Spiritual Vows and a Voluntary Spirit (Leviticus 27:1-34)
Topic: One Truth: Walk in Truth Passage: Leviticus 22:1–34
If Anyone Makes a Vow
(One Truth: Walk in Truth)
July 22nd, 2018
I. An Overview Going Over Vows
What would you say if I told you that, this very morning, I made it clear to God that if he blessed our morning Gathering with 200 worshipers, I would sell my car and donate the proceeds to the Phoenix Rescue Mission? Would that kind of commitment sound like a good idea? Does it sound like the decision of a mature follower of Christ?
According to the Bible, that kind of pledge is called a vow. And whatever your thoughts on making vows, interestingly, the Bible generally condones the practice. But it does give this kind of advice...(Ecclesiastes 5:4–5)...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.
Sounds like pretty good advice. And it sounds like God takes vows very seriously. Did you know the Apostle Paul made vows? Listen to what we learn in Acts 18:18...Paul stayed many days longer and then took leave of the brothers and set sail for Syria, and with him Priscilla and Aquila. At Cenchreae he had cut his hair, for he was under a vow.
We are not told the specifics of this vow, but the mention of hair directs us back to the book of Numbers, chapter 6. In the open lines of that chapter we read...
And the LORD spoke to Moses, saying,  “Speak to the people of Israel and say to them, When either a man or a woman makes a special vow, the vow of a Nazirite, to separate himself to the LORD,  he shall separate himself from wine and strong drink... “All the days of his vow of separation, no razor shall touch his head. Until the time is completed for which he separates himself to the LORD, he shall be holy. He shall let the locks of hair of his head grow long. (Numbers 6:1-3a, 5)
So it seems, in Acts 18, Paul had just completed this kind of season of separation. We might ask, “What exactly was accomplished, or what did Paul hope to accomplish, by taking such a vow?” Well, that's not completely clear. Maybe it was a way to seek God's special blessing on a special ministry project. Maybe it was a way in which Paul expressed thanks to God. Or maybe it was a spiritual discipline, a way to refocus. Again, we just don't know. But if we moved toward the back of Numbers, we'd find this account in Numbers 21:1-3...
When the Canaanite, the king of Arad, who lived in the Negeb, heard that Israel was coming by the way of Atharim, he fought against Israel, and took some of them captive.  And Israel vowed a vow to the LORD and said, “If you will indeed give this people into my hand, then I will devote their cities to destruction.”  And the LORD heeded the voice of Israel and gave over the Canaanites, and they devoted them and their cities to destruction. So the name of the place was called Hormah.
So in this instance, the goal of the vow is clear: Israel wanted God to give them victory. But the vow was a way of saying, “We're not asking for a victory for the sake of the spoils. Everything will be destroyed, in light of your judgments, O God.” And as we read, “the LORD heeded the voice of Israel...”
And if there is any doubt about the place of vows among the Israelite faithful, just listen to how David talks about this practice...
Psalm 22:25 -From you comes my praise in the great congregation; my vows I will perform before those who fear him.
Ps. 50:14 -Offer to God a sacrifice of thanksgiving, and perform your vows to the Most High...
Psalm 56:12 -I must perform my vows to you, O God; I will render thank offerings to you.
Psalm 61:5 -For you, O God, have heard my vows; you have given me the heritage of those who fear your name.
Psalm 61:8 -So will I ever sing praises to your name, as I perform my vows day after day.
Psalm 65:1 -Praise is due to you, O God, in Zion, and to you shall vows be performed.
Psalm 66:13 -I will come into your house with burnt offerings; I will perform my vows to you...
Psalm 76:11 -Make your vows to the LORD your God and perform them; let all around him bring gifts to him who is to be feared...
Psalm 116:14 -I will pay my vows to the LORD in the presence of all his people.
So clearly, vows played a part in the life of the worshiper, maybe more than we're inclined to think. But remember, as was the case with the covenants we discussed last time, there were conditional and unconditional vows. Israel's vow concerning King Arad was a conditional vow ('if you do that, we will do this'). But someone blessed by a good harvest might simply offer praise in the form of a vow: “Because Yahweh has blessed me in this way, I vow to double my tithe this harvest.”
II. The Passage: "If Anyone Makes a...Vow" (27:1-34)
So you may be asking, “What does any of this have to do with Leviticus?” Well, if you look with me at the final chapter of Leviticus, chapter 27, you'll see it's all about vows. Let's take a look at a few key verses from each of the three sections of this chapter. First, look with me at verses 1-3.
1. Vows and the Living (vs. 1-13)
The LORD spoke to Moses, saying,  “Speak to the people of Israel and say to them, If anyone makes a special vow to the LORD involving the valuation of persons,  then the valuation of a male from twenty years old up to sixty years old shall be fifty shekels of silver, according to the shekel of the sanctuary.”
So what exactly does this mean? Well, the regulations contained in verses 1-9 involve, as we just heard in verse 2, “the valuation of persons”. This means if I dedicated myself, or my family to God (by way of a vow) in a time of distress, seeking God's help, then when it came time to pay that vow, I was to use this system of valuation. So instead of becoming a servant to the priests and Levites, I would pay a commensurate amount. In this way, the Tent of Meeting had some cash to use, not just calves to sacrifice.
If you scan through the valuations here, you'll see there are different amounts for different kinds of people. This was not a reflection of a person's intrinsic value. In their labor intensive, agrarian society, this was a reflection of the amount of work they could perform.
Finally, verses 9-13 provide regulations on clean and unclean animals that are pledged to God in the making of a vow.
2. Vows and the Land (vs. 14-25)
But in the next section we move from people and ponies to property. What happens when a house or land are pledged in the making of a vow? Verse 14...
“When a man dedicates his house as a holy gift to the LORD, the priest shall value it as either good or bad; as the priest values it, so it shall stand.  And if the donor wishes to redeem his house, he shall add a fifth to the valuation price, and it shall be his.  “If a man dedicates to the LORD part of the land that is his possession, then the valuation shall be in proportion to its seed.”
It was up to the priest to determine the value of a house that was pledged. These were most likely houses in a town, rather than a house on tribal, family property (since tribal inheritances in Israel were protected---as we learned about when we studied the year of Jubilee).
What does it mean that the value of land is estimated (v. 16) “in proportion to its seed”? If we continued into verses 17-25, we'd discover the same principle we learned about in chapter 25, in connection with the Jubilee: a land's valued is based on how many crops it can produce before the next Jubilee year.
Now remember, these valuations are a way of converting pledged people or pledged property into cash, specifically, into shekels of silver.
3. Vows and Their Limits (vs. 26-34)
The final verses of this chapter simply list several prohibitions when it comes to what can be pledged. For example, verse 26: “But a firstborn of animals, which as a firstborn belongs to the LORD, no man may dedicate; whether ox or sheep, it is the LORD's.”
Verses 28 and 29, along with verses 30-33, deal with practices that might be considered similar to pledging when making a vow, AND, the question of redeeming dedicated items. The first passage focuses on that which has been devoted to destruction, in light of God's judgments. The second passage addresses things that have been tithed.
In the first case, anything put under “the ban”, that is, devoted to destruction, was not redeemable. In the second scenario, tithed items could be redeemed back, but the giver would have to pay the valuation, plus 20%.
You may have noticed that 20% penalty earlier in the text. In fact, there are several features in this chapter that seem designed to sober anyone who is tempted to make a rash vow. The chapter, along with the rest of the Bible, does not prohibit vows, but it certainly encourages God's people to think very carefully about making vows.
But before we leave the strange, but spectacular book of Leviticus, notice the very last verse. Verse 34 tells us...These are the commandments that the LORD commanded Moses for the people of Israel on Mount Sinai. Now, that sounds a lot like the very last verse of chapter 26. Leviticus 26:46...These are the statutes and rules and laws that the LORD made between himself and the people of Israel through Moses on Mount Sinai.
So I believe 27:34 is a simplified version of 26:46, and a reminder of 26:46. Why point back to chapter 26? Because, as we talked about last time, the blessings and curses given in chapter 26 represent a more formal ending to this covenant document. Okay. Then why end the book with this chapter on vows and valuations? Is this simply an appendix?
III. His Presence, Our Passion
There are a number of reasons this chapter could be last. Since land valuations are tied to the Jubilee, it does need to come after that chapter 25. Also, some scholars have argued that vow-making would be more prevalent when Israel was under the covenant curses described in chapter 26 (“Oh Yahweh, if you save me from these invaders, or from this famine, I will dedicate both my chickens and my children to you”).
But the suggestion of one commentator caught my attention. He talked about how these regulations would not fit well into any earlier chapters, especially in this last this section on holy living, this section on living a set-apart kind of life. Why would this chapter not fit? Because all of the other material described what the Israelites must do, to be holy as Yahweh was holy. But vows were not required. Vows were completely voluntary.
Therefore, it may be that because vows were voluntary, they've been placed here at the very end in order to temper an Israelite's response to the book. Yes, the book should stir the spirit of the worshiper. But it must also ground him or her in what is required because of God's holiness. Neither the amount of vows or the amount vowed would change what was required of a people among whom God was dwelling. If vows were to be made, it should be done very carefully, with great consideration.
So instead of a finishing our study with some practical application pointers on vow-making as a follower of Jesus (which I do believe could be a good topic of conversation), I want us to think about that term voluntary. You may recall that the last chapter of the book is not the only chapter that deals with what is voluntary. Both chapter 7 and chapter 22 connect vow offerings with something called a “freewill offering”. Yes, as we've seen, there were requirements related to these kinds of practices, but both of these offerings point to what a worshiper was inspired to do, not simply required to do.
Why does that matter? Because through it, I believe God wants to tell us something important about the heart. David was called “a man after [God's] own heart” (I Samuel 13:14), and as we saw, his Psalms are filled with exclamations about fulfilling his vows to God.
But wait. How does all of this connect to the book of Leviticus? Here's the key: God's presence. Listen to what David tells us about being in God's presence:
I have set the LORD always before me; because he is at my right hand, I shall not be shaken.  Therefore my heart is glad, and my whole being rejoices; my flesh also dwells secure.  For you will not abandon my soul to Sheol, or let your holy one see corruption.  You make known to me the path of life; in your presence there is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forevermore. (Psalm 16:8–11)
Leviticus is rooted in the reality of God's presence among his people. It's about life with God in the midst. And yes, His holy presence required the people to be holy as well. But as David expressed it, God's commands were “the path of life”. You see, the presence of God was meant to inspire in them the very things David just described: confidence, joy, peace, satisfaction. And though daunting, the rules and regulations of Leviticus were, in theory, intended to make something beautiful possible: humanity and God dwelling together again.
But as we talked about last week, such a thing was not possible through this covenant at Sinai. They were not able, and we are not able to keep God's rules and regulations to the degree his holiness requires. So is the good news of Leviticus (i.e. the presence of God among His people) ultimately eclipsed by the bad news that we can't keep Leviticus's laws?
The answer is “no”, not when we see Leviticus in light of the whole Bible; not when we see Leviticus in light of Jesus. When Leviticus called for an unblemished sacrifice, it was ultimately pointing to Jesus, the Lamb of God who made the perfect sacrifice on the cross. When Leviticus called for a cleansed priesthood, it was ultimately pointing to Jesus, our Great High Priest. And when Leviticus called the Israelites to walk God's path of holiness, it was ultimately pointing to Jesus, the only human being to ever keep God's law perfectly.
And so it is Jesus Christ who secures and fills up the good news of Leviticus. He is “the Word who became flesh and dwelt (tabernacled, tented) among us” (John 1:14). Listen to how vows (specifically, wedding vows) and God's presence point us to the substance of which Leviticus was and is only a shadow. Revelation 21:2-4...
And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride [that's us] adorned for her husband [that's Jesus].  And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God.  He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.”
So maybe in light of Jesus, my vow should not involve deal making like, “God, I'll trade you my car for 200 attenders.” Maybe instead, my vow, your vow should be, “Because of your lavish love in Jesus, because He died for me, I pledge all that I am and all that I have to Him.” To be sure, let's ask for more attenders; let's pray big prayers. But in light of Leviticus, let's do so because we are inspired by the amazing fact that God is with us.