Why we should care. Leviticus 27 and Numbers 30 both describe God’s rules for when we make a vow in His name. Today, nearly half of all marriages end in divorce. It is also widely known that the divorce rate for believers and non-believers is nearly identical. Even more surprising though is that evangelical churches have the highest divorce rates of any Christian denomination. Living under God’s mercy and grace has clearly caused Christians to take their vows to God lightly. Part of the problem may be that few even know what God has to say about the costs of breaking a vow before Him.
Examples of Biblical vows. As part of being sanctified, making a vow to the Lord was the highest act of devotion that one could make toward Him. Hannah vowed to give her son Samuel to the Lord to thank Him for her pregnancy (1 Sam. 1:27-28). Another example includes the Nazarite’s vow to deny themselves certain pleasures (Nu. 6:2-8). Jacob also vowed to tithe if God blessed him (Gen. 28:20-22). Likewise, Jonah promised to be obedient to God’s direction if God would free him from the belly of the fish (Jonah 2:9). Under Jewish law, a boy’s vows become binding as soon as he completes his bar mitzvah at age 13. The phrase means “son of the commandment.”
Modern vows. Although some may not realize it, Christians make lots of vows before God. Seven examples include (1) wedding vows, (2) sworn testimony, (3) tithes, (4) breaking with our sins or addictions, (5) baptisms, (6) baby dedications, and (7) being obedient to God’s calling. Yet, sin will inevitably tempt you to break a vow to God. When your worship subsides, your passions for God cool. Because churches ignore these lessons, we became lukewarm about vows and break them like a New Years’ resolution.
A broken vow can violate the Ten Commandments. Jesus came to fulfill the Law (Matt. 5:17). He fulfilled the blood sacrifices because He was the ultimate one-time sin offering (Isa. 53:7; Jo. 1:29; Heb. 10:12-14). Yet, He made it clear that you must follow the Ten Commandments if you love Him (Jo. 14:15; 15:10). He is the great “I AM” who gave Moses these commandments (Jo. 8:58; Ex. 3:14). Consider the following:
The Third Commandment. God warns us not to “swear falsely by My name, so as to profane the name of your God.” (Lev. 19:12). This violates the Third Commandment: “You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain.” (Ex. 20:7; Dt. 5:11).
The Seventh Commandment. Jesus’ Seventh Commandment prohibits adultery (Ex. 20:14; Dt. 5:18). According to Jesus, if you are married and merely look upon another with lust, you have broken His Commandment (Matt. 5:28). This in turn also breaks the Third Commandment because the adulterer has also profaned God’s name.
The Ninth Commandment. Jesus’ Ninth Commandment prohibits giving false witness, which includes perjury (Ex. 20:16; Dt. 5:20). If we give false testimony or lie to others, we violate this Commandment. When we lie under oath, we also profane God’s name and therefore also violate the Third Commandment.
Profaning God’s name was punishable by death. The rate of divorce within the Church would suggest that people believe that God does not impose a cost upon believers who break their vows to Him. Yet, He makes it clear that there are penalties for a broken vow made in His name. Because this profanes His holy name (Lev. 19:12), the penalty is death. “Moreover, the one who blasphemes the name of the Lord shall be put to death; all the congregation shall stone him.” (Lev. 24:16). Was this limited only to Jews? No. “The alien as well as the native, when he blasphemes the Name, shall be put to death.” (Lev. 24:16). “You shall not take the Lord’s name in vain, for the Lord will not leave him unpunished who takes His name in vain.” (Dt. 5:11). Adultery was also punishable by death (Lev. 20:10; Dt. 22:22). Thus, a person who breaks a wedding vow before God to commit adultery has two separate death sentences under the Law.
The financial and emotional costs of breaking a vow. God only allowed for divorce because of the hardness of people’s hearts (Matt. 19:8). Although Christ can free us from our death sentence for breaking a vow, God still imposes a financial or emotional cost. Those who ignore God’s Law typically suffer from depression, anxiety, sleeplessness, low self esteem, and other emotional problems. Let us suppose a man marries at age 21. He decides to divorce his wife after 7 years and two kids. He justifies his decision by saying that he married too young. Approximately 2,000 years before Christ, that man would need to pay the priest 50 silver shekels (Lev. 27:3). Alternatively, if he was too poor to afford that, he could petition the priest, and the priest would determine a fair amount based upon what he could pay (Lev. 27:8). Notice that God meant for the priests to be directly involved in collecting this money, paying it to the ex-spouse and the children, and determining the appropriate hardship exceptions. The following chart lists the non-inflation adjusted prices in silver circa 2,000 B.C. Because God is fair, He adjusted prices based upon what people made at the time:
|Male||20-60 years||50 silver shekels||Lev. 27:3|
|Female||20-60 years||30 silver shekels||Lev. 27:4|
|Male||5-20 years||20 silver shekels||Lev. 27:5|
|Female||5-20 years||10 silver shekels||Lev. 27:5|
|Male||1 month -5 years||5 silver shekels||Lev. 27:6|
|Female||1 month - 5 years||3 silver shekels||Lev. 27:6|
|Male||60 + years||15 silver shekels||Lev. 27:7|
|Female||60 plus years||10 silver shekels||Lev. 27:7|
|Poor||Any age||(Per priest/ Per ability)||Lev. 27:8|
Comparing the silver prices to the wages at that time. The average male laborers wage in Biblical times earned approximately one silver shekel per month. Women received about 50-67 percent of a male laborer’s pay (Wenham, Gordon, The Book of Leviticus (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1979), p. 338). Thus, for the average male laborer aged 20 to 60 making 1 shekel a month, it would take 50 months or 4 years and 2 months to pay for a broken vow. Breaking a vow to God was not done lightly. Unlike today, divorce was a rare event because of the heavy costs involved.
The cost of breaking a property pledge. If a person made a pledge to give an animal or real property and then tried to break that vow, the person would owe the fair market value of the animal or property, plus a 20 percent fee (Lev. 27:9-25). Many churches struggle with pledge drives. If this rule were applied today, the only way the believer could get out of a pledge would be if the believer paid the pledge plus a 20 percent surcharge. When we make a Spirit-led pledge and then try to back out, we don’t trust God. Every good and perfect thing is from above (Jam. 1:17). Imagine how much more the churches would blossom from new resources if this rule was enforced.
Jesus’ warning not to make careless vows before God. Many might be tempted to think that Jesus made all the law of vows unnecessary. He directly addressed this issue: “you have heard that the ancients were told, ‘You shall not make false vows, but shall fulfill your vows to the Lord.” (Matt. 5:33). Yet, instead of saying that the law of vows no longer applies, He warns that it is better not to make a vow than to make one and break it: “But I say to you, make no oath at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is the footstool of His feet . . .But let your statements be, ‘yes, yes’ or ‘no, no’; anything else beyond these is of evil.” (Matt. 5:34-37; Jam. 5:12). Later, He condemned the people of His day who claimed that a temple vow had no meaning unless it was a vow made based upon the temple’s gold (Matt. 23:16). Jesus also asked that we count the cost before making a vow to Him (Lk. 14:28-33). This is why Jesus spelled out the cost of discipleship before someone chose to walk closer to Him as a disciple as opposed to a mere follower (Lk. 9:57-62). If God’s laws regarding vows no longer applied, why would Jesus warn us not to make them lightly?
What if the Church followed the law of vows today? Today, churches do not impose a monetary cost on someone who breaks a holy vow, like a wedding vow. Churches let the states impose the same monetary costs on believers and non-believers. As an economist might predict, the divorce rate between believers and non-believers is also the same. The sexual revolution of the 1960s lifted the stigma of divorce. The states then came up with “no fault” divorces. The divorce rate both within the Church and outside exploded. Today, the majority of mothers in America under age 30 are unwed. Imagine if the Church took the laws regarding vows seriously. Do you think the average believer would take a wedding vow more seriously if that person had to pay four years worth of wages to God for a broken wedding vow? The psalmist urges us: “I shall pay my vows to the Lord.” (Ps. 116:18). Yet, “fools despise wisdom and instruction.” (Prov. 1:7). Most churches find no wisdom in teaching the law of vows, and they are reaping the consequences.
Christ is faithful to fulfill His promises. We can give thanks that Christ is faithful to keep His vows to us. If we confess our sins and believe in faith in Christ’s death, we are forgiven for all our past wrongs in the sight of God, and we will have eternal life (Jo. 3:16; Rom. 10:9-10; 1 Jo. 1:9). Christ will never leave us or forsake us (Heb. 13:5). “My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me; and I give eternal life to them, and they shall never perish; and no one shall snatch them out of My hand.” (Jo. 1:27-28). We will never hunger with the bread of life that Christ offers us (Jo. 6:53-58). We will also never thirst with the living water that Christ offers us (Jo. 7:37-38). The Holy Spirit will always be here to guide us on our journey to heaven (Jo. 14:16-18, 26). Christ will fulfill these as well as other biblical vows for us individually and as the future Bridegroom of the Church (Rev. 19:6-8; 21:2).
God’s protection of women. In God’s eyes “there are neither male nor female.” Instead, we are all one in Christ (Gal. 3:28). Yet, if men and women are equal in God’s eyes, it might seem odd that God would set different redemption prices for men and women. God, however, did not set the wages for women. Sinful men did that. At that time, the male-dominated society paid women almost half the price it paid men for the same work. If God had set the same redemption prices for men and women, it would have taken the average women almost twice as long to pay off their redemption price. This is not what you would expect from a fair and just God. God’s payment system showed that He protects the poor. We are to plead for the poor and the widows as well (Is. 1:17).
The right of fathers and husbands to annulling certain female vows. In Numbers 30, God explains that fathers and husbands can, in certain circumstances, annul a woman’s vow. To a Bible critic, this shows that the Bible is sexist. Yet, God did not set any rules requiring that women be given less power than men. He merely set laws to ensure that His people treated fairly the poor and the disenfranchised. The father or the husband, in theory, was to use the right of annulment to protect women from undue duress. For example, if a woman was raped, the father could annul a forced wedding vow to protect his daughter. Likewise, if an unsavory business man conditioned a loan to a woman for sexual favors, the husband could annul a vow made under pressure. Just as Christ protects His Church, husbands and fathers, as appointed leaders were to use their roles to protect their households. Yet, sinful men abused the privilege over time. As women became empowered over time, these protections became unnecessary. Yet, these verses still have a spiritual application.
Christ can annual our false or foolish vows. Through our faith in Christ, we become God’s children (Gal. 3:26; 1 Jo. 3:2). As a Church, we will one day also be married to Christ in heaven (Eph. 5:23-30; Rev. 19:6-8; 21:2). As our future bridegroom, Christ can annul a vow that we make if it is not Biblical (Nu. 30:5, 8). Jesus, for example, annulled the false vows that the rabbis forced people to make that it was unlawful to heal or do good on the Sabbaths (Matt. 12:10-14). Through the Holy Spirit, Paul later rebuked the early Church when it tried to force new believers to make vows to follow the dietary laws and the holy days (out of obligation and not devotion) (Col. 2:16). We are to submit only to our heavenly Father, Christ, our future bridegroom, and the Holy Spirit (Eph. 5:24). If you have made a false vow to a religion that has an “extra gospel,” God can annul those vows when you come to Him and repent. If you have belonged to a church that adds work requirements to earn your salvation, He can also annul those vows when you come to Him and repent. If you have made other foolish vows, He can also annul them when you repent. Give thanks that God will free us from false vows that others impose upon us or that we foolishly impose on ourselves.
Christ suffered for our broken vows. Upon hearing God’s Ten Commandments, the Jews made a rash vow to keep them: “Then Moses came and recounted to the people all the words of the Lord and all the ordinances; and all the people answered with one voice and said: “All the words which the Lord has spoken we will do!” (Ex. 24:3). After Moses read “the book of the covenant” (the wedding vows), the people responded again: “All that the Lord has spoken we will do, and we will be obedient!” (Ex. 24:7). Christ was later forced to annul the wedding vow when the people worshipped the golden calf (Ex. 32:10). Under the law of vows, Christ the bridegroom became liable after He was forced to annul the wedding at that time: “But if he indeed annuls them [vows] after he has heard them, then he shall bear her guilt.” (Nu. 30:15). Because a broken vow blasphemes the Lord’s name (Lev. 19:12), Christ was given a death sentence at Mount Horeb (Lev. 24:16). His execution day was carried out on Calvary Hill: “Because He poured out Himself to death, and was numbered with the transgressors; yet He Himself bore the sin of many, and interceded for the transgressors.” (Isa. 53:12). Thanks to Christ, our eternal debts from our broken vows were “nailed to the cross.” (Col. 2:13-14). All of the sacrifices of the Old Testament, including the silver shekels, foreshadowed Jesus (Heb. 8:4-5; Col. 2:16-17). The silver shekels foreshadow the price that Christ paid as a ransom to pay for our broken vows before God (Matt. 26:14-16).
If you renounce or divorce Christ, you remain responsible for your vows. A divorced woman or widow remains responsible for her vows (Nu. 30:9). If Christ is not your eternal bridegroom, He cannot annul your vows. If you have no relationship with Him, He cannot assume your debts. This may be one of the things that Christ was referring to when He warned against those who blasphemed the Holy Spirit (Matt. 12:31-32). As a divorced believer, you remain responsible for the price of any broken vows before God.
Out of gratitude, make the “bondservant” vow. Once they realized that Christ had freed him of their debts, Paul, Simon Peter, and James all decided to make a new vow. As a freed slave, they made a vow out of love to stay with their new master, Christ. They called themselves “bondservants.” (Rom. 1:1; Gal. 1:10; Tit. 1:1; 2 Pet. 2:1; Jam. 1:1). What does this vow require that you do? You become “a slave to righteousness” (Rom. 6:17-18). You also promise to make your life a “living sacrifice” for Christ (Rom. 12:1). Is your life a living sacrifice to Jesus or yourself?