Have you ever been in one of those sticky situations, where the only way out is if God bails you? At that moment you stopped to pray something like, “God, if you get me out of this one, I’ll go to church every week, and read my Bible…” Maybe as a kid it was when you were past your curfew, and you knew your parents were going to kill you, and you wanted God to make sure they were asleep. Or it might have been a time when you were in a crisis and you were bargaining with God as an attempt to get your issue solved. Maybe you were doing 60 mph in a 40 zone, and the next thing you noticed were bright red lights and a loud noise behind you, and all of a sudden it was, “God, if you can get me out of this, I’ll go to church the next ten Sundays, promise!” Most of us, at one time or another have made a vow to God, but often, after the situation passes, we go on as if what we said to God had never been said. If you haven’t done so yet, turn over to your memory verse and read it right now.
God takes our vows very seriously. When you get your drivers license you make a vow to obey the laws. If you were ever a witness in a trial, you would make a vow to “tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.” When two people get married they make a vow to each other and to God to stay together until death. When you make a vow, you give your word, and God wants our word to be trusted. So we had better be careful about making hasty vows.
Jephthah was a judge in Israel. He had a shaky background. He was the illegitimate son of a prostitute. His brothers ran him out of town. But he was also a warrior and a leader, and when things got tough the elders in his hometown, Gilead, asked him to come back and be their leader. He was to go fight the king of Ammon. So he made a vow. “God, if you will let me win this fight,” he said, “I will sacrifice the first thing that comes out of the door of my house when I return.”
God allowed Jephthah to win the battle easily. He and his men came home celebrating. And the word of the victory had gotten back to his home. When they came toward the house, Jephthah’s daughter came dancing and singing out of the house, praising God for the victory. As soon as he saw her, Jephthah remembered his vow, and knew that if he had made a vow to God, he must keep it.
Scholars are divided over how to interpret the rest of this passage, but there are two possibilities. First, that Jephthah carried out his vow as he intended, and made his daughter a human sacrifice. Although this was against God’s law, many of the pagan nations around Israel did human sacrifice in fulfilling vows to their deity. The second possibility is that Jephthah made his daughter a living sacrifice, meaning that he dedicated her to the temple, and to remain a virgin for life. Since she was the only child in Jephthah’s family, this would mean that he would have no grandchildren, and the family name would cease to exist, which in their culture was a sign of God’s judgement in wiping a family off the face of the earth. Either way this passage is interpreted, Jephthah’s daughter died a virgin, and his family name ended with her. He suffered the terrible consequences of making a hasty vow.
So, there are two things to remember about making vows. First, be careful about making hasty vows. Second, if you make a vow, God takes your word very seriously.