James: Keep Your Word

But above all, my brethren, do not swear, either by heaven or by earth or with any other oath; but your yes is to be yes, and your no, no, so that you may not fall under judgment.

James 5:12

The term “swear” (omnyo) carries with it the idea of making a solemn statement or promise to do something or affirm that something is true.  It is often associated with the concept of making a vow or taking an oath, including the idea of calling someone or something to bear witness to the truth of what one is saying.

Keeping one’s word is something God has always taken seriously.  He inspired Solomon to write, “Do not be hasty in word or impulsive in thought to bring up a matter in the presence of God.  For God is in heaven and you are on the earth; therefore let your words be few.  For the dream comes through much effort and the voice of a fool through many words.  When you make a vow to God, do not be late in paying it; for He takes no delight in fools.  Pay what you vow!  It is better that you should not vow than that you should vow and not pay.  Do not let your speech cause you to sin and do not say in the presence of the messenger of God that it was a mistake.  Why should God be angry on account of your voice and destroy the work of your hands?  For in many dreams and in many words there is emptiness.  Rather, fear God” (Eccl. 5:2-7).

We should therefore be careful in what we say and the promises we make.  Brethren, think for a minute about the songs that we sing to God.  “Where He leads me I will follow.”  “As the deer pants for the water so my soul longs after Thee.”  Do we mean what we are singing?  When we pray to God and tell him we repent of our sins and will work hard to serve Him more faithfully, do we follow through?  Do we realize we are making promises to God?  Are we striving to keep them (cf. Lev. 19:12; Num. 30:2; Deut. 23:21)?  When we make promises to others, do we recognize them as binding and do our best to keep the commitment we made?  Looking at them from this perspective will help us to be careful with what we say and avoid making foolish and rash promises (cf. Judg. 11:30-35; Mk. 6:23-26).  God wants us to be whole-heartedly honest (Ps. 15:1-2; 24:3-4; Jer. 5:1-2; Hos. 4:1-2).

During Jesus’ day, the Jews had turned from this whole-hearted honesty towards believing that only certain vows needed to be honored, specifically vows made “to the Lord…by heaven…by earth…by Jerusalem…by (one’s) head,” “by the gold of the temple…(or) the offering on (the altar)” (Matt. 5:34-36; 23:16-21).  All other vows were ultimately meaningless when compared to these.  Today, similar arbitrary distinctions are often made.  If we want to let someone know that we’re being honest, we might say something like,“Hey man, I didn’t take the money!  Really!  I swear!” as opposed to simply saying, “No, I didn’t take the money.”  We think that adding “I swear!” will communicate to the hearer this idea: “You can trust me this time, because this time I’m swearing that it’s true.”  Both Jesus and James denounced the hypocrisy behind this fallacious thinking by condemning this type of arbitrary swearing (Matt. 5:34-36; James 5:12a).  Instead, they commanded, “But let your statement be, ‘Yes, yes’ or ‘No, no’; anything beyond these is of evil” (Matt. 5:37; cf. James 5:12b).  This means that if someone asks us if we did or said something, or asks us if we will do something presently or in the future, then all we need to do is say “Yes” or “No.”  That alone should suffice because the Christian must be so honest and trustworthy that his word is always his bond.  There would therefore be no need to feel like adding an arbitrary oath as some sort of guarantee.  The guarantee should have already been given simply by virtue of the Christian’s inherent honesty in everything he says.

Brethren, does that describe you and me?

— Jon

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