The “Shibolleth” Test

Judges 12:5-6 “And the Gileadites captured the fords of the Jordan against the Ephraimites. And when any of the fugitives of Ephraim said, ‘Let me go over,’ the men of Gilead said to him, ‘Are you an Ephraimite?’  When he said, ‘No,’ they said to him, ‘Then say Shibboleth,’ and he said, ‘Sibboleth,’ for he could not pronounce it right. Then they seized him and slaughtered him at the fords of the Jordan. At that time 42,000 of the Ephraimites fell.”

In the account above, we have the interesting account of a civil conflict that arose in Israel at the time of the judge Jephthah.  After Jephthah and the Gileadites (those Israelites who were descendants of the Israelites who had settled East of the Jordan River when Israel, under Joshua, crossed the Jordan and first entered the Promised Land), had defeated the Ammonites, the descendants of Ephraim (the Ephraimites were one of the tribes that had settled West of the Jordan River) complained angrily that they had not been included in the battle against Ammon.  The dispute eventually led to war between the Ephraimites and the Gileadites, and the Ephraimites were defeated. When the fugitives from Ephraim tried to escape back across the Jordan and denied that they were Ephraimites in the process, they were told by Jephthah’s soldiers to pronounce the word “Shibboleth” as a test. This word simply means “an ear of grain.”  Just like the nationality of people or the region within a country from which a person was born and raised can often be revealed by how they say certain words, so the men of Ephraim were exposed because their mouth couldn’t form itself to say “shibboleth” the correct way.  It was when they exposed their true heritage by this test (regardless of what they had otherwise claimed) that they were condemned. 

So, what does this say to us in this day and age?  Anything?  Interestingly, Jesus has told us that one day each and every one of us will be given a “speech test.”  He said this to the Pharisees who didn’t believe in Him: “I tell you, on the day of judgment people will give account for every careless word they speak, for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned” (Matthew 12:36-37).  The occasion for Jesus’ teaching on this subject was the Pharisees’ view that Jesus was of the devil, while they viewed themselves as the true members of God’s family. They viewed themselves as the righteous ones.  Jesus pointed them to the account of Jonah, when God had sent him to the wicked Ninevites to preach against their sin. Jesus told them, “The men of Nineveh will rise up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and behold, something greater than Jonah is here (Matthew 12:41).” Of course, in talking about this one Who was greater than Jonah, Jesus was speaking about Himself. 

You see, Jonah was delivered from the mouth of a great fish after three days by a miracle of God. Jesus was also delivered by God after three days, but His delivery was from the mouth of the grave, which testified to the fact that He was, indeed, the Messiah, the Savior of the world.  As Jesus spoke these words, He was pointing to the words of those who will be justified in the end, like the Ninevites, as opposed to those who would be condemned, like the Pharisees.

So, what are the words of the Ninevites that justified them?  It was their words of repentance. It was their confession that they were sinners in need of forgiveness. It was the thing they had to say, and it was only possible to say it because they were granted the ability to say so by God as He graciously granted them a new heart. The Pharisees, on the other hand, would never admit that they were sinners. They claimed that they were righteous, and that they were not sinners, a parallel to the treacherous Ephraimites saying to the Gileadites that they were not Ephraimites. But their words exposed them. Their words exposed their true physical heritage. It exposed the truth about who they were. In much the same way, the truth about the Pharisees’ claim that they were righteous, and thus were the true children of God, was exposed by that very claim.

You see, it is only by God’s grace and the miracle of the new birth that a person will be able to truly say that they are sinners in need of God’s grace. It is only those who confess that they are sinners that are ever granted repentance and eternal life. Conversely, those who confess they are righteous, that they are “good people,” expose with their very words that they have never known God and that they have never been born again into His family. Their words expose them. Similarly, it is only those who have been born of the Holy Spirit that can say “Jesus is Lord (1 Corinthians 12:3)”and truly mean it.  It’s only those who have submitted themselves to the Lordship of Jesus Christ that show by such words that they are no longer citizens of earth, but citizens of heaven, and that they possess a spiritual heritage in the family of God. 

Jesus told us that in the end when people come face to face with Him, “Many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’” (Matthew 7:22).  Although they will call Jesus by the title “Lord,” as if they were really Christians, their words will betray them.  Shockingly, they will say to the One Who did everything that is necessary to enter His Kingdom when He died to pay the penalty for our sins, “We are good people. Look at all the works that we’ve done.”  But that’s the language of an unbeliever, rather than a believer, for all believers will confess that they are sinners (1 John 1:9) and that all their righteousness is as filthy rags (Isaiah 64:6).  And it is only believers that will say that it was only because of Jesus’ great work and never their own that anyone will enter heaven. 

So, what about you?  Are you ready for that speech test?  Are you able to say, “I am a sinner” because you have confessed your sin, and can you say “Jesus is Lord” (and mean it) because you have humbled yourself at His feet and truly given your life wholly to Him?  For you see, like the Ephraimites and like the Pharisees, it is by our words that we will be justified and by our words that we will be condemned.

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