God’s promises is a recurrent theme in Psalm 119, but in the “Nun” section (Ps 119:105-112), we see the Psalmist making a solemn promise to God:
106 I have taken an oath and confirmed it,
that I will follow your righteous laws.
A few verses later he expresses his determination to obey God not just in the present, but for the rest of his life:
112 My heart is set on keeping your decrees
to the very end.
This theme of making promises and commitments is also prominent in the Heth section (Ps 119:57-64). For example:
57You are my portion, LORD;
I have promised to obey your words.
In our commitment-averse society, making vows or promises is something we are less and less inclined to do. Some even want to insert get-out clauses into their marriage vows.
I know there are some churches that make a big deal of promises. They have baptismal vows where they pledge loyalty to God, and “commitment Sundays” where they pledge loyalty to their local church. Rick Warren’s Purpose Driven Life begins by asking you to commit to reading it daily, and his church training program involves signing up to a series of “covenants”. The “Promise Keepers” movement has seven promises or commitments they want men to sign up to. Some preachers include making promises as part of their altar call – people need to come down to the front as a sign that they have definitively committed to some kind of response.
On the other hand, some churches have backed off this kind of language. It can be viewed suspiciously as a kind of guilt-inducing entrapment, manipulating people into making promises they can’t or don’t want to keep. To compound it all, didn’t Jesus tell us not to make promises at all in Matt 5:34?
It is easy to find plenty of examples of “pledges”, “vows” and “oaths” made by the people of God in the Old Testament. But in the New Testament they are few and far between. Apart from Paul vowing to cut all his hair off in Acts 18:18, examples of believers making promises or being asked to do so are hard to find. Some cite 1 Peter 3:21 as evidence of the practise of “baptismal pledges”, which do seem to have been a feature of the early church.
So should we be making vows? For the psalmist, it was very clear in his mind that he had devoted his entire life to knowing and obeying God. As we do with marriage vows he wanted to express his irrevocable decision to live for God – “I’m in this for life, no backing out”. Rather than necessarily making fresh “vows” in some kind of special ceremony, I think he made a habit of regularly reaffirming and articulating this commitment to God. Whilst I agree that our primary focus should be on God’s faithfulness, and his promises to us, I do believe it is appropriate for us to respond to his grace with songs and prayers affirming our own commitment to him.
I have decided to follow Jesus;
No turning back, no turning back.