Harry Whittaker
Studies in the Gospels

56. “Swear not at all’’ (Matthew 5:33-37)*

The familiar Third Commandment forbad men use the name of God lightly. If there was one precept in all the Law of Moses which the Jews obsequiously honoured, it was this. To them the Covenant Name of God was so holy that it must not be spoken at all. In their synagogue Bible reading they brought in instead the indirect title Adonai-and still do. It is probably in accordance with well-established Jewish usage that Matthew uses the expression “kingdom of the heavens” for “kingdom of God”.

Yet Jesus saved his withering censure for the current habit of using holy things in the taking of oaths. The Law had plain reminders, reinforced by rabbinic instruction, that perjury was a sin, and that every vow sworn unto the Lord must be scrupulously honoured: “Ye shall not swear by my name falsely, neither shalt thou profane the name of thy God” (Lev. 19:12). The Almighty must be made no party either to deception or to blasphemous trifling.

Moses’ command: “Thou shalt...swear by His Name” (Dt. 10:20) was ruthlessly interpreted as meaning that any oath not addressed directly to the Almighty –“thine oaths unto the Lord” (v. 33) - need not be regarded as binding. It provided a splendid device for over-reaching or deceit in a business deal.

The answer to all this, supplied by Jesus, is a rigorous embargo on all misuse of holy language, and indeed on all forms of overemphasis in speech: “I say unto you, Swear not at all.”

At first sight, this seems like a plain annulment of the words of Moses by one who had just lately said: “I am not come to destroy, but to fulfil.” This is not the case, for this commandment: “Thou shalt perform unto the Lord thine oaths” meant: “If an oath is needful, then no other God save Jehovah may be invoked, for there is no other God to swear by” (Dt. 10:20 and context).

Human Perversions

But the name of God must not be used either falsely or lightly (Lev. 19:12). So Jesus proceeded to denounce the way that men had -and have - of introducing a smokescreen of circumlocution into their emphatic speech. They avoided all direct use of the Divine Name, but in spirit it was defiled and profaned abominably by the thoughtless and frivolous substitution of holy things, they swore by heaven, but it was exactly as in the present day when people irreligiously ejaculate “Good heavens!” whilst really intending a blasphemous “Good God!” They turned in pseudo-solemnity towards Jerusalem (see RVm) to carry conviction with their assertions about the most mundane transactions in life. They stamped upon the earth with a violent heel, inviting the hearer to believe their declaration to be as immoveable and dependable as the ground beneath their feet. There was no limit to the variety and even ridiculousness of the protestations with which men dressed up their testimony to make it more credible to the hearer: “I assure you, as truly as there is a head upon my shoulders...” Even a writer like the foul-minded Martial complained about the way in which Jewish traders of the Dispersion glibly decorated their business talk with religious oaths. Jesus framed his protest (mete... mete...) in such a way as to imply that all these oaths were equally trivial. Away with the lot of them!

It was all part of a way of life which had become so familiar as to be taken for granted, sanctioned and even encouraged by the Pharisees (Mt. 23:16-22). Simple statement of truth was deemed inadequate. It must be reinforced with the strongest possible oath and with the most flamboyant language available. Thus they diluted the power of words and tampered with men’s sense of truthfulness.

Holiness in Speech

‘Stop all that’, Jesus bade his disciples, ‘bring into your lives a greater sense of the authority and nearness of God. Learn to live and speak as in His very Presence, and this over-emphasis will then get its needed discipline. When swearing by heaven you will recall that God is enthroned there. And the earth is the footstool of His feet.’ The Lord was making deliberate allusion to a familiar passage in Isaiah: “The heaven is my throne, and the earth is my footstool...but to this man will I look, even to him that... trembleth at my word.” Men were so intent on using every means to impress others with their own words that they forgot altogether the God before whom their oaths were taken. But He did not forget them: “The Lord’s throne is in heaven: his eyes behold, his eyelids try, the children of men” (Ps. 11:4).

And why drive home the advantage of a tawdry commercial bargain by turning in false reverence towards Jerusalem to help carry conviction? In their eagerness to squeeze another denarius of profit, did they forget whose city it was?

Or why should a dedicated Jew give a solemn undertaking swearing by the kaftan worn at his prayers or by the holy locks of hair which custom prescribed, when all these signs of youth or age, health or infirmity, were in the hand of God: “Thou canst not make one hair white or black.” Only God can do that. Or did the Lord mean: ‘These melodramatic oaths make not the slightest difference to what you really are-a sheep or a goat’ (Mt. 25:32).

Emphasis by Repetition

So Jesus bade his followers let go all this overstatement and striving after the sensational in current speech. “Let your communication be, Yea, yea; Nay, nay.” In other words, be content with plain simple truth. And if you must import emphasis, then say it twice. After all, this is God’s own method. Joseph explained the two dreams granted to Pharaoh in this way: “And for that the dream was doubled unto Pharaoh twice; it is because the thing is established by God, and God will shortly bring it to pass.” (Gen. 41:32) Also, as all Christ’s hearers would well know, it is the standard form of emphasis in Hebrew - “Thou shalt surely die” is expressed by: “Dying thou shalt die”.


In every age and society this warning by Jesus against exaggeration of speech and extravagance of phrase has been necessary, but perhaps in none more than at the present day. Always there is straining for effect. If through some vagary of the central-heating the house temperature falls to 68, the room is “perishing cold”. A disappointing meal is “positively inedible, and the coffee poisonous”. If the rain is somewhat heavier than normal, it is “literally bucketing down”. New clothes are either “heavenly” or “perfectly ghastly”, according to taste.

These are trivial examples, but they serve to illustrate the constant danger of debauchery of language through attempts to make an impression. In more serious matters instead of cheap slangy hyperbole there is exaggeration, which is often downright misleading and such as ill becomes those who pride themselves on what they call The Truth. The comment passed on one raconteur was no compliment: “Everything in his experience is highly coloured.”

The Lord’s warning should not go unheeded: “Whatever is more than these cometh of evil.” The reading preferred by some modern versions: “cometh of the Evil One”, may be safely disregarded, not only because of the over-all teaching of the rest of Scripture but because of the context. Twenty words further on there comes the command: “Resist not evil.” The Greek here is just the same. Yet is it at all possible that Jesus said: “Resist not the Evil One”? Such would be difficult to reconcile with Peter’s unequivocal: “Resist the devil, and he will flee from you.”

The Oath in Court

There is a further problem. Do these words of Jesus prohibit the taking of the oath in a modern court of law? To some, there is only one answer: an obvious “Yes”. But further thought shows that the issue is not so uncomplicated as it may seem. At his trial Jesus suffered himself to be put on oath; indeed, it was only then that he broke his silence to answer the challenge of the high priest: “I adjure thee by the living God...” (Mt. 26:63). Time and again in his epistles the apostle Paul expressed himself by an oath of the most impassioned kind:

“I say the truth in Christ, I lie not, my conscience also bearing me witness in the Holy Spirit” (Rom. 9:1).
“For God is my witness ...that without i ceasing I make mention of you always in my | prayers” (Rom. 1:9).
“Moreover I call God for a witness upon my -j soul, that to spare you I came not as yet unto Corinth” (2 Cor. 1:23).
“The God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ... knoweth that I lie not” (2 Cor. 11:31).
“Now the things which I write unto you, behold, before God, I lie not” (Gal. 1:20).
It must be evident from examples such as these; that what Jesus would have his disciples avoid is the frivolous misuse of language or a straining; after sensationalism, neither of which are closely related to truth. He was not forbidding I solemn declarations which are a proper expression of deep emotion.

The oath in court is indeed outlawed for the disciple of the Lord, mainly because in these irreligious days it has lost its solemnity and sincerity. The form of words is gabbled off mostly with no thought to the weightiness of their meaning. It behoves the Lord’s servant to eschew all association with such an abuse, the more so since there is available the alternative of a solemn affirmation. It is a sad commentary on our times that the witness in court who for religious reasons chooses to affirm probably carries more weight in his testimony than the one who takes the oath.

Notes: Mt. 5:33-37

Swear not at all. Not only did Jesus and Paul come down to the level of ordinary men by accepting oaths and using them (see text), but so also God Himself: Lk. 1:73; Acts 2:30; Heb. 3:11, 18; 4:3; 6:13-18; 7:20, 21. And in Rev. 10:6 there is the oath of an angel.
The city of the great King, Ps. 46:8 celebrates judgment on the great enemy - Assyrian Sennacherib - for his taking the Name of Jehovah in vain.

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