(Exploring the Book of Ya’aqov, Pt. 25)
But before all things, my brothers, do not swear—neither “by the heaven,” nor “by the earth,” nor by any other oath—but let your “Yes” be “Yes,” and the “No” be “No,” so that under judgment you may not fall. (יַעֲקֹב Ya’aqov 5:12, mjlt)
Is it ever okay to swear? Not “swear” as in using profanity or foul language (Ephesians 4:29), but as in taking an oath, vow or pledge. Scripturally speaking, to swear is to make a kind of promise. But here, the Scriptures say, “do not swear,” and, immediately, the matter becomes confusing. Are we never to make promises? Should we reject all oaths and pledges—like the Pledge of Allegiance? Are we permitted even to speak the promises of our wedding vows? When someone asks for or expects our commitment, are we to simply smile angelically and assure them noncommittally, “If the Lord wills”? Is that really what is at issue here? “Do not swear” seems to be a relatively straightforward command, but there’s definitely more to the story. And if we can’t understand what it takes to make a commitment, then we can’t understand what it means to follow Messiah.
To understand swearing we first have to accept that God Himself swears. Luke 1:73 (cf. Genesis 22:15ff) explicitly tells us that He took an “oath that He swore to Av’raham our father” (mjlt). He also expressly swore to David (Acts 2:30, Psalm 132:11) and to Israel (Hebrews 3:11, Psalm 95:11). When God “swore by Himself” to Abraham (because there was “no one greater” by which to swear), the Scriptures point to this as the reason why—and the conditions under which—oaths between people become binding. In other words, an oath settles a matter when “men swear by the one greater than themselves” (Hebrews 6:13-16, mjlt)—that is, God.
This is precisely why, when we testify in court (in some jurisdictions), we swear under oath that our testimony is true, “So help me God.” Such an oath is intended to give weight to the veracity of the testimony, binding the witness to the command to “not swear to falsehood by My Name” (Leviticus 19:12). By invoking God’s name, we risk besmirching His reputation, which comes at a heavy price. Therefore, unless we are willing to incur such a cost, we are highly motivated to tell the truth.
So to the matter of “do not swear,” it seems that Scripture actually endorses what it appears to be forbidding. In fact, the injunction to not swear “by the heaven” is made even more confusing by the Master’s own statement that “he who swore by the heaven swears by the throne of God, and by Him who is sitting upon it” (Matthew 23:22, mjlt, emphasis added). An oath in God’s name, then, is not only binding, but the correct way of making an oath, according to Yeshua. But how can an oath that we are not allowed to swear—by a heaven that we are not supposed to swear by—be acceptable, much less legitimate?
The Master resolves this tension with a directive nearly identical to that of his brother Ya’aqov: “[do] not… swear at all; neither by the heaven… nor by the earth… [nor] by your head…. But let your word be, ‘Yes, yes,’ or ‘No, no,’ and anything which is more than these is of the evil” (Matthew 5:34-37, mjlt). What they are both telling us to avoid is not swearing oaths and vows altogether, but making them empty. The Master is expounding upon Numbers 30:2, “When a man vows a vow to Adonai, or has sworn an oath to bind a bond on his soul, he must not break his word.” The teaching is about more than taking oaths—it is about keeping our word “before all things.”
In every commitment, then, we mustn’t put on an elaborate verbal show in the hopes of convincing others of our integrity. Rather, we are expected to keep our word whether we swear to it or not. When you say you will do something (“Yes, yes”), just do it. And when you say that you won’t (“No, no”), don’t—otherwise, “under judgment you [will] fall.” If you are committed to following Yeshua and being His representative, don’t tarnish either His reputation or yours by breaking your word. Make promises and then keep them. Think before you speak, be precise, and don’t obfuscate. In all things, let your word be your bond, telling nothing but the truth… so help you God.
Is it ever okay to swear? Well, yes and no.
What do you think? Share your thoughts in the comments below!