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Q. In Scripture, What Exactly Is A Vow?

QUESTION: I don’t feel like I have a very precise definition of what a vow is. Must a vow be verbally expressed? Could it be made by silent prayer? What about my inner thoughts which come to mind; are these vows? Are impulsive or foolish vows still vows? What about vows which produce harm to oneself or others?


I believe that the use of the word “vow” in the Bible conveys the sense of a conscious, deliberate, promise to do something, sometimes conditioned by an “if”:

Jephthah made a vow to the LORD, saying, “If you really do hand the Ammonites over to me, 31 then whoever is the first to come through the doors of my house to meet me when I return safely from fighting the Ammonites– he will belong to the LORD and I will offer him up as a burnt sacrifice.” (Jdg. 11:30-31 NET; Genesis 28:20-22; 31:13; Numbers 21:2; 1 Samuel 1:11)

A vow may or may not be made “to” the Lord (e.g. Genesis 14:22-24; Judges 11:30), but it is made “before” or in the presence of the Lord. In other words, God is a witness to the vow. That makes it pretty solemn.

By and large, a vow is considered binding, with very few exceptions. In the case of Israel’s covenant with the Gibeonites in Joshua 9, Israel’s covenant promise to protect the Gibeonites was honored, even though this commitment had been achieved deceitfully. Israel took its commitments seriously.

In Leviticus 27 (and perhaps Numbers 15) a promised offering is viewed as a vow, which may be its most common occurrence. But if the one who promised is not able to give the promised amount the priest can pronounce a reduced obligation. Note that what is promised (vowed) can be redeemed, but with a 1/5th penalty.

It does appear that at least some foolish vows can be revoked or withdrawn, with the permission of the one to whom the vow was made. If one has made a foolish commitment, he or she should quickly seek to withdraw it:

If you have been ensnared by the words you have uttered, and have been caught by the words you have spoken, 3 then, my child, do this in order to deliver yourself, because you have fallen into your neighbor’s power: go, humble yourself, and appeal firmly to your neighbor. 4 Permit no sleep to your eyes or slumber to your eyelids. 5 Deliver yourself like a gazelle from a snare, and like a bird from the trap of the fowler. (Prov. 6:2-5 NET)

From Numbers 6 we learn that a man can vow to live as a Nazarite for a specified period of time. If he does not, or is not able to fulfill his vow (initially) then there is a penalty to be paid, and then the vow can then be reinstated.

According to Numbers 30, only one in a higher position of authority (such as a father or husband) may dismiss/set aside a vow made by a woman under his authority. Otherwise, there is no release provided. Deuteronomy 23:21 requires the prompt payment of a vow (seemingly a vow to offer a certain sacrifice – see 1 Samuel 1:21). If a vow is not made, then failure to offer the sacrifice is not regarded as sin.

What is clear about vows is that one should give careful thought to what one vows to do, and that once vowed, one should not be slow to fulfill it:

It is a snare for a person to rashly cry, “Holy!” and only afterward to consider what he has vowed. (Prov. 20:25 NET)

Do not be rash with your mouth or hasty in your heart to bring up a matter before God, for God is in heaven and you are on earth! Therefore, let your words be few. 3 Just as dreams come when there are many cares, so the rash vow of a fool occurs when there are many words. 4 When you make a vow to God, do not delay in paying it. For God takes no pleasure in fools: Pay what you vow! 5 It is better for you not to vow than to vow and not pay it. (Eccl. 5:2-5 NET)

It seems to me that when you look at all of the “vow” references in the Bible, the great majority of these are religious in nature: a vow to offer a certain sacrifice or offering, a vow to live for a time as a Nazarite. And those vows not made to God, are usually made with God as witness.

Foolish vows were made, but these fall far short of the ideal for vows, which should be well thought through, and which should be made with a strong resolve to fulfill them.

One should add that oaths are voluntary commitments (Deuteronomy 23:23).

In the Scriptures vows might be silently made, but they are consciously made to God, or with God as our witness. Foolish vows were made, as was the vow of Jephthah, and this vow Jephthah kept. Wicked vows invoked God’s name in vain (that is, with no intent to follow through – Leviticus 19:12; Deuteronomy 5:11).

It is noteworthy that most of the references to vows are found in the Old Testament, not the New. I believe that is because Jesus is “the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6; see also John 1:14, 17). Therefore, those who have Christ dwelling in them speak truth (Ephesians 4:15-24). This is our Lord’s point in Matthew chapter 5:

“Again, you have heard that it was said to an older generation, ‘Do not break an oath, but fulfill your vows to the Lord.’ 34 But I say to you, do not take oaths at all– not by heaven, because it is the throne of God, 35 not by earth, because it is his footstool, and not by Jerusalem, because it is the city of the great King. 36 Do not take an oath by your head, because you are not able to make one hair white or black. 37 Let your word be ‘Yes, yes’ or ‘No, no.’ More than this is from the evil one. (Matt. 5:33-37 NET)

This was a game-changer when it came to the making and keeping of vows. Jesus taught that Christians should be characterized as people of truth, people who keep their word. They should not need to take an oath/make a vow in order to convince others that they intended keep their every word. Thus, the obligation to be truthful and to fulfill our words is extended beyond vows to everything we say we will do (or not do). If this is the case, vows are unnecessary. It is folly to make hasty commitments (whether a vow or not). One should carefully consider what he or she is committing themselves to do, or not do. Having made a commitment, one should keep it.

Can a vow, or even a commitment, be made in silent prayer? Yes. That is what seems to have occurred with Hannah in 1 Samuel 1:9-18. But this was no rash decision or commitment. She had no doubt been pondering it for some time. It was a private vow, and thus not stated publicly. Indeed, it would seem that many vows regarding offerings were private. (Note, also that Hannah kept her vow.)

Now, as to random thoughts and inner dialog. I do not believe that these fall into the category of vows, not even of commitments to keep. Tempting thoughts flash through our minds all the time, but we are surely not obliged to fulfill them. We are to acknowledge them as illicit temptations and put them out of our minds.

It is possible that one might vow to do harm to someone else, or even to himself (as did the Jews who vowed to kill Paul). One does not even have to vow to harm another; it could be the unintended consequence of a foolish vow, like Jethro’s. Given the sinfulness of man, we should not be surprised by the way a vow can be foolishly invoked, or harmfully carried out.

But as New Testament Christians, taking a vow seems to be unnecessary (in the Old Testament sense) because we are to speak wisely and keep our word. This may explain why vows are so rare in the New Testament.

Related Topics: Christian Life

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