So Help Me God: A Biblical View of Oaths
David G. Hagopian
Contemporary culture faces a growing integrity crisis. The bond of a person's word is flippantly broken. A Biblical view of oaths and promises calls us to a higher, if not more painful, commitment to our word.
"I swear to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth..."
"I take thee to be my lawful wedded wife and I do promise and covenant before God and these witnesses to be thy loving and faithful husband, in sickness and in health..."
"I do solemnly swear that I will faithfully execute the office of the President of the United States..."
How often we have heard those oaths uttered during trials, weddings and inaugurations. But how seldom it is that people actually honor such oaths as evidenced by the incidence of perjury, divorce and demagoguery. And it doesn't stop there. Sadly, people--even Christian people--violate their oaths and vows at whim, as though truth were fungible and their promises, dispensable. By so doing, they demonstrate culpable ignorance of, indifference to, or callousness for their Biblical responsibility to honor their word in general and their oaths and vows in particular. Simply put, we have become a society and a church without verbal integrity, a society and a church without those who honor their oaths.
For that reason, it is important to examine what Scripture has to say about our responsibility to honor our oaths. After defining what constitutes an oath and proving that Scripture does not forbid all oaths, we will provide Biblical guidelines for taking oaths, and refute common excuses people proffer for violating their oaths. This article, then, is intended to be a concise overview of what the Bible has to say about oaths.
Perhaps there is no better place to begin this exposition of oaths than by explaining what we mean when we speak of oaths. In simple form, an oath is a promise. More particularly, an oath or promise is simply an agreement entered into between one person and another whereby the one taking the oath (1) explicitly or implicitly appeals to God to witness and sanction what he has said or committed himself to, and (2) calls God to judge and avenge His name if what he said is false or what he committed to do never comes to pass.
>From this definition we can see how pervasive oaths are. When one signs a form swearing that the information it contains is true, he is making an oath. When a bride and groom promise to remain married till death do them part, they are making an oath. When a party enters a contract, he is making an oath. When a courtroom witness swears to tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth, he is making an oath.
The Third Commandment
With this understanding of oaths, we need to know what Scripture has to say about them. The Scriptural point of departure is the third commandment, which is translated in the King James version as "Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain: for the Lord will not hold him guiltless that taketh his name in vain." Many Christians incorrectly assume that this verse merely teaches that we shouldn't curse using the name of God. Indeed, the third commandment does teach that we should not curse using the name of God. But it teaches so much more.
So just what does the third commandment teach? To begin with, the phrase "the name of the Lord thy God" does not refer only to the literal name of God. Rather, the name of God refers comprehensively to God, including God's literal name, anything by which God makes Himself known, and ultimately, God Himself. In short, to call on the name of God is to call on God Himself!
While the name of God is used comprehensively to refer ultimately to God Himself, the phrase translated in vain means "falsely" (Isa.59:4). So the verse could be translated in at least two different ways: (1) Thou shalt not swear (utter) the name of God to a lie, or (2) Thou shalt not swear (utter) the name of God falsely. The basic meaning is the same: we should refrain from appealing to the name of God to confirm or bear witness to a falsehood.
The third commandment, then, primarily forbids appealing to God to confirm a falsehood. But as with all of the ten commandments, the greater includes the lesser. The sixth commandment, for example, does merely prohibit unjustified killing; it also prohibits murderous and malicious feelings (Matt.5:21-24).
In the same way, the command not to call upon God to bear witness to a falsehood also forbids all lesser forms of irreverence for the name of God. Thus, the third commandment prohibits any lack of fear, honor and reverence for God and any profanation or abuse of anything by which God makes Himself known, especially in our speech. We should refrain from doing anything which detracts from the glory due the name of God in our lives. But the third commandment not only forbids certain conduct; it also affirmatively requires that we at all times fear, honor and reverence God and His most holy name as well as His titles, attributes, ordinances and works, especially in our speech. The third commandment, therefore, primarily requires us to honor our oaths and forbids us from violating them. When we appeal to God by means of oaths, we must honor God by honoring our oaths.
In Defense of Oaths
Through the years, some Christians have taught that the third commandment in particular and Scripture in general forbid all oaths. To bolster this contention, they marshal forth passages such as Matt. 5:33-37 and James 5:12 wherein we find the oft-quoted command, "swear not at all." And at first blush, these passages appear to forbid all oaths.
By carefully interpreting these passages, however, we will see that Christ was merely correcting Pharisaical and scribal abuses and misinterpretations of God's standards when it come to oaths. When interpreted in light of the general context of Scripture as a whole and in light of the particular context, we will see that far from forbidding all oaths, Christ (and James) forbade only unlawful (unbiblical) oaths.
The General Context
The general context of Scripture, when studied carefully, reveals that God does not forbid all oaths.
First, Scripture commands us to swear by the name of God on certain occasions. In Deuteronomy 6:13, for example, Scripture commands God's people "You shall fear only the Lord your God; and you shall worship Him, and swear by His name." Far from prohibiting all oaths, Isaiah tells us that "he who swears in the earth shall swear by the name of God" (Is. 65:16). God sanctions lawful oaths to such an extent that He promises to build up those who swear by His name (Jer. 12:16). Even in the mundane affairs of life, such as confirming the truth between disputing neighbors, God commands His people to swear before Him (Ex. 22:10-11). Because Scripture commands God's people to swear by His name, it cannot forbid all oaths. God does not command what He simultaneously condemns!
Second, Scripture also teaches us that swearing is an act of confession and religious worship. We already saw in Deuteronomy 6:13 that God commands us to swear in His name precisely because swearing in God's name is but one way to worship and fear Him (cf Deut.10:20). Isaiah confirms this connection between swearing and worship; when he prophesies about the Assyrians and Egyptians coming into a covenantal relationship with God, he says that they will swear in the name of God. (Is. 19:18). Calvin explains that "by swearing in the Lord's name they will profess his religion."
But exactly how is swearing an act of confession and worship? When we duly swear in God's name, we confess several things about God. To begin with, we confess that God exists. Moreover, we confess several of God's attributes as revealed to us in Scripture: we testify that He is omnipresent and omniscient, that He is eternal and immutable, that He is just and true, that He is powerful and wrathful. By confessing His existence and attributes, we also confess that He is the Supreme Judge over all the earth and that we are accountable to Him for all that we do and say. Though the word of men may fail, the word of God never fails. Though men may fail, God never fails. By taking oaths in God's name, we confess God to be the ultimate arbiter of truth, and we worship the God of truth in spirit and in truth.
Third, Scripture offers us many examples of those who swore, examples we are commanded to follow.
God Himself swears. David, anticipating the eternal priesthood of Christ exclaims under the inspiration of the Spirit, "The Lord has sworn and will not change His mind, Thou art a priest forever..."(Ps. 110:4). The author of Hebrews tells us that God swore not only by demonstrating that what the Psalmist anticipated in Psalm 110:4 had been fulfilled in Christ (Heb. 7:21), but also by telling us that God swore when He made His covenant with Abraham: "For when God made the promise to Abraham, since He could swear by no one greater, He swore by Himself" (Heb. 6:13).
While it is true that we will never be perfect this side of eternity, we are nonetheless commanded to imitate the perfection of God and to be like God (Matt. 5:48, Eph. 5:1). If God upheld His Word with oaths in His name, and if we are commanded to imitate God, then if the occasion arises, Scripture permits us to swear lawfully in the name of God. As such, Scripture cannot, without contradicting itself, forbid all oaths.
What is true of God the Father is equally true with respect to God the Son for three reasons. First, the deity of Christ implies that what is true of God is true of Christ; hence since God swore, Christ swore.
Second, if you were to read Psalm 110:4 and Hebrews 7:21, referred to above, you would observe that in Psalm 110:4, God swears that He will provide an eternal high priest (anticipation) while in Hebrews 7:21, God has honored His oath (fulfillment). God the Father made the oath; God the Son fulfilled it. Thus, the very life of the Son was the very fulfillment of an oath made by the Father.
Third, Christ actually undertook an oath when questioned by Caiaphas, the high priest as recorded in the gospel of Matthew. After Christ remained silent during the accusational phase of his trial, Caiaphas charged Christ, exclaiming, "I adjure You by the living God, that You tell us whether You are the Christ, the Son of God. Jesus said to him, You have said it yourself..." (Matt. 26:63:64a). Literally translated, Caiaphas said to Christ "I swear You [call on you to swear]" or "I charge You." In the rabbinical form of directly affirming an oath, Christ responded to Caiaphas. In other words, by answering Caiaphas' adjuration, Christ undertook an oath that what He was saying was true. Thus, by virtue of His deity, priesthood, and trial, Christ swore.
And just as Christians are commanded to imitate God, so Christians are commanded to imitate Christ. "[T]he one who says he abides in Him," writes John, "ought himself to walk in the same manner as He walked" (1 Jn. 2:6). The example of Christ teaches us that under some circumstances, we may take oaths. Since the Living Word perfectly abided by the written word, and since the Living Word swore, the written word cannot forbid all oaths.
The Word of God not only records the examples of the Father and the Son; it also records for our benefit and instruction the example of the Apostle Paul who often supported what he said with oaths: (1) "For God...is my witness..." (Rom 1:9, Phil. 1:8); (2) "But I call God as witness to my soul..." (II Cor. 1:23); (3)"...God is witness..." (IThess. 2:5); (4) "you are witnesses, and so is God..." (I Thess. 2:10); and (5) "I adjure you by the Lord..." (I Thess. 5:27). As you can see, there is no shortage of Biblical proof that Paul took oaths. But the Bible doesn't record the example of Paul for our idle theological speculation. Rather, we are commanded to imitate Paul as he in turn imitated Christ (I Cor. 4:16, 11:1). If the need arises, Scripture permits oaths.
>From this brief overview of Scripture, we have seen that Scripture commands God's people to take lawful oaths, informs us that taking an oath is an act of confession and religious worship, and commends to us the examples of the God the Father, Christ, and Paul, all of whom took oaths. Thus, to interpret Christ (and James) as forbidding all oaths is to foist contradiction on Scripture itself, as well as on the Father, Christ and Paul since, on this interpretation, they all swore contrary to Scripture. The general context of Scripture, therefore, does not support the notion that Scripture forbids all oaths.
The Particular Context
What is true of the general context of Scripture as a whole, is also true of the particular context of the passage in question: this passage proves beyond doubt that Christ is simply correcting Pharisaical abuses of and glosses on the Law. Christ constantly contrasts what the ancients said about the Law with what God says about the Law by repeating the formula: "Ye have heard that it was said...But I say unto you..." The Pharisees, for example, taught that the Law only forbade murder; Christ taught that the Law, properly understood, also forbade hate. The Pharisees taught that the Law only forbade adultery; Christ taught that the Law, properly understood, also forbade lust. The Pharisees taught that one was to love his neighbor and hate his enemy when the law affirmed the former but never even taught the latter!
Likewise, Christ corrected Pharisaical misconceptions about oaths. From this passage, it appears that the Pharisees thought that one could swear as often as he wished as long as he did not do so falsely and as long as he did not swear in the literal name of God. Christ's opponents appeared to swear frequently and round-aboutly. Christ attacks both of these errors head on by showing the Pharisees that heaven, earth, Jerusalem and even their own heads have their ultimate reference point in God: heaven is the throne of God; the earth is His footstool; Jerusalem is the city of the Great King; and it is that King who controls even the hair on one's head! In other words, when they swore by heaven, they swore by the God of heaven because the universe and everything in it is stamped with His glory. By swearing in those ways, the Pharisees failed to see that one still takes the name of God in vain no matter how he wishes to dress up his words.
"But," says the opponent of oaths, "how does your interpretation jibe with Christ's teaching that anything more than a simple yes or no is of evil?" The interpretation advanced in this article is perfectly consistent with Christ's teaching when that teaching is properly understood! In the New Testament Greek, the genitive case is used when Christ says that anything beyond yes and no is "of evil." What Christ means is that anything beyond yes and no -- an oath or a vow -- has its origin in evil; in other words, oaths arose as a result of evil or the Fall. It is distrust, dishonesty, and inconsistency which make oaths necessary in the first place. If there were no sin, oaths would be unnecessary. But just because oaths are occasioned by the Fall doesn't necessarily make them evil in and of themselves.
To suggest that this is the case is to commit the genetic fallacy, assuming without proof that what is true of the genesis (origin) of something is true of the thing itself. After all, civil government became necessary only after the Fall (to restrain the social manifestations of sin); yet civil government is not evil because of that fact. In the same way, just because oaths became necessary after the Fall as a result of evil, does not mean that oaths, therefore, are evil.
Biblical Guidelines for Oaths
If Scripture only forbids unlawful oaths, it is important to distinguish lawful from unlawful oaths. Fortunately, Scripture, as our rule for all that we believe and do, provides us with clear guidelines so that we can distinguish lawful from unlawful oaths both as to whether we should undertake oaths and if we do undertake oaths, what the content of our oaths should be.
Should You Take An Oath?
Suppose you are confronted with a situation where you are contemplating whether or not you should take an oath. Here is a partial list of Biblical guidelines for taking oaths.
1. The object of the oath must be Biblical. It almost goes without mentioning that one cannot bind himself to do that which Scripture forbids, since no one can bind himself to sin.
2. What you are about to say must be true, or you must do what you are about to promise. In addition to undertaking a Biblical objective, you must also speak the truth and do what you say you will do. "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 his mouth" (Num. 30:2). If, therefore, you know that you are about to utter a falsehood or you know that you have no intention of absolutely honoring your word, then you should not take an oath.
3. The oath must be necessary. Even if what you say is true or you will honor what you promise, you should not swear if swearing is unnecessary (Ex. 20:7). Scripture forbids all superfluous oaths (Matt 5:33-37, 23:16-22). There must be an adequate reason why appealing to God is necessary (e.g. Ex 22:10, 11). We should purge from our vocabulary sayings such as "swear to God" or "honest to God" unless the occasion is so serious and solemn as to necessitate an oath. Calvin rightly commented that "God's name is rendered cheap when it is used in true but needless oaths. For then it is taken in vain." Remember that oaths are acts of worship and as such, should not be uttered on trivial occasions. The third commandment condemns all unnecessary, colloquial and irreverent swearing which has nothing to do with the solemn acts of worship commanded in Scripture. So what makes an oath necessary according to Scripture? In one way or another, all of the oaths sanctioned in Scripture glorify God and edify others.
4. You must be prepared to abide by your oath no matter how your personal interests or circumstances may change. In addition to having a Biblical objective, intending to keep your word, and making sure that your oath is necessary, you should also realize that you must keep an oath no matter how your personal interests or circumstances may change (Ps. 15:4, 24:4). If you are not prepared to stand steadfastly by what you have promised, no matter what happens, then you should not make a oath.
What Should Be the Content of Your Oath?
Provided that you abide by the Biblical guidelines for taking oaths, you should make sure that the content of your oath abides by the following principles.
1. The oath must appeal to God alone. Scripture emphatically commands us to swear only in the name of God (Deut. 6:13, 10:20; Jer. 5:7; Zeph. 1:4, 5). In no uncertain terms, God forbids swearing by other gods because swearing is an act of religious worship; when people swear by other gods they violate the second commandment. God is so angry with those who swear by other gods that He declares that He will "cut off" those who do so (Zeph. 1:4, 5).
Although oaths must appeal to God alone, there are a variety of ways in which one can appeal to God in the context of an oath: (1) "give glory to the God of Israel" (Josh 7:19); (2) "as the Lord lives" (Judg. 8:19; Ruth 3:13, 1Sam 14:39; II Sam. 2:27; Jer. 38:16); (3) "The Lord do so to me and more also" (Ruth 1:17; I Sam. 14:44; II Sam. 3:9, 35; 1Kings 2:23; II Kings 6:31); (4) "May the Lord be true and faithful witness" (Jer. 42:5); (5) "I adjure you by the living God..." (Matt. 26:63); (6) "I adjure you by the Lord..." (I Thess. 5:27); (8) "But I call God as witness to my soul..." (II Cor.1:23); (9) "...God is witness..." (I Thess. 2:5); (10) "You are witnesses and so is God..." (I Thess. 2:10).
2. The language of the oath must be unequivocal and unambiguous so as to be clearly understood by all parties. The great Reformed theologian, Charles Hodge, alludes to the story of a commander who swore to citizens of a besieged city that if they surrendered, not a drop of their blood would be shed. After securing their surrender, the commander then burned them all at the stake! We should never secure oaths by means of linguistic chicanery.
To help reduce the possibility of using equivocal and ambiguous terms, we should: (1) reduce oaths to written instruments (when possible), (2) define in those instruments any terms that warrant definition (so as to preclude later linguistic revision), and (3) make sure that there is a meeting of the minds as to the material items and conditions of these instruments.
Generally speaking, to break an oath is to violate the third commandment and to trample on the holy name of God. As with many divine commands, there is no shortage of wasted genius when it comes to cunning excuses and self-serving rationalizations for breaking oaths. Before examining some of these excuses, it is important to point out that if you were to abide by the Biblical criteria for making oaths, you would never find yourself in the position of reneging your oath!
Illegitimate Reasons for Breaking Oaths
Change in Circumstances
As strange as it may seem, some claim that changing circumstances exonerate them from honoring oaths previously made. Nothing could be more contrary to the entire tenor of Scripture when it comes to oaths. In Psalms 15:4 and 24:4, for example, David asks who can ascend to and dwell on the hill of God? In addition to having integrity, being righteous, speaking truth, and refusing bribes -- just to name a few -- the one who has sweet fellowship with God is the one who "swears to his own hurt, and does not change" and the one who "has not sworn deceitfully." If you make a vow, no matter how your circumstances may change, you are to do "all that proceeds out of [your] mouth" (Num. 30:2, Deut. 23:23).
Not only is this excuse unbiblical, it is also illogical because it flies squarely in the face of the very reason why we undertake oaths in the first place: we take stock of our circumstances and bind ourselves to the truth of our word or to a particular course of action, knowing full well that our circumstances may change with time. If ever there was a Biblical character who could have used this cop out, it was Jephthah. But instead of violating his oath to consecrate his daughter to temple service, he rightly declared, "I have given my word to the Lord, and I cannot take it back" (Judg.11:35). This excuse is also untenable because the initial oath could have provided for possible contingencies. Just because it didn't, one cannot unilaterally claim to be released from his obligation. The conclusion simply does not follow on the basis of the premise.
Oath Which Is Impossible to Perform
Perhaps the one who argues that changing circumstances alleviate him from his obligation to honor his oath is really saying that the oath is impossible to perform and consequently, he cannot perform it. The danger of this argument, though, is that it is particularly susceptible to rationalization: most people say something is impossible (that which cannot objectively be done) when they really mean that it is undesirable (that which one subjectively does not want to do). Obviously, one cannot violate an oath simply because he does not desire to perform his obligations under the oath.
So the real question becomes: when, if ever does impossibility -- properly defined -- excuse performance of an oath? To answer that question effectively, it is important to distinguish between two different situations. First, the easy case: if one knows the oath will be impossible to perform before he makes it, he should not make it and cannot thereafter seek recourse in this excuse. It is sinful both to make and break such an oath.
Second, the difficult case: what if the oath is possible when made but subsequently is rendered impossible? As stated above, before you ever make an oath, you should think through any possible contingencies ahead of time and provide for them. Some contingencies are so obvious that if you did not provide for them, you should nonetheless be held accountable to perform your oath. Aside from planning ahead for possible contingencies, perhaps you will still find yourself in a situation where the oath, as promised, is technically impossible to perform (e.g. the beneficiary of the oath has died). In such a situation, you should consider whether there is another course of action which will fulfill the intent of the oath (e.g. performing the oath for the benefit of the beneficiary's heirs).
Violation of An Oath Negates the Oath
The claim that violating an oath negates the oath in its entirety is completely without Biblical warrant. Nowhere in Scripture will one find support for this kind of sophistic reasoning. In fact, this excuse can easily be reduced to absurdity. If a courtroom witness, for instance, swears to tell nothing but the truth and subsequently utters false testimony, is he thereafter free to perjure his testimony to his heart's content? If a secret agent swears to secrecy and thereafter violates his oath by committing a single act of treason, is he then free to commit treason without restraint? If a spouse violated his marriage oaths and vows by committing a single act of adultery, is he thereafter free to multiply his adulterous acts? How absurd! Precisely!
Oath Involuntarily Imposed by Legitimate Authority
In numerous instances, individuals in Scripture were forced to take oaths. Nowhere is this practice condemned, provided the oath doesn't require what God forbids or doesn't forbid what God requires. In fact, God actually sanctions involuntarily imposed oaths. When one sinned, for example, he could be "made to take an oath" calling for God's justice to be done (1Kings 8:31, 32; II Chron. 6:22, 23). Scripture is replete with oaths imposed by lawful authorities (Ex. 22:7-11; Neh 5:12, 19, 21; 8:25; 13:25). And as we saw above, Christ, as our perfect example, even submitted to Caiaphas, the high priest, when Caiaphas charged Christ to answer him (Matt. 26:63, 64). This excuse cannot withstand Biblical scrutiny.
Oath Made to Unbelievers
As with oaths imposed involuntarily by legitimate authorities, so Scripture sanctions oaths to unbelievers, provided the object of the oath is not sinful. (Ezek. 17:16,18,19; Josh. 9:18,19; II Sam. 21:1).
Oath Made Under Distress
Many oaths, due to the solemnity and seriousness with which they should rightly be uttered, will be uttered under distress. But the distress with which Jephthah uttered his vow, for example, did not alleviate his responsibility to honor it (Judg.11:35). David well recognized this truth when he declared "I shall come into Thy house with burnt offerings; I shall pay Thee my vows, [w]hich my lips uttered [a]nd my mouth spoke when I was in distress" (Ps.66:13, 14).
A Legitimate Reason To Break Oaths
Having refuted the most common excuses people proffer for violating their oaths, we must now turn briefly to the only biblical reason for violating an oath: if the objective of the oath is sinful. Since one can never bind himself to sin, such an "oath" is invalid from its inception and consequently, is not binding. By definition, one cannot break a non-existent oath. The sin, in such a situation, is not in breaking an unlawful oath, but in making it. Thus, Herod was under no obligation to kill John the Baptist, since he could not bind himself to commit murder. The real lesson here is one of prevention; you shouldn't make such oaths to begin with.
Hopefully we can better appreciate what Scripture has to say about oaths. Since this essay has defined what an oath is, explained how the Biblical view of oaths is rooted in the third commandment, demonstrated that Scripture does not forbid all oaths, delineated guidelines for taking oaths, and refuted common excuses for breaking oaths, we can see that oaths are serious business. We should not rush headlong into making oaths, and we should make sure that we honor the oaths that we make. "Where an oath is falsely taken," warns R. L. Dabney, "it is a heaven-daring attempt to enlist the Almighty in the sanction of the creature's lie and is thus, either the most outrageous levity, or the most outrageous impiety of which he can be guilty."
It is always dangerous to engage in "heaven-daring" behavior. Lest we forget, the third commandment contains a promise, a promise of punishment for those who violate it. The third commandment chillingly pronounces that "the Lord will not hold him guiltless that taketh His name in vain." Since God will punish those who take His name in vain, we would do well to realize that it is a terrible thing to fall into the hands of the living God. Instead of invoking God's wrath and judgment, we must resolve ourselves to be those who honor God in all that we do and in all that we say.
But how can we ever begin to honor the name God in all that we do and say? By owning up to the only One who did just that--the One whose very life fulfilled the covenant promises of God. By speaking the truth and honoring His word, He paid the penalty for our disobedience. Apart from Him and His enabling hand, we have no hope. But with Him we have help in our time of need. May we implore His grace as we learn to honor our oaths. May we, along with the courtroom witness, learn to cry aloud "so help me God."
While this article does not deal specifically with vows, it would be helpful to distinguish oaths from vows. While an oath is a covenant entered into between man and man, a vow is a covenant entered into between man and God whereby the one taking the oath explicitly or implicitly appeals to God to witness and sanction what he has promised and to judge and avenge His name if the one vowing breaches what he promised to do. Many promises can be both oaths and vows as pointed out in note two.
Many people refer to the words exchanged by the wedding couple as marriage vows. Actually, they are oaths and vows: promises made between the spouses and promises made by each spouse to God.
For the sake of clarity, this article distinguishes between cursing on the one hand and swearing on the other hand. Cursing, as used in this article, refers to using vulgarity. While swearing can sometimes be used so that it is synonymous with cursing, swearing, as used in this article, means undertaking an oath.
Hodge, Charles, (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company), Vol. III, p. 305.
While some Christians erroneously teach that Scripture forbids all oaths, still others erroneously teach that Scripture only sanctions public oaths (i.e. oaths given in a public context, usually extracted by public officials). This view simply does not accord with the full weight of Scripture. Many oaths in Scripture are made between private individuals acting solely in a private capacity: Abraham to Abimelech (Gen.21:23); Abraham's servant to Abraham (Gen.24:31); Isaac to Abraham (Gen. 26:31); Jacob to Laban (Gen.31:53, 54); Jacob to Joseph (Gen.47:31); Reuben to Jacob (Gen.42: 37); David to Jonathan and Jonathon to David (I Sam. 20:1-42); David to Shimei (II Sam. 19:21-23); Boaz to Ruth (Ruth 3:13); Obadiah to Elijah (IKing 8:10). Add to this list the oaths of Paul in the text of the article (which those who maintain this view mistakenly claim were made in a quasi-public capacity). The private/public dichotomy simply does not hold up to Biblical scrutiny.
Calvin, John, Institutes of the Christian Religion, John T. McNeill, ed., (Philadelphia, PA: The Westminster Press, 1960), vol. I, p. 389.
This view can be supported further by noting that the Hebrew word for oath is rendered in the Septuagint (e.g. Gen. 1:5 and Num. 5:19) as orizw or exorizw, the latter of which was used in the imperative mood by the high priest. For more on the rabbinical oath and the exchange between Christ ant the high priest, see Hodge, p. 308. Moreover, with striking similarity, Paul solemnly charges the Thessalonians to read his epistle to all the brethren: "I adjure you by the Lord to have this letter read to all the brethren" (I Thess. 5:27).
See note 6 above.
In fact, the concept of hating one's enemies seems to have been taught by two different schools of Jewish thought prior to the time of Christ: some of the rabbis (Aboth R. Nathan and R. Simon B. Yochai) and the Essene community (The Rule of the Community otherwise known as the Manual of Discipline). The important point, for purposes of this article, is that Christ is not refuting the Law itself; rather, He is refuting scribal and Pharasaical misinterpretations of and accretions to that Law. That is the particular or local context of the passage in question.
This interpretation is confirmed by another passage in the gospel of Matthew (23:16-23). In that passage, Christ teaches the Pharisees that when they swore by the altar they swore by everything on the altar, that when they swore by the temple they swore by the God who dwells in the temple, that when they swore by heaven, they swore by the throne of God.
Calvin, John, Calvin's Commentaries,, David W. Torrance, ed., (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1980), vol. I, p.193; vol.III, p. 312.
Calvin, John, Calvin's Commentaries, vol. I, p. 193. The King James Version accurately conveys this idea when it translates the phrase "of evil" as "cometh of evil."
This point is addressed in more detail below.
Neither should you lie apart from taking an oath. You are not free to violate a simple statement any more than you are free to violate an oath. Both simple statements and oaths should be inviolable.
Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, p. 390.
Hodge, p. 306, 307.
This point is addressed in more detail below.
Hodge, p. 312.
The field of contract law provides additional methods of ensuring that the terms of an oath are agreed to by both parties.
Keil and Delitzsch carefully demonstrate that Jephthah never vowed to kill his daughter, as many just assume or read into the text. Keil, C.F. and Delitzsch, F., Commentary on the Old Testament, Vol.II (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1988, pp. 387-395.
It is also important to note that this excuse presupposes the lesser-of-two-evils moral theory by assuming that God would place us in a situation where we would have to choose between violating a lawful oath or keeping our oath in the face of another sin. God never places His people in a position of choosing between evils. Such a view is mistaken for three reasons: (1) The God of scripture is the God of this created order; the one who commands you to obey Him is the one who created this world to work in harmony with His word. Scripture and your situation are not at dagger points with each other. (2) God tells us in His word that with every temptation, He will provide a way of escape; in other words, sin is never inevitable for the Christian. (3) If all humans must choose between evils, then the Biblical doctrine of Christ is seriously compromised. Scripture teaches us that Christ was tempted in every way as we are tempted, yet is without sin (Heb.4:15). So either Christ was tempted with a tragic moral choice (from which he could not escape and thus chose the lesser of evils -- sinned!) or he was not faced with every human temptation (in which case Scripture contradicts itself). For more on the refutation of choosing between evils, see Frame, John, Medical Ethics: Principles, Persons, and Problems (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed Publ. Co., 1988), pp. 8-10.
The law of wills has an analogue known as the doctrine of cy pres; according to the doctrine of cy pres , if a provision in a will would be impossible or illegal to effect, courts will attempt to construe the provision according to the next best charitable purpose.
Dabney, R.L., Systematic Theology, (St. Louis, MO: Presbyterian Publ. Co., [2d. ed. 1878], republished by The Banner of Truth Trust, 1985), p.364.
David G. Hagopian has a B.A. in history from the University of California, Irvine, and a J.D. from the University of Southern California. He is a senior editor of Antithesis. Copyright © by Covenant Community Church of Orange County 1990