Then Jephthah went with the elders of Gilead, and the people made him head and captain over them: and Jephthah uttered all his words before the LORD at Mizpeh.
Once again the state of Israel had fallen very low. This time they were afflicted by the Ammonites. It was the result of their sin. They had cried unto God with a cry of repentance; but He had not; heard them. While with their lips they confessed their iniquity, they continued to live in it just the same. They served other gods and walked in the way of wickedness. This was evident from the shameful way in which the men of Gilead treated Jephthah. Jephthah was a God-fearing man and the rightful heir of his father as head over the city. But they of the city did not want him with his righteous ways ruling over them. With an air of piety they resurrected the fact that Jephthah’s mother had been an immoral woman and put him out of the city. An exile, he fled to the land of Tob.
But the hand of the Lord continued to be stretched out over the people still; and when they discovered that He would not be satisfied with mere external repentance, they began to search deeper in their souls. They examined the duplicity of their ways and began to make amends for them. They began to look for a man who could instruct them and lead them in the way of righteousness, and to their ears came reports of Jephthah. He alone of the children of Israel was having success in challenging the oppression of Ammon. From his stronghold in Tob, with his small group of exiles behind him, he was making forays against the oppressor and was being blessed of God. This, the very man whom once they had rejected, was the one they needed to help them in their trouble. From them went forth a messenger to Jephthah saying, “Come, and be our captain, that we may fight with the children of Ammon.”
Jephthah was skeptical. The men of Israel as he had known them were not to be trusted in a request like this. They might well have heard of his small success against the Ammonites and so desire his aid in delivering them from oppression. But if it was only so that they might return unhindered to the ways of sin, what purpose would it serve? And yet he dared not turn them down flat. These were the children of Israel, the people of God whom he loved, asking for his aid. Could he refuse them if their request was sincere? He returned to them a searching inquiry, setting them squarely before their sin. “Did not ye hate me,” he asked, “and expel me out of my father’s house? and why are ye come unto me now when ye are in distress?”
But this time the people of Israel were sincere; as were the elders of Gilead who brought the message. Their answer to Jephthah was as much as an acknowledgment of their sin in depriving him of his rightful place in his city. They answered, “Therefore we turn again to thee now that thou mayest go with us, and fight against the children of Ammon, and be our head over all the inhabitants of Gilead.”
Jephthah could hardly believe that they would make such a complete acknowledgment of his right; and again he asked, “If ye bring me home again to fight against the children of Ammon, and the LORD deliver them before me, shall I be your head?”
But the elders of Gilead were adamant and were ready to answer with an oath. “The LORD be witness between us,” they said, “if we do not so according to thy words.”
Thus it was that Jephthah returned to his home and was received into his rightful position. But before him lay an immense task, the deliverance of Israel from Ammon. It was even more difficult because as yet he had received no clear commission or instruction from the Lord.
Jephthah, however, was not a man who relished conflict. He was a man who preferred peace, and he would go far to obtain it. Although his expulsion from Gilead had been terribly unjust, just for his own personal advantage he had not resisted. While dwelling an exile in Tob, he had lived patiently and without bitterness. Thus, when he was finally restored to his rightful position, his first effort was to obtain a peaceful settlement with the Ammonites rather than going to battle. This was especially true because Ammon, like Moab, was the descendant nation of Lot against whom Moses had been advised not to fight. He sent a message to the king of Ammon exploring the possibility of a peaceful withdrawal of his forces from Israel. Of the king of Moab he asked the question, “What hast thou to do with me, that thou art come against me to fight in my land?”
The answer which came back was not encouraging, although it was as subtle as it was false. The king of Ammon said, “Because Israel took away my land, when they came up out of Egypt, from Arnon even unto Jabbok, and unto Jordan: now therefore restore those lands again peaceably.” This was clever, because it had the appearance of a certain amount of truth. The land between Arnon and Jabbok which was captured by Israel had once belonged to Ammon, while God had forbidden Israel to fight against the children of Esau and Lot, which included Ammon. Thus the king of Ammon hoped to beat Jephthah at his own game and to capitalize upon his peaceful intentions.
But quickly Jephthah returned to him an answer setting the matter straight. (One thing should be understood in reading this answer. Jephthah groups the children of Lot including Moab and Ammon together and refers “to them usually as just Moab.) Thus he answered, “Thus saith Jephthah, Israel took not away the land of Moab, nor the land of the children of Ammon. But when Israel came up from Egypt, and walked through de wilderness unto the Red Sea, and came to Kadesh; then Israel sent messengers unto the king of Edom, saying, Let me, I pray thee, pass through thy land: but the king of Edom would not hearken thereto. And in like manner they sent unto the king of Moab: but he would not consent: and Israel abode in Kadesh. Then they went along through the wilderness, and compassed the land of Edom, and the land of Moab, and came by the east side of the land of Moab, and pitched on the other side of Arnon, but came not within the border of Moab: for Arnon was the border of Moab. And Israel sent messengers unto Sihon king of the Amorites, the king of Heshbon; and Israel said unto him, Let us pass, we pray thee, through thy land into my place. But Sihon trusted not Israel to pass through his coast: but Sihon gathered all his people together, and pitched in Jahaz, and fought against Israel. And the LORD God of Israel delivered Sihon and all his people into the hand of Israel, and they smote them: so Israel possessed all the land of the Amorites, the inhabitants of that country. And they possessed all the coasts of the Amorites, from Arnon even unto Jabbok, and from the wilderness even unto Jordan. So now the LORD God of Israel hath dispossessed the Amorites from before his people Israel, and shouldest thou possess it? Wilt not thou possess that which Chemosh thy god giveth thee to possess? So whomsoever the LORD our God shall drive out from before us, them will we possess. And now art thou any thing better than Balak the son of Zippor, king of Moab? did he ever strive against Israel, or did he ever fight against them, While Israel dwelt in Heshbon and her towns, and in Aroer and her towns, and in all the cities that be along by the coasts of Arnon, three hundred years? why therefore did ye not recover them within that time? Wherefore I have not sinned against thee, but thou doest me wrong to war against me: the LORD the Judge be judge this day between the children of Israel and the children of Ammon.”
In this reply Jephthah showed himself to be thoroughly familiar with the history of the children of Israel. He understood it well and was quite capable of justifying Israel’s possession of the disputed territory. There are several points which we should note in this reply.
In the first place, it was not true, as the king of Ammon intimated, that Israel had ignored the command of God not to fight against the descendants of Lot. The fact of the matter was that Israel had made a special point not to trespass without permission. So careful had they been in this that it had required an extensive detour of many miles around the borders of Edom and Moab, including Ammon.
In the second place, when Israel came to the land between the Arnon and the Jabbok, it had not been occupied by the Ammonites, as the king of Ammon now claimed, but by the Amorites. It may have been in years prior to that that the territory belonged to the Ammonites; but by the time Israel came, the Amorites had then taken it from them. They were the inhabitants of that land when Israel came.
In the third place, when Israel had come to that territory, it had not been their desire to fight even with the Amorites who dwelt in that land. They had sent a messenger to Sihon king of the Amorites requesting permission to pass peaceably through his land. Not only had he refused them permission, but he had marshaled his army against the children of Israel and came out to fight with them. As a matter of self-defense, Israel was forced to fight back, with the result that they had defeated the armies of de Amorites completely and taken possession of their land. This had been very evidently a victory given to the children of Israel by Jehovah their God.
The conclusion of the whole matter was, therefore, that Israel had a perfect right to the land between de Arnon and the Jabbok now claimed by the king of Ammon. Ammon claimed the land was theirs by bequest of their god Chemosh; but he had not been able as much as to keep the land for them from the hand of the Amorites. It was only the God of Israel that had been able to destroy the power of the Amorites, thereby proving Himself to be the true God over all nations; and He had given the land to Israel.
The sin of the king of Ammon was that he refused to recognize the authority of Jehovah, Israelis God. In this he repeated the sin of Balak king of Moab, three hundred years before him. Balak had been given ample evidence of the supreme authority of Jehovah, especially by Balaam the prophet, whom he had hired; but he had refused to believe it. The result was that he had wrestled with Israel to his own destruction. Now the king of Ammon was doing the same.
It soon became evident to Jephthah that the king of Ammon had no intentions of listening to reason. It was then that for the first time Jephthah received his commission to serve as judge over Israel directly from God. The Spirit of the Lord came upon him and he passed throughout the coasts of Israel, gathering an army to represent the cause of Israel over against the oppression of Ammon.