Biblical Teaching on Vows
Are there foolish vows and sacred vows? Are there vows God will forgive, or does God hold one accountable for all vows until death?
Here’s the short answer: all vows are sacred; some are also foolish (Pro. 20:25; Eccl. 5:2‑4). Breaking any vow is sin (Deut. 23:21; Eccl. 5:5-6; Num. 30:15). God will forgive vow-breakers (Num. 30:6, 9, 13); though He warns there may be dire consequences for failing to keep a vow (Eccl. 5:6).
My best understanding of Scripture is that God does not continue to hold a person responsible to fulfill a vow that has been broken, repented of, and forgiven. The key texts where God reveals His perspective on vows are Leviticus 27, Numbers 30, Deuteronomy 23:21-23, and Ecclesiastes 5:1-7. Interestingly, the two New Testament texts (Acts 18:18; 21:23-24) that mention vows give no indication that God’s perspective on vows has changed.
A vow is a voluntary promise to God to do or not do something (cf. Deut. 23:23). Vows are not limited to “If-you-do-this-for-me, I’ll-do-that-for-You” bargains with God. You don’t have to use the words “vow” or “promise” to make a vow. Anytime you voluntarily tell God you are going to do or not do something <i>for Him</i>, it is a vow.
In Ecclesiastes 5, Solomon warns us that vows should not be made lightly: “Do not be rash with your mouth, and let not your heart utter anything hastily before God. For God is in heaven, and you are on earth; Therefore let your words be few” (5:2). In verse 4, he cautions us not to be late in paying our vows, for God takes no delight in fools who fail to pay their vows. It is better, the wise man counsels, not to vow at all, than to vow and fail to pay (Eccl. 5:5). This echoes Deut. 23:22 where Moses informs Israel it is not sin to abstain from vowing: “if you abstain from vowing, it is not sin.”
On the other hand, if you vow and fail to pay, it is sin (Deut. 23:22; Eccl. 5:5). Not only is it sin, but Solomon warns, “Do not let your speech cause you to sin and do not say in the presence of the messenger, “It was a mistake.” Why should God be angry on account of your voice and destroy the work of your hands?” (Eccl. 5:6).
In other words, God punishes those who break their vows. Claiming that you made a mistake and shouldn’t have vowed or didn’t really mean what you vowed arouses God’s anger against you. Thus, Solomon concludes, “Fear God” (Eccl. 5:7).
The seriousness of vows is further underscored in Numbers 30 where God identifies which vows are automatically binding and which may be nullified. God distinguishes the vows made by adult males, widows, and divorced women from those made by female children and wives. In the case of adult males (30:2), widows, and divorced women (30:9), they must fulfill any vow they make. In the case of female children (30:3-5) and wives (30:6-8; 10-15), if their father or husband nullifies their vow on the day that he hears it, then they are absolved of their vow (30:5, 8, 12).
However, if the father or husband does not nullify their vow, then their vow stands. They are responsible to fulfill it. If the father or husband does not say anything the first time he hears it but chooses to nullify it at a later time, then he will “bear the iniquity” of the broken vow (30:15).
Because Numbers 30:2 includes “swearing an oath” as an equivalent of taking a vow, the guilt offering prescribed for breaking an oath (Lev. 5:4) would likely apply to a broken vow. Since God provides a sacrifice for atoning for a broken vow, we can infer that forgiveness for breaking a vow is available through Christ, who is our guilt offering (Isa. 53:10).