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34. Swear not at all Many have been led by the phrase, not at all, to adopt the false notion, that every kind of swearing is condemned by Christ. Some good men have been driven to this extreme rigor by observing the unbridled licentiousness of swearing, which prevailed in the world. The Anabaptists, too, have blustered a great deal, on the ground, that Christ appears to give no liberty to swear on any occasion, because he commands, Swear not at all But we need not go beyond the immediate context to obtain the exposition: for he immediately adds, neither by heaven, nor by the earth Who does not see that those kinds of swearing were added by way of exposition, to explain the former clause more fully by specifying a number of cases? The Jews had circuitous or indirect ways of swearing: and when they swore by heaven, or by earth, or by the altar, (Matthew 23:18,) they reckoned it to be next to nothing; and, as one vice springs from another, they defended, under this pretense, any profanation of the name of God that was not openly avowed.
To meet this crime, our Lord declares that they must not swear at all, either in this or that way, either by heaven, or by the earth Hence we conclude, that the particle, at all, relates not to the substance, but to the form, and means, “neither directly nor indirectly.” It would otherwise have been superfluous to enumerate those kinds: and therefore the Anabaptists betray not only a rage for controversy, but gross ignorance, when they obstinately press upon us a single word, and pass over, with closed eyes, the whole scope of the passage. Is it objected, that Christ permits no swearing? I reply: What the expounder of the law says, must be viewed in connection with its design. His statement amounts to this, that there are other ways of “taking the name of God in vain,” besides perjury; and, therefore, that we ought to refrain from allowing ourselves the liberty of unnecessary swearing: for, when there are just reasons to demand it, the law not only permits, but expressly commands us to swear. Christ, therefore, meant nothing more than this, that all oaths are unlawful, which in any way abuse and profane the sacred name of God, for which they ought to have had the effect of producing a deeper reverence.
Neither by heaven It is a mistake to explain these words as meaning, that such forms of swearing are condemned by Christ as faulty, on the ground that we ought to swear by God only. The reasons which he brings forward tend rather to the opposite view, that we swear by the name of God even when we name the heaven, and the earth: because there is no part of the world on which God has not engraved the marks of his glory. But this statement appears not to agree with the precept of the law, in which God expressly commands us to “swear by his name,” (Deuteronomy 6:13;) and likewise with so many passages of Scripture, in which he complains, that injury is done to him, if we swear by creatures. I reply: It is a corruption allied to idolatry, when we appeal to them either as having a right to judge, or authority to prove testimony: for we must look at the object of swearing. It is an appeal which men make to God to revenge falsehood, and to uphold truth. This honor cannot be transferred to another, without committing an outrage on the divine majesty.
For the same reason the Apostle says, that we do not swear in a right manner, unless we swear by the greater, and that it belongs to God alone to swear by himself, (Hebrews 6:13.) Thus any one who, in ancient times, swore by “Moloch,” (Leviticus 18:21,) or by any other idol, withdrew something of what belonged to God; because they put that idol in the place of God, as possessing an acquaintance with the hearts, and as the judge of the souls of men. And in our own times, those who swear by angels, or by departed saints, take from God what belongs to him, and ascribe to them a divine majesty. The case is different, when men swear by heaven and earth, with a view to the Creator himself: for, in that case, the sanctity of the oath is not founded on creatures, but God alone is appealed to as a witness, by bringing forward the symbols of his glory.
Heaven is called in Scripture (Isaiah 66:1) the throne of God: not that he dwells in heaven alone, but to teach men to raise their minds upwards, whenever they think of him, and not to form any low or earthly conceptions of him. Again, the earth is called his footstool, (v. 35,) to inform us, that he fills all things, and that no extent of space can contain him. The holiness of Jerusalem (v. 35) depended on his promise. It was the holy city, (Isaiah 52:1:) because God had selected it to be the seat and residence of his empire. When men swear by their head, (v. 36,) they bring forward their life, which is a remarkable gift of God, as a pledge of their sincerity.