Above all, my brothers, do not swear, not by heaven or earth or by any other oath. Simply let your "Yes" be yes, and your "No," no, so that you will not fall under judgment.
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.
Swear not,I. Let us consider THE NATURE OF AN OATH, and what we do when we adventure to swear. It is an "assuming the name of our God," and applying it to our purpose, to countenance and confirm what we say. It is an invocation of God as a most faithful witness, concerning the truth of our words, or the sincerity of our meaning. It is an appeal to God as a most upright Judge, whether we do prevaricate in asserting what we do not believe true, or in promising what we are not firmly resolved to perform. It is a formal engagement of God to be the Avenger of our trespassing in violation of truth or faith. It is a "binding our souls" with a most strict and solemn obligation, to answer before God, and to undergo the issue of His judgment about what we affirm to undertake. Whence we may collect that swearing doth require great modesty and composedness of spirit, very serious consideration and solicitous care that we be net rude and saucy with God, "in taking up His name," and prostituting it to vile or mean uses; that we do not abuse or debase His authority, by citing it to aver falsehoods or impertinences; that we do not slight His venerable justice, by rashly provoking it against us; that we do not precipitantly throw our souls into most dangerous snares and intricacies.
II. We may consider THAT SWEARING, AGREEABLY TO ITS NATURE AND TENDENCY, IS REPRESENTED IN HOLY SCRIPTURE AS A SPECIAL PART OF RELIGIOUS WORSHIP; in the due performance of which we avow God for the Governor of the world, piously acknowledging His principal attributes and special prerogatives; it also intimates a pious trust and confidence in Him. If we do presume to offer this service, we should do it in the manner appointed by God Himself; the cause of it must be very needful or expedient, the design honest and useful; otherwise we desecrate swearing, and are guilty of profaning a most sacred ordinance,
III. We may consider THAT THE SWEARING PROHIBITED IS VERY NOXIOUS TO HUMAN SOCIETY. AS by the rare and reverent use of oaths their dignity is upheld, and their obligation kept fast; so by the frequent and negligent application of them, by the prostituting them to every mean and toyish purpose, their respect will be quite lost, their strength will be loosed, they will prove unserviceable to public use.
IV. Let us consider THAT RASH AND VAIN SWEARING IS VERY APT OFTEN" TO BRING THE PRACTISER OF IT INTO THAT MOST HORRIBLE SIN OF PERJURY. For "false swearing," as Philo saith, "naturally springeth out of much swearing"; and "he" saith St. , "that sweareth continually, both willingly and unwillingly, both ignorantly and knowingly, both in earnest and in sport, being often transported by anger and many other things, will frequently forswear. It is confessed and manifest, that it is necessary for him that sweareth much to be perjurious."
VI. Likewise THE USE OF RASH SWEARING WILL OFTEN ENGAGE A MAN IN UNDERTAKINGS VERY INCONVENIENT AND DETRIMENTAL TO HIMSELF.
VII. Let us consider THAT SWEARING IS A SIN OF ALL OTHERS PECULIARLY CLAMOROUS, AND PROVOCATIVE OF DIVINE JUDGMENT. God is hardly so much concerned, or in a manner constrained, to punish any other sin as this. He is bound in honour and interest to vindicate His name from the abuse, His authority from the contempt, His holy ordinance from the profanation, which it cloth infer.
VIII. Farther (passing over the special laws against it, the mischievous consequences of it, the sore punishments appointed to it), we may consider THAT TO COMMON SENSE VAIN SWEARING IS A VERY UNREASONABLE AND ILL-FAVOURED PRACTICE, GREATLY MISBECOMING ANY SOBER, WORTHY, OR HONEST PERSON"; but especially most absurd and incongruous to a Christian.
IX. THE PRACTICE OF SWEARING GREATLY DISPARAGES HIM THAT USES IT, AND DEROGATES FROM HIS CREDIT, INASMUCH AS IT SIGNIFIES THAT HE DOES NOT CONFIDE IN HIS OWN REPUTATION; by it he authorises others to distrust him; it renders what he says to be in reason suspicious, as discovering him to be void of conscience and discretion, etc.
X. TO EXCUSE THESE FAULTS THE SWEARER WILL DE FORCED TO CONFESS THAT HIS OATHS ARE NO MORE THAN WASTE AND INSIGNIFICANT WORDS; deprecating the being taken for serious, or to be understood that he means anything by them.
XI. But farther, ON HIGHER ACCOUNTS THIS IS A VERY UNCIVIL AND UNMANNERLY PRACTICE: some vain persons take it for a genteel and graceful accomplishment; but in truth there is no practice more crossing the genuine nature of gentility, or misbecoming persons well born and well bred.
XII. Moreover, the words of our Lord, when He forbad this practice, SUGGEST ANOTHER CONSIDERATION AGAINST IT DEDUCIBLE FROM THE CAUSES AND SOURCES OF IT.
XIII. Farther, THIS OFFENCE MAY BE AGGRAVATED BY CONSIDERING THAT IT HATH NO STRONG TEMPTATION ALLURING TO IT; that it gratifies no sense, yields no profit, procures no honour: the vain swearer has not the common plea of human infirmity to excuse him.
XIV. Let us consider that, as we ourselves with all our members and powers were chiefly designed and made to glorify our Maker, which is our greatest privilege, so OUR TONGUE AND SPEAKING FACULTY WERE GIVEN US TO DECLARE OUR ADMIRATION AND REVERENCE OF HIM, exhibit our love and gratitude towards Him, to profess our trust in Him, to celebrate His praises and avow His benefits: wherefore to apply this to any impious discourse, and to profane His holy name, is an unnatural abuse of it, and horrid ingratitude towards Him. Likewise a secondary and worthy use of speech is to promote the good of our neighbour, according to the precept of the apostle (Ephesians 4:29), but the practice of vain swearing serves to corrupt him, and instil into him a contempt of religion.
XV. Lastly, we should consider TWO THINGS; first, that our blessed Saviour, who did and suffered so much for us, and who said, "If ye love Me, keep My commandments," thus positively hath enjoined: "But I say unto you, swear not at all": secondly, we shall consider well the reason with which St. James enforces the point, and the sting in the close of the text; "but above all things, my brethren, swear not. lest ye fall into condemnation."
(L Barrow, D. D.)
(A. Plummer, D. D.)1. It has not been an uncommon thing for men to take vows in trouble, as if they would do them any good. They have promised if certain ends could be attained to pursue certain courses of life: and sometimes to give a supposed greater efficacy, they have bound themselves with oaths. The Hebrew Christians in the first century were peculiarly exposed to this. The evil of it lay in transferring their confidence from the grace and power of God to the vows they were making, and thus begetting in them a strong tendency to confidence in magic.
2. It may have been a warning to ""hem, not to swear when they were brought before Roman magistrates, or were in the company of Pagan persecutors, in order to show by such words that they were not Christians.
3. The injunction might have applied to the temptation there was among them to conspire together in sworn bands against their persecutors; as was frequently the case in their own age and has been ever since. James saw the futility of all seditious movements. He saw that it plunged his brethren only into deeper and deeper troubles; wherefore, he besought them not to seek such modes of relief, not to bind themselves to others, or others to themselves, in order to effect deliverance, but to put all in the hand of God.
4. But whether any or all of these considerations were in the mind of our author, it is quite certain that he pronounced a very emphatic denunciation against profanity. This is a sin against God and against one's self. It is a sin against God, because it deprives Him of the honour due to His name, and is in direct disobedience to His command. The sin is not mitigated by modifications of phraseology. In the next place, it is hurtful to any man to become an habitual swearer. It is an effectual bar to his ever being great. It is utterly impossible, whatever other gifts and opportunities be afforded, that a man shall ever reach the utmost possible greatness of humanity, who himself fails to have reverence for that which is great. Reverence is the spring of all aspiration, the foundation for all lofty upbuilding of character.
(C. F. Deems, D. D.)Matthew 12:36).
(A. Plummer, D. D.)
1. That our Lord answered when questioned as on oath by Caiaphas (Matthew 26:63, 64); and —
(Dean Plumptre.)Josephus, "Wars" 2:08, 85). They, however, with a somewhat strange inconsistency, bound the members of their own society by "tremendous oaths" of obedience and secrecy.
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