“But above all, my brethren, do not swear, either by heaven or by earth or with any other oath. But let your ‘Yes,’ be ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No,’ ‘No,’ lest you fall into judgment.” (James 5:12)
The saying “truth is in short supply” is as true today as in the past. Children of the world who strive for success have been known to play fast and loose with the truth if it is to their advantage. And in order to convince others they are speaking the truth, they back it up with an oath by saying, “I swear by God I am telling the truth.” Those in the habit of using many oaths are viewed with suspicion, raising doubts as to whether they are being truthful. If they are true to their word, why the need to swear so much?
Christians, who are children of the God of all truth, highly value the truth, especially the precious Gospel truths that make us free through our Savior Jesus Christ. And seeking to glorify the Lord, we want to be known as truth-tellers. If we have a reputation of being untruthful, how can we expect unbelievers to give any credence to our Gospel witness?
Should we ever be tempted to think that we need to add an oath in order to verify our word, keep the divine counsel of James in mind when he writes, “But let your ‘Yes,’ be ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No,’ ‘No,’ lest you fall into judgment.” In other words, in our daily conversations our word should be good enough without swearing by God. Swearing in such cases is totally unnecessary.
Neither should we think that some oaths are more binding than others. Whether people swear by heaven or by earth, they are all oaths sworn to God, because everything belongs to God and therefore all oaths are obligatory.
What James testifies to here in verse 12 concerning oaths echoes what Jesus preached about on swearing in His Sermon on the Mount. He proclaimed there, “Again you have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but shall perform your oaths to the Lord.’ But I say to you, do not swear at all . . . But let your ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No,’ ‘No.’ For whatever is more than these is from the evil one.” (Matthew 5:33-34,37)
When Jesus and James instruct us to not swear, they are not telling us there is never a purposeful need or a godly reason to take an oath. Jesus allowed Himself to be put under oath at His trial before the Jews, in order to testify whether He was God. Besides swearing in a court of law to bear witness to the truth, other godly oaths include our confirmation promise, an oath of office, and marital vows.
God the Father also swore by His name to Abraham that He would send an Offspring from his descendants Who would bless all the nations of the world (Genesis 22:16-18). We thank and praise God for making this oath and keeping this promise, for since we are not always true to our word nor in every case keep our promises, this special Offspring offered Himself as an atoning sacrifice to cover those sins. The apostle Paul comforts us when we prove to be unfaithful, saying to us, “If we are faithless, He remains faithful; He cannot deny Himself.” (2 Timothy 2:13)
Just as our Lord is true to His Word, so we also want to be true to ours. And it is seldom necessary to back it up with an oath.