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This question came up as we have been walking through Scripture together on Sunday mornings. We spent three Sundays preaching verse-by-verse through 1 Samuel 1. This is the story of God’s miraculous work in and through Hannah. While the main idea in the text is God’s providence, we read that Hannah makes a vow to God and that Hannah keeps her vow by dedicating Samuel at the Temple and leaving him there to serve the Lord in the presence of Eli the Priest.
There are a few other instances in Scripture when people made vows to God.
- In Genesis 9:15 God made a vow in the form of a covenant to Noah that He would never again flood the earth. This vow was not conditional upon people.
- In Genesis 15 God made a vow in the form of a covenant to Abraham, to the descendants of Abraham, and to the whole world through Abraham. This vow was not conditional upon people.
- In Genesis 28:20-22 Jacob (who would later be named Israel) vowed that the Lord would be his God if God provided for him and returned him to his father’s house in safety.
- In Numbers 21:2 Israel (who was previously called by the name Jacob) vowed to utterly destroy the cities if the Lord would indeed deliver the people into his hand.
- In Judges 11:30-31 Jephthah vows to offer the first thing that went into his house if the Lord would deliver the sons of Ammon into his hand.
- In 1 Samuel 1:11 Hannah vows to give her son over to the service of the Lord if God would provide her a son. This was accompanied by the same Nazarite vow that we saw with Samson. Samson’s vow does not qualify as the type of vow referenced in the Law because it was not voluntary. It was commanded by the Angel of the Lord (Judges 13).
This list is not meant to be exhaustive. Nor is it meant to explain the different types of vows or make any moral considerations regarding these vows. We simply see that vows were present throughout the text and were made by people we would consider to be very prominent figures of the Old Testament. What does the Scripture say about making vows?
Though it is impossible for one to counsel God (Isaiah 40:13, Romans 11:34, 1 Corinthians 2:16) and fruitless (if not outright sinful) for one to try (Exodus 10:10-12, Job 1:21-22, 38:1-41:34, Matthew 26:31-35), the making of vows is a morally neutral act according to the Law.
In Numbers 30:1-3 we see that it is neither required nor restricted that people make vows, though any vow is considered to be obligatory if it is made. God holds us to the promises that we make because of the nature of the promise, not based on the rightness or wrongness of that promise. We are responsible for that. This is one reason that in Deuteronomy 23:23 and in Ecclesiastes 5:3, God’s inspired word states that it is better not to make a vow than to make a vow and not keep it.
In the final chapter of Leviticus (ch. 27) we see some rules made for people to be valuated when they make difficult vows. There are even rules set for one to redeem the subject of the vow (a person or property). I believe that these rules were set because God is merciful, giving us grace when we make vows that are too difficult for us to keep. God has always been graceful and merciful.
Is it okay to make vows to God? It is allowed according to the Law, but vows are not required, they are discouraged, and even in the context of the Law God made it apparent that we would be prone to make difficult vows. Jesus would teach this way as He commented on the Law:
Again, you have heard that the ancients were told, ‘You shall not make false vows, but shall fulfill your vows to the Lord.’
But I say to you, make no oath at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is the footstool of His feet, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. Nor shall you make an oath by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. But let your statement be, ‘Yes, yes’ or ‘No, no’; anything beyond these is of evil.
Jesus took this thing that was neither condoned nor condemned in the Old Testament and clarifies that it, “vows to the Lord,” is from the evil one. Though the vow itself is amoral, the heart of the person making a vow is revealed here by Jesus. Just like divorce was allowed by the Law because of the hardness of people’s hearts (Deuteronomy 24:1-4, Matthew 19:7-8), it seems that vows were allowed by the Law but never really desirable because their source is of evil according to Jesus. It seems the only one who is absolutely right in making a vow is God because God is the only one with all authority and the only one who is always able to work all things together and so does. His vows are always unconditional and not dependent on anything we can do. For us to make a vow to God is to, in some way, state some matter of fact about the future even though we do not work all things together and even though we have no idea what tomorrow holds.
When we read the Scriptures and see that someone has made a vow, we cannot condemn a person for making a vow. God is the God of grace and great mercy. The standard is simply that we would be honest people, sincere in our faith, and trusting in God’s providence according to His promises, not ours. As with all things, we interpret every portion of Scripture by observing it in the context of the whole of Scripture. This is the best and first hermeneutic.
Have you made a vow to God or do you want to make a vow to God? Scripture’s advice is for us to let our yes be yes and our no be no. If you have made a vow and failed to keep it, know that God is the one who is faithful even when we are not. God redeems His people by grace through faith in the atoning blood of Jesus Christ.