The Law of Vows
Deuteronomy 23:21 and 22 says,
21 When you make a vow [neder, “vow or votive offering”] to the Lord your God, you shall not delay to pay it, for it would be sin in you, and the Lord your God will surely require it of you. 22 However, if you refrain from vowing, it would not be sin in you.
This is the law governing all contracts, written or spoken. It also governs covenants, such as the Old Covenant and the New Covenant.
The Old Covenant Vow
It was most common in those days to make vows of sacrifice. These often took the nature of making a bargain with God. “God, if you do this for me, then I will pay you with this sacrifice.” This was the nature of Jacob’s vow at Bethel. Gen. 28:20-22 says,
20 Then Jacob made a vow [neder], saying, “If God will be with me and will keep me on this journey that I take, and will give me food to eat and garments to wear, 21 and I return to my father’s house in safety, then the Lord will be my God. 22 And this stone, which I have set up as a pillar, will be God’s house; and of all that Thou dost give me I will surely give a tenth to Thee.”
The context of Jacob’s vow links it with Pentecost. His wilderness journey to Haran and back established an early pattern of the feast days that were commanded later in the time of Moses. In Genesis 28:10 Jacob left Beersheba (Passover). He made his vow at Bethel (Pentecost). He spent twenty years in Haran, and on his return trip he fulfilled the autumn festivals, stopping first at Mahanaim (Trumpets), then Peniel (Atonement), and finally arriving at Succoth (Tabernacles).
The vow that Jacob made at Bethel foreshadowed the vow that Israel would later make at Mount Horeb at Pentecost when God spoke the Ten Commandments. There, too, the vow showed the conditional nature of that covenant, as seen in Exodus 19:5. 6,
5 Now then, if you will indeed obey My voice and keep My covenant, then you shall be My own possession among all the peoples, for all the earth is Mine; 6 and you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation….
Conditional vows are not evil, but in the practical sense, no man can keep such a vow of obedience to God. The flesh may vow, even with good intentions, but there is no way that the “old man” can fulfill its vow. For this reason, Israel was unable to keep her vow and was judged, and in the end the nation was led into captivity into Assyria.
It was necessary for God to make a New Covenant in order to accomplish the purposes of God.
The New Covenant Vow
In the New Covenant God vowed by Himself to work in us by His Spirit to make us righteous—something that the flesh could not do by good intentions and self-discipline. This covenant is described in Heb. 8:10,
10 For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put My laws into their minds, and I will write them upon their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be My people.
Most of us have made a Pentecostal vow to serve God when we became believers. Because of our good intentions, many of us were surprised when we discovered that we were unable to keep our vows. Our flesh continued to sin, in spite of our best efforts. We did not yet understand the difference between the two covenants, for though we were told that we were now under the New Covenant, we thought that our own decision to follow Christ is what saves us.
Fortunately for us, our salvation was not based upon our well-intentioned decision or vow, because we have all failed to fulfill it. Instead, it is based upon the sure promise (vow) of God, who has vowed to turn our hearts and change us from within by His Spirit, so that we can come fully into conformity to His image.
In fact, the two covenants were foreshadowed under Moses, first in Exodus 19 and later in Deuteronomy 29, where God made a second covenant with Israel. We have already quoted the terms of the first covenant in Exodus 19:5, 6. This covenant was made at Mount Horeb a few weeks after leaving Egypt. The second covenant, however, was made forty years later, just before Israel entered the Promised Land. Deut. 29:1 says,
1 These are the words of the covenant which the Lord commanded Moses to make with the sons of Israel in the land of Moab, besides the covenant which He had made with them at Horeb.
This Deuteronomy covenant is a type of the New Covenant. There are no bargains and no “if” clauses in this covenant. It states God’s intent, based upon His sovereignty, showing what He intended to do with Israel and with all nations.
12 That you may enter into the covenant with the Lord your God, and into His oath which the Lord your God is making with you today, 13 in order that He may establish you today as His people and that He may be your God, just as He spoke to you and as He swore to your fathers, to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
This is not the oath of man, but the oath of God. His oath was to “establish” them as His people as promised to their fathers. The only way to make this happen was to work in them by His Spirit, bringing them to the place where “He may be your God.” This is how the New Covenant was set up, and it applies both personally and corporately.
During the present age, God has revealed Himself to certain ones on a limited scale. These are the rulers and teachers for the age to come. At the Great White Throne judgment, all men will be summoned and raised from the dead in order to come under a court-ordered time of judgment. They will be placed under the authority of believers in order to be trained in the ways of God. They will learn righteousness and faith during that time until the fiery law is written on their hearts.
When the effect of divine judgment has completed its work in mankind, then all creation will be set free to enjoy the glorious liberty of the children of God. Only then will God’s New Covenant vow be fulfilled in its entirety.
Meanwhile, the church has rendered its vows to God through Pentecost, making decisions to follow Jesus, and hoping to fulfill those vows by the power of their own will while being assisted by the Holy Spirit. But the church as a whole has failed to fulfill its vows, although the remnant has attained it on account of their understanding of the New Covenant. They realize that in spite of their good intentions, they are unable to please God by disciplining the flesh into submission to the law of God. In the end, it is only by God’s vow that we can enter the place of rest, knowing that He is responsible to bring us to that place.
Some still labor under this sense of guilt for not being capable of perfection, not realizing that the New Covenant has superseded the Old Covenant. God has allowed us to function in this state for a time, in order that we might understand the futility of trying to attain perfection under the Old Covenant plan. But at some point we ought to receive the revelation that our righteousness is in Christ, and that He is working by His Spirit within us to perfect us from the inside out.
In other words, God is fulfilling His vow under the New Covenant. The law says that it is a sin to make a vow and then fail to keep it. God is not a sinner, and so we know that He will indeed bring us to perfection. It is not based upon our ability, but His ability. As we are led by the Spirit, He works His character in us by writing His laws in our hearts. The law, then, reflects God’s character, and the New Covenant is God’s vow to work in us until we are fully changed into His image.
Other Examples of Vows
Meanwhile, however, men continue to make vows. They should make no vows unless they are certain that their flesh is capable of fulfilling them. They should sign no contracts unless they intend to keep them to the best of their ability. When David made vows of sacrifice, he testified in Psalm 56:12,
12 Thy vows are binding upon me, O God; I will render thank offerings to Thee.
Proverbs 20:25 also instructs us:
25 It is a snare for a man to say rashly, “It is holy!” and after the vows to make inquiry [reconsider, or change the contract].
Absalom broke his vow that he had made by his own admission. He stated the conditions of his vow in 2 Samuel 15:8,
8 For your servant vowed a vow while I was living in Geshur in Aram, saying, “If the Lord shall indeed bring me back to Jerusalem, then I will serve the Lord.”
God had indeed brought him back from Geshur, but instead of fulfilling his vow to “serve the Lord,” he staged a revolt and overthrew God’s anointed king (David). In so doing, he became an antichrist, or anti-messiah, one who usurps the place of the anointed king.
Another serious situation is when men vow to sacrifice to false gods, as Israel did in Jer. 44:25,
25 Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, as follows: “As for you and your wives, you have spoken with your mouths and fulfilled it with your hands, saying, ‘We will certainly perform our vows that we have vowed, to burn sacrifices to the Queen of Heaven and pour out libations to her.’ Go ahead and confirm your vows, and certainly perform your vows!”
The people had made vows to serve false gods, contrary to their vow in Exodus 19 to serve Yahweh, the God of Israel. Although their prior vow (contract) took precedence over their later vows to false gods, God would sentence them to fulfill those vows for generations to come, as the law of tribulation said. Deut. 28:64 says,
64 Moreover the Lord will scatter you among all peoples from one end of the earth to the other end of the earth; and there you shall serve other gods, wood and stone, which you or your fathers have not known.
Because Israel vowed to serve other gods, God cast them out of the land, withdrew His Spirit from them, and let them experience the fruit of their vows to serve false gods. Yet we find this a temporary condition, on account of the New Covenant. Israel could break the Old Covenant, but they could not violate the New Covenant, for it was beyond their reach. Only God made a vow in the New Covenant, and so He alone could violate it, if this were possible.
The Right to Veto a Vow
There is another aspect to the law of vows that is very important, especially when applied to covenant vows. It is found in Numbers 30. Verse 2 says,
2 If a man makes a vow to the Lord, or takes an oath to bind himself with a binding obligation, he shall not violate his word; he shall do according to all that proceeds out of his mouth.
This is the basic law that Moses was referencing in Deut. 23:21. But the law also makes provision for veto authority in Num. 30:3-15. The passage is too lengthy to quote in full, but it is summarized in verses 3, 13, and 14,
3 Also, if a woman makes a vow to the Lord, and binds herself by an obligation in her father’s house in her youth… 13 Every vow and every binding oath to humble herself, her husband may confirm it or her husband may annul it. 14 But if her husband indeed says nothing to her from day to day, then he confirms all her vows or all her obligations which are on her, he has confirmed them, because he said nothing to her on the day he heard them.
This law was meant to protect a wife or daughter in case she made an unwise vow that would “humble” her. Being under authority, her father or guardian had the power to overrule her vow. Authority, then, can be used to protect those under authority.
The Old Covenant required a marriage vow, since God was marrying Israel. In a broad sense, it was an unwise vow, for there was no way that she would be able to keep the vow of obedience. Yet God allowed it to stand and held her accountable when she violated her vow.
This would seem unjust or unfair, since God knew from the beginning that Israel would not be able to keep such a vow. Even Moses knew this, saying in Deut. 31:29,
29 For I know that after my death you will act corruptly and turn from the way which I have commanded you; and evil will befall you in the latter days, for you will do that which is evil in the sight of the Lord, provoking Him to anger with the work of your hands.
The reason God allowed the Old Covenant vow to stand was because He had already planned for the New Covenant that would replace the Old. And because all time is one from the heavenly perspective, the “day” that God heard of her vow was the day of Christ’s crucifixion, where He overruled her decision by the law of veto. That was the day the Old Covenant vow officially ceased to be in effect. This veto ensured that Israel and all nations being blessed in Abraham would be the beneficiaries of God’s New Covenant vow.
Replacing the Old Covenant vow, God made a vow, binding Himself to perform the terms of a New Covenant. This vow ensures that in spite of man’s inability to keep his vows, God will indeed bring them all to the place where His law is written in their hearts. This vow was made not only for Israel but for the entire creation. It is the legal basis of the Restoration of All Things.