And they said every one to his fellow, Come, and let us cast lots, that we may know for whose cause this evil is come upon us. (Jonah 1.7)
Hugh Martin, A Commentary on Jonah, pp. 133-137:
A question arises. When is it lawful to have recourse to the casting of lots? And when would such procedure be unlawful? What are the limits between a legitimate and improper use of the lot?
Now, because such a question is only one of a class, a large class of cases of conscience, all involving substantially the same principles, and all to be dealt with in very much the same way, let us devote a little attention to it. What are the limits between a lawful and unlawful appeal to the lot?
1. First, then, let me describe to you a case where its lawfulness is obvious. A general of an army is about to arrange his forces for an assault upon the enemy's citadel. The party that heads the attack are exposed to be cut in pieces; the probability of escape to each of them is exceedingly small, the probability of death exceedingly great. They are, alas! "the forlorn hope." Overawed by the thought of appointing his fellow-creatures thus to almost certain death, the general, instead of himself fixing on the portion of his army that shall lead the van, chooses to decide the matter by casting lots. Clearly he makes a most lawful appeal to the lot in such a case. Whether simply as refusing the responsibility, or as making a solemn appeal to God, he is only embracing a legitimate privilege. He may with a good conscience, as in the sight of God, and in the spirit of prayer, cast lots to settle this very solemn matter. He ought to do it in the spirit of prayer; and, if a godly man, he will. Such is a case where the lawfulness is quite unquestionable.
2. Let us go at once to the other extreme, and describe a case where the unlawfulness is equally obvious. A party of men agree to furnish each a certain sum of money to a common store, and then they cast lots to determine to whom the whole sum shall belong. The character of such a proceeding is clear. All such lotteries, raffles, gamblings, are immoral, -- profane. They are, in their very essence, atheistic profligacy. The parties themselves may be made very quickly to confess that they are. Will you dare to say, we may ask them, will you dare to say that you can ask the Divine sanction on a step like this? Do you think, if you lose in this speculation, that Almighty God will not hold you responsible for the worldly good you thus lose? for you put away what God gave and what God commanded you concerning, saying, "Occupy till I come." And He will demand an account of it, as what you lost without His providence taking it from you. And if you gain, will He not reckon with you, in like manner, for being in possession of what He never gave? And will you dare to call Him in to decide and allocate in such shameful transfers? "The lot is cast into the lap, but the whole disposing thereof is of the Lord." And you take that method which most especially involves His finger to settle what he most especially abhors! The reply of course is that any such thought of thus appealing to God is never entertained. And doubtless that is true enough; for it is evident that the thoughtless agents are acting all too plainly as those that are without God in the world. But it remains none the less true that "the whole disposing of the lot is of God;" and if in such a case it would be blasphemy to realise it not to be so, and still persist, it is practical atheism not to realise it all. For if "the very hairs of our heads are numbered," and "not a sparrow falleth to the ground without our Father;" -- and the falling out of the lot is not more truly, but certainly more obviously, of His sole will and pleasure; -- then if men can use it without thinking of God and His providence, attributing the result rather to chance, or luck, or fortune, or fate, is not this an atheistic exclusion of the Almighty from the affairs of His own world, and only next in its profligacy to the blasphemy which would be involved in saying that they appealed the lot to God, and sought to make Him a party to their dishonourable dealings? Enough has been said to show the immorality of casting lots in such a case.
We have taken, then, two extreme instances; one where the propriety and lawfulness are obvious, the other where the unlawfulness and profanity are equally clear. But then, between these two extremes there may range a vast variety of cases more or less clear as they are nearer to the one or other of the extremes, or approach to some middle line or limit between them. A father, for instance, in dividing some little gifts or presents among his children, to avoid jealousies or dissatisfaction, may have recourse to the casting of lots. They draw cuts. If this is right, it is clearly not so obviously right as the case of a general drafting by lot the parties to whom in the breach a death of violence is all but certain. Or again, two young people, engaged in an exercise of lawful recreation, may cast lots to determine who shall begin. If this is wrong, it is clearly very far from being so obviously wrong as an appeal to the lot in a matter of gambling. Is the one, then, really right, and is the other really wrong? Where is the limit between the right and the wrong? Where is the line that separates the lawful from the unlawful use?
Now this is precisely the question which we think no intelligent religious teacher will undertake to answer; and that simply because the Bible itself does not answer it. The Bible does not deal with God's people in the way of answering in set terms every question of conscience that may arise. And if God himself does not in set terms answer every such question, it would surely be wrong in us to attempt to do so. We need not say that if every case and question of conscience which might arise along the whole course of time, and amidst the countless multitudes of the Church in all climes and ages, had been, in so many words, provided for and answered in a revelation from heaven, the sacred book would have reached dimensions of such enormous magnitude as would have rendered it perfectly useless. "I suppose that even the world itself could not contain the books that should have been written" (John xxi. 25). But apart from that consideration. While God trains His children under clearly-enough announced commandments, and has given us His moral law in its various precepts as the rule of our duty, He has not placed us under an unbending martial drill, under a miserable martinette-like subjection to incessant, and express, and verbal instructions, leaving no room for His free Spirit to exercise our consciences in freedom, or to guide us in filial and manly enlargement. He deals with us, not under a servile arrangement that would incessantly, and in terms, dictate to us, giving us nothing higher and nobler to do than to creep along every moment exactly by the tight line drawn for us, and to square our conduct by dead mechanical rule. No. Our Lord gives us His holy law, which is the image of His own holy nature, and the expression of His own holy life; and which bears in it, therefore, the image and the impress of the freedom of His own free holy natures, both as God and man. He writes this law on our hearts; supreme love to God, unfeigned love to man; when He freely reconciles us, as friends and children, to the Father. Then He places us in His vineyard to do his work; -- "Son, go work to-day in my vineyard." That vineyard we find, not bordered, and hedged, and railed in, on the supposition of our being infants under tutors and governors. We find in it no such series of instructions as would allocate the particular duty of each particular hour; and we find no such arrangement as would ring us off, by bell or token, from one duty to another, at the exact moment, leaving us nothing to do but mechanically to wait the summons and follow the continual leading strings. This is not God's way of disciplining His people. He leaves them much more at freedom, and, in a sense, much more to their own discretion. Nor does He thereby diminish their responsibility. Very much the reverse. He lays upon them a far greater responsibility. He gives them great general rules, and He calls upon them to apply these rules. Instead of pointing out each separate thing they are to do, in which case they might do it and be little disciplined in spirit by doing it, He calls upon them in terms like these, "Whatsoever ye do, whether in word or in deed, do all to the glory of God." He asks them to keep alive on their spirits a sense of responsibility to Him; to walk under His eye, ready to do His will. He asks them to keep a single eyes to His glory, and a heart submissive to His pleasure. And having freely adopted them to His love, and graciously renewed them by His Spirit, He places them amidst difficulties, no doubt, and trials and temptations, and in circumstances where their sincerity will be subjected to proof, and gives them call and opportunity to show of what spirit they are, by "doing all things in the name of Christ Jesus" (Col. iii. 17); or doing all things in a manner "worthy of their high calling from God" (Eph. iv. 1); by "doing all things to the glory of God" (1 Cor. x. 31); or doing all things "unto the use of edifying" (Eph. iv. 29).