Q: #210. Can I break a vow/oath to God and be forgiven?
By: Steve Shirley
A: Before we talk about breaking a vow/oath, let's discuss how serious it is to make one in the first place. It should NEVER be undertaken without careful consideration and prayer. In fact, there are some who would even go as far as to say that it is a sin itself to even make a vow. Jesus said in (Mt 5:34-37), "but I say unto you, Swear not at all; neither by heaven; for it is God's throne: (35) nor by the earth; for it is his footstool: neither by Jerusalem; for it is the city of the great King. (36) Neither shalt thou swear by thy head, because thou canst not make one hair white or black. (37) But let your communication be, Yea (Yes), yea; Nay (No), nay: whatsoever is more than these cometh of evil." (Also see: James 5:12)
Based on these verses, it is easy to see why making a vow could be considered sin. On the other hand though, many important people in the Bible did make a vow to God, and He responded positively to some: Hannah (1 Sam 1: God gave her a son), Jacob (2 vows)(Gen 28:20-22)(Gen 31:13 - God reminded him he had made it) and (Gen 31:48-54), David (Ps 22:25)(Ps 56:12)(Ps 61:5)(Ps 65:1), Paul (Acts 18:18)(Acts 21:24) (Gal 1:20)(2 Cor 1:23), and even Jesus (Mt 26:63-64). God also initiated some vows (i.e. Num 6: a Nazarite vow (See: Q: #193) and a vow to test the faithfulness or unfaithfulness of a wife: Num 5:19-22).
God Himself also made numerous vows/oaths: (Lk 1:73)(Acts 2:30)(Heb 3:13)(Heb 6:13,17), and He keeps them (Ps 89:34)(Jer 33:19-22)(Num 23:19). [He also made covenant vows with such people as: Noah (Gen 9:1-17), Abraham (Gen 15:18-21), David (2 Sam 7:12-16)(Ps 89:3-4), as well as others.] If He did not keep His vows, we would have to consider Him a liar, right? But we know God cannot lie (Heb 6:18)(Titus 1:2)(Num 23:19), and therefore we can TOTALLY trust Him to do what He has said He will do. How could we have any confidence in the Bible and God's Word and those promises if God wasn't completely trustworthy? This is why we have "promise Bibles" which highlight God's promises to us.
All this being said, I believe the primary reason why we are told not to make vows/oaths is because of the seriousness of doing so, and if we don't keep them, it will be a sin, and we will be a liar. And, being the fallible, imperfect humans we are, the majority of us will probably fail to keep our vow at some point (unlike our infallible God), and therefore break a promise to God.
The Bible warns us of the danger of this:
(Deut 23:21)(NASB) When you make a vow 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. (23) You shall be careful to perform what goes out from your lips, just as you have voluntarily vowed to the Lord your God, what you have promised.
(Eccl 5:4-7)(NASB) When you make a vow to God, do not be late in paying it; for He takes no delight in fools. Pay what you vow! (5) It is better that you should not vow than that you should vow and not pay. (6) Do not let your speech cause you to sin and do not say in the presence of the messenger of God that it was a mistake. Why should God be angry on account of your voice and destroy the work of your hands? (7) For in many dreams and in many words there is emptiness. Rather, fear God.
Notice that both of these say that it is better not to vow at all, than to vow and not carry out your vow. Think about it, how many Christian brothers and sisters (and even non-Christians) have made a vow to God and not kept it? Do you know that half of all marriages (including Christian ones) end in divorce? How many who divorce think about the fact that they made a vow to God that their marriage would be a lifelong commitment? (Maybe if they did there would be less divorces.) Right there, half of all previously married Christians have sinned in breaking a vow. Following along that same line, did you know that if you divorce and remarry while your spouse is still alive, you commit adultery (Rom 7:2-3) unless you have Biblical grounds (verses below), and therefore, the one who marries that person also commits adultery (Mt 5:31-32).
How many Christians have made vows at conversion, baptism, confirmation, ordination, (i.e. celibacy), ect... and broken them? How many of us have made a vow to God in a time of trouble and then failed to follow through on it? "God, if you will just get me out of this, I will __________." How many casually throw out the words "I swear" (a vow) to add emphasis to a point that they are trying to make (even when it may not be true)? Do these cover a majority of Christians?
This even happened to people in the Bible.
(1 Sam 14:24-25) Saul made a vow to God that none of his men would eat any food until evening, but his son Jonathan broke that vow by eating (he did not know his father had made the vow until after he had eaten). Saul found out and said he would have to die for breaking the vow (v: 44), but then he let him live.
(Judg 13-16) Samson was a Nazarite from birth, and had vows to God he was to keep as a Nazarite, but he broke many of them. He came in contact with dead bodies (Judg 14:8-9,17)(Judg 15:7-8), allowed his hair to be cut (Judg 16:17-20), and possibly drank wine (Judg 14:10).
(1 Sam 25) David vowed to God that he would wipe out Nabal's family (1 Sam 25:22), but changed his mind when Nabal's wife Abagail asked for forgiveness on his behalf (1 Sam 25:23-34).
(Jer 42:1-6) The remnant of Judah vowed ("the Lord be a true and faithful witness between us": Jer 42:5) to "obey the voice of the Lord" (Jer 42:6), and then when God told them what to do (Jer 42:7-22), they said "no" (Jer 43:1-7).
(Judg 11:29-40) Jephthah made a rash vow to God that he would make a burnt sacrifice to God of the first thing that come out of his house when he returned home if God would give him victory in battle. When he returned home victorious, his only daughter was the first to run out and greet him. There is some debate from the text as to whether or not Jephthah fulfilled his vow or not, but whether or not he did, it was still a foolish vow.
The story of Jephthah leads us to another problem with making vows, they sometimes are made on something that God has already declared sinful. For example, with Jephthah's vow, God had already declared human sacrifice a sin (Deut 12:30-31)(Lev 18:21), so for him to vow to do this was foolish and the vow should never have been made. Joshua made a similar mistake in (Josh 9) when he was tricked into making a promise to spare the lives of the Gibeonites when God had already said before to wipe them out (Deut 7:1-2). Notice, (Josh 9:14) says Joshua had not consulted God before making that vow. Apparently, some Israelites were making making a vow and offering sacrifices to fulfill it with defective animals in violation of God's law (Mal 1:14)(Lev 22:18-23).
Foolish vows, based on sin, that should never be made are occurring more and more frequently today. God has declared homosexuality a sin (Lev 18:22)(Rom 1:24,26-27)(1 Cor 6:9-11), yet homosexual couples are getting married and sometimes making vows to God when God has said marriage is to be between one man and one woman (Mt 19:5-6)(Mk 10:7-9). Homosexuals are being ordained in some churches, and making vows to God while living in unrepentant sin. I just use the homosexual issue as one example, but there are many other areas of life in which foolish vows are being made too.
OK! So what if someone has made a vow/oath to God and decides to break it? Can he/she be forgiven? First off, I would say that the Bible says that there is NO sin that is unforgivable (save for Blasphemy Of The Holy Spirit : Mt 12:31, Mk 3:29, Lk 12:10). Therefore, obviously, breaking a vow/oath to God CAN be forgiven. We must come before Him with true repentance, confessing our sin and God will be "faithful and just to forgive our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness" (1 Jn 1:9).
I MUST add here though that while the Bible does say God will forgive our sins if we confess and repent, it does NOT mean that there couldn't be consequences as a result of breaking a vow. For example, in the Bible, David committed adultery with Bathsheba and she became pregnant as a result. He then added to his sin by having her husband killed to cover up what he had done. When confronted with his sin, he was truly repentant and sorry and asked for forgiveness. God forgave David (2 Sam 12:13), but also said, as a result of his sin, his child with Bathsheba would die (2 Sam 12:14) and "the sword shall never depart from your house" (2 Sam 12:10). David had Bathsheba's husband killed by violence, and in turn, 3 of his sons were later killed in the same way Ammon (2 Sam 13:28-29), Absalom (2 Sam 18:14-15), and Adonijah (1 Kin 2:24-25).
*** Check out what happened to Ananias and Sapphira when they broke a vow to God in (Acts 5:1-11).
Today, we could break our vow to God that we would make a lifelong commitment to our spouse, and God can forgive, but consequences could follow. For example, our kids could (and often do) rebel in anger, we could face a loss of some friendships, we might not be able to serve in church the way we might like, our finances might be affected, etc... This penalty could apply to many other broken vows as well.
*** Note: This penalty for sin generally accompanies ANY sin we commit (i.e. drinking or doing drugs may affect our health afterwards, you may have to serve jail time for committing a crime, etc...). This is not to say that there are going to be dire consequences to every sin we commit, but usually we pay some kind of price for sinning.
However, it is interesting to note in the Bible that God, in His infinite wisdom, foresaw that some would break vows to Him and even made some provision for it. For example:
God does allow for the breaking of the marriage vow if a spouse has committed adultery (Mt 5:32)(Mt 19:9)(Mk 10:11) or (possibly) if an unbelieving spouse wishes to leave the marriage (1 Cor 7:15). Jesus said though that divorce was never a part of God's plan for marriage, and He only allowed it "because of the hardness of your (man's) hearts" (Mt 19:8).
(Lev 5:4-5)(NASB) says, "or if a person swears (makes a vow) thoughtlessly with his lips to do evil or to do good, in whatever matter a man may speak thoughtlessly with an oath, and it is hidden from him (he doesn't realize it), and then he comes to know it, he will be guilty in one of these. (5) So it shall be that when he becomes guilty in one of these, that he shall confess that in which he has sinned." The following verses go on to describe the sacrifices that had to be made in addition to the confession. (Verse 10) then says, "So the priest shall make atonement on his behalf for his sin which he has committed, and it will be forgiven him." It should be noted here that the High Priest in the Old Testament pointed to Jesus who is now our High Priest and who has made atonement for our sins through His shed blood on the cross (See: Forgiveness ONLY Through The Blood Of Jesus)
(Lev 27) addresses the topic of how much it would cost to redeem (take back) someone or something that a person originally vowed to give to God.
(Num 30) also addresses vows. (Num 30:2) says, "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." However, verses 3-16 continue by saying that in some situations a woman could have her vow to God annulled by her father or husband.
*** Note: I read an intriguing thought which stated that since we are the bride of Jesus (Rev 21:2,9)(Rev 19:7-9)(Mt 9:15)(Mt 25:1-13)(Jn 3:29) maybe our vow could be annulled by our bridegroom Jesus.
In (Num 6:9-12), God also makes some provision for the Nazarite who accidentally broke his or her vow.
So, in summary, we have many examples that show us that God knows we are fallible humans who are likely going to fail if we make a vow to Him. This is sin. The Bible also says that there is nothing at all wrong with never making a vow to Him. Therefore, it is wise to never make a vow. However, if you have prayed and counted the cost of keeping that vow, and you still feel led to make that vow, that is a matter between you and God. As we said earlier, God did honor some vows made in the Bible, but there could be costly consequences if you don't keep your vow.