The Promises of the Tongue

Let what you say be simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything more than this comes from evil” (v. 37).

- Matthew 5:33–37

Old Testament Wisdom literature, or the Poetical Books, has much to say about the use of the tongue, including the commendation of gentle speech (Prov. 15:4) and warnings about the smooth words of adulterers and adulteresses (5:3). In fact, some of the most pointed teaching in the Wisdom Books concerns a caution against hasty speech and not keeping the vows one has made (eccl. 5:1–7). Due to the importance of such instruction in the Old Testament Poetical Books, we are going to take a short break from our study of these works in order to look at the broader biblical teaching on oaths and vows, the solemn promises that we make before God and others. Dr. R.C. Sproul’s teaching series Oaths and Vows will guide our study.

The Christian community continues to struggle with the biblical teaching on oaths and vows. Many believers have read passages such as James 5:12—“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.” Upon a quick reading of this verse, it seems that James forbids oath-swearing and the making of vows under any and all circumstances. Some Christian theological traditions have read the verse in this way.

To come to that conclusion does not do justice to the rest of divine revelation. Other passages, such as Deuteronomy 10:20, command us to swear oaths in God’s name. James cannot be forbidding all oaths, for that would be a contradiction of the Lord’s Word, and an Apostle would never deny Old Testament teaching. What, then, is James talking about? We find the answer in Matthew 5:33–37, the saying of Jesus that is almost certainly the basis of James’ teaching. Our Lord warns us about making oaths in the name of created things, telling us to let our yes be yes and our no be no. The reason for this teaching is that many first-century Jews thought that while oaths made in God’s name were inviolable, oaths and vows sworn by something created by God were not absolute. The point of the Lord’s words about oaths and vows is to emphasize the importance of telling the truth and following through on our intentions. Making a promise by a created object in order to have an “out” should one break the vow does not honor the God who is truth Himself (John 14:6). The point of both Jesus and James is that it is better not to make a promise at all than to make a promise that one believes can be broken with impunity.

Coram Deo

Our Creator is concerned foremost with the intentions of our hearts, and He is not fooled when we make a promise in a way that might give us an “out” if we do not keep it. Thus, we must search our hearts carefully before we make a promise and then commit to doing only what we truly intend to do. We must also examine our schedules carefully and have realistic expectations of what we can accomplish, lest we find ourselves overcommitted and unable to keep our word.

Passages for Further Study

Psalm 94:8–11
Ecclesiastes 5:4–5
Matthew 5:17
Mark 7:20–23

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