Over the past few weeks I’ve been trying a new approach to my daily Bible reading. Those of you who follow me on Facebook or Instagram will have seen that every day I try to find one verse, phrase or section that stands out in the chapters I’m reading that day, take a photo of it, and write a few lines of reflection on it. It has really helped me focus my mind on what I’m reading, so the words don’t just glide meaninglessly past my eyes any more – and several of you have been kind enough to tell me you enjoy reading them.
A few weeks back I stumbled across something in James – a book I thought I knew pretty well – that surprised and confused me. A couple of you helped me think through it a bit, and eventually this week I wrote up my musings into a blog post for Think Theology. I also remembered that Bible Gateway have a very useful section where you can look up Matthew Henry’s Commentary, which helped me at least find some other angles to think about the problem from.
Anyway, here’s the blog post – let me know what you think.
There are lots of commands, laws, suggestions and guidelines in the Bible, some are primary, some are secondary, some are for all people at all times, others are time-and-place-specific (discuss…), and in the New Covenant we’re under grace not law anyhow, so how are we supposed to discern which rules are which, and to which we should pay most attention?
While reading James the other day, I stumbled across a verse which surprised me (and which set me off on this train of thought). It was chapter 5 verse 12:
But above all, my brothers, do not swear, either by heaven or by earth or by any other oath, but let your “yes” be yes and your “no” be no, so that you may not fall under condemnation.
In a book about faith and deeds, living together in community, persevering in trials, developing character, praying for the sick, pursuing wisdom, guarding your speech etc. etc. etc., James’ big take-home is ‘don’t swear oaths’? Some of the other ‘above alls’ in the Bible are translated differently in different versions, but every translation I have looked at for this verse renders it similarly – ‘above all’, ‘above all else’, ‘before all things’, ‘most of all’. It seems all the translators agree that James wanted this point to stand out.
A sermon I once heard on this verse said it implied that you should be living such an honest, truthful life, that you didn’t need to swear. Those around you would know that when you said ‘yes’, you meant ‘yes’, and when you said ‘no’ you meant ‘no’. Calling on some inanimate object to bear witness to your integrity would be unnecessary (not to say futile). Matthew Henry puts it like this:
It is being suspected of falsehood that leads men to swearing. Let it be known that your keep to truth, and are firm to your word, and by this means you will find there is no need to swear to what you say.
Well, OK, I get that as far as it goes, but it still sounds like a run-of-the-mill, common-or-garden commandment. Surely ‘be honest’ would have been a better ‘above all’, which would catch the swearing of oaths within it, and not make us extrapolate a general command to honesty back from the end result? (On the other hand, maybe James assumed we all knew we were supposed to be honest, but this was a practice that had slipped through the net.)
Matthew Henry’s commentary seems to read the verse as though it is talking more about using profanities than swearing oaths, which I understand to be quite different things, done in different circumstances for different purposes, but some of his comments are interesting (and applicable to either usage) nonetheless:
Why above all things is swearing here forbidden?
(1.) Because it strikes most directly at the honour of God and most expressly throws contempt upon his name and authority.
Wow. Yes, that is very true. If you’re thinking about swearing oaths, particularly “by heaven or by earth” (or, if you’re a Spanish swordsman in The Princess Bride, “on the soul of my father, Domingo Montoya”), you are calling on the created to be your witness – and your judge – rather than the creator, who will judge all things.
(2.) Because this sin has, of all sins, the least temptation to it: it is not gain, nor pleasure, nor reputation that can move men to it, but a wantonness in sinning, and a needless showing [of] enmity to God.
Interesting point. It’s a sin with no gain – in fact, with no up-side at all, and only downsides. Whether uttering profanities or swearing oaths, what possible purpose or benefit is there in doing it (other than fitting in with the culture around you, I suppose – so it is the sin of wanting to be like everyone else, and we know where that gets us!).
Point 3 I think is a fair one, but applies generally to the taming of the tongue passage earlier, and more to the use of profanity than the swearing of oaths, but point 4 I’m not sure I agree with at all (in my immensely superior wisdom!!), particularly the first part by Mr Baxter, whoever he might be, (in bold):
(3.) Because it is with most difficulty left off when once men are accustomed to it, therefore it should above all things be watched against. And, (4.) “Above all things swear not, for how can you expect the name of God should be a strong tower to you in your distress if you profane it and play with it at other times?” But (as Mr. Baxter observes) “all this is so far from forbidding necessary oaths that it is but to confirm them, by preserving the due reverence of them.” And then he further notes that “The true nature of an oath is, by our speech, to pawn the reputation of some certain or great thing, for the averring of a doubted less thing; and not (as is commonly held) an appeal to God or other judge.” Hence it was that swearing by the heavens, and by the earth, and by the other oaths the apostle refers to, came to be in use. The Jews thought if they did but omit the great oath of Chi-Eloah, they were safe. But they grew so profane as to swear by the creature, as if it were God; and so advanced it into the place of God; while, on the other hand, those who swear commonly and profanely by the name of God do hereby put him upon the level with every common thing.
I can’t see how you can read, from “do not swear, either by heaven or by earth or by any other oath” the meaning “do not swear, except by God”. In fact, Baxter’s next sentence seems rather to undermine his point: “The true nature of an oath is, by our speech, to pawn the reputation of some certain or great thing, for the averring of a doubted less thing; and not (as is commonly held) an appeal to God or other judge.” Let’s rephrase the original to reflect that understanding of what ‘swear an oath’ means:
“But above all, my brothers, do not pawn the reputation of God for the averring of your word, but let your “yes” be yes and your “no” be no, so that you may not fall under condemnation.”
I think it would be fair to say that swearing by God is at least as likely to lead us to fall under condemnation as pawning the reputation of earth, and should probably be avoided!
What does that mean in court when we’re asked to swear on the Bible? I think if the option is open to us to ‘affirm’ that what we are saying is true instead, then that would be the most consistent approach with this command but if not, well, it seems that the reason given for not swearing an oath is, that you may not fall under condemnation – which presumably would only happen if you broke the oath, so if you are forced by the authorities God has placed over you to swear one, I guess you’d better take it very seriously!
I was going to look at the other ‘above alls’ in the Bible too, but this post has got rather long, so they may have to wait till another time. They were much more what I expected God to be telling me to focus on above all anyway. This one just intrigued me. What are your thoughts?