Do Not Dishonor God With Oaths
This is the beginning of the end. When James says “but above all”, he is moving toward conclusion. He will have three concerns to address. All three involve speech.
This discussion about oaths or swearing is not about cussing.
It is about invoking God’s name, or something else, to tell someone what we say is true or that we will definitely do what we say we will. I am sure you have hear someone say “By God” before they committed themselves to something. Or maybe they simply said “I swear”. In American courts, witnesses are “sworn in” before their testimony. They swear to tell the truth. They swear to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, “so help me God”.
The Jews were allowed to take oaths. But they had to make good on them. Leviticus 19:13 says “You shall not swear by my name falsely, and so profane the name of your God: I am the LORD”. Ecclesiastes 5:4-5 says “Pay what you have vowed-better not to vow than to vow and not pay”.
Our fidelity to God must be lived out in all areas of our lives. One area you might not have thought of, James mentions here. That is, do not swear or take an oath by anything other than the one true God. James mentions swearing by “heaven or by earth”. If you swear by anything else, you commit idolatry, for you say that person or thing is greater than God, or is as capable as God at holding you accountable. For example, the Jews would swear by the temple, or something in it, as if the temple and its furnishings could magically hold them accountable. Or, it would give them a way out, saying they did not swear by the Lord.
Only God has the power and the right to hold us accountable for our vows and oaths. Paul invoked God to show he was telling the truth in Romans 1:9. He said “For God is my witness…” and went on to say he prayed for them always.
The Westminster Confession says:
The name of God only is that by which men out to swear, and therein it is to be used with all holy fear and reverence. Therefore, to swear vainly or rashly, by that glorious and dreadful Name, or, to swear at all by any other thing, is sinful, and to be abhorred. Yet, as in matters of weight and moment, an oath is warranted by the Word of God, under the New Testament, as well as under the Old, so a lawful oath, being imposed by lawful authority in such matters out to be taken. (22:3)
The best thing, of course, is that you keep your word without needing an oath. You just do what you say you will do, whether yes or no. James here reflects Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 5:33-36. Jesus said:
Again you have heard it that it was said to those of old, “You shall not swear falsely, but shall perform to the Lord what you have sworn.” But I say to you, Do not take an oath at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. And do not take an oath by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. Let what you say be simply yes or No; anything more than this comes from evil.
We should tell the truth without being forced to take an oath. We should do what we say we will do without the need of an oath. Christians should be known by truth and integrity. We should not despair of waiting for Jesus to return and adopt the standards of the world regarding the truth.