I Swear It!

In modern legal terms, speaking an untruth whilst under oath is perjury. Speaking an untruth in everyday conversation is bad manners to some, par for the course for others. Beyond the legal sense, why is one considered worse than the other? One may say that perjury is worse than simply lying because a perjurer has sworn to tell the truth. Yet what makes the act of swearing an oath any different than normal speech? If a man can lie in everyday speech then surely he can lie when swearing an oath to be truthful.

Jewish law had a similar provision. An oath sworn by the gold of the temple, the sacrifice, or by God Himself were considered binding oaths, and breaking one would result in prosecution. However, everyday speech as well as oaths sworn by the temple, the altar, or heaven were not binding. Our Lord had some harsh words for the Jewish leaders:

“Woe to you, blind guides, who say, ‘Whoever swears by the temple, it is nothing; but whoever swears by the gold of the temple, he is obliged to perform it.’ Fools and blind! For which is greater, the gold or the temple that sanctifies the gold? And, ‘Whoever swears by the altar, it is nothing; but whoever swears by the gift that is on it, he is obliged to perform it.’ Fools and blind! For which is greater, the gift or the altar that sanctifies the gift? Therefore he who swears by the altar, swears by it and by all things on it. He who swears by the temple, swears by it and by Him who dwells in it. And he who swears by heaven, swears by the throne of God and by Him who sits on it. (Matthew 23:16-22)

Earlier, Christ had spoken about oaths during the Sermon on the Mount:

“Again you have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but shall perform your oaths to the Lord.’ 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. (Matthew 5:33-37)

Most commentaries I have read interpret this to mean that while official oaths (such as you would take before testifying in court) are fine, but you should not swear by God or His temple in everyday speech. Why not? Because if you do that, then you imply that your normal speech is inherently false. If you spoke the truth at all times, what need would you have to swear that you are being truthful? Adding an oath to your “yes” or to your “no” to lend your words gravitas only makes people think that you normally lie.

The message of Christ to the Jews, and to you and I, is that we must speak the truth always. If I am a man of my word, then I have no need to punctuate my statements with oaths or affirmations. Let your yes be yes and your no be no, that is all that is necessary.

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