“And it came to pass, when he saw her, that he rent his clothes, and said, Alas, my daughter! thou hast brought me very low, and thou art one of them that trouble me…” – Judges 11:35
Because of their ever-recurring rebellion against God, Israel was under siege by a neighboring nation, and in their desperation they asked Jephthah, the outcast son of a harlot, to lead them in battle against the Ammonites. After reminding them that up until now they weren’t willing to give him the time of day, he used their desperation to strike a bargain with them. “If I agree get you out of this mess, I’ll be your leader from now on,” to which they agreed. Jephthah first tried negotiation, but when it became apparent there was going to be war, he struck one more bargain. He made a vow to God that if Israel prevailed, whatever came first out the door of his house to meet him when he returned home he would offer to Him as a burnt offering. You will notice in verse thirty-one, he was expecting a “what,” not a “who” to come running to him. Perhaps a pet lamb? I don’t know. I do know that when he returned home a victor in battle, it was his only daughter that met him at the door.
Now, I don’t propose here to discuss the merits of his vow, or the trusting obedience of his daughter. What has always struck me were his first words to her: “[T]hou hast brought me low, and thou art one of them that trouble me” (v. 35). Excuse me? I long ago wrote these words next to that verse: “No, it was the other way around.” It seems to me the one in real trouble here is his daughter, yet his main concern is how this is going to affect him. You may argue that he simply meant to let her know that he would be suffering with her; but I can just as strongly argue against that, since the text gives us no exact knowledge of his motivation.
Am I being cynical in my personal interpretation? I can only say, having lived all these years, knowing myself and observing others, I think Jephthah only voiced what is in the hearts and minds of many people. I fear that too often when someone near us suffers an illness or calamity, or falls into sin, our first thought is, “How is this going to affect me?” How will it disrupt my life? Will it lead to sleepless nights, needless worry, or even loss of personal prestige? It’s possible to minister to others “selflessly,” while all the time doing so with a grudging heart. Am I only speaking to myself here? If so, it’s still true and I’m glad I said it.
I realize the good we do can be, and almost always is, a blessing to others; and that’s a good thing. But shouldn’t we want to do it for the right reasons? We’ll never have complete purity of motive while we’re housed in this flesh, but Paul seems to be urging us upward by such admonitions as, “Let nothing be done through strife or vainglory; but in lowliness of mind let each esteem other better than themselves” (Philip. 2:3). It was Charles Spurgeon who said, “You will never glory in God till first of all God has killed your glorying in yourself.” As long as it’s all about me it’s never going to be about Him. You can’t have it both ways.