The House of God

“So early in the morning Jacob took the stone that he had put under his head and set it up for a pillar and poured oil on the top of it. He called the name of the place Bethel, but the name of the city was Luz at the first” (Gen. 28:18–19).

- Genesis 28:18–22

Following his first encounter with the Lord in his vision of the ladder, Jacob, the new patriarch of Israel, immediately recognized that a sacred event had taken place. He first acknowledged God’s presence with his lips, declaring that he had been sleeping at “the gate of heaven” (Gen. 28:16–17). Today’s passage describes the stone Jacob anointed and the oath he made immediately thereafter.

The bulk of today’s passage presents the content of Jacob’s vow to the Lord on that occasion. This oath presents certain difficulties because Jacob apparently conditions his worship of the one, true God on his own success (vv. 20–22). The Reformation Study Bible makes note of this and suggests that Jacob’s faith is less than ideal at this point. Other commentators say we should not make too much of this since vows are often a part of the worship of God’s people, and therefore nothing is wrong with Jacob’s pledge.

Both perspectives contain some truth. Archaeological finds have demonstrated that Jacob’s stone was likely a representation of the Lord — not just a place marker. This does not bode well for the purity of his faith at this stage of his life (Ex. 20:4). Also, the other vows found in Scripture do not normally condition one’s devotion to God on what He will do for someone. Instead, the worshiper recognizes his rightful submission to the Lord before the vow is made (for example, Ps. 18). On the other hand, vows were a part of old covenant worship, and the fact that Jacob swears here indicates he had some confidence in the Lord, even if it was not perfect. In His great love and mercy, the Lord does not wait for His people to be without blemish before He calls them to service.

Moreover, vows continue as a part of new covenant worship. Our Reformed tradition typically views corporate praise as a time of covenant renewal in which we remember the greatness and saving acts of our Lord and again vow to serve Him before witnesses, namely, God and other Christians (1 Cor. 11:26; Heb. 12:18–24). Let us then renew our oaths to Him each week in joyful praise of His holiness and grace and not simply to get Him to do something for us.

Coram Deo

Calvin writes that in order for a vow to be lawful and pleasing to God, “it is first necessary that it should tend to a right end; and next, that men should devote nothing by a vow but what is in itself approved by God, and what he has placed within their own power.” When we make promises to God, we should never pledge something we are unable to do or something forbidden by Scripture. Consider any oaths you may have made to the Lord and seek to fulfill them.

Passages for Further Study

Num. 6:1–21
Deut. 23:21–23
Ps. 65:1
Matt. 12:36–37

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