"I swear to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth..."
"I take thee to be my lawful wedded wife and I do promise and covenant before God and these witnesses to be thy loving and faithful husband, in sickness and in health..."
"I do solemnly swear that I will faithfully execute the office of the President of the United States..."
How often we have heard those oaths uttered during trials, weddings and inaugurations. But how seldom it is that people actually honor such oaths as evidenced by the incidence of perjury, divorce and demagoguery. And it doesn't stop there. Sadly, people--even Christian people--violate their oaths and vows at whim, as though truth were fungible and their promises, dispensable. By so doing, they demonstrate culpable ignorance of, indifference to, or callousness for their Biblical responsibility to honor their word in general and their oaths and vows in particular. Simply put, we have become a society and a church without verbal integrity, a society and a church without those who honor their oaths.
For that reason, it is important to examine what Scripture has to say about our responsibility to honor our oaths. After defining what constitutes an oath and proving that Scripture does not forbid all oaths, we will provide Biblical guidelines for taking oaths, and refute common excuses people proffer for violating their oaths. This article, then, is intended to be a concise overview of what the Bible has to say about oaths.
>From this definition we can see how pervasive oaths are. When one signs a form swearing that the information it contains is true, he is making an oath. When a bride and groom promise to remain married till death do them part, they are making an oath. When a party enters a contract, he is making an oath. When a courtroom witness swears to tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth, he is making an oath.
So just what does the third commandment teach? To begin with, the phrase "the name of the Lord thy God" does not refer only to the literal name of God. Rather, the name of God refers comprehensively to God, including God's literal name, anything by which God makes Himself known, and ultimately, God Himself. In short, to call on the name of God is to call on God Himself!
While the name of God is used comprehensively to refer ultimately to God Himself, the phrase translated in vain means "falsely" (Isa.59:4). So the verse could be translated in at least two different ways: (1) Thou shalt not swear (utter) the name of God to a lie, or (2) Thou shalt not swear (utter) the name of God falsely. The basic meaning is the same: we should refrain from appealing to the name of God to confirm or bear witness to a falsehood.
The third commandment, then, primarily forbids appealing to God to confirm a falsehood. But as with all of the ten commandments, the greater includes the lesser. The sixth commandment, for example, does merely prohibit unjustified killing; it also prohibits murderous and malicious feelings (Matt.5:21-24).
In the same way, the command not to call upon God to bear witness to a falsehood also forbids all lesser forms of irreverence for the name of God. Thus, the third commandment prohibits any lack of fear, honor and reverence for God and any profanation or abuse of anything by which God makes Himself known, especially in our speech. We should refrain from doing anything which detracts from the glory due the name of God in our lives. But the third commandment not only forbids certain conduct; it also affirmatively requires that we at all times fear, honor and reverence God and His most holy name as well as His titles, attributes, ordinances and works, especially in our speech. The third commandment, therefore, primarily requires us to honor our oaths and forbids us from violating them. When we appeal to God by means of oaths, we must honor God by honoring our oaths.
By carefully interpreting these passages, however, we will see that Christ was merely correcting Pharisaical and scribal abuses and misinterpretations of God's standards when it come to oaths. When interpreted in light of the general context of Scripture as a whole and in light of the particular context, we will see that far from forbidding all oaths, Christ (and James) forbade only unlawful (unbiblical) oaths.
First, Scripture commands us to swear by the name of God on certain occasions. In Deuteronomy 6:13, for example, Scripture commands God's people "You shall fear only the Lord your God; and you shall worship Him, and swear by His name." Far from prohibiting all oaths, Isaiah tells us that "he who swears in the earth shall swear by the name of God" (Is. 65:16). God sanctions lawful oaths to such an extent that He promises to build up those who swear by His name (Jer. 12:16). Even in the mundane affairs of life, such as confirming the truth between disputing neighbors, God commands His people to swear before Him (Ex. 22:10-11). Because Scripture commands God's people to swear by His name, it cannot forbid all oaths. God does not command what He simultaneously condemns!
Second, Scripture also teaches us that swearing is an act of confession and religious worship. We already saw in Deuteronomy 6:13 that God commands us to swear in His name precisely because swearing in God's name is but one way to worship and fear Him (cf Deut.10:20). Isaiah confirms this connection between swearing and worship; when he prophesies about the Assyrians and Egyptians coming into a covenantal relationship with God, he says that they will swear in the name of God. (Is. 19:18). Calvin explains that "by swearing in the Lord's name they will profess his religion."
But exactly how is swearing an act of confession and worship? When we duly swear in God's name, we confess several things about God. To begin with, we confess that God exists. Moreover, we confess several of God's attributes as revealed to us in Scripture: we testify that He is omnipresent and omniscient, that He is eternal and immutable, that He is just and true, that He is powerful and wrathful. By confessing His existence and attributes, we also confess that He is the Supreme Judge over all the earth and that we are accountable to Him for all that we do and say. Though the word of men may fail, the word of God never fails. Though men may fail, God never fails. By taking oaths in God's name, we confess God to be the ultimate arbiter of truth, and we worship the God of truth in spirit and in truth.
Third, Scripture offers us many examples of those who swore, examples we are commanded to follow.
God Himself swears. David, anticipating the eternal priesthood of Christ exclaims under the inspiration of the Spirit, "The Lord has sworn and will not change His mind, Thou art a priest forever..."(Ps. 110:4). The author of Hebrews tells us that God swore not only by demonstrating that what the Psalmist anticipated in Psalm 110:4 had been fulfilled in Christ (Heb. 7:21), but also by telling us that God swore when He made His covenant with Abraham: "For when God made the promise to Abraham, since He could swear by no one greater, He swore by Himself" (Heb. 6:13).
While it is true that we will never be perfect this side of eternity, we are nonetheless commanded to imitate the perfection of God and to be like God (Matt. 5:48, Eph. 5:1). If God upheld His Word with oaths in His name, and if we are commanded to imitate God, then if the occasion arises, Scripture permits us to swear lawfully in the name of God. As such, Scripture cannot, without contradicting itself, forbid all oaths.
What is true of God the Father is equally true with respect to God the Son for three reasons. First, the deity of Christ implies that what is true of God is true of Christ; hence since God swore, Christ swore.
Second, if you were to read Psalm 110:4 and Hebrews 7:21, referred to above, you would observe that in Psalm 110:4, God swears that He will provide an eternal high priest (anticipation) while in Hebrews 7:21, God has honored His oath (fulfillment). God the Father made the oath; God the Son fulfilled it. Thus, the very life of the Son was the very fulfillment of an oath made by the Father.
Third, Christ actually undertook an oath when questioned by Caiaphas, the high priest as recorded in the gospel of Matthew. After Christ remained silent during the accusational phase of his trial, Caiaphas charged Christ, exclaiming, "I adjure You by the living God, that You tell us whether You are the Christ, the Son of God. Jesus said to him, You have said it yourself..." (Matt. 26:63:64a). Literally translated, Caiaphas said to Christ "I swear You [call on you to swear]" or "I charge You." In the rabbinical form of directly affirming an oath, Christ responded to Caiaphas. In other words, by answering Caiaphas' adjuration, Christ undertook an oath that what He was saying was true. Thus, by virtue of His deity, priesthood, and trial, Christ swore.
And just as Christians are commanded to imitate God, so Christians are commanded to imitate Christ. "[T]he one who says he abides in Him," writes John, "ought himself to walk in the same manner as He walked" (1 Jn. 2:6). The example of Christ teaches us that under some circumstances, we may take oaths. Since the Living Word perfectly abided by the written word, and since the Living Word swore, the written word cannot forbid all oaths.
The Word of God not only records the examples of the Father and the Son; it also records for our benefit and instruction the example of the Apostle Paul who often supported what he said with oaths: (1) "For God...is my witness..." (Rom 1:9, Phil. 1:8); (2) "But I call God as witness to my soul..." (II Cor. 1:23); (3)"...God is witness..." (IThess. 2:5); (4) "you are witnesses, and so is God..." (I Thess. 2:10); and (5) "I adjure you by the Lord..." (I Thess. 5:27). As you can see, there is no shortage of Biblical proof that Paul took oaths. But the Bible doesn't record the example of Paul for our idle theological speculation. Rather, we are commanded to imitate Paul as he in turn imitated Christ (I Cor. 4:16, 11:1). If the need arises, Scripture permits oaths.
>From this brief overview of Scripture, we have seen that Scripture commands God's people to take lawful oaths, informs us that taking an oath is an act of confession and religious worship, and commends to us the examples of the God the Father, Christ, and Paul, all of whom took oaths. Thus, to interpret Christ (and James) as forbidding all oaths is to foist contradiction on Scripture itself, as well as on the Father, Christ and Paul since, on this interpretation, they all swore contrary to Scripture. The general context of Scripture, therefore, does not support the notion that Scripture forbids all oaths.
Likewise, Christ corrected Pharisaical misconceptions about oaths. From this passage, it appears that the Pharisees thought that one could swear as often as he wished as long as he did not do so falsely and as long as he did not swear in the literal name of God. Christ's opponents appeared to swear frequently and round-aboutly. Christ attacks both of these errors head on by showing the Pharisees that heaven, earth, Jerusalem and even their own heads have their ultimate reference point in God: heaven is the throne of God; the earth is His footstool; Jerusalem is the city of the Great King; and it is that King who controls even the hair on one's head! In other words, when they swore by heaven, they swore by the God of heaven because the universe and everything in it is stamped with His glory. By swearing in those ways, the Pharisees failed to see that one still takes the name of God in vain no matter how he wishes to dress up his words.
"But," says the opponent of oaths, "how does your interpretation jibe with Christ's teaching that anything more than a simple yes or no is of evil?" The interpretation advanced in this article is perfectly consistent with Christ's teaching when that teaching is properly understood! In the New Testament Greek, the genitive case is used when Christ says that anything beyond yes and no is "of evil." What Christ means is that anything beyond yes and no -- an oath or a vow -- has its origin in evil; in other words, oaths arose as a result of evil or the Fall. It is distrust, dishonesty, and inconsistency which make oaths necessary in the first place. If there were no sin, oaths would be unnecessary. But just because oaths are occasioned by the Fall doesn't necessarily make them evil in and of themselves.
To suggest that this is the case is to commit the genetic fallacy, assuming without proof that what is true of the genesis (origin) of something is true of the thing itself. After all, civil government became necessary only after the Fall (to restrain the social manifestations of sin); yet civil government is not evil because of that fact. In the same way, just because oaths became necessary after the Fall as a result of evil, does not mean that oaths, therefore, are evil.
1. The object of the oath must be Biblical. It almost goes without mentioning that one cannot bind himself to do that which Scripture forbids, since no one can bind himself to sin.
2. What you are about to say must be true, or you must do what you are about to promise. In addition to undertaking a Biblical objective, you must also speak the truth and do what you say you will do. "If a man makes a vow to the Lord, or takes an oath to bind himself with a binding obligation, he shall not violate his word; he shall do according to all that proceeds out his mouth" (Num. 30:2). If, therefore, you know that you are about to utter a falsehood or you know that you have no intention of absolutely honoring your word, then you should not take an oath.
3. The oath must be necessary. Even if what you say is true or you will honor what you promise, you should not swear if swearing is unnecessary (Ex. 20:7). Scripture forbids all superfluous oaths (Matt 5:33-37, 23:16-22). There must be an adequate reason why appealing to God is necessary (e.g. Ex 22:10, 11). We should purge from our vocabulary sayings such as "swear to God" or "honest to God" unless the occasion is so serious and solemn as to necessitate an oath. Calvin rightly commented that "God's name is rendered cheap when it is used in true but needless oaths. For then it is taken in vain." Remember that oaths are acts of worship and as such, should not be uttered on trivial occasions. The third commandment condemns all unnecessary, colloquial and irreverent swearing which has nothing to do with the solemn acts of worship commanded in Scripture. So what makes an oath necessary according to Scripture? In one way or another, all of the oaths sanctioned in Scripture glorify God and edify others.
4. You must be prepared to abide by your oath no matter how your personal interests or circumstances may change. In addition to having a Biblical objective, intending to keep your word, and making sure that your oath is necessary, you should also realize that you must keep an oath no matter how your personal interests or circumstances may change (Ps. 15:4, 24:4). If you are not prepared to stand steadfastly by what you have promised, no matter what happens, then you should not make a oath.
1. The oath must appeal to God alone. Scripture emphatically commands us to swear only in the name of God (Deut. 6:13, 10:20; Jer. 5:7; Zeph. 1:4, 5). In no uncertain terms, God forbids swearing by other gods because swearing is an act of religious worship; when people swear by other gods they violate the second commandment. God is so angry with those who swear by other gods that He declares that He will "cut off" those who do so (Zeph. 1:4, 5).
Although oaths must appeal to God alone, there are a variety of ways in which one can appeal to God in the context of an oath: (1) "give glory to the God of Israel" (Josh 7:19); (2) "as the Lord lives" (Judg. 8:19; Ruth 3:13, 1Sam 14:39; II Sam. 2:27; Jer. 38:16); (3) "The Lord do so to me and more also" (Ruth 1:17; I Sam. 14:44; II Sam. 3:9, 35; 1Kings 2:23; II Kings 6:31); (4) "May the Lord be true and faithful witness" (Jer. 42:5); (5) "I adjure you by the living God..." (Matt. 26:63); (6) "I adjure you by the Lord..." (I Thess. 5:27); (8) "But I call God as witness to my soul..." (II Cor.1:23); (9) "...God is witness..." (I Thess. 2:5); (10) "You are witnesses and so is God..." (I Thess. 2:10).
2. The language of the oath must be unequivocal and unambiguous so as to be clearly understood by all parties. The great Reformed theologian, Charles Hodge, alludes to the story of a commander who swore to citizens of a besieged city that if they surrendered, not a drop of their blood would be shed. After securing their surrender, the commander then burned them all at the stake! We should never secure oaths by means of linguistic chicanery.
To help reduce the possibility of using equivocal and ambiguous terms, we should: (1) reduce oaths to written instruments (when possible), (2) define in those instruments any terms that warrant definition (so as to preclude later linguistic revision), and (3) make sure that there is a meeting of the minds as to the material items and conditions of these instruments.
Not only is this excuse unbiblical, it is also illogical because it flies squarely in the face of the very reason why we undertake oaths in the first place: we take stock of our circumstances and bind ourselves to the truth of our word or to a particular course of action, knowing full well that our circumstances may change with time. If ever there was a Biblical character who could have used this cop out, it was Jephthah. But instead of violating his oath to consecrate his daughter to temple service, he rightly declared, "I have given my word to the Lord, and I cannot take it back" (Judg.11:35). This excuse is also untenable because the initial oath could have provided for possible contingencies. Just because it didn't, one cannot unilaterally claim to be released from his obligation. The conclusion simply does not follow on the basis of the premise.
So the real question becomes: when, if ever does impossibility -- properly defined -- excuse performance of an oath? To answer that question effectively, it is important to distinguish between two different situations. First, the easy case: if one knows the oath will be impossible to perform before he makes it, he should not make it and cannot thereafter seek recourse in this excuse. It is sinful both to make and break such an oath.
Second, the difficult case: what if the oath is possible when made but subsequently is rendered impossible? As stated above, before you ever make an oath, you should think through any possible contingencies ahead of time and provide for them. Some contingencies are so obvious that if you did not provide for them, you should nonetheless be held accountable to perform your oath. Aside from planning ahead for possible contingencies, perhaps you will still find yourself in a situation where the oath, as promised, is technically impossible to perform (e.g. the beneficiary of the oath has died). In such a situation, you should consider whether there is another course of action which will fulfill the intent of the oath (e.g. performing the oath for the benefit of the beneficiary's heirs).
It is always dangerous to engage in "heaven-daring" behavior. Lest we forget, the third commandment contains a promise, a promise of punishment for those who violate it. The third commandment chillingly pronounces that "the Lord will not hold him guiltless that taketh His name in vain." Since God will punish those who take His name in vain, we would do well to realize that it is a terrible thing to fall into the hands of the living God. Instead of invoking God's wrath and judgment, we must resolve ourselves to be those who honor God in all that we do and in all that we say.
But how can we ever begin to honor the name God in all that we do and say? By owning up to the only One who did just that--the One whose very life fulfilled the covenant promises of God. By speaking the truth and honoring His word, He paid the penalty for our disobedience. Apart from Him and His enabling hand, we have no hope. But with Him we have help in our time of need. May we implore His grace as we learn to honor our oaths. May we, along with the courtroom witness, learn to cry aloud "so help me God."