Pulpit Commentary Homiletics
I. THEIR GOOD DEEDS ARE THEMSELVES AN OFFENCE. This has its root and ground in the incapacity of the natural mind to perceive and appreciate spiritual motives; but it seldom takes the form of direct, simple objection to the good deed. Other forms of excuse for opposition are easily discovered.
1. The spirit in which they are wrought is misunderstood or misinterpreted. The key to our judgments of others is in ourselves. If then we are evil, our judgments will be perverted. All through the history of God's Church this influence is apparent, from the old ill-natured query, '"Does Job serve God for nought?" to the culminating wickedness described in the gospel: "The light shineth in darkness, and the darkness comprehended it not .... He was in the world, and the world was made by him, and the world knew him not. He came unto his own, and his own received him not" (John 1:5, 10, 11). "To the pure, all things are pure," and vice versa.
2. They present an unwelcome contrast to the conduct of others. Every good deed is as a light which brings to view things of like kind, and inspires similar behaviour; but also reveals the hideousness and hatefulness of the ordinary life of man. This is an offence against the amour propre of the sinner, and therefore unpardonable; it is also an exposure of hypocrisy, and sadly inconvenient. It makes the heart of good men ache to see this, and to cry, "When will goodness not be the exception, but the rule?"
3. The honor they acquire for their authors is coveted. To minds not actuated by the spirit of goodness, the only thing that can be desired in good works is the outward fame and advantage they bring. The exclusion from this is keenly resented. Hundreds are eager to share the crown of the righteous who are far from breathing his spirit or emulating his example.
II. HOW HARD IS IT FOR EVEN GOOD MEN TO UNDERSTAND THIS! Jephthah argues his case, and asks, "Wherefore are ye come up unto me this day, to fight against me?" The law of Moses promised temporal advantages to those who fulfilled it. Occasionally these were not enjoyed, and there was a consequent perplexity. But we are not to suppose that this wonder and mental trouble were confined to that dispensation; they are deeply human characteristics. Our Saviour himself experienced them when he asked, "Many good works have I showed you from my Father; for which of those works do ye stone me? (John 10:32); and again, Are ye come out as against a thief with swords and staves for to take me? I sat daily with you teaching in the temple, and ye laid no hold on me" (Matthew 26:55). The key to this mystery is furnished by the beatitude of the persecuted for righteousness' sake (Matthew 5:11, 12), and realised in the spirit of Christ's sacrifice. - M.
I. PRIDE IN ITS DEVELOPMENT AND CAREER. Past kindness and consideration only hardened and strengthened it. Past achievements and the prestige acquired through them are relied upon instead of present obedience to God, etc. Ephraim cared more for its own position and advantage than to serve the commonwealth. By its inaction in the past and its hostile attitude to Jephthah on the present occasion it plays the traitor. It despised its brethren, and refused to recognise the leader God had chosen, and now it threatened to overthrow the advantage acquired by the Ammonite victory. It became a public nuisance and a political danger.
II. PRIDE IN ITS DIVINE CHASTISEMENT, In the various details of its punishment it is hard to repress a certain measure of sympathy for it. There is something always in the humiliation of a proud nature that commands our sympathy. And yet it was necessary and right that Ephraim should be taught a terrible lesson.
1. That very tribe, membership with which had been their boast, they would now fain deny.
2. The taunt of being "fugitives,' which they had used against the Gileadites, is now turned against themselves.
3. The martial strength upon which they had relied is now effectually and suddenly reduced. So will it be with all who set themselves against Christ and his kingdom. "Upon whomsoever this stone shall fall, it will grind him to powder." If God is against us, or, what is the same thing, we are against God, we may expect patient forbearance, and at first gentle chidings; but, if we persist, a terrible retribution. Sin is pride; it refuses to bow to God's will, or to accept the methods of his salvation. - M.
I. GREAT MEN ARE COMMONLY ASSAILED BY THE JEALOUSY OF THEIR RIVALS.
1. This is no proof of any failing on the part of those who are thus attacked. While some of the noblest of men have brought trouble upon their own heads through want of consideration for the petty weaknesses of their inferiors, the best and most conciliatory of men have not been able to avoid the envy and misjudgment of meaner natures. It is impossible to please all classes in doing a work of any magnitude and value. They are not always the worthiest men who have the fewest enemies. Christ had more foes than friends.
2. This is no proof of the claims of the rivals of great men. People who cannot improve a work can criticise it.
II. THEY WHO ARE BACKWARD IN ENCOUNTERING THE DANGER OF BATTLE ARE EAGER IN COVETING THE HONOUR OF VICTORY. There is no reason to believe that the men of Ephraim showed any willingness to join with Jephthah till after his great success. Weak and selfish people who will not enter into any enterprise until they see it has succeeded are plentiful enough, but they are worthless. The true men are they who will advocate the right cause when it is at a low ebb, when it is unpopular, when it seems doomed to failure, when the service of it involves risk and loss.
III. THE TASK FROM WHICH MEN SHRINK BEFOREHAND LOOKS EASY AFTER IT HAS BEEN SUCCESSFULLY PERFORMED. Now that Jephthah has defeated the Ammonites, the men of Ephraim think his work was only a safe road to honour in which they would gladly have accompanied him. When we see the master of some art working with deft skill and unerring accuracy, nothing looks more easy than to do as he does. His very triumph destroys the appearance of the difficulties which lie in its way. Thus the honours of the artist and the orator, and, in religious matters, of the martyr and the missionary, inspire jealousy in men who think they are cheaply won just on account of that very excellency which conceals the necessary sacrifice, suffering, or toil by the perfect conquest of it.
IV. SELFISH PEOPLE ARE MORE CONCERNED ABOUT THEIR OWN SHARE IN THE HONOUR OF A GREAT ENTERPRISE THAN ABOUT THE SUCCESS OF IT. The men of Ephraim do nothing to encourage Jephthah; they are only anxious to share his honour. We see in public life personal ambition overcoming public spirit, in Christian work the honour of the agent exalted above the success of the work. But the patriot should be supremely anxious for the welfare of his country, no matter by whom this is secured, and the Christian should be simply desirous of the triumph of Christ and the extension of Christianity, though he may not share the honours of victory. The jealousy which would hinder the good work of others because we have no share in it is treason to Christ. It is unworthy for the Christian to covet or to hold a post which he knows another will occupy better than himself - A.
I. THOSE WHO ARE OPPOSED TO TRUTH AND GOODNESS OFTEN OBJECT TO THE CIRCUMSTANCES IN LIFE AND THE CHARACTER OF THOSE WHO ARE REPUTED TO DO GREAT WORKS IN GOD'S SERVICE. "Fugitives" is a term of social reproach. It suggests vile reasons which made it convenient for them to leave their own home. So it was said, "Is not this Joseph, the carpenter's son?" and, "Can any good thing come out of Nazareth?" So John 9:24, 29.
II. THIS OBJECTION IS INCONSEQUENT. It ignores the real authorship of goodness, and the method of his working, and character of his instrumentalities in all time. It is self-contradictory (John 9:31). - M.
I. WHEREIN THIS IMPORTANCE CONSISTS.
1. In what they suggest or reveal. A slip in accidence, or a blunder in the statement of matter of fact, may discredit the pretended scholar. A difference in tone or manner may mean indifference or enmity or hypocrisy. Temporary neglect of a child may prove want of real parental affection. Neglect of private or public prayer may be little in itself, but it may spring from the alienation of the soul from God. The glib utterance of a "white lie" may make us doubt the whole moral character of the speaker. Grave diseases often declare themselves by comparatively slight symptoms, as leprosy, paralytic ataxia, etc.
2. We see it in the order of life as a whole. In the vegetable and animal world the law of the:' survival of the fittest" often works through comparatively slight organic adaptations. In human life the advantage and ultimate success of men often depends upon their slight superiority to other competitors. A little ignorance, extravagance, carelessness, etc. may work ruin. "A stitch in time saves nine." "Ready, aye ready," is a noble motto. Great discoveries have been made by men who were just a little in advance of their fellows.
3. A critical occasion may give a trifle an unlooked-for importance. The cackling of geese saved Rome, according to the myth. Peter's uncouth accent occasioned the observation of the maid, and his emphatic denial of Christ. Vessels have been wrecked because of a little carelessness in taking observations when mists have suddenly arisen, or rocks were in the course. Souls have been lost through impressions produced by the inconsistencies of professing Christians.
II. OUR DUTY WITH RESPECT TO THEM. "Of course it is to correct them, to get rid of them," you say. Yes; but how? Sometimes they are so related to us that we cannot remove them. It is necessary then that we should do all in our power to compensate for them by cultivating other qualities, etc., or to neutralise their influence by timely explanations and clear proofs of our real intention, spirit, character, etc. Mere punctilio, or the scrupulosity of the martinet will not do. We must beware of the folly of those who "strain at a gnat and swallow a camel." Let the whole life be emphatic in contradiction, and let the spirit of Christ so shine through us that men will learn to know us in spite of those failings and defects which give us the lie. "Not far from the kingdom of heaven" may be worse than entire alienation from it. Tests: their good and evil. As a means of discovering the Ephraimite, the device was highly natural and ingenious. In the main and roughly it was successful. Some such method was evidently required. There was no time to enter into minute detail or examination. But, on the other hand, it was quite possible that some who were not Ephraimites were slain by mistake. So in determining fitness for Church membership, office, or spiritual responsibility -
I. TESTS MAY BE NECESSARY. There are times when it is of the utmost importance for us to know who are God's people and who are not. We are to "have no fellowship with the unfruitful works of darkness, but rather reprove them." From the unholy, disorderly, unbelieving we are commanded to withdraw ourselves. But this injunction were impossible of fulfilment were the distinction between saints and sinners not capable of being made. Christ has happily supplied a test - "By their fruits ye shall know them." The confession of the lips is another element, but it must not be dissociated from the former. So in the life of every day we require to know men, and accordingly have to form our opinions and judgments of them. This is so vital and necessary to safety and happiness, that we do it almost automatically, unconsciously. The honest and the dishonest, the true and the false, the friend and the enemy, we learn to distinguish by actions and words, and the course of their conduct It is foolish, therefore, for persons to object to tests - they are necessary throughout the whole range of life, temporal and spiritual. But -
II. THEY MAY MISLEAD. In the nature of things they must be superficial, local, accidental, etc. They are observed and interpreted by fallible men. Trifling differences may acquire factitious importance. A man is not to be condemned for a word; a careful study should be made of the whole conduct and character of the man. The Christian life has many "notes," and where one is not forthcoming another may be present. The Epistles have, therefore, a variety of points upon which Christians may test themselves and others. God alone knoweth the heart, and in Christ he will judge the world by infallible judgment. It is better to err on the side of leniency to offenders than on that of severity. It matters not how we may commend ourselves to men, our condition in the sight of God is of chief account. - M.
I. IF A MAN'S PROFESSION IS FALSE TO HIS CHARACTER, THIS WILL BE MADE MANIFEST BY THE HABITS OF HIS LIFE. The Ephraimite who denied his tribal relation was betrayed by his dialectic pronunciation. Thus Peter was convicted of falsehood (Matthew 26:73). It matters little what we say if our conduct belies our words. No man can ultimately conceal his character; it will come out in his countenance, it will colour his speech, it will shape his action. If a man would completely suppress his character, he must destroy it, because while it exists it must obey its nature, which is to be the source of all conduct. You cannot quench a volcano by building over its crater, nor stay the flow of a stream by walling it in. Our true nature, whether it be good or bad, must reveal itself
(1) in great critical epochs, when it can endure no restraint; or
(2) in casual accidents, when we are off our guard and do not consider the occasion sufficiently important to demand much concern; or
(3) in the general course and colour of our life (Matthew 7:16).
II. SHALL SUPERFICIAL SIGNS MAY INDICATE GREAT FUNDAMENTAL DISTINCTIONS. The test of the "Shibboleth" has been much misunderstood, as though it were an instance of the importance which is sometimes unduly given to mere trivial distinctions. The test was simply a means of discovering the tribal relations of men. The Gileadites cared nothing for the difference of pronunciation in itself. They simply used it as a means for determining a really important point - the truth or falsehood of the profession of those who said they were not men of Ephraim. The same mistake was involved in Gibbon's famous sneer about the great division of Christendom on the question of a diphthong. It was not a diphthong, but the fundamental truth of the perfect Divinity of Christ that Athanasius and his friends were contending with the Arians about, and the use of the diphthong was simply a convenient form in which to bring the question to a definite point. So the recent controversies about vestments have been ridiculed as though they were questions of "ecclesiastical millinery," while both parties know quite well that these outside and apparently trivial differences are the signs of fundamental questions concerning priestly authority and sacramental grace.
1. We must beware of judging of the magnitude of a question by the comparative insignificance of its external indications.
2. We must, nevertheless, be careful not to assume that trivial external distinctions are signs of deep and important differences until we have proved the fact. We may erect the test of a "Shibboleth" to separate people who have no such fundamental distinctions as those of the men who had been true to Jephthah and the men who had enviously opposed him. The danger is that we should thus magnify the importance of the "Shibboleth" itself, and so become narrow and sectarian. - A.