The Sermon On The Mount
The Law 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."
The subject which is now to engage our attention is hardly one that is likely to appeal very strongly to the average reader, probably because it treats of matters which rarely engage his mind. Yet the very fact that the Lord Jesus gave the same something more than a passing notice in His first formal Sermon should indicate to us that it is one which we cannot afford to ignore. The Son of God did not waste time on trivialities nor make public deliverances on technicalities devoid of practical value. No, rather did He concern Himself with vital matters that directly affected the glory of God and concerned the eternal welfare of immortal souls. It is therefore a slighting of His honour and impugning of His wisdom if we refuse to attentively weigh and prayerfully consider His teaching on the subject of oaths. Nor is this the only occasion on which He brought it to the notice of His congregations; as we shall see, in Matthew 23, He returned to the theme and spoke at great length thereon.
Someone has said, "Where ignorance is bliss, 'tis folly to be wise," but such a silly statement savors more of insanity than perspicuity and prudence. Blissful ignorance is often highly dangerous, and in connection with the things of God, fatal. "My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge" (Hosea 4:6) said the Lord of old. True, knowledge itself will not always deter from sin, but often it serves as a salutary restraint. It is much to be feared that millions of the present generation, who are guilty of the crimes which Christ here condemned, are totally ignorant of their wickedness in this matter. Nothing is more prevalent today, among all classes, than cursing and swearing, and it is high time that both the pulpit and the press sounded a loud and solemn warning thereon.
The deep importance of our subject may further be intimated by pointing out that it is essentially bound up with a right understanding and observance of the third of the ten commandments. It is therefore basic and vital, for the curse of God rests upon all transgressors of His Law. If the reader will take the trouble to examine a good concordance on the words "oaths," "swear" and "vow," he may be surprised to find how many scores of passages there are speaking thereof. Finally, when it is seen that the rightful taking of an oath is an act of worship, we may then more clearly perceive the momentousness and value of our present inquiry, for it deeply concerns us all to be scripturally regulated on anything which has to do with the worship of God, and it behooves us to spare no effort in seeing to it that our worship be performed in a manner which will meet with Divine approval and acceptance.
"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). This time we propose to make only a few expository and explanatory remarks on our passage, and then devote the remainder of our space unto a topical treatment of the whole subject.
"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." It is almost ludicrous to see what shifts many of the commentators have put themselves to in their efforts to identify this statement of Christ's with one or more of the Mosaic statutes, ending with the confession that His actual words cannot be found anywhere in the Old Testament, and supposing that He here epitomized the teaching of the Law thereon. Such confusion is inexcusable, and such an explanation most unwarrantable. The fact is that our Lord does not here refer to the Divine precepts at all, but instead to the Jews' perversion of them. He pursues identically the same order in these verses as He had followed in the preceding sections. First, He mentions the pharisaic corruption of the Divine Law, and then sets forth the character of that righteousness which He requires from the citizens of His kingdom on the matter under discussion.
"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" (Ex. 20:7). Here is the original and fundamental law concerning oaths, with which we may also link "Thou shalt fear the Lord thy God, and serve Him, and shalt swear by His name" (Deut. 6:13). Thus an oath was a solemn appeal to the dread name of Jehovah, which, by awaking the spirit of the swearer to a consciousness of the awe-inspiring presence and cognizance of the Most High, gave all its sanctity and power to it. And then, when anyone had so sworn, there was the solemn warning that the Lord would not hold him guiltless that took His name in vain. Thus it is quite clear that Israelites were permitted to swear by the name of the Lord, but having once done so they must not change their minds nor in any way fail to keep their promises.
It is striking to note that when the Psalmist delineated the character of him who was fitted to "abide in the Lord's tabernacle" and "dwell in His holy hill" (i.e. commune with God and enjoy His presence for ever), one of the marks specified was "He that sweareth to his own hurt, and changeth not" (Ps. 15:1, 4): that is, who at no cost will go back upon his sworn word. It is therefore obvious from these passages that the Mosaic law had a strong tendency to check the practice of oath-taking and to restrict the same unto solemn occasions. The interested reader may also consult such passages as Exodus 22:11, 12; Leviticus 5:1; 19:12; Numbers 5:19-21.
But the Jewish doctors had found ways of perverting the Divine statutes, and the Pharisees had perpetuated and added to their corruptions. From the language used by Christ on this occasion we have no difficulty in ascertaining the nature of their errors and evil practices. First, it is clear from verse 33 that they had unwarrantably restricted the Mosaic precepts upon oaths to the single prohibition against perjury. They drew the wicked inference that there was no evil in any oath, at any time, provided a man did not forswear himself. Thus they opened wide the door for men to multiply oaths on any matter and every trivial occasion.
Not only was perjury severely condemned by the Mosaic law, but any vain and needless use of the name of God in our ordinary communications was strictly prohibited. No man ought voluntarily to take an oath unless it be a matter of controversy and the contention cannot he settled without it: "For men verily swear by the greater: and an oath for confirmation is to them an end of all strife" (Heb. 6:16). But the Pharisees had so wrested the law they taught that so long as men swore truthfully as to matters of fact, and performed their vows in case of promise, all was well. They seem to have had no conscience of swearing lightly. In order for an oath to be lawful, it requires not only that the affirmation be true and the vows performed, but that such a mode of affirmation or vowing be necessary.
Second, it is equally plain from Christ's words in verses 34-36 that the Jews had wrested the third commandment by inventing the idea of swearing by the creature. Aiming to ingratiate themselves with men by pandering to their corruptions-for it is ever the way of all false teachers to accommodate the Truth to the blindness and lusts of their dupes-the scribes devised a means whereby men might swear without the guilt of perjury although they swore never so falsely; and this was to swear not by the name of God, hut by the heavens or the earth, by Jerusalem or the temple. They made a distinction between oaths: according to them, some were binding, others were not-the obligation of an oath depending upon the nature of the object by which the person swore (Matthew 23:16).
It is not difficult to see why such a device was resorted to by the leaders, or why it should be so popular with their followers. The Law was very definite, "Thou shalt fear the Lord thy God, and serve Him, and shalt swear by His name" (Deut. 6:13). To swear in the name of the Lord was ordained not only for the placing of a solemn bridle upon fallen man's proneness to lying, but also to restrain the act itself unto serious matters and important occasions. Hence, this invitation of swearing by some inanimate object removed the very awe with which an oath should be invested and surrounded. Yet one can readily perceive how easily those hypocrites could cloak their wickedness-pretending such veneration for God that His name must not be used by the people. Philo taught, "It is a sin and a vanity presently to run to God or the Maker of all things, and to swear by Him: it is lawful to swear by our parents, by heaven, and the stars.
Third, it is equally obvious from our Lord's words in verse 37 that the Jews had been encouraged and permitted to make use of oaths lightly and commonly in their ordinary conversation. This would logically and inevitably follow upon the second evil to which we have just referred, for such a device was not only dishonest and demoralizing in itself, but it was sure to bring about an utter disregard of the third commandment, for since such oaths (where the name of God was omitted) would be lightly esteemed, men would be inclined to resort unto oaths upon any matter or occasion. "With the exception of oaths by the gold of the temple and by the sacrifices of the altar-which, for some selfish or superstitious reason, they held to be binding-they appear to have thought that to swear by any created thing was of very little consequence, involved no obligation, and might be done in common conversation without sin" (J. Brown).
"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" (vv. 34, 35). In these verses and in the two which immediately follow our Lord inveighs against the erroneous teachings and corrupt practices of the scribes and Pharisees. Let it be clearly understood that all of the things prohibited by our Saviour in this Sermon were in themselves and also by virtue of the Law of God antecedently evil and unlawful. Most certainly He is not here pitting Himself against any of the Mosaic precepts; rather was He restoring them to their original place, purity and power. It was the pharisaic veil of religious hypocrisy which Christ rent asunder, exposing the corruptness of their traditions and denouncing the soul-ruining sins into which the great body of people had been drawn.
Let any of the immediately preceding sections of this Sermon be considered, and it will at once be found that the particulars there mentioned by Christ were things which were wrong in themselves, and declared so in the positive Law of God. Was it not gross wickedness to be angry with a brother without cause, and to call him "raca and fool"? Was it not exceedingly sinful to look upon a woman so as to lust after her? In like manner, what is here prohibited by Christ in His "Swear not at all" is not the legitimate taking of an oath in law courts, nor even between man and man so as to end a controversy; but rather that which was directly opposed to the Mosaic statutes, yet practiced and supported by the false interpretations of the Law by the Pharisees.
"But I say unto you, Swear not at all." This injunction of Christ's supplies another example of the need for careful interpretation of the language of Scripture. Not a few good men have been misled here by the mere sound of words, failing to ascertain their real sense. By taking the prohibition absolutely, instead of relatively, they have certainly erred. This verse also shows us the importance of comparing scripture with scripture, for it is quite clear, not only from the Old Testament but from many passages in the New, that in certain circumstances, and when they are ordered by the rules of God's Word, oaths are lawful, yea, necessary-we shall discuss this at more length in our next (D.V.). But we do not have to go outside the bounds of our present passage to find that Christ did not intend His prohibition to be taken without any limitations. He Himself qualified it, first, by forbidding us to swear by any creature; and second, by reprehending all oaths in our ordinary conversation.
Had H is "Swear not at all" meant that He here forbade all oaths, in any form and under every circumstance, it was needless to add anything more, and in such a case what is found in the next two verses would simply be a multiplying of words to no purpose. Instead, Christ proceeded to amplify and explain His prohibition, and at the same time expose the sophistry of the Pharisees' devices and show wherein lay the sinfulness of the same. They had invented a method which they supposed would clear the oath-taker from incurring the guilt of breaking the third commandment, and that was to swear by some creature, instead of doing so in the sacred name of the Lord God. This it was which Christ was here reproving, and in so doing He once more discovered to us the exceeding "breadth" of the Divine commandments (Ps. 119:96).
"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." Here Christ made it plain that by no subtle subterfuge can men escape the solemn responsibility of an oath. Though they may omit mentioning the fearful name of God, yet let them know that His is the name of Creator and Owner of all things, and therefore it is invoked in all the works of His hands. If men swear by "heaven," as the Pharisees recommended, let them duly bear in mind that that is God's "throne," and so it is really Himself that they summon as a witness to their integrity. If men swear by "the earth," that is God's "footstool," and he who swears by it swears by the God whose footstool it is; if by "Jerusalem," that was the capital, the seat of His worship.
"Neither shalt thou swear by thy head, because thou canst not make one hair white or black" (v. 36). A swearing by any creature necessarily implies an appeal unto God Himself, because of its relation to Him. The whole universe is the Lord's and therefore to swear by any part of it is a reference to its august Maker and Ruler. If we swear by our "head" that too has been given us by God, and is His far more than it is ours. God has made it and has the sole disposing of it-a statement easy of proof, for you are incapable of changing the color of a single hair on it! An oath by your head, if it have any meaning at all, is an oath by the universal Proprietor. Every oath, because it is an oath, is an ultimate reference to Deity. Man's inability really to change the color of his hair is here brought in by Christ to demonstrate that he has no power over his head. If man has no power over the least creature (a hair!), then how unlawful and ridiculous it is for him to swear by any creature!
"But let your communication be, Yea, yea; Nay, nay: for whatsoever is more than these cometh of evil" (v. 37). In these words Christ makes further amplification of His "Swear not at all," and lays down an important rule which is binding upon all. "Your communication" means your everyday dealings with your fellows, particularly your own common speech or conversation. Thousands of things are true, which yet it would be profaning the name of God to swear to. Christ was not here referring to judicial transactions at all, but to the ordinary intercourse of men with each other. "He did not censure His followers for what was said before a magistrate, but for what passed in their ordinary communications: that is, light and unnecessary oaths. This was a sin so prevalent among the Jews that even Christians who were called from among them stood in need of being warned against it (Jam. 5:12) (Andrew Fuller).
"Swear not at all . . . but let your communications be, Yea, yea; Nay, nay." In its particular application to His own people, Christ here struck at the root of the special evils He was now condemning, by demanding from His followers veracity in every word. It was as though He said, I not only forbid you to swear falsely, but to swear at all-in your common speech. What need should there be for you to swear?-you who are disciples of Him who is "the Truth"! As the followers of the Holy One, you must speak the truth in every utterance of your lips. Your character and conduct are to be such that all acquainted with you have the assurance that your word is your bond. If your communications are "yea" in the promise and "yea" in the performance, then there will be no need for you to appeal to God in witness of your veracity. Alas that the standard now set by the vast majority of professing Christians is so very far beneath this, and that the word of many of them is often worth less than that of those who make no profession at all. "Whatsoever is more than these, cometh of evil": that is, savoring of an oath; or even extravagant avowals in our ordinary conversations are sinful in the sight of God.