The Danger of Foolish Commitments

Most evangelicals are wary of formal vows. Apart from marriage and baptism they make few. They know the warnings of Scripture,

If a person thoughtlessly takes an oath to do anything, whether good or evil - in any matter one might carelessly swear about -even though he is unaware of it, in any case when he learns of it he will be guilty. Leviticus 5:4 
When you make a vow to God, do not delay in fulfilling it. He has no pleasure in fools; fulfil your vow. It is better not to vow than to make a vow and not fulfil it. Do not let your mouth lead you into sin. Ecclesiastes 5:4, 5 

However, we can find ourselves promising to do things, making certain commitments, taking a stand on an issue in a way that is tantamount to making a vow. It is important to take a stand. However, we must take care where we stand. In Scripture, we have the example of Daniel. As a youth he committed himself to eat only vegetables. As an old man, he was committed to praying openly three times daily, regardless of consequences. Think of Paul and the stand he took refusing the circumcision of Titus.
On the other hand, there are examples of foolish vows: Esau to Jacob, Joshua to the Gibeonites, Jephthah, Herod .... There is also Saul in 1 Samuel 14 where he bound the people with an oath to fast as they pursued the Philistines. His son Jonathan did not know it and ate. If not for wiser men, Saul would have had Jonathan killed. His bad example warns us not to make foolish commitments or to take a stand on the wrong issue.
When we take a stand or make a commitment we should ask:

1 What is my motive? Why am I doing this? False motives can easily creep in. We cannot be sure why Saul bound the people with the oath he did. Some have suggested he wanted to save time. Possibly he was seeking honour for himself as, under God, Jonathan had already won the battle. Certainly there is an emphasis on self here. Saul was endeavouring to seem pious.
2 Will this cause unnecessary distress? Saul's command caused his men distress. The soldiers are to be commended for their conscientiousness but the truth is that there was no need for their distress. Pursuing an enemy is arduous enough without having to fast. Saul had not thought through what he was commanding. We must think long and hard about the effect on others of making a commitment or taking a stand.
3 Will it lead to unnecessary temptation and sacrifice? In the woods there was honey on the ground. Imagine the temptation it must have been seeing it oozing out. The soldiers were conscientious, yes, but there was no need for them to be put through this temptation or make this sacrifice. It was me rely Saul's whim. When making a commitment or taking a stand, I must think ahead. Where is this likely to lead ?
4 Will it promote unhelpful motives? We should note that the soldiers refused to eat not from any desire to please God but because they feared the Oath. Saul had pronounced a curse on anyone who ate.
5 Will it lead to unnecessary conflict? Saul had clearly forgotten all about Jonathan who had not heard that his father had bound the people with an oath and so ate from the honeycomb. Afterwards he was informed. Clearly when we make a commitment or take a stand we must think carefully about how it will affect others.
6 Will it lead to weakness and trouble? Of course, once Jonathan ate the honey his eyes brightened. He saw that the men were faint because of Saul's command. My father has made trouble for country he said ... How much better it would have been if the men had eaten today ... Would not the slaughter of the Philistines have been even greater? It is easy to get into the way of thinking that oaths and strong stands must be a help. They can be a hindrance too! Such things must be our servants not our masters.
7 Is it likely to lead to sin? Worse was to come, for after the Israelites had struck down the Philistines from Michmash to Aijalon, they were exhausted. Come evening they were free from the oath and so pounced on the plunder ... and ate them, together with the blood. Of course this was against the Law. Here the warning is of how a foolish vow or commitment can lead to sin. Jephthah and Herod are other obvious examples of this.
To Saul's credit he dealt well with the problem at first but his opening statement You have broken faith shows his failure to see his fault. Matthew Henry says 'Those most indulgent to their own sins are most severe upon others; those who most disregard God's authority are most impatient when their own commands are slighted.'
8 Will it lead me into an untenable position? For some reason Saul next decides to pursue the Philistines further. Having deprived his men of food he wants now to deprive them of sleep. There is a certain relentlessness about Saul and people like him. They seek God's will and perceive something is wrong. Saul does not think of his own guilt but by means of prayer and lots seeks to discover who has transgressed his oath. He can think of nothing else. He then foolishly says that even if his son Jonathan is at fault he must die. It is a little like gambling - it is difficult to stop. Take care.
9 Might it lead to opposition to those who God most favours? The men knew who was guilty and eventually Jonathan is exposed. The procedure suggests that Saul at least had an idea it was him. And here we see the utter madness of this attitude. After Jonathan has confessed, Saul says May God deal with me, be it ever so severely, if you do not die, Jonathan. He is willing to kill the very one who has brought victory under God. How unnatural to speak to his son like this. Thankfully the men prevent it. We also must take a stand against such things however mild and peaceable otherwise. We must support the innocent. We cannot go into why God allows the lot to fall on Jonathan. No doubt it directs us to the cross where the innocent Christ actually died.
Take your stand but take care where you take your stand. Make your commitments but think carefully first.

This article originally appeared in Grace magazine.