You Shall Keep and Perform

Sermon preached on Deuteronomy 23:19-25 by Rev. W. Reid Hankins during the Morning Service at Trinity Presbyterian Church (OPC) on 9/05/2010 in Novato, CA.

Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.

Deuteronomy 23:19-25


”You Shall Keep and Perform”

In a world that embraces relative truth more and more, it’s no surprise how much humans lie to one another, and how much we break our promises to each other.  Just think about all the idioms that exist for people being fast and loose with the truth.  Sometimes these idioms are to justify our lies.  We talk about bending the truth and little white lies.  We talk about being economical with the truth.  Other idioms express the deceit behind it.  We talk about smokescreens, or being taken for a ride, or someone pulling a fast one on you.  People can lie through their teeth, or tell a pack of lies.  In accounting, people can cook the books.  In business relationships, broken promises are legally called breach of contract.

These are just a few ways we talk about in the English language of lying and not keeping your word.  I’m sure we’ve got so many different ways to talk about this, because it is just so common.  We all want the truth.  We all want to deal with people of integrity.  And yet it’s so hard to find that.  Far too often, we ourselves are the ones guilty of falling short in the category of truth and integrity. 

Whether we intentionally speak a lie or just aren’t faithful to keep our word, these are actions against the truth.  Humans lie to other humans.  They break their word to others.  This is bad.  And yet it’s even worse when humans lie to God.  It’s bad to break trust with other humans.  It’s even worse to break trust with God.  And yet humans have being doing that throughout our history.  We make promises and vows to God that we do not keep.  Similarly, we can make solemn oaths before man in God’s great name, and then do not keep that promise.  We drag God’s great name through the mud when we do that.

Today we’ll be focusing on verses 21-23, which discusses this very topic.  We’ll think about the vows we make to God.  If you don’t know what a vow is, it is essentially a solemn promise made to God.  Look at verse 21 to start.  It talks about making vows to God.  Most specifically it talks about paying this vow to God.  In other words, people throughout the ages have made vows to God and God intends people to keep those vows.  That’s what it means here when it talks about paying the vow.  Often we see in the Old Testament these sorts of vows taken on something conditional.  It’s often said as a sort of plea to God – God if you do this for me, then I will give this to you in return. 

You see this for example, in 1 Samuel chapter 1.  There a Godly woman named Hannah is childless.  She makes a vow before God that if he will give her a child, then she will dedicate his life to serve the Lord.  God answered that prayer, and she gave birth to a son named Samuel.  She then fulfilled that vow to God and gave the child over to serve the Lord once he was weaned.  Another classic example of a vow in Scripture was with Jacob.  When God appeared to him at Bethel in Genesis 28, he was fleeing the Promised Land from his brother.  Jacob made a vow to God there that if God kept him safe and brought him back to the Promised Land that he would make Bethel his place of worship and give a tithe to the Lord.  God of course did bring Jacob back safely, and Jacob fulfilled that vow in Genesis 35. 

Those are two classic examples of textbook vows in the Bible.  Something closely related to a vow in Scripture is an oath.  You see these often in the Old Testament as well.  Oaths are solemn promises made to other humans, but done in the name of God.  Often you’ll read them saying something like, “As surely as the Lord lives,” then I will do this or that.  So it’s a binding promise made to another human, but by making it in the name of the Lord, it calls God to hold them accountable.  It makes a solemn promise before God.  Deuteronomy 6:13 and 10:20 both talk about how that if you’re going to take an oath, then you should swear by the name of the LORD.  So an oath is of a slightly different character than a vow, but by application it would seem to still be generally governed by what you have here in Deuteronomy 23 as well.  If you take up the name of God and promise something, that’s a promise that God will personally hold you accountable to keep.

Essentially that’s the main thrust here.  It’s a warning.  It’s saying, don’t make solemn promises to God and then not keep them.  Look at all the ways this passage says this.  Verse 21.  You shall not delay in keeping the vow.  Not only are we to keep the vow, but we are to be swift in keeping it.  At Youth Camp I pointed out how Jacob was not too swift in keeping his vow that he made at Bethel – that’s the vow I just mentioned a few minutes ago.  He did eventually keep it.  But he had made it safe and sound back to the Promised Land long before he kept his promise to return to Bethel and worship God.  In fact, Genesis 35 records God having to first remind him about the vow that he had made.  God actually had to tell him to go and keep that vow.  We shouldn’t have to be told.  If we make a vow to God, we should proactively look to keep it.  No delay.

Verse 23 again positively demands the keeping of the vow.  It says it in two different ways there.  It says you shall keep the vow and that you should perform the vow.  The vow might be something of a monetary value; several places in the Old Testament describe vow offerings.  It seems it was a pretty standard part of their old covenant worship back then to come to the temple with their vow offerings.  Other vows might involve some action.  Thus, verse 23 demands keeping and performing the vows.  The word to “keep” here involves being alert and on guard.  In other words, it’s not just another synonym for performing the vow.  It’s saying you must be on the watch to make sure that you fulfill whatever vow you made in the right time and in the right way.  Again, you must proactively take responsibility for this.

Of course the warning here is that if you don’t keep your vow, then you have fallen into sin.  Verse 21 and 22 both mention this is a sin.  This is a way you can sin, by not keeping your vows to God.  Verse 21 uses strong language here.  It says that God will “surely require” it of you.  The Hebrew’s emphatic in the original.  It’s a strong warning here.  Of course, I can’t help thinking about the Third Commandment when I read that.  That’s the commandment about not taking the Lord’s name in vain.  The Third Commandment goes on to warn that God will not hold him guiltless who takes his name in vain; Deuteronomy 5:11.  A vow or oath in the name of God is serious.  To not keep it, is in part, a breaking of the third commandment.  Other people might now know that you broke your promise issued in God’s name.  But God will know.  Not only is it sin, not only will you be guilty, but God warns in the law that he will come to collect.

By the way, I’d like to take a moment and give a side note here.  We should keep righteous vows or oaths.  But we should not keep an unrighteous vow or oath.  Often these are referred to as rash vows.  If you make a vow to God, but what you promise is sinful, you are not obligated to keep it.  In fact, you’d be sinning by keeping it.  What’s sinful there is the vow itself.  Instead of keeping the sinful vow, you should repent of the fact that you made that sinful vow, once you realize that’s what you’ve done.  King Saul for example made a rash oath in 1 Samuel 14 that would have resulted in him unjustly putting his own son to death, but the people thankfully stopped him from doing it.

Now there’s something important to notice in this subject of making and keeping vows.  This passage points out the voluntary nature of vows.  Verse 23 specifically refers these vows as voluntarily.  In other words, strictly speaking, no one is forcing you to make this vow.  Verse 23 advises on this.  If says if you abstain from vowing, it shall not be sin to you.  It’s advising you to not just make vows left and right.  Of course, we see that mentioned in the New Testament as well.  Jesus warned against taking vows in Matthew 5.  James seems to repeat that same warning in James 5.  Now obviously Jesus couldn’t be completely forbidding any and every oath and vow.  Jesus never contradicts the Old Testament.  He does often add light to our understanding of the Old Testament. 

Essentially, Jesus is just giving the message of verse 22 in our passage.  He’s reminding us of the voluntary nature of oaths and vows.  It’s easy for people to make vows left and right, and to swear in God’s name left and right.  But that’s not wise.  Verse 22 tells you that you protect yourself by not making vows.  This doesn’t mean that there is never a time to take a vow or an oath.  No, the Old Testament shows plenty of examples of that.  There are several in the New Testament as well.  Often something good that we want to do in life will involve taking an oath or vow.  And yet there are plenty of places in Scripture that talk about people not fulfilling their vows to God.  Jesus and this passage both warn us about making vows and oaths lightly.  Instead we should realize the solemn and serious nature of taking a vow.  They should be reserved for such suitable occasions.  There are plenty of times where making a vow or oath is the wrong thing to do.  And yet there are times where making a vow or an oath is the right thing.  We’ll talk about some examples at the end of our message today.

Of course, one of the reasons why we know oaths in the name of God are not inherently wrong, is because Scripture shows that God himself does them.  Yet, I think this is a lot like what we have with things like anger and jealously.  Anger and jealously are not inherently sinful.  God himself in Scripture is described as angry and jealous at times.  And yet we know how quickly anger and jealously in humans can result in sinful actions.  That’s kind of like how oaths and vows are.  Nothing wrong with them inherently, but how often we sin in them because we just don’t keep them.

And so I’d like to turn to think for a moment a little bit further about God’s oaths and promises.  I’d like to think for a moment of how we see God making and keeping oaths.  The Bible is full of promises by God.  And yet in a number of places we see God specifically making an oath, and making that oath in his own name.  Normally a human makes an oath in God’s name because that the highest authority.  God obviously has no one higher to swear by, so he swears by himself.  Genesis 22:16, for example, God says, “By myself I have sworn.”  Then he goes on to promise to Abraham how he would bless Abraham and his offspring, and through his offspring, bring blessings to all the nations.  Of course, when we see God making oaths in his name, they keep pointing to the same general thing.  They keep pointing to God’s plan of salvation.  They keep pointing to Jesus.  That oath I just mentioned with Abraham would find its fulfillment in Jesus who brings blessings to all the nations through his sacrifice on the cross.  God even makes solemn oaths to Jesus, Psalm 110:4, for example.  But these are all related to God’s plan to save a people from their sins!  God’s oaths in his name are all about sending Jesus to save us.  And he did not delay.  At just the right time, he sent Jesus to earth for us.  He kept and performed his promise.

Of course, Christ lived a sinless life.  This means as well he kept all his vows.  Psalm 22 is a Messianic psalm, a psalm that was from David, but ultimately looked to Jesus.  That psalm ends with the promise saying, “My vows I will perform.”  Jesus is the only one who could truly keep that psalm in perfection.  Now, I’m not aware of any explicit verse of Scripture that describes Jesus making a vow to God.  For those of your familiar with the covenant of redemption between God the Father and God the Son, you’ll know it’s understood from Scripture that the Father and Son had a covenantal arrangement in the plan to save God’s people.  The Son committed to perform the work given to him by the Father.  In John 17:4, for example, we see Jesus telling the Father that he has finished the work that Father had given him.  In other words, Jesus always kept his word, especially his solemn promise to God the Father to go through with the plan of redemption; to come to earth as a human, to teach us, to die for us, and then rise to victory.

So my point is that God kept his solemn oaths and promises to save us.  Jesus kept his promise to God to execute that plan of salvation.  The Spirit bears witness on our hearts to these facts, even as we hear them proclaimed from Scripture.  In a world of broken promises, we can trust God.  God has kept his word to the world to send a redeemer.  It was the Son of God’s great delight to come and do his Father’s will.  As we’ve heard the law taught today, we realize the ways we have broken promises.  We have broken promises to man.  We have broken promises to God.  Some of these broken promises may have even been in the form of solemn oaths or vows.  In different ways, we have not been people of truth or integrity.  We’ve been not been faithful to our words and commitments.  The law has reminded us today that we are guilty; that this is sin.  That God requires of us to pay our commitments.  And yet in Christ we can be forgiven of these sins.  The Bible tells us to confess these sins and turn to Jesus Christ in faith.  Believe that he forgives you.  Put your trust in the thing you can really trust.  Trust in the gospel.  Trust in Christ.  Men will let you down, but God’s promise to us of life and forgiveness through Jesus is fully trustworthy.

So then brothers, we Christians are those who have been granted forgiveness.   We have been granted forgiveness for not being trustworthy.  We’ve been granted forgiveness even for breaking our solemn vows and oaths made in the name of the Lord.  Even when we’ve been faithless, God has been faithful, for he cannot deny himself.  Having been granted this forgiveness, what should our attitude be toward these sorts of sins?  As saved Christians, we should have a renewed commitment to the truth.  Christians have forgiveness of these sorts of sins by the greatest act of truth and commitment, as we’ve said.  We ought not take this forgiveness for granted.  We should not carelessly continue to sin in these areas, so that grace may abound.  Let us instead really see the value God places on truth and integrity.

In general, even apart from solemn vows and oaths, let’s look to be people of truth.  This passage told us to abstain from unnecessary vows.  Jesus said the same thing about oaths.  But Jesus also said, let your yes be yes.  In other words, whether we make a solemn vow or oath or not, we should still be people of integrity.  What we say, we should do.  We should look to be trustworthy.  That people should be able to count on us and what we promise to do.  Don’t commit to things you’re not going to do.  Don’t say things that you’re not sure of their truth.  God’s people should strive to be people of truth, because we have experienced the greatest truth in God and through his Word.  Let us, by the power of God, be men and women of integrity.

Of course, this especially should apply to our oaths and vows as well.  Psalm 15:4 says that the righteous man swears to his own hurt and does not change.  Keeping an oath or vow, assuming again that it’s a righteous oath or vow, means you need to keep it.  Keeping it may be to your own hurt.  But you need to still keep it.  That’s being a person of integrity.  That’s being a person of truth.  And it’s being a person that honors the great name of God in whom that oath is taken and to whom that vow is given.  Let us keep our word to man, and especially to God.

Well, let’s think of a few examples today of oaths and vows we might make.  I want us to keep in mind how these things are voluntary, and yet we make them because they really are necessary in these circumstances.  You see, if we push the fact that oaths and vows are voluntary to an improper extreme, we’d conclude that we should just never make them at all.  And yet as we think through some examples, we’ll see that there are fitting oaths and vows that we ought to make today.  Let’s think through some examples.

First, marriage vows.  Obviously in one sense making marriage vows is voluntary.  You don’t have to get married.  You could remain single.  You have no obligation to marry in general, let alone to that one particular person.  And yet it is obviously fitting that if you get married, you both make marriage vows before God.  Marriage vows are just binding you to what the Bible defines as marriage.  Marriage in the bible unites a man and woman together as one for life.  The vows we make in that situation are expressing the level of commitment required by God in the Bible.  And so following the institution of marriage defined in the Bible, the husband and wife make a covenant together of marriage.  And yet we make those vows fittingly before God.  They are making promises not just to each other, not just to the pastor, but to God.  That’s why if someone comes to me after they get married and want to get divorced, I don’t have the authority in myself to free them from those vows.  When you get married, you make that vow to God, and I don’t have the ability to free you from that vow, with the exception of the two biblical reasons for divorce given by God in the Bible.  You make your marriage vow before God, and so no human, not even a pastor, can release you from that obligation, if God hasn’t. 

Another example today where we enter into a sort of solemn oath is in a business contract.  Now business contracts today are not usually going to technically be an oath or a vow in a religious sense.  What I mean is that people today, probably for politically correct reasons, don’t sign their contracts with solemn oaths before their God.  Maybe we’d have less breach of contract today, if they did.  But nonetheless it is a sort of oath, nonetheless.  It certainly is oath-like when you go through the act of signing the contract; often even with human witnesses.  It is certainly voluntary.  You don’t have to enter into that business relationship.  And yet when we do, we do so because we believe there are benefits for us.  So you go through the formal process of negotiating the terms and finally signing the document.  The signature is a serious matter.  The courts of law will hold you accountable for breach.  As Christians, we should recognize the seriousness of this contract and look to abide by this sort of oath that you have taken.  The terms of that contract bind you at that point.  Let’s be people of integrity to what we commit.

Another example is the court room.  When you give testimony, you’re required to give an oath to the truth of your statements.  In many cases, you’re not being forced to come forward and testify; sometimes you are legally compelled to testify.  And yet even when the law doesn’t compel you to testify, if we know something concerning a case, it’s really something where we ought to come forward.  There’s a sense in which this is voluntary.  And yet, again, sometimes we know it’s the right thing to do to give our testimony.  And yet when we come up to give that testimony, we’ll have to go under oath.  Court testimony is a serious thing.  And so we give that testimony under oath.

Another example is the ordination vows that ordained officers in the church take.  These are vows that pastors, elders, and deacons take that bind their conscience.  They are voluntary, again, in one sense.  You don’t have to go and become an ordained officer.  And yet men who believe they are called by God to serve in this way, who’ve received this call from the church, they nonetheless voluntarily make these vows to God.  Of course, these vows are fitting.  They affirm the doctrinal beliefs of the church and for the office, in a way that regular members in the church don’t have to do.  But this is fitting in the light of Scripture of what these ordained officers are being set apart to do.

A final example I have today is a vow I hope we all have made or will make.  GI Williamson says this, “Every true believer must make and keep at least one vow, namely, that by which he solemnly affirms to God that he receives Jesus Christ as he is freely offered in the gospel and promises henceforth to walk in newness of life with him.”  When we receive new members into the church, we have them make church membership vows; in substance that these what these vows are.  We are vowing to God faith in Jesus Christ, vowing to trust in him alone for salvation, and vowing, in reliance on the grace of God to lead a godly life.  That includes vowing to be a part of his church as he has called us to do.  None of these things are inappropriate to vow.  They are what God calls all believers to commit to in faith.

Now, in some real sense, this vow of our faith and life in Christ is voluntary.  We don’t have to make such vows.  It’s true that if we make such vows to Christ, and don’t keep them, that we are worse off than if we never made such vows.  And yet it is also true that it is not good for us to not make these vows.  To not make these sorts of vows means we remain apart from Christ and his church.  It means we remain in our sins.  To vow to believe in, trust, and follow Christ, and then not keep that vow, is even worse, than if we hadn’t vowed that.  But to not make that vow means we are without hope and condemned for all our sins.

No, this is a vow that is both voluntary, and yet of such great necessity.  This shows us why we vow and why we don’t vow.  Don’t vow or swear things you don’t intend to keep, but realize there are times where we should realize the value in making a vow or oath.  Marriage vows, business contracts, court testimony, and ordination vows are examples of voluntary, yet appropriate times for a vow or oath.  How much more is that the case with our vow to follow Christ.  And yet be encouraged.  Jesus said he is the truth.  Jesus said he’d be with us.  Jesus said he’s the author and perfecter of our faith.  Believers can trust in Christ; he will work in you the ability to keep your vows and oaths.  When we stumble in this area, he will forgive his disciples.  And he will be working in us the same truth and faithfulness that is inside him.  His Spirit lives inside us to make us people who are faithful and trustworthy, even as he is faithful and trustworthy. 

And so let us petition God to grow us in these ways, and in return let us give our bodies to him as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to him.  Amen.

Copyright © 2010 Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
All Rights Reserved.


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