22. The Value of a Vow (Leviticus 27)
As you know, this past week was election time. One of the headlines in the paper this week caught my attention. It said something like this, “Clements will keep vows.” The gist of the article was that governor-elect Clements will keep his campaign promises. We all know that many “vows” are made by candidates, and that few are kept. Mr. Clements, we have been assured, will keep his vows.
What a sad reality this headline reveals. It informs us that most vows are not intended to be kept by the one making them, nor are they expected to be kept by those who hear him. In such a time when even vows are not taken seriously we should find it very easy to identify with the Israelite of old, who was not expected by God to keep his promise.
While the term “vow” was used in this week’s newspaper article of the campaign promises which Mr. Clements made before the election, we need not think of vows in such a formal way. In the New Testament our Lord taught that every commitment, every promise, was to be as binding as a vow. In this case, the instructions which we find in Leviticus pertaining to vows have relevance to the commitments which we make, and, to be pointedly honest, we are not known for keeping our commitments.
What this week’s newspaper headlines suggest—that vows and promises are not to be taken seriously—can be verified in most of our experiences. How many promises or commitments have been made to you, either by a parent, or a friend, or a business associate, which have been forgotten or ignored? To be even more pointed, how many times can you recall making a commitment which you later regretted? You may have mentally suppressed your commitment, or you may even have willfully violated it. This lesson may indicate what you need to do about your hasty commitment. For those who will be tempted to make a hasty commitment in the future, this lesson should serve as a warning. The subject matter is, indeed, most relevant, for costly commitments are often hastily made and shamelessly broken, today, as they were centuries ago. Let us learn from Leviticus how to be careful about our commitments.
Tensions of the Text
The first “tension of the text” is a logical one. If vows should not be broken, why does God make provisions for vows to be reversed, and for the goods offered to God to be redeemed? I believe that we will find the resolution to this perplexing question as we look carefully at the text and its teaching.
There is yet another “tension in this text.” This chapter is the final chapter of the Book of Leviticus, and thus it serves as the conclusion of the book. Why would God conclude the Book of Leviticus with regulations which deal with vowed offerings?177 In what way does this subject serve to appropriately and meaningfully bring the book to a close? This problem, too, will be resolved by a consideration of the chapter.
The Approach of This Lesson
In this lesson we will begin by surveying some of the specifics of the chapter, and then proceed to make some observations and generalizations about the chapter as a whole. We will then press beyond the chapter to compare its teaching with the rest of the Old Testament. Next, we will seek to learn how the Israelites’ practice conformed to the principles and precepts God laid down concerning vows. Then we shall look at the New Testament, to see how its teaching adopts or amends the teaching of the Old Testament. Finally, we will identify those principles which are both permanent and pertinent, and suggest some of their practical applications for New Testament Christians.
The Structure of Leviticus 27
The key to the structure of chapter 27 is to be found by the categories of things which are vowed as offerings to God:
- Vows of people—vv. 1-8
- Vows of animals—vv. 9-13
- Vowed houses—vv. 14-15
- Vowed inheritance (family land) vv. 16-21
- Vowed (non-family) land—vv. 22-25
- Illicit vows—vv. 26-33
- Conclusion—v. 34
In a very systematic and thorough fashion, the chapter deals with the various kinds of things which men may promise to dedicate to God. Regulations appropriate to each are then specified.
The Definition of a Vow
Simply viewed, offering a vow178 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. The Rabbis believed that the gifts which were vowed in Leviticus 27 were to be used for the maintenance of the Temple.179
Numerous examples of vows similar to those of Leviticus 27 can be found in the Bible. Jacob vowed to pay a tithe if God would bless and keep him (Gen. 28:20-22). The Nazarite vow is defined in Numbers chapter 6 and Samson (Judg. 13) is the most famous Old Testament example. When the Israelites fought the Canaanite king of Arad, they vowed to utterly destroy their cities if God gave them victory (Num. 21:1-3). The most tragic vow is that of Jephthah, who vowed to offer to God the first thing to come from his tent to greet him, which proved to be his only daughter (Judges 11:29-40). Hannah vowed that if God gave her a son she would give him to the Lord all his life (1 Sam. 1:10-11). Jonah’s vow was made from the belly of the great fish that had swallowed him (Jonah 2:9). Vows were also made by the heathen (Jonah 1:16). In the New Testament, we find that Paul continued to make vows and fulfill them (Acts 18:18; cf. 21:23).
The vows of Leviticus chapter 27 were voluntary promises to offer a particular gift180 to God. Specifically in mind in our text are those vows which God knew men did not wish to keep. God anticipates that the vows which are made at one moment in time may be regretted later, and thus the offerer will attempt, in one way or another, to renege on them, to replace one offering for another, or to somehow reduce what was offered.
Specific Regulations for Particular Gifts
Time will not permit a detailed analysis of each section of the chapter, but it is important to get a feel of some of the particular regulations which are laid down in this chapter. We will therefore briefly survey each section of the text.
The Gift of Persons (vv. 1-8)
Persons and 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 (working the fields which might be dedicated?). 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. There is therefore no demeaning of women here, or of the young or elderly, but only a recognition of what value this person had in the market place.
While a 20% penalty is paid by those who would redeem various other possessions devoted to God, no such penalty is named here. The value that is set on each person seems to be the price which would have to be paid to redeem that person. The price was high enough that no additional penalty needed to be assessed.181 There is a gracious provision here, for if a person was overtaken by poverty, the priests could determine a lower redemption price (27:8).
The Gift of Animals (vv. 9-13)
Verses 9-13 lay down regulations regarding the gift of animals, both the clean animals, which could be offered to God (vv. 9-10), and the unclean (vv. 11-13), which could be used by the priests or sold. No animal which could be an offering could be redeemed, nor could it be exchanged for another. I can imagine a man changing his mind and wanting to offer a less valuable animal in place of the more desirable one. To preclude this from happening, if a substitution were made, both animals are now holy, and will be used for sacrifices. To put the matter in more contemporary terms, if a man vowed to give God his Rolls Royce, and then attempted to substitute a Mercedes Benz in its place, both automobiles would become God’s.
Unclean animals, animals which could not be offered as a sacrifice, could be redeemed. The value of the animal would be set by the priest, and a 20% penalty would be added if the offerer wished to buy this animal back.
The Gift of a House (vv. 14-15)
It is not stated as such, but the house which is given here may be that which is not a part of the family estate, but another piece of property, which would not revert to the owner in the year of jubilee.182 The value of the house would be established by the priest, and the house may be redeemed by the payment of that value, plus a 20% penalty.
The Gift of Fields of One’s Family Inheritance (vv. 16-21)
One might also dedicate a portion of his family inheritance, that property which would revert to the owner or his heirs in the year of jubilee. The value of this property was to be determined by the amount of seed it took to plant the field. To redeem the field, the donor would be required to pay 50 shekels of silver for every homer of barley seed required for planting. It would seem that this was 50 shekels for the 50 years till jubilee, and thus one shekel per year, per homer of barley seed used.183 The number of years remaining till jubilee would determine the value of the gift, as well as the price required to redeem it (plus the 20% penalty fee, v. 19). If the man who dedicated this field attempts to negate his vow by selling this property to another (apparently without the knowledge of the purchaser), the property would then revert to the Lord in the jubilee, and not to the original owner who devoted it to God by a vow. The property would then become the possession of the priest.
The Gift of Purchased Fields (vv. 22-25)
A man might purchase the fields of a fellow-Israelite and then devote these to God as an offering. If so, the priest would determine the value of this property, taking into account the number of years till the jubilee. It seems that payment of the cash value of the property was to be made in advance in this case (“on that day,” v. 23). When the year of jubilee arrived, the land would revert to its original owner and not to the donor (v. 24).
The monetary standard when establishing the value of property was the “shekel of the sanctuary” (v. 25; cf. Exod. 30:13; Num. 3:47; 18:16). No doubt some devious Israelite may have tried to pay off his debt to the Lord according to some other monetary standard, which was of a lesser value. The shekel was to be twenty gerahs. No room for monetary manipulation here.
Prohibited Gifts (vv. 26-34)
Not only might some be tempted to pay their obligation to the Lord with money of a lesser value, but some would even be so bold as to devote something to God by a vow which was already His. These prohibited gifts are enumerated in the final verses of the chapter.
The first born among the animals already belonged to God (cf. Exod. 13:2), and thus could not be vowed to Him as a dedicated gift (vv. 26-27). Any unclean first-born animal could be redeemed by paying its value, plus 20%.
Any “proscribed thing,”184 that which was already devoted to the Lord, could not be vowed as a gift to the Lord, nor could it be redeemed (vv. 28-29). The person who was under the ban could not be redeemed, but must be put to death.
The tithes which already belonged to the Lord could not be dedicated to the Lord as a vow, either (vv. 30-33). If a man wished to redeem any of his produce from the land, he would have to pay the 20% penalty. The tithe of the flock, however, could not be redeemed, and the selection of the tenth animal must not in any way be manipulated. To attempt to exchange an animal in place of the 10th animal constituted both animals to be an offering to the Lord.
Overall Observations of Leviticus 27
(1) The entire chapter deals with those gifts which men have voluntarily purposed and promised to dedicate to God. It is very clear in this chapter and from the context of Leviticus as a whole that the offerings which are vowed here are purely voluntary. The vow-gifts are always set apart from the gifts which the Israelites were obligated to give their God.
(2) The concern of the chapter is not to instruct the Israelites that they should make such vows, or how they should make them. Not in Leviticus, nor elsewhere in the Bible, do we find any detailed instructions concerning the making of such vows (other than the exhortation to make all vows cautiously and thoughtfully and then to keep them). This seems to be because vow-making was so common in the ancient Near East that this was unnecessary.
(3) The thrust of the chapter is regarding if and how the Israelites can break their vows. The regulations found in Leviticus 27 are those required by the breaking of vows. The values of each offering were precisely determined and the penalties for redeeming the offering were given so that an Israelite would know if he could renege on his vow and, if so, how he was to go about it (primarily this involved how much he was to pay in penalties).
(4) The regulations of this chapter taught the Israelite that it is a costly matter to break one’s vow. In some instances, what was vowed could not be redeemed, and when it could be redeemed, the offerer would do so at a high price. In instances where the Israelite would try to illegitimately avoid the penalty by substituting offerings, he would lose not only his offering, but the substitute as well. One might be able to reverse his vow, but it wouldn’t be done cheaply.
(5) The underlying assumption is that man is a fallen creature, whose commitments will cool and whose religious zeal will wane. The regulations of Leviticus 27 assume that the Israelite who has vowed to make a certain freewill offering to God will very likely cool in his enthusiasm and will therefore attempt to break his vow or to lower the price or the quality of his offering. None of the regulations of chapter 27 would have been necessary if it were not for the fall of man and for his sin, which dampened his enthusiasm, minimized his generosity, and hindered his worship.
Vows in the Old Testament
There are many Old Testament texts dealing with vows. The instruction of these texts concerning vows can largely be summed up in two statements, which are referred to by our Lord, “Again, you have heard that the ancients were told, ‘You shall not make false vows, but shall fulfill your vows to the Lord.’”(Matt. 5:33).
I understand the “false vow” to be a vow which would not, in the final analysis, be kept. It may have been a vow made sincerely at the time, but then was forgotten, regretted, or for some reason not fulfilled. It may even have been a vow which was never intended to be kept, even when it was made. In addition to warning against the making of false vows, the Old Testament was understood to teach that a vow which was made should be kept. These words, repeated by our Lord, were merely a repetition of what the Old Testament had taught:
“When you make a vow to the LORD your God, you shall not delay to pay it, for it would be sin in you, and the LORD your God will surely require it of you. However, if you refrain from vowing, it would not be sin in you. You shall be careful to perform what goes out from your lips, just as you have voluntarily vowed to the LORD your God, what you have promised” (Deut. 23:21-23).
It is a snare for a man to say rashly, “It is holy!” And after the vows to make inquiry (Prov. 20:25).
When you make a vow to God, do not be late in paying it, for He takes no delight in fools. Pay what you vow! It is better that you should not vow than that you should vow and not pay. Do not let your speech cause you to sin and do not say in the presence of the messenger of God that it was a mistake. Why should God be angry on account of your voice and destroy the work of your hands? For in many dreams and in many words there is emptiness. Rather, fear God (Ecc. 5:4-7).
The Unique Contribution of Leviticus 27
While the teaching of Leviticus is consistent with that of the Old Testament as a whole, it makes some unique contributions. There are three principle lessons to be learned from the legislation of Leviticus 27, which set this chapter apart in its emphasis and methods. Let us consider each of these.
Leviticus 27 teaches men to be cautious about the vows they make, but in a different way than elsewhere. There are three principle ways in which the people of God are cautioned about making vows hastily, and without due consideration. First, there is the method of teaching. In the Law there are clear statements of warning and instruction about hasty vows, as we see above. Second, one can use examples and illustrations to teach. The Old Testament gives us several examples of men who made foolish vows, the most notable example being Jephthah, who vowed so generally that his daughter became the offering to the Lord (Judg. 11:29-40). Thirdly, you can teach men to do what is right by making disobedience painful and costly. In Leviticus 27 the Israelites are taught the folly of hasty commitments by specifying that some vows cannot be reversed, and that in those cases which can be redemption of that which was vowed will be costly. This third method, the method of Leviticus 27, we might call “economic sanctions.”
Our government has learned that the most powerful and persuasive means of modifying the conduct of other nations is that of economic sanctions. Men may not respond to logic and reasoning, or even take heed to the fate of others, who have made similar mistakes. But they can be expected to take heart when they are hit hard in the pocket book or in the bank account.
This can be seen in the enforcement of traffic laws. Everyone agrees in principle that a school zone is one place which requires a reduction in speed. We hardly need to be taught the reasons for such laws. We may be shown gruesome pictures of the failure of men to heed such laws. But the most powerful incentive for us to keep these laws is knowing that it will cost us a bundle if we don’t.
This is precisely the contribution of the regulations of Leviticus 27. Elsewhere men are taught that they need not make vows, and that when they do, these should be made very thoughtfully, and that all vows ought then to be kept. Accounts such as the story of Jephthah’s vow serve as an example of the consequences which others have paid for foolish vows. But our text informs men of the price which they must pay for making vows they don’t keep. In the final analysis, the economic sanctions prescribed here speak most loudly.
In most legal transactions we are warned that we should “read the fine print” so that we know what we are agreeing to. In Leviticus 27 the “fine print” is printed in capital letters, boldfaced, and underscored, so that we cannot fail to understand the penalty for breaking our vows.
Furthermore, Leviticus 27 concludes the entire book by focusing the Israelites’ attention on the highest form of worship which men can experience. Earlier chapters of Leviticus have largely dealt with compulsory offerings and obedience. The final chapter of the book deals with that which is purely voluntary. While the first obedience is that of duty, the second is that of delight.
The voluntary act of worshipping God by means of vows is the highest form of Old Testament worship. The legislation of this chapter assumes that men will, out of gratitude to God for His mercy and grace, make offerings which were the Israelites’ response to love, not to Law. How appropriate for the Book of Leviticus to end on a note of love, rather than of law, on a note of delight, rather than duty.
When our Lord instructed those who were forced to go one mile to go two instead (Matt. 5:41), He was suggesting that there is no virtue in going only the one mile. After all, they were being “forced” to go that one mile. There is less virtue in doing what one must than there is of doing what is purely volitional and voluntary. So, too, in speaking of one’s response to the cruelty of a harsh master, Peter tells his readers: “For what credit is there if, when you sin and are harshly treated, you endure it with patience? But if when you do what is right and suffer for it you patiently endure it, this finds favor with God” (1 Pet. 2:20). The voluntary vow-offerings which are dealt with in Leviticus 27 are of this “higher level” kind of conduct, which pleases God. What better way to end Leviticus than with the ideal form of worship?
The teaching of Leviticus 27 is closely related to that of chapter 26. I have just begun to appreciate the close proximity of our text to the “blessings and cursings” of chapter 26. The blessings and cursings are God’s promises, either of prosperity or of poverty, of blessing or discipline. It is not hard to understand why chapter 27 deals with man’s vows, man’s promises. God’s people, Israel, were to imitate God, to represent Him on the earth. When God’s people failed to keep their vows they not only sinned by disobeying His regulations concerning vows, they also caused men to become doubtful of all promises. Just as the newspaper headline of this week expressed surprise that any politician would keep his vows, so Israel’s disregard of her vows caused men to doubt all commitments, even God’s. For the Israelites to take their vows lightly was to negate the impact which God’s promises of blessing or cursing was intended to have as an incentive to faithfulness and obedience to God’s word. The promises of God are the basis for our faith and obedience. God will keep His commitments, and thus we should act accordingly.
Finally, this text reminds the reader of the fallenness of man. The depravity of man is assumed, and is the underlying reason for all of the legislation of chapter 27. We could go further and say that it is the sinfulness of man which is the underlying reason for all of the regulations of the Book of Leviticus. The reason why God was separated from man and could only be approached through the shed blood of a sacrifice was that man was contaminated by sin.
Even in engaging in the highest form of human activity—worship—man’s sin had to be taken into consideration. In a moment of despair or desperate straits, the Israelite called to God for deliverance and promised to make a certain offering to Him if He answered his prayers. Yet even when God marvelously intervened and answered this prayer the one who made his vow often had second thoughts. Sin contaminates and corrupts worship, just as it does all else, and Leviticus makes provision for this reality.
Putting Israel’s Promises Into Practice
Having gained a sense of what one’s vow could be from the Law of Moses, we do find a number of instances in which the vows of individuals were kept, with generosity and gratitude. One of the most beautiful accounts of a vow kept is found in 1 Samuel chapter 1, where Hannah vowed that if God were give her a son, she would dedicate him for temple service all his life. Hannah kept her vow, though it must have broken this mother’s heart to leave this child at the temple, to be raised by someone else.
The psalms provide us with numerous examples of the praise and thanksgiving which accompanied the offerings of those who had vowed to worship God if He would hear their petitions:
Thy vows are binding upon me, O God; I will render thank offerings to Thee. For Thou hast delivered my soul from death, Indeed my feet from stumbling, So that I may walk before God In the light of the living (Ps. 56:12-13).
I shall come into Thy house with burnt offerings; I shall pay Thee my vows, Which my lips uttered And my mouth spoke when I was in distress. I shall offer to Thee burnt offerings of fat beasts, With the smoke of rams; I shall make an offering of bulls with male goats (Ps. 66:13-15; cf. also Ps. 22:25; 50:14; 61:5, 8; 65:1; 76:11; 116:14, 18; 132:1-5).
Sad to say, however, that these instances of those who kept their vows were not typical of the Israelites. In the Book of Leviticus God had commanded that only perfect specimens be offered to Him as a special vow (Lev. 22:21).185 Yet the prophet Malachi had to rebuke the people of God for offering their defective animals to Him: “‘But when you present the blind for sacrifice, is it not evil? And when you present the lame and sick, is it not evil? Why not offer it to your governor? Would he be pleased with you? Or would he receive you kindly?’ says the LORD of hosts” (Mal. 1:8). While Malachi is not speaking only of special votive offerings, surely these would have been included in his rebuke. The nation had come to resent their offerings, rather than to rejoice in them. This was an evidence of their hardness of hearts which would require divine discipline. The ideal worship which we find discussed in Leviticus 27 was seldom practiced; instead, the corruptions which our text sought to prevent had become the rule of the day. If worship was ever to reach God’s ideal, something would have to happen to make it possible.
Vows in the New Testament
The first statement concerning vows in the New Testament, to which we have already referred, came from the lips of our Lord in the Sermon on the Mount:
“Again, you have heard that the ancients were, told, ‘You shall not make false vows, but shall fulfill your vows to the Lord.’ But I say to you, make no oath at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is the footstool of His feet, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King” (Matt. 5:33-35).
The first thing we should note is the fact that the statement which our Lord refers accurately conveys the teaching of the Old Testament. The problem is not with the statement, but what was made of it in application. The Judaism of Jesus’ day had come to view this teaching as meaning that the only statements a man would make which he had to keep was his vows. In other words, in practice Judaism thought that only one’s vows must be true and fulfilled, but that falsehood in any other context was legitimate. A vow therefore became a very separate category of affirmation, an oath which must be kept.
Matters were even worse, for later in Matthew we find that there were certain oaths which were thought not to be binding, while only very technically worded oaths were binding: “Woe to you, blind guides, who say, ‘Whoever swears by the temple, that is nothing; but whoever swears by the gold of the temple, he is obligated’” (Matt. 23:16). And so we see that a legalistic view of vows meant that very few vows were actually kept, or even intended to be kept. This was far from the intent of the Law.
Jesus broadened the requirement of truthfulness to every affirmation, to every commitment which men might make: “But let your statement be, ‘Yes, yes’ or ‘No, no’” (Matt. 5:37). In other words, the Law called upon men to be truthful in every statement, in every affirmation, not just with regard to oaths or vows. Thus, we can say that every commitment, every promise is as good as a vow, and should be spoken with all due consideration, with truthfulness, and then should be kept.
I believe that it is for this reason that the New Testament hardly speaks of vows, but says a great deal about our affirmations and commitments.
In Mark 7:9-13 our Lord condemned the Pharisees and the scribes for the misuse of the vow, which used the “corban” to avoid their responsibilities. Thus, by dedicating their goods to God, they avoided meeting their obligations to the parents. This would have been an especially tempting evil for the priests, for the vowed gifts were both appraised by the priests and used by them. When a priest vowed something to God as a “corban” gift, he got the use of that gift, yet it was technically his, so he could not give of it to his parents.
It would work something like this. If I purchased a new 80386 Compaq computer and my parents wanted to use it some for keeping their financial records or for writing letters, I would solve the problem of sharing with them by giving it to the church. The computer would then be “God’s computer.” When my parents asked if they could use it, I could piously respond, “Oh, I can’t let you do that, it is holy, only to be used by God’s priest.” Thus, the computer is restricted to my use only, and my obligation to help my parents is nullified. Sin always finds a convenient and pious-sounding way to use what is good to accomplish what is evil (cf. Rom. 7).
In the gospel of Luke (14:28-33) our Lord instructed men to “count the cost” before they made the commitment to a given course of action. Because of this, Jesus did not readily accept volunteers to be His disciples, but He spelled out the cost of discipleship and urged them to think about it before promising to follow Him (cf. Luke 9:57-62).
In Paul’s epistle to the Ephesians he emphasized the importance of speaking the truth (Eph. 4:15, 25). In his letter to the Corinthians, Paul encouraged the Corinthian saints to follow through with the gift which they had previously committed to send to Jerusalem (cf. 2 Cor. 9:5, 7). He granted that those whose means had changed for the worse since their commitment need not feel guilty about giving less than they committed (2 Cor. 8:12). The important thing was for people to keep their promise, to give what they had committed, and to do so cheerfully and gratefully (9:7).
In his first epistle to Timothy, Paul encouraged women not to make a hasty commitment to remain single, but rather to remarry, lest at some later time they might meet “Mr. Wonderful” and be tempted to violate their vow (1 Tim. 5:11-15).
James warned of presuming on the future and of putting off the good which could be done today until later. We cannot be presumptuous of what the future will hold, nor dare we delay in meeting the needs of others today when we have the means to do so (James 4:13-17).
In the final chapter of his epistle, James concludes, “But above all, my brethren, do not swear, either by heaven or by earth or with any other oath; but let your yes be yes, and your no, no; so that you may not fall under judgment” (Jas. 5:12).
The teaching of the Old Testament is thus carried through in the New, with added emphasis that every commitment must be carried through, just as the vow should be.
There are several important principles which surface in the light of our study of the final chapter of Leviticus.
(1) Even when men are carrying out their highest calling—the worship of God—their sin hinders and contaminates their deeds. I fear that there are many Christians who suppose that when someone is involved in what may be viewed as “spiritual ministry” they are somehow exempt from temptation and sin. Leviticus chapter 27 should teach us otherwise.
This is not merely an Old Testament phenomenon. In the New Testament Book of Acts we find Ananias and Sapphira trying to reduce their gift, while at the same time representing their offering as the total sum of the proceeds of the sale of their property (Acts 5:1ff.) In 1 Corinthians 11 we see that the saints were drunk and disorderly during the celebration of the Lord’s Table. In Philippians chapter 1 we are told of those who were preaching the gospel out of impure motives. In the New Testament and the Old, man’s sin is ever before him. No activity is ever free from the corrupting influence of sin. Let us constantly be on guard when we worship God (as well as at all other times) that we are realistic about our fallenness and being “prone to wander.”
(2) We are reminded by our study of the “Second Law of Spiritual Thermodynamics.” By this I am referring to the tendency of the saint to “cool” in his spiritual fervor. In most cases when vows are made, I suspect that the individual is sincere and intends to keep that vow. Our text reminds us that regardless of our initial motivation and intentions, time does not work in our favor, but against us. Thus, after the passing of time, we can think of many reasons why our vow was excessive, and we will soon be looking for a way out of keeping our promise.
There are many people who have faced crises and who have, at that time, made commitments to God about serving Him in the future, only to forget them or to renege on them. Our passage reminds us that it is easy to fail to follow through with our commitments. Let us not think that making a dramatic commitment, one grand vow, at one moment in time will solve our problems once and for all. The reality of life is that our enthusiasm will wane, and that our commitments will have to be kept when our emotions are less intense than they once were. Thus, discipline and diligence are required to keep our commitments.
(3) The vows which we make can be evil. Mainly we have considered vows with the assumption that they were, in the beginning, righteous. Such vows become sinful when they are not kept. But there are other vows which are evil from the very beginning. The illicit use of the “corban” is but one example of the corrupt use of a vow. But there are many other vows which are evil at the outset. I am aware of a number of instances in which an individual has vowed not to ever do a certain thing again. This very Sunday, one of the members of our church confessed publicly that he vowed never again to speak publicly before other Christians. This vow was the result of a past disaster in his life, and the vow was a means of protecting him from future pain. Those who have been hurt by those close to them have vowed never to let anyone get close to them again. On and on it goes.
Is it possible the you have made such a vow, my friend? That you, at some point in your life, determined never to do a certain thing again, something which you know to be worthy of doing, something you know God’s word commands you to do? Such evil vows must be confessed as sin and put away. Vows can be the root of many evils.
(4) Vows can prove to be a very beneficial and significant turning point in the lives of people. Very often our obedience to God’s word drowns in the sea of our good intentions. We plan to walk more closely with God; we hope to be a better husband, wife, father, or mother, but we just never quite get from the wishing stage to the commitment stage. Vows can be a very significant benefit to our spiritual walk by defining what we intend (by God’s grace) to do, and how we will seek to glorify God.
I believe that the Book of Daniel instructs us in the positive role which a vow may play in the life of a saint. The decision of Daniel and his three friends not to eat of the things from the king’s table which were polluted by idol worship was, in effect, a vow. This vow caused Daniel to determine a specific course of action, and to diligently abide by that commitment. I believe that Daniel was thereby a clean vessel, fit for God’s use. I also believe that Daniel understood that only God could enable him to keep his vow, which may be the reason why he refused to cease praying in the way he was accustomed to.
(5) This text should also warn the Christian not to encourage others to make vows hastily, which they will later regret or be inclined to forsake. Many of the fund-raising techniques, used by Christians and non-Christians alike, are inducements to make financial commitments without adequate thought or prayer, which are later regretted. If God’s people are not to make hasty vows, then God’s people should not encourage others to make such vows either.
Unfortunately this same principle applies to our methods of evangelism. Why is it that we feel people must be encouraged to make an immediate commitment to Christ, without thinking this decision through? Are we afraid that they won’t trust Christ apart from our pressure to do so? Are we afraid that if they think it through thoroughly they will decide against Christ? Remember that conversion is the work of the Spirit of God, who convicts and converts men (cf. John 16:8-11). Our Lord never pressured anyone to make a quick decision to trust and to follow Him. He always encouraged would-be disciples to “count the cost.” Let us imitate our Lord in doing likewise.
As we close this message, let me ask you if there are some vows in your life which should have been made, and which need to be reversed. I believe that God will gladly release you from an evil vow, although it may cost you something to do so. After all, it cost the Israelite to be released from his vow!
Now, may I ask you to consider whether or not there are vows which you have made which you have not kept, but you need to fulfill. If God brings some promises you have made to your mind, I urge you to do what God has commanded, to fulfill your promise, lest it be sin.
Finally, I urge you to consider whether or not there are vows which you ought to make. Vows which are based upon your gratitude toward God and your desire to worship and serve Him. Vows which are dependent upon God to enable you to perform. Vows which you will, by God’s grace, keep. The first such vow is a decision, a commitment to trust in Jesus Christ for eternal salvation, and to become His disciple. May God touch your heart so that you will make and keep this and other vows, to His glory and for your good.
177 Many seem to view chapter 27 as an appendix, which is just sort of attached, but of no great value. Bamberger seems to come to this conclusion: “In general, it appears that this chapter is a collection of old materials, which with some later additions, was appended to the Book of Leviticus after the latter was virtually completed, and that the tochechah was intended as the original ending of the book.” Bernard J. Bamberger, The Torah: A Modern Commentary (New York: Union of American Hebrew Congregations, 1979), III, p. 307.
Conservative scholars do not really have a very good explanation, although they avoid the error of attributing this chapter to a later writer, which is then appended to the book. The best (although not very satisfying) explanation from a conservative which I have seen is that expressed by Harrison: “Leviticus began with regulations concerning sanctuary offerings, and it is appropriate that it should conclude on the same theme.” R. K. Harrison, Leviticus: An Introduction and Commentary (Downers Grove: Inter-Varsity Press, 1980), p. 235.
178 Keil and Delitzsch define the term vow in this way: “… a vow was a promise made by any one to dedicate and give his own person, or a portion of his property, to the Lord for averting some danger and distress, or for bringing to his possession some desired earthly good.—Besides ordinary vowing or promising to give, there was also vowing away, or the vow of renunciation, as is evident from Num. xxx. This chapter before us treats only of ordinary vowing, …” C. F. Keil and F. Delitzsch, Biblical Commentary on the Old Testament, trans. by James Martin (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1968 [reprint]), II, p. 480.
179 “According to the halachah, then, vowed sums, as well as the consecrated items discussed below, were applied to the maintenance of the Temple.” Bamberger, III, p. 306.
180 Bamberger notes the different kinds of gifts dealt with in Leviticus 27: “Three types of gifts are treated: (1) the money equivalent of a person, erech, erkecha; (2) the dedication of cattle or real property, hekdesh —such a gift being subject to redemption if the donor pays its value plus 20 per cent; (3) the irreversible gift, cherem.” Bamberger, III, p. 305.
181 “To free themselves from the vow, they had instead to pay to the sanctuary the price they would have commanded in the slave market. Fifty shekels was a reasonable price for a male adult slave (v. 3; cf. 2 K. 15:20). Twenty shekels was paid for a boy (v. 5; cf. Gen. 37:2, 28). Women generally fetched less than men in the market, so if they vowed themselves to God they had to pay less: 50-67 percent of the male rate according to vv. 4-7. That children are included in this table suggests that a man might vow his family as well as his own person to God.
“These figures are very large. The average wage of a worker in biblical times was about one shekel per month. It is little wonder that few could afford the valuations set out here (v. 8).” Gordon J. Wenham, The Book of Leviticus (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1979), p. 338.
182 “It seems likely that the houses referred to here are town houses, which did not count as part of a family’s estate and therefore could be bought and sold freely (cf. 25:29ff.).” Ibid., p. 339.
183 “In Mesopotamia the standard price of barley was a shekel per homer, so that the annual valuation of one shekel per year for a field of one homer seems quite appropriate here. The value of the field was thus equal to the value of the crops it would produce until the jubilee.” Ibid., p. 340.
184 “The third section (verses 28-30) employs the noun cherem and related verb forms. These words indicate something forbidden and inviolable. The Arabic word from which our English “harem” is derived is related to the Hebrew cherem. A slightly different form of the Arabic term is used for certain holy areas, in Mecca and elsewhere, from which non-Moslems are barred.
“In the Bible, cherem appears most often in the context of war. It means the extermination of defeated enemies. As regards booty, cherem requires that the spoil must either be destroyed or put into a sacred treasury (Exod. 22:19; Num. 21:2f. with footnotes; Deut. 2:34f.; and elsewhere). If anyone appropriates an object that has been declared cherem he himself becomes cherem and must be put to death (Deut. 7:25f.; Josh. 7:1ff.) The present Torah translation renders the root most often by ‘proscribe,’ a term, derived from Roman practice, which comes fairly close to the meaning of the Hebrew. Sometimes the root is translated ‘doom,’ as in Deuteronomy 2:34.” Bamberger, III, p. 306.
185 “When the shepherd was ‘rodding’ his sheep, he used it to hold the animals back at the door of the sheepfold while he inspected each one of them for injury or damage. The newly born ones would be examined similarly for imperfections. This section prohibits the owners of flocks and herds from engaging in an arbitrary or haphazard selection of animals to be offered to God. …” Harrison, p. 238.