ESSENTIAL TRUTHS - OATHS & VOWS
God is the source of all truth and cannot lie (Titus 1:2; Hebrews 6:17-18). Humans, on the other hand, can tell lies. The wickedness of the human heart makes lying and deceit a common occurrence. The Bible declares that “all men are liars” (Psalm 116:11). This does not mean that everyone lies all the time. Humans can also tell the truth. As Christians, we are called to imitate God’s character by speaking truthfully.
If we are supposed to be honest all the time, then what is the use of oaths and vows? Oaths and vows are seen at various points in Scripture, in the Old Testament (Genesis 15:1-7, Genesis 26:3; Psalm 132:11), and in the New Testament (Acts 18:18, Revelation 10:5-6). There is a biblical pattern wherein oaths are commonly associated with covenants, which were serious agreements with long lasting effects. To emphasize the importance of truth in the making of promises or giving important testimonies, we resort to the swearing of an oath or vow to God. In the vow, appeal is made to God and to God alone as the supreme witness of the statement. The implication then, is that if those taking oaths are found to be lying, God will punish them with swiftness and severity. With this understanding, oaths and vows should only be made in matters of great and lasting consequence, such as marriage or court proceedings.
Why then did Jesus say, “But I say to you, Do not take an oath at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. And do not take an oath by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. Let what you say be simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything more than this comes from evil” (Matthew 5:34-37)?
Jesus is pointing out the foolishness of those who think they can escape their obligations by not swearing their oath in the name of the Lord. In the devotional, Jesus’ Teaching on Oaths, by Ligonier Ministries, it is pointed out that “Extra Biblical literature indicates that many rabbis did not consider it a sin to break a vow if it was not made explicitly in the name of God. Oaths made in the name of heaven or even the gold of the temple were not regarded as ultimately binding. As we might expect from sinners, this led to people making oaths by persons or objects other than God to give them an out in case they did not keep their word.”(Devotional link below)
Jesus’ teaching clarifies that it is better not to make a vow than to swear an oath that we have no intention of keeping, and that God does not accept equivocations, mental reservations or physical/verbal crossed fingers as a means to back out of obligations. God expects honesty. Only in the name of God should we swear, so that our oath is made to God alone. We are not to swear by any other thing besides God Himself, for no creature, or object, or anything else can be the ultimate witness of truth. Swearing by God’s name then must be used only with holy fear and reverence, not vainly or rashly.
In summary, Scripture does affirm the propriety of lawful oaths and vows, but they should be reserved for solemn covenants or occasions of great importance and lasting significance, such as a marriage or the giving of legal testimony, and be made in God’s name alone. In less serious circumstances, we should let our “yes” be “yes” and our “no” be “no”, but in all cases, we must strive to keep our word.