We have an interesting quandary in our reading from Numbers 30 where it is very clear how seriously God views it when we make a vow: “If a man vows a vow to the Lord, or swears an oath to bind himself by a pledge, he shall not break his word. He shall do according to all that proceeds out of his mouth.” (v.2). The principle behind this law is of course a good one – we ought to be people of our word and when we promise something, we should keep those promises. Of course, we then find in Scripture several examples where people got into trouble making vows. The most famous vow is the one made by Jephthah, but the two I want to examine more closely are Herod’s, where it cost the head of John the Baptist, and Saul’s.
Herod made his vow in Mark 6 when he was so delighted with the dancing of his stepdaughter at his birthday party that he promised her whatever she wanted. We know how the story goes when she ends up asking for the head of John the Baptist. What is interesting is King Herod’s reaction where it says while “the king was exceedingly sorry” (Mark 6:26) he did it “because of his oaths and his guests he did not want to break his word to her” (v.27). On one level Herod kept his oath and obeyed the law in Numbers 30. The case could even be made that in some respect he kept the spirit of the law – he didn’t want to break his word. Leaving aside the fact he also wanted to save face in front of his guests, on the surface Herod obeyed the law which God commanded concerning vows back in Numbers 30. Yet what we need to examine is the fact keeping that law cost the head of John the Baptist.
What do we do with such a dilemma? When obeying one of God’s commandments causes the cruel death of a righteous man you know you have a problem. When we look at the context of John’s death, we see a theme running through it concerning the power of law to condemn. Jesus said, “The Law and the Prophets were until John” (Luke 16:16) meaning John was the last of the prophets under the Law of Moses and “since then the good news of the kingdom of God is preached”. By passing the mantle from John to Jesus we see the transition from law to grace. Everything to do with John’s death relates to law. He was put in prison by Herod because he had said “It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife” (Mark 6:18) and it was because of the law in Numbers 30 that John had his head chopped off.
We find some answers to our difficult situation in our Proverbs reading. There’s a theme running from chapter 20:22 to 21:3 about the principle of justice in the hand of a king and of Yahweh. Herod, the king, failed to administer justice despite keeping his oath. It was entirely unjust to put John to death. Verse 25 of chapter 20 says, “It is a snare to say rashly, ‘It is holy,’ and to reflect only after making vows.” That’s something Herod should have thought about before making his vow.
Another king who fell into the same snare was Saul. He made a rash vow while fighting against the Philistines in 1 Samuel 14 when he said, “Cursed be the man who eats food until it is evening and I am avenged on my enemies.” (v.24). Saul, like the circumstances surrounding John’s death, teaches us about the letter of the law. We see how the law was affecting his decisions when, in the previous chapter, he forced himself to make a burnt offering as if the mere ritual was what was important. Then in this chapter Saul puts his soldiers under an oath not to eat anything until they had completely defeated the enemy. Of course, after defeating the enemy they were completely ravenous and it says, “The people pounced on the spoil and took sheep and oxen and calves and slaughtered them on the ground. And the people ate them with the blood.” (v.32). Despite risking their lives in service by fighting the Philistines, all Saul could see was that the people had eaten blood, disobeying the law, and he said, “You have dealt treacherously” (v.33). To further show Saul’s misuse of the law we find out his faithful son Jonathan had eaten some honey. When Saul found out, because of the oath he had made, he condemns his son. But the people were more righteous than Saul despite his insistence on keeping the letter of Numbers 30. Saul’s verdict was “he shall surely die” (v.39) but the people responded, “’Shall Jonathan die, who has worked this great salvation in Israel? Far from it! As the Lord lives, there shall not one hair of his head fall to the ground, for he has worked with God this day.’ So the people ransomed Jonathan, so that he did not die.” (v.45). That word “ransomed” is the normal word for redemption in the Old Testament, pointing forward to how our Lord, our advocate, has redeemed us from the curse of the law, sin and death.
Back in Proverbs 21, the beginning of the chapter connects with Saul. Verse 2 says, “Every way of a man is right in his own eyes, but the LORD weighs the heart”. Twice in the context in 1 Samuel 14 the people said to Saul, “Do whatever seems good to you” (v.36, 40). Those who fall into the trap of the letter of the law do tend to do what is right in their own eyes. We all have this problem. When faced with difficult situations we tend to resort to the letter of the law, thinking that will solve the problem. We justify our actions and commend ourselves for our own righteousness in keeping law. Even if it costs the head of John the Baptist or threatens the life of Jonathan. The Pharisees had this problem when talking to Jesus. They very much thought they were right, and Jesus was wrong. He did things that broke the letter of the law and they condemned him and killed him for it. This is a serious problem.
Proverbs 21:3 is the answer to the conundrum: “To do righteousness and justice is more acceptable to the LORD than sacrifice”. We know that Saul was taught this lesson when Samuel said to him, “Has the Lord as great delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices, as in obeying the voice of the Lord? Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice, and to listen than the fat of rams.” (1 Sam. 15:22). Keeping the letter of the law – even fooling ourselves into thinking we’re keeping its spirit after making rash vows – is not as important as true righteousness and justice. When we fool ourselves into thinking we’re right because we keep the letter of the law, but it ends up treating the John’s, Jonathan’s and Jesus’s of this world in a bad way, then we haven’t obeyed God at all. When doing justice, the theme of this section in Proverbs, we need to do the right thing for the sake of God’s children, even if it means breaking the letter of the law. The wise man or woman develops the ability to balance competing principles. It was for the oath’s sake that Herod killed John the Baptist. But what about John’s sake? Was Herod’s vow more important than John’s life? As Paul says in Romans 14, let’s not destroy our brothers and sisters in Christ for the sake of far less important things.
Simi Valley, CA