Vol. 1 - No. 8
The Taking of Oaths
by Robert L. McDonald
"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" (Matthew 5:33‑37).
The Jews of the first century claimed to stand for truth. It was said that the school of Shammai was so, wedded to the truth that they forbade the ordinary courteous politeness of society.
Some Jewish teachers were convinced that a report was true if it had been guaranteed by an oath. Some of the Jewish rabbins had introduced a number of oaths in common conversation which they did not consider binding. So as to give their claims more credibility, they would swear by the temple, by their head, by heaven or by the earth. They seemed to think if they took public oaths without uttering the name of God that such were allowable. Undoubtedly Jesus had in mind the practice of swearing in common conversation and showed that this swearing was not characteristic of the people of God.
"Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain; for the Lord will not hold him guiltless that taketh his name in vain"" (Exodus 20:7). Even though a person seeking to maintain a proper fellowship with God will not use profanity in speech, this commandment has nothing to do with swearing in that sense. What Jesus was talking about condemned the man who swears that something is true, or who makes a promise, in the name of god and takes an oath falsely. "If a man vow a vow unto the Lord, or swear an oath to bind his soul with a bond; he shall not break his word, he shall do according to all that proceedeth out of his mouth" (Numbers 30:2).
During the time of Jesus, there were two unsatisfactory things about taking oaths. The first was what might be called frivolous swearing, the taking an oath where none was necessary. Evidently some would introduce a statement which they wanted to convince as credible with, "By heaven," or "by my head," or "by Jerusalem" (city of the King). To swear by heaven is to swear by Him that sitteth therein. To swear by the earth is really swearing by God. To swear by Jerusalem was to call upon the one whose temple was placed in that city. Too often people used the most sacred language in meaningless ways to strengthen their words. Sacred things should be kept for sacred things.
The second thing about taking oaths is what is involved in evasive swearing. It is my understanding that the Jews divided their oaths into two classes, those binding and those not. Any oath which contained the name of God was binding upon that person. However, an oath which avoided the name of God was not binding. So when one would make an oath by substituting his head, or Jerusalem, or heaven, et al, he felt free to break that oath. What these people were doing was vain and placed no real value in what they had to say. Everyone knew the delicate points of issue in uttering oaths and they fooled no one.
Instead of men foolishly swearing, as was the custom of those days, the disciple of Christ should always be known for speaking the truth and nothing more. Truth speakers do not need to uphold their words by foolishly making oaths to convince others that such is the truth. Jesus said, "Let your communication be, Yes, yea; Nay, nay" (vs. 37). His truthfulness and witness should make an oath completely unnecessary. The ideal society is one where everyone speaks the truth and no oath, vainly given, would be necessary for day to day communication.
When these passages are studied, immediately one raises the question as to whether these principles forbid a man from taking an oath anywhere, such as a witness before the civil courts. The ancient Jewish sect, the Essenes, absolutely refused to take any oath. The Quakers today will not submit to one. Still countless others will not take an oath because of what they think they see in this passage.
There were times when Paul took oaths as he wrote to his beloved brethren. These were not foolish oaths as characterized the Jews of whom Jesus spoke. "Moreover I call God for a record upon my soul, that to spare you I came not as yet unto Corinth" (2 Corinthians 1:23). "Now the things which I write unto you, behold, before God I lie not" (Galatians 1:20). Without question the inspired apostle placed himself on oath.
When Jesus stood before the council, on that early morning before his crucifixion, the high priest said, "I adjure thee by the living God, that thou tell us whether thou be the Christ, the Son of God" (Matthew 26:63). To this, our Lord acknowledged his Deity.
Jesus did not have in mind the civil oaths as common to our society. When one is called to witness in a court of law, the question is generally asked if he swears or affirms to tell the truth. Upon that affirmation, he is on record to speak nothing but the truth. It is true that no Christian should be asked whether or not he is speaking the truth, for his Yea should be yea, and Nay, nay. Unfortunately, the vast majority of this world are men who have little regard for truth and righteousness.
What did Jesus have in mind when he forbade the oaths as mentioned in the text? When man relies upon an oath to convince of his truthfulness, it is evident the words will flow from an evil heart. If there is no evil in the man, then no oath is necessary. The really good man will never need to make foolish oaths in common conversation because the truth of his words and the reality of his promises need no such guarantee. This leaves upon us the obligation to make our selves such that men will see our transparent goodness so that it will never be necessary to ask an oath from us.