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Vow & Abstinence

What is a vow?

It is a solemn promise or pledge that binds a person to perform a specified act or to behave in a certain manner. A covenant is a vow with a life-long span, for example, the marriage vow. But a vow is not necessarily a covenant as it may be just a one-time or term basis, for example, Hannah dedicating to the Lord her firstborn son, Samuel, solely for His service. The rest of her children remained with her (1 Samuel 2:21).

All vows are made to God as a promise in expectation of His favor (Gen. 28:20) or in thanksgiving for His blessings (Psa. 116:12-14). Vows might be made at daily devotions (Psa. 61:8) or at the annual feasts (1 Sam. 1:21). All vows must be paid to God in the congregation at the Tabernacle or Temple (Deu. 12:6,11; Psa. 22:25).

Vows are voluntary acts. But once a vow is made, it must be kept and performed (Deu. 23:21-23; Ecc. 5:4-6). Vows, therefore, are to be made only after careful consideration (Prov. 20:25) and in keeping with what pleases God (Lev. 27:9-29). If the vow concerns a ritually unclean animal, it is not acceptable as an offering to the Lord. Some of us do not know what will please God; we therefore need God's guidance in making vows.

Vowing is joyful worship in faith and love (Psa. 61:4-5,8), often associated with the proclamation of God's salvation (Psa. 22:22-27; 66:13-20). For this reason, deception in vowing is an offence to God and will incur His curse (Mal. 1:14). One cannot dedicate any of the things that do not or no longer belong to him.

The first mentioned vow in the Bible is of Jacob at Bethel (Gen. 28:20-22; 31:13). Examples of others making a vow are Jephthah (Judg. 11:30-31,39), Hannah (1 Sam. 1:11), David (Psa. 132:2-5), and Absalom (2 Sam. 15:7-8).

In the New Testament, the apostle Paul took a vow (Acts 18:18), probably at the end of a 30-day period of abstinence from food, and had his hair cut off at Cenchrea. This vow that Paul took was probably the Nazirite vow (Num. 6:1-21). Samson in the Old Testament also took the Nazirite vow (Judg. 13:5,7; 16:17).

What is abstinence?

It is the voluntary, self-imposed, and deliberate denial of certain pleasures, such as food, drink and sex.

There are basically two kinds of abstinence:

(1) a total abstinence involving an absolute renunciation of a forbidden thing, such as in a Nazirite vow; and

(2) a temporary abstinence as, for example, the mutual consent of husband and wife to give up sexual relations for a time, in order to give themselves "to fasting and prayer" (1 Cor. 7:5).

The Israelites were commanded to abstain from eating flesh that contained blood (Gen. 9:4). They were to refrain from eating certain unclean animals (Leviticus 11). Priests could not drink wine while doing their holy ministries (Lev. 10:9). Others were abstained from drinking wine forever (Jer. 35:6).

The apostle Paul taught that Christians should abstain from food sacrificed to idols, lest it cause a weaker brother or sister in Christ to stumble (Rom. 14:1-23; 1 Cor. 8:1-13). The believer's body is the "temple of the Holy Spirit" (1 Cor. 6:19) and should not be polluted by unclean things.

Paul also exhorted the church of the Thessalonians to "abstain from sexual immorality" (1 Thes. 4:3); and they were to "abstain from every form of evil" (1 Thes. 5:22).

The Christian is called to live a life of unselfish and sacrificial love towards God and others. Abstinence should always seek to glorify God and to build up fellow believers in the faith.

The excellent example of the Rechabites

It is a Kenite tribe founded by Jonadab, the son of Rechab (Jer. 35:1-9). The Rechabites were convinced that it was possible to live a godly life as nomads than in the settled life of the cities, where they could be tempted to compromise with idolatry and immorality. They did not drink wine or any other intoxicating drink; they chose to live in tents rather than houses; and they refused to plant crops or own vineyards. Their strict life-styles were very similar to the Nazirites (Num. 6:1-21).

The only biblical description of the Rechabites occurs in Jeremiah 35. When the army o f Nebuchadnezzar attacked Judah and besieged Jerusalem, the Rechabites sought refuge in the city (Jer. 35:11). Jeremiah tested them to see if they would live up to their vows. He set wine before them and encouraged them to drink, but they refused. Jeremiah praised them and held them up as an object lesson to the people of Judah who had disobeyed the laws of God.

Because of their faithfulness, the Lord promised that the Rechabites would never cease to exist (Jer. 35:18-19). A rabbinical source claims that the daughters of the Rechabites were married to the sons of the Levites and that their children ministered in the Temple. Professed followers of this group still live in the Middle East today - in Iraq and Yemen.


Nelson's Illustrated Bible Dictionary