This chapter closes Leviticus by underlining the true covenant between God and His people through vows. Not only does God take His Word, and the obedience (or disobedience) of His people seriously (cf. Lev. 26), God takes the words of His people seriously. This is why Jesus cautions us against thoughtless vows. God keeps covenant, and His people are to be people of their word.
“And the Lord spake unto Moses, saying speaking unto the children of Israel, and say unto them, when a man shall make a singular vow, the persons shall be for the Lord by thy estimation…” (Lev. 27).
SUMMARY OF THE TEXT
When Israel swore vows to the Lord, they would promise to dedicate people or beasts to the service of the Lord or give an offering of equivalent value plus twenty percent (Lev. 26:1-13). Likewise, if a house or land were dedicated to the Lord, it would be considered holy to the Lord, and its value would be reckoned from the year of Jubilee with the fixed value of the tabernacle shekel (Lev. 26:14-25). Only the firstborn of animals could not be redeemed, along with those things devoted to the Lord (Lev. 26:16-34).
VOWS THAT HELP & HURT
Throughout the Old Testament, God’s people worshipped Him through paying vows (Dt. 12:6ff, Ps. 50:14, 61:8, 66:13, 116:14, Jon. 1:16, Nah. 1:15). These were promises of offerings in response to particular answers to prayer. Jacob vowed to give tithes to the Lord if the Lord kept him safe and brought him home again safely (Gen. 28:20-22). One infamous example is when Jephthah vowed to sacrifice whatever came out to meet him when he returned from battle in peace, and his daughter was the first to greet him (Jdg. 11:30-40). The context of Jephthah’s vow indicates that his daughter was dedicated to service in the tabernacle as a virgin (cf. Jdg. 11:39), not literally sacrificed, but it was still a great grief to the family.
In Numbers 30, God says that adult males must not break their vows, but that young women who are still in their father’s house still have the protection of their father hearing and confirming or annulling their vows (Num. 30:4-5). The same protection and forgiveness is granted to a married woman (Num. 30:6-7). But the vows of a widow or divorced woman stand against her (Num. 30:9). When a man annuls the vow of someone in his household, scripture says that he bears the iniquity and it is forgiven (Num. 30:12, 15).
This is why Psalm 15 says that the man who dwells on God’s holy hill swears to his own hurt and does not change (Ps. 15:4). When people swear a vow to the Lord, they are invoking His name, and therefore Jesus warns against making vows (Mt. 5:33-37). James warns of the same danger, lest you come into condemnation (Js. 5:12). And yet Paul took a Nazirite vow, and there is no indication of sin (Acts 18:18, cf. Acts 21:23). And Hebrews says that people may swear an oath to solve matters of contention (Heb. 6:16). So we conclude that swearing vows is lawful and sometimes necessary, but vows must be taken seriously because God will hold us accountable.
Christians have determined that where the covenant stakes are high, vows are necessary, invoking God’s name, asking God to judge the parties for loyalty or disloyalty. A business contract is one form of this in order to avoid contention. Marriage vows are some of the most important and potent. The wise woman of Proverbs 31 says that her son is the “son of her vows” (Prov. 31:2), and the adulterous woman forsakes her husband by covenant (Prov. 2:17, cf. Mal. 2:14). This is why civil and ecclesiastical leaders also swear vows to fulfill their covenant offices faithfully and why we swear membership and baptismal vows as a congregation. The word “Amen” is also a vow and pledge of loyalty to the Lord (cf. Num. 5:22, Dt. 27:15ff).
Some are tempted to get wound tight about reading the fine print on a user agreement, but the central point is that because we are made in the image of God, our words are powerful like God’s Word. The power of life and death are in the tongue (Prov. 18:21). The tongue is a fire that sets whole worlds ablaze, full of deadly poison (Js. 3:6-9). We live in a land full of foul words, cursing, and poison, frivolous vows and many lies, and it can be easy to get used to it. You can become accustomed to speaking disrespectfully to or about your husband or wife. You can get used to biting your children with criticism, being angry at parents, or just telling lies. But you are spewing poison, and you are asking for God’s judgment.
In our wedding ceremonies, we not only swear to keep ourselves only for our spouse in sexual purity and fidelity, we also swear to “love, honor, and cherish.” Harshness, bitterness, anger, and critical spirits are not a fulfillment of your vows to the Lord. Peter warns husbands in particular that failure to honor wives as the weaker vessel and a co-heir of the grace of life hinders prayer (1 Pet. 3:7). God promises to listen to your words and honor your words as well as you listen to and honor the words of your wife. Elsewhere, God promises to forgive us as we forgive others, and Jesus says that as we do “unto the least of these” we either do or do not do unto Him (Mt. 25:31ff). What kind of words are you serving Jesus?
The wisdom from above is pure, peaceable, gentle, easily intreated, full of mercy and good fruits, without partiality, and without hypocrisy, and the fruit of righteousness is sown in peace of them that make peace (Js. 3:17-18). Yes, our culture is disintegrating in perversion and bitterness, but you cannot fight fire with fire. The only antidote to words of death and broken vows is the Word of Life and God’s covenant kindness and mercy.
Have you been harsh? Have you been critical? Have you made promises and not kept them? Some of the most potent and powerful words are words of confession and forgiveness. Forgiveness is God’s great covenant vow to us in the blood of His Son, and it is the central vow we make and keep that builds Christian culture.