The Sermon On The Mount
The Law and Oaths-Concluded
"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). In the preceding article we gave an exposition of these verses, in which we showed how our Lord here condemned the wicked devices of the scribes and the evil practices of the Pharisees and their followers. Now we propose to treat the subject topically, for there is real need today for a scriptural enforcement of the whole subject.
"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). This is the fundamental precept of God upon the matter of oaths, and the scope of its prohibition and the range of its meaning are far more extensive than is now commonly supposed. "Thy commandment is exceeding broad" (Ps. 119:96), declared David of old, and clearly was it made manifest in Christ's teaching. Those who have followed us closely in the previous chapter will remember that in this Sermon the Saviour has furnished us with some most important and invaluable rules for interpreting the ten commandments. First, that when God forbids one sin He at the same time prohibits all sins of the same kind, with all the causes and occasions thereof. Second, that to the breach of any commandment there is annexed a curse, whether it be expressed specifically or not. Third, that where any vice is condemned the opposite virtue is enjoined.
When God said, "Thou shalt not kill," He not only prohibited the overt deed of murder, but also condemned every evil working of heart and mind which had a tendency to lead up to it: all hatred, anger, provoking language or gestures. When He said, "Thou shalt not commit adultery," He not only forbade the actual act of immorality, but also all unlawful lustings and desires, all impure thoughts and imaginations. In like manner, when He said, "Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain," He not only reprehended the vile sin of using any of His sacred titles in cursing, He not only prohibited the crime of perjury, but He also forbade us both to swear by any of His creatures or take any unnecessary oaths, as well as condemned all extravagant expletives.
Scholars tell us that an oath in the Hebrew is called shebuah, and that there are two things observable about it. First, that the verb "to swear" is used only in the niphal-a passive conjugation-which implies that we should be passive in swearing; that is, we should not take an oath unless called upon to do so, or at least unless circumstances morally oblige us thereunto. Most significantly the Hebrew word is taken from a root that signifies "seven," which perhaps implies that it should be taken before many witnesses, and seven being the sacred and complete number, the name of an oath may be derived from it because it is appointed to put a complete end to differences. The Greeks called it horkos, most probably from a root signifying "to bind or strengthen," for by an oath a man takes a bond on his soul which cannot be loosed ordinarily. The Latin juro and jus jurandum are plainly derived from "jus," that is "right and law."
Let us now consider, first, the nature of an oath. An oath is a religious and necessary confirmation of things doubtful by calling God to be a Witness of truth and a Revenger of falsehood. That it is confirmation is clear from Hebrews 6:16, where the Holy Spirit expressly affirms the same. That it is a religious confirmation appears from the fact that it is a part of Divine worship, God Himself being invoked therein: in Isaiah 19:18, "swear to the Lord of hosts" is used for the whole of His worship. It must be a necessary confirmation, because any oath is unlawful which concerns only trifling matters or things which need no solemn settlement. That God is called in both as Witness and Revenger is self-evident, because therein consists the form and all the force of an oath. The one who thus swears acknowledges the Divine perfections, appealing to Him as the God of truth and the hater of lies.
Properly speaking, then, in an oath there are four things. First, a formal asseveration of the truth, which should always be spoken even when no oath be taken. Second, a confession of the omnipotent presence of the thrice holy Lord God, whereby we do most solemnly acknowledge Him as Witness, Judge, and Revenger of falsehood. Third, an invocation whereby God is called upon to bear witness to our conscience that what we swear to is nothing but the truth. Fourth, an imprecation, in which the swearer asks God to be the Revenger of all lies, binding himself to Divine punishment if he swear falsely. Therefore it clearly follows that an oath is not to be lightly entered into, that one is not to be taken at all except in matters of real importance, and that it must be taken in the most solemn manner, otherwise we violate the third commandment and are guilty of the awful sin of taking the holy name of the Lord God in vain.
Second, the design of an oath consists in a solemn confirmation of what we affirm or deny by a religious invocation of the name of God, as One that knoweth and owneth the truth. So far as God is thus invoked in an oath, it is part of His worship, both as required by Him and as ascribing glory to Him. When a man is admitted under oath he is, as it were, discharged from an earthly tribunal, having betaken himself to the Lord as the only Judge in the case. By what particular expression this appeal unto God and invocation of Him is made is not absolutely necessary unto the nature of an oath to determine. It is sufficient that such expressions be used as are approved and received signs of such an invocation and appeal among those that are concerned therein. The placing of one hand upon a copy of God's holy Word while we are being sworn in appears to us eminently desirable, while the other hand might well be raised toward heaven; but the kissing of the Book afterwards strikes us as both needless and unsuitable.
Third, a word now upon the qualifications or characteristics of lawful oaths. These are clearly expressed by the prophet, so that nothing needs to be added to them, and nothing must be taken from them. "Thou shalt swear, The Lord liveth, in truth, in judgment, and in righteousness" (Jer. 4:2). "Truth" is required in it, in opposition unto guile and falsehood; for where this obtains not, God is called to be Witness unto a lie, which is to deny His very being. It must be "in judgment" we swear: not lightly, not rashly, not without a just and sufficient cause. There must be discernment and careful discretion in exercise, both in connection with the thing in question which is to be confirmed, and also of the solemn nature of an oath and of the issue of the same. "In righteousness" we must swear, namely that it be equity which we wish to confirm, tending to the glory of God and the good of our fellows.
When the above qualifications are complied with and where matters are in controversy among men and the peace of human society in general or particular depends upon the rightful determination of them, it is meet and p roper for a believer, being lawfully called, to confirm the truth which he knows by the invocation of God, with the design of putting an end to strife. Oath-taking is a part of the natural worship of God, which the light of nature leads unto. This is evident from the example of the Lord Himself, who at sundry times took an oath both before the Mosaic law (Gen. 22:16) and afterwards. Now it is obvious that if men had not had from the light of nature an understanding of the legitimacy and obligation of an oath, this would have had no significance for them and would have been of no use to them.
In earliest times God often enlightened and more fully instructed men by His own example. In compliance therewith we find that those who walked the closest with Him, centuries before the giving of the Law at Sinai, did solemnly swear one to another when occasion did require it, and when they were legitimately warranted in so doing. Thus Abraham swore to Abimelech (Gen. 21:23, 24), and required an oath to be taken by his servant (Gen. 24:8, 9). In like manner Jacob swore with Laban (Gen. 31:53). And so too Joseph swore to his father (Gen. 47:31). Let it be duly noted that these instances had no respect unto the legal institutions of Moses, and therefore there is no reason to think there would be anything in the Gospel which condemned such a practice today.
One would think the above was quite simple and clear, but alas, such is man that he will discover difficulties where none exist and twist and wrest the plainest statement. Though the great majority of professing Christians have rightly understood and acted upon the teaching of Scripture on this subject, there have been a number that err therein. The Society of Friends and a few others consider that the New Testament expressly forbids the use of any oaths. They appeal to Christ's saying, "Swear not at all" and to "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" (Jam. 5:12), supposing these passages prohibit us swearing under any circumstances whatever; and therefore they refuse to bear witness upon oath even when called upon to do so by the rulers of the land.
It is evident that the verse quoted from James is derived from and has respect to the words of our Saviour in Matthew 5:33-37, it being an exhortation inculcating His precept and directions on the same matter. The same answer will therefore serve both places, nor will it be at all difficult to expose and refute the errors based thereon. First of all, it must be pointed out that there is nothing in the essential nature of an oath which can make it criminal, or it would never have been enjoined by Divine authority (Deut. 6:13). An oath is simply an appeal to the Omniscient One (who searches the heart and is the great Governor of the world, punishing fraud and falsehood) as to the truthfulness of our testimony and the sincerity of our promises. As this is a dictate of the light of nature no mere change of dispensation could make right to be wrong.
Second, the prophecy of Isaiah 45:23, belongs and is expressly applied to believers in the New Testament. "I have sworn by Myself, the word is gone out of My mouth in righteousness, and shall not return, That unto Me every knee shall bow, every tongue shall swear"-see Romans 14:11. This had respect to what God had of old prescribed (Deut. 6:13). This now, says the prophet, shall in the days of the Gospel be observed throughout the world, which certainly could not be the case if it were unlawful to swear under any circumstances by that holy Name. In like manner Jeremiah predicted concerning the calling and conversion of the Gentiles under the new covenant, "It shall come to pass, if they will diligently learn the ways of My people, to swear by My name, The Lord liveth . . . then shall they be built in the midst of My people" (12:16). But that could he no direction or encouragement to converts of the Gentiles if it be unlawful for them to swear and if it be not their duty when duly called upon.
Third, as we have fully shown in our exposition of Matthew 5:33-37 (in the previous chapter), Christ was there condemning only those oaths which were contrary to the Law, prohibiting things which were essentially evil in themselves. It was the errors of the Jews He was exposing, the wicked perversions of the Pharisees He was refuting. That this must be the right way of understanding our Lord's teaching in this passage appears plain from the principles which He had laid down so emphatically at the beginning of this section of His Sermon: "Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfil. For verily I say unto you, Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled (vv. 17, 18). If oaths pertain to "the law" or "the prophets" (and they did?, then it most certainly was not Christ's purpose to annul them. The Giver and Fulfiller of the Law is not also its Destroyer.
Fourth, in the matter of judicial oaths Christ Himself has left us an example (which we should follow-1 Pet. 2:21), for when He stood before the Sanhedrin, though He had previously refused to answer either His accusers or the high priest, He immediately responded to Caiaphas when he said, "I adjure Thee by the living God" (Matthew 26:63, 64). Fifth, Paul, the greatest of the apostles, confirmed his testimony again and again by calling God for a Witness (2 Cor. 1:23; Gal. 1:20; Phil. 1:8; etc.). In such passages he most solemnly swears to the truth of his own affirmations concerning himself and his sincerity therein (cf. Rom. 9:1). It was not respecting any doctrine he taught that he did swear to, for it needed no confirmation of an oath, deriving as it did all its authority and assurance from Divine revelation. But it was concerning his own heart and purpose, whereof there might be some doubt, and. when it was of great concern to the Church to have the Truth emphatically stated.
Sixth, Hebrews 6:16, tells us, "For men verily swear by the greater: and an oath for confirmation is to them an end of all strife." In this verse Paul, the apostle to the Gentiles, addressing the holy brethren who are "partakers of the heavenly calling" (3:1), not only urges the common usage of mankind, but lays down a certain maxim and principle of the law of nature,, whose exercise was to be approved among all. And if the practice thereof had not been lawful unto those to whom he wrote, namely Christians, those who obeyed the Gospel, then he had exceedingly weakened the whole design of his discourse there concerning the oath of God, by shutting it up with this instance, which could be of no force to them if it were unlawful for them to practice the same or have an experience of its efficacy. Finally, if oaths had become unlawful under the New Testament, then God would not have continued their use in any kind, lest His people be encouraged to act contrary to His command. But He did so, commissioning an angel to "swear by Him that liveth for ever and ever" (Rev. 10:4-6).
From what has been before us in Matthew v, we may perceive the importance and need of heeding two particular rules when interpreting Scripture. First, that universal affirmations and negations are not always to be universally understood, but are to be limited by their occasions, circumstances, and the subject-matter treated of. Things expressed in universal language must be regarded according to the thing in hand. Thus, when the apostle declared, "I am made all things to all men, that I might by a I means save some" (1 Cor. 9:22), if his language were taken without limitation it would signify that he became a blasphemer to blasphemers, etc., whereas his statement must be restricted to things indifferent and innocent, in which he yielded to the weakness of others. In like manner, when Christ said, "Swear not at all," His obvious meaning (according to what follows) is swear not blasphemously, needlessly or by any mere creature.
Second, it is a rule of real use in the interpreting of Holy Writ that when anything is prohibited in one passage, but allowed in another, not the thing absolutely considered is spoken unto in either case, but rather some particular mode, cause, end, or reason is intended. So here, in Matthew 5:34, swearing is forbidden, whereas in other passages we find it is allowed and that examples thereof are proposed unto us. Wherefore it cannot be swearing absolutely that is intended; but evil and needless swearing is condemned by the one, and swearing in right causes or for just ends is approved in the other.
Nor is the taking of an oath to be restricted to law courts only (Ex. 22:11), and the instances of Paul and his epistles prove otherwise. In certain cases private oaths, between man and man, are perfectly legitimate. "Boaz was a private person, who confirmed by an oath his promise of marriage to Ruth (Ruth 3:13). Obadiah was a private person, a righteous man, and one that feared the Lord, who declared with an oath the fact of which he wished to convince Elijah (1 Kings 18:10). I can find, therefore, no better rule than that we regulate our oaths in such a manner that they be not rash or inconsiderate, wanton or frivolous, but used in cases of real necessity" (John Calvin). The awful solemnity of an oath appears from 1 Kings 8:31, 32. So too we should duly lay to heart the fearful judgments of God which came upon Israel of old when they were guilty of breaking the third commandment (Jer. 5:7-9; Zech. 5:4).