Breaking Promises

J.S. Smith
In both testaments of the holy Scriptures, God teaches and demands integrity in his people. Christians should, above all, be people of their word, trusted to do as they say. But what of promises that one makes which he later learns are evil? Are such promises still binding upon him, or does God expect a facet of his repentance to be casting off such vows?

Under the Law of Moses
Vows made during the Mosaic dispensation were to be considered seriously before being uttered, because to break such an oath was sinful. Ecclesiastes 5 succinctly summarizes the position of the law regarding oaths and the danger of making them rashly. “Do not be rash with your mouth, And let not your heart utter anything hastily before God. . . . When you make a vow to God, do not delay to pay it; For he has no pleasure in fools. Pay what you have vowed — Better not to vow than to vow and not pay. Do not let your mouth cause your flesh to sin, nor say before the messenger of God that it was an error. Why should God be angry at your excuse and destroy the work of your hands” (Eccl. 5:2, 4-7)?

Very clearly, the Holy Spirit teaches that failure to fulfill a vow to God was sinful. Vows were quite common in the Old Testament. Jacob vowed upon entering Mesopotamia to give the Lord a tenth of his estate at Bethel (Gen. 28:20-22). We also have the example of a parent vowing to devote her child to the Lord’s service in the case of Hannah and Samuel (1 Sam. 1:22-28). Such a vow could be redeemed, however, if the one taking the oath changed his mind (Lev. 27:2-3). The price of redemption was valued in terms of silver so that the oath could not lightly be altered at little expense.

A man’s vows were considered more binding than a woman’s. “If a man makes a vow to the Lord, or swears an oath to bind himself by some agreement, he shall not break his word; he shall do according to all that proceeds out of his mouth” (Num. 30:2). A woman’s vow could be overridden by her father or husband (Num. 30:3-16).

Finally, the law contained a provision for situations in which a rash oath was made to do evil and later regretted prior to its fulfillment. “Or if a person swears, speaking thoughtlessly with his lips to do evil or to do good, whatever it is that a man may pronounce by an oath, and he is unaware of it — when he realizes it, then he shall be guilty in any of these matters” (Lev. 5:4). The remaining verses of this chapter prescribe the manner by which the penitent oath taker can have the priest make sacrifice for his sin. He was not obligated to fulfill the oath he made rashly, especially if it was a promise to commit evil, but was yet a sinner for making the rash oath in the first place.

Perhaps the case of Jephthah is an example of a rash oath (Judg. 11). With an idolatrous mindset, he promised to sacrifice the first thing that came out of his house if God would give him a victory already assured by the Spirit of the Lord. Following the battle, his own daughter emerged to greet him at home and he felt compelled to sacrifice her. Should he have kept this vow? It does not seem that Jephthah ever realized that it was sinful to commit human sacrifice and so an appeal to redemption or atonement for making a rash oath seem unlikely.

Just as clearly, we understand that killing his daughter would be sinful. It violated the law of Moses in that it was murder (Exod. 10:13) and a form of undesirable worship which was worthy of the death penalty (Lev. 20:1-5).

There is also the case of David and Nabal in 1 Samuel 25. David sought to purchase food from Nabal while traveling, but was rebuffed and the future king vowed to God that he would wipe out Nabal’s family: “May God do so, and more also, to the enemies of David, if I leave one male of all who belong to him by morning light” (v. 22). That vow was sinful to make and would have been sinful to execute, as David learned when Nabal’s longsuffering wife, Abigail, came to entreat David to spare him. David decided not to carry through with his oath: “Blessed is the Lord God of Israel, who sent you this day to meet me! And blessed is your advice and blessed are you, because you have kept me this day from coming to bloodshed and from avenging myself with my own hand” (1 Sam. 25:32-33). David realized that vengeance belonged to God, not him (Deut. 32:35) and that although he had called God to witness his homicidal vow, fulfilling it would be adding sinful execution to sinful intent. He was grateful someone prevented him from keeping a vow to do evil.

In The New Testament
When the Lord arrived, he quickly began to teach against forswearing, making vows without any genuine intention of fulfilling them. “Swear not at all . . .  But let your ‘yes’ be ‘yes’ and your ‘ no,’ ‘no,’” he taught on the mount (Matt. 5:34-37).

Christians are to be true to their word and keep their promises, but again one wonders about promises that are made to do evil, perhaps ignorantly, which are revealed prior to fulfillment. Should the Christian keep his vow to do evil or should he repent of it?

What of the Catholic priest who makes vows to God to keep his collar for a lifetime but then is converted to the truth? Should he keep that vow or should it be part of his repentance? The same can be asked of the nun and monk.

Across America today, homosexuals are being married by liberal denominationalists, claiming to carry God’s blessing. Such couples are making vows to God like those heterosexual couples make. What if I have opportunity to teach them? Should I get them baptized and command them to continue living in sin, for it is part of their vow to God?

More pertinently, what of the heterosexual couple who marries without scriptural authority for some reason? Suppose one of the spouses is a put away fornicator, who then is converted. Should she keep her vow made to God to commit adultery, in effect, or should she repent completely (Matt. 19)?

The answer to all these questions is obvious. A vow to commit sin should be repudiated as soon as knowledge conquers ignorance.   

An Example
When I was 17-years-old and a senior in high school, I was faced with just such a conundrum. In March, I asked a young lady to accompany me to the prom. In April, I began visiting the local church of Christ and was taught by Harry Rice and a host of other godly people that modern dancing was lewd and wrong. May was coming and the prom with it and my conscience was nagging at me.

Should I follow my newly disciplined conscience and break my prom date or should I be true to my promise to the young lady, who surely would have been rather upset at that late date?

I made the wrong choice and kept my promise to her. I committed sin that night in the lewdness of dancing (Gal. 5:19) when I could have made a stronger point on faithfulness instead. I regret keeping that promise; I wish I broken it and been true to God’s word instead.

Christians should be people of their word and should not make promises rashly. When they vow to be somewhere or do something, they should carry through with it, even if the costs rise for some reason. Vows to commit sin, however, should be repudiated, as David cast off his rash oath to murder Nabal’s household, once Abigail brought him to his senses.
Truth Magazine Vol. XLIV: 5 p20  March 2, 2000