“And the sons of Israel said to Yahweh, ‘We have sinned. Do to us all that is good in your eyes. Nevertheless, please deliver us this day!’ They turned aside from the foreign gods that were in their midst and they served Yahweh. And his soul grew short with the neediness of Israel.”
The response of the Israelites by this point in the story is quite predictable. Like the child that has been caught in the act of doing something he or she knows ought not be done, Israel offers to put away their sin and worship God if he will simply deliver them.
The first thing that must be noted is that under no circumstances does God bargain with men. Woe to the person who thinks they get to set the conditions wherein God will act. Yet, we try to negotiate a lot, don’t we? We say or think things like, “God, if you will just pull me out of this bind just one more time, I will…” and you can fill in the blank from there. Bottom line is that God does not need us to fulfill his plan — even to fulfill his plan in us. He is sovereign. And we have been forgiven not because we will do this or that special thing; we are forgiven because of the completed work of Jesus Christ applied to us in our regeneration and conversion by the Holy Spirit. We certainly still need to ask forgiveness when we sin, resting our request in faith on the completed work of Christ, not because of some promised thing we will do.
The Israelites do include an interesting clause in the text. Literally it reads: “you do to us like all that is good in your eyes.” The meaning is clear — they submit theirselves into God’s hands (as if they ever had a say in the first place). Yet, as the author of Hebrews says, “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the Lord” (Hebrews 10:31). This is indeed, also the lesson that David learned as he set his sin before God to determine his judgment (2 Samuel 24:14). What follows will reflect God’s judgment.
The final clause in this passage is rather ambiguous and has caused no end of discussion amongst commentators. Literally, the text reads, “And his soul grew short with the trouble of Israel.” The “his” in context seems reasonably to be God. The phrase that the “soul grew short” is a fairly common figure of speech that refers to being impatient. The debate is over the “what” that God happens to be impatient with — namely, what is the reference to Israel’s “trouble”?
The term in question is עָמָל (amal), which can mean “trouble, distress, harm, need, or anxiety” depending on the context. The traditional interpretation of this phrase presents God as once again showing mercy to the people and delivering them. Yet, that is not exactly what is taking place. God does deliver them through Jephthah, but Jephthah is chosen by the people — in many ways, he is the pagan contrast to the Judges that God has lifted up. Through this, God remains rather silent until later in the account. Thus, I have translated this term in the context of the neediness of Israel. They sin, they repent, they sin and then repent. And they are always crying out for a deliverer. God has already told them to find one of their own — now they cry out to him again and it is easy to see how they could be seen as being needy. And thus, God grows impatient with Israel and their neediness. What comes next is Jephthah…