A votive offering was one type of offering in the Jewish sacrificial system. It’s mentioned, in some translations, in Leviticus 7. A votive offering was given to repay a vow or in consecration or fulfillment of a vow. Unlike other sacrifices that had to be consumed in one day, the votive offering could be left for one night and finished on the next day. Under no condition in the Israelite system of sacrifices could an offering be eaten after the second day (Leviticus 7:15–18).
While the NASB, NRSV, and LEB use the term votive offering in Leviticus 7:16, most Bible translations use the term vow instead, to distinguish the biblical offering from an unbiblical practice, also termed “votive offering.” These heathen votive offerings were permanent memorials offered to a deity in fulfillment of a vow. Common among pagan worshipers, votive (or ex-voto) offerings were either fashioned by an individual or amassed by a community and then preserved as a grand-scale memorial to a deity. Votive offerings were made of materials that were not to be consumed, spent, or used for any other purpose than as gifts to a god. Votive offerings could be etched depictions in stone or carved statues of the deity, public inscriptions, pottery, or jewelry or food for the idols. During times of famine, plague, or war, idol worshipers often made vows to their gods, promising to give something in return for favors shown. When the trouble passed, the worshiper would bring a votive offering to the temple or shrine and leave it there.
The story of Jephthah in the Old Testament contains a type of votive offering. Before attacking the Ammonites, Jephthah made a vow to God: if he won the battle, he would offer God a burnt offering upon returning home. Jephthah foolishly specified that the offering would be “whatever comes out of the door of my house to meet me” (Judges 11:31). God granted Jephthah the victory, but it was Jephthah’s only daughter who greeted him when he returned (verse 34). Since the sacrifice was made at the fulfillment of a vow, it could be considered a votive offering.
To this day, many cultures and religions practice the giving of votive offerings. Stupas, temples, pagodas, and shrines are usually filled with food, candles, flowers, trinkets, paintings, etc., to honor various deities—and to secure prosperity, good health, and other blessings for the giver. The Western practice of throwing coins into a fountain for “good luck” could be seen as a secularized type of votive offering.
Votive offerings are part of both Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox religions. In Latin, the term ex-voto meant “according to a vow” and originally referred to a gift given to fulfill a private vow to honor God. In both churches, votive offerings are made not just to honor God but to honor Mary or the various saints. For example, one might light a small white votive candle before a statue or sacred image in a cathedral or shrine. The candle, also called a prayer candle, can be lit in devotion to God, in honor of a deceased loved one, or in gratitude to a saint for deliverance from danger or sickness. Catholics also observe votive masses to celebrate special occasions, such as weddings, funerals, or the election of a Pope. The Roman Missal of 1970 contains fifteen votive masses, including celebrations of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit, the Blessed Sacrament, the Apostles, Saint Peter, and Saint Paul. The purpose of these votive masses is said to be to inspire devotion among the people.
Lighting candles while one prays (or does anything else, for that matter) is not prohibited in Scripture. Candles may add beauty to the environment, but they have no power and no mystical or supernatural qualities. They cannot accompany our prayers to heaven, make our prayers more powerful or effective, or prolong our prayers in any way. Any votive offering made to a saint is idolatry; any votive offering that attempts to curry favor with God or procure His blessing slips into the realm of superstition.