verse XX – Yes or No
Have you ever had someone break their word to you? Have you ever broken your to someone? A little self-reflection will reveal that we have probably been part of both experiences.
Many of us are familiar with “oath-taking” in reference to swearing an individual in to public office or for testimony before a court, or service on a jury. We all know the serious nature of these oaths, and should, to the best of our ability execute the task to which we have sworn or affirmed.
Perhaps the highest oath in our nation is that which is administered, usually, but not necessarily, by the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States of America to the President-elect of the United States, an oath required by the US Constitution “I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my Ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.” This oath establishes a sacred trust between the President and the people of this nation – which is perhaps why it is so disheartening, and so serious a matter, when it appears to have been violated.
Today we have idiomatic expressions that attempt to convey honesty, seriousness, and a sense that what is being said can be taken as fact: “I swear to God,” or the shortened “I swear,” or again, “As God as my witness.” Nevertheless, what does Yeshua/Jesus say about such colloquial or conversational oaths?
“Again, you have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but shall carry out your oaths to the Lord.’ But I tell you, do not swear at all – not by heaven, for it is the throne of God; or by the earth, for it is the footstool of His feet; or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the Great King. And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make a single hear white or black. But let your word ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes’ and your ‘No,’ ‘No’ – anything more that this is from the evil one” (Matt. 5:33-37; cf. Lev. 19:12).
Why is Yeshua directing us to avoid making an oath or vow? Is this what He is saying? Or, perhaps He correcting something that had been misused?
When we consider these words of Yeshua, we must also consider the Law of Moses. The Torah allows oaths to be established provided they are fulfilled. As we read in Numbers 30:2:
“When a man makes a vow to the Lord or takes an oath to obligate himself by a pledge, he must not break his word but must do everything he said.”
Additionally, Deuteronomy 6:13, “Fear the Lord your God, serve him only and take your oaths in his name.”
As with many allowances found in the Law of Moses, man misused this, as well, often to his own advantage. Oaths and vows are made throughout the Scriptures, because they were permissible; even the apostle Paul uses language reminiscent of solemn proclamation in several places: “God is my witness…” and, “I call God as my witness…” further, “I assure you before God…” and finally, “you are my witnesses, and so is God…” Was Paul disobeying the directive of Yeshua? Or did Paul understand what Jesus was correcting?
Again, oaths and vows are found throughout the Bible; and from the most ancient of times individuals made use of them to ensure that what was promised would be fulfilled, or that one or both of the parties were telling to truth – so as to put an end to an argument. Even the Lord swore an oath by Himself to Abraham, and later, to David.
By the first century, making an oath or swearing a vow was a norm in Jewish society. What is the difference between an vow and an oath?
A “vow.” A נֶדֶר, is a promise to consecrate something to the Lord, or to do something in His name, service or honor. A vow was usually made in a time of distress in order to secure help from the Lord.
An “oath.” A אֱסָר, is understood to be a negative vow. It is a self-imposed pledge to abstain from doing or enjoying something that is otherwise permissible.
When one swore an oath or made a vow, it was not to be done falsely in the name of the Lord (Lev. 19:12). What had developed by the first century was a theology of oaths that created loopholes in order to avoid directly establishing the oath or vow in the name of the Lord, allowing for easier dissolution of what had been agreed upon – Messiah references several examples of this in Matthew 5:33-37: heaven, earth, Jerusalem, or your own head. By His words, Yeshua is sweeping away that practice. Not the permissible practice of oaths and vows in general, but of establishing loopholes to get out of that which was promised, more on this in a moment.
Yet, without this historical piece of the puzzle, many Christians believe that Yeshua was forbidding this practice, as He said, “Do not swear at all” (Matt. 5:34). Relatively clear. Therefore many Christians refuse to be sworn in a court of law, rather affirming to the truthfulness of their testimony. This is not the likely practice that Yeshua was intending.
The vow and oath in common usage in the first century became a bit of a show, “I swear by heaven…by earth…by Jerusalem…by my head…” Only to result in the word not being fulfilled. This is why Yeshua said, “let your word ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes’ and your ‘No,’ ‘No.’”
An oath ensured that what had been promised would be fulfilled – that one would keep his word faithfully and truly. Especially to take an oath in the name of the Lord – one would either fulfill his word or use the Lord’s name in vain, a breaking of the third commandment.
A little deeper.
How do you avoid doing a vow or an oath? Pharisaic tradition put a fence around the possibility of taking the Lord’s name in vain. They began to swear by things associated with Him.
Yeshua criticizes this practice of the Pharisees when he says:
“Woe to you, blind guides, who say, ‘Whoever swears by the temple, it is nothing: but whoever swears by the gold of the temple, he is obligated to perform it.’ Fools and blind! For which is greater, the gold or the temple that sanctifies the gold? And whoever swears by the altar, it is nothing; but whoever swears by the gift that is on it, he is obligated to perform it.’ Fools and blind! For which is greater, the gift that is on it, or the altar that sanctifies the gift? Therefore he who swears by the altar, swears by it and by all things on it. He who swears by the temple, swears by it and by Him who dwells in it. And he who swears by heaven, swears by the throne of God and by Him who sits on it” (Matt. 23:16-22).
In other words, different items were used to swear an oath in order to provide a loophole for not fulfilling what had been promised. This of course was utter hypocrisy. When an individual swore by the objects and places Yeshua mentions, it pretended commitment on their part, but as Messiah points out, they entered their oath or vow knowing that they had a way out of it.
The Mishnah, the first major collection of writings that constitute the “oral Torah,” also mentions these loopholes, and what either bound or freed one from fulfilling the oath or vow. As an example, if one was to swear “by” Jerusalem, you were not bound by your vow; but if one was to swear “toward” Jerusalem, you were bound to fulfill that which was sworn.
The Sermon on the Mount is an exposition on the commandments of God found in the Torah, but it is also a correction of their distortion, mainly by the Pharisaic party. As indicated above, Yeshua is correcting the practice of taking or making an oath or vow by heaven…by earth…by Jerusalem… or by your own head; this was a way of escape, a way to avoid fulfilling your word. Therefore, to those that understand the solemnity and sacredness of oaths and vows, and the holiness of the Lord’s name, Yeshua is not forbidding this practice. The words of Messiah in Matthew 5:33-37 and Matthew 23:16-22, and by the apostle James in James 5:12, do not forbid, but remind of the serious nature of this practice.
At the heart of this, is a lesson on speech. We need to think before we speak, and clearly recognize the implications of our speech. And since we speak what is in our hearts, this is also a lesson on our hidden condition revealed by the words we say.
It’s still a problem.
Yeshua is correcting a practice common to his time, and to ours as well – establishing then breaking oaths, promises and vows. What this creates in relationships is mistrust: we begin to not trust each other; and it creates instability in us and in our communities. Often people will speak a “prophetic” word, caught up in the excitement of the moment, swearing that something will be done, given, raised, etc., only to see it fade into unfulfillment.
The higher way.
So to the best of our ability, let our “yes” be “yes” and our “no” be “no.” Let us not misuse the name of the Lord, and diminish His glory in the eyes of others – and let us do right by our community, and, barring extraordinary circumstances, fulfill our word. It’s that easy; but only in theory.
Shalom. Be well.