But above all things, my brothers, swear not, neither by heaven, neither by the earth, neither by any other oath…
The apostle has been exhorting to long-suffering under trials; and he now prohibits profanity. For impatience in the time of affliction may betray a man into speaking unadvisedly, and may even tempt him to take the Name of God in vain.
I. THE KIND OF SWEARING WHICH IS HERE PROHIBITED. We believe that James condemns only what is called profane swearing. He exhorts the brethren to abstain from hasty and frivolous oaths. Some commentators, indeed (as De Wette), some philosophers (as Bentham), some Fathers of the early Church (as Chrysostom and Augustine), and some Christian sects (as the Quakers), interpret this command, with that of our Lord in his Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:34-37), as an absolute condemnation of all kinds of swearing. The prevailing judgment of the Church, however, is that upon solemn occasions oaths may be not only lawful, but sometimes also dutiful. For what does an oath mean? It means, to call upon God to take notice of, and to ratify, some particular assertion. And Christian intelligence suggests that there can be nothing sinful in this, provided it be done only upon a solemn judicial occasion and in a reverent spirit. The words in the third commandment which are emphatic are evidently the words "in vain," it being assumed that there is a lawful use of the Divine Name. Passages are to be found in the Old Testament in which God enjoins upon his people the taking of solemn oaths (Deuteronomy 6:13; Deuteronomy 10:20; Jeremiah 12:16); and it was ordained in the Law given from Sinai, that persons accused of certain offences might clear themselves by an adjuration (Exodus 22:10, 11). Prophets and apostles often attested their inspired messages with an oath: e.g. Elijah (1 Kings 17:1), Micaiah (1 Kings 22:14), Paul (Galatians 1:20; 2 Corinthians 1:23). The Lord Jesus Christ, when put upon his oath by the high priest, accepted the adjuration, although he had before been silent (Matthew 26:63, 64). And, highest of all, Jehovah himself is represented as swearing (Psalm 110:4; Hebrews 6:13). When, therefore, Jesus and James say, "Swear not," they do not forbid solemn oaths, if used sparingly, upon appropriate occasions, and as an act of worship; but only such swearing as is passionate, purposeless, profane.
II. THE NEED THAT THERE IS FOR SUCH A PROHIBITION. Colloquial swearing was a clamant sin among the Hebrews, as it still is among the Orientals. The people generally were adepts in the use of profane expletives. Rabbinical casuistry had devised many subtle refinements with the view of permitting indulgence in the habit on all occasions (Matthew 23:16-22). The scribes taught that while it was sinful to swear expressly by the Divine Name, it was allowable to do so by heaven, by the earth, by the prophets, by Jerusalem, by the temple, by the altar, by the blood of Abel, by one's own head, etc. The extreme commonness of this sin of careless swearing led our Lord, once and again, to rebuke it, and to point out the evil lying under it; and the Apostle James here catches up his spirit, and echoes his words. But we in this country require the apostle's warning perhaps as much as the Christian Jews of "the Dispersion." The strong tendency of human nature to the use of profane language is a remarkable illustration of our depravity. How much profanity, there is in the popular literature of the day, even in that section of it which is considered "high class," and which is read by the cultured portion of the community! This objectionable element in many of our works of fiction is at once a symptom of much evil already existing, and a cause of more. How prevalent also is the sin of swearing in our public streets! It is distressing to overhear the most profane expressions coming sometimes from the lips of the merest children. And even persons who profess to fear God will allow themselves to use his Name - in some mutilated form, it may be - as a needless exclamation; or employ similarly the sacred word which expresses some Divine attribute; or swear by the dread realities of death and eternity. Christians ought to remember that all such forms of speech are an offence against the Majesty of heaven, and a grief to the heart of the Lord Jesus. In this region there should be a clear and wide separation between believers and unbelievers. Lips which use the first petition of the Lord's Prayer - "Hallowed be thy Name," ought never to speak of God and of Divine things except in a spirit of reverent worship.
III. THE EARNESTNESS OF THE PROHIBITION. We have considered the matter of the apostle's counsel; let us look now to his manner in giving it. He writes with burning earnestness. "But above all things, my brethren, swear not;" i.e. guard yourselves with peculiar care against the sin of profanity. We should exercise this special watchfulness for many reasons; amongst these, because:
1. Profane swearing is a great sin. It is utterly opposed to the Christian patience and long-suffering which the apostle has been inculcating. No man dare insult a fellow-creature as many men every day insult the Majesty on high. The great Jehovah should be contemplated with the profoundest reverence; but to swear is to insult him to his face.
2. This sin is very easily committed. Our corrupt nature is prone to it. The temptations which beset us are abundant. Both round oaths and minced oaths are to be heard everywhere. So, James says, "Let your yea be yea; and your nay, nay." The bare word of a Christian man should be enough. Even to say, "Upon my word," is to swear; such an asseveration is contrary to Christian simplicity. If one is strictly truthful, his simple "yes" or "no" will always be believed.
3. Swearing is a ruinous sin. James adds, "That ye fall not under judgment." A foul tongue is the index of a foul heart. Indeed, the two act and react upon one another. The profane man, therefore, is destroying his own soul. He who swears by hell in jest may well tremble lest he go to hell in earnest. The Lord our God will not suffer him to escape his righteous judgment (Deuteronomy 28:58, 59).
CONCLUSION. What need we have to offer the prayer of David - "Set a watch, O Lord, before my mouth; keep the door of my tips" (Psalm 141:3)! - C. J.
Parallel VersesKJV: But above all things, my brethren, swear not, neither by heaven, neither by the earth, neither by any other oath: but let your yea be yea; and your nay, nay; lest ye fall into condemnation.
WEB: But above all things, my brothers, don't swear, neither by heaven, nor by the earth, nor by any other oath; but let your "yes" be "yes," and your "no," "no;" so that you don't fall into hypocrisy.