Summary: Say what you mean, and mean what you say.
“YES” MEANS YES; “NO” MEANS NO!
“Above all, my brothers, do not swear, either by heaven or by earth or by any other oath, but let your ‘yes’ be yes and your ‘no’ be no, so that you may not fall under condemnation.”
“His word is his bond” was a common saying about people of integrity when I was a boy. When an individual so designated spoke, their word was not questioned. The bank loaned money to my dad so he could purchase his blacksmith shop solely on the strength of his word. That would not happen today. It is assumed that all mankind lies given opportunity. However, that should never be true for Christians.
An ad that is currently seen on television has a family questioning the price of entrees at a restaurant chain. The waitress cheerfully assures first the father, then the mother, daughter and son that the price of entrees is precisely as printed. However, the baby, seated in a high chair clears his throat and asks, “Can we get something in writing?”
Like children crossing their fingers and shouting “King’s ‘X’” at the critical moment, society today seems always to be looking for wiggle room on every promise. We are not surprised when warranties are not be honoured. We assume that a primary reason for lawyers is to find escape clauses for their clients to avoid responsibility, whether their clients have been haled before the courts on criminal matters or civil issues. Just because the representatives of a corporation has been placed under oath does not mean that the truth will be revealed. Even United States senators and congressmen—to say nothing of Canadian parliamentarians, addressing their colleagues, are known to distort their testimony and cast their actions in a favourable light to avoid embarrassing questions.
When a congregation of the Lord has given its word on an issue—whether to deny that it will act in a given manner or whether to promise certain action—those hearing that word should be able to rely on the congregation fulfilling its word. The promise of a congregation is nothing less than the collective word of the membership—and Christians should be people who keep their word. This is the heart of James’ admonition in the verse we are considering this day.
THE BIBLICAL BASIS FOR THE INSTRUCTION — It is not merely a device to fill time when we reach back into the Old Covenant to discover the foundation for the instruction James has given. After all, as was true for all pious Jews, the Old Covenant defined the Scriptures that James had available as one who sought God. This was the repository for moral instruction, and it is undoubtedly true that James was thinking of some of those passages that address such matters when he wrote. I have no doubt that he was thinking of the words of the Master, to which I shall appeal momentarily, but behind all that is written here is the teaching of the Old Testament.
Review some of the underpinnings for James’ position by looking at several passages in the Old Testament that were undoubtedly in his mind as he wrote this portion of the letter. Moses, under the inspiration of the Spirit of God, had written a strong admonition that touches on this very subject when He delivered the Ten Commandments. The third commandment warns, “You shall not take the name of the LORD your God in vain, for the LORD will not hold him guiltless who takes his name in vain” [EXODUS 20:7].
It is easy to imagine that this fourth commandment is proscribing cursing or the use of impious language. To be certain, there are numerous passages that condemn coarse language and/or irreverent speech; but really, the commandment speaks of a common tendency, both in Moses’ day and in this day. The commandment warns against treating God in a casual manner; it cautions against attempting to use Him through appeal to His Name as the means of verifying what is said. To misuse the Name of God is to call Him to witness.
Think of some of the ways in which the Name of God is vainly used in this day. Not only the ubiquitous “Oh, God,” but such oaths as “I swear to God,” “As God is my witness,” “I swear on a stack of Bibles,” or “May God strike me dead if I am lying” are all misuse of God’s Name. If not directly misappropriating the Name of the Lord, oaths may attempt to circumvent the direct appeal to God by appealing to that which is sacred and reserved for His purpose. To use an oath to attest to the veracity of a falsehood, or to take an oath as though you have a relationship to God when in fact you have nothing to do with Him, is profaning God’s Name, lowering His holy Name for personal reasons.