I’ve explained before that the book of Numbers is called the book of Numbers because it contains lots of numbers. Right at the beginning of the book, all the men aged 20 years and over who were able to serve in the army were counted. And the same thing happened again in chapter 26 near the end of the book. And the reason they were counted twice is because the first census took place shortly after the Israelites left Egypt and included those men who were once slaves in Egypt, but who had been freed from the Lord and brought through the Red Sea.
However, because of their sinful, unbelieving hearts, they turned away from the Lord and did not believe him when he promised to help them to overcome their enemies so that they could take possession of the Promised Land. They doubted the word of the Lord; and they thought about returning to their former life in Egypt. And so, because of their sinful rebellion, the Lord swore that that generation would die in the wilderness without reaching the Promised Land. And so, the second census took place forty years or so after the first one; and it was a census of the new generation, who would go in and take possession of the Promised Land.
That’s why this book is called Numbers: it contains lots of numbers. But it’s also known among the Jews by another title. It’s known as ‘In the Wilderness’. And it’s known by that title because it tells the story of the things that happened once the Israelites left Mount Sinai and began their journey through the wilderness to the Promised Land. And it’s been a story of sinful rebellion and unbelief, hasn’t it? As soon as they left Sinai, they began to complain about the daily hardships they faced on the way. And then they complained because they were sick of the Lord’s manna and they wanted meat to eat. And then Miriam and Aaron complained about Moses and they objected to his leadership.
And then, when they reached the border with Canaan and heard the report of the spies who said that the Canaanites were like giants, the people doubted God’s promise and they were all set to give up the Promised Land and return to Egypt. And then, after that — after Moses pleaded with the Lord not to destroy them completely — Korah and some other men led another rebellion against Moses and his brother Aaron. Korah was a Levite who helped the priests in the tabernacle. But he wasn’t satisfied with being a Levite and wanted to do what the priests did. And so, there was another rebellion in the camp.
And then, even Moses rebelled against the Lord, because he disobeyed the Lord who told him to speak to the rock in order to bring forth water for the people. But instead of speaking to the rock, Moses struck the rock. He disobeyed the Lord and dishonoured his holy name before the people. And then there was the time when the people once again complained about their food; and the Lord sent poisonous snakes into the camp and many of them were bitten and died, until the Lord commanded Moses to lift up a bronze copy of a snake; and promised that whoever looks at it will not die, but will live. And after that, the people rebelled again and they began to indulge in sexual immorality with the Moabite women who invited them to sacrifice to their false gods. And so, the people bowed down to false gods and worshipped them, instead of the true and living God who had delivered them from Egypt.
In the wilderness, the people turned away from the Lord again and again; and they refused to listen to the word of the Lord or to believe his promises and to obey his laws. And so, because of their sinful rebellion, that first generation fell in the desert without entering the Promised Land. And like them we are sinners who rebel against the Lord all the time, because everyday we sin against him in thought and word and deed and we fall short of doing his will. Like them, we deserve to die and to be shut out of the everlasting Promised Land in the world to come and out of the presence of the Lord. We are sinners like them.
But God is gracious and kind and does not treat us as our sins deserve or repay us according to our iniquity. Instead — for the sake of Christ who died for sinners — he pardons all those who believe the good news of the gospel and trust in Christ for salvation. And just as Moses lifted up that bronze snake in the wilderness; and everyone who looked at it did not perish, but lived, so the Lord Jesus was lifted up on a cross; and everyone who believes in him will not perish, but will have everlasting life.
And so, we see that the book of Numbers testifies to us of the good news of the gospel and God’s great covenant of grace, whereby he promises to redeem his people from our sin and misery by his Son and to give us everlasting life in his presence in glory. The sin of the people speaks to us of our sin and our need of a Saviour and salvation. And all the ways the Lord helped his people in the wilderness speak to us of the salvation which is found in Jesus Christ. And all the laws and instructions which appear from time time in this book about priests and Levites and sacrifices and offerings and about the camp and the tabernacle, they also point forward in one way or another to Christ our Saviour. And we’ll find the same in today’s passage as well.
Verses 1 and 2
It’s a passage about making vows and pledges. According to verse 1, Moses spoke to the heads of the tribes in order to tell them what the Lord had commanded. When a man makes a vow to the Lord or takes an oath to bind himself by a pledge, he must not break his word, but must do everything he said.
The reason this chapter appears here is probably because vows and pledges were a kind of sacrifice to the Lord, and the previous chapters were all about the sacrifices and offerings the people were to bring to the Lord every day, and every week and every month and every year. Chapters 28 and 29 were about sacrifices and chapter 30 is also about a form of sacrifice. A vow was a promise to do something for the Lord or to offer him a particular sacrifice. A pledge was a promise to abstain from something. And usually they were conditional: if God does something for me, if he helps me in some way or delivers me from some trouble, then I will do this for God.
There are lots of examples in the Bible. In Genesis 28, Jacob — on his way to live with his uncle Laban — promised that if God goes with him and helps him, then the Lord would always be his God. In Numbers 21, the Israelites promised that if the Lord helped them against their enemies, they would devote their cities to the Lord. In Judges 11, Jephthah, the judge, foolishly promised that if the Lord helped him to overcome their enemies he would sacrifice as a burnt offering whatever comes out of his house to greet him on his return. Presumably he expected his dog or something to come out of his house, but instead it was his daughter. In 1 Samuel 1, Hannah promised that if the Lord gave her a son, she would give her son to serve the Lord. And in the book of Jonah, the sailors made vows to the Lord after he saved them from the storm; and in the belly of the fish, Jonah promised to make good what he had vowed to the Lord.
Those are all forms of vows when people promised to do something or give something to the Lord. There are a few examples of pledges when people promised to give something up for the Lord. In 1 Samuel 14, Saul promised that neither he nor his men would eat until they had defeated their enemies. And in Numbers 6 we read about the Nazirites who promised not to cut their hair and not to drink wine or other fermented drinks and not to eat anything that comes from grapes and not to go near a dead body.
So, we have vows to do something and pledges to abstain from something. And according to verses 1 and 2 of Numbers 30, whoever makes a vow or pledge must not break his word. He must do what he has promised the Lord.
However, in the verses which follow, the Lord makes clear that there are exemptions. But these exemptions are for woman only. Men were obligated to keep their word, but under certain circumstances, woman were exempt from keeping the vows they may have made. And so, verses 3 to 5 concern unmarried women. Verses 6 to 8 concern newly wedded women. Verses 10 to 12, concern married women. And verses 13 to 15 also concern married women.
Verses 3 to 5
Verses 3 to 5 concern unmarried women. We’re to imagine a young girl who still lives at home. She makes a vow to the Lord or a pledge. Her father then hears about it. If her father says nothing about it, or does nothing about it, then her vow will stand. She must do what she promised. However, if her father disapproves and forbids her from keeping the vow, then her vow will not stand. The Lord will release her from it, because her father has forbidden her from keeping it. In fact, the Hebrew text of verse 5 says that the Lord will forgive her. Because of her father, the Lord will forgive her for not keeping her word.
So, imagine if one of my daughters made a vow to the Lord, promising to give the church £10,000 if the Lord helps them with their exams. My children don’t have £10,000 to give to the Lord. If they couldn’t get out of the vow, I’d end up having to pay it on their behalf. And perhaps I can’t afford it. And so, given the possibility that a daughter might make a rash or foolish vow, the father had the right to forbid her from keeping it.
Why does this only apply to daughters and not to sons? It’s perhaps because, in Bible times, the son stood to inherit the father’s property. And therefore, if a son made a vow like that, what he vowed would come out of his own inheritance. In other words, he — in a sense — owned what he vowed; he therefore had the right to offer it to the Lord. But daughters didn’t inherit property from their fathers. They didn’t own anything and therefore, they had nothing of their own to offer.
Verses 6 to 8
Verses 6 to 8 are similar, but concern newly wedded women. So, before she was married, she made a vow to the Lord. But before she fulfils the vow, she gets married. Now, her husband is responsible for fulfilling the vow, and not her father. So, if he says nothing, she has to keep her word. But if he objects, he can nullify the vow, so that she no longer needs to keep it. Once again, the Lord will forgive her for not keeping her promise to him.
Verse 9 makes clear that there is no exemption for widows or divorced women. They must keep their word and they cannot get out of it, because, of course, without a husband, they presumably own their own property.
Verses 10 to 12
Verses 10 to 12 concern married women. If a married woman makes a vow, and her husband says nothing about it, then she’s obligated to keep her word. But if her husband objects, then her vow will not stand. The Lord will forgive her for not keeping her promise. As with unmarried women, married women in Bible times did not own anything, but depended on their husbands. So, her husband had the right to nullify her vow.
Verses 13 to 15
Verses 13 to 15 also concern married women. This time, though, her husband changes his mind. At first, he didn’t say anything about her vow. His silence confirmed the vow so that she was obligated to keep it. However, if he later changes his mind and objects — you know, he’s thought about it and now regrets it and wishes she hadn’t made it — then he becomes responsible for her guilt. She’s guilty before the Lord for not keeping her word, but he’s responsible for her guilt because he changed his mind. Presumably, that means he must bring an offering to the Lord to seek God’s forgiveness for her guilt.
And according to verse 16, these are the regulations which the Lord gave Moses concerning a man and his wife and a father and his unmarried daughter. By making these laws, the Lord was showing kindness to his people. Instead of being bound by a promise made rashly, fathers and husbands were able to be released from their obligation to pay the vow.
What are we to make of these regulations? First of all, it’s worth noting that our church’s Confession of Faith has a chapter devoted to oaths and vows. An oath involves calling on God to witness a promise which we make to someone else and to judge us for our truthfulness or falsehood. So, if we’re giving testimony in a court case, we’re asked to swear an oath. Marriage promises and the promises we make when becoming a church member are oaths, because we make them in the presence of the Lord. If anyone breaks such promises, they must seek the Lord’s forgiveness for not doing what they said they would.
Vows, on the other hand, are promises which we make to the Lord only. With a vow, we express our gratitude to God for what we have received from him or for what we hope to receive from him. The Confession makes clear we must not vow to do anything forbidden in God’s word; and we must not vow to do anything not in our power to do. That’s really what we have in this chapter, because the daughters and wives did not themselves have the power or property to do what they promised.
But whoever makes a lawful vow is obligated to keep it. Whatever vow we might make to the Lord, we must make good. And so, we read in Acts 18, of a vow which the apostle Paul made and which he was careful to keep.
However, there’s a way in which the exemptions in this chapter speak to us of the gospel of Jesus Christ. If a daughter made a rash vow, or if a wife made a rash vow, they were able to obtain forgiveness from God because of someone else. In the case of daughters, they could receive forgiveness from the Lord because of their father. In the case of wives, they could receive forgiveness from the Lord because of their husband. Though they were normally obligated to keep their word and to fulfil their vow, they could receive forgiveness because of their father or husband. Furthermore, if a woman’s husband changed his mind about the vow, then he became responsible for her guilt. She was the one who did wrong, by not keeping her promise. But he was the one who bore her guilt in her place.
A widow or a divorced woman had no one to rely on; and she was required to fulfil the vow for herself and by herself. If she failed to keep her vow, there was no-one to obtain forgiveness for her. But daughters and wives could rely on their fathers and husbands to obtain forgiveness for them.
There’s not one of us who does not sin with our tongue. Isn’t that what we read in the book of James? We all sin by what we say, because we all make promises we do not keep, or we say things we ought not to say. And we sin against the Lord in many other ways, and not only in what we say. We also sin against him and fall short of doing his will in what we do and in what we think. We are all lawbreakers and therefore we all deserve to be punished by God for breaking his laws.
However, unlike the widow and divorced woman, who had no one to rely on, we have the Lord Jesus to rely on. And just as a daughter received forgiveness from the Lord because of her father, and just as a wife received forgiveness from the Lord because of her husband, so we receive forgiveness from the Lord because of the Lord Jesus. He took responsibility for our guilt, when he suffered and died on the cross on our behalf. And because of him, and because of his death on our behalf, we are pardoned by God and forgiven for all that we have done wrong. Though we’re sinners who sin against the Lord every day by our words and by our deeds, nevertheless, for the sake of Christ who bore our sins on the cross, God is willing to pardon us. And so, we have peace with God and the hope of everlasting life.
And so, as we come to the Lord’s Table on Sunday, we come with sorrow for all the ways we have sinned against the Lord and disobeyed his word. Just like the Israelites, we’re sinners who have rebelled against the Lord and we deserve to be kept out of his presence forever. But we come to the Lord’s Table with gratitude, because we believe that Christ has died for us, and because of him and his work on the cross, we are forgiven by God.
But the last thing to say today is that we can rejoice. We can rejoice because the God we worship is a God who is infinite, eternal and unchangeable in truth. He has always and will always tell the truth. And so, we can always rely on him to keep his promises to us.
And hasn’t he promised to forgive all who trust in his Son? Hasn’t he promised to sanctify us and to make us more and more willing and able to do his will? Hasn’t he promised to be our help and strength and our rock and refuge so that we can trust in him to protect us and to uphold us every day? Hasn’t be promised never to leave or forsake us but to be with us always? Hasn’t be promised to give us eternal life in his presence in glory? And hasn’t be promised to meet us when we gather for worship? Hasn’t he promised us all of this and more besides?
And so, we can rejoice because our Lord is true and always keeps his promises. And so, we can look forward to meeting him on Sunday as we gather together to hear his word and to take part in the Lord’s Supper. And we can look forward to being with him forever and forever in the life to come. We make promises we cannot keep or which we fail to keep. Other people let us down because they do not do what they said they would do. We all make promises we do not keep. But the Lord our God is faithful and true, and what he says, he will do. And he has promised forgiveness and eternal life to all who trust in his Son.