Searching For Significance (from life of Jephthah)

Bible Book: Hebrews  11 : 32-33
Subject: Significance; Life, Meaning of; Purpose in Life; Overcoming

(Also from Judges 11, 12)

Do you ever find yourself searching for significance in your life? Whether you’re a teenager or a senior adult, most of us want to make our mark in this world.

When we’re younger, in many respects we want to fit in, but we also want to stand out. We want to make a difference. We want to have an impact on society and the world around us.

As life moves forward, we want to know that our life has value and worth. We want to understand our purpose in life. And we may try to find our identity through relationships such as marriage or parenthood. We may try to find some sense of meaning in our lives through our educational pursuits or through our chosen career path. And if those things fall short of your expectations of what they should be, then you feel like you are insignificant. Or you feel like you’re just a failure.

Perhaps your significance and your self-worth is wrapped up in whether you have the approval of others. Maybe you have longed for the approval of your partner, or your parents, or your professors, or your peers. And when you didn’t feel like you had that person’s approval or acceptance, then you felt negatively about yourself or your situation.

A fellow named Robert McGee wrote a book several years ago entitled “The Search for Signficance” in which he said…

We continue to seek our security and purpose from worldly sources: personal success, status, beauty, wealth, and the approval of others.

McGee noted that…

(One) Christian psychologist Lawrence J. Crabb Jr. describes our need for self-esteem this way: “The basic personal need of each person is to regard himself as a worthwhile human being.”

McGee goes on to say that…

We will never find lasting, fulfilling peace if we must continually prove ourselves to others. Our desire to be loved and accepted is a symptom of a deeper need — the need that frequently governs our behavior and is the primary source of our emotional pain. Often unrecognized, this is our need for self-worth.

I want to speak to you tonight about this idea of “Searching For Significance.”

And as a case study, I want us to look at a man in the Old Testament by the name of Jephthah.

Now I’m curious. How many of you are familiar with this fellow named Jephthah? Maybe you’ve heard of this man at some point in the past, and you’ve just forgotten about him.

One evangelist that I know found himself in an embarrassing situation when he forgot the name of the pastor for whom he was preaching a revival. He thought that he came up with a clever way to rectify the problem when he asked the pastor, “Brother, how do you spell your first name?” And with a quizzical look on his face, the pastor said, “B-O-B.”

Out of the dozen or so deliverers that are recorded in this historical book, the account of Jephthah is tucked away right in the middle chapter of the book of Judges. So it’s sort of easy to forget his name and overlook this fellow, Jephthah.

The name Jephthah means “the one that God sets free,” or “one who breaks through.” This name signifies the idea that “Jehovah will open.” Jephthah’s name reminds us that God used this overlooked man to ‘set His people free’ from the threat of the Ammonites and to lead them in ‘breaking through’ the oppression.

No doubt, Jephthah wanted to make his mark in life. No doubt, he wanted to have a meaningful life like most people do. Jephthah was probably trying to make his way in this world. But when you start reading here about Jephthah’s background, you begin to understand there were some definite obstacles that Jephthah faced in his search for significance. As we look at the first few verses of Judges chapter 11…

I. Let’s Consider Jephthah’s Rough Life

(Judges 11:1–3)

One of the first things that we see about Jephthah is…

A. The Reproach of His Birth

(Judges 11:1) Now Jephthah the Gileadite was a mighty man of valour, and he was the son of an harlot: and Gilead begat Jephthah.

(Judges 11:2) And Gilead's wife bare him sons; and his wife's sons grew up, and they thrust out Jephthah, and said unto him, Thou shalt not inherit in our father's house; for thou art the son of a strange woman.

The Bible tells us that Jephthah was “a mighty man of valour,” and the Keil and Delitzsch Commentary paraphrases this by saying, “Jephthah the Gileadite was a brave hero.” He was a valiant man, a man of powerful strength and excellence in warfare. “And he was the son of an harlot.” Some have suggested that this word “harlot” merely suggests a hostess or an inn keeper who was not a Hebrew. According to verse 2, she was a “strange woman,” which means she was a “different” woman and “another” woman besides Gilead’s wife. But the meaning behind this word “harlot” suggests that she was an adulterous woman.

I don’t want to do harm to the scriptures, but perhaps the statement in verse 1 would be better rendered by using the conjunction “but” instead of “and”; by saying, “But he was the son of an harlot.” His blemished lineage certainly stands in contrast to his brave life. Jephthah was “the son of an harlot.”

Whether Jephthah’s father Gilead was already married when he had this scandalous relationship with “a strange woman” (vs. 2) is not clear. In any event, he is an illegitimate child. And as John Wesley said, “such were not ordinarily to enter into the congregation of the Lord” (cf. Deuteronomy 23:2).

According to Hitchcock’s Bible Names Dictionary, the name “Gilead” means “the heap of testimony.” So this son of an harlot would naturally diminish this heap of testimony.

Kay Arthur said…

He was just the son of a harlot. Yet here is a man that determines that his past is not going to color his present or his future, and he becomes a man of valor.

We see not only The Reproach of His Birth, but we further learn about…

B. The Rejection of His Brothers

(Judges 11:2) And Gilead's wife bare him sons; and his wife's sons grew up, and they thrust out Jephthah, and said unto him, Thou shalt not inherit in our father's house; for thou art the son of a strange woman.

The great preacher Joseph Parker said…

Many a time your disadvantages will be thrown in your face.

And that’s what Jephthah’s brothers did with him. They latched hold of the reproach of his birth, and they threw it in his face.

The interesting thing though is that they had apparently tolerated Jephthah all those years while they were growing up. But probably when their father died, and it came time to divide up the inheritance, that’s when they kicked him to the curb.

As The IVP (InterVarsity Press) Bible Background Commentary says…

It should be noted that it was not any family shame or humiliation that resulted in Jephthah’s being driven out. With the existence of temple prostitutes and polygamy it would be fairly common for children of different mothers to be in the same household. Here the text makes it clear that it was the inheritance that motivated the expulsion. Whether Jephthah, as the firstborn, had rights to a double portion, or whether they were dividing equally, (the) elimination of one party would increase the shares of the others.

To say that they “thrust” him out or ‘drove’ him out means that they banished Jephthah and drove him out of his home and his possession.

We see not only The Reproach of His Birth and The Rejection of His Brothers, but the Bible also mentions…

C. The Reputation of His Buddies

(Judges 11:3) Then Jephthah fled from his brethren, and dwelt in the land of Tob: and there were gathered vain (or morally “worthless”) men to Jephthah, and went out with him.

Warren Wiersbe said…

Jephthah left his father’s territory and went north to the land of Tob, which was near Syria; and there he became captain of a band of “adventurers” (v. 3, NIV). The Hebrew word (“vain”) means “to make empty” and refers to idle people looking for something to do.

Adam Clarke said that the reference to them as “vain men” means that they were…

Empty men – persons destitute of good sense, and (reckless) in their manners. The word (“vain”) may, however, mean in this place, poor persons, without property, and without employment. The versions in general consider them as plunderers.

The Jamieson, Fausset, and Brown Commentary says that the word “vain” means that they were “idle, daring, or desperate; probably the Arabs of the adjoining desert.”

The Keil and Delitzsch Commentary says the phrase at the end of the verse, they “went out with him,” means they went with him on “warlike and predatory expeditions like the Bedouins.”

So here’s a man that the Bible says is a strong warrior, but he’s also got a tainted background. And he’s been kicked to the curb by his own brothers. And now he’s hanging out with a bunch of thugs.

Do these things define who Jephthah is? Is this the final assessment of Jephthah’s life? I’m glad to say, “NO.” In fact, as Harold Wilmington said, one of the great spiritual lessons that we learn from the life of Jephthah is that “a person’s background does not in the least prevent God from working greatly in his or her life.”

The Bible certainly tells us about Jephthah’s Rough Life. But the story doesn’t end there. So now…

II. Let’s Consider Jephthah’s Respectable Leadership

(Judges 11:4–29, 32–33; 12:1–6)

A. We See Jephthah’s Appointment as a Leader

(Judges 11:4–11)

The turn of events that we see here beginning in verse 4 is both fascinating and, I think, gratifying. It is a situation that is hinted at in the previous chapter, in Judges 10, verses 17 and 18 where we are told that…

… the children of Ammon were gathered together, and encamped in Gilead. And the children of Israel assembled themselves together, and encamped in Mizpeh. {18} And the people and princes of Gilead said one to another, What man is he that will begin to fight against the children of Ammon? he shall be head over all the inhabitants of Gilead.

And the narrative of this situation involving the Ammonite threat picks up in Judges 11:5 where the Bible says…

(Judges 11:5-6) And it was so, that when the children of Ammon made war against Israel, the elders of Gilead went to fetch Jephthah out of the land of Tob: {6} And they said unto Jephthah, Come, and be our captain, that we may fight with the children of Ammon.

You may have a version that says the elders of Gilead (Jephthah’s family members and some of the same ones who had kicked him out), they went to “get” Jephthah. The King James word is that they went to “fetch” Jephthah. But the idea is that they are sending for him, and now they want to take him in and accept him and receive him. And the irony is not lost on Jephthah. Notice verse 7…

(Judges 11:7) And Jephthah said unto the elders of Gilead, Did not ye hate me, and expel me out of my father's house? and why are ye come unto me now when ye are in distress?

Don’t you love it? These greedy, arrogant brothers are getting a little comeuppance now, and they’re having to eat crow. Now they use 2 different words in asking Jephthah to step into this role. As the Keil and Delitzsch Commentary says, the Hebrew term translated “captain” or ‘commander’ in verse 6 (qaatsiyn) signifies a leader in war, and is therefore distinguished in verse 11 from the Hebrew word translated “head” (ro’sh), which signifies a chief in peace and war.

W. G. Blaikie wrote…

What a strange feeling Jephthah must have had when his brothers and old neighbours came to him, inviting and imploring him to become their head; trying as best they could to undo their former unkindness, and get him, for their safety, to assume the post for which not one of them was fitted! It is amazing what an ill-treated man may gain by patiently biding his time. … He gave way to no reproach over the past, but only made conditions for the future which were alike reasonable and moderate. (From The Biblical Illustrator)

And verse 11 indicates that they had sort of a ceremony at Mizpeh where Jephthah’s terms of leadership were settled and agreed upon in the presence of God.

G. Campbell Morgan said…

Jephthah did not go looking for this job. (But) God had prepared him in the land of Tob and he went when he was called.

So the outcast has become the overseer. The illegitimate son now becomes the legitimate supervisor.

Now the reason these elders of Gilead came to Jephthah is because he was “a mighty man of valour” as we were told in verse 1. He was a capable and strong warrior. But as Jephthah as the newly appointed leader begins to deal with the Ammonite threat…

B. We See Jephthah’s Ability as a Leader

(Judges 11:12–29, 32–33)

Jephthah’s dialogue and then his monologue to the king of Ammon throughout the bulk of chapter 11 is rather lengthy, so I don’t want to get bogged down with a lot of detail here. But I do want to highlight Jepthah’s ability as a leader by sharing some quick bullet points that show us how he handled this situation. Notice that…

He Faced the Ammonite Problem Diplomatically (verses 12–13)
He Faced the Ammonite Problem Historically (verses 14–22, 25–26)

Kay Arthur said of Jephthah here in this section…

Here is a man who is a man of valor, here is a man who fears God; here is a man who is a man of knowledge. Here is a man of reason, here is a man that is not just coming to conquer and kill and destroy, because when the sons of Ammon come against him, he says, “Wait a minute; wait a minute. Let’s talk about this. Let’s discuss why you want to fight us, why you don’t want us on this land.” He says, “Let’s talk about it.” They say, “Well, we want it because you have taken our land. … So what does Jephthah do? He reasons with them. He gives them the history. Jephthah takes them through the history of Israel, and how they got the land.

He Faced the Ammonite Problem Spiritually (verses 21, 23–24, 27, 29)
He Faced the Ammonite Problem Militarily (verses 32–33)

Overall, he handled the situation Capably.

Jephthah’s Ability as a Leader was very evident in the battle with Ammon. The Bible says in verses 32 and 33 that the Ammonites were “delivered” into Jephthah’s hands. And the Ammonites were “slaughtered” and “subdued” by Jephthah and his army.

But when it comes to leadership and life, you can’t rest on your laurels. Just as we see Jephthah and his Ability and Accomplishments as a Leader…

C. We See Jephthah’s Adversity as a Leader

(Judges 12:1–6)

Jephthah had found acceptance and respect among those who had previously rejected him. Success can be a fickle thing. Though he may have been a respected leader in the eyes of some, he was criticized by the Ephraimites.

Warren Wiersbe summarized this situation at the beginning of Judges chapter 12 saying that…

The leaders of the tribe of Ephraim … wanted to share the glory of the victory, but they hadn’t been too eager to risk their lives in the battle. The men of Ephraim were so angry that they threatened to burn Jephthah’s house down. They had absolutely no respect for the new ruler of the Transjordanic tribes.

Jephthah took a … direct approach. To begin with, he reminded them that his first concern was to defeat the Ammonites, not to please his neighbors. Second, during the eighteen years Ammon had oppressed the people of Gilead, nobody from Ephraim had offered to come to their rescue. Third, Jephthah had issued a call for the tribes to assist him in his attack on the enemy, but Ephraim hadn’t responded. Without their help, the Lord gave Jephthah and his army victory; so the proud Ephraimites (who didn’t like being left out) had nothing to complain about.

… When people are wrong and refuse to accept logical reasoning and confess their faults, they often turn to violence in order to protect their reputation. This is the cause of most family disagreements, church fights, and international conflicts (James 4:1-12). But Jephthah got the best of the boastful men of Ephraim and killed 42,000 of their soldiers. The men of Ephraim themselves became “renegades,” for the word “escaped” in Judges 12:5 is the same as the word “fugitives” [renegades] in verse 4. They had to eat their words and lose their lives!

So even though Jephthah had a rough background, he was a successful leader. In spite of the fact that he had a background that was tainted, Jephthah was able to fight some battles in which he was triumphant.

But is our life distinguished by success any more than it is diminished by struggle? Just as it would be inaccurate to look at the negative aspects of his life and say that Jephthah was a “Sorry Loser,” it would be insufficient to look at the positive aspects of his life and say that Jephthah was a “Successful Leader.”

And the same is true for you and me. Our true significance is not found in our academic or vocational achievements. Our true worth is not lessened by the adversity that we face. Our life is not defined merely by the negative and positive elements that we experience.

The Bible gives an honest, accurate picture of who Jephthah was. We don’t have some idealized, airbrushed version of Jephthah’s story. No. The Bible shows us Jephthah’s Rough Life. And the Bible shows us Jephthah’s Respectable Leadership. But let’s go one step further and…

III. Let’s Consider Jephthah’s Righteous Legacy

And here’s where we find the real significance in the life of this man named Jephthah.

Go back to chapter 11 and let’s…

A. Notice the Comments That Reveal His Faith

(Judges 11:27, 29, 30–31)

Comment # 1

(Judges 11:27) Wherefore I have not sinned against thee, but thou doest me wrong to war against me: the LORD the Judge be judge this day between the children of Israel and the children of Ammon.

Adam Clarke paraphrased Jephthah’s statement saying…

If you be right, and we be wrong, then Yahweh, who is the sovereign and incorruptible Judge, shall determine in your favour; and to Him I submit the righteousness of my cause.

Even though he was a capable diplomat and a strong warrior, Jephthah was trusting God with the outcome of this conflict. What a testimony to this man’s faith!

Comment # 2

(Judges 11:29) Then the spirit of the LORD came upon Jephthah, and he passed over Gilead, and Manasseh, and passed over Mizpeh of Gilead, and from Mizpeh of Gilead he passed over unto the children of Ammon.

Someone said of this statement that “the spirit of the LORD came upon Jephthah” that “when God calls a man to serve Him, He always enables him for the task.” And Jephthah could trust in that divine enablement.

The Bible Knowledge Commentary says that…

The purpose of the Spirit of the LORD coming on Jephthah was to provide divine enablement in his military leadership against the pagan oppressors. … (And) Jephthah’s trip through Gilead and Manasseh was apparently to recruit his army.

Comment # 3

(Judges 11:30-31) And Jephthah vowed a vow unto the LORD, and said, If thou shalt without fail deliver the children of Ammon into mine hands, {31} Then it shall be, that whatsoever cometh forth of the doors of my house to meet me, when I return in peace from the children of Ammon, shall surely be the LORD'S, and I will offer it up for a burnt offering.

Now I know this vow that he made is one of the most debated and contentious points in the entire Biblical record of Jephthah. And I have suggested in the past that making this vow was a rash, impetuous thing. Some have suggested that he was bribing God to ensure his victory, or that perhaps he didn’t have confidence in the enabling Spirit that had brought him thus far in his endeavor.

It’s true that fear and hesitation might have caused Jephthah to make this vow that he later seems to have regretted, but it’s also true that by making this vow he is acknowledging that victory would only be obtained with God’s involvement.

And as The Bible Knowledge Commentary says…

Jephthah may have made the vow in anticipation of thanksgiving for divinely provided victory over the Ammonites.

Not only do we see the Comments That Reveal His Faith, but…

B. Notice the Child That Reflected His Faith

(Judges 11:34–40)

As I said earlier, there is this much debated point about whether in the fulfilling of his vow, Jephthah offered up his daughter as a burnt offering or if he merely consigned her to a life of perpetual virginity in separation and service to God.

But an old preacher and writer named R. D. Dickinson said…

When it is related that he fulfilled his vow upon her, it follows in the same sentence (in verse 39), “and she knew no man,” which naturally means, it was in this way that the vow was performed. She was never married. “Her life was dedicated to the Lord as a spiritual burnt offering, in life-long chastity.” — (C. F. Keil).

(From the Homiletical Commentary on the Book of Judges)

I leave it to you to make up your own mind about his daughter’s fate and how Jephthah fulfilled his vow. The thing that I really want to magnify here is how his daughter responded to all of it.

Look at verse 36 and you’ll see that she willingly agrees that God should be honored and that her father’s promise should be fulfilled because God had given him victory over the Ammonites. Regardless of her fate, whether it was burning or whether it was barrenness, whether she would sacrificed or whether she would be sequestered, she wanted God to be honored and glorified for what He had done.

It sounds to me like even though Jephthah came from a bad background, he had taught his daughter a thing or two about God and how important it was to honor the Lord in your life (or your death). For that, Jephthah should be commended.

In our own search for significance, it’s not about convincing our children to achieve great success or make a lot of money. It’s about teaching them to honor God. I would say that my life and your life is a life of significance anytime faith is reflected in the lives of our children.

Not only do we see the Comments That Reveal His Faith, and the Child That Reflected His Faith, but lastly…

C. Notice the Chapter That Records His Faith

The last word on Jephthah is found in the New Testament in sort of a surprising place, I think. In the same chapter where we are told of the faith of such Old Testament luminaries as Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Moses, we also find the name Jephthah. His name is listed in the great “faith chapter” of the Bible, Hebrews chapter 11 where the writer of Hebrews said in verse 32 and 33…

(Hebrews 11:32-33) And what shall I more say? For the time would fail me to tell of Gedeon, and of Barak, and of Samson, and of Jephthae; of David also, and Samuel, and of the prophets: {33} Who through faith subdued kingdoms, wrought righteousness, obtained promises, stopped the mouths of lions,

The final word about Jephthah is that he was a man of faith. And it was through his faith in God that the kingdom of Ammon was subdued

Kay Arthur said…

Don’t remember Jephthah by his daughter (or at least, not because of the vow that he made); remember Jephthah as a man … of valor, as a man who turned away from his past and did not let his past hinder him, a man who feared God … and who stood and was a man of God.


Remember Jephthah as the Bible ultimately does, as a man of faith. Jephthah is not significant because of his family or his fighting or his failures. His life is significant because of his faith in God.


I confess that I am not a sports fan. I’m not a baseball fan. But as I have been preparing for this message over the past week, I’ve been reading about John Smoltz, the long-time pitcher for the Braves.

I mean, here’s a man who achieved greatness from a worldly standpoint. Unquestionably, here’s a man who reached the upper echelons of success in his career; an 8 time All Star, winner of numerous awards including the Cy Young Award in 1996, the only pitcher in major league history to top both 200 wins and 150 saves.

But according to a 2006 interview with The 700 Club, Smoltz (who was raised in a Christian home) was “struggling with the true meaning of God’s grace.”

But one evening (around 1995) as he was eating dinner with the team chaplain, John posed some questions he had about becoming a Christian.

Smoltz said…

“I asked him this question. I said, ‘I’ve prayed the (sinner’s) prayer. [But it] keeps me from living my life the way I want to live it. [He said when I’m 45 or 46], I’ll turn it over to the Lord, and the rest will be history. What prevents me from doing that?’ He simply looked at me and said, ‘Nothing prevents you from doing that with just one tiny exception. You might not make your target date. You are not in control of your next breath.’

He said it was then that…

“I accepted Jesus and really understood that it’s not just a prayer, it’s a surrender.”


The CBN article says that…

John’s stats (were) amazing -- certainly good enough to get him into the Hall of Fame, but ask him and he’ll tell you. None of that compares to his relationship with Jesus Christ.

Smoltz said…

“The significance of all that as I climb the ladder, I’ve achieved this, this, this … all of this is incredible but it doesn’t compare to the riches and glory of knowing where I’m going to be the day I die.”

(He said,) “We’re searching for significance in this world. (But) All these things become useless, and I think the one thing I would love for people to realize is (that) they’re significant. They’re all important (to God). … They’re … loved (by God).”


What was it that brought significance to Jephthah’s life? What gave him a lasting legacy?

Did Jephthah find true significance in his Fame or his Fighting?

Was Jephthah’s life defined by his dysfunctional Family?

Is Jephthah’s identity summarized by his Friends?

Did Jephthah find his real worth in the acceptance and favor of his Followers?

Is Jephthah’s lasting legacy wrapped up in his Faults or his Failures?

Paul said…

… what things were gain to me, those I counted loss for Christ … (I) count them but dung, that I may win Christ,

(Philippians 3:7-8)

If you’re searching for significance, I want you to know tonight that your life is not significance because of your Followers, or your Friends, or your Family. The thing that defines your life is not your Fame, or your Finances, or even your Faults and Failures.

It’s all about your Faith. It’s all about your relationship with Almighty God and the Lord Jesus Christ. That’s what will bring meaning to your life.

So if you don’t know Him tonight, I want to invite you to enter into a personal relationship with the Lord by trusting Him as your Savior. If you’re a Christian tonight but you’ve been trying to find fulfillment in other things, I want to encourage you to immerse yourself completely into your relationship with Him. Let go of those other things for the sake of knowing Jesus is a more meaningful way.