Matthew 5:34
But I say to you, Swear not at all; neither by heaven; for it is God's throne:
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EXPOSITORY (ENGLISH BIBLE)
(34) Swear not at all.—Not a few interpreters, and even whole Christian communities, as e.g. the Society of Friends, see in these words, and in James 5:12, a formal prohibition of all oaths, either promissory or evidential, and look on the general practice of Christians, and the formal teaching of the Church of England in her Articles (Art. xxxix.), as simply an acquiescence in evil. The first impression made by the words is indeed so strongly in their favour that the scruples of such men ought to be dealt with (as English legislation has at last dealt with them) with great tenderness. Their conclusion is, however, it is believed, mistaken: (1) Because, were it true, then in this instance our Lord would be directly repealing part of the moral law given by Moses, instead of completing and expanding it, as in the case of the Sixth and Seventh Commandments. He would be destroying, not fulfilling. (2) Because our Lord himself answered, when He had before been silent, to a solemn formal adjuration (Matthew 26:63-64), and St. Paul repeatedly uses such forms of attestation (Romans 1:9; 1Corinthians 15:31; 2Corinthians 1:23; Galatians 1:20; Philippians 1:8). (3) Because the context shows that the sin which our Lord condemned was the light use of oaths in common speech, and with no real thought as to their meaning. Such oaths practically involved irreverence, and were therefore inconsistent with the fear of God. The real purpose of an oath is to intensify that fear by bringing the thought of God’s presence home to men at the very time they take them, and they are therefore rightly used when they attain that end. Practically, it must be admitted that the needless multiplication of oaths, both evidential and promissory, on trivial occasions, has tended, and still tends, to weaken awe and impair men’s reverence for truth, and we may rejoice when their number is diminished. In an ideal Christian society no oaths would be needed, for every word would be spoken as by those who knew that the Eternal Judge was hearing them.

(34-35) Neither by heaven; . . . nor by the earth; . . . neither by Jerusalem.—Other formulæ of oaths meet us in Matthew 23:16-22; James 5:12. It is not easy at first to understand the thought that underlies such modes of speech. When men swear by God, or the name of Jehovah, there is an implied appeal to the Supreme Ruler. We invoke Him (as in the English form, “So help me God”) to assist and bless us according to the measure of our truthfulness, or to punish us if we speak falsely. But to swear by a thing that has no power or life seems almost unintelligible, unless the thing invoked be regarded as endowed in idea with a mysterious holiness and a power to bless and curse. Once in use, it was natural that men under a system like that of Israel, or, we may add, of Christendom, should employ them as convenient symbols intensifying affirmation, and yet not involving the speaker in the guilt of perjury or in the profane utterance of the divine name. Our Lord deals with all such formulæ in the same way. If they have any force at all, it is because they imply a reference to the Eternal. Heaven is His throne, and earth is His footstool (the words are a citation from Isaiah 66:1), and Jerusalem is the city of the great King. To use them lightly is, therefore, to profane the holy name which they imply. Men do not guard themselves either against irreverence or perjury by such expedients.

5:33-37 There is no reason to consider that solemn oaths in a court of justice, or on other proper occasions, are wrong, provided they are taken with due reverence. But all oaths taken without necessity, or in common conversation, must be sinful, as well as all those expressions which are appeals to God, though persons think thereby to evade the guilt of swearing. The worse men are, the less they are bound by oaths; the better they are, the less there is need for them. Our Lord does not enjoin the precise terms wherein we are to affirm or deny, but such a constant regard to truth as would render oaths unnecessary.But I say unto you, Swear not at all - That is, in the manner which he proceeds to specify. Swear not in any of the common and profane ways customary at that time.

By heaven; for it is God's throne - To swear by that was, if it meant anything, to swear by Him that sitteth thereon, Matthew 23:22.

Nor by the earth; for it is his footstool - Swearing by that, therefore, is really swearing by God. Or perhaps it means:

1. that we have no right to pledge, or swear by, what belongs to God; and,

2. that oaths by inanimate objects are unmeaningful and wicked.

If they are real oaths, they are by a living Being, who has power to take vengeance. A footstool is that on which the feet rest when sitting. The term is applied to the earth to denote how lowly and humble an object it is when compared with God.

Jerusalem - See the notes at Matthew 2:1.

City of the Great King - That is, of God; called the Great King because he was the King of the Israelites, and Jerusalem was the capital of the nation, and the place where he was especially honored as king. Compare Psalm 46:4; Psalm 48:1-2; Psalm 87:3.

33. Again, ye have heard that it hath been said by them of old time, Thou shalt not forswear thyself—These are not the precise words of Ex 20:7; but they express all that it was currently understood to condemn, namely, false swearing (Le 19:12, &c.). This is plain from what follows.

But I say unto you, Swear not at all—That this was meant to condemn swearing of every kind and on every occasion—as the Society of Friends and some other ultra-moralists allege—is not for a moment to be thought. For even Jehovah is said once and again to have sworn by Himself; and our Lord certainly answered upon oath to a question put to Him by the high priest; and the apostle several times, and in the most solemn language, takes God to witness that he spoke and wrote the truth; and it is inconceivable that our Lord should here have quoted the precept about not forswearing ourselves, but performing to the Lord our oaths, only to give a precept of His own directly in the teeth of it. Evidently, it is swearing in common intercourse and on frivolous occasions that is here meant. Frivolous oaths were indeed severely condemned in the teaching of the times. But so narrow was the circle of them that a man might swear, says Lightfoot, a hundred thousand times and yet not be guilty of vain swearing. Hardly anything was regarded as an oath if only the name of God were not in it; just as among ourselves, as Trench well remarks, a certain lingering reverence for the name of God leads to cutting off portions of His name, or uttering sounds nearly resembling it, or substituting the name of some heathen deity, in profane exclamations or asseverations. Against all this our Lord now speaks decisively; teaching His audience that every oath carries an appeal to God, whether named or not.

neither by heaven; for it is God's throne—(quoting Isa 66:1);

See Poole on "Matthew 5:36". But I say unto you, swear not at all,.... Which must not be understood in the strictest sense, as though it was not lawful to take an oath upon any occasion, in an affair of moment, in a solemn serious manner, and in the name of God; which may be safely done: but of rash swearing, about trivial matters, and by the creatures; as appears by what follows,

neither by heaven; which is directly contrary to the Jewish canons (m), which say,

"they that swear "by heaven", and by earth, are free.''

Upon the words in Sol 2:7, "I adjure you", &c. it is asked (n),

"by what does she adjure them? R. Eliezer says, by the heavens, and by the earth; by the hosts, the host above, and the host below.''

So Philo the Jew says (o) that the most high and ancient cause need not to be immediately mentioned in swearing; but the "earth", the sun, the stars, "heaven", and the whole world. So R. Aben Ezra, and R. David Kimchi, explain Amos 4:2. "The Lord God hath sworn by his holiness"; that is, say they, "by heaven": which may be thought to justify them, in this form of swearing; though they did not look upon it as a binding oath, and therefore if broken they were not criminal (p).

"He that swears by heaven, and by the earth, and by the sun, and the like; though his intention is nothing less than to him that created them, this is no oath.''

The reason why it is forbidden by Christ to swear by heaven, is,

for it is God's throne; referring to Isaiah 66:1 where he sits, the glory of his majesty shines forth, and is itself glorious and excellent, and not to be mentioned in a vain way; and especially, for the reason Christ elsewhere gives, Matthew 23:22 that "he that shall swear by heaven, sweareth by the throne of God, and by him that sitteth thereon"; so that they doubly sinned, first, by openly swearing by that which is God's creature; and then, by tacitly bringing God into their rash and vain oaths.

(m) Misn. Shebuot, c. 4. sect. 13. (n) Shirhashirim Rabba, fol. 10. 4. (o) De Special. leg. p 770. (p) Maimon. Hilch. Shebuot, c. 12. sect. 3.

But I say unto you, Swear not at all; neither by heaven; for it is God's throne:
EXEGETICAL (ORIGINAL LANGUAGES)
Matthew 5:34-36. Μὴ ὀμόσαι ὅλως] to swear not at all (the adverb placed emphatically at the end, compare Matthew 2:10), dependent upon λέγω ὑμῖν (comp. Plat. Phaed. p. 59 E, Menex. 240 A), in which the command is implied (Jacobs, ad Anthol. X. p. 200; Kühner, ad Anab. v. 7. 34; Wunder, ad Soph. O. C. 837), interdicts all kinds of swearing in general;[415] not merely that of common life, which is at variance with reverence for God (Luther, Calvin, Calovius, Bengel, Fritzsche, Ewald, Tholuck, Harless, Hilgenfeld, Keim, and others), nor even merely oaths regarded “ex Judaeorum sensu” (thus Matthaei, doctrina Christi de jurejur. Hal. 1847). The simple prohibition,—given, however, to the disciples, and for the life of fellowship of true believers,—and in so far not less ideal than the requirements that have preceded, appears from the words themselves (comp. Jam 5:12), and also from Matthew 5:37. Christianity as it should be according to the will of Christ, should know no oath at all: τὸ μὴ ὀμνύειν ὅλως ἐπιτείνει μάλιστα τὴν εὐσέβειαν, Euth. Zigabenus. To the consciousness of the Christian, God should always be so vividly present, that, to him and others in the Christian community, his yea and nay are, in point of reliability, equivalent to an oath. His yea and nay are oath enough. Comp. on ὅλως, prorsus (= παντελῶς, Hesychius), Xen. Mem. i. 2. 35: προαγορεύομεν τοῖς νέοις ὅλως μὴ διαλέγεσθαι, Oecon. Matthew 20:20. Accordingly, it is only in the incomplete temporal condition of Christianity, as well as in the relation to the world in which it is placed, and to the existing relations of the department of public law, to which it conforms itself, that the oath has its necessary, indeed (comp. Hebrews 6:16), but conditional and temporary existence. Christ Himself has sworn (Matthew 26:63 f.); Paul has frequently sworn (Romans 1:9; 2 Corinthians 1:23; 2 Corinthians 11:3 f.; Galatians 2:20; Php 1:8); nay, God swears to His own people (Genesis 22:16; Genesis 26:3; Numbers 14:23; Isaiah 45:23; Luke 1:73; Acts 7:17; Hebrews 6:13). Therefore Anabaptists and Quakers are wrong in rejecting an oath without any exception, as was already done by Justin, Irenaeus, Clement, Origen, Chrysostom, Jerome, and other Fathers. The various but altogether arbitrary explanations of those who here recognise no absolute prohibition may be seen in Tholuck. The direct oath, by God, is not indeed expressly mentioned along with others in what follows; its prohibition, however, is implied, just as a matter of course, and entirely, first of all in the general μὴ ὀμόσαι ὅλως, as it is the reference to God which constitutes precisely the fundamental conception and nature of the oath, and, as in the doctrine here discussed, Matthew 5:33, the direct oath is contained not only in οὐκ ἐπιορκ., according to Leviticus 19:12, but also expressly in ἀποδώσεις τῷ κυρίῳ, etc. If Christ, therefore, had intended to forbid merely the oaths of common life, He would, instead of the altogether general statement, μὴ ὀμόσαι ὅλως, have made use of a form of expression excluding oaths to be taken in relation to the magistracy (probably by a παρεκτός, as in Matthew 5:32). It is true, indeed, that in the special prohibitions which follow, He mentions only indirect oaths,—consequently not those that are valid in a court of justice,—but just because the prohibition of the direct oath was already contained in μὴ ὀμός. ὅλως, first of all and before all other kinds of oaths; and His object now is simply to set forth that even indirect swearing fell under the general prohibition of swearing. And He sets this forth in such a way, that in so doing the prohibition of the direct oath forms the presupposition of His demonstration, as it could not otherwise be expected after μὴ ὀμόσαι ὅλως. What a scanty πλήρωσις of the law—and one altogether out of keeping with the ideal character of the points which preceded—would it have been had Jesus only intended to say: I forbid you “the wanton oaths of the streets, of the markets” (Keim), in all their forms!

μήτε ἐν τῷ οὐρ., κ.τ.λ.] not to swear in general, nor (specially) by heaven, nor by earth. See on μὴμήτε, Klotz, ad Devar. p. 709; Kühner, II. 2, p. 828 f.; Winer, p. 454 [E. T. 612]; also Baeumlein, Part. p. 222.

The kinds of swearing censured by Jesus were very common amongst the Jews; Philo, de Spec. Legg. p. 770 A; Lightfoot, l.c.; Meuschen, N. T. ex Talm. illustr. p. 58.

θρόνος θεοῦ and ὑποπόδιοναὐτοῦ] (Isaiah 66:1; Matthew 23:22).

τοῦ μεγ. βας.] of Jehovah (Psalm 48:2; Psalm 95:4; Job 13:18 ff.; therefore the holy city, Matthew 4:5).

μήτε[416] ἐν τῇ κεφαλῇ] Not merely the Jews (Berachoth, f. 3. 2; Lightfoot, Hor. p. 281), but also the heathen (Eur. Hel. 835), swore by their head. Dougtius, Anal. II. p. 7 f.; Wetstein on the passage. Comp. the exposition of Virg. Aen. ix. 300.

ὀμνύειν is by the Greek writers connected with κατά τινος, or with the accus. (Jam 5:12). Here, as in Matthew 23:16 ff., Jeremiah 5:7, Daniel 12:7, with ἐν (in harmony with the idea that the oath cleaves to the object appealed to, comp. on ὉΜΟΛΟΓΕῖΝ ἘΝ, Matthew 10:32), and with ΕἸς (directing the thought; comp. Plut. Oth. 18), after the Hebrew נִשְּׁבַּע ב׳.

ὅτι οὐ δύνασαι, κ.τ.λ.] for thou art not in a condition to make one single hair (if it is black) white or (if it is white) black. There is, of course, no allusion to the dyeing of hair. Wolf, Köcher, Kuinoel, and others incorrectly render it: thou canst not produce a single white or black hair. On such a signification, what means the mention of the colour? The meaning of the whole passage is: “Ye shall not swear by all these objects; for all such oaths are nothing less than the oath directly by God Himself, on account of the relation in which those objects stand to God.” In the creature by which thou swearest, its Creator and Lord is affected.

[415] Comp. West in the Stud. u. Krit. 1852, p. 221 ff.; Nitzsch, christl. Lehre, p. 393 ff.; Werner in the Stud. u. Krit. 1858, p. 711 ff.; Wuttke, Sittenl. II. § 277; Achelis in the Stud. u. Krit. 1867, p. 436 ff. Jerome had already remarked, with striking simplicity: “evangelica veritas non recipit juramentum cum omnis sermo fidelis pro jurejurando sit.” The emphatic ὅλως forbids, however, the limitation only to the forms of the oath that are afterwards mentioned (Althaus in d. Luther. Zeitschr. 1868, p. 504, and already Theophylact, 1), so that the oath by the name of God would remain unaffected; in like manner, the restriction of the prohibition to promissory oaths (Ficker in the same Zeitschr. 1870, p. 633 ff., and already Grotius).

[416] If μηδέ were here the reading (Fritzsche), then the meaning would be: not even by thy head; see Hartung, Partik. I. p. 196. But this reading is neither critically admissible—as it has only א** in its favour—nor exegetically necessary, since the series of negations is symmetrically continued with μήτε ἐν τ. κεφ. ς., which symmetry is not interrupted by ὀμόσῃς, because the latter does not stand before ἐν τῇ κεφ. ς. Matthew might have written μηδέ (comp. also Bornemann, ad Xen. Anab. iii. 2. 27; Ellendt, Lex. Soph. II. p. 123), but he was not obliged to do so.Matthew 5:34. ὅλως: emphatic = παντελῶς, don’t swear at all. Again an unqualified statement, to be taken not in the letter as a new law, but in the spirit as inculcating such a love of truth that so far as we are concerned there shall be no need of oaths. In civil life the most truthful man has to take an oath because of the untruth and consequent distrust prevailing in the world, and in doing so he does not sin against Christ’s teaching. Christ Himself took an oath before the High Priest (Matthew 26:63). What follows (Matthew 5:34-36) is directed against the casuistry which laid stress on the words τῷ κυρίῳ, and evaded obligation by taking oaths in which the divine name was not mentioned: by heaven, earth, Jerusalem, or by one’s own head. Jesus points out that all such oaths involved a reference to God. This is sufficiently obvious in the case of the first three, not so clear in case of the fourth.—λευκὴν ἢ μέλαιναν: white is the colour of old age, black of youth. We cannot alter the colour of our hair so as to make our head look young or old. A fortiori we cannot bring on our head any curse by perjury, of which hair suddenly whitened might be the symbol. Providence alone can blast our life. The oath by the head is a direct appeal to God. All these oaths are binding, therefore, says Jesus; but what I most wish to impress on you is: do not swear at all. Observe the use of μήτε (not μηδέ) to connect these different evasive oaths as forming a homogeneous group. Winer, sect. Leviticus 6, endorses the view of Herrmann in Viger that οὔτε and μήτε are adjunctival, οὐδέ and μηδέ disjunctival, and says that the latter add negation to negation, while the former divide a single negation into parts. Jesus first thinks of these evasive oaths as a bad class, then specifies them one after the other. Away with them one and all, and let your word be ναὶ ναί, οὒ οὔ. That is, if you want to give assurance, let it not be by an oath, but by simple repetition of your yes and no. Grotius interprets: let your yea or nay in word be a yea or nay in deed, be as good as your word even unsupported by an oath. This brings the version of Christ’s saying in Mt. into closer correspondence with Jam 5:12ἤτω τὸ Ναί ναὶ, καὶ τὸ Οὔ οὔ. Beza, with whom Achelis (Bergpredigt) agrees, renders, “Let your affirmative discourse be a simple yea, and your negative, nay”.—τὸ δὲ περισσὸν, the surplus, what goes beyond these simple words.—ἐκ τοῦ πονηροῦ, hardly “from the evil one,” though many ancient and modern interpreters, including Meyer, have so understood it. Meyer says the neuter “of evil” gives a very insipid meaning. I think, however, that Christ expresses Himself mildly out of respect for the necessity of oaths in a world full of falsehood. I know, He means to say, that in certain circumstances something beyond yea and nay will be required of you. But it comes of evil, the evil of untruthfulness. See that the evil be not in you. Chrysostom (Hom. xvii.) asks: How evil, if it be God’s law? and answers: Because the law was good in its season. God acted like a nurse who gives the breast to an infant and afterwards laughs at it when it wants it after weaning.34. Swear not at all] The prohibition must be understood of rash and careless oaths in conversation, not of solemn asseveration in Courts of Justice.

for it is God’s throne] Such was the prevalent hypocrisy that the Jews of the day thought that they escaped the sin of perjury if in their oaths they avoided using the name of God. One of the Rabbinical sayings was “As heaven and earth shall pass away, so passeth away the oath taken by them.” Our Lord shows that a false oath taken by heaven, by earth, or by Jerusalem is none the less a profanation of God’s name.

Hypocrisy reproduces itself. Louis XI. “admitted to one or two peculiar forms of oath the force of a binding obligation which he denied to all others, strictly preserving the secret, which mode of swearing he really accounted obligatory, as one of the most valuable of state mysteries.” Introd. to Quentin Durward.Matthew 5:34. Μὴ ὀμόσαι ὅλως, not to swear at all) The ὅλως, at all, extends this prohibition to swearing truly as well as falsely: it does not, however, universally prohibit all true swearing. The right employment of oaths is not only like divorce permitted but clearly established by the law, nor is it here abolished by Christ; see Matthew 5:17. But the abuse of oaths was extremely frequent with the Jews of that age, to the destruction of their legitimate use, as is clear from the forms of swearing cited in this passage; nor did they think him guilty of perjury who called only creatures to witness in his oath, however falsely he might swear. See Samuel Petit,[214] Variae Lectiones, ch. 16. The following decree of the Jews is to be found in Elle Schemoth Rabba,[215] section 44, As heaven and earth shall pass away, so shall the oath pass away which calls them to witness. There is clearly, however, a prohibition, whilst the prevalent[216] abuse of oaths is forbidden, and their true use restored. Many of the ancient Christians received this command simply and literally, and so much the more readily declined the heathen oaths which they were commanded to take. See however, Revelation 10:6; Jeremiah 23:8; Isaiah 45:23, the last of which passages refers to Christian times. On the contrary, there is now-a-days a great danger lest a very small proportion of the number that are made be true, and of the true a very small proportion necessary, and of those that are necessary a very small proportion free, fruitful, holy, and joyful. Many are employed for show, for calumny, for silencing just suspicions.—ἐν, by) That which is sworn by is offered in pledge: it should therefore be in the power of him who swears. He who swears wrongly (Matthew 5:34; Matthew 5:36) is guilty of sacrilege. Therefore, in this sense a man ought not to swear by God, because, in case of his swearing falsely, he pledges himself to renounce God. This, however, it is not in his power to do. But we must swear in that manner which is sanctioned in the Divine law itself, so that our oath should be an invocation of the Divine name. Even the customary formula, So help me God, is not to be taken in the former but in the latter sense, so that the emphasis should fall upon the word GOD. This interpretation is at any rate favourable to him who swears, and makes the matter rather easier.—τῷ οὐρανῷ, by heaven) How much greater is their sin who swear by God Himself!—θρόνος, throne) How great is the majesty of God! God is not enclosed by heaven, but His glory is especially manifested there.

[214] A celebrated scholar, born at Nîsmes in 1594, studied at Geneva, raised at an early age to the Professorship of Theology and of Greek and Hebrew in that city. Died 1645. A man of vast and profound erudition.—(I. B.)

[215] i.e. “Mystical Commentary on Exodus,” a rabbinical work in high estimation among the Jews.—(I. B.)

[216] “Grassatus,” a word used of a fiercely raging epidemic—(I. B.)Verse 34. - Swear not at all (cf. James 5:12). Yet, as St. Augustine points out, St. Paul took oaths in his writings (2 Corinthians 1:23; 2 Corinthians 11:31); and our Lord himself did not refuse to answer when put upon his oath (Matthew 26:63, 64). He, that is to say, and St. Paul after him, accepted the fact that there are times when a solemn oath must be taken. How, then, can we explain this absolute prohibition here? In that our Lord is not here thinking at all of formal and solemn oaths, but of oaths as the outcome of impatience and exaggeration. The thoughtlessness of fervent asseveration is often betrayed into an oath. Such an oath, or even any asseveration that passes in spirit beyond "yea, yea," "nay, nay," has its origin ἐκ τοῦ πονηροῦ; cf. Chaucer, "Sweryng sodeynly without avysement is eek a gret synne" ('Parson's Tale,' § 'De Ira'). Martensen, however ('Ethics, Individual,' § 100), takes the prohibition of oaths as formally unconditional and total, in accordance with the highest ideal of what man will hereafter be and require, and he sees the limitation, which he allows is to be given to these words, in the present conditions of human society. We have an ideal duty towards God, but we have also a practical duty to those among whom we live, and the present state of human affairs permits and necessitates oaths. Hence it was that even Christ submitted to them. Neither by heaven, etc. Our Lord further defines what he means by an oath. It does not mean only an expression in which God's Name is mentioned, but any expression appealing to any object at all, whether this be supraterrestrial, terrestrial, national, or personal. Although God's Name is often omitted in such cases, from a feeling of reverence, its omission does not prevent the asseveration being an oath. Heaven; Revised Version, the heaven; for the thought is clearly not the immaterial transcendental heaven, the abode of bliss, but the physical heaven (cf. Matthew 6:26, Revised Version). Heaven... footstool. Adapted from Isaiah 66:1, where it forms part of the glorious declaration that no material temple can contain God, that "the Most High dwelleth not in temples made with hands" as St. Stephen paraphrases it (Acts 7:48). The great King is seated enthroned in the heaven, with his feet touching the earth.
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