If a man makes a vow to the LORD or swears an oath to obligate himself by a pledge, he must not break his word; he must do everything he has promised.
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.
I. THE CASE SUPPOSED. "If a man vow a vow unto the Lord, or swear an oath to bind his soul with a bond."
If a man vow a vow unto the Lord.
(J. Cross, D. D.)
1. The vow is made unto God. He is the only true and proper object of religious vows.
2. The vow binds the soul. "Swear an oath to bind his soul with a bond." "A promise to man is a bond upon the estate, but a promise to God is a bond upon the soul."
3. The vow is voluntarily made.
4. The thing vowed must be lawful.
II. THE DANGER IMPLIED. "He shall not break his word," &c. There is in human nature a deep-rooted tendency to forget in health the vows which were made in sickness, and to ignore in our security and peace the vows we made in our danger and alarm.
III. THE COMMAND GIVEN.
1. That he shall perform his vow. "He shall not break his word."
2. That he shall fully perform his vow. "He shall do according to all that proceedeth out of his mouth."Conclusion: Appeal to those who have unfulfilled vows resting upon them.
1. Baptismal vows, in the case of some of you, are unfulfilled.
2. Vows made in affliction or danger by some of you have not been paid.
Christian Age.It is not an idle or dangerous thing to form good resolutions, and make promises, and enter into pledges and covenants anew. A promise is often a bud; the attempt to keep it a flower, and success therein the fruit. Some would discourage all promises and pledges lest they be broken. We might as well bid all the trees in the spring-time keep back their buds for fear of late frost, or warn them against opening their hearts to the sun lest they be betrayed and blighted.
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