the Philistines they oppressed the people for eighteen years. God raised up Jephthah to be Israel’s judge. Jephthah is a judge in Israel. Yet, he still did something that was very wrong.
Wait a minute. How do we know that his vow was wrong? It was wrong because Jephthah made his vow for pagan reasons. He offered this vow to God to bribe God. Jephthah offered this deal with God as one might offer a tip to a valet who has brought your car around. He wanted to make a deal. “God, you give me victory over the Ammonites, and I’ll give you the first person who comes to greet me as a burnt sacrifice! Deal?”
The language is disguised in your English Bibles but Jephthah clearly intended a human sacrifice. He wasn’t talking about the first lamb or ox that came to meet him. He vowed he would sacrifice the first person who met him. Human sacrifice, practiced among the pagans, was strictly forbidden in the Old Testament law. So you see, Jephthah’s vow was wrong. It was wrong for other reasons.
Look at the consequences of his actions. Were they good? This tragic vow cost Jephthah his only child. Jephthah carried out his vow and sacrificed his daughter as a burnt offering. He did to her as he had promised. That was tragic. Jephthah, a judge, made a horrific mistake. What do we learn from Jephthah’s stupid vow and actions? What sense does this account make for us?
Certainly, we would never think of doing anything remotely similar to Jephthah’s vow. Or would we? We look at Jephthah’s brutal, pagan promise and shake our heads in modern, civilized disgust. Certainly this doesn’t fit into your life! Never would anything like this cross your mind! Or, it would. Let me show you what I mean.
Jephthah faced a great challenge. He believed he could better his chances if he made a bargain with God. “God, do this for me, and I’ll do this for you.” He was a faithful man with bad theology! Have you ever struck a bargain with God? Think about it. In school, as you sit down to take that major exam that will make or break your grade, or your career, have you bargained? “Lord, just let me do well in this exam and I’ll pray more often! I really will! Just get me through this exam!”
Have you tried to strike a bargain with God when you were sick? You might be facing surgery. Maybe you were in ICU. You tried to deal. “Lord, if you get me out of this I’ll go to church every Sunday!”
Perhaps you bargained at work. The opportunity to advance into a nice job came your way. You applied for it. You seek God’s help. “Oh Lord, just let me get this job and I’ll…I’ll…I’ll be an Elder for the rest of my life! I really, really will!” Your bargain might involve your kids, or your marriage, or your finances. Chances are good that you have tried to strike some sort of bargain with God at some time in your life.
When people face a challenge they are tempted to bargain with God. The greater the challenge the more tempting it is to try to make a deal with God. Jephthah tried it, we mustn’t. There are problems with trying to make a deal with God. The first problem is that God doesn’t care for it. Rather than an attempted bribe, God would much rather see faith.
A second reason is that you can’t, or won’t keep the promise you made. If you promised to go to church every Sunday, for example, you cannot keep it. You will, eventually, miss a Sunday. Things will work initially, but over time you’ll forget the deal you made.
A man was deathly ill. The doctors told him he would die. No doubt about it, he was a dead man. One night he prayed. “Lord, if you get me through this and heal me, I’ll go to church every Sunday and I’ll tithe from my income. I mean a real tithe, Lord. I’ll give you at least 10% off the top of my pay check. And I mean every Sunday, Lord, every Sunday I’ll be in church!”
Well, a funny thing happened. The doctors gave him amazing news a few days later. This man would live! Furthermore, he would return home healthier than he’d ever been. After a few weeks this man was feeling well and enjoying life. Then one day he stepped out of his house to go to church as he had promised God. It was a beautiful day, warm and sunny and green. He looked over at his boat on the trailer in his driveway. Being a spiritual man he quietly prayed. “Lord, did I say every Sunday? I really meant most Sundays. Yes, that’s it, most Sundays!” He changed his clothes, hooked his boat trailer to his pickup, and was off to the lake, his wife and family happily with him.
Later that month during worship the offering plate came his way. Things were a little tight that month. Again, this man turned to prayer. “Lord, did I say a tithe? I really meant I would give regularly!” His check that week wasn’t a tithe.
The man didn’t keep his promises, neither can you. Bargains you strike with God are like New Year’s resolutions. They often fall short and fade from your life. Don’t make them. God would rather see faith. We must also avoid trying to bribe God because the bribes we offer don’t impress him! God doesn’t want your bribe. God wants your heart! God is unimpressed with our bribes and deals. He wants our hearts and our faith.
Trust God. Don’t try to manipulate Him. Don’t bargain because you cannot keep it. Don’t bargain because God is unimpressed. Don’t bargain because God wants your faith.
So, what should we do when we are tempted to strike a deal? We must trust. Think how different this account would have been had Jephthah trusted rather than bargained. If Jephthah had only said, “Lord, I’m scared! I know you are with me, but I have my doubts! Please help me!” He would have had both his daughter and his victory. When you face a scary time when you are tempted to make a deal, don’t. Do what Jephthah did not do. Trust God. If you’re scared or worried or having a difficult time trusting God tell him so. God is much more impressed with that than with any deal you could offer him.
When you face challenges you must not bribe God, but rather trust him. Rely upon His grace and mercy. In that way you avoid making Jephthah’s terrible, tragic mistake! Do the wise thing. Avoid the tragedy of trying to bribe God. Give Him your trust instead.

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