The Sermon on the Mount—“Do Not Swear at All”
AFTER discussing adultery and divorce, Jesus directed his Sermon on the Mount to the subject of sworn statements. He declared: “Again you heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You must not swear without performing, but you must pay your vows to Jehovah.’”—Matt. 5:33.
The Jews who heard Jesus knew that their forefathers had heard much from the Mosaic law about making sworn statements. On occasion, swearing was compulsory. (Ex. 22:10, 11; Num. 5:21, 22) Repeatedly the Word of God stresses the importance of fulfilling vows.—Num. 30:2, 3; Deut. 23:21-23; Eccl. 5:4, 5.
“However, I say to you,” continued Jesus, “Do not swear at all, neither by heaven, because it is God’s throne; nor by earth, because it is the footstool of his feet; nor by Jerusalem, because it is the city of the great King. Nor by your head must you swear, because you cannot turn one hair white or black.”—Matt. 5:34-36.
Was it Jesus’ intention to abolish all oaths and vows? No, for the law of God that commanded swearing on certain occasions was still in force. (Gal. 4:4) When on trial before the high priest, Jesus himself did not object to being put under oath. (Matt. 26:63, 64) When Jesus said that people should “not swear at all,” he was referring to a deterioration and perversion of oath-taking. How so?
Sworn statements mentioned favorably in the Bible always concerned matters of great importance, such as decisions related to true worship, the making of covenants and testifying at judicial hearings. (Gen. 24:2-4, 9; 31:44, 50, 53; Ex. 22:10, 11) With the passing of time, however, the Jews became accustomed to making vows with respect to a wide variety of everyday affairs. For example, ancient rabbinical writings mention individuals vowing not to sleep, not to speak, not to walk and not to have sexual relations with their wives. Many vows were made by use of the word “corban,” meaning “a gift dedicated to God.” It was believed that by uttering this word, a person could declare certain things just as forbidden to themselves or others as the temple sacrifices. In this regard, Jesus said to the Pharisees:
“Adroitly you set aside the commandment of God in order to retain your tradition. For example, Moses said, ‘Honor your father and your mother,’ and, ‘Let him that reviles father or mother end up in death.’ But you men say, ‘If a man says to his father or his mother: “Whatever I have by which you may get benefit from me is corban, (that is, a gift dedicated to God,)”’—you men no longer let him do a single thing for his father or his mother, and thus you make the word of God invalid by your tradition which you handed down.”—Mark 7:9-13.a
The method of taking vows too had become corrupted. Rather than following Scriptural examples of sworn statements being made in the name of God, it became popular to swear “by heaven,” “by earth,” “by Jerusalem” and even by the “head” (or life) of another human. (Deut. 6:13; Dan. 12:7) There was controversy among Jewish authorities as to the validity of many vows taken in the name of such created things. Evidently certain persons felt that they could retract sworn statements with impunity.—Compare Matthew 23:16-22.
Jesus showed, however, that since heaven was “God’s throne,” the earth “the footstool of his feet” and Jerusalem “the city of the great King,” swearing by them was the same as taking an oath in the name of God. (Isa. 66:1; Ps. 48:2) Similarly, to vow by the “head,” or life, of someone was the same as making the vow in God’s name, since he is the Author and Sustainer of life; and no human has control over his life to the extent of ‘turning one hair white or black.’—Ps. 36:9.
After discouraging indiscriminate oath-taking, Jesus further stated: “Just let your word Yes mean Yes, your No, No; for what is in excess of these is from the wicked one.”—Matt. 5:37.
Frequent taking of oaths to lend credibility to one’s utterances became popular due to the prevalence of lying and deceit. Jesus showed, however, that in everyday life a simple Yes or No should be altogether trustworthy and not in need of additional bolstering up by sworn statements. Persons who feel compelled to go “in excess” of this by continually ‘swearing to’ what they say, reveal themselves to be basically untrustworthy. They manifest the spirit of “the wicked one,” Satan the Devil, whom the Bible calls “the father of the lie.”—John 8:44; Jas. 5:12.
a In effect, such a man would be saying to his parents: ‘As far as you are concerned, my property is “corban,” a gift dedicated to God, and you cannot use it or benefit from it in any way.’ By saying the word “corban,” a person did not necessarily dedicate his property to God. Usually the word meant that he was merely making it like a gift dedicated to God, so that the person or persons to whom he spoke might not use it. In The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah, Alfred Edersheim writes: “It cannot be denied that such vows, in regard to parents, would be binding, and that they were actually made.”