Sunday, December 19, 2010

Proverbs 10:29 and the Way of Yahweh

In the New American Standard Bible (1995), Proverbs 10:29 reads:

The way of the LORD is a stronghold to the upright, But ruin to the workers of iniquity.
This verse struck me as odd. Why would Yahweh's way be ruin to anybody? So I decided to investigate.

The phrase "way of Yahweh" occurs seven times in the OT, five of which are conceptually parallel Proverbs 10:29 (Gen. 18:19; Jdg. 2:22; 2 Kgs 21:22, Jer. 5:4, 5). God “knows” Abraham so that he will command his children to “keep the way of Yahweh” by doing righteousness and justice (Gen. 18:19). This set of collocations—the way of Yahweh is kept by doing righteousness—shows up in Judges 2:22, where the Lord tells Israel he will leave Canaanites in the land in order to test them to see whether they will keep the way of Yahweh as their father’s did. The clear implication is that keeping the way of Yahweh involves doing what is right and good in His eyes.

Amon, son of Manasseh, unmoved by his Father’s late-in-life repentance, “forsook Yahweh, the God of his fathers, and did not walk in the way of Yahweh” (2 Kings 21:22). Here failure to walk in the way of Yahweh is the consequence of forsaking Yahweh. One cannot cleave to Yahweh and not walk in His way. The previous two verses fill out the “way” Amon walked: he did evil in Yahweh’s sight, walked in all the way Manasseh had walked, and served the idols his father had served.

In Jeremiah 5:4, 5, the prophet seeks for those who “know the way of Yahweh, the mishpat of God.” The way of Yahweh appears to be appositionally modified by the phrase mishpat of God. Keil & Delitzsch comment on Jeremiah 5:4-5, “They know not the way of Jahveh, i.e., the way, the manner of life, prescribed to men by God in His word; (cf. 2 Kgs 21:22; Psa 25:9). The judgment of their God, i.e., that which God demanded as right and lawful (2 Kgs 17:26)."

This background illumines Proverbs 10:29 and helped me know how to interpret its cryptic lines. A paraphrase of the passage would read, “The upright—those who do what is right and good in Yahweh’s sight—find that Yahweh provides them protection because they know, keep, and walk in His way; the wicked—those who do what is wrong and evil in Yahweh’s sight—find that their way leads them to destruction; they have no protection from Yahweh."

I think the NASB mistranslates the second half of this verse by not supplying a linking verb. It should read, “but destruction [is / shall be] to the workers of iniquity.” As it stands, the NASB’s rendering implies that the way of Yahweh is destruction to the workers of iniquity. This rendering depends on understanding Yahweh as a subjective genitive, and ignores the phrase’s predominant usage throughout the OT--as a shorthand for the lifestyle Yahweh desires and requires from His followers.

Those who choose not to walk in His ways (the wicked) will be destroyed. On the other hand, those who live the way Yahweh prescribes find Yahweh is indeed their stronghold.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Vows: foolish, sacred, forgivable?

Recently, someone asked me:
Are there foolish vows and sacred vows? Are there vows God will forgive, or does God hold one accountable for all vows until death?
My short answer is all vows are sacred; some are also foolish (Pro. 20:25; Eccl. 5:2 4). Breaking any vow is sin (Deut. 23:21; Eccl. 5:5-6; Num. 30:15). God will forgive vow-breakers (Num. 30:6, 9, 13); though He warns there may be dire consequences for failing to keep a vow (Eccl. 5:6).

My best understanding of Scripture is that God does not continue to hold a person responsible to fulfill a vow that has been broken, repented of, and forgiven. God did, however, require those who vowed to give Him a non-cash asset (a field, house, etc.) and then changed their minds to give instead the monetary equivalent plus 20% to the Lord (Lev. 27).

The key texts where God reveals His perspective on vows are Leviticus 27, Numbers 30, Deuteronomy 23:21-23, and Ecclesiastes 5:1-7. Interestingly, the two New Testament texts (Acts 18:18; 21:23-24) that mention vows give no indication that God’s perspective on vows has changed.

A vow is a voluntary promise to God to do or not do something (cf. Deut. 23:23). Vows are not limited to “If-you-do-this-for-me, I’ll-do-that-for-You” bargains with God (cf. Psa. 56:12-13). You don’t have to use the words “vow” or “promise” to make a vow. Anytime you voluntarily tell God you are going to do or not do something for Him, it is a vow.

In Ecclesiastes 5, Solomon warns us that vows should not be made lightly: “Do not be rash with your mouth, and let not your heart utter anything hastily before God. For God is in heaven, and you are on earth; Therefore let your words be few” (5:2). In verse 4, he cautions us not to be late in paying our vows, for God takes no delight in fools who fail to pay their vows. It is better, the wise man counsels, not to vow at all, than to vow and fail to pay (Eccl. 5:5). This echoes Deut. 23:22 where Moses informs Israel it is not sin to abstain from vowing: “if you abstain from vowing, it is not sin.”

On the other hand, if you vow and fail to pay, it is sin (Deut. 23:22; Eccl. 5:5). Not only is it sin, but Solomon warns, “Do not let your speech cause you to sin and do not say in the presence of the messenger, “It was a mistake.” Why should God be angry on account of your voice and destroy the work of your hands?” (Eccl. 5:6). In other words, God punishes those who break their vows. Claiming that you made a mistake and shouldn’t have vowed or didn’t really mean what you vowed arouses God’s anger against you. Thus, Solomon concludes, “Fear God” (Eccl. 5:7).

The seriousness of vows is further underscored in Numbers 30 where God identifies which vows are automatically binding and which may be nullified. God distinguishes the vows made by adult males, widows, and divorced women from those made by female children and wives. In the case of adult males (Num. 30:2), widows, and divorced women (Num. 30:9), they must fulfill any vow they make. In the case of female children (Num. 30:3-5) and wives (Num. 30:6-8; 10-15), if their father or husband nullifies their vow on the day that he hears it, then they are absolved of their vow (Num. 30:5, 8, 12). However, if the father or husband does not nullify their vow, then their vow stands. They are responsible to fulfill it. If the father or husband does not say anything the first time he hears it but chooses to nullify it at a later time, then he will “bear the iniquity” of the broken vow (Num. 30:15).

Because Numbers 30:2 includes “swearing an oath” as an equivalent of taking a vow, the guilt offering prescribed for breaking an oath (Lev. 5:4) would likely apply to a broken vow. Since God provides a sacrifice for atoning for a broken vow, we can infer that forgiveness for breaking a vow is available through Christ, who is our guilt offering (Isa. 53:10).