“Again, ye have heard that it was said to 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 the heaven, for it is the throne of God; nor by the earth, for it is the footstool of his feet; nor by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. Neither shalt thou swear by thy head, for thou canst not make one hair white or black. But let your speech be, ‘Yea, yea; Nay, nay’: and whatsoever is more than these is of the evil one (Matthew 5:33-37).
When in the middle of disputes it is easy to miss the forest for the trees, focusing only on the details of the issue at hand. Jesus resolutely maintained focus on the forest!
Jesus declares Matthew 5:33-37 in the midst of what is popularly called the “Sermon on the Mount”; it is also the fourth of six declarations whereby Jesus contrasts what the disciples and Israel had heard from what “I say unto you,” and in all six Jesus is contrasting the standard of righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees with that of God’s full purpose in His Kingdom (Matthew 5:17-48). Previous declarations involved murder, adultery, and divorce; in each circumstance Jesus also condemns giving expression to the desires that lead to those sins and returns to God’s purposes for marriage from the beginning (Matthew 5:21-32).
In Matthew 5:33-37 Jesus turns to the matter of oaths and vows. What Israel “had heard” as cited in Matthew 5:33 does not come from one specific passage but represents the substantive message of Leviticus 19:12, Numbers 30:2-16, and Deuteronomy 5:11, 23:23: God commanded for Israel to not swear falsely but to pay what they vow.
In days of old many in Israel took this commandment very seriously. Even though the covenant made between Israel and the Gibeonites was made under false pretenses, Israel decided to honor that covenant because they had sworn to the Gibeonites by the name of YHWH (Joshua 9:1-27). Jephthah made a foolish and rash vow, yet the text makes it abundantly clear that he did exactly what he vowed, even though it meant sacrificing his daughter as a burnt offering (Judges 11:30-39). While we might question why such vows should be honored, the Israelites did not. The vows should not have been made; they were rash and foolish; but once made they were obligated to follow through. The Law provided only a narrow provision for a vow to be repealed, and it only involved a vow of a woman in certain circumstances (Numbers 30:1-16).
Yet things had changed by Jesus’ day. We can see from Matthew 23:16-22 that the Pharisees had worked out an elaborate system on account of which some were obligated to keep their vows but not others: those who swore on the Temple or the altar were not obliged, but those who swore on the gold of the Temple or the offering on the altar were obliged. Jesus devastates that logic, asking which is greater, the gold or the Temple that sanctifies the gold, the altar or the One who sanctifies the altar, and making it quite clear that even in the first century, regardless of whether you swore on the Temple, its gold, the altar, its offering, or heaven in reality swears in the name of the One who accepts the gift on the altar, who dwells in the Temple, and who sits on the throne in Heaven. God was not confused nor was He amused: if Israelites swore on anything they were still obligated to pay their vows!
Nevertheless, in Matthew 5:34-37 Jesus goes even further. Throughout He never denies that if you swear you are obligated to pay your vow; He does not say otherwise here, and in Matthew 23:16-22 He makes His feelings about paying vows actually made quite well known. In Matthew 5:34-37 Jesus goes a large step further: do not swear at all!
Humans have a propensity toward swearing; yes, we could include the “cursing” kind as well, but we speak specifically of the impulse to make a vow. When we are doubted or challenged we impulsively swear to be telling the truth; not a few in our midst greatly desire for us to vow, or commit, to various projects. Humans show almost equal propensity to break vows as much as to make them; how many times will people swear to be telling the truth precisely when they are trying to pass off a lie? How many have given their word but do not follow through? Such is why God commanded Israel to not take His name in vain, concerned less about cursing and far more about swearing the truth in the name of YHWH flippantly (Exodus 20:7). Such is why God put such strong emphasis on Israelites paying whatever they vowed (Numbers 30:1-16). And this is why so many first century Israelites were trying to find an “escape route” out of their vows!
What good does swearing do, anyway? Is something we say or promise more valid if we swear by heaven? As Jesus says, it is God’s throne, His seat of power, not ours (Matthew 5:34; cf. Isaiah 66:1). What if we swear by the earth? It is not ours; it is the footstool of God’s feet (Matthew 5:34; cf. Isaiah 66:1). Jerusalem? The city of the great King (Matthew 5:34; cf. Psalm 48:2). Well, what about on our own heads? Jesus reminds us that we cannot make one hair white or black (and the premise is not contradicted by current hair coloring products; we are still not nearly in as much control of our existence as we would like to imagine but subject to all sorts of forces, Matthew 5:36). Swearing by our own righteousness would prove counter-productive (Romans 3:20, 23). Thus, in the end, we humans really do not have any basis upon which to swear; there is no external force that grounds our words as true.
Instead, as Jesus suggests, we ought to say yes and no; our integrity should be inherent in our words (Matthew 5:37). If we are trustworthy, our yes or our no should be sufficient. As Jesus says, anything beyond “yes” and “no” is of the Evil One, since it comes from a place of doubt, fear, mistrust, and sin (Matthew 5:37). For good measure James repeats the same command in James 5:12.
Whenever Jesus’ command to not swear is discussed many questions multiply about being sworn in as a witness in a trial, making contract commitments in general, and things of that nature. Is the prohibition absolute? The text does not say. Being sworn in as a witness in a trial is a way to observe the civil laws, a commendable thing in Romans 13:1-7, 1 Peter 2:11-15, and not the issue regarding which Jesus is discussing. Jesus’ concern is about our propensity to want to invoke other people, places, or authorities to somehow invest our words with greater veracity or authority. Yet, in reality, all we have is our “yes” and “no.” Our words are no more or less true if we swear on God’s name, heaven and earth, the grave of our mother, or anything else. Furthermore, when we make vows, we obligate ourselves to fulfill them, and is that a wise course of action? We do better to live with such integrity that those around us know that our yes or no can be trusted. Living with such integrity is how we may exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees and thus enter the Kingdom of God! Let us be true to our word, avoid swearing and vowing whenever possible, allow our yes to be yes and no, no, and speak and live in integrity before God in Christ!
Ethan R. Longhenry