The Old Testament is full of some pretty terrible stories. Murder, incest, drunkenness, rape, mutilation, all kinds of debauchery. It can really turn the stomach, reading of the Israelites--the chosen ones, the ones with whom God made His covenant. They were hard-hearted, turned to idols, constantly complaining, and even when God turned away from them because of it, ultimately--again and again and again--He turned back, because He had made a covenant with them, and He is faithful. God is faithful.
That's quite the lesson, and really perhaps I should leave it there this morning, but I've been mulling over a particular story from Judges today (ch. 11), so wanted to share it. Jepthah--do you know this story?--was a mighty warrior, the illegitimate son of Gilead by a prostitute. When the Ammonites were fighting against Israel, the elders of Gilead came to Jephthah and asked him to command the army. He was resistant--after all, he was the bastard brother who'd been driven out of the house. They didn't apologize, simply said, "Yeah, but we need you now." Once he was convinced he'd be the head of both army and clan, he returned to command the forces. Then "the Spirit of the Lord came on Jephthah." The Spirit of the Lord. In the Old Testament, the Holy Spirit is only given to select individuals to empower them to lead the people, to act or speak with authority. In this case, the Spirit was given to ensure the victory over the Ammonites. Jephthah was empowered by God's Spirit to fight and win. However, as he moved toward the front of the battle, he also made a vow that he'd make a burnt offering to God as a sacrifice of praise, once the battle was won. But here's the catch: Jephthah said, "Whatever comes out the door to my house to meet me when I return from battle, I will sacrifice."
This must have seemed a safe vow to Jephthah. It wasn't like he had a front door like we do. He wasn't talking about a door that needed an opposable thumb to open. It was more like a gate through which sheep, goats, chickens, cows, just about any kind of animal you can imagine wandered day and night. He had nothing to lose and victory to gain.
The Israelites beat the Ammonites. Of course--the Spirit of the Lord had come upon him. And when Jephthah came walking up the road, when he was still a long ways off--a little like the prodigal son, when you think about it!--the first thing out the door was his daughter--his only child. She was dancing in celebration--"My father has returned to me, and he has won the battle," I imagine her singing. And his face. Can you imagine his face? His trembling limbs and heart? He tears his clothes, tells her he's devastated, and practically blames her ("You have brought me down"). In the end, after she goes to the hills for a couple months to mourn the life she won't have, he fulfills his vow. "And she was a virgin."
It's a little reminiscient of the Abraham story, don't you think? I mean, I wonder if Jephthah thought of that when he was tying his only child to the altar, holding the knife over her. Was he looking around hoping for a ram from the thicket and God's voice-over to stop him in the last second? Doesn't happen in this story. Of course it doesn't. But we learn something about faith in both stories. Every step Abraham took was a step of obedience that day. He didn't try to get ahead of himself, didn't try to see the end of the story before he took the next step. He simply walked as God called him to walk. Jephthah, also filled with the Spirit of God, also called by God to a task, did not. He got ahead of himself. He put God to the test, didn't simply trust the Spirit that God had already given him. So he promised something--he bargained with God. And it backfired.
It's a terrible thing to consider that he kept that bargain. Fortunately we don't make blood sacrifices today. But we bargain with God. I know I do. I remember a specific bargain I made with God (though it wasn't my only one, I'm sorry to say). When I was in YWAM in 1983, just when Steve and I realized God had called us together, he got sick. Really sick. We were in India on an outreach at the time, and his joints began to swell--knees, ankles, back, etc. By the time we returned to Holland, where we were based, and he saw a doctor, it looked like he might have rheumatoid arthritis. So I told God that if He kept Steve from having that, I would not go home and marry him, but would go to Thailand to serve Him in a refugee camp. I'd take that as His confirmation of His call to sacrifice Steve. Healing as confirmation--interesting concept, especially since it had been repeatedly confirmed (this is for another day) that God had called Steve and me together to marry. I was edging toward martyrdom, in the most manipulative way, thinking I was being holy (OK, cut me some slack, I was in my 20's). Fortunately, my small group leaders found out about my foolishness. 'Are you out of your cotton-pickin' mind?' was essentially what they said. This is not how God works. Pray for healing, absolutely. But bargain with Him--especially with as clear a call as the call to marry Steve? Bad idea, really bad idea. (Steve didn't have rheumatoid arthritis, by the way. But he did have--he does have--a chronic arthritic condition).
Like Jephthah, the Spirit of God has come upon me. Any of us who has been saved by Christ has been given His Spirit. Jesus promised this. We are empowered, indwelt with that Spirit, and have all the authority to live, walk and do what He calls us to in our lives. But it's so easy to fall into the trap of not quite trusting that, of saying, "If you do this, God, I'll do that." If you make this house sell, we'll use the new one to serve you. If you give me this job, I'll sacrifice my life for it. If you heal my husband, I'll be a more loving wife. If you...and so it goes. The bottom line is we try to manipulate God, when you think about it. How crazy is that? Manipulate that God of the universe? How dare we?
Besides He's already here--already willing, desiring to work His will into my life. And isn't that what I want? Isn't it? I could manipulate Him and end up with a dead child, or be formed by Him and end up being dead to me and alive to Him--more and more and more. You know, I'll take that bargain any day.