Question Box: The swearing of an oath

Question or Topic Scripture

There are some plainly stated verses (in the New Testament) giving us stern command not to swear (Matt. 5:34,36 and James 5:12); yet in the Old Testament many of the faithful patriarchs and others swore (Gen. 21:23-24, Gen. 24:2-4, Gen. 47:30-31). It was not corrected, condemned, nor said to be wrong. Both the Hebrew and the Greek words involved mean "to take an oath", according to Strong's. How does this (Christ's) commandment fit in with the patriarch's action and how does it apply to us?"

Matt. 5:34,36; James 5:12


The swearing of an oath is an attempt on the part of the swearer, or by the person demanding the oath, to guarantee that that which is sworn will be done or carried out. It places the swearer under an irreversible obligation to perform as promised. It emphasizes the importance of the promise, putting it into a solemn, grave, and most serious category. Failure to fulfill an oath made in the name of the God of Israel bore the potential of divine retribution.

An oath, however, no matter how well intended, is an exercise in vanity. The swearer, after making his oath, may die suddenly, thereby breaking his oath, through no fault of his own. Any number of unfortunate circumstances may prevent him from keeping his solemn promise.

The Lord alone can swear an oath and successfully guarantee to keep it. Thus in Gen.22: 15-18 it is recorded that, "And the angel of the LORD called unto Abraham out of heaven the second time, And said, By myself have I sworn, saith the LORD, for because thou hast done this thing, and hast not withheld thy son, thine only son: That in blessing I will bless thee, and in multiplying I will multiply thy seed as the stars of the heaven, and as the sand which is upon the sea shore; and thy seed shall possess the gate of his enemies; And in thy seed shall all the nations of the earth be blessed; because thou hast obeyed my voice."

Why should the all-powerful Creator make an oath? Would not a simple promise do? Yes, indeed it would, as far as the keeping of it is concerned. But God, knowing the characteristics of his fleshly creatures, appealed to what they would accept. Thus, we have the explanation given in Hebrews 6:16-18 "For men verily swear by the greater: and an oath for confirmation is to them an end of all strife. Wherein God, willing more abundantly to show unto the heirs of promise the immutability of his counsel, confirmed it by an oath: That by two immutable things, in which it was impossible for God to lie, we might have a strong consolation, who have fled for refuge to lay hold upon the hope set before us:"

There is no place in Scripture, known by this writer, where God required an oath from anyone. He did say, in effect, if you are going to swear an oath, swear by me and not by the gods of the heathen, as stated in Deut. 6:13-14, "Thou shalt fear the LORD thy God, and serve him, and shalt swear by his name. Ye shall not go after other gods, of the gods of the people which are round about you." Then in Leviticus 19:12, the Lord anticipates the occasion when even the solemnity of an oath does not bind the conscience of the unscrupulous. "And ye shall not swear by my name falsely, neither shalt thou profane the name of thy God: I am the Lord."

In Old Testament times there may have been many faithfully performed oaths but there were also others that were rash and foolish. Even David, assuming that he was the author of Psalm 119, swore foolishly. Verse 106 states, "I have sworn, and I will perform it, that I will keep thy righteous judgements." But he failed miserably, considering his affair with Bathsheba and in plotting the murder of Uriah the Hittite.

Jesus was fully aware of the past history of his nation, including their human failings, inabilities and foolishness. In Matthew 5: 33-37, he expresses his wisdom on the whole matter of swearing and oaths: "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 thy 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.

Likewise, the apostle James warns in James 5:12, "But above all things, my brethren, swear not, neither by heaven, neither by the earth, neither by any other oath: but let your yea be yea; and your nay, nay; lest ye fall into condemnation." There is a subtle emphasis here to the effect that if you say "Yea" or 'Nay", then you must mean what you say and be true to your word. If we are not as good as our word, swearing on a stack of Bibles, (to quote an old expression), will not make our promise any more sure.

Our moral wisdom is influenced by many sources, some of which revert back to the Scriptures in one way or the other. William Shakespeare wrote in his King Richard II, "The purest treasure mortal times affords is spotless reputation." And again, "Mine honour is my life; both grow in one; take honour from me, and my life is done." Robert Service, in one of his poems of the Yukon, wrote, "A promise made is a debt unpaid." The last lines of Robert Browning's poem, The Pied Piper of Hamelin, read, "And whether they pipe us free from rats or from mice, if we've promised them aught, let us keep our promise."

A simple expression of intention carries just as much moral obligation as a sworn oath but leaves a door of potential forgiveness open, in the case of failure. An oath bars failure and forgiveness. As far as our day in a court of law is concerned, an affirmation to tell the truth is acceptable in place of an oath and carries the same obligation. Shakespeare, in his play, Hamlet, wrote, "This above all: to thine own self be true, and it must follow, as the night the day, thou canst not then be false to any man."

We have a great High Priest who is touched with the feelings of our infirmities. "Let us therefore come boldly unto the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy, and find grace to help in time of need." (Heb. 4:16)


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