What The Bible Says About...
This is a topic that takes in not a few different concepts in order to be understood. When we talk about a person "keeping their word", we mean that if they promise to do something or have it done, or they make a statement or proposition about something, then what that person says should be believed to be TRUE. At the time said promise, statement or proposition was announced or enjoined-it was made with complete confidence, integrity and honesty...no matter what the personal cost may be incurred to ensure that what was said or done remains the TRUTH, or that what was promised will surely happen.
"Keeping your word" is marked more by what is absent in making such promises, propositions and statements. It implies not knowingly or willingly lying, creating or alluding to falsehoods, deception, or fraud.
Why Is This A Problem?
So many people in our 21st century post-modern world waffle in the area of keeping our word:
- We promise to do something--with no intent of ever following through. We do this to avoid confrontation, or because we don't have time to argue. etc.
- We promise to do something--with every intention to be faithful...but something else pops up that changes the circumstances (eg. you receive another/better offer; or you promised that which you cannot deliver).
- We say things to make us look good in others eyes--with no intent or care of actually being believed.
- We say things and make promises that are not true in order to save our own selves from a bad situation and give false testimony.
But keeping your word is more than just not lying. Keeping your word has more to do with honouring what you said you were going to do, or being faithful to the TRUTH of what you have said. With it goes a determination and tenacity not to deviate from the target act or statement--even if it means a personal cost or hardship in fulfilling the promise or ensuring the TRUTH of the statement.
The Motivation Behind Keeping Your Word
We begin with what God has actually commanded regarding vows and promises:
Moses said to the heads of the tribes of Israel: "This is what the LORD commands: 2 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.
If you make a vow to the LORD your God, do not be slow to pay it, for the LORD your God will certainly demand it of you and you will be guilty of sin. 22 But if you refrain from making a vow , you will not be guilty. 23 Whatever your lips utter you must be sure to do, because you made your vow freely to the LORD your God with your own mouth.
When you make a vow to God, do not delay in fulfilling it. He has no pleasure in fools; fulfill your vow . 5 It is better not to vow than to make a vow and not fulfill it. 6 Do not let your mouth lead you into sin. And do not protest to the [temple] messenger, "My vow was a mistake." Why should God be angry at what you say and destroy the work of your hands? 7 Much dreaming and many words are meaningless. Therefore stand in awe of God.
"`As surely as I live, declares the Sovereign LORD, he shall die in Babylon, in the land of the king who put him on the throne, whose oath he despised and whose treaty he broke . 17 Pharaoh with his mighty army and great horde will be of no help to him in war, when ramps are built and siege works erected to destroy many lives. 18 He despised the oath by breaking thecovenant. Because he had given his hand in pledge and yet did all these things, he shall not escape. 19 "`Therefore this is what the Sovereign LORD says: As surely as I live, I will bring down on his head my oath that he despised and my covenantthat he broke . 20 I will spread my net for him, and he will be caught in my snare. I will bring him to Babylon and execute judgment upon him there because he was unfaithful to me. 21 All his fleeing troops will fall by the sword, and the survivors will be scattered to the winds. Then you will know that I the LORD have spoken.
1 Timoth 5:12
Thus they bring judgment on themselves, because they have broken their first pledge .
The verses above point to the fact that God insists vows/promises/oaths be kept if they are made. This has much to do with the association of the vows/promises/oaths with some object or person, either directly related to the character or integrity of that object or person, or calling that object or person to be a witness to vows/promises/oaths presumably for punitive purposes should you fail in keeping them. Making such statements in the name of one's God--in front of other people--no doubt expresses to them the serious nature and intent of your vow/promise/oath.
The Old Testament is full of declaring vows/promises/oaths using the name of the Lord. And as as the 3rd Commandment speaks of not taking the name of the Lord in vain...associating God's name with a vows/promises/oaths you will not or cannot keep has dire consequences and judgement attached. In making any vows we need to a healthy fear of God.
"You shall not misuse the name of the LORD your God, for the LORD will not hold anyone guiltless who misuses his name.
Setting the Bar High In Keeping Your Word
God repeatedly made promises to people and nations. Vows and oaths that either brought blessing or His wrath and curses. They were stipulated often in personal revelations as well as written down in the form of covenants. In any case these words from the Lord were to be believed as they were given by the one who is a witness to Himself.
The angel of the LORD called to Abraham from heaven a second time 16 and said, "I swear by myself , declares the LORD, that because you have done this and have not withheld your son, your only son, 17 I will surely bless you and make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as the sand on the seashore. Your descendants will take possession of the cities of their enemies, 18 and through your offspring all nations on earth will be blessed, because you have obeyed me."
Jesus answered, "Even if I testify on my own behalf, my testimony is valid, for I know where I came from and where I am going. But you have no idea where I come from or where I am going. 15 You judge by human standards; I pass judgement on no one. 16 But if I do judge, my decisions are right, because I am not alone. I stand with the Father, who sent me. 17 In your own Law it is written that the testimony of two men is valid. 18 I am one who testifies for myself; my other witness is the Father, who sent me."
God is not a man, that he should lie, nor a son of man, that he should change his mind. Does he speak and then not act? Does he promise and not fulfill?
Because life is difficult and anything can happen to mess up a perfectly good and well intended vow or pledge we need to be more careful about what we do say. Consider this story from the book of Judges.
And Jephthah made a vow to the LORD: "If you give the Ammonites into my hands, 31 whatever comes out of the door of my house to meet me when I return in triumph from the Ammonites will be the LORD's, and I will sacrifice it as a burnt offering."
32 Then Jephthah went over to fight the Ammonites, and the LORD gave them into his hands. 33 He devastated twenty towns from Aroer to the vicinity of Minnith, as far as Abel Keramim. Thus Israel subdued Ammon.
34 When Jephthah returned to his home in Mizpah, who should come out to meet him but his daughter, dancing to the sound of tambourines! She was an only child. Except for her he had neither son nor daughter. 35 When he saw her, he tore his clothes and cried, "Oh! My daughter! You have made me miserable and wretched, because I have made a vow to the LORD that I cannot break."
36 "My father," she replied, "you have given your word to the LORD. Do to me just as you promised, now that the LORD has avenged you of your enemies, the Ammonites. 37 But grant me this one request," she said. "Give me two months to roam the hills and weep with my friends, because I will never marry."
38 "You may go," he said. And he let her go for two months. She and the girls went into the hills and wept because she would never marry. 39 After the two months, she returned to her father and he did to her as he had vowed. And she was a virgin.
From this comes the Israelite custom 40 that each year the young women of Israel go out for four days to commemorate the daughter of Jephthah the Gileadite.
Jesus redefined the issue as not "what you say" but by whom--you say it, thus bringing back the issue to the breaking of the third commandment.
"Again, you have heard that it was said to the people long ago, `Do not break your oath, but keep the oaths you have made to the Lord.' 34 But I tell you, Do not swear at all: either by heaven, for it is God's throne; 35 or by the earth, for it is his footstool; or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the Great King. 36 And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make even one hair white or black. 37 Simply let your `Yes' be `Yes,' and your `No,' `No'; anything beyond this comes from the evil one.
"Woe to you, blind guides! You say, `If anyone swears by the temple, it means nothing; but if anyone swears by the gold of the temple, he is bound by his oath.' 17 You blind fools! Which is greater: the gold, or the temple that makes the gold sacred? 18 You also say, `If anyone swears by the altar, it means nothing; but if anyone swears by the gift on it, he is bound by his oath.' 19 You blind men! Which is greater: the gift, or the altar that makes the gift sacred? 20 Therefore, he who swears by the altar swears by it and by everything on it. 21 And he who swears by the temple swears by it and by the one who dwells in it. 22 And he who swears by heaven swears by God's throne and by the one who sits on it.
Above all, my brothers, do not swear --not by heaven or by earth or by anything else. Let your "Yes" be yes, and your "No," no, or you will be condemned
So when you promise to do something, or say that you will attend this or that party, or make a claim that such and such is the case...remember that you have an obligation before the Lord to make it so or that what you say is the TRUTH. Our God keeps His promises and covenants with us and expects us to do likewise to Him and to our neighbours.