OATHS ARE UNNECESSARY IN NORMAL SPEECH SINCE GOD DESIRES SIMPLE TRUTHFULNESS BASED ON PERSONAL INTEGRITY
Craig Blomberg: Jesus’ followers should be people whose words are so characterized by integrity that others need no formal assurance of their truthfulness in order to trust them.
Grant Osborne: The OT allows oaths for anchoring the truth value of a statement, but the Jewish people had taken this to incredible lengths with the variety of oaths accepted or rejected and the frequency of their use. To Jesus this was an issue of honesty and integrity, for any statement of a citizen of the kingdom should be self-authenticating and should be true at the core. There is no need to use oaths to support an assertion.
R. T. France: Two different but related subjects are at issue here. Oaths, invocations of God or of some sacred object to undergird a statement or promise, shade into vows, solemn promises to God of an action to be performed. The OT passages summed up in v. 33 apparently relate to both issues, though Jesus’ response focuses on the use of oaths to support one’s word rather than on vows (he will touch on the latter question in 15:3–6). His simple command not to use oaths at all (v. 34a) is illustrated by a number of possible oaths each of which is shown to be inappropriate (vv. 34b-36), and explained in the pronouncement of v. 37 that any elaboration of a simple affirmation or denial is “from evil.” Since the OT law not only provided for but in some cases demanded such elaborating oaths (e.g. Num 5:19–22), there is a prima facie case to be made that Jesus is here opposing the intention of one aspect of the law. At least he is doing what he did in v. 32, declaring that these provisions should never have been needed if people practised the uncomplicated truthfulness which is what God desires. . .
Jesus’ prohibition of all swearing (its comprehensiveness is indicated by the emphatic holōs, “at all”) will be explained in principle in v. 37. With regard to vows, which were voluntary, Jesus is not so much opposing OT legislation as telling his disciples not to take up an option which the law offered but did not require. His words recall the comment of Deut 23:22 that while vows once undertaken must be fulfilled (vv. 21, 23) if you do not make a vow at all “there will be no sin in you.” Oaths too could be voluntary (Lev 5:4; Num 30:3–15), and such oaths are found frequently throughout the OT history, but there were also occasions when the law required an oath (Exod 22:11; Num 5:19–22; cf. the general expectation that oaths will be taken in Yahweh’s name, without specific context, in Deut 6:13; 10:20), and these too are swept aside by Jesus’ blanket prohibition if it is taken as a literal regulation.
William Barclay: The ideal is that people should never need an oath to buttress or guarantee the truth of anything they may say. The character of an individual should make an oath completely unnecessary. The guarantee and the witness should lie in what that person is. Isocrates, the great Greek teacher and orator, said: ‘A man must lead a life which will gain more confidence in him than ever an oath can do.’ The second-century Christian theologian Clement of Alexandria insisted that Christians must lead such a life and demonstrate such a character that no one will ever dream of asking an oath from them. The ideal society is one in which no one’s word will ever need an oath to guarantee its truth, and no one’s promise will ever need an oath to guarantee its fulfilling.
Charles Swindoll: Apparently, people had become untrustworthy in their promises and nonchalant about actually following through on commitments. To get others to take their promises seriously, people had to swear by heaven, by the earth, by Jerusalem, or by their own lives, in an almost superstitious sort of way (see Matt. 5:34-36). But even in this swearing, there was a catch —none of them actually used the name of God. As such, some were interpreting these oaths as allowing for a bit of flexibility. If a man broke a vow sworn “by Jerusalem,” only Jerusalem would be offended, but not God. Stan Toussaint puts it well: “The Jewish concept of taking oaths was based on a false interpretation of Leviticus 19:12, ‘You shall not swear falsely by My name.’ They thought that any oath, therefore, which did not include the name of God was not binding. Sometimes these oaths even came to be used as a means of deceit.”
I. (:33) TRADITIONAL TEACHING OF JEWISH RELIGIOUS LEADERS BASED ON MOSAIC LAW
“Again, you have heard that the ancients were told,”
D. A. Carson: The Mosaic law forbade irreverent oaths, light use of the Lord’s name, broken vows. Once Yahweh’s name was invoked, the vow to which it was attached became a debt that had to be paid to the Lord.
A sophisticated casuistry judged how binding an oath really was by examining how closely it was related to Yahweh’s name. Incredible distinctions proliferate under such an approach. Swearing by heaven and earth was not binding, nor was swearing by Jerusalem, though swearing toward Jerusalem was. That an entire Mishnaic tract (m. Šebu.) is given over to the subject (cf. also m. Sanh. 3.2; t. Ned. 1; Str-B, 1:321–36) shows that such distinctions became important and were widely discussed.
John MacArthur: Now, you’ll notice it says in verse 33, “Again you have heard that it hath been said by them of old, ‘Thou shalt not perjure thyself but shall perform under the Lord thine oaths.’” Now, that statement is not included in the Old Testament. It was kind of a composite statement of their Jewish tradition, but it is based upon Old Testament reality, for oaths are a part of the Old Testament. Now, you’ll notice the word “oath” and you’ll notice the word “perjure.” Both come from the same root. The word “swear” in verse 34 is a synonym. . .
The missing ingredient in their system was it never told them when oaths were proper, and so you might say the missing ingredient led to frivolous swearing. They were swearing oaths for every little thing through every day. Swearing by this and swearing by that and swearing to this and swearing to that, and all the time swearing and taking oaths indiscriminately, ad-libbed, glibly, taking them as a common matter of conversation.
The second thing, not only a missing ingredient but a misplaced emphasis. Notice the phrase, “Unto the Lord.” That was their little catch. As long as you swore unto the Lord, you had to do it. But if you swore to anything else, you didn’t have to. Right? It was King’s X. Remember when you were a little kid? “I know I told you that, but I had my fingers crossed.” Remember that? It’s exactly what they were doing. “I know, but I had them behind them behind my back, they were crossed.” “Oh, no, they weren’t.” And you know those little arguments. King’s X. That’s what they were playing.
If you don’t swear to the Lord, you don’t have to keep it, see? So they were saying I swear by heaven, I swear by earth, I swear by Jerusalem, I swear by my head, I swear by the temple, I swear by this, I swear by that, and they go right out and just do the very opposite. And they didn’t have any impunity at all, no sense of guilt, because they didn’t swear by the name of the Lord, and all it did was make a network of lies going everywhere.
A. Prohibition of False Vows
“You shall not make false vows,”
William Hendriksen: What we have here in Matthew 5:33-37 (cf. James 5:12) is the condemnation of the flippant, profane, uncalled for, and often hypocritical oaths, used in order to make an impression and to spice daily conversation. Over against that evil Jesus commends simple truthfulness in thought, word and deed.
B. Performance of Legitimate Vows
“but shall fulfill your vows to the Lord.”
There is a legitimate use of oaths in special and solemn circumstances.
Leon Morris: The use of both the negative (“You shall not break your oath”) and the positive (“you shall keep your oaths”) gives emphasis to the importance of respecting sworn testimony.
Justin Imel, Sr.: Jesus is about to do two things with this commandment:
(1) He will speak of the Law’s true intent; and
(2) He will raise the Law to a new level.
But, in no way, does Jesus encourage the breaking of this commandment. Jesus cannot encourage breaking this commandment in any way, shape, or form, for it is the Word of God.
II. (:34-37) TRANSCENDENT TEACHING OF JESUS EXPOSING THEIR HYPOCRISY AND DECEITFULNESS
“But I say to you,”
D. A. Carson: If oaths designed to encourage truthfulness become occasions for clever lies and casuistical deceit, Jesus will abolish oaths, for the direction in which the OT points is the fundamental importance of thorough and consistent truthfulness. If one does not swear at all, one does not swear falsely. . .
Jesus insists that whatever a man swears by is related to God in some way, and therefore every oath is implicitly in God’s name; heaven, earth, Jerusalem, even the hairs of the head are all under God’s sway and ownership (v.36).
Leon Morris: To swear means “To make a solemn declaration or statement with an appeal to God or a superhuman being, or to some sacred object, in confirmation of what is said” (Shorter Oxford Dictionary). J. Schneider understands swearing to be “primarily self-cursing should one not be speaking the truth” (TDNT, V, p. 458). Such a solemn statement is sometimes called for, but Jesus is saying that it should not be necessary for his followers. He is not forbidding the taking of an oath in a law court or the like. The law said, “you shall … swear by his name” (Deut. 6:13; 10:20), and Jesus himself responded when the high priest put him on oath (26:63-64). He is saying in the strongest terms that those who follow him must speak the truth. They must never take the line that only when an oath is sworn need they be truthful. At all with the negative excludes the oath altogether. There must never be the need for it.
A. (:34-36) Prohibition of Unnecessary and Convoluted Vows
- (:34-35) Don’t Invoke God
a. (:34) By Referencing Heaven
“make no oath at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God,”
Craig Blomberg: To “swear” (v. 34) does not mean to curse or use bad words but to affirm the truth of a statement while calling on God to judge oneself if it is in fact untrue.
b. (:35a) By Referencing Earth
“or by the earth, for it is the footstool of His feet,”
Leon Morris: At one and the same time the footstool brings out subjection and nearness. It is perhaps relevant that God’s footstool is associated with worship (Ps. 99:5).
c. (:35b) By Referencing Jerusalem
“or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King.”
R. T. France: Oaths normally invoked God as the guarantor of the person’s word, and it was this which made it so serious a matter to break them: it was a misuse of God’s name (Exod 20:7), a profanation (Lev 19:12). In response some Jews had already developed the habit, which underlies much of our “social swearing” today, of finding more innocuous substitutes for the actual name of God; here Jesus lists oaths by heaven, earth, Jerusalem and one’s own head, while in 23:16–22 he will add a further list (the temple, the gold of the temple, the altar and the gift on the altar). Such casuistry, of which the Mishnah provides numerous examples, receives very short shrift, since heaven, earth and Jerusalem are inseparably linked with God as his dwelling and possession; the point is made by allusions to Is 66:1 (“Heaven is my throne and the earth is my footstool”) and Ps 48:2 (“Mount Zion, the city of the great King”). The oath by one’s head might have been given parallel treatment, since the head too is God’s creation, but the point is made more obliquely by pointing out that you have no power over your own head; the implication is that it is God, not you, who determines the color of your hair (some early patristic interpreters took this verse as a ruling against the use of hair-dye!), since he is its creator and sustainer. All such surrogate oaths display not reverence but theological superficiality.
Grant Osborne: To swear by heaven is to invoke God’s very throne (Ps 2:4; 11:4; Isa 66:1), and that is God’s prerogative, not ours. To swear by earth also goes back to God, for he created it and it is his. It is God’s right to use earth as his own footstool, not our right to use earth to bolster our own petty claims. To swear (facing) “toward” (εἰς) Jerusalem is to pretend that you can tell God what to do; it is his (the “great king,” Ps 48:2) city, not yours to control.
- (:36) Don’t Invoke Yourself
“Nor shall you make an oath by your head,
for you cannot make one hair white or black.”
Leon Morris: The first three rejected oaths all in one way or another refer to God, but now comes an oath that centers on the person of the swearer. You are not to swear by your head, Jesus says. For this final example the verb swear is repeated, which may be for emphasis, but more probably in order to give balance to the sentence. To swear by the head means that the swearer “would give his head (i.e., his life) if he were not speaking the truth” (Ridderbos). The reason for not swearing moves from the greatness of God to the littleness of people: no one is able to change the color of even one hair, a very small part of the human body. Such an impotent being is not one by whom to swear oaths!
William Barclay: Here is a great eternal truth. Life cannot be divided into compartments in some of which God is involved, and in others of which He is not involved. There cannot be one kind of language in the church and another kind of language in the home. There cannot be one kind of standard of conduct in the church and another standard of conduct in the business world. The fact is that God does not need to be invited into certain departments of life and kept out of others, He is everywhere, all through life, and every activity of life.
He hears not only the words which are spoken in His name, He hears all words, and there cannot be any such thing as a form of words which evades bringing God into any transaction. We will regard all promises as sacred if we remember that all promises are made in the presence of God.
B. (:37) Performance of the Simple Truth
- Stand on Your Word Alone
“But let your statement be, ‘Yes, yes’ or ‘No, no’;”
Leon Morris: The conclusion of the matter is that it is never necessary for Christ’s people to swear an oath before they utter the truth. Their word should always be so reliable that nothing more than a statement is needed from them. God is in all of life, and every statement is made before him. Your statement will refer to anything you say. I have translated the Greek fairly literally, but the meaning may well be as in REB, “Plain ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ is all you need to say.” That would suit the context. Another possibility is that the words signify much what James says: “Let your ‘yes’ be yes, and your ‘no’ no” (Jas. 5:12), that is, your statement should be thoroughly reliable and thus make an oath unnecessary.
Walter Wilson: the invocation of special witnesses by means of the oath is seen to have the paradoxical effect of actually trivializing one’s speech, since the practice represents a tacit admission that one’s speech is unreliable without it. Moreover, if it is true that “the mouth speaks out of that which fills the heart” (12:34), then the practice of swearing runs the risk of trivializing not only one’s speech but also one’s self, that is, one’s moral integrity. That being the case, in the requirement that Jesus imposes, “all places of appeal outside the self are rejected.”
John Nolland: The challenge is to stand, as far as one’s word is concerned, nakedly on one’s own integrity: neither by the introduction of an oath implicitly to downgrade the commitedness of one’s word without an oath nor by the use of the oath to seek to take hostage the honour of anything else to our own claim to truthfulness. Nothing by which I might swear can be made to carry responsibility for my truthfulness; the responsibility is my own.
John MacArthur: And what He’s saying is keep it for those times when it is needful, when invoking God’s name is a right thing because of the seriousness of the matter. But on other occasions, in your normal logos and by the way, that word is translated in the New Testament probably 50 times as common speech, just the word speech. Let your normal speech be yes means yes, and no means no. And you don’t have to swear by anything because your word is your bond, right? So Jesus is merely reiterating what I said at the beginning, the two Old Testament standards.
- Shun Going Beyond That
“and anything beyond these is of evil.”
Leon Morris: This may mean that it originates in evil or, more probably, that it comes from the devil (so Lenski).
Grant Osborne: anyone who centers on more and more oaths rather than personal integrity is following Satan.
William Barclay: Let us look at the last part of this verse. The Revised Standard Version has it that the answer given must simply be yes or no; ‘anything more than this comes from evil’. What does that mean? It can mean one of two things.
(a) If it is necessary to take an oath from someone, that necessity arises from the evil that is the individual. If there was no evil in that person, no oath would be necessary. That is to say, the fact that it is sometimes necessary to make someone take an oath is a demonstration of the evil in Christless human nature.
(b) The fact that it is necessary to put people on oath on certain occasions arises 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 ever be necessary. It is necessary only because of the evil of the world.
What Jesus is saying is this – the truly good person will never need to take an oath; the truth of the sayings and the reality of the promises of that person need no such guarantee. But the fact that oaths are still sometimes necessary is the proof that people are not good and that this is not a good world.