Is Swearing Bad?
Leviticus 5:4–6; Numbers 30:10–16; Deuteronomy 12:29–32; Judges 11:29–40; Matthew 5:37
No, we’re not talking about bad language. We are talking about making and “taking” oaths.
All elected politicians take oaths regarding following the law and upholding the respective (state or US) constitution. Peace Officers, Military service people, doctors all swear oaths when formally taking the position of their training/office.
Oaths are not small. Oaths are not equal to promises. Oaths tend more toward the covenantal side of things. This means that there should be a depth to them of body, mind, and soul that is far more than just a promise. Some people do take promises to the oath standard, but most people do not.
Oaths will often also have a penalty that goes with breaking them. Promises generally do not (except for the diminishment of your “good” name). Also, oaths will usually invoke a greater power. In the United States and even in a number of “post”-Christian countries, that greater power is still God.
God. The “special” ingredient of an oath.
Oaths (or swearing, the right kind) are not a bad thing. Rash (or emotional or reactive) oaths, however, are. As the first passage indicates, there is a kind of guilt associated with a rash oath, and that is whether it is to do good or to do bad. That, in and of itself, should indicate the weight God holds for oaths.
While Numbers makes a wife’s or daughter’s oath the responsibility of the husband/father, it is still an oath. Part of it is a cultural assumption that the man would indeed ultimately bear the responsibility of the oath anyway. The wife and daughter are of his household, and thus his responsibility.
Even how the man is supposed to deal with their oaths is important. He has to be quick and discerning about voiding them or owning them. He is responsible. He would also likely make the oathmaker bear some responsibility, too. The point is that oaths are not to be taken lightly.
Jephthah provides the stunning example of why rash oaths are a really bad idea. The prologue to Jephthah’s story is the passage in Deuteronomy about sacrificing children, and that God really hates it. Think about those who would run out of the city to greet the victorious Jephthah…it would probably be someone from his family.
Jephthah made an oath. His daughter paid the price for his oath. This was not a God-honoring oath, nor a God-honoring sacrifice. That Jephthah was a judge for Israel makes this tale even that much more tragic, and even less God-honoring.
When Jesus says to say yes or no, he is referring to a practice whereby oaths were binding based upon what they were sworn on. Money won. Forget the sacrificial offering. Forget the altar (that made the money sacred). It was the money.
It’s not that Jesus says there is no space for oaths, it’s that the space for oaths is much smaller than it used to be. Invoking God really should be between you and God, and not a third party.
There is also another small lesson, and it is good to keep when we are all in a state (pandemic and stay-at-home) where emotional responses are likely to result in rash oaths. This is a time when many people will turn deeply to God (and we celebrate it). In so doing, however, they often become (positively) overwhelmed and make rash oaths.
Many of these rash oaths are made to God. God wants faith- and trust-filled oaths. Rash oaths might be faith- and trust-filled at the moment. It is over time that the extent of faith and trust is tested. These are the oaths that God values.
Gracious God, may the words of our mouths and hearts bring honor and glory to you. May these poor words of ours warm your heart as we follow the path you guide us. Amen.
1) Have you ever sworn an oath? Why? What was it’s result/consequence?
2) How would you define the difference between promise, oath, and covenant?
3) What is the most rash decision you have made? What was the result?