Questions From Readers
● If, in earlier years, a person made a vow to God that he now realizes was unwise, does he have to continue conforming to it?—U.S.A.
This would depend on the nature of the vow and the person’s circumstances at the time of making it. However, it is well first to consider what a “vow” is in the Bible sense.
In the Bible, vows were solemn promises made to God, not to any human or body of humans. They were also distinctive in that, in all cases described, the vows were always conditional. That is, the person making the vow, in effect, said to God: ‘If you will do thus and so (perhaps providing salvation from some grave danger or granting success or victory in some effort), I will do thus and so.’ If God acted on the person’s behalf, the one making the vow came under obligation to carry out what he had promised. Often payment of the vow involved making a sacrificial offering of an animal, or the devoting of some property to God’s service. (Lev. 7:16; 22:21) In other cases the conditional aspect entered in because the individual vowed to refrain from doing something until such time as he had been able to attain a certain goal—with the help of God.—Compare Genesis 28:20-22; Numbers 21:2, 3; 30:2-4; Judges 11:30-39; 1 Samuel 1:11; Psalm 132:1-5.
It should also be noted that vows were something spontaneous, and hence unrequested, unsolicited. They were not something set forth as a general requirement for all who would enjoy a certain privilege or enter into a certain relationship. Hence, one’s becoming a disciple of Christ Jesus and fulfilling the requirements that are set for all persons, including repenting and turning around and making public declaration of one’s faith, and being baptized, do not involve a “vow” in the Scriptural sense.
Nor are Scriptural vows to be compared with the so-called ‘monastic vows’ that persons in later centuries were required to make in order to gain admittance into certain religious orders of church organizations. Those vows of ‘chastity, poverty and obedience’ placed those vowing under obligation to the religious orders and served those orders as a means of exercising control over their adherents. Higher church officials could absolve persons from certain types of vows, but with some vows release could be gained only through the titular head of the church, as in the papal arrangement. These, then, are not Scriptural vows, for Scriptural vows were entirely spontaneous and personal, between the individual and God. Furthermore, under the Law, although a woman’s vow might be disallowed by her husband, or father (within a certain time after being made), in other cases no human could grant one release from a Scriptural vow.—Num. 30:3-15.
From this it is apparent that many so-called “vows” of today are not really such in the Scriptural sense. It is equally obvious that no vow could be binding if it would call on one to do something out of harmony with God’s will, such as a vow to carry out some misuse of blood or one that would in any way link immorality with true worship.—Compare Deuteronomy 23:18; Acts 15:19, 20.
What, then, of vows that do fit the Scriptural description and are not contrary to God’s will? Expressing God’s viewpoint of vows made in Israel, the Law stated: “In case you vow a vow to Jehovah your God, you must not be slow about paying it, because Jehovah your God will without fail require it of you, and it would indeed become a sin on your part. But in case you omit making a vow, it will not become a sin on your part.” (Deut. 23:21, 22) Ecclesiastes 5:4-6 also warns: “Whenever you vow a vow to God, do not hesitate to pay it, for there is no delight in the stupid ones. What you vow, pay. Better is it that you vow not than that you vow and do not pay. Do not allow your mouth to cause your flesh to sin.” (Compare Proverbs 20:25.) Jehovah God being unchanging in his standards, the principles expressed would apply in the present time.
Since (apart from a woman’s vow that could be disallowed by her father or husband) no human can grant release from a vow, we can see the need for giving serious thought to the making of a vow. A Christian should have a very good reason for doing so and should have no doubt as to his ability to pay whatever he promises in the vow. Otherwise it would be far better that he not make the vow.
What if the individual realized later that his vow had been rashly made, was a thoughtless one? He should not treat the matter lightly but should seek to fulfill the vow. The fact that this might be hard for him would be no excuse. It was certainly not easy for Jephthah to carry out the vow that he made to God, but he conscientiously paid it. (Judg. 11:30-39) Under the Law covenant, the failure to perform a sworn oath, even though such failure was not deliberate, was a sin. It did not carry a death penalty but required the making of a sin offering to God. (Lev. 5:4-6; compare Matthew 5:33.) And God warned that, though he might have granted success to the one vowing, the failure to pay the vow thereafter could lead to God’s becoming “indignant” and ‘tearing down’ what the individual had accomplished. (Eccl. 5:6) So, it could result in a withdrawing, at least in some measure, of God’s favor.
Those today who are concerned about this matter should therefore first ask themselves whether they have actually made a vow in the Scriptural sense or not. Was it a promise personally made to God, of a conditional nature, one that was private, spontaneous, unrequested and not out of harmony with God’s expressed will? Then every effort should be made to pay it. If the individual has failed to pay it, he must accept the consequences and seek to regain God’s favor. Possibly he finds himself in a dilemma in that his vow (such as a vow of celibacy) puts him in a position where he feels that carrying it out is bringing him near the point of violating some divine standard of conduct, perhaps one regarding morality. He may feel that the only way he can protect himself from becoming guilty of immorality is by not paying his vow, throwing himself upon God’s mercy for forgiveness. He himself must decide and no other person can grant him release nor assume any of his personal responsibility. He has to live with his own conscience.
Examination will often prove that what were thought to be vows were not really so in the Scriptural sense. This, of course, does not mean that all responsibility necessarily ends there. A Christian should be concerned not merely with paying vows to God but also in proving trustworthy in all his words, letting his “Yes” be “Yes,” and his “No,” “No.” (Matt. 5:33-37) He should always sincerely try to keep his promises and agreements both to God and to men. At times he may make an agreement with another person and later realize he has thereby brought himself into severe difficulty. He can follow the principle given at Proverbs 6:1-5 regarding the man going surety for another, namely: “Go humble yourself and storm your fellowman with importunities. . . . Deliver yourself.”
In regard to vows and all other things, a Christian should always keep in mind the importance of maintaining a good relationship with Jehovah God.