The Sanctity of Vows

Whoever swears by the temple swears by it and by him who dwells in it. And whoever swears by heaven swears by the throne of God and by him who sits upon it” (vv. 21–22).  

- Matthew 23:16–22

Jesus declares seven woes upon the scribes and Pharisees in Matthew 23:13–36, which is a significant number. Scripture often uses the number seven to denote completeness. For example, God rested on the seventh day when He had finished creating the heavens and the earth (Gen. 2:1–3). Considering the association of wholeness with the number seven, Christ’s use of seven woes to denounce scribal and Pharisaic transgressions likely indicates the thoroughgoing wickedness of many people in these groups.

Today’s passage gives us the third woe Jesus uttered against the scribes and Pharisees (Matt. 23:16–22), the content of which He previously delivered in the Sermon on the Mount (5:33–37), albeit in a different form. As a background to our study, remember that our Creator instituted oaths and vows to safeguard the sanctity of truth (Num. 30). Lying is second nature to fallen people, and the use of oaths and vows to call God as a witness when we make a promise is designed to make us more likely to keep it. Knowing that the Almighty has confirmed the oath should motivate us to fulfill it lest we incur His displeasure.

During the first century, as in our own day, oaths and vows were open to abuse by people who entered into commitments frivolously. The Pharisees and their successors, the Jewish rabbis of the first few centuries AD, addressed this problem by differentiating binding oaths from those that could be broken with impunity. This only made matters worse. If people had to make a promise that they did not want to keep, they could swear by the temple or the altar and not be held accountable if the oath was never fulfilled (Matt. 23:16–19). 

Jesus condemned these Pharisees for explicitly sanctioning such practices. Their casuistry (the intent to get around the Law) could not work because vows made by the altar and temple are ultimately made by the one who sanctifies the altar and temple. Indeed, such oaths are made in the name of the one who has created all things (Matt. 23:20–22). God is the ultimate witness to every oath we swear (Heb. 4:13), no matter its form, and a mere change in formula will not enable us to escape His chastisement should we fail to keep our promises.

Coram Deo

John MacArthur comments that “swearing by those things [temple, altar, and so on] is tantamount to swearing by God Himself” (The MacArthur Bible Commentary, p. 1,169). Any godly commitment we make must be honored, for the Lord prizes truth and fidelity. If you tend not to follow through on your promises, consider whether you are making more of them than you can keep. Pledge to do only those things you know you have time to fulfill.

Passages for Further Study

Leviticus 19:11–12
Proverbs 20:25
Ecclesiastes 5:1–7
James 5:12

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