How good is your word?

Series on Numbers (ch. 6:1-8)

“Again the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, ‘Speak to the sons of Israel, and say to them, “When a man or woman makes a special vow, the vow of a Nazirite, to dedicate himself to the Lord, he shall abstain from wine and strong drink; he shall drink no vinegar, whether made from wine or strong drink, neither shall he drink any grape juice, nor eat fresh or dried grapes. All the days of his separation he shall not eat anything that is produced by the grape vine, from the seeds even to the skin. All the days of his vow of separation no razor shall pass over his head. He shall be holy until the days are fulfilled for which he separated himself to the Lord; he shall let the locks of hair on his head grow long. All the days of his separation to the Lord he shall not go near to a dead person. He shall not make himself unclean for his father or for his mother, for his brother or for his sister, when they die, because his separation to God is on his head. All the days of his separation he is holy to the Lord”’” (6:1-8).

Introduction:

During World War II, a watchword was spread among the Allies. It was posted in factories and neighborhoods. With so many movements of men and supplies to Europe and Asia, information concerning the exact departures of the convoys was a closely guarded secret. The posters read: “Loose lips sink ships.”

God has always been concerned about the words we say. Jesus once made the statement, "For the mouth speaks out of that which fills the heart." The good man, out of his good treasure, brings forth what is good; and the evil man, out of his evil treasure, brings forth what is evil. And I say to you, that every careless word that men shall speak, they shall render account for it in the day of judgment (Matthew 12:34b-36). God was especially concerned when men’s words were directed toward Him regarding what they pledged to say or do. The Biblical term for such a statement is a vow or an oath. In Numbers 6:1-8, Moses writes concerning the taking of a vow or an oath by the ordinary Israelite. It was termed “the vow of a Nazerite” (6:2). It was a matter of free choice and not a commandment of the Law of Moses. It was, however, an opportunity for any person to practice godliness and piety. The vow was to be taken for a short time only. No particular period was stipulated; but the Mishna, a Jewish commentary on the Old Testament, prescribed it to be a period of thirty days. A double or triple period could be entered into; but it was not obligatory to extend the length of the vow. Though the law did not demand that a vow be taken, should an Israelite take such a vow, God considered it a serious pact and one to be kept. Therefore, God imposed regulations to be followed once a vow was sworn to be kept. First, the law stated that a change in diet was required. The Nazirite had to leave off anything associated with the grapevine. This was a sign that nothing would interrupt the task of keeping the vow. Imagine a lover of potatoes (like me) leaving off potatoes in any form from his diet for a month. That would mean no sweet potatoes, no baked potatoes, no French fries, no hash browns, no Tater Tots, no mashed potatoes and gravy, no potato soup, no potato chips, no potato pancakes, etc. For me that would be a sacrifice! Second, there could be no shaving of the head (no haircuts). Hair to the Jew was a sign of strength and vitality. It was worn as a sign of honor from God. Third, nothing sacred could be offered in a vow, namely, anything that had already been dedicated to God such as their tithe. This would be a double pledge since it already belonged to God and would not represent much of a sacrifice. We recall in Jesus’ day the abuse of dedicated items referred to as Corban (Mark 7:10-13). Fourth, nothing profane or unclean could be offered. God considered that an abomination of His law and holiness. Fifth, God expected the vow to be kept once taken (30:2; Deuteronomy 23:21-23). Sixth, if one accidentally profaned himself during the vow, then he was required to start the period of abstention over again.

I. Old Testament examples

Few Jews ever became lifetime Nazirites. Samson was a Nazirite from birth (Judges 13:5), as were Samuel and John the Baptist. The Old Testament gives an example of a very foolish vow; one that may have cost a life. In Judges 11:30, 31, Jephthah made a vow with a noble purpose. He desired the Lord’s help in overthrowing the Ammonites. However, his wording of what his part would be was foolish. He vowed, “Whatever comes out of the doors of my house to meet me when I return in peace from the sons of Ammon, it shall be the Lord’s, and I will offer it up as a burnt offering” (Judges 11:31). God kept His part by helping Jephthah defeat the Ammonites. However, that which came first to greet him after the battle was his own daughter. Since God had kept His part of the vow, Jephthah was obligated to keep his part. After a period of mourning, his daughter may have been sacrificed. A beautiful example in the Old Testament, however, helps to balance our view of vows. Hannah pledged to give her son to the Lord if He would bless her barrenness. God kept His part of the vow, and after the weaning the child, Hannah brought the soon-to-be great prophet, Samuel to live with Eli the priest in the house of the Lord (1 Samuel 2:11). Because she had faithfully kept her vow to the Lord, He blessed her with other children (1 Samuel 2:21).

Solomon gave this sound advice concerning the manner of our speech: "Guard your steps as you go to the house of God, and draw near to listen rather than to offer the sacrifice of fools; for they do not know they are doing evil. Do not be hasty in word or impulsive in thought to bring up a matter in the presence of God. For God is in heaven and you are on the earth; therefore let your words be few. For the dream comes through much effort, and the voice of a fool through many words. 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. Rather, fear God" (Ecclesiastes 5:1-7).

II. New Testament examples

Jesus corrected the foolishness of the Pharisees, in His Sermon on the Mount, as He addressed the question of vows and oaths before God. They were making vows and taking them lightly. God considered their doing so a very serious matter (Matthew 5:33-37). Examples are seen in the New Testament of those who were serious in their dedications to God. These examples also reflect the seriousness of God concerning those who took such pledges. In Acts 5:1-4 a voluntary contribution was made by some of the saints in Jerusalem toward needy brethren. However, when these voluntary pledges were made in the presence of God and the apostles, they were expected to be carried out. The lying and subsequent deaths of Ananias and Sapphira demonstrate that God was serious, even about a voluntary pledge which was made. Later, in Acts, Paul and Barnabas were set aside, by the Spirit and the church at Antioch, for a mission endeavor. The whole church fasted and prayed during this time of dedication to this evangelistic effort (Acts 13:3). Later in his ministry Paul had to correct a problem in the Corinthian congregation. Some couples were vowing too long a period of abstinence from each other and marital difficulties were arising (1 Corinthians 7:1-5). James sums up God’s attitude toward vows. Our promises and pledges to Him must be simple. “Let your yes be yes, and your no, no; so that you may not fall under judgment” (James 5:12).

One might ask, “What kinds of things, then, should I vow to the Lord?” Perhaps we can put the question in its proper perspective by viewing what would be a foolish vow to the Lord. It would, for example, be foolish to vow that we will never sin again after our baptism or after our latest prayer for forgiveness. God knows our humanity and the devil’s persistence. That would be an impossible vow to keep, no matter how great our desire. Have you ever backed out of a commitment to God? I read an illustration of a man on a plane trip and the aircraft ran into severe turbulence. A preacher, in the seat next to this passenger, overheard the man praying. “If You will just get me through the storm, as a businessman, I will give You half of all I own,” the man vowed. Soon the plane flew out of the bad weather, and upon landing, the preacher reminded the man of his pledge. The man responded, “I just made God a better deal. If I ever get on a plane again, I’ll give Him everything I own!” This may be a humorous story, but can we technically change what we have vowed to God to something else? In our stewardship to God, have we vowed to give the Lord a certain amount and then given less? Have we promised to complete a church project and then failed to do so? Circumstances always arise that may cause some temporary change in our plans; but is God pleased when we go back on our word to Him? How good is our word?

Why is it hard for us to keep our commitments? Here are several reasons that could be given. First, we usually do not consecrate ourselves to the task. We simply do not set other things aside to accomplish something specific. Other concerns press for our time and attention. We often do not make the spiritual project a priority item. Second, Satan will attempt to hinder us. In 1 Thessalonians 2:18, Paul said that Satan hindered him on more than one occasion. Satan will do anything to sidetrack us from doing God’s will. I have been in Bible studies during which the phone would ring at a crucial time and interrupt the whole study. I have been tempted to pick up the receiver and say, “Hello, Satan, what do you want?” Satan can work on our attitudes, and we become discouraged and cannot complete our tasks. He will try to fill us with selfishness; so that, we begin to think of our wants rather than God’s will.

How can we be challenged to make and fulfill voluntary vows to God? First, we must take inventory of what we could dedicate to Him. Paul told Timothy to discipline himself “for the purpose of godliness; for bodily discipline is only of little profit, but godliness is profitable for all things, since it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come” (1 Timothy 4:7, 8). Second, like a diet or exercise, we need to make our commitments in short time frames. Do not vow to read the Bible, every day, for a year, if you have not done it before. Like the Nazirite, try thirty days. At the end of that time, try another thirty, and soon, it will be a year. Take small steps and rejoice in small victories. Small steps will soon grow into large ones. Third, count the cost. What will it take to fulfill this vow? Knowing what obstacles lie ahead and what we will have to avoid is half the battle in fulfilling the pledge.

Conclusion:

The Lord takes seriously our pledges to Him. You cannot name a single promise or blessing that He will not give back when we have accomplished our part. What is it that you are giving to God? How good is your word in fulfilling what you promised to do for Him? Considering all that He has already done for us, is there not something we can do for Him?