29–31 The Spirit of the LORD came upon Jephthah (see Judges 3:9–11 and comment), and he gathered his troops and advanced against the enemy. And then Jephthah made a vow to the Lord (verse 30). And we can be sure that it was not the Holy Spirit who led him to make it.
There is nothing wrong with making certain kinds of vows. By making a vow, one can express to God devotion and gratitude and even the desire to sacrifice oneself for His sake (Romans 12:1). But there were two things wrong with Jephthah’s vow. First, it was designed to manipulate God, to bargain with Him: “If you do this for me, I’ll do that for you” (see Judges 10:11–14 and comment). Evidently Jephthah thought that God needed to be “bribed” into giving victory to Israel!
Second, the particular vow that Jephthah made was at the very least irresponsible and foolhardy. Surely he should have realized that “whatever” came out of his house first (verse 31) might well be a human being! To sacrifice a human being as a burnt offering was forbidden by God; it was the same as offering one’s children to Moloch (see Leviticus 18:21; Deuteronomy 12:31).
32–35 The Lord gave the victory to Israel, and Jephthah was left to fulfill his vow. The first living being to come out of his house was his daughter, his only child. Jephthah tore his clothes in grief. But since Moses had commanded that a vow must not be broken (Numbers 30:2; Deuteronomy 23:21–23), Jephthah felt obliged to offer his daughter as a burnt offering, as he had vowed (verse 31).
36–40 Jephthah’s daughter responded in an amazing way: she accepted her fate.53 Her greatest sorrow was that she would not be able to produce an heir to carry on her father’s line. In the mind of an Israelite girl, not to marry and produce an heir was a fate equivalent to death.
Should Jephthah have broken his vow? Yes, of course. The Lord had already made provision for releasing certain people from vows rashly made (Numbers 30:5,8). In Jephthah’s case, surely the Lord would not have wanted him to break a major law in order to keep a lesser one.54 All that Jephthah needed to do was to confess his sins55 and ask forgiveness, and the Lord would have released him from his vow.
But there is a still deeper significance to this painful story. There can be no question that Jephthah had real faith in God—and his daughter even more so. In spite of our faith, we humans make terrible mistakes and commit terrible sins; yet God is ready to forgive us. Today, three thousand years later, Jephthah and his daughter are with God in heaven-because of their faith (Hebrews 11:32,39–40). What seemed so horrible and final back then-physical death, no heirs—now appears much different in the light of eternity. And the deep message of this story is that Jephthah and his daughter submitted themselves to God in faith—regardless of the cost—and God has abundantly rewarded them for doing so.56