« Prev Chapter XXV. The Prohibition of Swearing.--The… Next »



"But above all things, my brethren, swear not, neither by the heaven, nor by the earth, nor by any other oath: but let your yea be yea, and your nay, nay; that ye fall not under judgment."—St. James v. 12.

THE main portion of the Epistle is already concluded. St. James has worked through his chief topics back to the point from which he started, viz. the blessedness of steadfast and patient endurance of trials and temptations. But one or two other subjects occur to him, and he reopens his letter to add them by way of a farewell word of counsel.

One of the leading thoughts in the letter has been warning against sins of the tongue (i. 19, 26; iii. 1-12; iv. 11, 13; v. 9). He has spoken against talkativeness, unrestrained speaking, love of correcting others, railing, cursing, boasting, murmuring. One grievous form of sinful speech he has not mentioned particularly; and about this he adds a strong word of warning in this postscript to the Epistle: "Above all things, my brethren, swear not."

Two questions are raised by this remarkable prohibition—first, the exact meaning of it, especially whether it forbids swearing for any purpose whatever; and 303 secondly, its relation to the almost identical prohibition uttered by Christ in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. v. 35, 36). It will be obvious that whatever this relation may be, the meaning of our Lord's injunction determines the meaning of St. James in his injunction. It is hardly worth arguing that he did not mean either more or less than Christ meant.

I. The immediate context of the prohibition is worth noting in each case; it seems to throw light upon the scope of the prohibition. Jesus Christ, after saying "Swear not at all; neither by the heaven, ... nor by the earth.... But let your speech be, Yea, yea; Nay, nay," goes on to forbid retaliation of injuries, and to enjoin love towards enemies. St. James enjoins long-suffering towards enemies, thence goes on to forbid swearing, and then again returns to the subject of how to behave under affliction and ill-treatment: "Is any among you suffering? let him pray." Prayer, not cursing and swearing, is the right method of finding relief. There is, therefore, some reason for thinking that both in the Sermon on the Mount and here the prohibition of swearing has special reference to giving vent to one's feelings in oaths when one is exasperated by injury or adversity. No kind of oath is allowable for any such purpose.

But it is quite clear that this is not the whole meaning of the injunction in either place. "But let your speech be, Yea, yea; Nay, nay;" and, "But let your yea be yea, and your nay, nay," manifestly refers to strengthening affirmations and negations by adding to them the sanction of an oath. There was an old saying, now unhappily quite grotesque in its incongruity with facts, that "an Englishman's word is as good as his bond." What Christ and St. James say is 304 that a Christian's word should be as good as his oath. There ought to be no need of oaths. Anything over and above simple affirming or denying "cometh of the evil one." It is because Satan, the father of lies, has introduced falsehood into the world that oaths have come into use. Among Christians there should be no untruthfulness, and therefore no oaths. The use of oaths is an index of the presence of evil; it is a symptom of the prevalence of falsehood.

But the use of oaths is not only a sign of the existence of mischief, it is also apt to be productive of mischief. It is apt to produce a belief that there are two kinds of truth, one of which it is a serious thing to violate, viz. when you are on your oath; but the other of which it is a harmless, or at least a venial thing to violate, viz. when falsehood is only falsehood, and not perjury. And this, both among Jews and among Christians, produces the further mischievous refinement that some oaths are more binding than others, and that only when the most stringent form of oath is employed is there any real obligation to speak the truth. How disastrous all such distinctions are to the interests of truth, abundant experience has testified: for a common result is this;—that people believe that they are free to lie as much as they please, so long as the lie is not supported by the particular kind of oath which they consider to be binding.

Thus much, then, is evident, that both our Lord and St. James forbid the use of oaths (1) as an expression of feeling, (2) as a confirmation of ordinary statements; for the prohibitions plainly mean as much as this, and we know from other sources that these two abuses were disastrously common among both Jews and Gentiles at that time. That converts to Christianity were 305 exempt from such vices is most improbable; and hence the need that St. James should write as he does on the subject.

But the main question is whether the prohibition is absolute; whether our Lord and St. James forbid the use of oaths for any purpose whatever; and it must be admitted that the first impression which we derive from their words is that they do. This view is upheld by not a few Christians as the right interpretation of both passages. Christ says, "Swear not at all (μὴ ὀμόσαι ὅλως).... But let your speech be, Yea, yea; Nay, nay." St. James says, "Swear not, neither by the heaven, nor by the earth, nor by any other oath (μήτε ἄλλον τινὰ ὅρκον): but let your yea be yea, and your nay, nay." In both cases we have an unqualified prohibition of what is to be avoided, followed by a plain command as to what is to be done.

But further investigation does not confirm the view which is derived from a first impression as to the meaning of the words. Against it we have, first, the fact that the Mosaic Law not only allowed, but enjoined the taking of an oath in certain circumstances; and Christ would hardly have abrogated the law, and St. James would hardly have contradicted it, without giving some explanation of so unusual a course; secondly, the indisputable practice of the early Church, of St. Paul, and of our Lord Himself.

In Deuteronomy we read, "Thou shalt fear the Lord thy God; and Him shalt thou serve, and shalt swear by His Name" (vi. 13); and, "to Him shalt thou cleave, and by His Name shalt thou swear" (x. 20). The Psalmist says, "The king shall rejoice in God; every one that sweareth by Him shall glory: but the mouth of them that speak lies shall be stopped" (lxiii. 11). 306 Isaiah says, "He that sweareth in the earth shall swear by the God of truth" (lxv. 16); and still more strongly Jeremiah: "Thou shalt swear, As the Lord liveth, in truth, in judgment, and in righteousness" (iv. 2); and, "If they will diligently learn the ways of My people, to swear by My Name, As the Lord liveth; even as they taught My people to swear by Baal; then shall they be built up in the midst of My people" (xii. 16. Comp. xxiii. 7, 8). An absolute prohibition of all swearing would have been so surprisingly at variance with these passages of Scripture that it is difficult to believe that it would have been made without any allusion to them. Even the Essenes, who were very strict about swearing, and considered it to be worse than perjury (for a man is condemned already who cannot be believed except upon his oath), imposed "terrific oaths" (ὅρκους φρικώδεις) upon those who wished to enter their community, before admitting them (Josephus, Bell. Jud. II. viii. 6, 7; Ant. XV. x. 4); and we can hardly suppose that St. James means to take up a more extreme position than that of the Essenes.

But even if we suppose that he does mean this we have still to explain the practice of those who were well aware of Christ's command respecting swearing, and certainly had no intention of deliberately violating it. If the first Christians were willing on certain occasions to take certain oaths, it must have been because they were fully persuaded that Jesus Christ had not forbidden them to do so. When called upon by heathen magistrates to take an oath, the distinction which they drew was not between swearing and not swearing, but between taking oaths that committed them to idolatry and oaths which did nothing of the kind. The latter oaths they were willing to take. 307 Thus Tertullian says that they would not swear by the genii of the emperors, because these were supposed to be demons; but by the safety of the emperors they were willing to swear (Apol. xxxii.). Origen writes to much the same effect (Con. Celsum, viii., lxv.). The oath by the genius, or numen, or "fortune" (τύχη) of the emperor was recognized as a formula for abjuring Christianity. Thus the proconsul presses Polycarp again and again: "Swear by the genius of Cæsar; swear the oath, and I will release thee" (Mart. Pol. ix., x.); and the fear of being betrayed into an act of idolatry was one of the main reasons why the early Christians disliked taking oaths. But there was also the feeling that for Christians oaths ought to be quite unnecessary. Thus Clement of Alexandria says that the true Christian ought to maintain a life calculated to inspire such confidence in those without that an oath would not even be demanded of him. And of course, when he swears, he swears truly; but he is not apt to swear, and rarely has recourse to an oath. And his speaking the truth on oath arises from his harmony with the truth (Strom. vii., viii.). Pelagius maintained that all swearing was forbidden; but Augustine contends, on the authority of Scripture, that oaths are not unlawful, although he would have them avoided as much as possible (Ep. clvii. Comp. Epp. cxxv., cxxvi.).

But there is not only the evidence as to how the primitive Church understood the words of Christ and of St. James; there is also the practice of St. Paul, who frequently calls God to witness that he is speaking the truth (2 Cor. i. 23; xi. 31; xii. 19; Gal. i. 20; Phil. i. 8), or uses other strong asseverations which are certainly more than plain Yea and Nay (Rom. ix. i.; 1 Cor. xv. 31; 2 Cor. i. 18; xi. 10). Augustine quotes 308 St. Paul in defence of swearing, but adds that St. Paul's swearing, when there was weighty reason for it, is no proof that we may swear whenever we think proper to do so. And in the Epistle to the Hebrews the fact that men swear in order to settle disputes is mentioned without any intimation that the practice is utterly wrong. On the contrary, we are told that God has condescended to do the same, in order to give us all the assurance in His power (vi. 16-18).

Lastly, we have the convincing fact that Jesus Christ allowed Himself to be put upon His oath. After having kept silence for a long time, He was adjured by the High Priest to answer; and then He answered at once. The full meaning of the High Priest's words are, "I exact an oath of Thee (ἐξορκίζω σε) by the Living God" (Matt. xxvi. 63, 64). Had this been an unlawful thing for the High Priest to do, our Lord would have kept silence all the more, or would have answered under protest.

II. It remains to consider the relation of the prohibition of swearing in this Epistle to the almost identical prohibition in the Sermon on the Mount. Is St. James quoting Christ's words? and if so, whence did he derive his knowledge of them?

No one who compares the two passages will believe that the similarity between them is accidental. Even if such an hypothesis could reasonably be entertained, it would be shattered by the number of other coincidences which exist between passages in this Epistle and the recorded words of Christ. In this instance we have the largest amount of coincidence; and therefore the discussion of this point has been reserved until this passage was reached, although numerous other cases of coincidence have already occurred.

309 The remark is sometimes made that there are more quotations of Christ's words in the Epistle of St. James than in all the Epistles of St. Paul, or than in all the other books of the New Testament other than the Gospels. It would be better to word the remark somewhat differently, and say that there are more coincidences which cannot be fortuitous between this Epistle and the recorded words of Christ than in all the Epistles of St. Paul; or that there is far more evidence of the influence of Christ's discourses upon the language of St. James than there is of any such influence upon the language of St. Paul. St. Paul tells us much about Christ and His work, but he very rarely reproduces any of His sayings. With St. James it is exactly the opposite; he says very little indeed about Christ, but, without quoting them as such, he frequently reproduces His words. It will be found that the largest number of these coincidences are between St. James and sayings that are recorded by St. Matthew, especially in the Sermon on the Mount. But this does not warrant us in asserting that St. James must have seen St. Matthew's Gospel or any other written Gospels. The coincidences, as will be seen, are not of a character to show this. Moreover, it is extremely doubtful whether any of the Gospels were written so early as A.D. 62, the latest date which can be given to our Epistle; and if any earlier date be assigned to it, the improbability of the writer's having seen a written Gospel becomes all the greater. The resemblances between the words of St. James and the recorded words of Christ are such as would naturally arise if he had himself heard Christ's teaching, and was consciously or unconsciously reproducing what he remembered of it, rather than such as would be found 310 if he had had a written document to quote from. If this be so, we have a strong confirmation of the view adopted at the outset, that this Epistle is the work of the Lord's brother, who had personal experience of Christ's conversation, and was independent of both the oral and the written tradition of His teaching. It will be worth while to tabulate the principal coincidences, so that the reader may be able to judge for himself as to their significance. They suffice to show how full the mind of St. James must have been of the teaching of Jesus Christ, and they lead to the highly probable conjecture that in other parts of the Epistle we have reminiscences of Christ's words of which we have no record in the Gospels.9292   See Salmon's Introduction to the N.T., pp. 221, 500, 4th ed., 1889. It is not likely that St. James has remembered and reproduced only those sayings of which there is something recorded by the Evangelists.

1. Blessed are they that have been persecuted for righteousness' sake: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are ye when men shall reproach you, and persecute you, and say all manner of evil against you falsely, for My sake. Rejoice and be exceeding glad: for great is your reward in heaven: for so persecuted they the prophets which were before you (v. 10-12). Count it all joy, my brethren, when ye fall into manifold temptations; knowing that the proof of your faith worketh patience (i. 2, 3).
  Take, brethren, for an example of suffering and of patience, the prophets who spake in the name of the Lord. Behold, we call them blessed which endured (v. 10, 11).
2. Ye therefore shall be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect (v. 48). And let patience have its perfect work, that ye may be perfect and entire, lacking in nothing (i. 4).
3. Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you: for every one that asketh receiveth (vii. 7, 8). But if any of you lacketh wisdom, let him ask of God, who giveth to all liberally and upbraideth not; and it shall be given him (i. 5).
311 4. Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven (v. 3. Comp. Luke vi. 20). Let the brother of low degree glory in his high estate (i. 9).
  Did not God choose them that are poor as to the world to be rich in faith, and heirs of the kingdom? (ii. 5).
5. Not every one that saith unto Me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of My Father which is in heaven.... And every one that heareth these words of Mine, and doeth them not, shall be likened unto a foolish man, which built his house upon the sand (vii. 21, 26). Be ye doers of the word, and not hearers only, deluding your own selves. For if any one is a hearer of the word, and not a doer, he is like unto a man beholding his natural face in a mirror (i. 22, 23).
6. Blessed are the merciful: for they shall obtain mercy (v. 7).
  If ye forgive not men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses (vi. 15).
  With what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged (vii. 2).
So speak ye, and so do, as men that are to be judged by a law of liberty. For judgment is without mercy to him that hath showed no mercy: mercy glorieth against judgment (ii. 12, 13).
7. Do men gather grapes of thorns, or figs of thistles? (vii. 16). Can a fig-tree, my brethren, yield olives, or a vine figs? (iii. 12).
8. No man can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to one, and despise the other. Ye cannot serve God and Mammon (vi. 24). Know ye not that the friendship of the world is enmity with God? Whosoever, therefore would be a friend of the world maketh himself an enemy of God (iv. 4).
9. Whosoever shall humble himself shall be exalted (xxiii. 12). Humble yourselves in the sight of the Lord, and He shall exalt you (iv. 10).
10. Be not therefore anxious for the morrow (vi. 34). Whereas ye know not what shall be on the morrow (iv. 14).
11. Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon the earth, where moth and rust doth consume (vi. 19). Your riches are corrupted, and your garments are moth-eaten. Your gold and your silver are rusted (v. 2, 3).
312 12. Swear not at all; neither by the heaven, for it is the throne of God; nor by the earth, for it is the footstool of His feet; nor by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. Neither shalt thou swear by thy head, for thou canst not make one hair white or black. But let your speech, be Yea, yea; Nay, nay: and whatsoever is more than these is of the evil one (v. 34-37). But above all things, my brethren, swear not, neither by the heaven, nor by the earth, nor by any other oath.

  But let your yea be yea, and your nay, nay; that ye fall not under judgment (v. 12).

These twelve parallels are by no means exhaustive, but they are among the most striking. The following are worthy of consideration, although those which have been quoted above are more than sufficient for our purpose:—

St. Matthew St. James
i. 19 v. 19
i. 20 v. 22
ii. 8 vii. 12
ii. 10, 11 v. 27
iii. 17, 18 v. 9
iv. 3 vii. 8

Let us now consider some coincidences between the language of St. James and our Lord's words as recorded by the other three Evangelists.

13. Whosoever shall say unto this mountain, Be thou taken up and cast into the sea; and shall not doubt (διακριθῇ) in his heart, but shall believe that what he saith cometh to pass; he shall have it (xi. 23). If any of you lacketh wisdom, let him ask of God, who giveth to all liberally and upbraideth not. But let him ask in faith, nothing doubting (διακρινόμενος): for he that doubteth etc. (i. 5, 6).
14. They shall deliver you up to councils; and in synagogues shall ye be beaten (xiii. 9). Do not the rich oppress you, and themselves drag you before the judgment-seats? (ii. 6).
15. Know ye that he is nigh, even at the doors (xiii. 29; Matt. xxiv. 33). Behold, the Judge standeth before the doors (v. 9).
313 16. Woe unto you, ye that laugh now! for ye shall mourn and weep (vi. 25). Let your laughter be turned to mourning, and your joy to heaviness (iv. 9).
17. Woe unto you that are rich for ye have received your consolation (vi. 24). Go to now, ye rich, weep and howl for your miseries that are coming upon you (v. 1).
18. If ye know these things, blessed are ye if ye do them (xiii. 17). Being not a hearer that forgetteth, but a doer that worketh, this man shall be blessed in his doing (i. 25).
19. If ye were of the world, the world would love its own: but because ye are not of the world, ... therefore the world hateth you (xv. 19. Comp. xvii. 14). Know ye not that the friendship of the world is enmity with God? Whosoever therefore would be a friend of the world maketh himself an enemy of God (iv. 4).

It will be observed that these reminiscences of the teaching of Christ are all of one kind. They are all of them concerned with the morality of the Gospel, with Christian conduct and Christian life. Not one of them is doctrinal, or gives instruction as to the Christian creed. This, again, is what we might expect if the brother of the Lord is the writer of the Epistle. At the time when he listened to his Divine Brother's teaching he did not believe on Him. The doctrinal part of His discourses was precisely that part which did not impress him; it seemed to him as the wild fancies of an enthusiast (Mark iii. 21). But the moral teaching of Jesus impressed many of those who rejected His claims to be the Messiah, and it is this element which St. James remembers.

Before concluding, let us return to the moral precept contained in the verse which we have been considering: "Above all things, my brethren, swear not." The prohibition has not ceased to be necessary, as our daily 314 experience proves. The vice of profane swearing (and all swearing about ordinary matters is profane) is a strange one. Where is the pleasure of it? Where, before it becomes a fashion or a habit, is the temptation to it? Where, in any case, is the sense of it? There is pleasure in gluttony, in drunkenness, in lust, in pride, in avarice, in revenge. But where is the pleasure in an oath? The sensualist, the hypocrite, the miser, and the murderer can at least plead strong temptation, can at least urge that they get something, however pitiful, in exchange for eternal loss. But what can the blasphemer plead? what does he get in exchange for his soul? In times of strong excitement it is no doubt a relief to the feelings to use strong language; but what is gained by making the strong language trebly culpable by adding blasphemy to it? Besides which, there is the sadly common case of those who use blasphemous words when there is no temptation to give vent to strong feeling in strong language, who habitually swear in cold blood. Let no one deceive himself with the paltry excuse that he cannot help it, or that there is no harm in it. A resolution to do something disagreeable every time an oath escaped one's lips would soon bring about a cure. And let those who profess to think that there is no harm in idle swearing ask themselves whether they expect to repeat that plea when they give an account for every idle word at the day of judgment (Matt. xii. 36).

« Prev Chapter XXV. The Prohibition of Swearing.--The… Next »

| Define | Popups: Login | Register | Prev Next | Help |