For whatsoever things were written aforetime were written for our learning, that we through patience and comfort of the scriptures might have hope.
Romans 15:4



 A Bible Study - Commentary by Jim Melough

Copyright 2000 James Melough

12:1.  “And the men of Ephraim gathered themselves together, and went northward, and said unto Jephthah, Wherefore passedst thou over to fight against the children of Ammon, and didst not call us to go with thee? we will burn thine house upon thee with fire.”

The spirit of jealousy and contention marked the tribe of Ephraim.  Their conduct here is a virtual repetition of their reaction to Gideon’s victory against Midian, but Jephthah’s response is very different from that of Gideon, for as already discussed, this appears to foreshadow Christ’s return in power and glory to end the Tribulation.  He will return as the Lion of Judah to execute judgment, not as the Lamb to bear away the sin of the world.  Gideon had gone out of his way to placate the Ephraimites, but as often happens, placation appears to have encouraged their petulant attitude, and Jephath, recognizing this perhaps, refused to appease them any further.

It is significant that they went northward, for that is the direction that speaks of mere natural intelligence, and almost invariably, of intelligence in opposition to God.  They were impelled, not by the Spirit of God, but by natural intelligence, never a trustworthy guide, and their vindictiveness is disclosed in their threat, “We will burn thine house upon thee with fire.”

Jealousy is a sentiment that has done irreparable harm amongst God’s people, and is one in regard to which constant vigilance must be exercised.

12:2.  “And Jephthah said unto them, I and my people were at great strife with the children of Ammon; and when I called you, ye delivered me not out of their hands.”

Clearly Jephthah was speaking the truth, for there is nothing to indicate that Ephraim attempted to deny the charge, and it may well be that they were impelled as much by their own secret awareness of cowardice, as by jealousy of Jephthah’s victory.  Bluster, when there seems to be no danger, is frequently the disguise of cowardice.

12:3.  “And when I saw that ye delivered me not, I put my life in my hands, and passed over against the children of Ammon, and the Lord delivered them into my hand: wherefore then are ye come up unto me this day, to fight against me?”

Jephthah obviously had little patience with the cowardice that refused to fight beside him when there was danger, but that would now find fault with him after the enemy had been vanquished.  That same cowardice is still to be seen amongst many who profess faith in Christ.  When there is an enemy to be opposed, a battle to be fought, they are nowhere to be seen, but as soon as the victory is won, they are the first to find fault with the victor.  Their cowardice merits the same contempt as that with which Jephthah met Ephraim’s hostility and false charge.

12:4.  “Then Jephthah gathered together all the men of Gilead, and fought with Ephraim: and the men of Gilead smote Ephraim, because they said, Ye Gileadites are fugitives of Ephraim among the Ephraimites, and among the Manassites.”

We note that Ephraim’s approach was bolder than when they had confronted Gideon.  Now they added the threat that they would kill him, for that is the essence of “we will burn thine house upon thee.”  Repeated appeasement rarely produces any other result than to embolden the appeased.  Sooner or later the choice narrows down to whether to confront him, or submit to his tyranny.  For Jephthah that moment had come, and he courageously chose to fight.

12:5.  “And the Gileadites took the passages of Jordan before the Ephraimites: and it was so, that when those Ephraimites which were escaped said, Let me go over; that the men of Gilead said unto him, Art thou an Ephraimite?  If he said, Nay;

12:6.  “Then said they unto him, Say now Shibboleth: and he said Sibboleth: for he could not frame to pronounce it right.  Then they took him, and slew him at the passages of Jordan: and there fell at that time of the Ephraimites forty and two thousand.”

Clearly Ephraim had exhausted God’s patience.  He had been willing to bear with their jealousy and arrogance in the past, so that Gideon was led to return them a soft answer.  But they hadn’t profited by the experience, and that day they were to learn what many another since then has also learned with sorrow: God’s patience is great, but it isn’t inexhaustible.  It is He Himself Who warns, “My spirit shall not always strive with man” (Ge 6:3), and Who warns again, “He that being often reproved hardeneth his neck, shall suddenly be destroyed, and that without remedy” (Pr 29:1).  Ephraim’s arrogance brought a terrible recompense!

From the prophetic viewpoint this slaughter of the Ephraimites may picture the judgment which Christ will execute against unbelievers at the end of the Tribulation prior to the inauguration of His millennial kingdom.

Beyond the practical lesson that would teach us not to try God’s patience, however, is another of the same nature, but directing our attention to the time when we too “must cross Jordan.”

Examined from this perspective, Jordan, as always, is the symbol of death; and in the coming of the Ephraimites to its banks, we have a picture of the unbeliever coming to the end of life’s journey.  For the fleeing Ephraimites the ability to pronounce Shibboleth correctly, meant life or death, and it is significant that the meaning of the word is an ear of corn: a branch: a flood, and certainly no spiritual mind will fail to see in the ear of corn, and the branch, figures of Christ, for He is the true Ear of Corn which fell into the ground and died (Jn 12:24), while He is presented six times in the OT under the figure of a branch, Isa 4:2; 11:1; Jer 23:5: 33:15; Zech 3:8 and 6:12, apart from the cutting off of Which there would be no redemption for men.  And while less obvious in its significance, the flood must certainly remind us that He procured salvation for men by entering Himself into the flood of divine wrath against sin, (see, for example, Ps 69:1,2,14,15), so that the mighty river of the Gospel might be made available to dying men and women.

It is highly unlikely that any of the 42,000 who died had ever given a thought to how Shibboleth should be pronounced.  After all, what difference did it make?  Didn’t everyone in Ephraim pronounce it Sibboleth?  And they would probably have laughed at anyone who tried to tell them that it was important, that one day their very lives would depend on it

One day, sooner than we think perhaps, we too must “cross Jordan,” we must go from time out into eternity, from earth to heaven - or hell.  Our conduct may be blameless, our church attendance better than that of many who call themselves Christians, we may be devoted Bible students, generous in our giving, tireless in doing good... but none of these things provides safe passage across the river of death.  None of them will take a soul into heaven, or keep it out of hell.  The only thing that matters when it comes to the last moment of life on earth is the answer we give to the question, Have you been born again?  Yes, is the passport to heaven; No, the passport to hell.  Jesus Christ warned, “Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God,” adding emphatically, “Ye must be born again” (Jn 3:3,7).

An Ehpraimite would have laughed had he been warned that his life would one day depend on his ability to pronounce Shibboleth.  None laughed that day at Jordan.  “Have you been born again?” is a question that evokes the laughter of many today.  There will be no laughter in that awful instant following death, when it is discovered, too late for remedy, that the eternal fate of the soul depends on being able to answer, YES!

It is instructive to note that the meaning of Sibboleth is a burden.  The man who goes out into eternity able to say only the spiritual equivalent of Sibboleth rather than Shibboleth, will find that the religion and good works on which he depended for admission to heaven, are instead a “burden” that sinks his soul into hell and the lake of fire.

12:7.  “And Jephthah judged Israel six years.  Then died Jephthah the Gileadite, and was buried in one of the cities of Gilead.”

There is undoubtedly a reason why the specific city isn’t named, but I regret being unable to discover what that reason is.  Since, however, Gilead is a figure or type of Calvary, his being buried in a Gileadite city (one associated with Calvary) assures us that in spite of his error in making a foolish vow, he was a man of faith, a deduction confirmed by his being included in the list of the faithful given in Heb 11:32.

It is instructive that in connection with the next three judges there is no mention of Israel’s having sinned, or of the activity of any oppressor, the implied peace of that period indicating that it portrays the millennial age, and tending to confirm that we have been right in viewing the judgeship of Jephthah as being symbolic of the Tribulation era.

12:8.  “And after him Ibzan of Bethlehem judged Israel.”

Ibzan means their whiteness, the color of purity,  and without question righteousness will characterize Christ’s millennial reign, for concerning that coming glorious age it is written, “Behold, a king shall reign in righteousness, and princes shall rule in judgment” Isa 32:1.  See also Isa 11:4-5.

His being “of Bethlehem” adds further confirmation to the accuracy of the symbolic picture, for Bethlehem house of bread will be for ever associated with Him Who came to earth as the “true bread from heaven.”  That same holiness must mark our lives if we would walk in the enjoyment of blessing, and be instruments suitable for the Holy Spirit’s use.

Bread, however, is one of the Biblical symbols of the Word as the spiritual food given to sustain the new life obtained by faith.  Holiness will mark the life only as the believer dwells in “Bethlehem,” i.e., feeds continually on the “bread” of the written Word.  Neglect of the Word is quickly followed by backsliding.

12:9.  “And he had thirty sons, and thirty daughters, whom he sent abroad, and took in thirty daughters from abroad for his sons.  And he judged Israel seven years.”

Thirty is simply a multiple of, and has the same meaning as three, the number of manifestation and resurrection, so that Ibzan’s thirty sons and thirty daughters, and thirty daughters-in-law, speak of the abundant spiritual life which is resurrection life, for believers are they who, once dead in trespasses and sins, have been raised up out of that state to stand before God as a new creation.  The near perfect state of the millennial earth will be the witness to the fact that Christ’s redemptive work embraces not just man, but the whole creation, as it is written, “Because the creature (creation) itself also shall be delivered from the bondage of corruption into the glorious liberty of the children of God.  For we know that the whole creation groaneth and travaileth in pain together until now” (Ro 8:21-22).  (It is emphasized, however, that those who will inhabit the millennial earth will not be resurrected individuals, but those who will have physically survived the terrible Tribulation judgments.  During that glorious era the resurrected believers of all the ages will be reigning with Christ from the heavenly Jerusalem, over, but not on the millennial earth.  The resurrection of the OT and Tribulation age saints at the end of the Tribulation will complete the resurrection of life, for believers will not die in the Millennium).

As also already noted, sons represent activity of the will, and daughters, passivity.  Perfect balance in these two spheres is indicated in there being the same number of each.  This perfect balance marked the Lord’s life, for no will was ever more perfectly subject to the Father’s will, yet there was also never a life in which the activity of His will was more devoted to the carrying out of that same will.  That same balance ought to mark our lives, but unfortunately all too often they are marked by imbalance - there is either the submission that refrains from doing wrong, but that fails to engage in any activity for God (typically portrayed by Jephthah’s daughter), or there is an activity divorced from a quiet waiting upon God in order to learn His will.

In connection with service, there is ever present the danger that activity may outrun submission, so that we run unsent, having “a zeal of God, but not according to knowledge” (Ro 10:2).  It is significant that in the case of Ibzan’s family this danger was prevented, the balance being symbolically preserved by his taking in thirty daughters-in-law when his own daughters went abroad as wives.  We would do well to exercise the same care to preserve the balance in our own lives.

Since seven is the Biblical number of perfection or completeness, his judging Israel for seven years speaks of the perfection of his judgeship, and makes it the foreshadowing of the perfection of Christ’s care for the Church, and His coming rule over the earth.  He is a wise believer who strives for the same perfection in connection with all that God entrusts to his stewardship.

12:10.  “Then died Ibzan, and was buried at Bethlehem.”

As Bethlehem was associated with this man’s birth, so was it also with his death.  This speaks of consistency.  There was no fluctuation in the faithfulness of his life, and the application, of course, is first to the life of Christ.  The lesson God would teach us in this is that as our new life began with the spiritual bread of which Bethlehem speaks, so should it continue, and so should it end.  Sadly, the story of many a Christian life is far otherwise.  May the grace be given each one of us to “continue steadfastly in the Apostles’ doctrine” to the end of the journey, so that the eternal record of our lives may be like that of Ibzan, it being true of us, as of him, that the life which began spiritually at “Bethlehem,” continued there, and ended also at “Bethlehem.”

It is generally understood that his judgeship and that of his two immediate successors was confined to the North-east of Israel, a fact which reminds us that God would have us see in the judges that which would encourage us to faithfulness, not in the broad sphere of the Church worldwide, but in the place where it has pleased Him to set us, in our own families, our neighborhoods, our own local assembly, for in these closing days of the age it is folly to be looking for recovery worldwide.  Scripture makes it clear that the age will end with the professing church having become largely apostate as portrayed in the deplorable state of Laodicea.

12:11.  “And after him Elon, a Zebulonite, judged Israel; and he judged Israel ten years.”

Elon, meaning might, is connected also with an oak, so that the combined thought is of might in relation to a tree, and no spiritual mind will have difficulty in seeing the application to Christ, for He is the true “Elon,” His mighty power to save and judge His people, being directly related to the tree upon which He was hanged at Calvary.

For us too, all spiritual power is linked with Calvary’s cross, the tree where we first saw ourselves crucified with Christ Who was delivered for our offenses, but where also we were raised up as new creatures to walk in newness of life in association with Him “raised again for our justification.”

As in the days of Joshua’s victorious campaign against the Canaanites, Israel’s strength lay in their returning continually to Gilgal (itself the figure of Calvary), so is it with us.  Only as we return in spirit to Calvary on the first day of each week, when we eat the Lord’s supper and remember His death, will our strength be renewed, and our spiritual vigor maintained.

The impotence of the professing church today is in no small measure directly attributable to her having abandoned the weekly remembrance of the Lord’s death in favor of an empty annual ritual, but it is sad to relate that in many assemblies where the weekly order is still preserved, the Lord’s supper has become also a mere empty ritual in which the emblems have become simply a fetish.  The power of God will be seen in our midst again only when we abandon our love of the world, and seek with a whole heart the things that belong to the kingdom of heaven, meeting on the first day of the week to eat the Lord’s supper, sincerely desiring to remember His death, and to worship God in Spirit and in truth.

Elon is declared to have been a Zebulonite, which means dwelling.  This speaks of constancy, of dwelling close to God, His interests being ours, our greatest concern being that we be preserved from disobedience.

Since ten is the governmental number which speaks of God as the Governor (as twelve is the number related to the governed), Elon’s judging Israel for ten years indicates that his term of office was one in which the divine will was carried out in that part of Israel over which God had appointed him as judge.  The lesson for us is that we too are to ensure that His will is done in all over which we have control, it being scarcely necessary to say that that government begins with His control of our own personal lives.

12:12.  “And Elon the Zebulonite died, and was buried in Aijalon in the country of Zebulun.”

As with Ibzan, everything here also points to constancy: Zebulun is associated with his death as it was with his birth.  His burial place, however, is specifically Aijalon, meaning deer field: a large stag; and as noted in other studies, the deer is one of the Biblical symbols both of Christ and of believers, see for example Ps 42:1 and Ca 2:9,17: 8:14.  Elon’s being buried in Aijalon therefore, speaks of his being buried in the domain of faith.  It should be the desire of every believer that his life also should end in happy fellowship with God and His people.

The ten (number of Divine government) years of Elon’s judgeship confirms that the Millennium will be a period in which the government of God will be exercised with an iron rod which will brook no disobedience, that very factor contributing to the blessedness of those thousand years.

12:13.  “And after him Abdon the son of Hillel, a Pirathonite, judged Israel.”

Abdon means servitude; Hillel, to be praised; and Pirathon, chieftaincy.  The spiritual significance of the judgeship of Abdon is less easily discerned than the preceding two, but when viewed as a type of Christ, we see in him a figure of the One Whose servitude was unto death, eternal praise to the Father being the result of that willing sacrifice offered at Calvary, The idea of chieftaincy or leadership, however, reminds us that He Who stooped so low to redeem our souls, has been exalted to transcendent glory, and will return to the scene of His degradation and death, as King of kings, and Lord of lords.

12:14.  “And he had forty sons and thirty nephews (or grandsons), that rode on threescore and ten ass colts: and he judged Israel eight years.”

The sons remind us that the One he typifies has also begotten many “sons,” men and women who have trusted Him as Savior, see Heb 2:10,13, “For it became him, for whom are all things, and by whom are all things, in bringing many sons unto glory, to make the captain of their salvation perfect through sufferings .... Behold I and the children which God hath given me.”

There being forty (number of testing) of Abdon’s sons, reminds us that Christ’s many “sons” are the result of the testing which manifested His perfection.

It should remind us that we too are subjected to testing, and the extent to which that testing reveals our failure, ought to impel the cry for grace to walk worthy of the vocation wherewith we have been called.

The thirty (number of resurrection) grandsons point to the fact that those who are Christ’s will participate in the resurrection of life, and will dwell for ever with Him in heaven.

As has been noted also in previous studies, the ass represents the body as the servant of the old nature, but the ass’s colt (second generation, and speaking therefore of the new birth), represents the body under the control of the new nature.  And since Abdon’s sons and grandsons rode on seventy (number of perfection or completeness) ass colts, we learn that the degree to which we keep the body under the control of the new nature is the measure in which we will reflect the perfections of Christ.

The fact that he judged Israel for eight (number of a new beginning) years points symbolically to the truth that we who are the spiritual sons of the true Abdon, have not only had a new beginning here on earth (we have had a new birth), but we will have another new beginning: following the Rapture we will receive new ageless bodies “fashioned like unto his glorious body” (Php 3:21).

12:15.  “And Abdon the son of Hillel the Pirathon­ite died, and was buried in Pirathon in the land of Ephraim, in the mount of the Amalekites.”

Believer and unbeliever alike comes to the end of his earthly course.  Except for those who will be raptured, the bodies of all others must die; those of believers to be raised at the resurrection of life; those of unbelievers, at the resurrection of damnation.

Ephraim speaks of double fruitfulness, so that Abdon’s being buried in the land of Ephraim, tells us of the more abundant life possessed by those who belong to Christ.  Death simply liberates the redeemed soul from its earthly house of clay, to enter heaven, where following the Rapture, it will live more abundantly in its new spiritual body.

The Amalekites represent the lusts of the flesh, and Abdon’s being buried in “the mount of the Amalekit­es” declares symbolically that this world is the place where the flesh reigns, but only for a little while.  Its reign is almost ended, and an earth that has groaned under the misrule of the flesh, will soon

enjoy the beneficent reign of the Prince of peace.

The practical lesson for us is of the need to be on constant guard against the tendency to indulge the lusts of the flesh, for such indulgence can never bring anything but loss of peace here on earth, and eternal loss of reward in heaven.  Our prayer should be that we be kept from the folly of devoting to the service of fleshly lusts, time and energy that should be used to produce fruit for God’s glory, and our own eternal enrichment. 

From the perspective of its application to the reign of Christ in the Millennium, Abdon’s eight (number of a new beginning) year reign may be an oblique reminder that following the Millennium the earth will have a new beginning: there will be a new heavens and a new earth in which perfect righteousness will dwell (2 Pe 3:13; Re 21:1), unlike the millennial earth in which, though very much restrained, there will nevertheless be sin.  Further evidence of the millennial earth’s imperfect state is presented in its being recorded that Abdon’s burial place was “in the mount of the Amalekites,” the representatives of the bitter antagonism of the flesh against the spirit.

[Judges 13]



     Scripture portions taken from the Holy Bible, King James Version
© 2000-2005 James Melough