I'll never forget the day. I was young, maybe 12 or 13. My brother came rushing in the house covered with paint. It turns out that he and a friend had been over at the church doing some painting. They started arguing about theology. One was a Calvinist, who believed in God's sovereignty. One was an Arminian, who believed in free will among human beings. One thing led to another, and before you knew it they were throwing paint at each other. They ruined a perfectly good day and some cans of paint with an argument about theology.
It's easy to see why people don't like theology. Theology means the study of God, which sounds like it should be okay. But we've all met people who delighted in taking the most obscure points and who have split hairs. They don't have time for anyone who believes any differently than they do. We've also all sat through sermons where the preacher has gone on endlessly about some idea that excited him, but to us it was as interesting as the small print on a contract.
When I go to a mechanic, I don't want to get a lecture on how cars work. I just want them to fix the car. And, by the same measure, people say that they don't come to church to learn theology. Leave that up to the scholars. Many are tired of all the talk about theology.
I've even heard pastors – lots of them – say something like this:
We've had enough talking. It's time for action. I don't preach theology. I think that people need to have an experience of God. People need to know how to relate. I'm into helping people who come on Sunday morning to have an experience. I don't give much time to theology. One thing I've learned is that you don't preach doctrine. Preach to people's needs.
I can understand this view, I really can. Preaching theology isn't a crowd-pleaser. We've all seen it done badly. It's much easier to find something that can relate right to our needs, and to leave the theological discussions for the ivory towers.
But before we decide to downplay theology, we may want to consider the story of this man. His name was Jephthah, a tragic character who lived years ago. His story is strange, but I think you'll soon discover that his story may cause us to reconsider brushing aside theology in our lives and our churches.
The Tragic Life of Jephthah
We've been working through the book of Judges these past couple of months. Judges contains a series of stories about – as you may have guessed – judges. These weren't judges like we're used to. They were tribal chiefs who delivered Israel from oppression. The cycle of disobedience, oppression, regret, and deliverance continues like a downward spiral in this book, until, as we saw last week, things fall apart within the lifetime of one of these judges, and God has to deliver Israel not from an enemy nation, but from one of their own leaders.
Today we come to the story of one of these cycles. You can tell things are getting worse. Last time they went through one of these cycles, God sent a prophet before he sent a judge to deliver them. He wanted to call them back to the covenant he had made with them. This time, again, the people disobey and are oppressed. God this time doesn't send a judge or even a prophet to save the people. Judges 10:11-14 says:
The Lord replied, "When the Egyptians, the Amorites, the Ammonites, the Philistines, the Sidonians, the Amalekites and the Maonites oppressed you and you cried to me for help, did I not save you from their hands? But you have forsaken me and served other gods, so I will no longer save you. Go and cry out to the gods you have chosen. Let them save you when you are in trouble!"
God is both reminding them that he has saved them in the past, but scolds them for their ungrateful response. There's a big difference between regret and repentance. God knows they regret the situation that they're in. Repentance is turning away from sin and turning back to God. Regret is when you're sorry you've been caught.
God knew they hadn't repented. He knows they just want to use him to get out of their difficult circumstances. He's heard them in the past, but this time he says no more.
But then they intensify their cry. It still looks like a conversion of convenience. They haven't really changed. I don't really know what the end of verse 16 means: "He could bear Israel's misery no longer." Does this mean that God changed his mind once again and agreed to deliver them? Or does it mean that he just got exasperated and withdrew his help from Israel? I don't know for sure – but I do know that God is silent in the rest of this passage. There is no mention of God raising up a judge. There is no mention of God strengthening him.
Instead, the people go looking for their own judge. They remember a man named Jephthah. He's essentially a gang leader. He used to be part of Israel, but he had a dysfunctional past and was no longer part of his family. Judges 11 reads:
Jephthah the Gileadite was a mighty warrior. His father was Gilead; his mother was a prostitute. Gilead's wife also bore him sons, and when they were grown up, they drove Jephthah away. "You are not going to get any inheritance in our family," they said, "because you are the son of another woman." So Jephthah fled from his brothers and settled in the land of Tob, where a gang of scoundrels gathered around him and followed him. (Judges 11:1-3)
By any standard, Jephthah came from a dysfunctional family. He was rejected by his own family for financial reasons. He still made something of his life, becoming a freedom fighter or a gang leader, depending on your perspective. If you come from the right family and have all the right connections, you can reach positions of power without even really trying. But to become a leader after growing up with rejection and dysfunction says something. Jephthah has something: male aggression, drive, leadership ability, maybe even anger. He became a warrior, and he and his group developed a reputation.
He developed so much of a reputation that when Israel goes looking for someone to fight the Ammonites, Jephthah's name comes up. I'm sure that they kept trying to think of other names, knowing that they would have to eat some major crow in asking him to come back and rescue them. But evidently, there weren't a lot of other options. So they send a committee and go to see him.
This must have been an enjoyable moment for Jephthah. It's like when the people who used to pick on you come back to you begging for your help. Jephthah says to them, "Didn't you hate me and drive me from my father's house? Why do you come to me now, when you're in trouble?" (Judges 12:7) But the elders are willing to swallow their pride. They need help desperately, and they've decided that he's the man.
Sometimes stories tell us a lot by what's not said. Notice that in selecting Jephthah as leader, God is nowhere to be found. "Far from playing the decisive role, as he had in the provision of all the other judges, God is relegated to the role of silent witness to a purely human contract between a desperate leader and an ambitious candidate" (Daniel Block).
If we're honest, we have to admit that we're tempted to do the same thing today. There are a lot of times that we get into trouble, and we go looking for something to save us. We try to find our own solutions, often without looking at the underlying problems. In this case, Israel never really considered repentance as an option. They went for the quick fix, and they included God only as an afterthought.
By this point in the story, we're not expecting much. What could you expect from a son of a prostitute, the product of a dysfunctional family, a gang leader, somebody chosen without any input from God?
You wouldn't expect much, but surprisingly, Jephthah looks like he's going to pull it off. Instead of going right to battle, he tries to negotiate, arguing not only with history but with theology. Jephthah is a man who takes God seriously:
- He refers to God as Jehovah, which was the covenant name of God, more than any other person in the book of Judges.
- When he goes to battle, the text says that the Spirit of the LORD came upon him. This is said of only three other judges.
- Before he went to battle, he presented himself to the LORD.
Against all odds, Jephthah is taking God seriously. He's making all the right moves. He appears to have faith in God, and things are looking really good.
But right before going to battle, Jephthah makes a huge mistake. Read verses 30-31:
And Jephthah made a vow to the LORD: "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."
There's a lot of debate about what Jephthah is doing here. Is he promising to sacrifice an animal to God, or a human? I've looked at both sides, and to be completely honest I'm not sure. But I am sure of one thing: Jephthah was heavily influenced by his belief that you could bargain with God like the Canaanites bargained with their gods. He thought he knew about God, but what he knew came more from culture than it did from Scripture.
In the nations surrounding Israel, sacrificing your child to the gods was at the pinnacle of spirituality. It was the height of piety. Jephthah had learned more about spirituality from the culture than from God himself. He thought, "If I promise to God what is most precious to me, I can get God to do what I want."
It's the same problem that we face today. By the time that we sit down to read Scripture or to listen to a sermon, we are so shaped by culture that we're already conditioned to approach God. David Fitch puts it this way:
We ask parishioners to sit and take notes on sermons on Sunday morning. Meanwhile their souls, character, and imaginations are being formed by the culture technologies of the Cineplex, the television, the university, or the local Starbucks…While parishioners sitting in the pews are agreeing with doctrines intellectually, their so-called autonomous minds are being compromised before they even come to church. They can no longer hear the preacher's words alone apart from the ways of seeing the world. (The Great Giveaway)
The real problem for Jephthah – and the real problem for us as well – is that the ways that we think about the world are formed more from the world than they are formed by God's world – the world of Scripture and his kingdom. And here is where it leads.
Jephthah goes to battle. We read that the Spirit came upon him, and "the LORD gave them into his hands" (Judges 11:32). But then the unthinkable happened:
When Jephthah returned to his home in Mizpah, who should come out to meet him but his daughter, dancing to the sound of timbrels! She was an only child. Except for her he had neither son nor daughter. When he saw her, he tore his clothes and cried, "Oh! My daughter! You have brought me down and I am devastated. I have made a vow to the LORD that I cannot break." (Judges 11:34-35)
It's interesting – Jephthah seems to blame her for what happened. He's crying, and they're not tears of joy. When his daughter realizes what happens, she tells him to keep his vow, but asks for two months to mourn that she would never have children. Because of Jephthah's vow, there will be no descendants. It's the end of Jephthah's blood line. We read the awful words in verse 39: "After the two months, she returned to her father, and he did to her as he had vowed."
The really sad thing about the vow is that he didn't have to make it. If he had just read the Scriptures, he would have known from Leviticus and Deuteronomy that God forbade human sacrifice. All he had to do was open a Bible:
You must not worship the LORD your God in their way, because in worshiping their gods, they do all kinds of detestable things the LORD hates. They even burn their sons and daughters in the fire as sacrifices to their gods. (Deuteronomy 12:31)
A vow is a vow, but if Jephthah had read the Scriptures, he would have known that there was a way to break a vow before God. Leviticus 27 allowed someone to pay twenty shekels to the priest as compensation for the life of his daughter. It's not exactly the same situation, but it certainly would have applied. If only he had known. If only he had read the Scriptures.
Haddon Robinson says:
We have churches in every community, sometimes on every corner. We have bookstores that sell Bibles. We have radio programs that have a continued array of preachers. We have television stations devoted to preacher after preacher. But how much do [we]…know about God? Not much, if you listen to the pollsters. They say the knowledge is very meager. Not very much, if you listen to the radio…Not very much, if you watch the religious television programs and the trivia that passes for religion…
Jephthah ends up winning a victory. He ends up being listed as an example of faith in Hebrews 11, which lists the great examples of faith. But what he doesn't know about God costs him, just like it costs us today.
Why Knowing God is Crucial
I began this morning by explaining why some of us are turned off by theology. We've seen the fights. We have endured the boring lectures. We have experienced enough bad theology to last a lifetime. The solution, for many people, is to get rid of theology altogether and to simply focus on what's practical.
I got an e-mail this week that said, "Forget your programs and denominational doctrines and theology. Throw out your religious-speak. Just give me more of Jesus. I want a relationship with the Triune God. If you can show people how to achieve that…Everything else will fall into place."
I know what he means. I'm all for getting rid of bad theology and irrelevant theological debates. But if you want to see where forgetting doctrines and theology gets us, then you have to look at Jephthah. It's not a formula for success. It's a formula for killing your daughter. In fact, as one person has said, the more faith you have in God, the more dangerous you are if your knowledge of God is not accurate.
Listen to what J.I. Packer says in Knowing God:
Knowing God is crucially important for the living of our lives…We are cruel to ourselves if we try to live in this world without knowing about the God whose world it is and who runs it. The world becomes a strange, mad, painful place, and life in it a disappointing and unpleasant business, for those who do not know about God. Disregard the study of God, and you sentenced yourself to stumble and blunder through life blindfolded, as it were, with no sense of direction and no understanding of what surrounds you. This way you can waste your life and lose your soul.
What we need – what we really need – is not more bad theology, but the best type of theology, the stuff that can really change our lives, and indeed our church, and then the world: to know God; to know all about him; to understand the Gospel; to let it soak into our minds down into our hearts and to every part of our lives; to understand who Christ is and what he has done for us at the cross. That's what will keep us from being Jephthah's. If you're looking at something practical that will change your life, there is nothing more practical than good theology that soaks down from your head to your soul.
Knowing God, and knowing about him, is crucially important for the living of our lives. There's nothing more practical, nothing more helpful, than really understanding and then living what God has revealed about himself.
Father, we live in a world that focuses on the practical, what works. We are always looking for the bottom line, and we often buy into the irrelevance of knowing about something, even about you.
This morning we have seen where this leads.
So would you help us to see the importance of knowing you, of really understanding in great detail who you are and what you have done for us. May we meditate on your Word day and night. May the gospel sink deep into our minds and then into our souls so that it shapes everything about us. Would you help us avoid living like Jephthah's, and instead make us into people who are renewed by the transforming of our minds. We pray this in Jesus' name. Amen.