But above all, my brethren, do not swear, either by heaven or by earth or with any other oath; but your yes is to be yes, and your no, no, so that you may not fall under judgment. (5:12)
Fallen men are basically inveterate liars. Children lie to their parents and parents lie to their children. Husbands lie to their wives and wives lie to their husbands. People lie to their employers who in turn lie to them and often to the public. Politicians lie to get elected and continue to lie once they are in office. People lie to the government—perhaps most notably on their income tax returns. Educators lie, scientists lie, and members of the media lie. Our society is built on a framework of lies, leading one to wonder whether our social structure would survive if everyone were forced to speak the truth for even one day.
That we live in a world of lies should surprise no one familiar with the Scriptures, which designate unregenerate humanity as children of the devil—the father of lies (John 8:44). That basic dishonesty has led men to impose oaths on others in an often futile attempt to force them to be truthful and keep their promises. Both the simple oaths of children, the sophisticated oaths often required by cults and other organizations, and everything from legal contracts to peace treaties are necessitated by the recognition of mankind’s basic dishonesty.
Manifesting of this same dishonesty, the Jews not only swore according to Old Testament law by the name of the Lord (and occasionally violated such oaths), but also had developed the practice of swearing false, evasive, deceptive oaths by everything other than the name of the Lord (which alone was considered binding). They swore by anything other than the Lord for the very purpose of pretending to a truthfulness that they had no intention of maintaining. Jesus also condemned this practice (Matt. 5:33–36; 23:16–22).
The custom of swearing oaths was a major part of life in biblical times. It had become an issue in the church, particularly the predominantly Jewish congregations to which James wrote. Since swearing oaths was an integral part of Jewish culture, Jewish believers brought that practice into the church. But such oath taking is unnecessary among Christians, whose speech is to be honest (Eph. 4:25; Col. 3:9), and whose lives are to demonstrate integrity and credibility. For believers, a simple yes or no should suffice because they are faithful to keep their word.
To encourage believers to be distinctive in the matter of speaking the truth, James issues a command to stop swearing. There are four features of his command that need to be considered: the distinction, the restriction, the instruction, and the motivation.
But above all, my brethren, (5:12a)
The phrase but above all indicates the distinction between the exhortation that follows and the others in the epistle and sets it in the primary place. The Greek particle de (but) marks a transition from the preceding passage that discusses facing trials patiently (5:7–11). Since there is no contrast with the preceding section, it is best to translate de “now,” or “and,” recognizing that it introduces a new subject. That new subject is not totally divorced from the preceding context, since verse 12, like verse 9, refers to the coming judgment.
The command in verse 12 is the first of several that close out the epistle. As he winds down his letter, the author gives a final wrap-up to his thoughts and touches on some important concluding matters—a common occurrence in the New Testament epistles (cf. 1 Thess. 5:11–27). Because it occupies only one verse, some may be tempted to dismiss James’s prohibition against swearing as relatively insignificant. But the phrase above all sets it apart as a preeminent and pervasive command.
That James discusses speech at the close of his epistle is not surprising; he did so in every other chapter as well. In 1:26 he wrote, “If anyone thinks himself to be religious, and yet does not bridle his tongue but deceives his own heart, this man’s religion is worthless.” Those who fail to control their tongues give evidence of unregenerate hearts, despite their outward veneer of religious activities. In 2:12 he exhorted, “So speak and so act as those who are to be judged by the law of liberty.” Those set free from the law of sin and death through Jesus Christ (Rom. 8:2) will give evidence of that liberation in their speech. In a lengthy passage in 3:2–11, James noted the difficulty of controlling the tongue, then exhorted believers to do just that. In 4:11 he prohibited speaking against a fellow believer, equating that with speaking against God’s holy law.
How believers speak was of grave concern to James since it manifests what is in their hearts; it is a test of living faith (cf. Matt. 12:34–37; Luke 6:43–45). The prohibition against false swearing in verse 12 reflects the truth that a Spirit-transformed heart will reveal itself in honest speech. How people speak is the most revealing test of their true spiritual state. People sin more with their tongues than in any other way; one can’t do everything, but one can say anything. Little wonder, then, that Jesus declared, “For the mouth speaks out of that which fills the heart” (Matt. 12:34). The heart is a storehouse and people’s words reveal what they keep there.
James’s reference to his readers as brethren shows that his attitude was not one of condescension, but compassion. He identified with them as one who also needed to guard his own mouth and speak the truth. For him, too, the matter of honest speech was of utmost importance.
do not swear, either by heaven or by earth or with any other oath; (5:12b)
The specific speech-related issue James focused his attention on is that of swearing. In this context to swear does not mean (as it often does in English) to use illicit speech, dirty talk, double entendre, filthy jokes, or four-letter words—the type of unwholesome, nonedifying speech the apostle Paul forbids in Ephesians 4:29 (cf. Eph. 5:4). Instead, it refers to the taking of oaths. The Jews of James’s day had developed a complex system of swearing oaths, the influences of which Jewish Christians brought with them into the church. It is against the abuses of that system that James wrote.
The Jewish system of swearing oaths had its roots in the Old Testament. In a time when written contracts did not exist, oaths served to bind agreements between people. To take an oath was to attest that what one said was true, to call God to witness to that, and to invoke His punishment if one’s word was violated. To call God to witness to the truth of one’s promise and to invoke His judgment if one defaulted on that promise was a very serious matter.
The Bible does not forbid taking oaths, acknowledging that in a world filled with liars there are times when they are necessary. Certainly it is not wrong to take an oath when testifying in court, being ordained, or getting married. Oaths are wrong when they are misused with the intent to deceive others, or when taken rashly or flippantly. The Bible gives examples of godly men who took oaths, lists God’s commands that oaths be taken, and records instances of God Himself taking oaths.
The first recorded instance of someone taking an oath is in Genesis 21. In the course of a discussion with the Philistine ruler Abimelech and his army commander Phicol,
Abraham complained to Abimelech because of the well of water which the servants of Abimelech had seized. And Abimelech said, “I do not know who has done this thing; neither did you tell me, nor did I hear of it until today.” Abraham took sheep and oxen and gave them to Abimelech, and the two of them made a covenant. Then Abraham set seven ewe lambs of the flock by themselves. Abimelech said to Abraham, “What do these seven ewe lambs mean, which you have set by themselves?” He said, “You shall take these seven ewe lambs from my hand in order that it may be a witness to me, that I dug this well.” Therefore he called that place Beersheba, because there the two of them took an oath. (vv. 25–31)
Abraham took an oath to validate his claim that he dug the well in question. Later Isaac made a similar oath with the Philistines (Gen. 26:26–31). In Genesis 24:2–4, Abraham required his servant to take an oath:
Abraham said to his servant, the oldest of his household, who had charge of all that he owned, “Please place your hand under my thigh, and I will make you swear by the Lord, the God of heaven and the God of earth, that you shall not take a wife for my son from the daughters of the Canaanites, among whom I live, but you will go to my country and to my relatives, and take a wife for my son Isaac.”
Joshua 2:12–20 records the oath given Rahab by the two Israelite spies:
[Rahab said,] “Now therefore, please swear to me by the Lord, since I have dealt kindly with you, that you also will deal kindly with my father’s household, and give me a pledge of truth, and spare my father and my mother and my brothers and my sisters, with all who belong to them, and deliver our lives from death.” So the men said to her, “Our life for yours if you do not tell this business of ours; and it shall come about when the Lord gives us the land that we will deal kindly and faithfully with you.” Then she let them down by a rope through the window, for her house was on the city wall, so that she was living on the wall. She said to them, “Go to the hill country, so that the pursuers will not happen upon you, and hide yourselves there for three days until the pursuers return. Then afterward you may go on your way.” The men said to her, “We shall be free from this oath to you which you have made us swear, unless, when we come into the land, you tie this cord of scarlet thread in the window through which you let us down, and gather to yourself into the house your father and your mother and your brothers and all your father’s household. It shall come about that anyone who goes out of the doors of your house into the street, his blood shall be on his own head, and we shall be free; but anyone who is with you in the house, his blood shall be on our head if a hand is laid on him. But if you tell this business of ours, then we shall be free from the oath which you have made us swear.”
David swore oaths with Jonathan (1 Sam. 20:12–17; 2 Sam. 21:7), Saul (1 Sam. 24:21–22), Shimei (2 Sam. 19:23), and God (2 Sam. 3:35). The people of Israel under Joshua swore an oath (Josh. 6:26), as did the people of Judah during King Asa’s reign (2 Chron. 15:14), and the returned exiles (Ezra 10:5; Neh. 10:28–30). The apostle Paul took a vow to God (Acts 18:18), and took an oath of truthfulness by writing to the Corinthians: “The God and Father of the Lord Jesus, He who is blessed forever, knows that I am not lying” (2 Cor. 11:31; cf. 1:23; Rom. 9:1). Even an angel swore an oath (Rev. 10:5–6).
There were occasions in the Old Testament when God required people to take an oath. Those who lost an animal entrusted to their keeping were required to swear an oath that they had not stolen it:
If a man gives his neighbor a donkey, an ox, a sheep, or any animal to keep for him, and it dies or is hurt or is driven away while no one is looking, an oath before the Lord shall be made by the two of them that he has not laid hands on his neighbor’s property; and its owner shall accept it, and he shall not make restitution. (Ex. 22:10–11)
Numbers 5:19–22 records the oath required of a woman suspected of marital infidelity:
The priest shall have her take an oath and shall say to the woman, “If no man has lain with you and if you have not gone astray into uncleanness, being under the authority of your husband, be immune to this water of bitterness that brings a curse; if you, however, have gone astray, being under the authority of your husband, and if you have defiled yourself and a man other than your husband has had intercourse with you” (then the priest shall have the woman swear with the oath of the curse, and the priest shall say to the woman), “the Lord make you a curse and an oath among your people by the Lord’s making your thigh waste away and your abdomen swell; and this water that brings a curse shall go into your stomach, and make your abdomen swell and your thigh waste away.” And the woman shall say, “Amen. Amen.”
Numbers 6:2ff. records the Nazirite vow, which set people apart to God.
God expects vows to be kept. Because oaths invoke God’s holy name (Deut. 6:13), they are not to be taken lightly. Numbers 30:2 states that “if a man makes a vow to the Lord, or takes an oath to bind himself with a binding obligation, he shall not violate his word; he shall do according to all that proceeds out of his mouth” (cf. Ps. 15:1–4). Women were also expected to keep their vows (cf. Num. 30:3ff). To fail to do so was to take God’s name in vain (Ex. 20:7; Lev. 19:12).
The seriousness of taking oaths is underscored by the consequences of taking hasty, foolish ones. The Old Testament records several examples of people who foolishly took rash vows. Deceived by the Hivites (Josh. 9:3–14), Joshua and the Israelite leaders swore an oath to let them live (9:15)—only to discover (9:16) that they were one of the peoples of Canaan that Israel was supposed to destroy (Deut. 20:17). Were it not for King Saul’s rash vow (1 Sam. 14:24), the men of Israel would have inflicted a greater defeat on the Philistines (v. 30). Herod’s foolish vow cost John the Baptist his life (Matt. 14:7–9). But the most infamous example of a rash vow in Scripture is undoubtedly that of Jephthah:
Jephthah made a vow to the Lord and said, “If You will indeed give the sons of Ammon into my hand, then it shall be that whatever comes out of the doors of my house to meet me when I return in peace from the sons of Ammon, it shall be the Lord’s, and I will offer it up as a burnt offering.” So Jephthah crossed over to the sons of Ammon to fight against them; and the Lord gave them into his hand. He struck them with a very great slaughter from Aroer to the entrance of Minnith, twenty cities, and as far as Abel-keramim. So the sons of Ammon were subdued before the sons of Israel. When Jephthah came to his house at Mizpah, behold, his daughter was coming out to meet him with tambourines and with dancing. Now she was his one and only child; besides her he had no son or daughter. It came about when he saw her, that he tore his clothes and said, “Alas, my daughter! You have brought me very low, and you are among those who trouble me; for I have given my word to the Lord, and I cannot take it back.” So she said to him, “My father, you have given your word to the Lord; do to me as you have said, since the Lord has avenged you of your enemies, the sons of Ammon.” (Judg. 11:30–36)
Jephthah’s foolish vow cost the life of his only child.
Further evidence that wisely swearing oaths is not wrong under the proper circumstances comes from the fact that God Himself has sworn oaths. He did not do so because there is any question about His truthfulness, but in gracious condescension, to set an example of integrity for men to follow. Hebrews 6:13–17 records that
when God made the promise to Abraham, since He could swear by no one greater, He swore by Himself, saying, “I will surely bless you and I will surely multiply you.” And so, having patiently waited, he obtained the promise. For men swear by one greater than themselves, and with them an oath given as confirmation is an end of every dispute. In the same way God, desiring even more to show to the heirs of the promise the unchangeableness of His purpose, interposed with an oath.
The oft-repeated Old Testament phrase “As I live” offers further evidence of God’s swearing by Himself (Num. 14:21, 28; Deut. 32:40; Isa. 49:18; Jer. 22:24; 46:18; Ezek. 5:11; 14:16, 18, 20; 16:48; 17:16, 19; 18:3; 20:3, 31, 33; 33:11, 27; 34:8; 35:6, 11; Zeph. 2:9; Rom. 14:11). To Abraham God declared,
By Myself I have sworn, declares the Lord, because you have done this thing and have not withheld your son, your only son, indeed I will greatly bless you, and I will greatly multiply your seed as the stars of the heavens and as the sand which is on the seashore; and your seed shall possess the gate of their enemies. In your seed all the nations of the earth shall be blessed, because you have obeyed My voice. (Gen. 22:16–18)
Luke 1:73 also refers to “the oath which [God] swore to Abraham our father.” Acts 2:30 notes the oath God swore to David (cf. 2 Sam. 7:11–15; 1 Chron. 17:11–14; Pss. 89:3–4; 132:11–12). Exodus 6:8 records God’s oath that He would give the land of Israel to Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and their descendants (cf. Ex. 13:5, 11). Deuteronomy 28:9 records God’s oath to the Israelites to set them apart as a holy people to Himself. Placed under oath by the high priest, Jesus responded, in effect, by taking an oath Himself (Matt. 26:63–64). In light of the biblical evidence, James’s command do not swear must not be viewed as a blanket prohibition of all oath taking. Oaths were permitted on serious occasions, but only in the name of God.
James, therefore, does not forbid swearing in the name of the Lord, but by heaven or by earth or with any other oath. The source of James’s prohibition is our Lord’s teaching regarding oaths in Matthew 5:33–37:
Again, you have heard that the ancients were told, “You shall not make false vows, but shall fulfill your vows to the Lord.” But I say to you, make no oath at all, either 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. Nor shall you make an oath by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. But let your statement be, “Yes, yes” or “No, no”; anything beyond these is of evil.
The phrase “you have heard that the ancients were told” does not refer to the teaching of Old Testament but to rabbinic tradition. The declaration “You shall not make false vows, but shall fulfill your vows to the Lord” appears on the surface to be in harmony with the Old Testament teaching regarding the sacredness of taking oaths. But there was a hidden “out” in it: rabbinic teaching held that only vows to the Lord were binding. In their thinking, God was only a party to an oath if His name were invoked. All other oaths, they taught, could be (and were intended to be) violated without committing perjury—much as people in our culture invalidate their vows by saying, “I had my fingers crossed.” Attempting to deceive others, many Jews would swear by heaven, Jerusalem, the temple, the altar in the temple, the veil in the temple, their own heads, etc.—anything but the name of the Lord. Such evasive swearing was intended to hide their lying hearts. In Matthew 23:16–22, Jesus condemned the Jewish religious leaders for this hypocritical practice:
Woe to you, blind guides, who say, “Whoever swears by the temple, that is nothing; but whoever swears by the gold of the temple is obligated.” You fools and blind men! Which is more important, the gold or the temple that sanctified the gold? And, “Whoever swears by the altar, that is nothing, but whoever swears by the offering on it, he is obligated.” You blind men, which is more important, the offering, or the altar that sanctifies the offering? Therefore, whoever swears by the altar, swears both by the altar and by everything on it. And whoever swears by the temple, swears both by the temple and by Him who dwells within it. And whoever swears by heaven, swears both by the throne of God and by Him who sits upon it.
Swearing by anything in God’s dominion, Jesus declared, brings Him into the transaction. Despite what the hypocritical deceivers may have thought or intended, God regarded their oaths as binding—and judged them for not keeping them.
but your yes is to be yes, and your no, no, (5:12c)
Reiterating Jesus’ words (cf. Matt. 5:37), James calls for simple, straightforward, honest speech. Christians are to be those whose yes means yes and whose no means no. People of integrity have no need to swear elaborate oaths to convince others of their truthfulness. Nor would they swear falsely to deceive people. That is why Jesus declared that “anything beyond these is of evil” (Matt. 5:37). It must be remembered, as noted above, that neither Jesus nor James prohibited swearing oaths under special circumstances. But under normal circumstances they are superfluous for the believer, who is marked by honesty.
Jesus lifted all conversation in His church to the level of sacredness. Believers are to be known as people who keep their word, having such integrity that their simple yes and no will suffice for people. In the words of Paul, “Therefore, laying aside falsehood, speak truth each one of you with his neighbor” (Eph. 4:25). Speaking the truth in every situation will cause believers to shine forth in the darkness of a world of lies.
so that you may not fall under judgment. (5:12d)
As motivation against swearing false oaths, James points out the consequences of violating them. Those who do so, he warns, will fall under judgment. The Mosaic Law warned, “You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain, for the Lord will not leave him unpunished who takes His name in vain” (Ex. 20:7). One way of taking God’s name in vain is to swear falsely. As noted in the previous point, Jesus pronounced “woe” (a curse, judgment) on the Pharisees because of their false oaths (Matt. 23:16).
The judgment James has in mind here is not God’s chastening of believers. Krisis (judgment) is never used in the New Testament to refer to believers’ chastening (a different word, paideuō, is used; cf. 1 Cor. 11:32; Heb. 12:6–7). James used krisis in 2:13 to describe God’s merciless sentencing to hell of those whose lack of mercy reveals their unregenerate hearts. The gospels used it more than twenty-five times with the idea of passing sentence (e.g., John 5:22, 24, 27, 29, 30). In Acts 8:33 it described Christ’s judgment at Pilate’s hands. Paul used it twice to speak of God’s judgment of sinners (2 Thess. 1:5; 1 Tim. 5:24), as did the writer of Hebrews (Heb. 9:27; 10:27). Peter used it to refer to the condemnation of sinners on the day of judgment (2 Pet. 2:9; cf. 2:4, 11; 3:7), as did Jude (Jude 6, 15) and the apostle John (1 John 4:17).
James certainly does not teach that believers will never err with their tongues (cf. 3:2). Christians may lapse into falsehood on occasion, though lying will not be the unbroken pattern of their lives.
But that is not James’s point here. The sobering warning he gives in verse 12 is that those who continue to blaspheme God’s holy name through lying oaths face eternal damnation; thus, this is another test of living faith. Those whose lives are characterized by a pattern of lying give evidence of having an unregenerate heart. And the Bible teaches that liars, spiritual children of the father of lies (John 8:44), will be sentenced to hell (Rev. 21:8, 27; 22:15).
Note on James 5:12
Above all, my brothers, do not swear—not by heaven or by earth or by anything else. Let your “Yes” be yes, and your “No,” no, or you will be condemned. (James 5:12)
Students of James puzzle over the place of this verse in the structure of the epistle. Its connection to the rest of chapter 5 is a challenge. From Martin Luther to Martin Dibelius and beyond, theologians who question the structural cohesiveness of James cite 5:12 as a prime example of its tendency to drop disjointed aphorisms into the text.
As he often does, James has meditated on a teaching of Jesus and made it his own. In Matthew 5:34–37, Jesus said: “But I tell you, Do not swear at all: either by heaven, for it is God’s throne; or by the earth, for it is his footstool; or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the Great King. And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make even one hair white or black. Simply let your ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No,’‘No’; anything beyond this comes from the evil one.”
Although the wording differs at several points, James and Jesus see oaths the same way. Oaths are a convention designed to limit lying and deceit. We rarely use oaths or vows today. We reserve them for formal situations, such as testifying at court or taking office. Today, we use other conventions to restrain false speech when truth-telling is essential. We promise in personal settings and sign contracts in economic settings. Whether we consider oaths or similar conventions—such as vows or promises—truthful speech is the issue.
In Old Testament times, Israelites guaranteed their veracity by swearing to it in God’s name. They invoked him as witness, and as Judge if they lied. Jesus summarized the Mosaic law this way: “You have heard that it was said … ‘Do not break your oath, but keep the oaths you have made to the Lord’ ” (Matt. 5:33). The relevant laws said:
- “When a man makes a vow to the Lord … he must not break his word but must do everything he said” (Num. 30:2).
- “If you make a vow to the Lord your God, do not be slow to pay it, for the Lord your God will certainly demand it of you and you will be guilty of sin” (Deut. 23:21).
- “Do not swear falsely by my name and so profane the name of your God” (Lev. 19:12).
In the day of Jesus and James, a perversion of oaths had arisen. Instead of calling on God to assure honesty, people took oaths to avoid God’s punishment for dishonest speech. Rabbis artificially distinguished vows that invoke God’s name, and are binding, from those that do not, and are not binding. Whatever we swear by, Jesus said, it refers to God, for he created heaven and earth. If we swear by heaven or by earth (Matt. 5:34), we invoke God, for he created them both. All oaths call God to witness, for he created and sustains all things.
James flatly prohibits the use of oaths because even the honest use of oaths testifies that something is amiss in the community. If believers reliably told one another the truth, what need would there be of oaths to guarantee truth-telling? If I must take towering oaths to buttress my speech, I admit paradoxically that my speech is unreliable without such support. The greater the weight of a man’s oaths in the short run, the greater the doubt about his veracity in the long run.
Instead, we should tell the truth so consistently that oaths become superfluous, a waste of words. The existence of oaths, as a convention of speech, proves we live in a deceitful age. The family of God should be so truthful that we never need oaths or vows to verify our words.
Sadly, it may be necessary to give assurances of our honesty for the benefit of people who do not know us. For example, a legal officer, functioning in a legal situation, may ask that we swear to give honest testimony. It seems permissible to accede to that request. Along that line, Scripture records cases where God takes oaths for the sake of those who do not know he is reliable. Similarly, Jesus spoke under oath at his trial (Matt. 26:63–64). Paul also took vows, calling God as his witness (Rom. 1:9; 2 Cor. 1:23; 1 Thess. 2:10).
Still, once we survey Scripture and note the exceptional cases, we must return to the basic principle. James says we must not swear by any created thing, lest we be condemned, whether for violating oaths or for being so unreliable that we need to take oaths in the first place.
Even if the meaning is clear, the exegetical and theological question remains: Why this teaching here? If James is a disorderly book, flitting from one topic to the next, 5:12 seems like prime evidence of the charge. Specifically, James 5:1–6 declares woe upon rich oppressors. Then 5:7–11 calls God’s people to patient endurance as they trust God to vindicate them. The book closes with a call to pray in all the circumstances of life (5:13–18) and a call to stand together in the faith (5:19–20). We wonder, then, what the prohibition of oaths has to do with either the theme of endurance in the face of oppression or the theme of praying and standing together in the faith.
Some say it is simply another sign of James’s concern about the proper use of the tongue, with no closer connection to the rest of the epistle.
Others see 5:12 as a final word on the proper response to trials. It retains the section’s interest in being prepared for judgment (5:9, 12). Further, it warns against a foolish response to the oppression described in 5:1–6, for people commonly respond to trouble and distress with unrealistic pledges to God. But it is better to be genuine than dramatic, better to mean what we say than to have unfulfilled, unrealistic vows hanging over us (cf. Eccl. 5:4). The warning against vows is, therefore, part of James’s call to patience and restraint in speech as in other daily behavior.7
Still others see it as a genuine transition to James’s final section. The phrase, “above all” in James 5:12 is a literary convention meant to introduce final remarks. The topic, once again, is speech and the need to use the tongue to build community solidarity. Plain honesty is the first necessity (5:12), followed by prayer, confession of sin, and efforts to win straying brothers (5:13–20).
We probably ought to admit our uncertainty as to which explanation is best. Regardless, it is clearly possible to regard our text as a hinge. It is the final word on endurance and the first word in the conclusion. To take a vow is an extreme manifestation of impatience. James says “above all” because to take a rash vow before God is worse than grumbling before men (5:9). Yet “above all” can sometimes appear in the epistolary conclusions of Hellenistic letters, and, as we just saw, it does open a final series of thought on speech.10
12 This verse begins with the phrase “above all,” marking the beginning of the letter’s closing remarks (Davids, 189; Laws, 220; Martin, 203), as the author transitions to a focus on important ways believers are to use their words wisely in community. James again uses the address “brothers,” repeated here for the fourth time since the beginning of v. 7, and continues giving attention to the obligations of living in Christian community (5:7, 9–10).
The exhortation “do not swear” once again echoes a basic teaching of Jesus from the Sermon on the Mount (5:13–17). James 5:12 serves to remind believers that integrity lies close to the heart of kingdom life and ethics. James is not speaking against vulgar language but rather against using oaths to shore up one’s word to make it more believable. Oaths in and of themselves were not prohibited in the OT, and even God used oaths as a form of guarantee (see esp. Heb 6:13–18; 7:21). Leviticus 19:12, however, located in a passage from which James draws throughout the book, forbids swearing falsely by God’s name, for that is profaning the name. Jesus goes even farther in Matthew 5:34–37, which certainly lies behind James’s words at this point (contra Laws, 223), the two passages paralleling each other in great detail. There Jesus commands, “Do not swear at all” (Moo, 232–33).
The verb, in the present imperative and preceded by mē, can be translated as a command to end a certain course of action (“stop swearing”), and this view finds some support in the failure to control the tongue in the communities addressed by James (3:1–12; 4:1–4). However, the same construction is used to communicate a general precept or guideline for life, regardless of whether or not the action has started, and this is the approach taken by both the NIV and NASB: “do not swear.” The means by which the exhortation is to be lived out is stated both negatively and positively. Negatively, believers should not swear—“not by heaven or by earth or by anything else.” James means the triple prohibition to be all-inclusive, covering the gamut of possible orientations used to strengthen an oath.
Positively, Christ-followers are to speak plainly, saying “yes” when they mean “yes” and “no” when they mean “no.” If a person’s word is true, and she is known as a person of integrity who reflects the values of God’s kingdom, such basic words as “yes” and “no” do not need strengthening with an oath, for they are infused with the power of an honest character. John Chrysostom wrote, “Now the person who has heard the blessings of God and who has prepared himself as Christ has commanded will never claim any need to do anything of the kind, for he is respected and honored by all. What is needed beyond a simple yes and no? An oath adds nothing to these” (cited in Bray, 59). The reason one should not swear concerns the danger of falling “under judgment” (NASB), which is James’s restatement of Jesus’ teaching that “anything beyond this comes from the evil one” (Mt 5:37).
Swear no oaths (5:12)
12 But above all things, my brothers, do not swear oaths, either by heaven or by earth or any other oath; but let your yes be yes, and your no, no, lest you fall under condemnation.
12 In his discussion of the structure of the Epistle of James, P. B. R. Forbes notes James’s way of going back to where he began and also his comprehensive aim, to present an epitome of all the essentials of the Christian life. James obviously feels that avoidance of oaths is one of those essentials.
Bridling the tongue is one of the duties stressed in the opening chapter of the Epistle, and in its third chapter, which opens the second half of the composition. In the final chapter James characteristically harks back to the subjects of both, i.e., prayer with faith (1:5f. and 5:13–18), the rich (1:10 and 5:1–6), “endurance,” and the tongue (1:3 and 13, 19, 26; 5:7, 8 and 9, 12; see 4:11). There is here an express warning against grumbling at one another in our troubles, and the mention of Job at least ought to remind us (as James certainly did not forget [1:13] about Job 1:22 and 2:9–10) how Job in his afflictions did not sin with his lips nor charged God foolishly.
The introductory pro pantōn, above all things, is said to be (i) hyperbole (Augustine); an “elative” superlative (A. T. Robertson); (ii) an allusion to Zebulon (Sebulonspruch) (A. Meyer); (iii) a signal for a verbum Christi (A. Resch); (iv) equivalent to a letter’s P. S., an addendum, or appendix (Knowling, Plummer, Ropes). We submit that, far from interrupting the general sense (Mitton, p. 190), “above all” links this passage with the previous passages on the discipline of the tongue, not only in 5:7–11 but also in 1:19 and 26. We see here not divorce but a strong bond of unity: reverence for the name of God may well be called paramount in the discipline of the tongue. 5:9 and 12 illustrate very well James’s habit of opening and closing a paragraph on the same note: so pro pantōn comes “into focus.” This does not mean that abstention from oaths is more important than the avoidance of other sins. The immediate reference is to sins of speech. Both formal and informal oaths were loaded with danger, which with the utmost temperance the best of men can scarcely avoid (3:2). Apart from any question of lying—possibly the ancient Jews and Greeks were easy liars—the habitual use of oaths could verge on blasphemy. The invocation of God’s name in common speech is a practice which even if sincere at first can only lead to irreverence; from this failing even the rabbis were not exempt. The temptation to make rash vows (Sir. 18:23) was one to which the Galileans apparently were particularly prone. Paradoxically, swearing not only increases the untruthfulness which oaths are supposed to prevent but also as inevitably leads to blasphemy. The oath is the commonest and most serious moral fault in speech, and James is hardly to be blamed for ranking it pro pantōn, above all errors of the tongue, e.g., boasting, grumbling, and backbiting. Like “above all” in English, so pro pantōn means “above all else.” Thus the phrase can be related to the “other things,” i.e., the other kindred faults of speech in v. 9, and (we think, but do not wish to press this) in other parts of the Epistle (4:13–16; 5:9; 4:11).
5:9 condemns grumbling, and 5:13 swearing. James could not approve the use by Christians of the pagan challenge to an oath in court, a process not abolished in England until the Civil Act, 1833 (see Prov. 30:9); the teaching on oaths may reflect “the outlook of a persecuted minority” whom the rich haul into court (2:6). Neither could he be silent against Christian use of oaths in other transactions or relations in daily life; he knew the dangers involved: “lest you fall under condemnation”53 (see Prov. 30:8, 9). It is hard for us to see the problem of the conclusive and promissory oath in true perspective; the old pagan, the Jew, and the early Christians believed in God in a way in which most of our present world does not.
It is possible that here, and in Christ’s prohibition, the point is pride and presumptuousness, as in 4:11–12: there a man condemns his fellows as if he were God; so to swear falsely by God is obviously impious. Even an honest man can rarely be sure that he is infallibly telling the truth even of the past, much less of the future; and even if he is within the truth in the particular case, there is the danger of error and, especially in freely swearing in antiquity, of presumptuousness, in (as it were) taking God as a man’s partner, not to say accomplice.
But we think James here is chiefly concerned with what was a sort of idiomatic and not always consciously profane swearing in conversational extravagance, as, like the Greeks and the Romans, we often say or at least hear, “By Jove.” James, surely, is not against honest legal oaths; he did not require a Christian Jew to repudiate the Mosaic law, though he advised him to rely rather on the law of liberty, as supplementing, not cancelling, the old law (see 2:8–13). The Epistle of James is not given to paradox or extremism, but to basic essentials; these, quite properly and indeed inevitably, include the discipline of the tongue in relation to God and our fellows. The judgment of 5:9 and 12 refers not to human judgment but to God’s: so “under condemnation” must be interpreted eschatologically. Here is yet further proof that the Epistle of James is permeated and dominated by an urgent sense of imminent judgment in the end of the present world (5:9).
The point of this command and its parallel in Matt. 5:34 is that the Christian does not need to swear, for his word is his bond: swearing is necessary only in a society where the truth is not reverenced. Whether he swears or not, the Christian ought always to speak the truth, and this will mean that a simple unadorned “Yes” or “No” is sufficient. James’s target is the sort of thing exemplified today in the use of the name of Christ as a mere expletive.
12 Above all, my beloved, do not swear, either by heaven or by earth or by any other oath,b but let your “Yes” be yes and your “No” be no, so that you may not fall under condemnation.d
There are two major questions to be answered about this verse: First, what is its relation to what precedes and what follows? Second, was there an oral tradition that showed up in Matthean (Matt 5:33–37; 23:16–22) and Jacobite forms, or is this a quotation of Jesus, or is James earlier than the form we find in Matthew—in other words, what is the tradition history behind James 5:12?
To begin with the first question: there is an obvious connection to an important theme in James, namely, the speech patterns of the leaders (3:1–4:12) and of the whole community (1:19–21, 26). But this general connection does not help much when subjected to a more careful analysis. The speech patterns mentioned earlier are not the issue in 5:12. Instead, this verse speaks of (legal?) oaths, for the first time in the letter. Too many have connected 5:12 thematically to the earlier speech passages and then stretch 5:13–20 to make those verses address speech patterns as well. We need not try to give organization to James where he has not. The instructions of 3:1–4:12 and 5:12 are substantively different. In 5:12 James is not addressing teachers and how their speech has a potent impact; instead, James here addresses the inappropriateness of oaths as he draws on the early Christian emphasis on honesty. Furthermore, this is hardly a concluding word about speech patterns in James because it neither summarizes what has been said nor concludes what has been taught. It introduces a distinct and narrow topic. Davids represents the more accurate view: there is no obvious connection of 5:12 to what precedes.
Perhaps what confuses most is how James begins: “Above all.” How can legal oaths take such significant importance in the concluding section to a letter that did not once raise the issue? J. H. Ropes long ago suggested that those who were enduring stresses might be tempted to use oaths and accuse God. What is in the favor of this suggestion is that 1:12–18 moves in the direction of blaming God. But it is at best a stretch to connect these two passages, and it is probable that “above all” is a non-comparative, introductory expression with very little logical power. Franz Mussner translates: “Above all, before I forget.…”9 A similar use of this expression can be found in 1 Peter 4:8. It is an “epistolary cliché,” perhaps synonymous with Paul’s “finally” (2 Cor 13:11). It strains logic to see it any other way.
The pastoral tone of 5:7–20 is notable, not the least of which evidence is the use of “my beloved.” This is the language of identification and motivation, and James’s concern is this: “do not swear.”13 This leads back to our question about the origin of James 5:12. The evidence in the Jesus tradition is found only in Matthew 23:16–22 and 5:33–37. Matthew 23:16–22 shows no recognizable literary connection. It does not prohibit oaths or contrast oaths to simple, honest words. It is concerned, rather, to distinguish carefully between the sanctuary and its gold, between the altar and the offering. We can exclude Matthew 23:16–22 from having anything substantial to do with James 5:12.
The connection between James 5:12 and Matthew 5:33–37 is, however, substantial. Both prohibit oaths, specifically by heaven or earth, and include words to indicate that swearing by any object is prohibited. Both use the noun horkos, “oath,” as well as the verb omnyō, “swear” (only the latter appears in Matthew 23). And both contrast swearing oaths to a simple “Yes” or “No,” Matthew adding that “anything more than this comes from the evil one” and James “so that you may not fall under condemnation.” When we look for the substantive words (and avoid commonplace words like “and”) and for common word order, these two texts come up smelling like shrimp from the same gumbo. Furthermore, what they have in common is unusual and cannot be ascribed to commonplaces.
The texts are related, but that raises questions rather than answering them. First, which is earlier? The little differences between the two texts demonstrate beyond doubt that neither is copied from the other in the way, for example, that Matthew and Luke copy Q and Mark. Matthew’s text is more fulsome and even in the “Yes, yes … No, no” James differs from Matthew by setting them off with the article.18 Finally, the two end differently even if their points are similar. Matthew ends with “anything more than this comes from the evil one” and James ends with “so that you may not fall under condemnation.” The two texts are not literarily dependent. Or, to be more nuanced, if they are literarily dependent the second author either has taken many liberties with the work of the first or has worked hard to avoid detection. Our conclusion is that they are not dependent at the literary level. But, because the texts are so substantially related we would argue that the text of James is a literary deposit of an oral tradition that goes back to Jesus. In other words, James has made the words of Jesus his own. He gives us a virtual quotation.
Matthew’s fuller text suggests that James is the more primitive account of the words of Jesus, but the evidence is not clear enough to give the historian confidence. One could easily speculate on what is redaction in Matthew 5:33–37 and find the core behind the redaction, compare that core to James 5:12, and then make historical judgments on priority. What ought to surprise us more is that James feels no compulsion to say that he is quoting Jesus.21
The words perhaps surprise: James is not drawing lines of halakah often drawn in his Jewish world, nor is he even permitting the legitimate oath found in the Old Testament. Instead, he prohibits any kind of oath-taking. What is required of the follower of Jesus, according to Matthew 5:33–37 and James 5:12, is simple honesty. The command is to drop the buttressing of words with more words that demonstrate the levels of commitment to one’s words. This runs counter to explicit Old Testament commands. Thus, it was wrong to swear falsely (Lev 19:12) or to make use of God’s name (Deut 5:11; but cf. 6:13; Jer 12:16), but it was not wrong to use oaths properly (Exod 20:7; 22:10–11; Num 30:3–15; Ps 50:14). To be sure, oaths were held at bay by some, and the Essenes notoriously did not take oaths. Thus, according to Josephus,
They dispense their anger after a just manner, and restrain their passion. They are eminent for fidelity, and are the ministers of peace; whatsoever they say also is firmer than an oath; but swearing is avoided by them, and they esteem it worse than perjury; for they say, that he who cannot be believed without [swearing by] God, is already condemned (War 2.135; cf. Ant 15:371).
But they took “tremendous oaths” upon joining the sect (War 2.139–42). Thus those who were described as never taking oaths apparently took oaths in some contexts, and it might be wise to recognize that Jesus and James might not have intended absolute prohibition of oath-taking (but cf. Matt 26:63–64). On the other hand, many have taken Jesus’ words as law. But the New Testament does not show any awareness elsewhere that oath-taking is absolutely prohibited (Rom 1:9; 2 Cor 1:23; Gal 1:20; Phil 1:8; Heb 6:13–20; Rev 10:6). Philo, too, thought it wise not to get entrapped in oaths, expressing himself in ways also similar to Jesus and James:
To swear not at all is the best course and most profitable to life … which has been taught to speak the truth so well on each occasion that its words are regarded as oaths; to swear truly is only, as some people say, a “second-best voyage,” for the mere fact of his swearing casts suspicion on the trustworthiness of the man.
What Jesus and James say, then, is neither peculiar to them nor un-Jewish; instead, their words represent a kind of Judaism with which many would have been familiar, not the least of whom would have been the messianic community.
James provides a bit of a laundry list of what Jews of his day used to buttress their words: “by heaven or by earth or by any other oath.” These words extend the prohibition of using the name of God (YHWH) lightly, which led to not pronouncing the name of God at all, and that led to substituting various circumlocutions for God’s Name. This is why in Matthew 5:34–35 each form of the oath is connected back to God: “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.” Thus, “heaven” and “earth” represent various extensions of God. Jeremias may be accurate, though, when he observes that these words are not legal oaths but everyday slogans: “the oaths with which the oriental constantly underlines the truthfulness of his remarks in everyday speech.” Which would then mean that Jesus (and James following in his wake) is advocating truthfulness more than prohibiting legal oath-taking: “Each word is to be unconditionally reliable, without needing any confirmation through an appeal to God.” One would have to ask, however, what words would be used in a legal setting if not these? One could not by the time of the first century use the name YHWH in an oath, so one must consider these words as both normal and perhaps also legal ways of buttressing one’s words. A good example of how these words were used in oaths can be found in the much later Mishnah, for example, m Shevuot 4:13:
- (1) “I impose an oath on you,” (2) “I command you,” (3) “I bind you,”—lo, these are liable.
- “By heaven and earth,” lo, these are exempt.
- (1) “By [the name of] Alef-dalet [Adonai]” or (2) “Yud-he [Yahweh],” (3) “By the Almighty,” (4) “By Hosts,” (5) “By him who is merciful and gracious,” (6) “By him who is long-suffering and abundant in mercy,” or by any other euphemism—
- lo, these are liable.
- “He who curses making use of any one of these is liable,” the words of R. Meir.
- And sages exempt.
- “He who curses his father or his mother with any one of them is liable,” the words of R. Meir.
- And sages exempt.
- He who curses himself and his friend with any one of them transgresses a negative commandment.
- [If he said,] (1) “May God smite you,” (2) “So may God smite you,” this is [language for] an adjuration [conforming to] what is written in the Torah (Lev. 5:1).
- (3) “May he not smite you,” (4) “may he bless you,” (5) “may he do good to you”—
- R. Meir declares liable [for a false oath taken with such a formula].
- And sages exempt.
What was prohibited by Jesus and carried on by James was connecting casuistry to the integrity of one’s words: swearing by the earth is no less severe than swearing by heaven, so one ought to say what one means and no more. This is the meaning of “but let your ‘Yes’ be yes and your ‘No’ be no.” What we find in Greek is a doubling of the words “yes” and “no” (nai nai, ou ou), and most recognize this as a Semitic expression “let your yes be a yes and your no be a no” (see 2 Cor 1:17–18). Reiteration of a word is designed to lead to distribution of the idea, and we see the same in Mark 6:7: “two by two” (dyo dyo).
James prohibits oath-taking “so that you may not fall under condemnation.” This is an interesting variant on Jesus’ “anything more than this comes from the evil one.” Wherever James got his wording, the two come at the same point from different angles: insincere or dishonest words reflect a character that is not in tune with God and is, therefore, liable to condemnation. James is given to what appears to many to be exaggeration: people can be condemned for not showing mercy (2:13), for grumbling (5:9), and for the inappropriate use of oaths (5:12). Each of these, on closer inspection, emerges from the depth of his theology: from a loving life, from a nonviolent approach to resolving one’s economic situation, and from a heart that tells true words. These are not the concerns of austere severity but of one who thinks messianists ought to follow Jesus and be transformed in the community.
5:12 / James is ready to end his letter, so he puts in his equivalents of the customary endings of a Greek literary letter. The first part of such an ending was frequently an oath to guarantee its truth, so having first used a common ending formula (above all), James takes up the topic: Do not swear. Although the Old Testament regulated oaths and demanded that if one used an oath one must fulfill the promise (e.g., Exod. 20:7), it did not prohibit oaths (cf. Exod. 22:10–11). Throughout the Old Testament period there are a series of warnings against using oaths too lightly (e.g., Jer. 5:2), and later Sirach advised not using oaths, so one would not frivolously use one (23:9, 11). Jesus, however, prohibited all oaths, using the words Do not swear—not by heaven or by earth (the or by anything else in James summarizes the rest of Jesus’ saying in Matt. 5:34–37). James has picked up and summarized the words of Jesus; the readers would recognize the source.
Christians are not to use oaths. Among the common oaths of the day were by heaven or by earth. None are to be used: Let your “Yes” be yes, and your “No,” no. If one resorted to oaths it divided speech into two categories: promises one really meant (guaranteed by an oath) and promises that could not be trusted. The Christian demand is for absolute faithfulness and truthfulness in all speech. There should be no social hypocrisy in which one says something other than what is in the heart. This demand is important, for not to observe it means you will be condemned. God is the guarantor of all speech. He will judge every word. God’s judgment is the standard Christians should fear and observe.
5:12 Above all … do not swear. “Swear” refers to swearing oaths, not the use of vulgar profanities. But why does James bring up the swearing of oaths? The issue is authority and control of the future. To swear the kind of oath James has in mind is an attempt to assert one’s control of the future with regard to a particular situation.
Hebrews 6:13–20 is illuminating in this regard. In that passage the writer says that God wanted to promise Abraham descendants, and to confirm his intentions he swore by himself. In the midst of his argument, the author of Hebrews tells us that is why humans swear too—to confirm that what they said will happen actually will happen. Interestingly, in Hebrews 6:15 it says, “so after waiting patiently, Abraham received what was promised.” Abraham could not control the future, so he had to wait patiently for God, who could control the future. Abraham doesn’t say, “I swear to God, I am going to have a baby.” Instead, God says, “I swear by myself that you are going to have a baby.” When it comes to dealing with life, the one who swears is the one who controls the future; the one who waits is the one who can’t control the future. To wait is to trust God to make things right; to swear an oath is to trust yourself to make things right.
Swearing oaths as a means of wrongly claiming control can be seen in Matthew 5:33–37, which records Jesus’s teaching on swearing that James is referring to. In that statement, Jesus commands believers to refrain from swearing by heaven, earth, Jerusalem, or your own head, since “you cannot make even one hair white or black.” In other words, since you can’t control what happens to you, do not swear and try to assert that you can. (On what swearing an oath might look like in times of trouble, see “Illustrating the Text,” below.)
This is the same idea that underlies James 4:13–17. If a Christian making plans for the future without acknowledging the Lord’s will is bad, then certainly oaths regarding the future are even worse. Both are forms of a lack of submission to God.
This is why James prefaces his statement with “above all.” Whereas grumbling and complaining about suffering are bad (5:9), the worst thing someone can do in the midst of suffering is to attempt to usurp God’s place and claim control over the future.
Otherwise you will be condemned. Matthew’s version of Jesus’s statement on swearing ends with “anything beyond this comes from the evil one” (Matt. 5:37). Satan’s modus operandi is to displace God, and this is an expression of his primary sin, that of pride. When we swear oaths, we are exercising pride and insubordination as we attempt to usurp God’s place in determining our lives.
On the idea of Christ’s coming being “near in time” and “near in space,” 5:7–12 is part of a larger theme in the Scriptures often referred to as an “already/not-yet” framework or “inaugurated eschatology.” An example of this already/not-yet framework can be seen in Jesus’s presentation of the kingdom of God as something that is both present (e.g., Matt. 6:33; 11:12; 12:28; Mark 10:15; Luke 17:21) and future (e.g., Mark 9:47; 10:23–25; 14:25; Luke 13:28). Likewise, there is already new creation in Christ (2 Cor. 5:17), and we are awaiting the new creation (Rev. 21:1–5); we know God in part, but we will know him fully (1 Cor. 13:12); and we have been saved (Eph. 2:8), but we are still awaiting our future salvation (Phil. 3:20).
Teaching the Text
With one overarching command (be patient and stand firm), two supporting commands (do not grumble, and do not swear oaths), and three examples (farmers, prophets, and Job), 5:7–12 provides a straightforward structure and ready-made illustrations for teaching this material. The two supporting commands fit nicely with the overarching command, because the two strongest temptations while one is suffering are to complain (grumble) and to try to control the situation (swear an oath).
James 5:7–12 also fits well with 5:13–20 for a two-part series on the presence of God, with 5:7–12 focusing on the future coming of Christ and the need for patience and 5:13–20 focusing on the present reality of God’s presence and the need for prayer.
The two biggest hurdles facing the teacher of this text are (1) explaining the meaning behind swearing oaths in 5:12 and (2) deciding how to handle the dual perspectives on the nearness of God. With regard to swearing oaths, the commentary explained that this is an attempt to guarantee the future and supplant our need for trusting with self-reliance. We all want to take matters into our own hands when we are suffering and to fix the problem. Such oaths are attempts to take the future out of God’s hands and put it into our own. There may be a need to stress that it is not the exact wording that makes something an oath but the attitude of trying to guarantee the future to oneself or others.
The second hurdle is deciding how to approach the dual perspectives on the nearness of the Lord. On the one hand, the teacher can focus only on the “near in time” perspective and preach or teach this passage in light of Christ’s imminent second coming. At that time patience will be rewarded, suffering will end, and judgment will come upon those who have grumbled or sworn oaths. On the other hand, the teacher may feel compelled also to address the “near in space” perspective that God is already near to us and therefore the rescue that we are waiting for from God and judgment for grumbling and swearing will come to some extent before Christ’s second coming. After all, not only was Job waiting for the day of the Lord; he also was waiting for God to show up in his life at some point before that and bless him—and God did.
While both perspectives are in this text, the near-in-time/second coming is emphasized and shouldn’t be excluded. The teacher may choose to leave the near-in-space perspective for 5:13–20, where it is the focus.
Illustrating the Text
Swearing an oath is an attempt to control a situation of suffering
Bible: See 1 Samuel 25:22, where David makes an oath, showing that he has resolved to take matters with Nabal into his own hands instead of waiting for God (1 Sam. 14:24 would be another example). A modern-day example is a person who has been betrayed by an adulterous spouse saying, “I swear to God I will never let that happen to me again.”
Waiting is the hardest part
Film: Waiting for Guffman. This movie is a fictional “documentary” about a small town’s sesquicentennial celebration, featuring a local theater troupe attempting to produce a musical they unrealistically hope will make Broadway. Early in the film, the director of the musical receives a confirmation letter that a representative of a New York City production company will send someone to review the musical: Mr. Guffman. The rest of the drama unfolds around the deep tension created by pairing outsized hopes with subpar writing, terrible acting, and what-one-would-expect production values. Waiting for Mr. Guffman makes everything else much more difficult.
Human Experience: Describe different situations of waiting: for example, purchasing a gift you can’t wait to give a good friend, waiting to see what your new hair color will look like, the time between engagement and marriage, hungrily waiting for a table in your favorite restaurant, waiting for results from a cancer-screening test.
Situations that require patience tend to strain relationships
Scenario: Have you ever been part of a company “team-building exercise”? The object is to help a group of coworkers band together, overcome obstacles, and realize that each member of the team is a valued player in achieving common objectives. These lessons are typically taught by putting participants in situations that require extra measures of patience and careful communication. The tasks can vary—fitting five people on a stump the size of a soda can, blindfolding the team and forcing them to untangle a rat’s nest of rope, and, of course, doing trust falls. Inevitably, participants are forced to deal with impatience. Hard-charging competitors have to slow down and listen to thoughtful, deliberate doers. Lone rangers learn that tasks can be completed only through teamwork. Sounds a lot like life, doesn’t it?
The Needlessness and the Folly of Oaths
Above all things, my brothers, do not swear, neither by heaven nor by earth nor by any other oath. Let your yes be a simple yes and your no a simple no, lest you fall under judgment.
James is repeating the teaching of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:33–7), teaching which was very necessary in the days of the early Church. James is thinking not of what we call bad language but of confirming a statement or a promise or an undertaking by an oath. In the ancient world, there were two evil practices.
(1) There was a distinction—especially in the Jewish world—between oaths which were binding and oaths which were not binding. Any oath in which the name of God was directly used was considered to be definitely binding, but any oath in which direct mention of the name of God was not made was held not to be binding. The idea was that, once God’s name was definitely used, he became an active partner in the transaction, but he did not become a partner unless his name was introduced in this way. The result of this was that it became a matter of skill and sharp practice to find an oath which was not binding. This made a mockery of the whole practice of confirming anything by an oath.
(2) There was at this time an extraordinary amount of oath-taking. This in itself was quite wrong. For one thing, the value of an oath depends to a large extent on the fact of it being very seldom necessary to take one. When oaths became commonplace, they ceased to be respected as they ought to be. For another thing, the practice of taking frequent oaths was nothing other than a proof that lying and cheating was widespread. In an honest society, no oath is needed; it is only when people cannot be trusted to tell the truth that they have to be put on oath.
In this, the ancient writers on morals thoroughly agreed with Jesus. The Jewish writer Philo says: ‘Frequent swearing is bound to beget perjury and impiety.’ The Rabbis said: ‘Accustom not yourself to vows, for sooner or later you will swear false oaths.’ The Jewish sect of the Essenes forbade all oaths. They held that if an oath was required to make someone tell the truth, that person was already branded as untrustworthy. The great Greeks held that the best guarantee of any statement was not an oath but the character of the person who made it, and that the ideal was to make ourselves so respected that no one would ever think of demanding an oath from us because there could be no doubt that we would always speak the truth.
The New Testament view is that every word is spoken in the presence of God and ought therefore to be true, and it would agree that Christians must be known to be men and women of such honour that it will be quite unnecessary ever to put them on oath. The New Testament would not entirely condemn oaths, but it would deplore the human tendency to lying, which on occasion makes oaths necessary.
12 Above all, my brothers, do not swear—not by heaven or by earth or by anything else. Let your “Yes” be yes, and your “No,” no, or you will be condemned.
Once more James returns to a discussion on the use of the tongue (see 1:19, 26; 3:1–12). The connection between this verse and the preceding verses is scant. The warning not to grumble against one another to avoid falling under judgment (5:9) is somewhat parallel to the prohibition not to use an oath lightly, “or you will be condemned” (5:12).
12. Above all, my brothers, do not swear—not by heaven or by earth or by anything else. Let your “Yes” be yes, and your “No,” no, or you will be condemned.
What is the significance of the phrase above all? If James means to say that the readers ought to pay special attention to the warning not to swear, we would have expected a more elaborate admonition. And if James wished to convey the importance of this verse in the light of the preceding verses, we would have expected a definite connection. As it stands now, this verse has little in common with the foregoing passage. Perhaps we must conclude that James is coming to the end of his epistle and wishes to mention a series of admonitions (compare 1 Peter 4:8).
The resemblance between the words of Jesus recorded in the Sermon on the Mount and this verse is unmistakable. By placing the verses in parallel columns, we can see that James relied on the saying of Jesus.
Matthew 5:34, 35, 37
“But I tell you,
Above all, my brothers,
Do not swear at all:
do not swear—
either by heaven,
not by heaven
for it is God’s throne;
or by the earth,
or by earth
for it is his footstool;
or by Jerusalem,
or by anything else.
for it is the city of the
Great King.… Simply
let your ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes,’
Let your “Yes” be yes,
and your ‘No,’ ‘No’;
and your “No,” no,
anything beyond this
or you will be
comes from the evil one.”
Most likely James depended on memory and not on manuscript when he wrote these words. If the Epistle of James was written in the first part of the first century of the Christian era, the writer would have taken these words from the oral gospel preached by the apostles and the apostolic helpers. James, then, bases his admonition to refrain from swearing careless oaths not merely on Scripture but in this case directly on the authority of Jesus.
Like Jesus, James fulminates against the Jewish custom of strengthening statements with nonbinding oaths. The people knew the commandment, “You shall not misuse the name of the LORD your God, for the LORD will not hold anyone guiltless who misuses his name” (Exod. 20:7; Deut. 5:11). To remain guiltless, the Jews had made a distinction between binding and nonbinding oaths. Instead of using the divine name (which would be binding), they swore “by heaven or by earth or by anything else.” In their opinion, that would be nonbinding and would not incur the wrath of God. Both Jesus and James denounce this practice; the intention of appealing to God remains the same, even though one pretends to avoid using God’s name.
Is the swearing of oaths forbidden? Both Jesus and James say “do not swear.” If in a court of law defendant, plaintiff, lawyers, jury, and judge could be certain that every spoken word would be absolutely true to fact, oath taking would be superfluous. Because men shade the truth and falsify the facts at hand, the use of the oath is necessary. The person who takes the oath and breaks it faces divine wrath.
The teaching of Jesus, reiterated by James, is simple: “Let your ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No,’ ‘No.’ ” That is, be honest and speak the truth at all times. Let no flippant word come from your lips. Let everyone know that “your word is as good as gold.”
James concludes his admonition by saying that if you fail to speak the truth, “you will be condemned.” A literal translation of this clause is, “so that you may not fall under judgment” (NASB). That is, God’s judgment strikes anyone who carelessly swears an oath and fails to uphold the truth. Says Jesus to the Pharisees of his day, “But I tell you that men will have to give account on the day of judgment for every careless word they have spoken. For by your words you will be acquitted, and by your words you will be condemned” (Matt. 12:36–37).
Practical Considerations in 5:12
Change the customs, culture, country, and nationality of people in the first century to our day and the truth of this text remains the same. True, we are not in the habit of swearing by heaven or earth to affirm the words we speak. And certainly we would not think of using the name of God in vain. But we seem to have no objection to the expression by George and its numerous variations. Some people cross their hearts to assert the veracity of their words. These worldly practices, however, are contrary to the teachings of Scripture. Those who resort to them incur divine condemnation.
Houses and buildings that are built on firm foundations need no supporting props. Likewise, the person whose foundation is Jesus Christ, with whom he continually communicates in prayer, has no need to strengthen his words. He speaks the truth because he himself is grounded in Christ, who said “I am … the truth” (John 14:6). Truth depends not on the use of expressions that approach profanity, but on the simple yes that remains yes and no that stays no.
On Christ the solid rock I stand
All other ground is sinking sand.