‘Again, you have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not break your oath, but keep your oaths you have made to the Lord.’
‘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 that comes from the evil one.’ (Matt. 5: 33-37)
The Greek word poneros – here translated “evil one” – indicates that this kind of thinking comes from what is morally culpable rather than from the evil one.
The Torah had clear instructions regarding oaths and vows.
Do not swear falsely by my name and so profane the name of your God. I am the LORD. (Lev. 19: 12)
When a man makes a vow to the LORD to take an oath to obligate himself by a pledge, 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)
In the above passages, the Torah teaches three things about taking an oath:
- A person must not profane the name of the Lord by making a dishonest vow in His name.
- A person must be faithful to honour his vow to the Lord.
- A person who makes a vow to the Lord must honour his word speedily or it will be counted against him as sin.
Making a vow was permissible as a pledge to fulfil a promise, but it was not to be made lightly and it was to be honoured in full.
The prophets and Psalms emphasised the importance of heart attitudes. Truthfulness and faithfulness were to be the attitude of the heart, which would make the taking of vows and swearing of oaths unnecessary.
Surely you desire truth in the inner parts; you teach me wisdom in the inmost place. (Psa. 51: 6)
However, when we read Jesus’s correction regarding the swearing of oaths, it is clear that abuse had crept in so that people’s word meant little unless it was accompanied by an oath. We do this today with a qualifying statement like “I promise you . . .” as though everything else we say is questionable.
The emphasis had shifted from truthfulness in everything to honouring only those vows that were sworn in the name of the Lord. Jesus exposed the hypocrisy of the Pharisees by showing how foolish their distinctions were.
Woe to you, blind guides! You say, ‘If anyone swears by the temple it means nothing; but if anyone swears by the gold of the temple, he is bound by his oath.’ You blind fools! Which is greater: the gold or the temple that makes the gold sacred? (Matt. 23: 16-17)
Their arbitrary decisions about what was binding and what was not binding led them to pepper their conversations with all kinds of meaningless oaths just to make an impression. They had shifted the emphasis from being truthful to honouring only those vows made to the Lord and had justified their use of empty vows.
Jesus said, “Don’t do it!” No amount of vow-taking can change anything. How much better to be a person of your word without having to back everything up by an oath! A simple “Yes” or “No” should be sufficient. How phoney for the Pharisees to think that making distinctions between the temple and the things in the temple would make their vow more binding! He exposed their wicked hearts by pointing out that everything relating to the temple was the same as invoking God Himself.
LORD, who may dwell in your sanctuary? Who may live on your holy hill? He whose walk is blameless and who does what is righteous, who speaks truth from his heart . . . (Psa. 15: 1-2)
If one is always truthful, there is no need to take an oath to vouch for the trustworthiness of one’s word.
What about making impulsive vows? People sometimes make impulsive vows after a bad experience, for example, “I will never trust that person again; or” I will never get married”; or “I will never… “ How binding are these vows? These kinds of vows are often spoken in a moment of emotional pain. Some counsellors believe that the counselee needs to renounce vows taken in haste in order to be free from their consequences.
Vows based on bad experiences are not undone by renunciation but by repentance. What do I mean by repentance? Repentance is not about being sorry for doing something wrong, for example, making a vow during an emotional moment which one regards as binding for the rest of one’s life. Repentance is about returning to the way of Yahweh when one has made a bad decision and left the path.
A vow made in haste is usually a way of managing emotional pain. “I will never…” is often the result of misinterpreting one’s circumstances. Let’s use the example of a young girl who is raped. She may respond by vowing something like this: “I will never get married,” or “I will never trust a man,” because she feels responsible, guilty and defiled; or because she feels unworthy of a good man’s love; or because what one man did to her represents what all men think of her. How does she repent of these emotions that feel true because they arise from her beliefs about what happened to her?
Repentance is a response to what is the truth as opposed to what feels true. Repentance is essentially a change of mind. An encounter with Jesus in those memories allows Him to reveal the truth. It takes a willingness to acknowledge one’s feelings and open oneself to Jesus to be set free from the emotional pain which spawned the vow in the first place. Once the issue has been resolved, the vow becomes irrelevant.
Scripture is taken from THE HOLY BIBLE, NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION®, NIV® Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.® Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.
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