The Abuse of Casting Lots

Wilhelmus à Brakel
The Christian’s Reasonable Service
Vol. 3, pp. 123-128

The eighth sin [of the third commandment] is the abuse of casting of the lot. The casting of the lot is an extraordinary or unusual request made to God that He would reveal His will in an important controversy which cannot be resolved by either wisdom, skill, or strength. It pertains to an issue that must be resolved, as there would otherwise be danger or great disadvantage to the country, church, or individual.

From the injunctions given it is evident that the lot may be used (cf. Lev 16:8-9; Num 26:55-56); the saints have also made use of it (Acts 1:26).

God governs the lot and permits it to be cast according to His will. This is evident from Prov 16:33, “The lot is cast into the lap; but the whole disposing thereof is of the Lord.” Casting the lot is a religious activity. It is the making of a request to God and must be preceded by prayer. “And they prayed, and said, Thou, Lord, which knowest the hearts of all men, show whether of these two thou hast chosen, that he may take part of this ministry and apostleship. … And they gave forth their lots” (Acts 1:24-26). In the casting of the lot one expects the outcome to be to the glory of God and the welfare of country and church. It is thus a religious activity and must be conducted with a religious heart.

The casting of the lot is only to be done in important controversies and in the event of a significant circumstance upon which the welfare of society is contingent. It is also to be used in matters which otherwise cannot be resolved, or in matters wherein the hand of God must expressly be observed, such as the division of the land of Canaan, the selection of the two goats, and the election of the twelfth apostle. “The lot causeth contentions to cease, and parteth between the mighty” (Prov 18:18).

It seems that in the Old Testament the lot has also been used to discover the guilty party. In all likelihood Achan was singled out in this manner (Josh 7:18). This is also true for Jonathan (1 Sam 14:40-41), and Jonah (Jon 1:7). However, this is not to be —Vol. 3, Page 124— imitated. Even if Achan were singled out by the lot (which is not certain), it nevertheless occurred by divine revelation. Saul’s behavior cannot be regulative, for he often did that which was not right. Finally, in Jonah’s case the sailors were Gentiles.

Tempting God

Since the casting of the lot is a religious activity of an extraordinary nature by which important controversies are resolved, one must be fearful of abusing the lot either to satisfy curiosity, discover a secret, or neglect the use of the only rule of God’s Word. The latter occurs when one asks God by means of the lot what needs to be done in doubtful cases in which he cannot make a decision, such as: whom to marry, the giving of counsel concerning a matter, the choice of a profession, whether or not one should move, etc. This would be a tempting of God and would arouse His wrath—and rather than answering by means of the lot, He could let the lot fall to your disadvantage and destruction. Abide by the Word of God and neither tempt nor provoke Him. If you cannot make a decision and are in doubt, then refrain from action, for you may not do anything except by faith. Chance, unbiblical

Games of Chance

It is thus also evident that the abuse of the lot in games, entertainment, and gambling is a dreadful abuse of the providence of God. There are games which are played solely with one’s skill or strength, and there are games played together with others such as chess, checkers, handball, fencing, shuffle board, etc. These are lawful in and of themselves, but they must be played with a holy objective: to refresh a weary mind, to preserve the health of the body, or to render one more fit for his next task. It must occur neither too frequently nor too long, for then you would fail to achieve the objective. You would waste your time and the heart would be estranged from God and become attached to the game. There are also mixed games which are partly played by chance and partly by skill, such as the game of cards, backgammon, etc. These are as unlawful as games of pure chance, for the casting of the lot also rules such games. If chance is entirely against someone, his skill will be of no avail. Then there are games which are entirely dependent on chance, such as games in which dice only are used, straws are drawn, etc.

It is unlawful to play games of chance, be it all by chance or in conjunction with skill. This is evident for the following reasons:

First, there is neither a command, example, nor argument in God’s Word from which one can logically deduce the legality of games of chance.

Evasive Argument #1: This can also be said of other games in which use is made of either skill or strength.

Answer: This is not so, for it is founded upon God’s Word that one may rest, sleep, eat, and drink, and at the same time, may endeavor to keep soul and body in good condition in order to be fit for the service of God.

Evasive Argument #2: A game of chance can also serve that purpose.

Answer: This cannot be so, since it is nothing but sin—and a soul, if it were sensitive to sin, would be distraught. One may not draw a conclusion by relating that which is founded upon God’s Word to that which is not founded upon it.

Secondly, the use of the lot is a religious activity governed by the Word of God, which states the circumstances when, the manner in which, and the purpose for which it may be used. It is a religious activity; that is, it is a seeking for guidance from the Lord and a making request that He would reveal His will. Therefore prayer precedes its use (Acts 1:24-26). It must be used in weighty circumstances wherein God’s hand needs to be observed in an extraordinary manner. This was true for the selection of the two goats, the division of the land of Canaan, and the selection of a twelfth apostle. It must be done in faith, believing that the entire disposal is of the Lord (Prov 16:33), that He will reveal His will, and that one must rest in this with delight. It must also be used to settle disputes (Prov 18:18). All these dimensions are absent, however, in the game of chance, and it is thus unlawful.

Thirdly, the lot is an extraordinary means by which to discern God’s will in a situation of extraordinary importance. However, in a game of chance there is neither a weighty matter to be determined, nor a dispute to be settled. One does not endeavor by such a game to know the will of God in order to be subject to it. Thus, to play a game of chance is to tempt God, and is therefore forbidden. “Thou shalt not tempt the Lord thy God” (Matt 4:7). To tempt God is to depart from the ordinary way prescribed to us and to desire something extraordinary from God. It makes a mockery of God’s providence and makes Him a servant of our foolish will.

Evasive Argument: The gambler may say: “I do not even think about this; I am only interested in honor and financial gain.”

Answer: It is sinful to have such objectives, and it is even sinful not to think about God. One must think about God in everything. If one does not think about God in the act of lying, is it therefore no sin?

Fourthly, the outcome of the casting of the lot—which the gambler hopes to be to his advantage—is not in the hands of the player; and yet he is hopeful. In whom does he put his hope—in the devil? No. Is it fate (which the heathen designate as an idol) as if it were able to bring something about? No. Does one expect it then from the dice? Then one designates them to be his God. It is abominable to expect any happiness from any other source but God.

Evasive Argument: The gambler may say, “I do not expect the outcome from anyone; I only look to the outcome.”

Answer: This would be the answer of the atheist; the outcome is ruled by God (Prov 16:33). It is thus inherent in the issue itself that one expects happiness from God in an extraordinary way—this being by a game. This is nothing else but a tempting of and mocking with God, and to make Him a servant of one’s lust.

Fifthly, games of chance—not due to chance itself—inherently engender harmful consequences. They draw the heart from God, which, due to His righteous judgment, is occupied with a bewitching power. If the outcome of the casting of the lot is disappointing, a silent fretfulness toward God arises in the heart, even though this may not be expressly stirred up. From this comes cursing, blaspheming, and displeasure toward the winner. The one loses his goods (be it much or little) and the other receives a profit which is corrupt and contaminated.

Sixthly, add to this the general witness of the godly and scholars of all ages, as well as of synods and imperial decrees. If there is occasionally one who favors games of chance, it is a papist or a worldly person who has no regard for the Bible. Or if there is an occasional scholar who approves, there are those who have refuted them and stopped their mouths. In doing so, such a scholar has brought a blemish upon himself and upon his other writings.

Public Lotteries

That which has been said also proves that public lotteries, instituted by the government to support the poor or churches, are unlawful.

First, games of chance and lotteries are essentially the same. The one is unlawful, and therefore, also the other. Consider therefore the reasons mentioned above as having been advanced here as well. The government’s approval of the lotteries does not change the nature of the matter. Governments are not authorized to annul divine commandments and to make an unlawful matter lawful. The legality would supposedly be derived from either the government’s approbation or from its objective. It cannot be related to the government, for one must obey God rather than man. The objective to support the poor and the churches can no more justify lotteries than Saul’s objective in sacrificing to the Lord that which —Vol. 3, Page 127— he had been prohibited to take. One must not do evil in order that good may come forth from it. A good objective must be attained in a lawful manner. The poor can also be helped in different ways, such as by charity, taxation, or other means which are founded upon God’s Word. It is not even to the advantage of the poor, but rather to their detriment, for many who can scarcely earn a living, will in this way tend to poverty and must then also be supported.

Evasive Argument: Such ought not to participate in the lotteries.

Answer: They are forced by their landlord to participate in order to improve their circumstances. And if they cannot handle little, they will also not be able to handle much; everyone is obligated to preserve in an appropriate manner that which God has given him.

Secondly, lotteries take away from the one and give to the other, for many need to make a contribution and but few walk away with it—doing all this without any skill, and apart from an inheritance and other honorable means.

Evasive Argument: The money is not taken from anyone, for they all contribute voluntarily.

Answer: No opportunity ought to be given for subjects to squander their goods, for God has forbidden this.

Thirdly, participation in lotteries proceeds from the heart of a person who is not satisfied with his condition, wants to become rich, and consequently falls victim to foolish lusts. Everyone yearns for the highest prize, doing so in a way which has not been commanded in, founded upon, nor exemplified in God’s Word, which teaches that the casting of the lot is a religious activity and an extraordinary means to ascertain what God’s will is in a matter of dispute. This is not the objective of lotteries.

Evasive Argument #1: I participate in a religious manner; I am in need and have very limited means, and here is an opportunity to improve my condition. I expect the outcome from the Lord and pray for a blessing.

Answer: All religion is founded upon the Word of God; this is not true for lotteries. They are not a religious activity. One can therefore neither pray in faith nor expect a good outcome from God. It is a tempting of God, for one departs from the ordinary way and seeks it in an extraordinary way.

Evasive Argument #2: I do it religiously, for I give to the poor.

Answer: This is not valid. If you wish to give to the poor, give without expecting anything in return, for the poor will receive no more than a small percentage of your gain. You know in your heart that it is not your intent to give to the poor, but to acquire a good lottery ticket.

Evasive Argument #3: I have promised a good portion to the poor if I receive a favorable return from the lottery.

Answer: This is engaging in a business transaction with God: Give me this and I shall give Thee that in return. Furthermore, it is nothing more than the price for a dog and the wages of a prostitute. God does not wish to have goods deposited in the offertory-box which have been acquired unlawfully. From these reasons—together with those advanced against the playing of games of chance—it is evident that lotteries are unlawful, just as games of chance are.

Fourthly, consider also that if lotteries were lawful, friends, neighbors, and acquaintances would then be permitted to establish lotteries among themselves. Everyone could then deposit something, and thereupon cast the lot as to who will have it all. This, however, would make the godly uncomfortable and the government would not permit it. The government thus admits that the legality of lotteries, which are of a religious issue, is contingent upon their judgment, or that lotteries are inherently either unlawful or detrimental in regard to the affairs of the republic.

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