“You shall keep the Feast of Unleavened Bread. As I commanded you, you shall eat unleavened bread for seven days at the appointed time in the month of Abib, for in it you came out of Egypt. None shall appear before me empty-handed.” Exodus 23:15 ESV
Empty-handed – “In vain I kept my heart pure,” laments Asaph in his struggle with envy of the wicked. We discovered that the word he uses is not what we expected. It is riq, not hebel. Asaph thinks that his efforts to maintain obedience before the Lord have produced a life of emptiness (“in vain”). But his struggle is resolved with a deeper insight. Empty hands can lead to the fullness of God’s presence. “God is my good,” is Asaph’s insight. Perhaps Asaph was reflecting on this commandment regarding the Feast of Unleavened Bread because the Hebrew stem is the same, riq. Here the word is reqam. “No one shall appear before Me without hands filled with the appropriate sacrifice,” might be translated “No one shall appear before Me in vain.” But the commandment is more than showing up with the first fruits of the harvest or the sacrificial bird or animal. I can arrive with my hands full and still be empty-handed, as Asaph learned. Emptiness is both a physical and a spiritual state. God demands that we arrive before Him with full hands (the outward expression of our obedience) and full hearts (the inner acknowledgment of His all-sufficiency). Otherwise, riq applies. Otherwise we arrive in vain.
We should note that this word is not the word commonly translated “in vain” in the third commandment of the Decalogue. In that commandment, the word for “in vain” (You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain) is lashshaw’. This word is commonly associated with idolatry, that is, with the worthlessness and unreliability of idols. The commandment is not simply about profanity. It covers any use of God’s name that is associated with something false, unsubstantial or deceptive.
The commandment concerning appearance at the Feast is not about deception or worthless expression. It is about unfulfilled obligation. Reqam means coming to the party without bringing a gift for the host. God tells us that we better show up prepared.
Now this raises an important issue for contemporary believers because most Christians not only don’t show up prepared, they don’t arrive at all. They don’t attend the party in spite of God’s command and invitation. Why don’t they come? Because between the 2nd and 4th centuries the Church began to teach that Christians no longer needed to adhere to these “Jewish” rules. Since that teaching has been in place for nearly 2000 years, it is difficult for Christians to comprehend that it is mistaken, that it arose from anti-Semitism, not from the text. Why do I say such outrageous things? Because an examination of the history of the early Messianic community of the New Testament and the 2nd century shows, without discrepancy, that these communities followed the Jewish calendar and practiced the Jewish festivals. It took the Church several hundred years to eliminate this Jewish continuity and replace it with substitutes like Easter. But now we know. Now we know that our traditional belief is not based in Scripture or in the actual practice of the earliest Messianic communities. And so now we have to ask, “Are we arriving empty-handed?”
Topical Index: riq, lashshaw’, reqam, empty-handed, in vain, Exodus 23:15, Exodus 20:7