Pulpit Commentary Homiletics
I. NOTICE THE ABSENCE OF ANY REFERENCE TO THE SUBJECT MATTER OF THE VOW. Moses does not say anything as to certain vows being right and certain others being wrong. This was not needed, and would only have taken away from the sharp and clear announcement that a vow once made was not to be lightly esteemed. Even the exemptions from obligation which Moses mentions in the remainder of the chapter are those caused not by anything unlawful in the subject matter of the vow, but by the fact that it proceeded from one who was not a sufficiently free agent to make a vow. It was quite evident that a vow must not contradict any commandment of God, nor infringe any right of other men. It must lie within the proper province of a man's own free will; it must concern such things as he can really control. This was what gave the vow its virtue and significance. Certain things were commanded, with respect to which there was no choice but obedience; and outside of these there was still a large field, where the Israelite was left to his own control. What use he would make of this freedom was of course a test of his own disposition. That he must keep clearly within his own freedom was a thing that needed no insisting upon.
II. CONSIDER THE NECESSITY THERE WAS FOR IMPRESSING ON THE ISRAELITES THE SOLEMN OBLIGATION OF THEIR VOWS. How came the Israelite to make a vow? We must recollect that in those days there was a general and practical belief in the power of supernatural beings to give help to men. The Israelites, only too often found unbelievers in Jehovah, were not, therefore, wanting in religious feeling-. When they lost faith in the God of Israel, the lapse was not into atheism, but into idolatry. And thus when their hearts were strongly set on some object, not only did they put forth the effort of self and solicit the aid of others, but especially the aid of Jehovah. And as they sought the aid of their fellow-men under the promise of a recompense, so they sought the aid of Jehovah under a similar promise. Under the influence of strong desires and highly excited feelings all sorts of vows would be made by the Israelites, and some of them, probably, very difficult to carry out. Doubtless there were Israelites not a few with somewhat of Balak's spirit in them. They felt how real was the power of Jehovah, and, being as little acquainted with his character as Balak was, they concluded that his power could be secured on the promise of some sufficient consideration in return. Among an unspiritual people whose minds were filled with a mixture of selfishness and superstition, vows would take the aspect of a commercial transaction. So much indispensable help from God, and, as the price of it, a corresponding return from man. And as the help of God would be felt to require a much greater return than the help of man, so the vow would undertake something beyond the ordinary range of attainment. May we not conclude that the petition connected with the vow was oftentimes answered, and that God for his own wise purposes did give people the desires of their own hearts, even as he did to Hannah? If so, we see at once the difficulty that would often arise in fulfilling the vow. We know how the desire of a man's heart, once accomplished, is often felt to be unworthy of the effort and expenditure. Thus there would be a strong temptation to neglect the fulfilling of the vow if it could be safely managed. It was an invisible God who had to be dealt with; and ready enough as the Israelite might be to believe in Jehovah as long as it was for self-advantage, the faith in him and the fear of him would begin to wax feeble when it wan a question of meeting what had proved a profitless engagement. A vow to an idol was really a vow to be paid to avaricious and watchful priests. A promise made to a fellow-man he may be trusted to exact. But what is a vow to the invisible God? "I may neglect it with impunity," is the thought in the Israelite's heart (Psalm 1:21; 73:11). But the impunity was a delusion. God had marked the vow only too carefully; and it was less harm for a man to go with some heavy burden and great hindrance hanging about him all the days of his life, than that the sanctity of the vow or oath should be slighted in the smallest degree.
III. CONSIDER HOW THE PRINCIPLES THAT UNDERLIE THIS INJUNCTION ARE TO BE CARRIED OUT BY CHRISTIANS. We are passed into an age when vows are not commonly made. Most of those whose thoughts are filled with the desires of their own hearts do not believe in the power of God to help them. And Christians ought to be free from such desires. It is their part to pray the prayer of the Collect for the fourth Sunday after Easter: "Grant unto thy people that they may love the thing which thou commandest, and desire that which thou dost promise." But though modern Christians may not have the same inducements to make vows as ancient Israelites, still there are certain principles and duties underlying this injunction of Moses which deserve our careful regard.
1. Consider well the great projects and ruling views of your life. Let the prayer of the above Collect be uttered on every Sunday and week-day throughout the year. Enter only on such undertakings as not merely accord with God's will, but spring from it, Nothing really accords with God's will save what springs from it. The sooner we discover that the most practicable life and the most blessed one is that of being not our own masters, but what the apostles learned to be, servants of the Lord Jesus Christ (Romans 1:1; Philippians 1:1; James 1:1; 2 Peter 1:1; Revelation 1:1), the better it will be for us. We shall not then enter upon undertakings which we lack the skill, the resources, and perhaps the heart to finish. This very injunction of Moses is a suggestion of the difficulties which come from a wrong choice. Under the power of excitement and in the ignorance of inexperience we may enter into engagements which afterwards become the burden and curse of life.
2. Consider wherein the evil of a broken vow really consists. Do not suppose that God considers it worse to violate a vow or an oath than to violate any other promise. Truth for the sake of truth is a sacred thing in the eyes of God. Who can doubt that in his sight the affirmation, now happily allowed in courts of justice, is as binding as any oath whatsoever? Not but what a solemn appeal to the universal presence and all-seeing eye of Almighty God, if made voluntarily, and with evident conviction, earnestness, and sincerity in the mode of expression, is of great service in pressing home the truth. Witness the force of such an appeal in the writings of Paul. The evil has been in forcing the oath on all men irrespective of their disposition. No forced oath will make the liar really truthful; and no forced oath can make the truthful man anything more than truthful. Administering oaths to a man of veracity is like holding a candle to make the sun shine. As has been truly said, the compelled oath makes the ignorant and superstitious to think that there are two kinds of truth, and that it is harmless to say, free from an oath, what it would be very wicked to say under it.
3. Consider what deliberation is required in entering on the obligations of the Christian profession. Here are promises which it is right to make; yet they must be made with due caution, circumspection, and inquiry. Christ would have us avoid with equal care the perils of haste and procrastination. We cannot begin too soon seriously to consider the claims of God upon us, but we are warned against hastily plunging into obligations which before long may be altogether too much for our worldly hearts. It is only too evident that many are led into a profession of religion, either in a fit of excitement which cannot be sustained, and which, indeed, would be of no use if it could be sustained, or by an insufficient consideration of all that a profession of religion includes. Our Lord stops us at the very beginning with an earnest entreaty to measure well what we are about, and understand exactly what it is that he asks. We must not mistake his demands and claims, and put some notion of our own in place of them (Matthew 7:21-29; Matthew 16:24-26; Luke 9:57, 58; Luke 14:25, 35; John 6:44).
4. Consider the great peril of being unfaithful to the knowledge of what is right. It is a dreadful thing to fall away from truth when it is done in the light of knowledge, and in spite of the prickings of conscience. A broken promise, whether to God or man, broken not through infirmity, but of set and selfish purpose, is in God's eye a great transgression. No doubt in many infractions of promise there are complications and difficulties, pros and cons, which prevent every one save the all-searching God himself from determining the real character of the action. We need not make estimates of particular cases unless we are compelled. Let us keep our own hearts with all diligence, and labour to be on the side of self-denial and a good conscience rather than on that of carnal inclinations. God has made his yea and amen felt in Christ Jesus. So may Christ Jesus be able to make his yea and amen felt in the sincerity, simplicity, and straightforwardness of the lives of his people. - Y.
1. By specifying certain exceptions to the validity of the vow, it makes that validity all the more manifest where the exceptions do not obtain. Stating exceptions to a rule is only another way of stating the rule itself.
2. These exceptions relate to the interests of the household, to the preservation of its integrity, and, to this end, of the rights and authority of the person whom God has placed at its head. Moreover, that which secures the right of the father and the husband equally secures the interests of the daughter and the wife. Consider -
I. WHAT THIS COMMAND IMPLIED WITH RESPECT TO THE HEAD OF THE HOUSEHOLD. Let us take the relation of the father and daughter, similar things being true, mutatis mutandis, with respect to the husband and wife.
1. This command honoured parental authority. God had laid a solemn injunction on children to honour father and mother, and we see here how careful he was to honour the parental relation himself. He puts everything in the shape of a vow, everything which the daughter was otherwise free to choose, under the father's control He requires no reason to be given; the simple veto is enough, if only it be uttered at the appointed time. The father had a responsibility which the daughter had not, and it was fitting that God should give the father all possible help in meeting that responsibility.
2. This command required much watchfulness on the part of the father. To act rightly here demanded the whole compass of paternal duty. The father was not allowed to say that his daughter's vow was no business of his. He himself might not be a vowing sort of person, and therefore under no temptation to neglect a vow he was not likely to make. But even if indifferent to vows himself, he was bound to be interested in his daughter's welfare, and do his best to keep her from future difficulties. Her limited life hid many difficulties from her eyes. It was not for a father to expose himself in later days to reproach from the lips of his own daughter. It was not for him to run the risk of hearing her say, "Why did not your larger knowledge and experience shelter me from difficulties which my inexperience could not possibly anticipate?"
3. This command required much consideration on the part of the father. He must not let the vow pass without notice, and when he noticed it must be with proper consideration. While it was within his right to stop the vow, he might in stopping it be doing a very unfatherly thing, a thing very hurtful to the religious life of his daughter. As God had honoured him and undertaken to help him in his fatherly relation, he must honour that relation himself. That relation from which God expects so much must be prepared to yield much in the way of care and consideration. The father may think too much of his own wishes, too little of his daughter's needs, and too little of the will of God. The vow of the daughter might be a rightful, helpful, and exemplary one, a vow of the Nazarite indeed (Numbers 6:2). It was not enough, therefore, for the father to fall back on the mere assertion of authority. It is a serious thing to offend one of the little ones - a serious thing for any one to do; but how unspeakably serious when the hand which casts down the stumbling-block is that of a father!
4. This command required, in order to be fully complied with, sympathy with the voluntary spirit in religion. A father who felt that the services of religion consisted chiefly in exact external conformity with certain rules for worship and conduct would be very likely to stop his daughter's vow as mere whimsicality. But religion must go beyond obedience to verbal commands; it must aim at something more than can be put into even the most exact and expressive of them. Commands are nothing more than finger-posts; and the joys of hope and preparation during the journey are directed towards something lying beyond the last of the finger-posts, The father who would act rightly by all possible wishes of his children must be one who comprehends that experience of John: "We love him because he first loved us" (1 John 4:19). He must be one who feels that love can never be satisfied with mere beaten tracks and conventional grooves. He must be such a one as appreciates the act of the woman who poured the precious ointment on the head of Jesus. If he be a man of the Judas spirit, grudging what he reckons waste, he is sure to go wrong. He will check his children when he ought to encourage them, and encourage when he ought to check. If God opens their eyes he will do his best to close them again, so that the blind father may go on leading the blind children, till at last both fall into the pit.
II. WHAT THIS COMMAND IMPLIED WITH RESPECT TO THE DAUGHTER AND THE WIFE.
1. Their right to make a vow was itself secured. The command did not say that daughter and wife were to make no vow at all. They were as free to make a vow at any man in all Israel; and if it had not been for more important considerations connected with the household, they would also have been free to keep the vow. God would have us to understand that inferior and mutilated duties or privileges are no necessary consequence of a subordinate position.
2. A gentle and patient submission was recommended on the part of the daughter and the wife. The right to propose the vow being secured to every woman, it was no fault of hers, and would be counted no blame, if the father or husband cancelled it. The Nazarite vow might be thwarted in the very freshness of it, but the spirit of zeal which produced it needed not to grow languid. We cannot be hindered in the attainment of any good, save by our own negligence. God will meet us amid all restraints which untoward circumstances may impose upon us. The claims rising out of natural relations and the present needs of human society are imperative while they last, and must be respected. But they will not last for ever. "In the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage" (Matthew 22:30). - Y.