Saturday, January 18, 2020

Time and Chance (19)

Over the Christmas season, you often get to observe people giving thanks for a meal who wouldn’t do it ordinarily. You can tell it’s a special event because they refer to it as “saying grace”, as if it’s some kind of annual sacrament rather than just another in a thrice-daily series of simple, grateful responses to God’s generosity. Often the head of the family feels compelled to do the honors.

Now, from time to time it happens that the person drafted to perform this duty has given little or no thought to the question of God’s existence one way or the other. He is now put on the spot. It can be fun, and a bit awkward, to watch someone pretend to address a Supreme Being they don’t truly believe in. Their whole “grace” thing usually gets mumbled out strung together like it’s one word: Forwhatweareabouttorecieve ...

Hey, it helps to have a familiar liturgical formula to recite. Anybody can pull that off, believer or no.

Faith and Public Displays of Piety

But it reminds us that public displays of piety are no indication of genuine faith. They may be performed for other reasons entirely, like Grandpa and Grandma expecting it of us, or, in children, for the sake of showing off and demonstrating you can do everything the adults around you are doing.

This sort of thing happened (and still happens) at least as frequently in Judaism as in Christendom. It happened in the time of Christ. Certain things were expected in terms of public appearances or because of customary legal obligations, so these acts were performed, often quite independent of any kind of genuine relationship to God. The nation of Israel nominally worshiped Jehovah, but the actual beliefs of any individual Israelite were known only to him and to God. In many cases, people regularly engaged in the outer forms of worship without really believing much of anything. As Isaiah wrote, “This people draw near with their mouth and honor me with their lips, while their hearts are far from me, and their fear of me is a commandment taught by men.”

It is not unreasonable to think that the making of vows in the presence of God at the temple in Jerusalem was often just such a sham performance.

Ecclesiastes 5:4-7  Pay What You Vow

These things also happened back in the days when the Preacher wrote Ecclesiastes, or so we must conclude, since Solomon saw fit to address the subject of people saying things during temple sacrifice that they were not prepared to stand behind:
“When you vow a vow to God, do not delay paying it, for he has no pleasure in fools. Pay what you vow. It is better that you should not vow than that you should vow and not pay. Let not your mouth lead you into sin, and do not say before the messenger that it was a mistake. Why should God be angry at your voice and destroy the work of your hands? For when dreams increase and words grow many, there is vanity; but God is the one you must fear.”
The practice of making vows is not unique to Judaism. God didn’t institute it at Sinai. In fact, God himself was making solemn covenants, unilateral and otherwise, long before Moses ever received the Law. Jacob, the father of the Israelite people, made a voluntary vow to God at Bethel (the place he called the “house of God”) of a tenth of everything with which God might bless him in future days, and God did not forget it.

The Practice of Making Vows

That other nations also made vows to their gods is a matter of historical record. The practice was so common in the ancient world that we should probably view passages like Leviticus 27 more as a set of peculiar Israelite limitations on the making of vows rather than any special divine encouragement to engage in them.

The sort of vow the Preacher is referring to was the act of dedicating a person or property wholly to the service of God. Bob Deffinbaugh comments:
“Simply viewed, offering a vow is practicing a kind of ‘credit card’ act of worship. It is a promise to worship God with a certain offering in the future, motivated by gratitude for God’s grace in the life of the offerer. The reason for the delay in making the offering was that the offerer was not able, at that moment to make the offering. The vow was made, promising to offer something to God if God would intervene on behalf of the individual, making the offering possible. In many instances, the vow was made in a time of great danger or need.”
Notice the relevant passage in Leviticus starts with, “IF anyone makes a special vow ...” and Deuteronomy makes the optional nature of vows explicit by adding, “If you refrain from vowing, you will not be guilty of sin.” This was very much a voluntary exercise from the very beginning. The book of Judges records one historical occasion when the making of a vow went horribly wrong. The story of Jephthah can hardly be considered as encouragement to engage in the making of vows.

More Old Testament Background

Deffinbaugh continues:
“Persons as well as property could be devoted to God, thus the first section of the chapter deals with the various categories of persons who might be vowed as an offering to God. It is assumed that these persons would either serve in ministry related to the tabernacle, or would at least serve the priests ... Some commentators assume that the persons dedicated would not be given, but rather their worth would be donated as cash. I do not see it this way. I understand that the value of such persons is to be determined by the category into which they fall, corresponding to their age and sex. Their worth seems to be their ‘market value,’ what the person would bring in the market place.”
Classical rabbinic interpretation seems to bear out what Deffinbaugh is saying here.

John Walvoord further points out that the valuation in Leviticus 27 was designed to discourage rash vows by attaching redemption penalties that were not insignificant:
“This first paragraph [Leviticus 27:1-8] regulates the fulfillment of a special vow to dedicate persons to the Lord by legislating monetary payment to the sanctuary treasury according to a system of equivalent values. The other option was direct fulfillment of the vow by service or worship in the sanctuary (as in the case of Hannah’s vow ...). A person could be redeemed in payment in silver according to the sanctuary shekel ... since the 50-shekel evaluation placed on an adult male was equivalent to about 50 months’ wages, this system tended to discourage rash vows!”
In any case, it can be seen how easily a man might put his foot in his mouth at the temple, especially if he were the sort of person who was inclined to try to impress onlookers with his generosity and piety, and who tended to give little thought to the long-term implications of his actions.

The Preacher indicates this sort of performance is a major error in judgment. To promise God something and fail to deliver it is to risk serious consequences: “Why should God be angry at your voice and destroy the work of your hands?” The sort of vow to which he is referring is probably the kind Jacob made, which basically boils down to, “If you will bless me, I’ll give you a tenth of anything you give me.”

The Sermon on the Mount

Centuries later, Jesus reiterated some of what the Preacher says in Ecclesiastes in his Sermon on the Mount, but adds a new twist for his first century followers:
“Again you have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but shall perform to the Lord what you have sworn.’ But I say to you, Do not take an oath at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. And do not take an oath by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. Let what you say be simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything more than this comes from evil.”
In this case, the Lord is speaking of an oath to tell the truth. Oath-taking is a subset of vowing, in that it is a promise made before God to deliver (or to have delivered) honest testimony. When the Lord says, “you have heard,” he is probably referring to Numbers 30, where Moses speaks of both oaths and vows: “This is what the Lord has commanded. If a man vows a vow to the Lord, or swears an oath to bind himself by a pledge, he shall not break his word. He shall do according to all that proceeds out of his mouth.”

What Jesus was saying in Matthew did not void the Law; rather, it made it that much easier to keep. It was also quite consistent with Ecclesiastes’ emphasis on avoiding foolish prattling in the presence of God. You cannot fail to perform what you have sworn if you avoid swearing in the first place. And the Lord knows his creatures. Fallen human beings are bound to make enough unforced errors on our own without unnecessarily creating opportunity for further moral failures.

Proceed with Caution

Making promises of any sort should always be done with great caution. This is because we do not know how our lives will unfold from one moment to the next. The power to do even the most basic things to better our lot is not reliably in our hands. “You cannot make one hair black or white.” The grace of God apart, five minutes from now I could step off a curb into traffic because my cell phone happens to ring at the wrong time and distracts me. You are no safer.

In fact, the Lord Jesus condemned even promises we make to ourselves. In his parable, the rich man says to himself, “Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.” But God says, “Fool! This night your soul is required of you.”

For this reason, many Christians tend to be quite cautious about taking formal oaths. If that seems fussy and legalistic and even a tad superstitious, consider the alternative. What if the Preacher was right, and God does indeed destroy the work of men’s hands for making frivolous promises and failing to fulfill them? How exactly would you know for sure?

There is a very simple way to avoid the whole problem.

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