How can we honour God in our promises?
Queen Elizabeth was noticeable for the seriousness with which she made and kept her vows, including personal pledges to her people and the official coronation oath. Being true to your word seems to be an increasingly rare characteristic both in private life and public office. It adds an extra dimension to a commitment if you promise to do it while calling God Himself to witness what you are saying. It is not simply a form of words intended to make it more impressive. It actually invites God to judge what you do against what you have said. Some oaths are sworn calling God to help us in carrying out what we have promised. This is a way of honouring God, by acknowledging our need of His help. In the following updated extract, Francis Taylor, a member of the Westminster Assembly, explains the seriousness of making a vow and the importance of remembering to keep it.
Making a vow is a serious thing
God is deeply offended with those who do not perform not their vows. This is apparent from Ecclesiastes 5, where we are told that anyone who makes a vow must not defer the payment of it. Those who do defer to pay their vows are called fools, and God has no pleasure in them (verse 4). It says too, “It is better not to vow at all, than not to pay” (verse 5), and then calls it “sin” in plain terms (verse 6). God refuses to have this covered up as if it was just a mistake, “Neither say thou … that it was an error” (verse 6) In fact we are told expressly that God is angry at this (verse 6) and we are in danger that He will destroy the work of our hands (verse 6).
One reason why God takes this so seriously is because God is a great king, and will not be dallied with by His subjects. But also, His name is “dreadful among the heathen,” and therefore must not be dishonoured by His own people.
God keeps covenant faithfully Himself. He will ever be mindful of His covenant (Psalm 111:5). God’s covenant is called an everlasting covenant (2 Chronicles 13:5). “Therefore thus saith the Lord God; As I live, surely mine oath that he hath despised, and my covenant that he hath broken, even it will I recompense upon his own head” (Ezekiel 17:19).
There is a kind of perjury in failing to perform our vows. I do not say that oaths, vows, and covenants are identical in every detail, but certainly they are closely related. “I have sworn,” says the psalmist, “and I will perform it” (Psalm 119:106), and was not that oath a vow? God is called to bear witness of the covenant between Laban and Jacob, and the heap of stones they made was also a witness, yet with a great deal of difference. The heap of stones was a witness that remained as a token of the covenant. But God is properly called to witness, as one who heard all their words, and could testify the truth to consciences on both sides, and by bringing judgements on whichever side might break it. “He that vows and pays not, is a perjured person,” said Bernard. Especially in things that we ought to do anyway, this perjury makes our sin greater than if we had never vowed them.
We may forget our vows, but God does not
God will eventually stir up the memories of His servants, and put them in mind of their vows.
He may do this by troubles, calamities, fear of wars, etc. Or, if they are not so intelligent as to understand His meaning by these blows, He will open their ears, and tell them in His word.
This is what He did to Jacob, in Genesis 35:1: “God said unto Jacob, Arise, go up to Bethel, and dwell there: and make there an altar unto God, that appeared unto thee when thou fleddest from the face of Esau thy brother.” He tells him his fault, but very gently. He does not accuse him of perjury, nor call him a vow-breaker. Indeed, He does not so much as mention his vow, but only insinuates it. This was so that Jacob would see that God was not trying to shame him, but to amend him.
We must not look for direct revelations now, but God often meets with us in the ministry of His Word. In the preaching He makes us see faults in ourselves which we little dreamed of, including covenant-breaking among the rest. Many wicked men marvel to hear God’s ministers call out their secret faults, as if they could actually see their hearts, but good men, I hope, will learn more than they marvel.
God has good reasons for reminding us of our vows
God’s name and honour suffers in our forgetfulness. Vows are made for the honour of God. But if they are not performed, God is not honoured by them, but the opposite – He is dishonoured, and for that matter He is being slighted by His own people.
But also, God desires and delights in the good of His people. The psalmist sings, “Let the Lord be magnified, who hath pleasure in the prosperity of his servant!” God knows that our forgetfulness and unthankfulness are barriers which prevent us from getting much good, and things which bring many judgments on us. To prevent this, God will remind us of our vows and covenants.
God must come first in our vows
When we perform our vows, God looks for His part first.
In Genesis 35, God does not tell Jacob to go and make the best he can of the situation for himself in this troublous time. He does not even tell him to go and negotiate with the Shechemites to restore their goods to them. Instead He tells him to go and build an altar to God. Jacob accordingly goes about it.
This is the method of God’s commandments – the first table contains duties to God, the second, to ourselves and our neighbours.
This is the method of our prayers – our Saviour teaches us first to pray for the honour of God’s name, kingdom and will, before we pray for our daily bread, pardon of sins, or power against temptations.
This is the method of most of our creeds and confessions – we first profess what we believe concerning God, and then concerning ourselves.
It is also the method of our Covenant – the preface looks first at the glory of God and the advancement of the kingdom of Jesus Christ, and then at our own privileges; and the two first articles refer to religion, and the following ones to our liberties.
God must come first because God is more worthy to be regarded then ourselves. Love to God is called the first and great commandment. We are commanded to love God with all our heart, soul, and mind, but ourselves and our neighbours in a lower degree of love. From God we have all that we have here, or hope for hereafter.
And God must come first because that is our care, properly speaking, to honour God. It is God’s care to provide for our souls and bodies. Obviously we may use means for the good of our souls and bodies, looking for a blessing from God – just not in the first place. Our prime care must be for God’s glory. When a master enters into covenant with a servant, he expects that the servant will take care of his work, and leave the care of provisions to his master. God expects likewise from us. First obedience to God, then faith in God.
How to live in the light of our vows
We should mourn, among our other sins, our sluggishness, in not remembering things like this which concern our own safety. I am afraid, lest like Jerusalem, we “know not the things that belong to our peace.” Our forgotten vows should fetch sighs from our hearts, and tears from our eyes. I doubt not but every one of us, even the greatest and the best, may find something in ourselves that hinders the reformation we have vowed, if we would only look closely into our own souls. The Lord show it to us, whatever it may be, and give us grace to repent of it.
We should think often of our vows and covenants. The reason why people, especially good people, neglect to carry out what they have vowed is because they do not think of it often and seriously. God often called on the Israelites in the wilderness to remember the things they had seen, and not to forget the great things God had done for them. Surely, we need to call often on our own souls, to think of the vows we have made to Almighty God. We would be loath that God should forget His covenant to us (for our enemies would then soon swallow us up), but why do we then forget our part of the covenant?
We should impute any continuance of our troubles to our neglect of our covenant. Very few have mended themselves as they vowed, fewer their families, and fewest of all have endeavoured to amend things in the public sphere according to the trust reposed in them. Something of ourselves is sought after by most, even in the very work of reformation. Our plough goes along with God’s; we look for a share of honour in the work, and do not act with a single eye out of love and respect to God. And hence come many hindrances to the great work of personal, family and public reformation.
We should praise God that He will not let us perish by neglecting to honour Him by performance of our vows. He knows that our forgetfulness and unthankfulness would ruin us, so He reminds us of our vows to preserve us. Indeed, let us praise God that by His ministers He admonishes us about them so that we would perform them, and prevent further troubles.
If you are in a position of authority, my petition to you is that you would begin with a particular and personal reformation, and end with a general and public reformation. Count piety your greatest ornament. The higher your position in state, let the beams of your piety shine the brighter! You owe the most to God, and you must do the most for God. God has entrusted you with the greatest talents, and He expects the greatest account from you. Esteem honour without piety, as you would a body without wisdom, or a house without a foundation.
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