Zachariah and Elizabeth have lived childless their entire lives. They have prayed often for a child, especially a son, but God had not answered their prayers. They continued faithful in their religious lives and did not let bitterness detract from their faith in a good and loving God. Then a very special day for Zachariah came. The “lottery” came, and his number was drawn. As we read in various places, the casting of lots was God’s way of making his will known. God chose Zachariah. It wasn’t, as we think, a matter of pure chance. God was about to answer their lifelong prayer. Luke 1:8-9 says, “Now while he was serving as priest before God when his division was on duty, according to the custom of the priesthood, he was chosen by lot to enter the temple of the Lord and burn incense.” Bock explains this well in his commentary on Luke. He writes, “The announcement of John’s birth comes at a high moment in Zechariah’s career. As one of about eighteen thousand priests, Zechariah serves in the temple twice a year, but only once in his life does he get to assist in the daily offering by going into the holy place. This honor had fallen to him by lot. His job was to offer incense, a picture of intercession rising to God (Ps 141:2; Rev 5:8; 8:3–4). Everything about the announcement’s timing points to a moment of high piety. Zechariah goes in while the people are praying. A later prayer from the Targum of Canticles 4:6 may well express their thoughts: “May the merciful God enter the Holy Place and accept with favor the offering of his people.”[1]

The casting of lots to discover God’s will was a big deal in the Old Testament, but it’s not needed for believers today. Lots were used to determine the division of the Land in Joshua’s day. In the book of Judges, it was used to determine the allocation of military duties. In Nehemiah, we read about lots being used to select those to settle in Jerusalem. Lots were used to assign tasks to the priest and the Levites. It appears that lots determined the guilty verdicts pronounced on Achan. It was also used to settle disputes. In the New Testament, we see the soldiers at the cross casting lots to see who gets Jesus’ garments. It was also used to select Mattias as Judas’ replacement in the book of Acts. But Trites is right, “After the coming of the Holy Spirit, lots became unnecessary. The Holy Spirit was available to lead Christians into spiritual truth. In fact, Jesus had promised this special help from the Holy Spirit: ‘He will teach you everything and will remind you of everything I have told you.’ The book of Acts contains examples where the Spirit of God guided believers in their actions and decisions.”[2]

The casting of lots is called Cleromancy. It’s a process by which an outcome is determined by means considered random. Eerdman’s Dictionary explains the practice from the biblical perspective. It says, “The divinatory technique termed psephomancy or cleromancy refers to lot casting, a prevalent method of divination in the ancient world. In the Bible, however, the casting of lots was one of the few legitimate means of divine revelation (as were dreams and direct communication with the deity). Lot casting is not among the condemned mantic or divinatory practices such as soothsaying, magic, and necromancy (cf. Deut. 18:10–12). Lot casting, therefore, had divine sanction and control. Though the throwing of the lots was a human action, the revelation was a direct message from God (Prov. 16:33).”[3] A web writer rightfully concludes, “The New Testament nowhere instructs Christians to use a method similar to casting lots to help with decision-making. Now that we have the completed Word of God, as well as the indwelling Holy Spirit, to guide us, there is no reason to be using games of chance to make decisions. The Word, the Spirit, and prayer are sufficient for discerning God’s will today—not casting lots, rolling dice, or flipping a coin.”[4]

[1] Bock, Darrell L. 1994. Luke. The IVP New Testament Commentary Series. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.

[2] Trites, Allison A., William J. Larkin. 2006. Cornerstone Biblical Commentary, Vol 12: The Gospel of Luke and Acts. Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House Publishers.

[3] Bidmead, Julye. 2000. “Lots.” In Eerdmans Dictionary of the Bible, edited by David Noel Freedman, Allen C. Myers, and Astrid B. Beck, 825. Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans.