A Commentary by John Stott

Matthew 5: 33-37. A Christian’s righteousness: honesty in speech.

If the rabbis tended to be permissive in their attitude to divorce, they were permissive also in their teaching about oaths. It is another example of their devious treatment of Old Testament Scripture, in order to make it more amenable to obedience. We must look first at the Mosaic Law, then at the pharisaic distortion and finally at the true implication of the law on which Jesus insisted.

v.33. Again you have heard that it was said to the men of old, ‘you shall not swear falsely, but shall perform to the Lord what you have sworn’.

This is not an accurate quotation of any one law of Moses. At the same time, it is a not inaccurate summary of several Old Testament precepts which require people who make vows to keep them. And the vows in question are, strictly speaking, ‘oaths’ in which the speaker calls upon God to witness his vow and to punish him if he breaks it. Moses often seems to have emphasised the evil of false swearing and the duty of performing to the Lord one’s oaths. Here are a few examples:

‘You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain’ (Ex.20:7, the third commandment)

‘You shall not swear by my name falsely, and so profane the name of your God’ (Lv.19:12).

‘When a man vows a vow to the Lord, …he shall not break his word’ (Nu. 30:2).

‘When you make a vow to the Lord your God, you shall not be
slack to pay it’ (Dt.23:21)

Even a superficial reading of these commandments indicates plainly their intention. They prohibit false swearing or perjury, that is, making a vow and then breaking it.

But the casuistic Pharisees got to work on these awkward prohibitions and tried to restrict them. They shifted people’s attention away from the vow itself and the need to keep it to the formula used in making it. They argued that what the law was really prohibiting, was not taking the name of the Lord *in vain*, but taking *the name of the Lord* in vain. ‘False swearing’, they concluded, meant profanity (a profane use of the divine name), not perjury (a dishonest pledging of one’s word). So they developed elaborate rules for the taking of vows. They listed which formulae were permissible, and they added that only those formulae which included the divine name made the vow binding. One need not be so particular, they said, about keeping vows in which the divine name had not been used.

Jesus expressed his contempt for this kind of sophistry in one of his ‘woes’ against the Pharisees (‘blind guides’ he called them) which Matthew records later (23:16-22).

Our Lord’s teaching on the Sermon on the Mount is similar. The second part of the antithesis, in which he set his teaching over against that of the rabbis, reads as follows:

‘5:34 But I say to you do not swear at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, v.35. or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. v.36. And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. v.37. Let what you say be simply “yes” or “no”; anything more than this comes from evil.

He begins by arguing that the question of the formula used in making vows is a total irrelevance, and in particular that the Pharisees’ distinction between formulae which mentions God and those which do not is entirely artificial. However hard you try, Jesus said, you cannot avoid some reference to God, for the whole world is God’s world and you cannot eliminate him from any of it. If you vow by ‘heaven’, it is God’s throne; if by ‘earth’ it is his footstool; if by ‘Jerusalem’ it is his city, *the city of the great king*. If you swear by your head, it is indeed yours in the sense that it is nobody else’s, and yet it is God’s creation and under God’s control. You cannot even change the natural colour of a single hair, black in youth and white in old age.

So if the precise wording of the vow-formula is irrelevant, then a preoccupation with the formula was not the point of the law at all. Indeed, since anybody who makes a vow must keep it (whatever formula of attestation he uses), strictly speaking all formulae are superfluous. For the formula does not add to the solemnity of the vow. A vow is binding irrespective of its accompanying formula. That being so, the real implication of the law is that we must keep our promises and be people of our word. Then vows become unnecessary. *Do not swear at all* (34), but rather *let what you say be simply ‘yes’ or ‘no’* (37). As the apostle James was to put it later: *Let your yes be yes and your no be no* (Jas.5:12). And *anything more than this* Jesus added, *comes from evil*, either from the evil of our hearts and its fundamental deceit, or from the evil one whom Jesus described as ‘a liar and the father of lies’ (Jn.8:44). If divorce is due to human hard-heartedness, swearing is due to human untruthfulness. Both were permitted by the law; neither was commanded (Dt.23:22); neither should be necessary.

Tomorrow: Matthew 5: 33-37. A Christian’s righteousness: honesty in speech (continued).

The John Stott Bible Study is taken from The Message of the Sermon on the Mount. The Bible Speaks Today John Stott. Used by permission of Inter-Varsity Press UK, Nottingham. All rights reserved.