Guest Writer Clovis G Chappell
“I have opened my mouth to the Lord, and I cannot go back” (Judges 11:35).
I like these big words. There is a ring of sterling strength in them. They have a robust masculinity that grips my heart. They are not the words of a weakling. They have absolutely no savor of softness or moral flabbiness. They are not cheap. They are high-priced words. They are words made costly by a plentiful baptism of tragedy. They are words literally soaked in blood and tears.
This man Jephthah has made a vow. And now the hour is on him in which it is his duty to make the vow good. His vow involves far more than he ever expected. But that fact does not cause him to be untrue. He has given his promise. Payday has come. His promise involves measureless sacrifice. To keep it is to put out every star in his sky. It is to pluck up every flower in his garden. It is to change life’s music into discord. It is to take from him the one he loves far better than he loves his own life. But though the price is big, he will not refuse to pay it. Though his promise is hard, he will keep it. “I have opened my mouth to the Lord, and I cannot go back.”
Jephthah has had many hard things said about him. He has been wronged since before he was born. I do not think that justice has been done to his memory. Frankly, I think he is one of the most heroic souls of Old Testament history. It is true that he would not fully measure up to all our modern ideals; but remember this: he lived in the morning of human history. He lived when the light was dim. And he was true to the light that he had. He was true with a rugged fidelity that will cause him to rise up in the Day of Judgement and condemn many of us.
Jephthah, I say, has been greatly wronged. He never had a fair chance. He was wronged in his very birth. He was the son of a father who was unfaithful to his marriage vows. Jephthah was a child of shame. His father had chosen to sacrifice on the wayside altar. His father had had his fling. He had sown his wild oats, and of necessity there was a harvest. His father suffered, but sad to say, he was not the only sufferer.
How we need to be reminded again and again that no man ever sins alone! No man ever walks from the path of virtue without he walks on bruised and bleeding feet. He himself suffers, but what is sadder still, he causes somebody else to suffer. I cannot go to hell alone. I cannot plunge out into the dark without involving another soul, at least in some measure, in my tragedy. This father sinned. It meant suffering for him. It also meant suffering for one who was altogether blameless. It meant suffering for his boy.
Not only did Jephthah have, as part of his life tragedy, an unclean father; but he had an unclean mother as well. Jephthah’s mother was not one of those unfortunate souls, more sinned against than sinning, who had made one false step for the sake of the man she loved. She was a professional outcast. She was a woman who made it her business day by day to sell herself over the counters of iniquity. She was one of those whose feet in all ages take hold on hell.
So Jephthah had a bad chance. He was the fragment of a home that never was. He had no father that dared to own him. And the first eyes into which he looked were the eyes of an unclean woman. And the first lips that kissed him were lips soiled and stained by years of sinful living. Poor little baby! Poor little foundling! Poor little outcast! How much he missed!
What are the most precious memories in your life tonight? What are the scenes to which you look back with deepest love and tenderness? I know. They are the scenes of your childhood’s home.
How dear to my heart are the scenes of my childhood,
When fond recollection, presents them to view;
The orchard, the meadow, the deep tangled wildwood,
And every loved spot that my infancy knew. ~Samuel Woodworth, “The Old Oaken Bucket” (1817)
But the secret of the fascination of those dear scenes is this, that we saw them by the glow of the light of love. We think tenderly of our early homes because they were presided over by a father and mother who knew God. And the one cord that has failed to snap between us and a good life is the cord that ties us still to the faith of our fathers and our mothers.
But Jephthah missed all this. His father was unfaithful. His mother was an unclean woman. There was no tender and holy association that made it easy for him to be good. There was no memory to come in after years and whisper old half-forgotten prayers. There was no fond recollection to lay its hands on him with angelic tenderness and lead him away from his city of destruction. He was a child of sin, a child of blackness and of night, a child bereft of the inspiration of a good mother’s life and the sweet uplift of a pious home.
And not only was this man wronged in what he missed, he was equally wronged in what he suffered. Early he was branded with a shame not his own. I know of few places where society has been so unjust and unkind as it has in its condemnation of those innocent ones who are the victims of another’s sin. We forget that every child comes into the world with the Father’s kiss on its soul regardless of the circumstances of its birth. We forget also that that child is no more to blame for those circumstances than it is to be blamed for the currents of the sea or for the darkness of the night.
But Jephthah was blamed. Ugly names were flung at him before he was old enough to know their dark and sinister meaning. He was forbidden to go to the big house of his father before he knew why he was not allowed to go. He was excluded from the games of those more fortunately born than he, when he could no more understand why he was excluded than he could keep back the bitter tears of childish disappointment. I can see him as he watches his half-brothers and -sisters play in the distance; his little heart is lonely, and he is hungry for a playmate. And the gate is shut in his face, the gate of a shame not his own.
By and by youthhood comes, and early manhood. The parental estate is to be divided. Jephthah is disinherited. He is driven from among his people. He is forced to flee for his life. And he goes to take refuge in Tob with its mountain fastnesses and with its rude heathens who are less unkind than those kinsmen of his who claim to be worshippers of Jehovah.
So we have here the material out of which this young man is called on to build a life. He has no parentage. He has no kindred. He has no friend. Nobody believes in him. Everybody expects him to go wrong. It seems even at times as if everybody wanted him to go wrong. They said, “Oh, yes, I know him. I used to know his mother. She died in the gutter. You can’t expect anything of him.”
And it is not at all difficult to go down when everybody expects you to go down. It is a great thing to have somebody to trust you. That is a tremendous help. As long as you feel that there is somebody who counts on you, who believes in you, you are not without an anchor.
I read the other day of a little newsboy who was given a quarter that he might get change. And on his way back, he was run over and crushed by an auto. The last word he said was, “Be sure and hunt him up and give him back the change. He trusted me.”
But here is a young fellow exiled, robbed, persecuted and mistrusted. And out of this charred and ugly material he is called on to build a life.
And what is the result?
Well, he refused to surrender. He said, “If nobody else will believe in me I will believe in myself. Since nobody else will help me, I will help myself. If I am to be robbed of my inheritance, I will make a way of my own.”
And so he set to work. He did not spend his time hunting up his neighbors to tell them of his misfortunes. He did not put in his time boasting of what he would do if he were as well off as his half-brothers down in Israel. He went to work to build his fortune in the here and now. And little by little he won.
And then one day a runner came to him in the field and said, “Jephthah, you have company at your house.”
And the man looked up in surprise. “Company! Who is it?”
“A committee of elders from Israel.”
And Jephthah is astonished. He is filled with wonder. He is trying to guess why they came. And with the problem unsolved he goes to meet his guests.
These elders greet him like a long lost son. They tell him how they rejoice in his prosperity. They inform him how they had always known that he would make good. They let him know that they would never have sent him out of Israel if they had had their way about it. And then at last they gather courage to tell him their errand. And they say, “Israel is being besieged by the Ammonites and we want you to come and be the commander-in-chief of our armies” (11:6, 8).
Well, now that was a shock. Here was a young fellow who began with nothing, and worse than nothing. But instead of whining, instead of quitting, instead of complaining that he had no chance, instead of putting in his time wishing that he was somewhere else, he did his duty where he was. And folk found it out and came to kneel at his feet and ask him for help. And I am not saying, young man, that every man gets his just desserts; but I do say that in the overwhelming majority of cases, if a man is really any account, sooner or later somebody will find it out. It may be true that …
Full many a gem of purest ray serene
The dark unfathomed caves of ocean bear.
Full many a flower is born to blush unseen,
And waste its sweetness on the desert air. ~Thomas Gray, “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard” (1750)
But I doubt if any gem of real human worth ever lies permanently concealed. I seriously question if any radiant flower of human character ever wastes its sweetness on the desert air. Learn to do something that the world needs to have done, and men will make a path to your door even if you live in a desert.
They came and asked Jephthah for help. It is a humiliating experience. Now, I suppose those half-brothers of Jephthah’s down in Israel, those fellows who had scorned him in his childhood, those fellows who had robbed him of his share in the estate—I suppose they did some loud talking about the general being a kinsman of theirs. Oh, they are much as we are. We seldom boast of our relationship to an outcast; but if we are one-hundred-and-first cousin to somebody who is prominent, we are mighty apt to go about telling it.
Jephthah heard their request and promised to help them. I think that was fine of him. It would have been so easy for him to have said, “Oh, yes, you kicked me out when I was a little helpless waif. When I needed help, you would not give it. When I needed help, you laughed at my childish tears. Now you need help, I will laugh at you.” But there was nothing of revenge in him. Wronged as he had been, he would not nurse his wrongs. He would not allow his bitter treatment to make him bitter.
I wish we all were so wise. You were injured years ago by somebody. That somebody perchance was in the church. And so you have never had any use for the church since. You have never had any use much for anybody since. You have been snarling and snapping. Do you remember Miss Havisham in Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations? She was to be married. All arrangements were made. The wedding cake was on the table. But at twenty minutes to nine a cruel note came telling her that the groom was not coming. Therefore, the clocks were all stopped at twenty minutes to nine. The cake stood on the table till it rotted. The blinds remained drawn and no sunlight was ever allowed in the house again. And life for her stopped at twenty minutes to nine. One disappointment wrecked her, embittered her, made her throw her life away.
But Jephthah refused to be embittered. He consented to go. But before he undertook the campaign, he stood beside the altar of God. This man had lived for years among heathens, but they had not heathenized him. He still stood true by the altar. Circumstances were against him, but religion is not simply for the easy situations in which we find ourselves. Your test, as one has said, is not how good you can be if you have a devoted saint on either side of you down at the office. Your test is what your religion can do for you in the middle of a godless crowd. Daniel’s God was tested not in the pleasant situations of his early home life. The test was among his foes. It is in the horrors of a lion’s den that the king’s question echoes, “O Daniel, servant of the living God, is your God whom you serve continually able to deliver you?” (Daniel 6:20).
Jephthah went to battle from the altar of prayer. As he went, he made a vow. It is the vow for which he has been most severely criticized. It is a vow that has caused his name among some to be branded with shame. He vowed that if God would give him the victory, he would offer to Him whatever first came out of the door of his house to meet him on his return (Judges 11:30, 31). It was a rash vow, I am ready to admit. Yet rash as it was, I do not find it in my heart to be severely critical of him. I rather join with Dr Peck in my admiration.
You know what is the matter with a great many of us smug church members? We are so prudent. We have such admirable possession of all our faculties. We are in danger of dying of self-control. This man in the white heat of his enthusiasm made a solemn pledge to the Lord of that which was destined to be infinitely the most precious thing in his life. But some of us in our prudence will not even make a pledge of a few dollars. We say we do not know how well we will be fixed next week or next month or next year.
You have heard of the man who subscribed $50 and refused to pay it, saying that he was too religious that day to look after his own interests. Some of us never get that religious. But all the encomiums [high praises] throughout the Word of God are uttered on those who are utterly rash in their giving. The widow foolishly gave away all that she had (Mark 12:42-44). And Mary squandered a whole box of ointment (John 12:3) when a few drops would have been amply sufficient. But it was their mad recklessness that made them immortal.
Jephthah made his vow and went to battle. He went confidently. He went believing that inasmuch as he had put himself and what he had at God’s disposal, that God would put Himself at his disposal. And God did not disappoint him. He won the fight.
And now the victorious army is marching home. The soldiers are rejoicing. But there is a strange tenseness and anxiety in the general’s face that the soldiers do not understand. Nobody understands but God and Jephthah. At last they round the bend in the road and the general comes in sight of his own home. And then suddenly his bronze face goes deadly pale. He reels on his horse. For out from the door of his home has come a lovely girl with dark hair and sunny face, and she is singing a song of welcome.
Father and daughter come face to face. The girl is perplexed, and the general strains her hard to his heart. He is father and mother to her at once, and she is all he has. And the cup is bitter almost beyond the drinking. And he says, “Alas, my daughter, you have brought me very low” (Judges 11:35). And he tells her his story. And the girl with sweet resignation understands, and the great sacrifice is made.
Jephthah was a hard man, you say. Do not judge him in the light of the twentieth century. Judge him in the light of the day in which he lived. And remember this: that he had the manhood to keep his promise. Remember that he had the sturdy courage to pay his vow. “I have opened my mouth to the Lord, and I cannot go back.” Oh, the world is saved by the “cannot” men, by the men who have big impossibilities in their souls. Joseph, as he faces the temptation of his life (Genesis 39:7-9), says, “I cannot do it.” The apostles, ordered to keep silent (Acts 4:18-20), say, “We cannot.” And Jephthah with breaking heart and tear-wet face, tempted to break his vow, says, “I cannot go back.”
Oh, I know what we would probably have done. We would have said to ourselves, “Nobody knows that I made that vow anyway, nobody but God. I made it in the secrecy of my own heart. I never breathed a word into any human ear. If I go back on it, it will not matter so much. It is simply a promise that I made to God.”
This man had not told his vow. It was a secret between himself and his Lord. He was not driven to the performance of it by public opinion. He was not urged to it, as flabby Herod, “for the sake of those that sat with him” (Mark 6:26). He was urged to it by his own unstained conscience and his sterling manhood.
Or he might have said, “I made the vow, it’s true, but I made it under pressure. A great danger was threatening, and a man is not to be held responsible for a vow he makes in the presence of danger.”
Did you ever get frightened when a storm was on and promise God things, and then go back on it? Of course, you have. We have been false to one another, some of us. How many of us have been false to God! How far is this old hero ahead of ourselves!
Think of the vows that you have made as members of the church. You have not even fulfilled the vow you made to your groceryman. Some of you have not paid for the clothes that you have on, and never will. Some of you have made pledges to the church and have forgotten them. And just because the church won’t sue you, you are going to break the promise that you have made, not simply to men, but to God.
And what have you done with your church vows? You have promised to renounce the devil and all his works, the vain pomp and glory of the world. Have you kept your vow? You have promised obediently to keep God’s holy will and commandments. Have you been honest with God in this matter? You have promised to be subject to the rules of the church and to attend its services, and some of you have trampled on those rules flagrantly, openly, knowingly. And remember that when you took that vow, it was not a pledge that you made to me. You opened your mouth that day to the Lord.
And you that are here outside the church, may the lord help you to pay your vows to the Most High. For there is hardly a single one of you but that at some time has opened your mouth to the Lord. What about that promise you made to God when you were sick? I do not say you made it into any human ear, but you breathed it in prayer into His ear. What about the promise you made to God by the coffin of your baby? What about the promise of consecration you made by the bedside of your dying mother? May the Lord help us to make this day a payday! May the Lord give us the courage to say, “I have opened my mouth to the Lord, and I cannot go back”!
“Be not rash with your mouth, and let not your heart be hasty to utter anything before God … when you vow a vow to God, defer not to pay” (Ecclesiastes 5:2, 4).
Copyright © 2014 Alexandra Lee
Photo Credit: Israel, Mount Tabor
*Adapted from Clovis G Chappell [1882-1972], Sermons on Biblical Characters (New York: George H Doran, 1922; Richard R Smith, 1930), sermon 9. Quotes, scriptural locations, photos, links, emendations added.