By Keith Sharp
Again, ye have heard that it hath been said by them of old time. Thou shalt not forswear thyself, , but shalt perform unto the Lord thine oaths:
But I say unto you, Swear not at all; neither by heaven; for it is God’s throne:
Nor by the earth; for it is his footstool: neither by Jerusalem; for it is the city of the great King.
Neither shalt thou swear by the head, because thou canst not make one hair white or black.
But let your communication be, Yea, yea; Nay, nay: for whatsoever is more than these cometh of evil. (Matthew 5:33-37).
The problem of oaths is a perplexing one. It is a subject concerning which great extremes are both practiced and taught. All around us many of our friends, including, tragically, even little children, engage in the most frivolous and profane swearing imaginable. Opposite them are many, both of Christians and sectarians, who hold the position that it is wrong to utter an oath for any reason, even in a solemn legal or religious setting. What did Jesus teach concerning the use of oaths?
In order to comprehend the doctrine of the Master, we must understand the words he used. Three terms in Matt. 5:33-37 are of particular importance: “forswear,” “oaths,” and “swear.” To “forswear “oneself is “to swear falsely, to undo one’s swearing” (W.E. Vine, An Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words, II, 126). An “oath” is
An appeal to God in attestation of the truth of a statement or of the binding character of a promise . . . . Sometimes the appeal was to the sovereign or other sacred object (John D. Davis, Davis Dictionary of the Bible, p. 570).
To “swear” is to affirm, promise, threaten, with an oath . . . to call a person or thing as witness, to invoke (J.H. Thayer, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament, p. 444).
Thus, when some crude boor exclaims “By. . ., I’m going to bash your head in!”, he has sworn or used an oath, in this case a frivolous one; thus, he is guilty of profanity, having made the name of God common. If he fails to “bash” in the head of the object of his wrath, he has forsworn himself, having failed to consummate the threat he made under oath. However, when one solemnly swears under oath in a court of law to tell the truth, he is still swearing, although he would not be guilty of profanity. The fact that he might use the term “affirm” as a substitute for the word “swear” does not alter the fact that he has sworn, since he affirmed under oath. If one were to affirm:
For God is my witness . . . that without ceasing I make mention of you always in my prayers,
he would have uttered a solemn, religious oath.
Furthermore, to understand the law of the Lord relative to oaths, one must be familiar with the Old Testament law concerning oaths and the Jewish tradition about swearing. This is because, although the statement Christ references in verse 33 is nowhere found in the Old Testament, is a fair summary of the law of Moses pertaining to oaths (cf. Lev. 19:12; Num. 30:2; Deut. 23:21-23). Also, in verses 34-36, Jesus made reference to the Jewish tradition about swearing.
Moses demanded that, in swearing, people should use the name of God rather than those of idols (Deut. 6:13-15). In swearing, they should be truthful and perform what they had sworn to do (Lev. 19:12; Num. 30;2; Deut. 23:21-23). This ordinance emphasized the importance of truthfulness and the fact that the Lord was the only true God.
Two Jewish traditions had grown up with the backing of tradition.
The first was what might be called frivolous swearing, taking an oath where no oath was necessary or proper. It had become far too common a custom to introduce a statement by saying, ‘By thy life,’ or, ‘By my head,’ or, ‘May I never see the comfort of Israel if . . . .’
The second Jewish custom was in some ways even worse than that; it might be called evasive swearing. The Jews divided oaths into two classes, those which were absolutely binding and those which were not. Any oath which contained the name of God was absolutely binding; any oath which succeeded in evading the name of God was not held to be binding. The result was that if a man swore by the name of God in any form, he would rigidly keep that oath; but if he swore by heaven, or by earth, or by Jerusalem, or by his head, he felt quite free to break that oath. The result was that evasion had been brought to a fine art (William Barclay, The Gospel of Matthew, 1, 156-157). (cf. Matthew 23:16-17)
The reference of the Master in verse 33 indicates he dealt with the law of Moses itself and the abuse not specifically condemned by the law, i.e., frivolous swearing. The mention of kinds of swearing in verses 34-36 demonstrates Christ also taught about evasive swearing. Thus, he dealt both with Moses’ law and Jewish tradition.
Does the Lord, in this sweeping prohibition, condemn even judicial oaths in a court of law and oaths taken under solemn religious situations? I do not believe so, and I believe the following considerations will substantiate this position. God himself has sworn by himself (Heb. 3:11, 18; 6:13; 7:21). It is our highest goal to be like God (2 Peter 1:4), for His character is moral perfection (Matt. 5:48). Also, Jesus Christ Himself, the very propounder of this law concerning oaths, took a solemn judicial oath when he testified before the Jewish council (Matt. 26:63-64; “Adjure” means “to demand testimony under oath” Thayer, p. 453). Certainly Christ is our example of conduct (1 Peter 2:21; Luke 6:40) as the revelation in His own person of the Father, so far as His character is concerned (John 14:7-11). The angel of God who appeared to John made a solemn religious oath (Rev. 10:5-6). The apostle Paul made several oaths of a serious, spiritual nature (Rom. 1:9; 2 Cor. 1:23; Gal. 1:20; Phil. 1:8), and He is our example of conduct (1 Cor. 4:16; 11:1; Phil. 3:17; 4:9; 2 Thess. 3:7, 9).
To understand the Lord’s prohibition, we must realize its context. For example, in 2 Cor. 5:18 Paul declared, “All things are of God.” Does this mean everything imaginable, including sin, emanates from God? No! The context is of the plan of human redemption, and the apostle was simply affirming that the entirety of that scheme of salvation originated with God.
Even so, “swear not at all” is limited by the context. Swearing is absolutely prohibited under the conditions described in the context. The Old Testament allowed frivolous swearing (verse 33), so long as God’s name was used and the oaths was kept. Jewish tradition approved evasive swearing (verses 34-36), as long as the Lord’s name was not employed. Thus, the Lord condemned frivilous oaths and evasive oaths, but he did not forbid solemn and truthful judicial oaths or religious oaths.
Two great principles stand behind the Master’s doctrine here. The Christian must maintain a high and solemn regard for truth and never use any excuse to lie (Eph. 4:25). Futhermore, he must hold the name of God in the most profound reverence and never use it lightly, thus profaning that high and holy name (Heb. 12:28-29; Rev. 4:8, 11).
Each of these principles should be deeply rooted in the heart of every Christian and bear acceptable fruit in his life. In cultivating the beautiful fruit of honesty and reverence toward God in our speech, we will eradicate the weeds of profanity (frivolous swearing), conversational oaths and lies.
Why did the Lord thus prohibit swearing? The Master gives two reasons. All oaths, ultimately, involve God and are, therefore, just as binding as one in which God’s name is specifically mentioned (verses 34-36). The four categories Jesus mentioned encompass anything a Jew would call to witness. They include the spiritual, natural, national and personal spheres. An oath by heaven involved God because it is His throne (cf. Matthew 23:22). An oath by the earth involved the Father because it is His footstool (cf. Isa. 66:1). An oath by Jerusalem involved God, since it was in a special way His own city (cf. Psalm 48). Even an oath by one’s own head involved God. To swear by one’s own head is to swear by one’s life. Our lives and even their conditions, including the aging process (black or white hair), is in God’s hands. No matter by what one swears God is involved. To swear frivolously by anything is to profane God. To swear falsely by anything is to lie against God.
Another reason we should not so swear is that such swearing “cometh of evil” (verse 37; “is of the evil one” -American Standard Version; cf. James 5:12). Satan is the father of lies and liars (Gen. 3:1-4; John 8:44; Acts 5:3), and to swear falsely is to follow Satan. Furthermore, when the devil denied God’s word and accused the Lord of bad motives (Gen. 3:4-5), he became the first to profane God. Thus, those who use profanity are following Satan.
What does profane and false swearing do for any one? It does not cause them to be any more believed. One who would violate the law of the Lord concerning oaths would also transgress his commands pertaining to lies. It does not cause a person to be any more highly thought of. Even people of the world generally agree that swearing is boorish and ill-mannered. Profane and false swearing never helped any one, but only causes further trouble and disgust. It seems that, upon all the hooks with which Satan catches men to their destruction, he has placed a bait, except the hook of false and profane swearing. Swearing is the empty hook with which Satan catches men. Only a fool is so caught!
The solution of this problem lies in the heart. Truth and reverence for God should be so firmly enthroned in the heart that they reign supreme in our daily conversations. One with such an attitude will be so truthful that people will accept his simple “yes” or “no” as better than a signed bond or a thousand oaths. Of him it will be said, “His word is his bond.” His proven character will be the strongest possible affirmation of the verity of his words.
Just speak the truth always and shun profane and false swearing. Anything other than this is of Satan.
Truth Magazine XXIII: 28, pp. 453-455
July 19, 1979