To Swear Or Not To Swear

Written on: November 30, 2021

Article by: Dave Knutson

Text: Mt 5:33-38, 23:16-22, James 5:12

The Sermon on the Mount has been compared with a messianic version of the law. In the beatitudes, Jesus moved from the Godly qualities of a person’s heart to the sort of conduct flowing from those attitudes.

Following the beatitudes, He went on to talk about the righteousness of the scribes, hatred and murder, adultery, and divorce. And then it seems against the backdrop of failed marriage vows, Jesus addressed the practice of oath-taking.

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Now when I was growing up, I thought that Jesus was forbidding crude and vulgar language. Swearing was bad because it was offensive and appealed to the worst in us. So it wasn’t hard for me to see why Jesus would condemn it. But as bad as that kind of language has become, that is not what Jesus was talking about. There are other passages that teach us to put aside all crude language and coarse jesting…but this is not one of them. Jesus was actually talking about something good. He was addressing religious people who would have been embarrassed to death by the vulgarity of our day.

The kind of swearing that Jesus discussed had a good and proper place in the lives of God-fearing people. Let’s start by considering the background of this practice from a few Old Testament passages.

I. THE TEACHING OF THE LAW

  1. Deut. 6:13-14

You shall fear only the lord your God, and you shall worship him and swear by his name. You shall not follow other gods, any of the gods of the people who surround you”

  1. Deut 10:20-21

“You shall fear the Lord your God; you shall serve Him and cling to Him, and you shall swear by His name. He is your praise and He is your God, who has done these great and awesome things for you, which your eyes have seen.

To put it positively, Israel is to fear, serve, cling to and swear by the God of Israel.

3. “And you shall not swear by My name falsely, nor shall you profane the name of your ; I am the LORD.” – Lev 19:12

4. “If a man vows a vow to the LORD, or swears an oath to bind himself by some agreement, he shall not break his word; he shall do according to all that proceeds out of his mouth.” Num 30:2

5. “When you make a vow to the LORD your God, you shall not delay to pay it; for the LORD your God will surely require it of you, and it would be sin to you.” – Deut 23:21

So an oath was a confirmation. It was an appeal to God to act as the ultimate witness to the truthfulness of a statement or to be the guarantor of a promise that was being made.

Every one of these passages demanded truthfulness in the heart and faithfulness in action.

  1. When you take an oath, you must tell the truth. You must really mean it and intend to do it.
  1. Not only must you mean it…you have to do it. If you say you’ll do it, then you must keep your word.
  1. All oaths must appeal to God and only to God. When an Israelite took an oath in God’s name, it was a confession that Yahweh was his God.
  1. It was also a profession of faith in the God who is everywhere at once…the God who sees and the God who hears. The same God who will in not allow the words of his prophets to ‘fall to the ground’ …they will all come to pass. So an oath claimed to be faithful, as God is faithful.
  1. To take an oath in the name of the Lord was a good thing. Because speaking the truth has nothing to fear, even when it became an oath.

The Psalms and the Prophets stress the importance of truthfulness in the heart.

1. In the Psalms we read:

a. “LORD, who may abide in your tabernacle? Who may dwell in Your holy hill? “He who walks uprightly, And works righteousness, And speaks the truth in his heart;” – Ps 15:1-2

b. “Who may ascend into the hill of the LORD? Or who may stand in His holy place? “He who has clean hands and a pure heart, Who has not lifted up his soul to an idol, Nor sworn deceitfully.” – Ps 24:3-4

2. The Prophets often mourn the absence of truth in the heart:

a. “Run to and fro through the streets of Jerusalem; See now and know; And seek in her open places If you can find a man, If there is anyone who executes judgment, Who seeks the truth, And I will pardon her. “Though they say, ‘As the LORD lives,’ Surely they swear falsely.” – Jer 5:1-2

b. “Hear the word of the LORD, You children of Israel, For the LORD brings a charge against the inhabitants of the land: ‘There is no truth or mercy, Or knowledge of God in the land. By swearing and lying, Killing and stealing and committing adultery, They break all restraint, With bloodshed after bloodshed.'” – Hos 4:1-2

Oath-breaking and Law-breaking go hand in hand.So the teaching of the Law was clear:

  • All vows must be taken in the name of Lord.
  • All vows to the Lord must be kept,
  • And all vows taken in the name of the Lord require truthfulness and integrity…they too must be fulfilled.

The basic principle was simple. If I take a vow in God’s name, then it is not just my reputation that is at stake. God has been drawn into the equation. When I call God as my witness, I am claiming that my word is as good as his and you can count on it. Unfaithfulness on my part implies unfaithfulness on the part of God..Suppose I take an oath in God’s name and then I break my word…at least one of two things are implied. Maybe my god is a liar and I am living proof of it. Or I have so little regard for my god that I do not hesitate to drag his name down into the mud with my own. This was what had happened to God’s name when Israel took vows in his name and then defaulted on them.

In Romans 2:24, Paul wrote that: “the name of God is blasphemed among the nations (gentiles) because of you… (speaking to the Jews)…”

  • When those who are identified as the people of God, break his laws, they dishonor God in the eyes of all men. Disobedience to God is not a private affair. The world is watching.
  • If I fail to keep my word…If I lie and deceive, I deserve the reputation I make for myself. But God does not deserve to share that reputation. The problem is that because of my identity with him, I can cause others to lose respect for him.
  • May it never be! May my failings never be an obstacle to the faith of others. May my words never cause others to curse the name of God.
  • The fact is that God is faithful, even if all men prove to be liars.
  • But this is what is at stake. By allowing us to be united with Him and to wear His name, God has become vulnerable to libel and false accusation.

On a later occasion, Jesus said: “And I say to you that every careless (or useless) word that men shall speak, they shall render account for it in the Day of Judgment. For by your words you shall be justified, and by your words you shall be condemned” (Matthew 12:36-37)

Words are powerful. They can heal and they can destroy. They can bring about peace and they can set the world on fire. How much more is this true when our words call on the name of God and make promises that can be kept only if it is his will? So Jesus spoke out against the abuses of his own day. The religious leaders had managed to take something good and turn it into something evil.

From the comments of Jesus in verses 34-36, it looks like the positive emphasis found in the law had shifted. On a practical level, it had become very harmful.

1. The law said…be truthful in all things

2. The traditions of the scribes and Pharisees said ‘truth is a sometimes thing”.

Vows not made ‘to the lord’ or specifically in God’s name were not binding.

  1. In fact, Mt 23:16-19 gives us a slice and dice version of binding and non-binding oaths.
  2. So you were free to spice up your talk with empty promises that you had no intention of ever keeping. You could say…

a. “I swear by heaven”

b. “I swear by the throne of God”

c. “I swear…by the earth…by Jerusalem…by the altar…by the temple…by my head..” And it didn’t matter if you stuck by your word or not.

  1. In the part of the Mishnah that deals with vows (Nedarim 3:1-3), the sages declared four kinds of vows that were by their very nature non-binding. They were
  1. Vows of incitement: vows used as bargaining tools with others
  2. Vows of exaggeration: where the exaggeration was obvious and could not possibly be true.
  3. Vows made in error: for example: vows that you made because your memory failed you…then you later discovered your mistake and you took it back.
  1. And Vows that could not be kept by reason of constraint. If you fell ill or were prevented from keeping it by an ‘act of God’…like a flood.

Without getting into all of the circumstances and the details, the point here is that there was a whole class of vows made up of several categories, that the Scribes considered non-binding. And having introduced the concept of a non-binding oath, the door was open for all kind of new candidates. They had shifted the emphasis completely away from truthfulness. Making and keeping vows had become a legal matter to be argued and litigated. But by no means were they absolute and binding.

When I was a kid…promises were not always kept. In fact, if you ‘crossed your fingers behind your back’, then you didn’t really mean what you said and were off the hook. Well, this is almost like that, but it is not a child’s game…

One time, my dad described striking a bargain for employment and shaking hands on it. Or agreeing to a purchase or a sale without putting anything into writing. The practice worked as long as the people were trustworthy and as good as their word.

The whole point of taking a vow was to make a promise even more binding. It was to assure the one to whom you were speaking that you were telling the truth and that you fully intended to carry through on your word. Jesus had little patience with the kind of legalised deception practised in his day. It was an outrage…it cheated men and insulted God. It put God’s Name to shame…it made him out to be a liar and a cheat. This was one of the big lies, for God has never told a lie or failed to keep his word. No wonder that Jesus spoke out like he did and condemned this form of hypocrisy. It was a scandal for it invoked God’s name in vain, making it an object of cursing and a symbol of deceit.

In Mt 23:20-22 Jesus exposed how wrong thinking had led to sinful behavior. He reasoned with them, showing that when someone swears by…

  1. The temple”, he is swearing by the one who has caused his name to dwell there. You cannot separate the temple from God.
  2. When you swear by “The throne of God”…you are swearing by the one who sits on that throne!
  3. And when you appeal to “The altar”…you are swearing by the one who owns it.
  4. The rabbis had also taught, that
  1. If you swore by the gold in the temple you were bound, but not if you swore by the temple itself.
  2. They also said that if you swore by the altar you were not bound but if by the sacrifice on the altar, then you were bound.

But Jesus told them that they had gotten the whole thing backwards. Reasoning from the greater to the lesser, Jesus said that: The temple was greater than the gold stored in it. And the altar was greater than the sacrifices which it sanctified

Matthew 5:34-36 make it clear that you cannot swear by heaven or earth without involving the God of heaven and earth, since heaven is the throne of God and earth is His footstool. Jerusalem is his holy city and as for swearing by our own heads…what good is that?You and I do not even control so much as the colour of our own hair…not the real colour. (Miss Clairol and Grecian Formula notwithstanding)

3. The bottom line is that “ANY OATH IS AN OATH “TO THE LORD”!

  1. A non-binding oath is a contradiction of terms.
  2. According to Jesus, there is no such thing.

Now, our Lord had a simple solution to the problem.

Instead of taking swearing up a storm and muddying the water, Jesus said…just tell the truth.

  1. Let your “yes” mean “yes”
  2. Let your “no” mean “no”
  3. In other words…say what you mean and mean what you say.
  4. I would hope that all of us have known people like that and aspire to be one of them.

When the president or the prime minister is trustworthy, nations are blessed. When the leaders of the church are as good as their word, the church experiences what God is like and is drawn closer to him. When dad and mom keep faith in the home…children rise up and bless them.

So Jesus said…let your yes be yes and your no be no. Any more than this is evil, and is contrary to the principle of speaking “truth in your heart” that we read about in (Ps 15:1-2)

This passage exposed the hypocrisy of non-binding oaths. In it, Jesus commanded us to speak the truth. But down through the years, his words have sometimes been misunderstood and it has led many to ask the question:

“Did Jesus forbid the use of all oaths…even those called for in court?” Consider what it was the Jesus actually said and later references to that same principle in the New Testament.

Both Matthew and the Lord’s brother James address the subject and each qualified what they said. When Jesus said “swear not at all”, (In Mt 5:34ff) there is no period or punctuation after the statement. Jesus went on to qualify what he meant by listing the kind of oaths that were off limits. He forbade his followers to swear by heaven or earth, Jerusalem or their own head.

Now bear in mind that to the Jews of Jesus’ day, even the formula that you used to initiate the oath was crucial. The oath was valid only if you said

I adjure you”, or “I command you” or “I bind you”,

Here is a list of binding and non binding oaths taken from the Mishnah. They come from a section entitled Oaths (Shebuoth), section 4, verse 13. If a person took an oath by any substituted name of God, he was bound. If he swore by:

  1. the Lord of Hosts
  2. the Merciful and Gracious
  3. the Long-suffering One.
  4. The one of Great Kindness
  5. Or any of God’s attributes, then he was bound.

But, if a person swore by heaven or earth, he was not bound. This belonged to a class of non-binding oaths and had no legal force to them. Both James and Jesus deal with this issue…both spoke to Jewish audiences coming from the same background.

James 5:12 – repeats the command of Jesus and simply builds on it. The phrase “Do not swear” is also qualified by James to refer to the same kind of meaningless oaths.

James wrote: “”But above all my brethren, do not swear either by heaven or by earth or with any other oath; but let your yes be yes and your no be no; so that you may not fall under judgment”

When James said “do not swear by any other oath”, he used the word ‘allos’ for other.

  • This word usually means another of the same kind.
  • The Greek word heteros means another of a different kind.

This is very important. It means that James is forbidding the use of these specific oaths and others of the same kind. Neither James nor Jesus give an absolute command forbidding all oaths. This is consistent with the practice that we find in the rest of the New Testament.

It is consistent with the fact that God has sworn an oath to us. The Hebrew writer explains that when God wanted to show how serious he was about keeping his promise to Abraham, he took an oath. He 6:16-18. Because God took an oath, we have two unchangeable things guaranteeing that He will keep his word. God cannot lie and his oath cannot be broken.

2. Jesus himself testified under oath before the high court of the Jews.

The high priest said to Jesus: “I adjure you by the living God, that you tell us whether you are the Christ, the Son of God. Jesus said to him, you have said it yourself…”- Mt 26:63-64

The high priest put his question in the form of an oath. He called on Jesus to speak under oath. And when Jesus answered, he could only answer under oath…and answer he did.

Mark 8:12 reads: And sighing deeply in his spirit, He said, “why does this generation seek for a sign? Truly (surely) I say to you, no sign shall be given to this generation.”

The structure of this oath in Greek is the same as the one that God made to Abraham and recorded in Hebrews 6:13-14. God said…“I will surely bless you and I will surely multiply you”. The words of Jesus took the form of an oath on more than one occasion

In the writings of Paul, it was common for him to take a solemn oath and even to place his readers under oath. Here is a sampling from his letters.

a. He took an oath in 2nd Corinthians 1:23 when he said: “But I call God as witness to my soul, that to spare you I came no more to Corinth”. 2 Co 1:23;

b. “Now in what I am writing go you, I assure you before God that I am not lying” Gal1:20

c. “The God and father of our Lord Jesus, who is blessed forever knows that I am not lying” 2nd Corinthians 11:31

d. “As the truth of Christ is in me, this boasting of mine will not be stopped in the regions of Achaia. Why? Because I do not love you? God knows I do.” 2nd Cor. 11:11

Paul even binds his readers at Thessalonica with an oath: “I adjure you by the Lord to have this letter read to all the brethren” 1st Thess. 2:27

The ‘strong angel’ of Revelation 10: took an oath. In verses 5-7 John wrote…

‘And the angel whom I saw standing on the sea and on the land lifted up his right hand to heaven, and swore by Him who lives forever and ever, who created heaven and the things in it and the earth and the things in it and the sea and the things in it, that there shall be delay no longer.

Summary

So what is the bottom line? What do the scriptures teach?

  • The evidence suggests that Jesus and James condemned the use of oaths believed to be non-binding. After all, the only reason that a person would use a non-binding oath is to get out of having to keep it. In other words, it is a promise that you just don’t intent to keep. The scriptures are clear when they forbid the use of these kinds of oaths. There is no such thing as a non-binding oath.

On the other hand, God commanded the use of oaths and it is a good thing

  1. Jesus took an oath when the occasion called for it.
  2. When Paul came under fire from false teachers, He assured his readers that he was telling the truth by taking an oath.
  3. Paul even bound his readers by an oath…to follow his directions
  4. When an angel of the lord swore with an oath so that we can know that God will keep his word.

But Jesus seems also to teach, that Oaths and Vows are only instruments. We can choose to use them or not to use them. They seem necessary on occasion because men and women are not always honest. So perhaps to make up for past failings, an oath has the effect of saying…I am assuring you that this time I really mean it. And to show you how serious I am…here is an oath…‘As God is my witness”.

And that is just the very point that Jesus was making. God is always your witness whether or not you call on him. God will judge every word that comes out of your mouth and mine. We are bound by every word that we say…not just some of them.

So Jesus has a simple solution. Let your yes be yes and your no be no. This is what it means to be the children of God and to belong to a kingdom in which righteousness dwells.

Barrie ON