To Take An Oath . . . Or Not

Psalm 119:106 – “I have taken an oath and confirmed it, that I will follow your righteous laws.”

What would it take to get you to do what David did in Psalm 119:106? Before you answer that, let me tell you about the biblical oath. In an article in Christianity Today Magazine, dated February 23, 2007, Ted Olson, writing about Minnesota U.S. Representative, Keith Ellison’s taking his oath of office by placing his hand on the Koran, talked about biblical oaths.

Check out what Olson writes about oaths:

“There are different kinds of vows and oaths in Scripture, but many passages suggest they’re all dangerous. In the most troubling example, Jephthah, in exchange for a military victory, swore to sacrifice the first thing that walked out his door, and it turned out to be his daughter (Judges 11). Both he and his only child knew there was no alternative. “If a man vows a vow to the Lord, or swears an oath to bind himself by a pledge,” God had commanded, “he shall not break his word” (Num. 30:2).

The Qur’an, by contrast, assures readers that “God does not take you [to task] for what is thoughtless in your oaths” (5:89). Help the poor or fast, and you’re expiated.

The scribes and Pharisees in Jesus’ day adopted rules in an apparent effort to protect the faithful from rash promises: Oaths “by the temple” weren’t binding, for example, but more specific oaths “by the gold of the temple” were (Matt. 23:16ff). Jesus condemned such game-playing and issued a far more expansive rule: “Do not take an oath at all. … Let what you say be simply yes or no” (Matt. 5:33-37). In this, he echoed the Law of Moses: “If you refrain from vowing, you will not be guilty of sin” (Deut. 23:22).

Irenaeus, Tertullian, and other early church leaders considered Jesus’ command to be a ban on all oaths, while others like Augustine concluded that Jesus was using hyperbole to condemn abuses. After all, Augustine noted, even Paul took oaths (e.g., Gal. 1:20). Luther, Calvin, and other Reformers sided with Augustine, approving of civil oaths that didn’t abuse or profane the name of God.

Which leads us back to those oaths of office. A week after Ellison and his Congressional colleagues took their oaths, Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez began his third presidential term by promising to nationalize the economy and expand socialism. “I swear by Christ, the greatest socialist in history,” he declared.

Does his oath constitute profanity?

Does Congress’s oath?

Ellison didn’t actually take the oath of office on the Qur’an after all. And others didn’t use the Bible. Those photos of members of Congress with their hands on the Bible are actually staged reenactments. The House of Representatives takes its oath of office in unison, without holy books at all. So do those photos bear false witness? Maybe.

We could parse Scripture to codify hard rules for oaths, but then we’re right back to being confronted by Jesus.

Maybe we’re supposed to be less interested in oaths than in becoming a community of truth-tellers. As Philo said, the more emphasis one puts on swearing, the more “the swearer shows that there is some suspicion of his not being trustworthy.”

So, oaths are serious business. David’s oath to follow God’s righteous laws revealed that he was so serious about being one who walked in the ways of God. David knew the consequences of making an oath and not keeping it. Maybe that’s why God called him a man after his own heart. God wants us to commit to living holy lives. David’s oath is not prescriptive for Christians. In fact, I agree that Jesus would rather us not make the oath, but commit to being a truth teller. May God fill us all with a passion for following Him, no matter the cost!

Dear God,

Help us to be people of our words. Let us be men and women whose yes is yes and no is no. Help us to be people who live our lives as people after your own heart.

In Jesus’ name,

Amen.