The last judge we met in our series was Gideon. Jephthah was one of the judges that came after Gideon. Israel had apostatized—again. Faithful Jehovah, in chastisement, sold them into the hand of enemies, one of which was Ammon. Jehovah raised up Jephthah as judge to fight against the Ammonites. Jephthah was a Gileadite, the son of Gilead, and born of a harlot. Please read the first part of Judges 11 for context. Our concern is the vow that Jephthah made before going to war against Ammon—the latter half of Judges 11.
This vow of Jephthah was serious. Before we consider the serious vow itself, let’s understand the occasion and motive for Jephthah’s making the vow.
The occasion for Jephthah making his vow was war against Ammon. Jephthah had been in talks with the king of Ammon (Judg. 11). The Ammonite king was hardened and would not listen to the words of Jephthah. Now it was time for war. Before the war, Jephthah made a vow to God: “If thou shalt without fail deliver the children of Ammon into mine hands, then it shall be, that whatsoever cometh forth from the doors of my house to meet me, when I return in peace from the children of Ammon, shall surely be the Lord’s, and I will offer it up for a burnt offering” (Judg. 11:30, 31).
This occasion helps us understand Jephthah’s motive for this vow. The vow is not Jephthah’s attempt at bargaining with God, as if to say, “Lord, I promise you something if you do something for me.” Rather, the vow is a matter of gratitude to God. Jephthah was thankful that he had a place among God’s people, even a leading place, and that he would be the instrument in Jehovah’s hand to deliver Israel. Jephthah was also grateful that Jehovah would be his strength in war, and that Jehovah would graciously deliver the Ammonites into his hand. In thankfulness to God, he makes this pre-war vow.
Jephthah made a vow: “And Jephthah vowed a vow unto the Lord…” (Judg. 11:30). A vow is a promise to do something, a promise uttered before the face of the all-knowing, holy, and almighty God. The content of the vow was, “whatsoever cometh forth of the doors of my house to meet me, when I return in peace from the children of Ammon, shall surely be the Lord’s, and I will offer it up for a burnt offering” (Judg. 11:31). Let’s divide that into two parts.
First, the vow was that “whatsoever cometh forth of the doors of my house to meet me, when I return in peace from the children of Ammon, shall surely be the Lord’s, and I will offer it up for a burnt offering” (Judg. 11:31). The question is, What would come out of the house to meet Jephthah and be offered up for a burnt offering? Some argue that Jephthah rashly made his vow: either he gave no consideration to what would exit his house, or he thought it might be an animal. But this interpretation is wrong.1 Jephthah anticipated a human being, quite possibly his own daughter, to come out of the door to greet him when he returned from war. A human being lives in and comes out of a house. Only a human being could intelligently celebrate victory with Jephthah after he returns from war. Far from being rash, Jephthah vowed carefully.
Second, the vow was that “whatsoever cometh forth of the doors of my house to meet me, when I return in peace from the children of Ammon, shall surely be the Lord’s, and I will offer it up for a burnt offering” (Judg. 11:31). The question now is, What did Jephthah have in mind when he said that whoever comes out of his house shall surely be the Lord’s, and that he would offer it up for a burnt offering? Some say that Jephthah intended, and later carried out, human sacrifice. This, too, is a wrong view. By “burnt offering” is not meant human sacrifice. Besides, for the godly Jephthah to sacrifice a human is unthinkable. Instead, the judge purposed that whoever came to meet him (he’s likely thinking of his daughter) would be devoted to Jehovah; this is what it means to “be the Lord’s” and to be “offer[ed]…up for a burnt offering” (Judg. 11:31). It was, in fact, Jephthah’s daughter who left the house to meet her father when he returned from battle—she would be offered up for a burnt offering in the sense of being dedicated to Jehovah in a life of virginity (Judg. 11:38, 39).
This was a serious vow! When his daughter came out to meet him, Jephthah said, “I have opened my mouth unto the Lord, and I cannot go back” (Judg. 11:35). He vowed, and he could not go back on what he said. The daughter agreed: “My father, if thou hast opened thy mouth unto the Lord, do to me according to that which hath proceeded out of thy mouth…” (Judg. 11:36). Consider that the vow was made to Jehovah— the almighty God, the God of truth, He who is holy and righteous; and, to go back on the promise would be dishonoring the name of God by which he had sworn. A weighty matter!
Young people, we also make vows. Our vows are serious. We need to hear this: today words mean nothing, promises are empty, and vows are rash. How opposite is the teaching of the passage before us!
Consider two vows commonly made in the church. One day, young man or woman, you will stand before the congregation and make public confession of your faith. Perhaps you have already. One of the questions asks, “Have you resolved by the grace of God to adhere to this doctrine; to reject all heresies repugnant thereto; and to lead a new, godly life?” To this question and two others, you say “yes.” That is a vow. That “yes” is one of the weightiest words you will ever utter. Say, with Jephthah, “I have opened my mouth unto the Lord, and I cannot go back.”
If the Lord wills, you will stand on your wedding day hands clasped to the one you love, and you will say “I do” to something like the following: that you take your wedded husband/wife, to have and to hold from this day forward, for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, till death do you part, according to God’s holy ordinance; and thereto do you pledge yourself with all your heart. A vow! “I do”: two words spoken with trembling, said before the face of the almighty, holy, righteous God of truth.
Jephthah’s vow was also costly.
We see the costliness of the vow in the sorrow of Jephthah and his daughter. Jephthah’s daughter, joyful about Jehovah’s victory over Ammon, met her returning father. Upon seeing her, Jephthah sorrowed. This does not mean he vowed thoughtlessly and was dismayed to see his daughter coming toward him. Instead, this is the grief of a man who knew all along that his daughter would come out, but was overwhelmed now that it actually happened. The daughter also mourned. She asked that she be alone with her female companions for a while to mourn over what the vow of her father would require of her: lifelong virginity. This, the lamentation of a man and a woman who knew the costliness of vow-keeping.
The high cost of Jephthah’s promise is evident, too, in what keeping the vow would mean. Jephthah would not have the joy of seeing his daughter married and bearing children. More deeply, this daughter was his only child— no marriage and children for her meant that Jephthah’s name and place would not continue in Israel. From the daughter’s viewpoint, she would never have a husband, never have any children…but would probably watch her companions around her married off and having children. She, too, would lose her name in Israel.
How the costliness of keeping our vows needs to be heard these days! When self-sacrifice is required in faithfulness to our promises, suddenly those promises are not so important anymore. As soon as living according to a vow means inconvenience, hardship, and strain, the vow is tossed aside. A young man makes the vow at confession of faith to be resolved by God’s grace to lead a godly life. But two years after confession of faith, he meets a girl at work—an unbeliever. She refuses to attend church, and he follows her down that road. The elders knock, but he does not answer. He soon requests his papers and moves into his girlfriend’s house. The vow—meaningless to him. An early-twenties woman marries the man of her dreams and promises to have and hold him in the worst of times. Those worst of times come, just two years in: he loses his job, the finances take a nosedive, and they can’t talk anymore without a blow-up argument. One day, he comes home after job-hunting to find a note on the counter: “We’re through. I’ll be living at my sister’s house and starting the legal process for divorce.” The vow—trampled upon.
Youth of the church, you must expect that in the keeping of your vows there will be self-sacrifice, pain, and struggle. Being faithful to the promise you made before God’s face will mean exhaustion, self-denial, unpopularity, and ridicule.
This serious, costly vow Jephthah kept, as Judges 11:39 informs us: “And it came to pass at the end of two months, that she returned unto her father, who did with her according to his vow which he had vowed: and she knew no man. And it was a custom in Israel….” When she came back from being with her friends, Jephthah performed the vow: the life-long virginity of his daughter.
The strength to carry out what he promised was in Jehovah alone. Of himself, he would have forsaken his vow. Jephthah, a man strong in the almighty Jehovah, kept his vow.
It was a promise Jephthah kept in thankfulness to God. It was thankfulness to Jehovah who so graciously delivered the Ammonites into his hand. It was gratitude to the God who kept His promise—the unbreakable, sure promise—and would never go back on it: “And an angel of the Lord came up from Gilgal to Bochim, and said, I made you to go up out of Egypt, and have brought you unto the land which I sware unto your fathers; and I said, I will never break my covenant with you” (Judg. 2:1). Jephthah swore and performed his vow, not to do something for God or bargain with Him, but in pure gratitude to Jehovah who was ever faithful to an unfaithful, whorish people.
We, too, must keep our vows. Left to ourselves, we would abandon those vows immediately. We live according to them only by God’s grace, and we flee to the cross of our faithful Savior when we do sin against them. In thankfulness we perform what we have sworn—gratitude to the God who was faithful to His promise to send the Savior for us. The keeping of that promise was costly: “He that spared not his own Son, but delivered him up for us all…” (Rom. 8:32). Good news! Young people, perform what you have vowed—from a heart of thanks to the unchangeably faithful God.
1 Giving all the reasons why this view must be rejected is outside the scope of this article. For those interested in knowing the wrong views and the refutation of them, I am sure your pastor would be happy to direct you to helpful resources on the subject.