In many cultures, marriage vows are exchanged on the wedding day. Some believe it is when these vows are exchanged that a man and woman become husband and wife. Although vows do express the intent of each heart, at that time the union has not yet been consummated. Obviously in most cases the union is consummated the same day, but I think it is important to realize that it is when the intended union is consummated that a couple is married in God's eyes. If we view the vows as an expression of love that is hidden in the heart, then they can be very meaningful, especially to the couple, as they declare their action before God and man. But I do not see any scriptural basis to say that vows create a union or a marriage.
I am not aware of any passage in scripture that speaks of wedding vows. That in itself may be significant. There is, however, an account in the book of Ruth that shows an example of the true commitment that God is looking for. If you have not read it through recently, I encourage you to do so. It is rich with meaning in the subject we are considering.
As Naomi was returning to Israel in grief after the death of her husband and sons, she greatly tested her relationship with her daughters-in-law. Orpah turned back under the test, but Ruth did not. It was a severe test. They both had every reason to turn back. Naomi offered them no hope, and she herself was full of despair. When she arrived home, this was her confession: "...'Do not call me Naomi; call me Mara, for the Almighty has dealt very bitterly with me. I went out full, and the Lord has brought me home again empty. Why do you call me Naomi, since the Lord has testified against me, and the Almighty has afflicted me?'" (Ruth 1:20-21)
There was nothing in outward circumstances that could cause Ruth to want to follow Naomi or her God, yet somehow in the darkness she saw something that kept her on course, and at the crucial hour this was her confession: "...'Entreat me not to leave you, or to turn back from following after you; for wherever you go, I will go; and wherever you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God, my God. Where you die, I will die, and there will I be buried. The Lord do so to me, and more also, if anything but death parts you and me.'" (Ruth 1:16-17) What did Ruth see in Naomi or in her God that caused her to make this pledge? What she saw at the beginning was strong and real enough to carry her through to the end.
Life is full of trials. We do not know what tomorrow brings. But through all that comes, we must see further than the surface to enter into God's purpose. So many enter into marriage only looking at external things. In our modern age, self-fulfillment, security, and prosperity in this world are too often the highest goals. Marriage vows are taken very lightly. They often are not in the heart at all, just a formality repeated according to tradition. Thus, when the trials come, there is no root in God and the marriage falls apart. Heartache, bitterness, divorce, and adultery are often the result.
What is the answer? Before the wedding day, God gives us time to resolve these matters. The wedding is not all about beautiful dresses and romantic traditions. The wedding day is about a commitment deep within the heart. Vows should not come from a book; they must come from our heart, as Ruth's did. Where do they originate? They must have their roots in God and His love. Anything less has the seed of failure. God is the one who created the marriage institution and God is the only one who has the resources to make it work properly.
The blessings of marriage are beyond words, but they can only be realized out of a true relationship with God. Good as marriage vows may be, they cannot be kept apart from the grace of God. God is the source of all love, so if we try to love on our own, separate from a deep relationship with God, it will not be love at all. Self-effort always fails, sometime, somehow, but God's grace never fails. God is always working with eternity in mind, and every trial along the way is only a stepping stone into that purpose if we are seeing Him who is invisible and responding in faith as He leads us by His Spirit.
Listen to the end of the account of Ruth. "So Boaz took Ruth and she became his wife; and when he went in to her, the Lord gave her conception, and she bore a son. Then the women said to Naomi, 'Blessed be the Lord, who has not left you this day without a close relative; and may his name be famous in Israel! And may he be to you a restorer of life and a nourisher of your old age; for your daughter-in-law, who loves you, who is better to you than seven sons, has borne him.' Then Naomi took the child and laid him on her bosom, and became a nurse to him. Also the neighbor women gave him a name, saying, 'There is a son born to Naomi.' And they called his name Obed. He is the father of Jesse, the father of David." (Ruth 4:13-17)
Ruth was privileged to be brought into the lineage of King David and Christ our Lord. She was an outsider to Israel, but she was brought into a royal place by the grace and mercy of God because she saw something worth committing herself to. We have the privilege to be part of the bride of Christ, married to Him for all eternity. Will we pass our test as Ruth did? Do we see beyond the surface? Through any discouragement or darkness, are we beholding Him who is invisible? These are things we must answer individually. If they are settled before God, real marriage vows will flow from our hearts on the wedding day. They will be our vows, not someone else's. They will be filled with divine fragrance and grace to keep them, because they have originated in God. Let us not settle for anything less. May God be glorified through it all.