For the week of June 28, 2008 / 25 Sivan 5768
Torah: Bemidbar / Numbers 16:1 - 18:32
Haftarah: 1 Samuel 11:14 - 12:22
And do not turn aside after empty things that cannot profit or deliver, for they are empty. (1 Samuel 12:21; ESV)
The monarchy in ancient Israel was established under the oversight of the prophet Samuel. Near the end of his life he exhorted the people to walk in God's ways. The verse I just read was part of that speech: "And do not turn aside after empty things that cannot profit or deliver, for they are empty" (1 Samuel 12:21; ESV). Good advise, but obvious, no? Why would anybody feel they would need to say "do not turn aside after empty things"?
"Empty things" is metaphorical language. Certainly Samuel isn't telling the Israelite to make sure that they don't use vessels that have nothing in them! He must be referring to "things" that they think could "profit or deliver" them, but according to Samuel, these "things" are "empty," meaning lacking value or use of any kind. This explains why at least one translation has "useless idols" (NIV) instead of "empty things." The translators must have thought that Samuel and his hearers would immediately understand that he was meaning idols specifically. Alternatively, the translators might have thought that we readers would not be able to figure out what "empty things" means, so they had to transform the figure of speech into something we would understand.
That idols are most likely included in Samuel's reference to "empty things" I accept. Idols would be the kind of thing that the people might "turn aside after" in hopes they might "profit or deliver". Samuel was reminding the people that such "things" are actually "empty" - they have no value; they are useless.
As for why he would need to tell them this, that's most likely due to the fact that people have been turning to idols for much, if not most, of human history. That they are useless and of no help has rarely stopped people from relying on them. Therefore I guess we have needed people like Samuel to tell us to "not turn aside" after them.
But Samuel didn't say "useless idols," the Hebrew words he spoke are more accurately represented by the English, "empty things", which would include "useless idols", but also every other "thing" that we might "turn aside after", but is in fact, empty.
Perhaps one of the most prevalent "empty things" of today is the increasingly popular personal approach to spirituality. In keeping with current post-modern thought, it has become more and more acceptable for individuals to develop a spirituality that "works for me." If a view of life makes sense to me and makes me feel good, then it is legitimate and acceptable. But the truth is that personal spirituality is "empty." Maybe it makes sense to you and makes you feel good, but there is a Reality and Truth that have nothing to do with personal opinion or taste. This is the Truth that Samuel knew; the Truth the Israelites were warned not to "turn aside" from.
The God of Israel is not "empty". He is the true God, the creator of the universe, the Master and Lord of all things. He alone is our help, our life, and our salvation. Nothing compares with Him. Anything else we may rely on is "empty".
Sadly, personal spirituality is increasingly in vogue among people who claim to believe the Bible. Many are concerned more with "what the Bible means to me" than simply "what the Bible means." If an interpretation "sits well," then it's deemed to be fine. Using the Bible this way also leads to the integration of all sorts of false spiritualities into a supposed biblical spirituality.
But these "empty things…cannot profit or deliver, for they are empty." Let us hear the words of Samuel and turn away from "empty things" and return to the reality of the one true God.
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