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VOWS IN THE BIBLE
A serious and binding promise made to God to undertake a specific action, offering, or service or to refrain from certain actions that are not inherently wrong. This promise, made voluntarily, carries the weight of an oath and may be accompanied by a formal declaration or appeal to a higher authority to affirm its truthfulness and enforceability. In the Bible, vows are mentioned frequently, and at times the terms ‘vow’ and ‘oath’ are used interchangeably. Vows serve as a declaration of intent, while oaths serve as a testimony to the truthfulness of the declaration and often involve a covenant. (Numbers 30:2; Matthew 5:33; Genesis 26:28; 31:44, 53)
The concept of making vows can be traced back to the Biblical account of Jacob in Genesis 28:20-22. In this passage, Jacob promises to give one tenth of his possessions to God if God continues to be with him and brings him back safely. This demonstrates how vows were a way for individuals to express their commitment to God and show their desire for His approval. The practice of making vows was common among the patriarchs, as seen in Job 22:27, and was regulated by the Mosaic Law. Rather than introducing the idea of vows, the Law defined and regulated the already established custom of making such promises to God.
Vows were often made as a means of seeking God’s favor or as a demonstration of devotion to God and his worship. For example, Jacob vowed to give a tenth of his possessions to God if God continued to be with him and bring him back in peace (Genesis 28:20-22). Similarly, Israel vowed to destroy the cities of the Canaanite king of Arad if God gave them victory (Numbers 21:1-3). Vows were also made to dedicate oneself or one’s possessions to God’s service (Numbers 6:2-7). In some cases, parents made vows on behalf of their children, such as Hannah did with Samuel (1 Samuel 1:11). Children could participate in carrying out the vow if they chose to do so.
Vows Were Voluntary, But Binding
Vows in the Bible were a voluntary expression of devotion to God or a promise to carry out a certain act in exchange for divine favor. Once made, a vow was considered binding and required fulfillment, with the individual’s life serving as surety for the performance of their word. The Scriptures emphasized the importance of caution when making a vow, as a thoughtless or rash promise could result in sin and the need for a guilt offering. Ultimately, a vow only has merit in the eyes of God if it aligns with his laws and stems from a righteous heart and spirit. (Nu 30:2, Ps 51:16-17, Ecclesiastes 5:4-6, Deuteronomy 23:21-22, Romans 1:31-32, Proverbs 20:25, Leviticus 5:4-6)
The laws regarding vows made by women are outlined in Numbers 30:3-15. The vow of a daughter was considered binding once her father had heard it and did not object. If the father chose to annul the vow, he had the power to do so. The vow of a married woman or an engaged woman was also dependent on her husband or fiancé for validation. If the husband or fiancé allowed the vow to stand and then annulled it, he would bear the responsibility for her error. However, in the case of a widow or divorced woman, any vows she made would remain binding. (Num. 30:9)
The disposal of things vowed to God is regulated by the Law, as outlined in Leviticus 27:26-29. Any person or possession, including land, could be offered to God in fulfillment of a vow, with the exception of things already set apart for God through the Law, such as firstborn, firstfruits, and tithes. Things vowed as “sanctified” could be redeemed through payment to the sanctuary, except for clean animals. However, things “devoted” could not be redeemed and had to be permanently the property of the sanctuary or destroyed without fail.
The laws regulating vows in ancient Israel prohibited the use of immoral or unclean practices in fulfillment of a vow. Vows that involved prostitution or sexual immorality were not accepted in the house of Jehovah. Deuteronomy 23:18 states that the proceeds of temple prostitution or any other immoral practices should not be dedicated to God in fulfillment of a vow. This was a clear distinction from the heathen religions of Phoenicia, Syria, and Babylon, where such practices were commonplace and even dedicated to the idol or temple. The laws of Israel ensured that all vows made to God were in accordance with His holy standards and principles.
According to the book of Jeremiah, the Jews who had been taken to Egypt were reminded that one of the reasons for the disaster that had befallen them was their making vows to the “queen of the heavens” and offering sacrifices to her. Women, who were prominent in this idol worship, claimed that their vows and worship to this goddess were approved by their husbands and they intended to fulfill their vows. They used the Law regarding women’s vows in Numbers 30:10-15 as an excuse, but Jeremiah condemned their actions as law-breaking since they were idolatrous. This is highlighted in 2 Corinthians 6:16-18.
Invalidated Word of God. The Jews, after their exile, did not return to full-fledged idol worship. However, they disregarded the word of God through their traditions. This impacted their practice of vows, as well as other aspects of worship. The religious leaders of the Jews taught human commands as if they were divine doctrines. (Matthew 15:6-9) For instance, Jewish tradition held that if a man said to his parents, Whatever I have that can benefit you; I declare as dedicated to God, he was effectively making a vow to consecrate all that he had mentioned to God and was not allowed to use these things to help his parents. This was based on the idea that the temple now had prior claim to these possessions, but in reality, the man was free to keep them for himself. (Matthew 15:5, 6)
Sacrifices and Vows. Under the Mosaic Law, a burnt offering was sometimes used to accompany other sacrifices as a symbol of complete dedication and a request for Jehovah’s acceptance. This was also the case with vows. For example, burnt offerings were made to fulfill special vows. (Leviticus 8:14, 18; 16:3) In regards to a communion sacrifice to Jehovah to fulfill a vow, the requirement was to offer an unblemished animal, with part of it being burned on the altar. (Leviticus 22:21, 22; 3:1-5)
Paul’s Observance of the Law in Relation to Vows
The apostle Paul is recorded to have made a vow in the Bible, although it is not specified if it was a Nazirite vow or if he made it before becoming a Christian. In the book of Acts, it is mentioned that Paul may have concluded his vow by having his hair clipped at Cenchreae near Corinth (Acts 18:18). Some believe that he completed his vow at the temple in Jerusalem along with four other men, as advised by the apostles and the elders, to show that he was following the laws and not teaching disobedience to them. This was in response to rumors that he was doing so. It was common practice to pay for the expenses related to the ceremonial cleansing at the end of a vow, which Paul did for himself and others. (Acts 21:20-24)
The reason why Paul and the apostles and the elders approved of following some aspects of the Law, even though it had been fulfilled by Jesus’ sacrifice, is because the Law was given by God to Israel. Paul described the Law as spiritual and holy, and therefore, the temple and its services were not considered wrong or idolatrous by Christians. Many of the practices were deeply ingrained in the culture of Jews, and the Law also served as the law of the land, which meant that restrictions, such as the Sabbath, had to be followed by all those living in the area. (Rom. 7:12, 14)
The apostle Paul, as well as other Christians, followed certain aspects of the Mosaic Law, even though it had been set aside by the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. This was because the Law was given by God to the Israelites and was considered spiritual and holy. Additionally, the Law was not only a religious code but also the law of the land, so certain restrictions, such as the Sabbath laws, had to be followed by all living in the area. However, the Christians did not rely on these practices for salvation.
Paul emphasized that matters such as observing certain days, eating meat or vegetables, or consuming meat that had been offered to idols were matters of conscience. He believed that one’s personal conviction was what mattered, whether they observed a day as special or not. He stated that the kingdom of God is not just about what one eats or drinks, but rather it is about righteousness, peace, and joy with the Holy Spirit. He concluded that it is best not to judge oneself based on what they approve, but if they have doubts, they should not eat as it is sin if not done in faith. (Romans 14:5-6, 17, 22-23; 1 Corinthians 10:25-30)
An informative comment was made on this point by Bible scholar Albert Barnes in his Notes, Explanatory and Practical, on the Acts of the Apostles (1885). Making reference to Acts 21:20—which reads:
And they are all zealous of the law. They still observe the law of Moses. The reference here is to the law respecting circumcision, sacrifices, distinctions of meats and days, festivals, &c. It may seem remarkable that they should still continue to observe those rites, since it was the manifest design of Christianity to abolish them. But we are to remember, (1) That those rites had been appointed by God, and that they were trained to their observance. (2) That the apostles conformed to them while they remained at Jerusalem, and did not deem it best to set themselves violently against them, ch. 3:1; Lu. 24:53. (3) That the question about their observance had never been agitated at Jerusalem. It was only among the Gentile converts that the question had risen, and there it must arise, for if they were to be observed, they must have been imposed upon them by authority. (4) The decision of the council (ch. 15) related only to the Gentile converts. It did not touch the question whether those rites were to be observed by the Jewish converts. (5) It was to be presumed that as the Christian religion became better understood—that as its large, free, and catholic nature became more and more developed, the peculiar institutions of Moses would be laid aside of course, without agitation and without tumult. Had the question been agitated at Jerusalem, it would have excited tenfold opposition to Christianity, and would have rent the Christian church into factions, and greatly retarded the advance of the Christian doctrine. We are to remember also, (6) That, in the arrangement of divine Providence, the time was drawing near which was to destroy the temple, the city, and the nation, which was to put an end to sacrifices, and effectually to close for ever the observance of the Mosaic rites. As this destruction was so near, and as it would be so effectual an argument against the observance of the Mosaic rites, the Great Head of the church did not suffer the question of their obligation to be needlessly agitated among the disciples at Jerusalem.—Albert Barnes, Notes on the New Testament: Acts, ed. Robert Frew (London: Blackie & Son, 1884–1885), 306.
“What You Vow, Pay”
Jephthah and Hannah were two faithful individuals who worshiped God and made vows to Him. A vow in the Bible is a serious promise made to God, and when a person makes a vow, Jehovah views it as a serious promise that must be respected and kept. In the Mosaic Law, it states that if a man makes a vow to Jehovah, he must not violate his word and must do everything he vowed to do. (Numbers 30:2) Jephthah made a vow to Jehovah before he fought the Ammonites, and when he returned home victorious, his daughter came out to meet him and became Jehovah’s. (Judges 11:30-34) Hannah also made a vow to Jehovah during a difficult time in her life, and after Jehovah answered her prayer, she kept her promise and gave her son, Samuel, to serve Jehovah full-time at the tabernacle. (1 Samuel 1:11, 20)
The most important vow that a Christian can make is dedicating their life to God and conveying this through baptism. (Matthew 16:24) It is important to continue to examine our relationship with God and serve him with all our heart. (Colossians 3:23) When a person dedicates their life to God, it is not possible to take it back. (Romans 14:8)
The second most important vow is the marriage vow, which is a serious matter viewed by God. When a bride and groom make their vows, they become husband and wife and are expected to love, cherish, and respect each other for as long as they both shall live. (Genesis 2:24) The only scriptural reason for divorce is if one mate commits adultery. (Matthew 19:9) Separation is not a scriptural reason for marital issues, but at times it may be necessary for safety reasons. (1 Corinthians 7:10, 11)
Many Christian parents today encourage their children to commit their lives to God, and there is a need to do this in a balanced way, not through some pressure of any sort. They must come to love God because it is in their heart to do so, not because it is demanded of them. These will have to make a vow of obedience and servitude, promising to work hard in any way they can to serve God while living a humble life.
In conclusion, vows made to God must be taken seriously and kept. Whether it is a vow of dedication, marriage, or some ministry, we must do all we can to keep our promises to God.