Yesterday I received an email from a Facebook friend asking about vows. He related to me that he had had some discussion with a brother who told him that he had made a “pledge to pay back to God” for the blessing he had received from him. He asked this brother “…is it scriptural for a Christian to vow/ keep/ fulfill a vow towards God in today’s context?” He asked me for help on this question.
It may be of help to examine the whole question of vows a little more thoroughly. A vow is “a solemn promise or assertion; specifically: one by which a person is bound to an act, service, or condition.” (Merriam-Webster.com). The practice of vowing to God was common in Old Testament days. There are numerous mentions of vows in the OT with the prevalent warning that if one has vowed a vow he was obligated to keep his word. The Law of Moses addressed the matter of keeping of vows one had made in Numbers 30. The first two verses start out this way…
“Moses spoke to the heads of the tribes of the people of Israel, saying, “This is what the Lord has commanded. If a man vows a vow to the Lord, or swears an oath to bind himself by a pledge, he shall not break his word. He shall do according to all that proceeds out of his mouth.”
Solomon weighed in on the matter with these words of wisdom…
“When you vow a vow to God, do not delay paying it, for he has no pleasure in fools. Pay what you vow. It is better that you should not vow than that you should vow and not pay. Let not your mouth lead you into sin, and do not say before the messenger that it was a mistake. Why should God be angry at your voice and destroy the work of your hands? (Ecclesiastes 5:4-6).
There are numerous examples of people making vows in the Old Testament and one in the New Testament we will look at. Hannah, the mother of Samuel was barren. In her desire for a son she prayed and made a vow that she would devote him to God if he would grant her request. (1 Samuel 1:11). Her husband, Elkanah, is also mentioned as paying an unspecified vow to the Lord. (1 Samuel 1:21).
No matter what the circumstance or to whom we make a vow, one should do so only after careful reflection. Vows are not to be entered into rashly nor taken lightly. There are examples of people who made foolish vows and later regretted them. When Jephthah was asked by the Israelites to be their leader and drive out the Ammonites from their land he made a vow to God that if they won against their enemies then whatever came out of the door of his house first he would offer as a sacrifice to God. They won and his daughter came out of his house when he came home. He said to her…
“Alas, my daughter! You have brought me very low, and you have become the cause of great trouble to me. For I have opened my mouth to the Lord, and I cannot take back my vow.” (Judges 11:35).
The Biblical insistence on keeping one’s vows is obviously related to the character of an individual. A vow made to God or before God is a solemn, sacred obligation. To fail to keep one’s vows was an indication of one’s lack of integrity and lack of respect for God in whose image man is made.
We all make vows all the time. Most of those vows are not specifically made to God, but should be regarded as a sacred obligation nonetheless. Every time we sign our name to a legal contract or financial document we pledge to meet the obligations of that document or contract. When we swipe our credit card through a card reader and make a purchase we pledge to meet the obligation of paying what we owe. An oath to tell the truth in court is a vow asserting your honesty and trustworthiness as a witness.
Marriage vows are by no means the least of the vows we make. Much is said by men today about the law of God regarding divorce – what is lawful and what is not – but very little is mentioned in those discussions about the diminishing of the character and integrity of the individual who breaks his or her marriage vows. This is something in which God is very interested. The prophet Malachi said that God…
“…was witness between you and the wife of your youth, to whom you have been faithless, though she is your companion and your wife by covenant…. For the man who does not love his wife but divorces her, says the Lord, the God of Israel, covers his garment with violence, says the Lord of hosts. So guard yourselves in your spirit, and do not be faithless.” (Malachi 2:14,16).
A covenant is a solemn agreement. Usually in the Bible a covenant is between God and men. The guarantee of God’s covenants is his character. God has always done what he said he would do. In character God is trustworthy. When he promises or pledges to do something he can be counted on to do what he has said.
It has been said that a vow is like a credit card transaction in which a person promises to pay God worship (sacrifices) in the future for some blessing in the present. I strongly suspect that there was more to it than that. This idea smacks of bargaining with God. “You do this for me and I’ll do that for you.” Tit for tat. We are in no position to bargain with God. We have nothing with which to bargain.
The only mentions of Christians making vows are found in the book of Acts. There is mention of Paul having taken a vow in Acts 18:18 when “At Cenchreae he had cut his hair, for he was under a vow.” This was apparently a Nazirite vow which is detailed in Numbers 6. There is no word of explanation as to why he made this vow, only that he had made it. Apparently Paul did not think vows made according to the Law of Moses were wrong, but he never taught or required anyone to make vows.
One who took the Nazirite vow was separate or holy unto God. He or she could not shave or cut their hair while the vow was in effect, could not eat drink anything that came from the grapevine – no wine, vinegar, juice, fresh or dried fruit, skin or seed. They could not come near a dead body or attend a funeral – not even if it was for their mother or father. The period of the vow could last from a week to a lifetime. After the time the vow was fulfilled the person was to then shave their head, take sacrifices to the tabernacle and offer them for his cleansing. If one were away and could not come to the tabernacle or temple they were to offer the sacrifices after they returned. (Acts 21:17-26).
Paul’s vow fits the pattern of the Nazirite vow. He was away from Jerusalem when the days of his vow were fulfilled so he offers the sacrifices for cleansing along with four other men in Acts 21:17-26. Nothing is said here of Paul shaving his head with the other men since he had already fulfilled that part of the ceremony. This incident served to disprove the charge that had been made against Paul that he taught people to forsake the law of Moses of which the Nazirite vow was a part. Perhaps this was the reason he had taken the vow in the first place.
Can Christians today make vows to God? In dealing with the Jews concept of righteousness, Jesus touched on the subject of oaths (vows, pledges) in Matthew 5:33-37. Basically, his answer was, “Don’t do it!” Why? We may not be able to keep our word. We may not have the ability or the opportunity. We don’t know if we will live long enough to keep it. It would be better to not make promises we are not able to keep or do not know whether we can ever keep them. He said that the word of a Christian ought to be all that is necessary to confirm his intentions. In affirming one’s word he said, “Let what you say be simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything more than this comes from evil.” (vs. 37). These words of Jesus and the absence of any instruction requiring or regulating vows in the New Testament show us that God does not place a very high regard on the practice of vows today.
Sometimes people, like the Jews, nullify the word of God by their vows. Jesus severely condemned them because they were using their pledges of offerings to God as an excuse for not supporting their indigent parents. He said they had made void the word of God by their tradition. To vow something that goes against the principles taught in the word of God is plainly wrong.
What purpose would it serve for a Christian to make a vow to God? Does that make his commitment to him more binding? Does it guarantee that one will be more faithful than one who does not vow? What we need to realize is that when we confessed the name of Jesus and put him on in baptism we entered into a lifelong commitment to be faithful in service to him. Will a vow make one more faithful? More diligent in service? More pleasing to God?
What if we vow and are not able to keep that vow due to our limited vision or if a reversal of our circumstances should occur? Remember, God is not like us. When we make a vow we are under obligation to keep it no matter what hardship it places on us. That is because God places more value on the integrity of a person than on his convenience or comfort. When we give our word he expects us to keep it. Period.
If we were to make a vow to God it should be out of love for him and not as a bargaining chip in a deal we are maneuvering him into. That simply will not work with him. He knows the thoughts and intents of our hearts. So better not to vow than to try and make a deal with him.
And again, if we were to vow to God that we will do so and so, that vow ought to be between him and us alone. It is nothing for us to boast of to others. If we made a vow we brought ourselves under obligation to him. Would we boast of a vow we failed in? If we were to boast to others would that not be an act of pride? Would God be pleased with that?
As Christians, our commitment should be so complete that no vows should be necessary. If we love the Lord with all our heart, soul and mind there should be no need for extra promises. Maybe this is why we don’t read any more about this subject in the New Testament.