I have become fascinated with the book of Nehemiah, and not only that, but also with the character of the prophet himself. After the Israelites had rebuilt the temple and the wall, there was a great revival in the land. As Ezra stood up and read the law of the Lord, the people wept openly and repented of their sins. They also made a covenant with God and secured it in writing, determined they wouldn't be like their ancestors who had consistently turned away from God.
The covenant contained many elements, but to highlight a few, they swore to God that they would not intermarry with other lands that did not serve the one, true God. They agreed that there would be no buying or selling on the Sabbath day because it was set aside to be holy. They vowed to pay a tithe to the service of the house of God and to offer up the firstfruits. And the Levites and those who were selected to serve in the house of God promised to do their part in bringing in the offering of corn, new wine, and oil. Their final words were "We will not forsake the house of our God."
As you can imagine, Nehemiah was thrilled by this turn of events. He couldn't have known when he gathered the people together to rebuild the wall that the construction project would turn into a revival of hearts and souls. What a blessing, but I'm afraid the people weren't wholly as committed as they said. That's the thing about revival. True revival is real, and it changes us. But what appears to be revival is sometimes nothing more than an emotional high that wears off once the reality of life kicks in and the warm, fuzzy feeling goes away. Evidently, that's what happened here.
In chapter 13, Nehemiah returns to Jerusalem after being away for a while, and he is dismayed by what he finds. The people had broken every promise they had made. Verse 10 tells us that the tithes were not paid and the Levites had fled and forsaken the house of God. Verses 15-16 speak of how the people were buying and selling on the Sabbath day. Verses 23-24 talk of how the children of Israel had married with the children of Ammon and Moab, and their children couldn't even speak the Hebrew tongue.
Promises are lovely but only if we keep them. It aggravates me to the very core to hear someone make a vow they may not be able to keep, even in a movie. "We'll find your father. I promise." How can you promise that? It's not within your power to make it happen. "I promise I'll be there for you." What if you can't? What if you're hindered in some way? My philosophy is that we should never promise to do but to try. "I promise I'll try my best to..." And then, only if we really intend to do so.
I'm not alone in this thinking. The Bible says it's better not to make a vow at all than to make one and break it.
When thou vowest a vow unto God, defer not to pay it; for he hath no pleasure in fools: pay that which thou hast vowed. Better is it that thou shouldest not vow, than that thou shouldest vow and not pay. Suffer not thy mouth to cause thy flesh to sin; neither say thou before the angel, that it was an error: wherefore should God be angry at thy voice, and destroy the work of thine hands? (Ecclesiastes 5:4-6)
The children of Israel would have been better off to keep their mouths shut, but instead, they made both an oral and written covenant to God that they would abide by all His laws, and then they refused to follow through on what they had promised.
The moral of the story? Be careful with your words. Don't promise something unless you're confident you can follow through on it. If you're not certain, just keep quiet. By all means, try to do good, but don't promise if it's not in your power to live up to that promise. Otherwise, you'll end up eating those words later, and they have a nasty taste. . . just ask the children of Israel.