Taking Oaths

December 2, 2020

by Barry Fike

         The basic idea of this section is that of speaking truthfully.  This is basically a prohibition against injuring another through lying.  In ancient times a person who was willing to swear by this or that was thought to be reliable. If he swore by his god or a religious symbol like the Temple, or Jerusalem, he was inviting trouble if he did not carry out his oath.  Long before the time of the second Temple, however, swearing had lost its meaning as a preventive to lying.   

          In the day of Jesus there were ‘religious people’ who found a way to say something that might not be ‘true’ but sounded so.  They were to speak their oaths unto the Lord and not unto heaven, earth, Jerusalem or their head, which, obviously, as many were.  Jesus first mentions the corruption of the Law and then sets forth the character of that righteousness which He required from the citizens of His kingdom on the matter under discussion.  In no way is Jesus opposing the Mosaic statues but only the false interpretations of the Law.  He seeks to restore the law to its original place, purity and power.  It was the veil of religious hypocrisy which Jesus rent asunder, exposing the corruptness of such traditions and denouncing the soul-ruining sins into which many people had been drawn but which none of his movement could participate in.  

         The word for oath in Hebrew is shevu'ah and the verb “to swear”, neder.  Both words were used interchangeably in the tannaitic literature.  Neder 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 to do so.  Most significantly the Hebrew word is taken from a root word 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.  It must be a necessary confirmation, because any oath is unlawful which concerns only trifling matters or things which need no solemn settlement. 

         Where is the exact verse in the Old Testament text that Jesus is quoting?


“When you make a vow to the Lord your God you shall not be

slack in paying it.  For the Lord your God will surely require

it of you and slackness would be a sin in you.  But if you refrain

from vowing, it shall not be a sin in you.” (Deut. 23:21)

          In other words, if you say you are going to do something, and you don’t do it, you’re going to be held accountable.  But if you don’t make the vow in the first place, then you won’t be held accountable. 

          The name of God was held in such high esteem that to use it in a light way was blasphemy. 


“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)

“Thou shalt fear the Lord thy God, and serve Him, and shalt swear by His name.”  (Deut. 6:13)

“Offer to God the sacrifice of thanksgiving; and pay

your vows to the Most High.”  (Psalm 50:14)

(see also Ex. 22:10, 11; Lev. 5:1; Deut. 5:11; 23:21, 22; Num. 30:2)


          It is striking to note that when the Psalmist delineated the character of him who was fit to “abide in the Lord’s tabernacle” and “dwelt in His holy hill” (i.e. commune with God and enjoy His presence for ever).  This is the person who will never go back upon his sworn word.

         The Jews divided an oath into two classes: absolutely binding and not.  Absolutely binding contained God’s name.  Not absolutely binding used another object to swear by.   The absolutely binding oath appealed to the name of God, which, by awaking the spirit of the swearer to the consciousness of the awe-inspiring presence and cognizance of the Most High, gave all its sanctity and power to it.  If anyone did take such an oath there was the solemn warning that the Lord would not hold him guiltless who took His name in vain.  (Ex. 20:7)

          It is clear from passages like Ps. 15:1, 4 that the Mosaic Law had a strong tendency to check the practice of oath-taking and to restrict the same unto solemn occasions (see also Ex. 22:11, 12; Lev. 5:1; 19:12, Num. 5:19, 21). 


Verse 33


          It seems from v. 33 that many had unwarrantably restricted the Mosaic precepts upon oaths to the single prohibition against perjury.  They drew the inference that there was no evil in any oath, at any time, provided a man did not forswear himself.  Thus they opened the door wide for men to multiply oaths on any matter and every trivial occasions.  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 be settled without it (Heb. 6:16).  But the law had been wrested so much that it was taught that so long as men swore truthfully as to matters of fact, and performed their vows in cases of promise, all was well (Jesus disagreed - Mk. 7:11-13).  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.   


Verses 34-36


          It seems from these verses that many had taken the third commandment and perverted it with the idea of swearing by the creature.  A means was devised to swear not by the name of God, but by the heavens or the earth, by Jerusalem or the temple.  They made a distinction between oaths according to them, some were binding, and 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 God 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 for 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. 

          No man can escape the solemn responsibility of an oath that he takes.  Though he may omit mentioning the name of God, yet since he is the Creator and Owner of all things, his name is invoked in all the works of His hands.  If you swear by “heaven” that is God’s throne.  If you swear by “the earth,” that is God’s footstool and if by “Jerusalem” that is the seat of His worship.  If one swears by the “head” it was God who gave it to us.  While we are incapable of changing the color of the hair, God can.  Thus, every oath is an ultimate reference to Deity.  

          Does v. 34 seek to teach us that taking oaths in any circumstance is sinful and should be avoided?  In short the answer is no!  Oaths, at certain times, are necessary.  Remember the context in which Jesus is talking.  Who is a part of my movement?  It is those who do not even need to swear by the name of God, much less anything else, whose speech is yes or no and taken at word value.  Don’t make a commitment that you know you are not going to do.  Don’t make a vow and not keep it.  Be a person of your word!   Perform what you say!  If you say you are going to do it then do it.  Don’t make a commitment that you know that you are incapable of doing or that you have no intention of doing.  Be a righteous person.

            In other words, don’t be saying yes when you know that you are not going to perform your promise.  As followers of Jesus Christ, where every word and action is measured, let's make sure that the words of our mouths and meditations of our hearts are acceptable to God.