The vows that are recorded in the Old Testament are usually made by people in a state of disequilibrium. Hannah is a woman who is barren, yet who longs to bear children for her husband Elkanah.
She made a vow, saying, “O Lord of hosts, if You will indeed look on the affliction (suffering) of Your maidservant and remember, and not forget Your maidservant, but will give Your maidservant a son, then I will give him to the Lord all the days of his life; a [a]razor shall never touch his head.” – 1 Samuel 1:11
David exemplifies someone in an extreme state of disequilibrium who makes a vow when he mistakenly seeks asylum with the Philistines in Gath.
Your vows are binding upon me, O God;
I will give thank offerings to You. – Psalm 56:12
We are informed that this psalm was composed when the Philistines had seized David in Gath and upon his freedom he writes this one —
I shall come into Your house with burnt offerings;
I shall pay You my vows,
Which my lips uttered
And my mouth spoke as a promise when I was in distress. Psalm 66:13-14
Jonah, while reaping the results of his disobedience, also seems to have made a vow during his brush with death.
“But [as for me], I will sacrifice to You
With the voice of thanksgiving;
I shall pay that which I have vowed.
Salvation is from the Lord!” – Jonah 2:9
Vows, as they are recorded in the Old Testament, constitute conditional promises of action or attitude – such as Jacob such conditional promising as he proposes a partnership with God to get him out of his earthly scrape.
Then Jacob made a vow (promise), saying, “If God will be with me and will keep me on this journey that I take, and will give me food to eat and clothing to wear, and if [He grants that] I return to my father’s house in safety, then the Lord will be my God. – Genesis 28:20-21
Jephthah, one of the pre-kingdom judges of Israel, makes a vow-promise which he lives to regret.
Jephthah made a vow to the Lord and said, “If You will indeed give the Ammonites into my hand, then whatever comes out of the doors of my house to meet me when I return in peace from the Ammonites, it shall be the Lord’s, and I will offer it up as a burnt offering.” – Judges 11:30-31
His only child, a girl, is the first ‘whatever’ to come out of his home to meet Jephthah on his victorious return.
Vows, as recorded in the Bible, are serious affairs. There was one exception.
Vows, once made, are to be fulfilled as soon as appropriate. The strong words of Boaz, expressed in terms of a vow, must have given young Ruth a settling sense of peace as she waited out the night. Certainly the next day, Ruth’s mother-in-law Naomi knew for sure that Boaz would not rest until the issue of his marriage to Ruth was sorted out.
In the fulfilling of vows there is to be no attempt to cheat God. Deformed animals (cow or sheep) might occasionally be presented to the Lord as freewill offerings, but under no circumstances will such stunted or deformed animals be accepted in fulfillment of a vow. At the end of the Old Testament period, Malachi pronounces people as accursed who have an acceptable male in their flock and vow to offer it, but then sacrifice a blemished animal instead. Such activity makes a mockery of the holy name of God. Neither will the Lord accept, as vow fulfilment, earnings derived from female or male prostitution.
Sadly, there is evidence that , late in the life of the kingdom of Judah, vows were being made by a group of Israelites to other supposed mediators. In Egypt, they lapse into a rather mixed-up faith which includes the making and carrying out of vows to ‘the Queen of Heaven’. The Lord gives Jeremiah a message condemning this activity. Vows, such solemn events in themselves, are only to be made to Him.
In stark contrast with the unacceptable state of affairs exposed by Jeremiah, Isaiah prophesies of days in which Egyptians will themselves acknowledge and worship the Lord.
And so the Lord will make Himself known to Egypt, and the Egyptians will know [heed, honor, and cherish] the Lord in that day. They will even worship with sacrifices [of animals] and offerings [of produce]; they will make a vow to the Lord and fulfill it. – Isaiah 19:21
The outsider will live as an insider before the Lord.