What constitutes a vow?


Hi Jeffrey,

What constitutes a vow is something I've been trying to understand. Can you help me understand from the Bible why you say it's a commitment witnessed by others? It seems like these thoughts I have could be considered rash vows, or they could not be vows at all. I think of them mostly as the former, but it seems you see them as the latter.

I'm not sure what differentiates them from rash vows, and I really need to know because keeping them is making my life very difficult, so that's why I ask.


Suppose Jill takes Joe to court. "Your honor, Joe promised to give me his car!" Before Joe can say anything, the judge asks Jill what evidence does she have that this promise was made. "Well, I don't have anything." "Did he tell you he was going to give you his car?" "Well, not really," says Jill. Puzzled, the judge asks, "What makes you think you think he should give you his car?" "He thought about it!"

Obviously, Jill's case would be thrown out of court. Even if Joe when out into the middle of the woods and said, "I am giving Jill my car." There would be no evidence that such a statement was ever made because no one hear it. Vows communicate intent or verify the truth of something. If there is no communication, then there cannot be a vow.

In today's society, some documents only require your signature. A loan application has a line on it that you promise that what you disclosed about your finances is accurate. Your signature is a witness to your promise that you told the truth. Other vows are more important. Buying a house requires that someone has witnessed you signing the document, which is why we have notaries. Weddings are witnessed by the signatures of the preacher, the best man, and the bride's maid.

Jesus pointed out, "If I alone testify about Myself, My testimony is not true" (John 5:31). This is not to say that Jesus would be lying but without confirmation, statements from one source have to be considered as suspect. That is why there is a requirement in the Bible it says, "on the evidence of two or three witnesses a matter shall be confirmed" (Deuteronomy 19:15). Thus, when Boaz vowed to purchase the land of his dead relatives and take Ruth as his wife, he did so in front of witnesses. "Then Boaz said to the elders and all the people, "You are witnesses today that I have bought from the hand of Naomi all that belonged to Elimelech and all that belonged to Chilion and Mahlon. Moreover, I have acquired Ruth the Moabitess, the widow of Mahlon, to be my wife in order to raise up the name of the deceased on his inheritance, so that the name of the deceased will not be cut off from his brothers or from the court of his birth place; you are witnesses today." All the people who were in the court, and the elders, said, "We are witnesses" " (Ruth 4:9-11).

"Or if a person swears thoughtlessly with his lips to do evil or to do good, in whatever matter a man may speak thoughtlessly with an oath, and it is hidden from him, and then he comes to know it, he will be guilty in one of these. So it shall be when he becomes guilty in one of these, that he shall confess that in which he has sinned" (Leviticus 5:4-5).

"If a person swears thoughtlessly": A rash vow is a promise made without taking adequate time to think about the consequences of the vow. For example, "But when Herod's birthday came, the daughter of Herodias danced before them and pleased Herod, so much that he promised with an oath to give her whatever she asked. Having been prompted by her mother, she said, "Give me here on a platter the head of John the Baptist." Although he was grieved, the king commanded it to be given because of his oaths, and because of his dinner guests" (Matthew 14:6-9). Herod couldn't weasel out of his promise because it was witnessed by people he didn't want to think that he couldn't be trusted.

"to do evil": A vow to do evil is also a rash vow because a person is commanded not to sin, therefore promises to sin, even when witnessed, are not enforceable. God's laws trump a personal vow. Herod's vow should have been canceled because it became a promise to do evil. It wasn't his initial intention, but he didn't think it through.

"to do good": Here a person is promising to do what God has already commanded. It is a useless vow because a vow doesn't make God's commands more real. In fact, it is actually an insult to God because you are actually saying you'll only do things that you accept, making you a higher authority than God.

As I said, thoughts going through your head are not vows. There is no witness that it was promised. Often, people who compulsively think of vows often are not sure themselves whether they made a vow. They live in fear that they might have vowed something that they now need to keep. That uncertainty would not count as a witness to a vow.

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