“But, before all things, my brethren, do not swear, either by heaven, or by the earth, or by any other oath; but let your ‘Yes’ be ‘yes,’ and your ‘No’ ‘no,’ lest, under judgment, you fall.”James 5:12
While this admonition has been taken by some religious groups today to avoid taking any oath, even in a court of law, I believe the original intent of this teaching is rooted in the instruction of Messiah.
“”Again you have heard that it was said to them of old time, ‘You shall not make false vows, but shall perform to the Lord your vows,’ but I tell you, don’t swear at all: neither by heaven, for it is the throne of God; nor by the earth, for it is the footstool of his feet; nor by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. Neither shall you swear by your head, for you can’t make one hair white or black. But let your ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes’ and your ‘No’ be ‘No.’ Whatever is more than these is of the evil one.”Matthew 5:33-37
The goal of this instruction is to ensure that believers are not swearing falsely in order to substantiate an untruthful situation. This is essentially a variation of the ninth commandment which is a command to not bear false witness against your neighbor.
To make matters worse, in Yeshua’s day, people would sometimes invoke the authority of heaven, or the holy city of Jerusalem in order to further validate an untruth. People today still carry on a similar expression when they “swear to God” in order to validate their truthfulness.
There is also this interesting maxim not to “swear by one’s head.” Perhaps having a little cultural understanding from a rabbinical perspective would serve to shed some light on this otherwise obscure term in our day and age.
John Gill in his Exposition of the Bible provides the following commentary:
Neither shalt thou swear by thy head,…. This also was a common form of swearing among the Jews: take a few instances.
“If anyone is bound to his friend by an oath, and says to him, vow unto me , “by the life of thy head”; R. Meir says (u), he may retract it; but the wise men say, he cannot.”
Again (w), a certain Rabbi said to Elijah,
“I heard “Bath Kol” (or the voice from heaven) mourning like a dove, and saying, woe to my children; for, because of their sins, I have destroyed my house, and have burnt my temple, and have carried them captive among the nations: and he (Elijah) said unto him , “by thy life, and by the life of thy head”, not this time only it says so, but it says so three times every day.”
Once more (x), says R. Simeon ben Antipatras, to R. Joshua,
“I have heard from the mouth of the wise men, that he that vows in the law, and transgresses, is to be beaten with forty stripes: he replies, blessed art thou of God, that thou hast so done, , “by thy life, and by the life of thy head”, he that is used to do so is to be beaten.”
This form of swearing is condemned, for this reason, because thou canst not make one hair white or black: which shows, that a man’s head, nor, indeed, one hair of his head, is in his own power, and therefore he ought not to swear by it; as he ought not to swear by heaven, or earth, or Jerusalem, because these were in the possession of God. Some copies read, “canst not make one white hair black”.
(u) Misn. Sanhedrim, c. 3. sect 2.((w) T. Bab. Beracot, fol. 3. 1. (x) Derech. Eretz, c. 6. fol. 18. 2.
Essentially, swearing by one’s head was swearing by one’s life, something that only God has control over.
These various examples provided by Messiah, whether heaven, or Jerusalem, or our own head, relate to the fact that a swearing or an oath always relies on someone greater than oneself as the authority. Yeshua cautioned his followers to simply be people of integrity, who only express what’s right in any given situation. Otherwise, they could be found guilty of defaming the One who is true.
“I tell you that every idle word that men speak, they will give account of it in the day of judgment. For by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned.””Matthew 12:36-37
Believers are accountable for our words, and we should take that admonition to heart in all of our daily interactions with others, whether providing testimony or not. Believers need to be people of integrity, and simply let the truthfulness of our words speak for us.
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