And the LORD said unto the children of Israel, Did not I deliver you . . . ?
Yet ye have forsaken me, and served other gods: wherefore I will deliver you no more.
Go and cry unto the gods which ye have chosen: let them deliver you in the time of your tribulation.
The worship of idols held strong attachment for the children of Israel. Perhaps it was not strange. The service of idols was so much easier. Jehovah demanded so much of those who worshipped Him. He demanded a service which was pure from the inmost recesses of the heart. He demanded a true and spiritual love to be underlying every thought and word and deed. He demanded an obedience which was unwavering to all of the vast coverage of the law. He demanded a complete commitment of life. The service of idols was so much easier. They were satisfied with only external works. This was something that anyone could do with time left over for themselves. As long as one went through the required formalities of worship it was enough; the rest of life could be lived as one pleased. And beyond that, the formalities of idol-worship that were required were easier too. They did not require the painful self-examination, conviction, and repentance that Jehovah always required. The worship of idols was adapted to satisfy the desires, inclinations, and lusts of the flesh. With it one’s basest desires could be followed without fear. This was so very difficult for Israel to leave alone.
Nonetheless, under the judgeship of Gideon the service of idols, and particularly of Baal, was in a large measure suppressed. In his very first act as judge Gideon had earned the name of Jerubbaal because he had taken up battle against Baal, and he remained faithful to that distinction until the end of his life. Moreover, the superiority of Jehovah had become so evident in the defeat of Midian that for a time the people were quite satisfied to worship Him alone. But the inclination was still there. When Gideon made an ephod with the purpose of honoring Jehovah, its use was soon subverted, so that the ephod itself was worshipped and became a sort of idol in its own right. This became a snare to Gideon and his family, until it ended in the dismal history of Abimelech. So it was cut short.
For a time events in Israel remained fairly peaceable. During this time two judges labored in the work of the Lord with the distinction that they were not called to deliver Israel from the oppression of any particular enemy. Their duty was only to present Israel with the word and judgments of God. One was Tola, of Mount Ephraim, of whom we know little, except that he judged Israel for twenty-three years and was of the tribe of Issachar. After him came Jair, a man of Gilead, who judged Israel twenty-two years. His work was apparently carried on by thirty of his sons who ruled over thirty cities. These were no doubt righteous men who labored in the fear of the Lord.
During this time, however, the powers of sin were rebuilding their forces. As time passed, the memories of Gideon and the oppression of the Midianites were disappearing; while at the same time the beckonings of sin were becoming more and more open. Slowly at first, but then in greater and greater number, people began to return openly to the worship of Baal and Ashteroth. Nor was Israel’s idolatry limited to these. They took to them other gods from Syria and Zidon and Moab and Ammon and Philistia. Each was a different god with a little different form of worship appealing to a different aspect of human lust; but they all stood in direct opposition to the love and service of Jehovah. In time Israel could hardly be distinguished from the days before Gideon, or even from the heathen nations about them.
The hand of the Lord was quick to answer to this in judgment. With the increase of sin came a withdrawing of the strength of God from Israel. Soon the very nations after whom Israel had lusted and whose gods they now worshipped began to invade their land and oppress the people. This time it was particularly the Philistines and the children of Ammon. They were wicked people; and whenever the opportunity arose, they poured forth their wickedness upon the now defenseless children of Israel. Murder, theft, and plunder were the order of the day, with the hapless children of Israel as the victims. As long as the opportunity was there, the mere fact that Israel was serving their gods did not stop them. There is no honor among the wicked. For eighteen years this oppression continued.
It was then that a new and apparently clever solution presented itself to the minds of the children of Israel. They were still able to recall how God had delivered their fathers from the hands of Midian only after they had called upon Him for deliverance. Why should not they do the same? A movement was started and soon a mighty cry went up from every corner of the land. “We have sinned against thee,” cried the people to Jehovah, “both because we have forsaken our God, and also served Baalim.”
Outwardly this was surely a wonderful confession and in every respect sufficient. And yet there was something terribly wrong. The people did not mean it. They were willing to admit that what they had done was wrong and the reason for their present suffering. They were, perhaps, even ready for a time to refrain from the practices of idol worship. But in their hearts they were already looking for the day when the Philistines and Ammonites would be driven out of their land, so that they could return comfortably to the idol worship which they loved best. They were rendering to Jehovah lip-service, while their hearts were still far from Him, thinking thereby to receive from Him earthly gain.
But Jehovah was not to be duped by the people. He perceived the duplicity of their hearts and sent to them a quick answer, possibly through a prophet. “Did not I deliver you,” He said, “from the Egyptians, and from the Amorites, from the children of Ammon, and from the Philistines? The Zidonians also, and the Amalekites, and the Maonites, did oppress you, and ye cried to me, and I delivered you out of their hand. Yet ye have forsaken me, and served other gods: wherefore I will deliver you no more. Go and cry unto the gods which ye have chosen; let them deliver you in the time of your tribulation.”
The day of complete deliverance under the judges was past. There had developed in Israel a hard core of reprobate men who would stop at nothing, not even at hypocritical service of Jehovah, to gain their desired end. Henceforth, God would deliver the people in part when sincerity in repentance would appear, as it soon did under Jephthah. But there would always remain some judgment, particularly through the Philistines, until the day when king David would rise to cleanse the land.
Just how wicked Israel had become became apparent in the sad history of Jephthah. Jephthah’s father was an honorable man, head of the great city of Gilead and called by the same name; But Jephthah was born of a harlot. Afterward Gilead repented of his sin, and when he married a lawful wife received Jephthah into his home as his rightful heir and son. There Jephthah was raised in the fear of the Lord and became himself a god-fearing man. But there were other sons that were born to Gilead’s true wife, and they were different. As members of the most prominent family in that great city, they tasted the sweetness of popular recognition. That to them was sweeter than anything else. Because they were thus different from their brother, a deep breech soon developed between them. Jephthah was loved by his father, but hated by his brothers. The older they became the more Jephthah’s brothers were moved to envy to think that Jephthah, the one who least deserved it, should be the rightful heir to their father’s position and fortune. Thus, when finally their father died, they determined to do something about it.
There was an appearance of piety in the act of the brothers. They came to Jephthah and said, “Thou shalt not inherit in our father’s house; for thou art the son of a strange woman.” For the first time in their lives these brothers were concerned about the purity of the nation and an infringement of the law of God. What they forgot was that the sin from which Jephthah was born had been confessed and forgiven of God, and thus was not to be remembered by man. Even more, it had not been Jephthah’s sin at all, but their father’s, so that he only could be held accountable for that. But here a concern for morality was to their benefit, and piously they pushed Jephthah out of his father’s house. In the street Jephthah began to realize how much alone he really was. He could turn to the elders of the city, but they were not righteous men as his father had been. They were, in fact, friends with his brothers in sin. To remain and challenge the act of his brothers would only endanger his own life. A righteous man in Israel without a friend, he turned to flee from the city and the country to live alone in the land of Tob.
Still, in his exile, Jephthah remained a true and faithful son of Israel. He had felt the sin of his brethren, and he prayed for them. He saw the oppression of his nation, and he wept for them. He maintained a faithful vigil before the throne of Jehovah in behalf of the people under whose hand he had suffered so much.
Neither was Jephthah long alone. He was not the only one in that day which was dispossessed of his rightful place and position. There were many others like him. In many respects they were not the choice of the land. They were often crude and rough persons with moral mars somewhere in their history. They were the kind that could be piously put out of home and possessions with the claim that for the country it was best. But at the same time they were often those who, having tasted the sting of sin, felt most the need for Jehovah and His redemption. These heard of Jephthah and came into the mountains of Tob to dwell with him.
This was a strange group of men gathered with Jephthah in their mountain hideout. They were poor; for none had been allowed to take any of his possessions with him. They had suffered, for their own kinsmen had driven them from their own country as undesirables. They were exiles. And yet their thoughts always went back to the country from which they came, not in bitterness but in love. They prayed constantly for the deliverance of their brethren, both from their own sin and from the wicked that oppressed them. This was the enemy of Jephthah and his men, Ammon, the oppressor of their brethren. In fact, it was these men who first concluded that something should be done about it. From their mountain fortress they crawled forth to wage war upon the enemy. In foray after foray, they retaliated for the, wickedness of Ammon. Here was the first sign of strength and promise for Israel. It was not found in the heart of their own land; it was in an alien land among those who had been driven from home as exiles. So had the glory departed from Israel.