The Truth About Oaths – Matthew 5:33-37
This is the eighth part of the series as we continue our journey through the Sermon on the Mount, covering Matthew 5:33-37.
33 “Again, you have heard that it was said to our ancestors, You must not break your oath, but you must keep your oaths to the Lord. 34 But I tell you, don’t take an oath at all: either by heaven, because it is God’s throne; 35 or by the earth, because it is His footstool; or by Jerusalem, because it is the city of the great King. 36 Neither should you swear by your head, because you cannot make a single hair white or black. 37 But let your word ‘yes’ be ‘yes,’ and your ‘no’ be ‘no.’ Anything more than this is from the evil one. (HCSB)
Before digging into the passage itself, we need to define one term and understand how it was interpreted in 1st century Israel and why Jesus is focusing on it in this passage.
Oath – A solemn vow or promise to fulfill a pledge. Any breach of one’s undertaking affirmed by an oath would be attended by a curse. An example is the Lord affirmed that he had established a covenant and a curse with Israel; that is, a breach of the covenant would be followed by a curse (Elwell).
Deuteronomy 29:14-15 14 I am making this covenant and this oath not only with you, 15 but also with those who are standing here with us today in the presence of the Lord our God and with those who are not here today.
The oath was a manner of guaranteeing a promise in Israelite society and the ancient Near East. The parties of the covenant invoked their deity, or deities, to witness the agreement, then bound themselves with specific sanctions, curses and blessings, symbolized by melting substitutionary wax figures or cutting animals in half, as seen in 1 Samuel 11:7 He took a team of oxen, cut them in pieces, and sent them throughout the land of Israel by messengers who said, “This is what will be done to the ox of anyone who doesn’t march behind Saul and Samuel.” As a result, the terror of the Lord fell on the people, and they went out united.
Oath-taking became quite complicated in intertestamental Judaism. The system of binding vows was so complicated as to allow the initiator to deceive anyone not familiar with the system. The net result was that the oath became a primary means of defrauding outsiders, hence Jesus’ condemnation of the system as examined in this passage (Myers).
This may seem like a long-winded discourse on the definition of an oath, but since it is the main point of the passage, it is important that we completely understand the setting and circumstances that Jesus is addressing here.
In various places in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus is reminding the Jews about things they should already know or understand. That applies to this passage. The Jewish teachers had always insisted on the paramount obligation of telling the truth. The Rabbis had various saying about the obligation of telling the truth.
- The world stands fast on three things, on justice, on truth, and on peace.
- Four persons are shut out from the presence of God—the scoffer, the hypocrite, the liar, and the retailer of slander.
- One who has given his word and who changes it is as bad as an idolater (Barclay).
This is especially true if the truth was guaranteed by an oath. Exodus 20:7 – Do not misuse the name of the Lord your God, because the Lord will not leave anyone unpunished who misuses His name. This verse is not talking about the use of bad language. Instead, it is talking about breaking an oath promised in the name of Yahweh. Numbers 30:2 When a man makes a vow to the Lord or swears an oath to put himself under an obligation, he must not break his word; he must do whatever he has promised.
Jesus was speaking not against oaths themselves but against the abuses of oaths and the corresponding abuse of the truth that went with them. We see this most clearly when we look in the broadest way at the positive teaching about oaths throughout Scripture. In the Law, the Jews were instructed to make oaths in the name of Yahweh. Deuteronomy 10:20 You are to fear Yahweh your God and worship Him. Remain faithful to Him and take oaths in His name.
We also read where Yahweh took oaths. The Abrahamic Covenant is an example. God promised that the land would be Abrahams’ and would belong to his seed forever.
What Jesus is talking about is a two-fold situation that had become commonplace in 1st century Israel.
- Taking an oath when it was neither necessary nor proper. People who did this swore by their life or any other “thing.” The result was that even the most solemn statements appeared to be on this level also. It was exactly as if a servant who lived in the household of an honorable state official should go around talking about the honorable house, the honorable chair, the honorable mop, or the honorable dishpan. His speech would then have much less meaning when he called the lord of the house, “your honor.” In opposition to this, Jesus often insisted, as many of the rabbis did also, that the use of an oath to substantiate a simple statement was wrong.
- The second perversion of the proper use of oaths by the people of Christ’s time was worse. It was evasive swearing. People who were afraid to swear by the name of the Lord because they were not telling the full truth began to swear by things, and because mere things were not thought to be as significant as the name of God, this second class of oaths was not considered to be binding. Some persons swore by:
- Their own life 1 Samuel 1:26 Please, my lord,” she said, “as sure as you live, my lord, I am the woman who stood here beside you praying to the Lord.
- Their health Psalm 15:4 who despises the one rejected by the Lord but honors those who fear the Lord, who keeps his word whatever the cost.
- Others swore by the king 1 Sam. 17:55 Then the woman said to Elijah, “Now I know you are a man of God and the Lord’s word from your mouth is true.”
- Others swore, as Jesus indicates, by their head, the earth, heaven, the temple, or Jerusalem, Matthew 5:34–36.
- All such oaths were evasive (Boice).
Yahweh hates false oaths.
- Zechariah 8:17 Do not plot evil in your hearts against your neighbor, and do not love perjury, for I hate all this”—this is the Lord’s declaration.
- Ecclesiastics 5:5 Better that you do not vow than that you vow and not fulfill it.
What is Jesus talking about in the last verse, the reference to the evil one? There are likely two ways to view this.
- If it is necessary to take an oath from someone, that necessity arises from the evil that is in the individual. If there were no evil in that person, an oath wouldn’t be necessary. The fact that it is sometimes necessary to make someone take an oath is a demonstration of the evil in Christless human nature.
- The fact that it is necessary to make people take an oath in certain situations comes from the fact that this is an evil world. In a perfect world, in a world which was the kingdom of God, no taking of oaths would be necessary. It is necessary only because of the evil in the world.
What Jesus is saying is this, a truly good person will never need to take an oath; the truth of the sayings and the reality of the promises of that person doesn’t need a guarantee. But the fact that oaths are still necessary is the proof that people are not good and that this is not a good world. This places two obligations upon the Christian.
- To make ourselves such that others will so see our transparent goodness that they will never ask an oath from us.
- To seek to make this world such a world that falsehood and inﬁdelity will be so eliminated from it that the necessity for oaths will be abolished (Barclay).
Jesus is addressing here, as He does in many places of Scripture, an issue with our hearts. Jesus understands the deceitfulness of the human heart, for people sometimes invoked an oath in order to conceal an attempt to deceive. By contrast, Jesus’ disciples should be people of such integrity of character and truthfulness of heart that whatever they say is absolutely believable and dependable. A person of integrity is one who, in daily conversation, is so truthful, dependable, genuine, straightforward, and reliable that his or her words are believed without an oath.
Jesus’ point is that a disciple’s simple word should be considered as trustworthy as a signed document or contract. When he goes further to suggest that “anything beyond this is evil,” Jesus indicates that swearing by something in order to deceive can only have one source—the evil one, Satan (Wilkins).
How do we apply this passage to our lives?
- Examine our lives. Are we truthful and trustworthy? If not, we need to start there and change our behavior.
- Do we trust our Christian brothers and sisters? If not, is it because of something they did previously? If that is true, we need to discuss that with them to clear the air.
- Our lives and words should confirm our trustworthiness and preclude the need to make promises to our Christian brothers and sisters.
- Our internal “heart condition” will manifest itself in our external action. There is an indestructible link between the two. Obedience to Jesus and His teachings will shape our heart condition, which in turn will lead to a fruitful life. If you are not producing fruit have you done a heart examination lately?