The relationship between suffering and swearing might seem obvious, but James does bring out some important thoughts about it.
But above all, my brethren, do not swear, either by heaven, or by earth or with any other oath. But let your ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes,” and your ‘No,’ ‘No,’ lest you fall into judgment. (James 5:12).
This verse presents some interesting questions to consider.
- Why did James write, “But above all…”?
- How does this section about swearing fit into the context of the previous verses?
- Are we allowed to take any oaths at all?
Let’s address these questions in reverse order.
Are we allowed to take oaths at all?
Without going into great detail, note that this corresponds with the teachings of Jesus in Matthew 5:33-37. In contrast, Matthew 26:63-64 shows that Jesus spoke “under oath” when He was questioned by Caiaphas. And, as the Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges indicates, “Paul at times used modes of expression which are essentially of the nature of an oath (2 Corinthians 1:23; Romans 1:9; Galatians 1:20; Philippians 1:8).” Note also that God Himself “swore by an oath” as indicated in Hebrews 6:17.
Obviously, Jesus and James condemned a specific kind of oath. By studying the context of Matthew 5:33-37 and Matthew 23:16-22, a Bible student will see that Jesus condemned the abuse of oaths. The Jewish leaders were experts at creating oaths that would seem binding, but they supplied loopholes in case the oath could not be kept. For example, a man might swear on the temple, but if he decided to break his oath, then he could simply admit that he swore by the temple, but not the GOLD of the temple. Thus they made a mockery of their oaths, and they took in vain an oath in the Lord’s name, which was strictly forbidden by Moses.
However, Jesus contradicted the common idea that we should keep our oaths to God. He said that instead we ought not to swear at all. Centering the discussion around oath-taking, the prohibition could refer to a habitual practice that creates opportunity for deception. Consider this, if you say something is true, it will not make the fact “more” true by swearing. And if the statement is false, you cannot make it true by swearing. The whole swearing ritual should not be a part of life because it is fruitless and easily abused.
People sometimes resort to oaths in order to ensure that they perform what they intend. They think that if they make a solemn oath, then that will bind them to their hopes and force them toward accomplishment.
That idea sounds very similar to the habit of New Year’s Resolutions. “Resolving” to run 200 miles in the next year and lose weight does not ensure accomplishment. It often has the reverse effect.
Just do what you say you will do and oaths will be meaningless. But to say is much easier than to do.
How does this section about swearing fit into the context of the previous verses?
At the root, this passage teaches integrity. According to Adam Clarke’s Commentary on the Bible, Rabbi Akiba taught, “A man might swear with his lips, and annul it in his heart; and then the oath was not binding.”
The Expositor’s Bible Dictionary also observed the relationship between oaths and suffering. Immediately following the prohibition in Matthew 5:33-37, Jesus discussed the way people of God react when mistreated (Matthew 5:38-42). Immediately prior to James writing about oaths, he wrote to instruct Christians how to respond when mistreated, and immediately after the “oath passage”, he instructed that people suffering should pray. Possibly coincidental, it should at least merit consideration. Is there a connection between how godly people react to evil-doers and the prohibition against oath-taking?
When mistreatment occurs, we tend toward rashness of behavior and speech. Creating an oath of retaliation would certainly qualify as a human response, but it is not a godly one. We are not to even speak evil of them, much less swear to their destruction. No. Instead, the godly path is displayed in the first half of the next verse.
Is anyone among you suffering? Let him pray (James 5:13a).
Let him pray.
That is our reaction to evil. Instead of retaliating, pray. Instead of grumbling about others, pray.
Why did James write, “But above all…”?
James commanded that people stop taking oaths. “Above all” must be taken in the context of reaction to mistreatment from others. The One who will guide you out of the situation is the last one you want to offend through rash oaths. Those who swear oaths and do not keep them are swearing by what is holy and doing so in vain. Instead of swearing oaths and taking vengeance, God wants us to go pray.
The fact that he said this was “above all” indicates the seriousness of what many people think nothing about. How often do we hear people take God’s name “in vain” in normal conversation? Even suggesting that vainly using God’s name is inappropriate will cause fits of confusion.
Be sure to carefully consider your words.
The beginning again
By telling us to pray when we suffer (James 5:13a), James masterfully brings the flow of ideas back to the starting line. Do you recall what he wrote about prayer in James 1:5?
If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives to all liberally and without reproach, and it will be given to him.
And do you remember James 1:2?
My brethren, consider joy when you fall into various trials.
(That’s my translation. If you would like to see more about that, try this link.)
When you face mistreatment from others, consider what will bring joy from the situation. Pray to God for the wisdom to find that way, and walk in it. That pathway includes carefully choosing your words.
How have you been reacting to evil in others?
See you tomorrow!