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The Promise - the Sacrifice

Sermon passage: (Judges 11:29-40) Spoken on: June 1, 2009
More sermons from this speaker 更多该讲员的讲道: Elder Lui Yook Cing
For more of this sermon series 更多关于此讲道系列: Judges

Tags: Judges

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About Elder Lui Yook Cing: Elder Lui was a pastor in Jubilee Church and served in a mission organisation. She is a church elder now who continues to serve in Jubilee Church in various ministries.

Sermon on Judges 11:29-40

Have you ever made a promise that you later regret? Well what did you do about it? Break it or fulfill it?

1. Why vow?

In the first place, why make a vow? In the New Testament, Jesus makes a clear stand.

Don’t swear at all.. by heaven or earth or anything else.. Simply let your Yes be Yes and your No, No. Anything beyond this comes from the evil one. (Matthew 5:33-37)

Jesus encourages straightforward truthfulness and faithfulness. Think before you say or commit anything. If you don’t mean it, don’t say it. When you give your word, whether “promise” or not, then strive to fulfill it in all honesty. Your credibility and integrity builds on whether you faithfully keep your word each time. If you repeatedly cry wolf, or start something but never follow-through 虎头蛇尾 people find it hard to believe you anymore. Jesus says that a wise builder considers the costs before he embarks on a project (Luke 14:28-30). He doesn’t act impulsively and recklessly. That’s foolish and the consequences will return to taunt you.

In ancient Old Testament times, making vows to God is common. Sometimes it is a collateral to a petition for something. Sometimes it is a practice of spiritual piety – a means of honoring God for favors received. A vow is always voluntary, never coerced. The worshipper promises to dedicate some gift to the Lord. This offering may the worshipper himself, or someone / something that belongs to him. For example, the patriarch Jacob, before he understood true piety, vowed to God to give God 10% of his possessions if God would bless him and bring him back home safely (Genesis 28:20-22).

2. More than one type of Vows

As Israel’s community life evolves in history, the belief system and worship practices developed accordingly. God gave regulations to guide His people, including how to make vows appropriately. Anyone can vow if so desired. Regardless male or female, lay or priest, young or old, rich or poor.

For example, Numbers chapter 6 mentions Nazirite vow. The person sets himself apart for the Lord for a self-determined period of time. He keeps the vow by abstaining from wine, vinegar, grapes, fermented drink and hair-cut. Anyone can practice this piety. Somewhat similar to contemporary believers who fast, pray and abstain for a period of time to devote attention to God.

Alternatively, one can dedicate something else – animals, property, other family members etc (Leviticus 27). Surely Jephthah had more than one option available. The OT laws of Jephthah’s time clearly states the importance of honoring vows:

Deuteronomy 23:21-23 When you make a vow to the LORD your God, you shall not delay to pay it. God will surely require it of you. However, if you refrain from vowing, it would not be sin in you. You shall be careful to perform what goes out from your lips, just as you have voluntarily vowed to the LORD your God, what you have promised.

3. Breaking vows – God’s provisions

Why make a vow if you don’t intend to keep it? Yet strangely God actually made certain provisions for people who regret and wish to reverse their vows. These are found in Leviticus 27. Clearly, God’s provisions shows that He recognizes the reality of humanity’s fickleness, compounded by wickedness and foolishnes. For vows pertaining to offering humans, you may reverse the vow and redeem the person by paying the equivalent price of the person’s value. Presumably every human being has certain designated market value according to his/her contribution in an agricultural community. E.g. young males were 50 shekels of silver; young females 30 shekels. Young and old humans had lesser values ranging from 3-10 shekels. Non-human vows may also be ransomed, but you must pay additional 20% penalty. Through such painstaking regulations God is teaching His people that breaking vows is a costly matter. You don’t just “conveniently” make a vow then nonchalantly violate it. Even for someone too poor to pay the redemptive amount, there is hope. You go to the priest to appeal. Case by case. He will set a reasonable value according to what you can afford. Reading such provisions, I don’t get the ‘feel’ of God being money-faced or legalistically rigid. Rather I see a very magnanimous God who knows too well human depravity to pre-empt means of repentance and redemption for them.

4. Non-redeemable vows

However, there are certain kinds of vows that God has specifically stated as non-redeemable and irreversible. God’s people are forewarned.

Lev 27:28 But nothing that a man owns and devotes to the LORD, whether man or animal or family land – may be sold or redeemed; everything so devoted is most holy to the LORD.

Lev 27:29 No persons devoted to destruction may be ransomed; he must be put to death.

The Hebrew word is cherem. To separate something from common use and set it apart exclusively for God. You can’t redeem it back. An example is Israel's sin offerings – these animals so consecrated were burnt as God poured His righteous wrath upon them. No wonder cherem is sometimes translated as ‘the accursed thing’. It has to be utterly destroyed, in the like manner that God deals with Sin. During primitive war times, God sometimes invoked the law of cherem upon Israel’s enemies. E.g. during Joshua and Judges era, God demands that everything belonging to the Canaanites be totally destroyed. Presumably, their wickedness was beyond hope of redemption. Cherem cannot be violated. When King Saul failed to observe and obey cherem it led to his downfall with God.

5. Why did Jephthah make a vicious vow?

It was this type of no-turning-back vow that Jephthah made. In his case did God demand cherem? No. His was self-initiated and self-inflicted. No one pointed a gun at his head. And, given all the options and provisions available, one wonders why he chose to make this kind of vicious vow. Perhaps he was too hard-pressed for victory. It was acceptance, status and power that he needed badly. It drove him to venture into a ruthless deal.

As you carefully read through the narration of the story, you realize that Jephthah’s gamble-bargain wasn’t all that necessary. It adds nothing to God’s intended outcome. Only makes consequences worse for himself and others. 画蛇添足

In verse 27. Jephthah stoutly declares, “Let God judge and settle the injustice and war between the Israelites and the Ammonites.” This apparently is how God has judged.

29 Then the Spirit of the Lord empowered Jephthah, and he passed on to Gilead and Manasseh ,and passed on to Mizpah, and from there passed on to the Ammonites.

32-33 continues almost in the same breath: Then Jephthah passed on to fight against the Ammonites, and the LORD gave them into his hand.. So the Ammonites were subdued before the Israelites.

The Hebrew word for passed on was repeated four times. This word is usually used to denote God’s Spirit at work forcefully and powerfully. The narrative gives us the impression that God is acting favorably through Jephthah to subdue the Ammonites. If only Jephthah had left everything to God’s execution, it would be a perfect victorious ending. But in between, he interfered and inserted his own act. He made a vow.

30-31 If you give the Ammonites into my hands, whatever comes out of the door of my house to meet me when I return in triumph from the Ammonites will be the LORD’s, and I will sacrifice it as a burnt offering.

Why make a vicious vow? The reason can only be that Jephthah wanted victory too badly. I must win this battle, I must become head of tribe. Regardless of all costs! So he acted like his neighboring pagan Canaanites. These people had little qualms about offering human sacrifices to their gods to secure favors. Including sacrificing their own children. A practice that Yahweh hates and openly denounces. Jephthath, desperate for quick success, initiated an abominable deal with God. “Just make me win and I will give you anything that approaches to meet me when I return.”

Who did he expect to sacrifice? I don’t think he cared. “The end justifies the means – any means.” As long as it gets him to his personal goals, Jephthath is prepared to offer anything in exchange. In those times, it was common for women and servants of the family to welcome victorious warriors. Jephthah probably thought, sacrificing one or two of these for his glorious agenda is no big deal.

6. Jepthah’s daughter

As it turned out, that person was Jepthah’s daughter. Some readers ask: why didn’t God stop her? Well if it wasn’t her, it would have been someone else. One thing is certain: because of her, no one else was sacrificed. Could it be a purposeful response on her part? Possible, since Jephthah’s vow was no secret. Furthermore, if the primitive community really believed that the battle’s outcome had rested on Jephthah’s vow, then it was her sacrifice that clinched the victory.

In retrospect, if Jephthah had known earlier, would he still have exchanged his daughter for personal victory? We’ll never know for sure. But we need to ask ourselves – what is something we want so badly that we are willing to give up anything to get it? We need to seriously re-think whether such a goal is truly worthy. More importantly, in pursuing the goal in this manner, what kind of person are we becoming?

Jephthah’s agony didn’t go unnoticed. She was his only child and he loved her deeply. V35 He tore his clothers and cried.. “you have made me miserable and wretched!” If he had put himself in another parent’s shoes when he made his vow, he might have exercised greater restraint and maturity.

7. God makes vows too

At this juncture, what comes to mind is another vow with overwhelming consequences, made in foreknowledge and resolution. God’s promise. In Genesis (9:11), we read of God making a promise never to destroy creation. Rainbows constantly remind us of this divine covenant. As things unfold in biblical history, we discover that God intends even more. His plan involves defeating evil to restore creation to fullness. More divine promises follow.

Genesis 12:2 God vows redemption through Abraham. “I will bless you.. you will be a blessing.. all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.”

In this primitive stages, even as God reveals how He may fulfill His promise, Abraham’s obedience was severely tested. God requested him to sacrifice his son Isaac as a burnt offering. Amazingly, both Abraham and son complied. In retrospect, we now know of course that God had no pleasure in child sacrifices. God subsequently provided a ram that substituted Isaac. But it revealed necessity and significance of human participation and cooperation in God’s redemption plan. In response to Abraham and Isaac’s obedience and sacrifice, God swears again.

Genesis 22:16-18 I swear by myself, declares the LORD, that because you have done this and have not withheld your son, your only son, I will surely bless you… through your offspring all nations on earth will be blessed, because you have obeyed me.

8. God’s Vow and His ultimate sacrifice

We know by now that to keep His promise to redeem and restore humanity, God made the ultimate sacrifice. God’s begotten son – Jesus – gave his life to defeat evil once for all. The Father sacrificed His Son; the Son willingly fulfilled His designated role. In making His vow, God knew and willed what it would cost Him.

Now we can better appreciate the gravity of keeping vows. Everything hinges on God keeping His promises. Our ultimate hope and assurance, the meaning of our existence, all rests upon God’s trustworthiness and faithfulness. Thankfully, God keeps his commitments. As God’s people, made in God’s image, we too champion trustworthiness and faithfulness.

Jephthah’s daughter understood this. So she replied,

Judges 11:36 “My father, you have given your word to the LORD; do to me as your have said, since the LORD has avenged you of your enemies the Ammonites.”

9. What happened to her?

The inevitable nagging question in everyone mind’s is: was she killed and burnt? We know Jephthah kept his vow. And also that God opposes and hate human and child sacrifices. You only need to read the laws in Leviticus to discover that God specifically warns the Israelites against such abominable practices.

So what likely happened? We will never know. Some argued that she was not killed but devoted herself to serve God in Tabernacle ministry. This involves committing to celibacy. Those in favor of this theory bring our attention to the fact that subsequent verses emphasized her virginity, rather than her impending death. If she were soon to die a horrible death by fire, why on earth did they grieve about her virginity?

Other readers simply accepted that under those times and circumstances, Jephthah’s daughter was victimized and became the human sacrifice.

Whatever actually took place, the community affirms and commemorates what she did. This story thus ends with strange twists. Jephthah got what he wanted so badly. But he felt no joy. Instead there was weeping in this family. He treated others as mere stepping-stones to advance personal agendas, but ended up hurting himself and his loved ones. He coveted fame and glory – wanted to be the hero that won the battle. Instead it was his unknown anonymous daughter that the community ultimately commemorates.

10. What for us?

What comforts or challenges you in today’s strange reading? Let me share with you what I’ve listed for myself.

1. The end doesn’t always justify the means. When we want something so badly we are willing to give or do anything for it, beware. What sort of goal is it? Be careful that we don’t end up losing what is more important, including our integrity and character. No goals are worthy enough for us to give any leeway to the evil one. The devil is more than happy to cut a deal with you. Satan tempted Jesus in the wilderness when he was most vulnerable and seemingly helpless. The truth is: God the divine judge knows what is best for every situation. It is better to entrust and leave all ends to His hands than to others.

2. Practice restraint. Reckless, impulsive speech and actions are irresponsible and immature. Often innocent victims suffer due to our folly. Sometimes the pain and loss are irreversible and everyone involved is made to bear the consequences for the rest of their remaining lives.

3. Two wrongs don’t make a right. We all regret mistakes. Thankfully God won’t allow us to persist in what is wrong and evil. He makes provisions for us to repent and be restored. In learning about vows, I learn more about God’s forbearance, wisdom and grace.

4. Finally, let us continually discover and celebrate heroic acts of individuals. Often it’s nameless ordinary folks who rise to the call to put the needs of the community above self. They make the right sacrifice. People like them inspire and give hope in the good of humanity amid its darkest evil side.

When I first learned Hebrew, the first word I was taught was davar – the Word God. God's word is equivalent to God's promise. Second word was adam – mankind. Third word was olah – burnt offering. As God’s best creation, made in His image, our is to be olah – a devoted sacrifice dedicated to God. For His purpose and delight. Let us do so.