Swearing and taking oaths are referenced many times throughout Scripture. But what exactly does it mean to “swear” in the biblical sense? Let’s take a comprehensive look at the topic.
Swearing has gotten a bad reputation in some Christian circles today. Many believe that Christians should not “swear” or make oaths under any circumstances based on a surface reading of Jesus’ words in Matthew 5:34-37:
“But I say to you, do not swear at all: neither by heaven, for it is God’s throne; nor by the earth, for it is His footstool; nor by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. Nor shall you swear by your head, because you cannot make one hair white or black. But let your ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No,’ ‘No.’ For whatever is more than these is from the evil one.” (NKJV)
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Does this mean all swearing and oath-taking is prohibited for followers of Jesus? Looking deeper at the biblical meaning of “swear” provides some helpful insights.
- “Swearing” in the Bible refers to making an oath or solemn promise, often by invoking the name of God. It’s more than just using foul language.
- Oaths and vows were a common cultural practice in biblical times and served an important legal function.
- God Himself swore oaths on multiple occasions, demonstrating that oaths are not inherently sinful.
- Jesus’ teaching focused on prohibiting frivolous oaths and misusing God’s name, not all oaths in every situation.
- Paul and other New Testament writers continued to use oath-like language after Christ’s teaching.
- Oaths are permissible in certain solemn situations, but must be avoided if they detract from simple honesty.
The rest of this post will examine key biblical passages to understand what scripture teaches about the proper view and use of oaths and swearing.
Swearing as Oath-Taking in the Bible
The first step is to recognize that the biblical concept of “swearing” does not primarily refer to foul language, but rather to making a solemn oath or vow. This is clear from how the original Hebrew and Greek words are used throughout scripture.
The Hebrew verb “shaba” literally means to “seven oneself” or to “swear an oath.” The basic idea is to solemnly commit to something by invoking the name of God as a witness. A related Hebrew noun “shebuah” is frequently translated as “oath.”
Examples of “shaba” abound in the Old Testament when God or man swears an oath. For instance, after Abraham passed God’s test by offering Isaac, God “swore by Himself” to bless Abraham (Genesis 22:16). Jacob made his son Joseph swear not to bury him in Egypt, but to bring him back to Canaan (Gen 47:31).
The New Testament authors used the Greek word “omnyo” when quoting the Old Testament or referring to swearing an oath. James warns against rash oath-taking when he says “above all, my brethren, do not swear” (James 5:12). The author of Hebrews cites God’s promise to Abram as an example of God’s oath-swearing: “For when God made a promise to Abraham, because He could swear by no one greater, He swore by Himself” (Hebrews 6:13).
So in the biblical context, to “swear” means much more than simply to utter a four-letter word. It refers to binding oneself under solemn oath, often by invoking the name of God.
Purposes and Prevalence of Oaths in the Ancient World
Why were oaths so prominent in biblical times to begin with? In the ancient near east culture, the swearing of oaths served some vitally important purposes:
Oaths and vows played an essential legal role in ancient societies. When disputes arose between two parties, an oath invocating the gods was often required to resolve the issue. The one swearing the oath called upon divine judgement if they were lying or failing to keep their word. This created a strong incentive to fulfill one’s promises, similar to signing a legal contract today.
Oaths and covenants went hand in hand in the ancient world. When two parties made a covenant or formal agreement, it was accompanied by an invoked oath as a guarantee. For example, David and Jonathan “made a covenant before the LORD” which included oaths and promises of protection (1 Samuel 20:16).
Oath-taking also served to ensure a person kept their word when making an important promise to another party. Abraham made his head servant “swear by the LORD” to seek a wife for Isaac from among his kinsmen rather than the Canaanites (Gen 24:2). Abraham knew the gravity of such an oath would compel the servant to fulfill the promise.
In cases where evidence was lacking, oaths were prescribed as a means of settling disputes. The Mosaic law gave guidelines for oaths to be taken when individual’s property rights were in question (Ex. 22:10-11). When accusations were made without witnesses, taking an oath in the Lord’s name helped determine guilt or innocence (Num 5:19-22).
Given the lack of signed documents and high burden of legal proof, oaths served as an essential safeguard and assurance in ancient near east society. The prevalence of “swearing” in Scripture must be read in light of these customary practices.
God Himself Swore Oaths
One of the strongest clues that oaths are not inherently sinful is the fact that God Himself swore oaths at pivotal junctures in Scripture:
- God promised Abram He would bless him and multiply his descendants with an oath (Genesis 22:16-18)
- As Hebrews notes, since God could “swear by no one greater”, he swore by Himself to bless Abraham (Hebrews 6:13)
- God confirmed His covenant with Israel at Sinai with an oath to be their God if they would obey (Deut 29:12,14)
- God swore with uplifted hand that the disobedient generation would not enter His rest (Hebrews 3:11,18)
- The Lord swore that David’s throne would endure forever in Psalm 132:11
- Multiple prophets refer back to God’s oath to bless and multiply Abraham’s offspring (Micah 7:20, Luke 1:73)
Of course, God by nature cannot lie or break an oath (Titus 1:2). But the fact He was willing to condescend and swear oaths shows they have an appropriate place, even if misused by humans. If oaths were inherently evil, God would not have employed them Himself.
Jesus’ Teaching on Oaths
This background sheds light on Jesus’ words about oaths in the Sermon on the Mount. Was Jesus categorically prohibiting any and all oaths by His followers? A closer look at the context indicates otherwise.
The religious leaders of Jesus’ day had developed an elaborate system of oaths intended to provide loopholes for dishonesty. Certain oaths or vows were considered more weighty and binding than others. For instance, swearing by the gold in the temple supposedly carried more obligation than swearing by the temple itself (Matthew 23:16-17).
In this cultural setting, Jesus makes it clear that truthfulness and integrity should not be based on what one swears by. He tells His disciples:
“But let your ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No,’ ‘No.’ For whatever is more than these is from the evil one.” (Matthew 5:37)
The point is not to avoid oaths altogether, but that followers of Jesus should have such impeccable honesty that elaborate oaths are unnecessary. A simple yes or no commitment should suffice. The Pharisees’ system of substituted oaths promoted inner dishonesty rather than true godliness.
Jesus employs hyperbole in saying one should not swear “by heaven…by earth…by Jerusalem…by your head” (Matt 5:34-36). The issue is not the oaths themselves, but misusing them as a cover for deceitfulness. His primary concern is sanctifying one’s speech to reflect an upright heart.
Oaths and Vows after Christ
If Jesus prohibited any and all oath-taking by His followers, we would expect all such language to disappear after the gospels. But numerous examples exist in the remainder of the New Testament:
- Paul often makes oath-like statements invoking God as a witness to the truth of his words (Romans 1:9, 2 Corinthians 1:23, Galatians 1:20, Philippians 1:8).
- The author of Hebrews cites God’s oath to Abraham as still being in force for believers (Hebrews 6:13-18).
- An angel in Revelation swears an oath by God regarding the shortness of time (Rev 10:5-6).
- Even Jesus swore an oath after His teaching in Matthew 5, telling the high priest “I swear by the living God” that they would see the Son of Man coming (Matthew 26:63-64).
Many advocate that Jesus prohibited all oaths by any Christian in every situation based on a surface reading of Matthew 5. But the continued use of oath-like language in the New Testament must be accounted for contextually.
Principles for Oath-Taking
When we synthesize all the biblical evidence, some principles emerge for how believers should approach oaths and vows:
- Oaths have a proper legal purpose:They are appropriate for establishing covenants, contracts, and settling disputes when necessary. Our simple word should ideally suffice, but oaths serve as guarantees.
- Oaths must not be misused to deceive: Elaborate oath formulas should not be exploited as loopholes for dishonesty, but should reflect our genuine commitment.
- Invoke God’s name sparingly: We should refrain from rash or frivolous use of divine names and titles in oaths. Such language belongs in weighty matters alone.
- Be judicious: While oaths are appropriate on solemn occasions, they should be avoided if they undermine simple honesty. We should prayerfully use discernment.
- God oversees oaths: Despite cultural practices, we must remember that God ultimately holds people accountable for oaths whether His name is formally invoked or not.
With these principles in mind, we can understand Jesus’ teaching while still seeing the legitimacy of oaths in certain contexts. As in all areas, wisdom and discernment are key.
In summary, “swearing” in the biblical sense refers to the taking of solemn oaths or vows rather than simply using foul language. Oaths were deeply ingrained in ancient societies for legal and covenantal purposes. While guidelines exist for proper use, oaths are not inherently sinful, as even God swore by Himself at times. Jesus’ emphasis is on speaking truthfully without dependence on oaths, not banning oaths altogether. With care and wisdom, oath-taking still has an appropriate place under the New Covenant today.
The next time you come across “swearing” in reading Scripture, remember the historical context and nuance behind the concept. Biblical oaths involved much more than just off-color words. When used judiciously, they can still help secure commitments and covenants today as in biblical times.