There are so many ways of making an oath. You’ve probably heard many of these, and maybe you’ve used a few yourselves. Oaths that use words such as “I swear”, “I swear to God”, “I swear on a stack of Bibles”, “as God is my witness”, “may God strike me dead if I don’t”, and the list goes on and on. As a kid, an oath that I heard quite often was “I swear to God, hope to die, stick a thousand needles in my eye”. That’s a pretty gross oath! In the Boy Scouts a favorite oath that was used after making a promise was “scout’s honor”. Is there a particular formula that you have used in order to let people know that you were telling the truth? Is it necessary to go through that rigmarole so that our word will be trusted?
Here in verse 12, James seems to come from out of the blue to talk about this subject of swearing and oaths. As we dig into this verse I think we are going to find some connections with what has been said earlier in this letter. This is a verse of Scripture that is easy to misunderstand and misinterpret if we don’t look at it from the context of the Old Testament Scriptures, the teachings of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the historical setting and culture into which these Hebrew Christians had been immersed since childhood.
I. THE REPROOF (verse 12a)
The first three words are : “But above all”. James is changing topics and letting his audience know that this new topic is of the utmost importance. He uses a familiar address to them, calling them “my brothers” or “my brethren”. By doing so, he is including himself in the words he is about to say to them. His command is “do not swear”. James is not talking about using foul or dirty language. The original meaning of the Greek word was “to grasp tightly (holy objects)”. In many places in the Classical Greek writings ( Homer, Xenophon, Aristotle, and others), this Greek word, omnyo, referred to grasping something and raising one’s hand as a way of taking an oath publicly. However, in this case James is not speaking of the taking of oaths, as in a court situation, but of the making of oaths by people in order to convince others that they are telling the truth, swearing “either by heaven, or by earth, or with any other oath”. James remembers the words of the Lord Jesus in His Sermon on the Mount, because his words are in such close agreement with those of Jesus. It’s as if the Spirit of God brought these words of Jesus to mind, so he wrote them down. Below is a comparison of parts of the two passages, so that you can see how close in wording they are.
“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 , , , but let your statement be, ‘Yes, yes’, or ‘No, no’; and everything beyond these is of evil.” Matthew 5:34-37
“. . . do not swear, either by heaven or by earth or with any other oath; but let your yes be yes, and your no, no; so that you may not fall under judgment.” James 5:12
There are many Old Testament scriptures related to the taking of vows, but there is one passage in the book of Numbers that must have come to the minds of both audiences immediately: Numbers chapter 30, the “law of vows”. The entire chapter is devoted to vows!
The Jews during the time of Christ and James had turned oath-making into an “art form”. People made lots of oaths in those days. It appeared to be a form of bragging, drawing attention to themselves by the frequent and elaborate oaths they made. They figured that if they didn’t put God’s name into their oath, they wouldn’t be bound by that oath, because God wasn’t being called upon to bear witness to it. So they came up with elaborate ways to make their oaths sound very binding to others, when, in their own estimation, the oaths weren’t binding at all! This was one of many reasons why Jesus called them “hypocrites” (ones who wore a mask to hide the real identities).
II. THE CORRECTION (verse 12b)
James corrects their misuse of oaths by saying, “let your yes be yes, and your no, no.” Our honesty and integrity should be such that we don’t need to say anything more. That’s all it should take for people to believe you. Lewis Carroll used the following words in his book, “Alice in Wonderland”: “Say what you mean, and mean what you say.”
Theodor Seuss Geisel was an American writer and illustrator, best known for authoring children’s books under the pen name Dr. Seuss. You may have read some of his books yourself. In 1940 he wrote a book entitled, “Horton Hatches the Egg”. In this book, a bird named Mayzie (“lazy Mayzie”) asks Horton the elephant to sit on her egg for her, saying that she will be right back. But she never returns! Horton made a promise, and he says to himself, “I meant what I said and I said what I meant. An elephant’s faithful, one-hundred percent.” In the pouring Spring rain, and in the freezing cold winter, Horton continues to sit on that egg and say those words. In spite of the laughter and jeering of the other animals, Horton is undaunted. In the face of death, and a trip over the mountain and across the sea, for fifty-one weeks, Horton continues to sit and say, “I meant what I said and I said what I meant. An elephant’s faithful, one-hundred percent.” Would that we could each make such a statement about ourselves, mean it, and verify it by our actions!
By the way, the book does have a happy ending. You can find several renderings of “Horton Hatches the Egg”, along with pictures, on You-Tube.
III. THE REASON (verse 12c)
James now ends this warning by giving the reason why personal oath-making is a waste of time in God’s sight. He says, “so that you may not fall under judgment”. James said the same thing in verse 9: “Behold, the Judge is standing right at the door.” God is all-knowing and all-present (Psalm 139; Jeremiah 23:24). Therefore, any oath we make, we are making in His presence, and He holds us accountable for every oath we make.
How good is your word? Can people depend on what you say? Do friends, family members, co-workers, neighbors, classmates believe you and trust you without question? Dennis DeHaan put those desires into the words of a poem and prayer:
Lord, by Thy Spirit, grant to me
A deep desire for honesty,
So that, when I must give my word,
No one will doubt what he has heard.
A HEAVENLY PERSPECTIVE:
There is Someone whose faithfulness and credibility is unsurpassed. In Genesis 12:1-3, God made a promise to Abraham, and at the end of verse 3 God said, “And in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” In Numbers 23:19 God told Balaam to say these words to Balak: “God is not a man, that He should lie, nor a son of man, that He should repent; has He said, and will He not do it? Or has He spoken, and will He not make it good?” In Deuteronomy 7:9, God gives these words to Moses: “Know therefore that the Lord your God, the faithful God, who keeps His covenant and His lovingkindness to a thousandth generation with those who love Him and keep His commandments . . . “
Joshua says the following words in Joshua 23:14, “Now behold, today I am going the way of all the earth, and you know in all your hearts and in all your souls that not one word of all the good words which the Lord your God spoke concerning you has failed; all of them have been fulfilled for you, not one of them has failed.”
Can God be trusted to keep His promises? You know He can! He’s been proving it over and over again! He promised to send a Redeemer, His own Son, as a sacrifice for our sins. Isaiah describes Him in chapter 53. John the Baptist said of Him, “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” When the price had been paid, Jesus cried out on the cross, “Finished!” The masterpiece of God’s sacrificial love was completed,
God has made you a promise, in case you haven’t claimed it yet. John 1:12-13 says, “But as many as received Him (Jesus Christ), to them he gave the right to become children of God, even to those who believe in His name, who were born not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God.” Faith is taking God at His Word, and acting upon it. Are you ready to give Him your life in exchange for His? If you are not a child of God through faith in the finished work of His Son, the Lord Jesus Christ, you don’t know what you’re missing! You can take His Word and my word for it!
\ There is still more work to be done!