For many of you perhaps, the New Year brought a chance to make some decisions about changes or improvements you’d like to implement for your life in 2015. While millions of Americans make such New Year’s resolutions, a 2013 study published in Forbes suggested that a measly 8% of such resolutions were actually kept successfully! Many people have spiritual resolutions as part of their New Year’s plans. Our campus ministry here at the University of Colorado, Christian Challenge, has adopted one such spiritual resolution, of which I’ll talk more about a little later. But first I wanted to look back in Scripture because thinking about resolutions has made me mindful of vows and promises that we make to God. There are many instances of such promises in the Bible, and while all are instructive, some clearly seem to be ill-advised and costly, while others bring the individual into a closer relationship with God. The types of vows or promises that we might make to the Lord can say a lot about our view of ourselves and God, as well as how we understand the concept of God’s Sovereignty in our lives. So often in the spiritual realm, we get off track because we are not attuned to God’s will and purpose for us. The famous 19th century German-British evangelist and humanitarian George Mueller talked a good deal about how to discern God’s will and make decisions which will honor Him. In Mueller’s estimation, 90% of our problems in this area of life stem from the fact that our hearts are not “in neutral” when we approach decisions. We have our clear desires and preferences, which often override our willingness to truly keep an open mind and heart which will listen for the directives of the Lord. We must learn instead to relinquish some of that desire for control, and fully submit to the voice of God as it speaks through the Holy Spirit. Now this doesn’t mean that we completely abandon our own desires or preferences, but we do learn to subordinate those desires to the ultimate will of God. Studying both some positive and negative examples of vows and promises made by individuals in Scripture will help to further illuminate this issue of how we can better find a balance between our free will and its desires, and the Sovereign wisdom and authority of God.
First, let’s take a look at some vows in the Bible which had negative consequences. Judges 11 tells us the story of Jephthah. He ruled over Israel for six years, and showed some skill as a military commander in repeatedly defeating one of the Jews’ principal enemies, the Ammonites. However he is probably best remembered for the rash and foolhardy vow which he made in Judges 11:30-31. “And Jephthah made a vow to the Lord, and said, “If You will indeed deliver the people of Ammon into my hands, then it will be that whatever comes out of the doors of my house to meet me, when I return in peace from the people of Ammon, shall surely be the Lord’s, and I will offer it up as a burnt offering.” As it turns out, the first person to meet Jephthah after he successfully defeats the Ammonites is his own daughter! Although grief-stricken, Jephthah stubbornly keeps to his vow, although it is not completely clear from the text whether the daughter is actually sacrificed or only not allowed to marry and kept in perpetual virginity (a serious enough issue in a day and age where women who did not marry and bear children had little place in society). Jephthah, it would seem, made his vow out of a sense of pridefulness, perhaps wanting to demonstrate to the other Israelites how committed he was to the defeat of their enemies. God never requests such a pledge from him, and based on the idea of the Covenant, if Jephthah or any other Jewish leader had simply stayed faithful in their observance of the law, while instructing the people to do likewise, God would have been more than willing to ensure the defeat of any opposing armies. He did not require a special or additional vow to “seal “ the Covenant, which at any rate, had already been in effect for centuries, through the faithfulness of the Patriarchs, followed by Moses and Joshua!! Furthermore, the fact that Jephthah would stubbornly persist in the idea that he should sacrifice his daughter goes against earlier clear Biblical mandates forbidding any form of child sacrifice. The story of the Binding of Isaac in Genesis 22 can be read as God’s clear injunction that for the Jewish people, (unlike many of the surrounding Semitic peoples) child sacrifice is an unacceptable form of worship or devotion. Leviticus 18:21, 20:22-25, and Jeremiah 32:35 all contain condemnations of the worship of the God Moloch, an Ammonite God whose devotees sometimes practiced child sacrifice. Jephthah’s vow was therefore exceedingly rash, and made perhaps not only in a spirit of pride, but in a desire to control God’s hand and, prior to even fighting, guarantee himself a victory over the Ammonites. But in keeping his word and honoring the vow, Jephthah further sinned by going against God’s clear prohibitions of child sacrifice. This is a fitting episode in the Book of Judges, for it is a narrative that charts an overall spiritual decline amongst the Israelites. Jephthah’s foolish behavior is perhaps best summed up by a verse that, by way of emphasis, actually appears twice. Judges 17:6 and 21:25 both state—“In those days there was no king in Israel; everyone did what was right in his own eyes.”
In 1 Samuel we find an example of another ill-advised vow. Saul, the first king of Israel is a figure somewhat reminiscent of Jephthah. Although he shows talent as a military leader, his rash and proud nature causes him to get into trouble, and in a similar twist to the Judges 11 story, in 1 Samuel 14 Saul’s vow ends up causing problems for his own family as well. Saul had already shown himself to be impatient in 1 Samuel 13, where unwilling to wait for the prophet Samuel’s arrival, he prematurely sacrifices to God, hoping to gain an advantage for the coming battle against the Philistines. In this next chapter, although the fight against their enemies is going well, and indeed they have the Ark of the Covenant with them (the very sign of God’s presence in their midst), Saul cannot resist adding a vow of his own making. 1 Samuel 14:24—“And the men of Israel were distressed that day, for Saul had placed the people under oath, saying, “Cursed is the man who eats any food until evening, before I have taken vengeance on my enemies.” So none of the people tasted food”. Notice the choice of pronoun here. Saul is concerned with personal vengeance moreso than obedience to God. As with the story of Jephthah, this foolhardy oath of Saul’s hits close to home, when later his own son Jonathan, not knowing of Saul’s command, stops to eat some honey in the woods. When informed of his infraction, Jonathan is frustrated, and rightly points out how Saul’s premature vow had a detrimental effect on the entire army– “My father has troubled the land. Look now, how my countenance has brightened because I tasted a little of this honey. How much better if the people had eaten freely today of the spoil of their enemies which they found! For now would there not have been a much greater slaughter among the Philistines?” (1 Samuel 14:29-30). Later in the chapter, in 1 Samuel 14:37, Saul seeks counsel from God, and receives no answer, which could be taken to indicate that the Lord was displeased with his earlier vow. Finally, the people restrain Saul from carrying out his foolish vow against Jonathan, whom they rightly proclaim as a military hero. The character flaws of Saul are further illuminated in 1 Samuel 15, when he disobeys God’s orders during his attack of the Amalekites, holding back some of the spoils of war for himself, and also stopping during one point in his campaign to build a monument to himself. Samuel’s words to Saul in 1 Samuel 15:22-23 are instructive in demonstrating that God would much rather have had the obedient, daily faithfulness from Saul or Jephthah rather than the ostentatious pretexts of piety that the vows represented. “Has the Lord as great delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices, as in obeying the voice of the Lord? Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice, and to heed than the fat of rams. For rebellion is as the sin of witchcraft, and stubbornness is as iniquity and idolatry. Because you have rejected the word of the Lord, He also has rejected you from being king.”
But there are also many positive examples of vows in the Bible. In Genesis 28, Jacob, fleeing from the wrath of his brother Esau (whom he had just cheated out of his father Isaac’s blessing), begins to show the first signs of a moral change and a progression towards spiritual maturity when he makes a vow after his dream at Bethel. During the dream, with its famous vision of “Jacob’s ladder”, God had repeated the Covenant promises made to his father Isaac and grandfather Abraham. Upon awaking, Jacob is in an awestruck mood, and builds a small shrine to God, then offers this vow—“If God will be with me, and keep me in this way that I am going, and give me bread to eat and clothing to put on, so that I come back to my father’s house in peace, then the Lord shall be my God. And this stone which I have set as a pillar shall be God’s house, and of all that You give me I will surely give a tenth to You.” (Genesis 28:20-22). From Jacob’s righteous vow we get the origin of the tithe, and he remains faithful to his pledge. He eventually reconciles with his brother Esau, and from his 12 sons descend the 12 tribes of Israel (Israel being the name Jacob himself is given after wrestling with the angel in Genesis 32). Unlike the martial vows of Saul or Jephthah, Jacob’s vow has nothing to do with his own glory, seeing as it is made in solitude, and at a time when he is a fugitive. Rather it is a plea for God to take care of him, when facing a unknown future—a prayer that most of us probably have identified with at one point in our lives or another.
In Joshua 24, the great military leader, nearing the end of his life, prompts the Jewish people to renew the Covenant at Shechem. Wanting to call the people back to a reinvigorated sense of faithfulness, especially in light of the great victories God has given them in the conquest of the Promised Land, Joshua issues this stirring call to Covenant faithfulness, ending with a strong personal vow to continue serving God alone–“Now therefore, fear the Lord, serve Him in sincerity and in truth, and put away the gods which your fathers served on the other side of the River and in Egypt. Serve the Lord! And if it seems evil to you to serve the Lord, choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve, whether the gods which your fathers served that were on the other side of the River, or the gods of the Amorites, in whose land you dwell. But as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.” (Joshua 24:14-15). Sadly, the narrative of the Book of Judges, which follows Joshua’s death, reveals successive cycles of disobedience amongst the people, as we have already mentioned. Joshua’s vow is in some ways similar to Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 11:1—“Imitate me, just as I also imitate Christ.” This is not a vow about personal pride, but rather one in which a Godly individual is willing to hold himself personally accountable to the people he exercises spiritual leadership over. Joshua’s goal is not to call attention to himself, but rather to direct the hearts and minds of the people back to God, just as Paul far from being proud (in 1 Corinthians 15:9 he calls himself the “least of the apostles”) seeks to lift up Christ as the exemplar and model.
Another righteous vow comes from Hannah, the mother of the prophet Samuel. She is childless, and to be barren in those days for women was often seen as a curse from God. But Hannah takes her frustration, and disappointment at not being able to have a child and directs it positively towards a prayer and vow to the Lord—“And she was in bitterness of soul, and prayed to the Lord and wept in anguish. Then she made a vow and said, “O Lord of hosts, if You will indeed look on the affliction of Your maidservant and remember me, and not forget Your maidservant, but will give Your maidservant a male child, then I will give him to the Lord all the days of his life, and no razor shall come upon his head.” (1 Samuel 1:10-11) God answers her prayer, and Hannah gives birth to Samuel. At that point, her wish having come true, I imagine it would have been all too easy for Hannah to forget her promise, or at least delay considerably in its fulfillment. But instead she brings Samuel as a young boy to serve permanently in the Temple at Shiloh. He is later to play a crucial role at an instrumental time in the nation of Israel’s history, as they transition from the era of judges to the era of kings. And no doubt some of his spiritual success can be traced to the fact that his Godly mother Hannah had the courage to fulfill her vow, and was willing to dedicate her son to the Lord’s service, even though this meant a great sacrifice on her behalf. In my next post, we will examine what Jesus has to say on the subject of vows.