Moses said to the heads of the tribes of Israel: “This is what the Lord commands: When a man makes a vow to the Lord or takes an oath to obligate himself by a pledge, he must not break his word but must do everything he said.
– Numbers 30:1-2
“Again, you have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not break your oath, but fulfill to the Lord the vows you have made.’ But I tell you, do not swear an oath at all: either by heaven, for it is God’s throne; or by the earth, for it is his footstool; or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the Great King. And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make even one hair white or black. All you need to say is simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything beyond this comes from the evil one.
– Matthew 5:33-37
In Numbers 30, the subject of vows is discussed. The first two verses, the Scripture above, states the basic rule. The rest of the chapter discusses the exceptions to the rule. The first of these exceptions is when a man’s daughter makes a vow while still living under her father’s roof. In that instance, the father can cancel the vow once he hears of it. The remainder of the chapter discusses similar exceptions.
But Jesus says to not make a vow in the first place. I wrote a few months ago about visiting with my cousins who were visiting their other grandmother in a small town outside of Memphis, TN. I told her that I would visit her again the next year, but she died before my cousins came back to visit. That haunted me for years, and it still bothers me when I promise something today. I was less than ten years old, but I think of that failed promise when I give my word today. This was before becoming an Eagle Scout or Army officer, both having oaths of honor. I had sworn no oath: not by heaven, not by God’s throne, not by earth or Jerusalem or Washington, DC. I just said I would be back to visit her, but she was gone, and I could not fulfill my word.
I have probably failed other people. As with my cousin’s grandmother, the circumstances can often change. A trip to a theme park must be cancelled. Buying a certain gift for one of the boys must be postponed. Life is never cut and dried; it is never in a straight line.
One of my sons is looking for a job. He was a school teacher at an elementary school, but the school was closed. A new school was to be built on the property, but it would take two years to build the new school. Word came down from the top brass of the school district that no one who wanted a job would lose their job over the school closure, but my son is one of only 2 or 3 that is still without a job. His ratings are high. He is well qualified for a variety of positions and there are positions in the school district that are open in his field. Summer is not over, but the pressure and stress are mounting.
That is just the back story. How does this fit into giving vows or oaths, basically keeping one’s promises?
Before school was over for the school year, he went to one school for a trial classroom presentation. They gave him their worst behaved students. He had them behaving and eager to learn new things within the hour that he was with them. He had taught them a Swahili folk song and a Swahili proverb (Swahili not required for the job). One of the evaluators pounced when class was over, during the interview once the trial class was over, claiming that he probably could not sing. Singing to the children would be required. He then sang a German folk song. The interviewer pounced again claiming that he didn’t even know how to speak German (not a requirement for the job). He said in German, “I speak a little German. My wife has German ancestry, and I am trying to improve my vocabulary.” The principal, who made the final hiring decision, smiled, fought back laughter, and said, “You will get a phone call from me before the end of the day.” He never got a phone call. A week later, my son learned through other people that they offered the job to someone else, someone not even qualified.
Then there was the school that was to make their hiring decision last Friday. My son was promised a call whether he received an offer or not. There was no call, and the school has not answered their phone for the week since.
Another school’s principal asked how he could improve the school’s programs. He went through only some of his ideas. He watched the body language. This principal was interested. He had gotten there early and saw how the previous candidate had been treated. In comparison, he nearly had a red carpet laid before him at the end of the interview. She said, “You will definitely hear from me on Monday.” Now, days later, they don’t answer the phone at that school either. Maybe she did not fail in delivering her promise. She did not say which Monday.
I have been out of work before. I have been promised a lot of things that never came true. My first job out of the Army was supposed to be a springboard to management, since I had already proven myself as a leader and manager in the Army. Six months after starting in an engineer position, and doing well, they said that they were transferring me to an operator job on rotating shifts. They had really hired me, an engineer with a master’s degree, to be an operator. I refused the transfer. I had left the Army to have evenings and weekends with my children. As a result, I made management unhappy. Yet, they compounded the first lie (promotion, and nothing about demotion) with another, “Your decision to not take the transfer will not be held against you.” I became the guy with the reputation of getting the tough jobs done (some thought to be impossible), because I always got the worst assignments with no chance of promotion and reduced frequency of pay raises. If you are not going to give someone a raise except for every 16 months, don’t call it an annual raise, please.
When I was hired at my last fulltime employment, I was given a letter stating that I was the new Training Manager for the company. On day one, there was another new employee. He introduced himself as the new Training Manager for the company. Our boss said, “I changed my mind. You two will compete for the job. Whoever wins will be promoted with a pay raise and annual bonus. Whoever loses keeps his present pay but works for the other guy.” It was clear that after six months I had won the competition, so the other guy, who became a friend in those six months, quit. I received new business cards, but no pay raise or bonus (not annual, not even one-time).
I have been on the hiring end, tendering an offer to the number one person while stringing number two along in case number one turns the offer down. I understand the system, but when you set a deadline and make promises, each candidate for the job deserves an explanation. And you can be honest. These people are looking for a job. They should understand the process, too.
There are a variety of reasons, or excuses, why people make promises and then disappoint. I have a grandson who has a birthday coming soon. A family member from the in-law side promised to pick him up and do something special. When this person never arrived, our grandson wasn’t surprised. It had happened before. Our son asked him how he felt. When his son said that he didn’t feel too good about it, my son then suggested what Jesus said in the Scripture above. He told our grandson to not make promises if he thought there was any chance of failing in keeping the promise. But if you make a promise, keep it. Even in tough times, and that was tough at our grandson’s age, you can learn and see God’s Grace.
Soli Deo Gloria. Only to God be the Glory.