Biblical Vows and
their Present Significance
By Ernest L. Martin, PH. D
A 1980 Exposition, revised by David Sielaff, August 2002
Read the accompanying Newsletter for August 2002
The biblical teaching concerning vows should be taken seriously by any person wanting to observe scriptural principles. The question is as significant today as it ever was. The author of Ecclesiastes wrote,
"When thou vowest a vow unto God, defer not to pay it; for he hath no pleasure in fools: pay that which thou vowest."
• Ecclesiastes 5:4
The principle is clear, but how does this pertain to the New Testament believer? In some religious circles, and with certain devout persons, it is of very great concern! This is because vows to God are still being made either as a religious duty to perform certain activities or to refrain from others. This results in disastrous and devastating consequences for some people.
In certain cases lifetime vows have been made on the spur of the moment—even under duress—before careful consideration of the potential consequences were known. Vows have been made in a very immature way. At the time the people making them probably thought their vows or pledges were consistent with right biblical principles—only to find out later they were not. There have been people who have signed pledges or made vows never to drink alcoholic beverages because certain religious leaders said such drinking was sin. The people thought their pledges were done in a mature manner, only to find out that the person (or the society) that imposed those restrictions was in no way in agreement with biblical teaching concerning the use of alcoholic beverages. Jesus drank wine. So did Paul. And so all the other apostles. The Bible writers advised temperance, not abstinence. The only time wine was forbidden was to the priests when they administered in the sanctuary or Temple,
"Do not drink wine nor strong drink, thou, nor thy sons with thee, when ye go into the tabernacle of the congregation, lest ye die: it shall be a statute for ever throughout your generations."
or when one became a Nazarite,
"He shall separate himself from wine and strong drink, and shall drink no vinegar of wine, or vinegar of strong drink, neither shall he drink any liquor of grapes, nor eat moist grapes, or dried."
Modern pledges of abstinence have nothing to do with these biblical proscriptions. Anyone who makes such vows is doing them without proper biblical knowledge. But, should these non-biblical vows still be honored? Let us look at some principles.
The Bible shows that vows should be taken seriously. There should always be mature and thoughtful thinking concerning them. The Bible, on the other hand, will not countenance vows that are entered into or made in an immature way. In the Old Testament vows of children and wives were not reckoned as valid unless the father or husband agreed. The details of this restriction are found in Numbers 30. The reason for this is because such persons (in the biblical period) were considered incapable of making mature judgments. I must emphasize that I feel that any adult woman is as able—in some cases perhaps more able—to make mature decisions as any man. But the Old and the New Testaments were concerned with social environments far different from our own. Back in biblical times wives (no matter how old they were) were ranked in the same classification with children in the making of judgmental decisions. All of us today, however, ought to realize that this restriction on women’s opinions was only reflective of ancient times. God surely respects adult women today as much as men. The principle of mental equality of the sexes is found in Galatians 3:28, "There is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus."
While this is true, a point can still be made concerning the vows of Numbers 30. It states dogmatically that immature people (or even adult women without the approval of their husbands) could not make independent vows that God would bind. Vows should only be made by mature people, and when all the consequences are thought out. This was the Bible way. As an earthly father had a right to disallow vows of his children, would not our heavenly Father also disallow vows made by us which are contrary to the express wishes of His biblical revelation? Certainly!
All the pledges and vows made for abstinence from alcoholic beverages (if one thought God was behind them), could be repented of, if one wishes to be in conformity to Holy Scripture. They were made without proper knowledge, in an immature way, and the Father has the right to disallow them. There is no doubt that He would!
There are some vows that God would abhor. Recall the event of the forty men who took a vow of fasting until they killed Paul,
"And when it was day, certain of the Jews banded together, and bound themselves under a curse, saying that they would neither eat nor drink till they had killed Paul. And they were more than forty which had made this conspiracy. And they came to the chief priests and elders, and said, We have bound ourselves under a great curse, that we will eat nothing until we have slain Paul."
Their vow was to execute a human being—and one who was no less than an apostle of God. Their hatred against Paul was so intense that they solemnly bound one another with an oath of murder. They placed themselves under an anathema (a vow of destruction). To such misguided people this vow made them liable to the most terrible punishments from God should they either eat or drink before killing Paul. But they were wrong to make such a vow. They became guilty of an almost unbelievable blasphemous use of the name of God. In fact, the vow should have been repented of since it was utterly illegal. In no way would God bind their murderous scheme.
There is another example of a bad vow. All of us are familiar with the rash vow made by the ancient Judge of Israel named Jephthah. He vowed that whatever would walk out of his door on his victorious return from battling the Ammonites would be offered up to God as a burnt offering.
"Then the Spirit of the Lord came upon Jephthah, and he passed over Gilead, and Manasseh, and passed over Mizpeh of Gilead, and from Mizpeh of Gilead he passed over unto the children of Ammon. And Jephthah vowed a vow unto the Lord, and said, If thou shalt without fail deliver the children of Ammon into mine hands, Then it shall be, that whatsoever cometh forth of the doors of my house to meet me, when I return in peace from the children of Ammon, shall surely be the Lord’s, and I will offer it up for a burnt offering."
Much to his dismay, his daughter came forth. It has been argued that his vow only pertained to the service in the sanctuary or Temple of the one who came forth and not that the person would be killed. Other interpreters feel strongly, however, that Jephthah did in fact felt obliged to sacrifice his own daughter as one would slaughter a burnt offering.
Human sacrifice, moreover, is utterly condemned in the Bible (Deuteronomy 18:10; Ezekiel 16:21). If one made such a vow to sacrifice a human, it was not binding in the first place because its accomplishment violated a cardinal law of God. If, on the other hand, Jephthah’s vow only involved the perpetual service of his virgin daughter in the service of God at the sanctuary or Temple, it would have been binding. Parents, in Old Testament times, had the right to vow such service for their children. The mother of Samuel devoted him to a lifetime ministry as a Nazarite.
"And she vowed a vow, and said, O LORD of hosts, if thou wilt indeed look on the affliction of thine handmaid, and remember me, and not forget thine handmaid, but wilt give unto thine handmaid a man child, then I will give him unto the LORD all the days of his life, and there shall no razor come upon his head."
1 Samuel 1:11, 28 (same words in both)
Samuel always adhered to his mother’s vow. This may possibly be what Jephthah did with his daughter since it was perfectly proper for women to be Nazarites at that time.
"Speak unto the children of Israel, and say unto them, When either man or woman shall separate themselves to vow a vow of a Nazarite, to separate themselves unto the LORD:"
No one knows for sure what Jephthah did, but if he did sacrifice his daughter he should have been tried and condemned for murder. No respectable society should put up with such an outrage!
In my career as a minister I have met a number of people who claimed to be under a Nazarite vow. That is, they vowed to let their hair grow long, not to drink wine, nor to eat any product of the vine. People have thought they could find justification for such a vow in Numbers chapter six.
What they failed to realize is that no one could possibly invoke a proper Nazarite vow today. Why? Because there are no priests and no sanctuary or Temple available to perform the rites associated with that vow. The conclusion of the vow period (normally forty days or so) demanded that the man shave his head and offer the consecration on the altar and that a ram be sacrificed, a sin offering and a burnt offering (Numbers 6:13–21). These rituals are an integral part of the Nazarite vow. Unless they are accomplished (and they cannot be done today), no one can possibly undergo a proper Nazarite vow.
Even the consecration of a child to be a lifetime Nazarite (as Hannah did with Samuel) is impossible because if ever a person would die in the vicinity of a Nazarite (even one who was a lifetime Nazarite) certain rituals in the sanctuary or Temple were necessary to cleanse him (Numbers 6:9–12). Since there are no sanctuary or Temple or animal sacrifices in operation today, all Nazarite vows must be invalid!
The apostle Paul, however, did take part in a Nazarite vow; and, it was a proper one. At its completion he went to the Temple at Jerusalem (along with four other men who had a similar vow).
"Do therefore this that we say to thee: We have four men which have a vow on them; Them take, and purify thyself with them, and be at charges with them, that they may shave their heads: and all may know that those things, whereof they were informed concerning thee, are nothing; but that thou thyself also walkest orderly, and keepest the law. As touching the Gentiles which believe, we have written and concluded that they observe no such thing, ... Then Paul took the men, and the next day purifying himself with them entered into the temple, to signify the accomplishment of the days of purification, until that an offering should be offered for every one of them.
Without the Temple, without priests, and without animal sacrifices there can be no valid Nazarite vows because the laws of Moses demand them all (Numbers 6). 1
The subject of vows has been misunderstood by many people. In biblical times all vows were voluntary but once made, they were regarded as compulsory. When a thorough appraisal is made, one discovers only three legal vows that the Bible condones.
"The Bible speaks of three kinds of vows, for each of which the Hebrew has a distinctive term: namely, vows of devotion in general; vows of abstinence, and those of destruction."
McClintock and Strong, vol. X, p. 817
(1) Of the first kind, vows of devotion, all such vows are presently inoperable because they all involve animal sacrifices in a sanctuary or Temple (Leviticus 7:16; Deuteronomy 12:5–13). Since there is no sanctuary or Temple or priesthood functions in Jerusalem, those vows are now invalid.
(2) The second kind, vows of abstinence, concerns social customs relative to the laws of the Old Covenant and the nation of ancient Israel (Numbers 30). They have nothing to do with a New Covenant relationship. Imagine a fifty year-old Christian woman promising to abstain from something that was perfectly true to Christ and His principles, but, when her husband heard of it, he disallowed it! This was completely proper and legal in Old Testament times.
"And if she had at all an husband, when she vowed, or uttered ought out of her lips, wherewith she bound her soul; And her husband heard it, and held his peace at her in the day that he heard it: then her vows shall stand, and her bonds wherewith she bound her soul shall stand."
Believe it or not, the wife was considered the property of the husband and he could disallow any promise or any vow by his wife (no matter if she were seventy years of age).
By New Testament times women were still more restricted in social matters than men. They were not allowed to speak in church. They could not teach men. They had to ask their husbands at home about spiritual matters.
However, women were given far more leeway than in Old Testament times. Women were permitted by Paul to depart from their husbands if their marriage situation became intolerable.
"But and if she depart, let her remain unmarried, or be reconciled to her husband: and let not the husband put away his wife."
1 Corinthians 7:11
They could even divorce their husbands in certain circumstances. Once "loosed" her former husband had no hold over her in regard to her promises or vows.
"Art thou bound unto a wife? seek not to be loosed. Art thou loosed from a wife? seek not a wife."
1 Corinthians 7:27
Divorce, of course, was allowed for men in the Old Testament, but Greek women in the Corinthian church were not expected by Paul to abide by the Old Testament laws which pertained only to ancient Israel (Galatians 4:24–29).
(3) The third kind, vows of destruction, were concerned only with the killing of idolators or sexual deviates
"Notwithstanding no devoted thing, that a man shall devote unto the Lord of all that he hath, both of man and beast, and of the field of his possession, shall be sold or redeemed: every devoted thing is most holy unto the Lord. None devoted, which shall be devoted of men, shall be redeemed; but shall surely be put to death."
This was only a part of the social laws of Israel. Such vows have nothing whatever to do with Christianity. Note that the woman caught in adultery was not destroyed as the law of Moses demanded (John 8:3–11).
It may come as a surprise to learn that the Bible says nothing about vows as a means of solemnizing marriages. Such vows are a post-biblical invention. And what disastrous results have occurred because of them!
While it was understood that an ideal marriage was supposed to last for the lifetime of one of the spouses,
"For the woman which hath an husband is bound by the law to her husband so long as he liveth; but if the husband be dead, she is loosed from the law of her husband."
it was equally understood that divorce even in Old Testament times was possible in certain circumstances.
"When a man hath taken a wife, and married her, and it come to pass that she find no favour in his eyes, because he hath found some uncleanness in her: then let him write her a bill of divorcement, and give it in her hand, and send her out of his house. And when she is departed out of his house, she may go and be another man's wife. And if the latter husband hate her, and write her a bill of divorcement, and giveth it in her hand, and sendeth her out of his house; or if the latter husband die, which took her to be his wife; Her former husband, which sent her away, may not take her again to be his wife, after that she is defiled; for that is abomination before the LORD: and thou shalt not cause the land to sin, which the LORD thy God giveth thee for an inheritance."
But today, because people being married are expected to vow a lifetime of togetherness, the vow has been interpreted as overriding the possibility of any divorce. Such teaching is absolutely contrary to the plain laws of God as recorded in the Old or New Testaments!
It is completely illegal in a biblical sense to vow (or promise) anything that is contrary to the express command or permission of Holy Scripture. Though divorce is a very sad occurrence—and to be avoided if at all possible—it is something allowed in both the Old and New Testaments.
The fact is, no minister, priest, rabbi, or justice of the peace, has any biblical authority to make two people who are being married state a vow that they will live together as man and wife "until death do ye part." It is wrong—very wrong!
True, people being married ought to be told that the ideal marriage lasts for life—and that the laws of the Bible supremely sanction such a thing—but they also ought to be mature enough to know that the Bible also authorizes divorce in some cases. God Himself divorced ancient Israel (Isaiah 50:1). God never made a vow to remain married to Israel no matter what she did. Absolutely not! The Old Covenant relationship was dependent upon agreements being kept between Israel and God. After all, that is what a "covenant" is. It is an agreement between two or more people to perform certain specified things. If one or both parties violate the agreement, the covenant is broken and is invalid. When Israel became unfaithful, God divorced her—in accordance with the laws which He, Himself, had set.
As stated before, there is not a single instance of a vow being associated with any biblical marriage. There never should be! What should be said by a Christian minister at a marriage ceremony is something like: "This marriage is bound in heaven by the laws of God Almighty." Under no circumstances should two people be asked to vow a contract to remain married no matter what the circumstances. This is totally unbiblical!
There is a remarkable absence of vows in the New Testament. Of the ones mentioned, they are either
There is not a single teaching anywhere about vows or their importance.
Many have asked about the oaths found in Matthew 5:33–37 and James 5:12.
"Again, ye have heard that it hath been said by them of old time, Thou shalt not forswear thyself, but shalt perform unto the Lord thine oaths: But I say unto you, Swear not at all; neither by heaven; for it is God's throne: Nor by the earth; for it is his footstool: neither by Jerusalem; for it is the city of the great King. Neither shalt thou swear by thy head, because thou canst not make one hair white or black. But let your communication be, Yea, yea; Nay, nay: for whatsoever is more than these cometh of evil."
"But above all things, my brethren, swear not, neither by heaven, neither by the earth, neither by any other oath: but let your yea be yea; and your nay, nay; lest ye fall into condemnation."
What Christ referred to in these verses was the taking of God’s name in vain—misusing it. There is no difference between an oath in the name of God and such substitutes as heaven, the city of Jerusalem, the earth, His footstool, or a man’s head or life. Christ distinctly condemns the incessant and empty callings upon the name of God in all kinds of meaningless forms. At any rate, these frivolous oaths condemned by Christ were not vows.
Christ emphasized the spiritual aspect of the law—fulfilled it—and made it more glorious (Isaiah 42:2). His message was a message of love for one another. If the whole world followed Christ’s teachings all that would be necessary, in place of an oath, would be a simple "yes" or "no." Christ’s demand is absolute truthfulness and straightforwardness in the dealing of people with one another. But sad to say, the most truthful person, in civil life, has to take an oath or affirm (of which there is not the slightest difference) because of the untruth and consequent distrust prevalent today.
Scriptures do not deny the necessity of meaningful oaths in a world full of falsehoods.
"For men verily swear by the greater: and an oath for confirmation is to them an end of all strife."
Isaiah 45:23 reveals that in the future, every tongue shall swear. Christ Himself took a proper oath before the high priest,
"For men verily swear by the greater: and an oath for confirmation is to them an end of all strife."
"But Jesus held his peace. And the high priest answered and said unto him, I adjure thee by the living God, that thou tell us whether thou be the Christ, the Son of God."
But again, oaths are not vows—at least, not biblical vows.
All Christians should realize that they are incapable of fulfilling the three types of legal vows mentioned in the Bible. These are the vows that Solomon said one must be careful to keep (Ecclesiastes 5:4) but can only be kept when a sanctuary or Temple and animal sacrifices are in existence. People should quit trying to keep vows of the Bible that are not possible to observe. All illegal vows made in haste and without mature knowledge should be repented of because God will disallow them (Numbers 30:3–6). What needs to be done is to make no more vows which are contrary to the wishes (or the permissions) of God.
Ernest L. Martin
1 The vow that Paul had in Cenchrea, Greece (Acts 18:18), was not a Nazarite vow because he ended it in Greece—not at the Temple—and no animal sacrifice was connected with it. No one knows for sure what this type of vow was. Certainly, it was not one of the three types mentioned in the Old Testament. ELM
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