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Matthew 5:33-37 “Superior Righteousness, Part 4: Vows”

Again, you heard that it was said to the ancients, ‘You will not swear falsely’ also ‘You will repay of your oaths to the Lord.’ So I, even I say to you not to swear at all. Neither by heaven because it is God’s throne, nor by the earth because it is the footstool for His feet, nor toward Jerusalem because it is the city of the great King, nor shall you swear by your head because you are not able to make one hair white or black. So, let our word be ‘yes, yes’ ‘no, no’, so anything beyond this is from the evil one.

Worldly Righteousness Seeks Loopholes (v. 33)

Again, you heard that it was said to the ancients, ‘You will not swear falsely’ also ‘You will repay of your oaths to the Lord.’

Even though most English translations print this verse as if it is a verbatim quotation from a specific Old Testament passage, this is not the case. Try as one might, there cannot be found a correlating passage to the statement presented by Jesus. Part of the problem is that most translations present this as a single reference instead of two.[1] What we read here is not one, but two summarizations of several Old Testament references. The first clause (You will not swear falsely’) is a summation of Ex. 20:7 and Lev. 19:12 while the second clause (You will repay of your oaths to the Lord) combines Num. 30:2 and Deut. 23:21-23. That this is a summary is a necessary observation for two reasons. First, an analysis of the text will show that these statements have little in common as far as vocabulary is concerned. Second, it appears that Jesus contradicts this statement in His corrective formula (v. 34).

As a final note, it is not only necessary to point out that this verse is a summary of several Old Testament texts, but that it is more accurately a summary of what has been taught about these Old Testament texts. Once again, Jesus is not picking a fight with what the prophets have written. Rather, He is quite intentionally picking a fight with what the scribes and Pharisees have taught regarding what the prophets have written. Before continuing any further, we should understand the content of these texts before moving on to see what the scribes and Pharisees taught about them.

What the Scriptures Say

As already stated, the most relevant texts behind the first clause are Ex. 20:7 and Lev. 19:12 while the second clause seems to be a summary of Num. 30:2 and Deut. 23:21-23. We will take each of these texts in turn.

Exodus 20:7 – “You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain, for the Lord will not leave him unpunished who takes His name in vain.” (NASB). The third commandment defends Yhwh’s honor by prohibiting a “light” or “vain” use of His name. Anything that Yhwh’s name is attached to deserves the honor which that attachment implies. To use Yhwh’s name in an oath as a means of surety brings Yhwh down to the human level and is indeed a vain use of God’s most holy name.

Leviticus 19:12 – “You shall not swear falsely by My name, so as to profane the name of your God; I am the Lord.” (NASB). Here is one of many applications of the third commandment. If one were to intentionally lie while invoking the name of God (“Yhwh”), it would profane and make common what is intrinsically holy and set apart and above all else. This isn’t just about lying so much as this command assumes and exalts the holiness of Yhwh.

Numbers 30:2 – “If a man makes a vow to the Lord, or takes an oath to bind himself with a binding obligation, he shall not violate his word; he shall do according to all that proceeds out of his mouth.” (NASB). Here Yhwh is not brought in as a witness to an oath or invoked for surety but is the one to whom the vow or promise is being made. In such an instance, the one making the vow has indebted himself to Yhwh in this matter and is thus bound to do precisely as he said. The point here is that Yhwh ’s people are to be as Yhwh Himself. What Yhwh promises, Yhwh accomplishes. His people are to be as He is and either speak truth or keep silent.

Deuteronomy 23:21-23 – “21When you make a vow to the Lord your God, you shall not delay to pay it, for it would be sin in you, and the Lord your God will surely require it of you. 22However, if you refrain from vowing, it would not be sin in you. 23You shall be careful to perform what goes out from your lips, just as you have voluntarily vowed to the Lord your God, what you have promised.” (NASB). In many ways, this text reiterates what was stated in Num. 30:2, that man is obligated to keep his word. However, here we see that man is not obligated to make such a vow. If a man makes a vow, he must keep it. Yet, there is no reason why he must, for to refrain from vowing is not sinful. Perhaps it is best to simply keep one’s trap shut.

Examining these texts in their own context as well as a unit of reference bring several observations to the foreground. First, the biblical presentation of oaths and vowing is concerned with the holiness of Yhwh. While the third commandment pertains to much more than oaths and vowing, it is clearly the basis of thinking in Lev. 19:12. To lie in Yhwh’s name is to commit a high-handed and overt blasphemy.

Second, the truthfulness of Yhwh’s character is expected of His people. Truthfulness is not synonymous with honesty. Truthfulness extends beyond honesty (telling the truth, not lying) to include concepts like integrity, honor, and reliability. It is not just that Yhwh does not lie but that He can also be taken at His word. What He reports is accurate, but what He promises can also be counted on to come to pass. God’s people are not commanded to be truthful simply because it is a good thing, but because it reflects God’s perfection of truthfulness.

Finally, there is a contextual connection between this perfection of God’s truthfulness and the perfection of God’s faithfulness addressed in vv. 31-32. That Deut. 23:21-23 is referenced here is without a doubt, since the basis for Jesus’ correction (v. 34) is found in Deut. 23:22. It is interesting that just a few verses later (Deut. 24:1-4) we read the text that Jesus just referenced in v. 31. On the human level, the concept of faithfulness (being true to one’s spouse) is rooted in truthfulness (being true to one’s word). The same is true of God. The reason God can be expected to restore and redeem His bride is because He said that He would. In other words, just like divorce, this correction of errant teaching stems all the way back to the twisting of the 7th commandment and the desperate need for a New Covenant heart (vv. 27-30).

What the Disciples have Heard

The prophets taught that God is to be revered and treated as holy while His people become like Him through their speech and actions. The reverence for God was to begin internally among His people and become manifest through their lives and actions. The scribes and Pharisees, on the other hand, made the reverence for God a purely external box to check and so leave the internal rocky heart undisturbed in its sinful slumber. The contemporary take on swearing and oath taking was two-fold: (a) An oath/vow was not valid unless it was attached to God’s name (Yhwh) and (b) God’s name (Yhwh) is too holy to be uttered by the common people and so necessary and approved substitutes for the name must be supplied.

Already we can see how the emphasis has completely shifted from do not profane the holy name that is Yhwh to an oath isn’t any good unless it uses the holy name of Yhwh, or at least a reference to it. The pretense of piety that kept the actual name “Yhwh” off the lips of the people spurred on a total disregard for God’s holiness. Although not intentional, what came about was a culture that distinguished between valid and invalid oaths based only upon their formulation. If an oath was made by something close enough to God to be used in place of His name (His holiness, mercy, righteousness, omnipotence, etc.) then the oath was valid, and the swearer was obligated to fulfill his vow. But if the oath was made by something too distant from God to stand in place of His name (the heavens, the earth, the temple, Jerusalem[2], etc.) the vow was not necessarily binding and could be ignored with impunity.[3]

The commandment was given to reveal God’s holiness and provided the basis for His faithfulness and truth. That same commandment is the precedent for God’s people and their faithful and truthful interaction with each other. This law which revealed God’s character had been reduced to a simple legalistic equation which was used and abused to gain a license to lie.

Kingdom Righteousness Submits to God’s Sovereignty (vv. 34-37)

Upon first glance we note that Jesus’ correction does not take up much room. He delivers His correction in the span of half a verse (v. 34a) and yet is taken up with further explanation (vv. 34b-36) and even immediate application (v. 37). It is here that we begin to see just how far the implications of obedience reach. One small twist of emphasis from the holiness of God to the validity of oath taking makes waves that permeate the entirety of human conversation.

Jesus’ Correction: Don’t Usurp the Master’s Role (vv. 34-36)

With the fourth use of ἐγὼ δὲ λέγω ὑμῖν (so, I, even I say to you), Jesus again presents Himself as the source of divine revelation and thus in opposition to the phony interpreters of the Scriptures, those demonic scribes and Pharisees. He begins by clearly stating His correction of the contemporary practice of swearing and then clearly defines His reasoning.

Correction Stated (v. 34a): “So I, even I say to you not to swear at all.” – Jesus could not have further disrupted the cultural norm if He tried (in other words, He did try and did succeed). While the culture was shot through with various oaths and vows, Jesus states clearly and emphatically: don’t swear at all. He calls His disciples to completely disengage from the normal manner of conversation that relied on oaths to emphasize truthfulness. It is incorrect and shallow to consider Jesus’ words as altering the course of instruction given in the Old Testament. Moses himself wrote that to refrain from vowing is not sinful (Deut. 23:22). Even there one is caused to wonder if it would not be better to simply refrain from the practice all together. Even so, it is necessary to understand that what Jesus is calling for is a complete cessation of the present practice of that culture at that time. He refuses to allow His disciples to continue splitting hairs regarding which oath is valid and which is not based upon a subjective proximity to God’s name of whatever object is given as surety. This way of thinking and speaking is wrong, has always been wrong, and therefore must cease immediately.

Correction Defined (vv. 34b-36): “Neither by heaven because it is God’s throne, nor by the earth because it is the footstool for His feet, nor toward Jerusalem because it is the city of the great King, nor shall you swear by your head because you are not able to make one hair white or black” – Four examples are given using three lines of logic stemming from two Old Testament texts. These examples with Jesus’ explanations completely deconstruct the “righteousness” of the scribes and Pharisees.

The first two examples (heaven and the earth) represent those oaths that are considered invalid because neither the heavens nor the earth were considered close enough to God to be suitable substitutes for the divine name.[4] By referencing Is. 66:1 (“Thus says the Lord, ‘Heaven is My throne and the earth is My footstool. Where then is a house you could build for Me? And where is a place that I may rest?” – NASB) Jesus utterly demolishes that sort of reasoning. It is not that heaven and earth are too far removed from God to be of valid surety for an oath, it is that they are too close! To swear by God’s throne and footstool is to swear by Him. To drag God’s courtroom into one’s silly oath is to treat as light and insignificant the dignity and honor of God’s holy name and thus is certainly a violation of the third commandment. The scribes and Pharisees would not consider such an oath valid because it is not close enough to God. Jesus prohibits such an oath because it is too close to God and thus impugns His name.

The third example is interesting because it technically fits the requirements set by the rabbis for a valid oath. Of the four examples, only Jerusalem is modified by εἰς (into, unto, toward) instead of ἐν (in, with, by).[5] This change actually brings this example into the arena of what was considered valid by the contemporary rabbis. To swear by (ἐν) Jerusalem is not close enough to warrant a valid oath. But to swear toward (εἰς) Jerusalem, that is to face the city and swear unto it, was considered a valid substitute for God’s name. Why? Because this is the city where God chose for His name to dwell (Deut. 12:5, 11, 14, 18, 21, 26; 14:23, 25; 15:20; 16:2, 6, 7, 11, 15, 16; 17:8, 10; 18:6; 26:2; 30:11). To turn and face Jerusalem is to turn and face Yhwh and thus swear in His presence. Such logic thus made this oath valid in the eyes of the scribes and Pharisees. Yet even this Jesus prohibits. Why? Because Jerusalem is Yhwh’s and not Israel’s.

This is the city that belongs to the great King who is Yhwh. Jesus again turns to the Old Testament and quotes from Ps. 48:2, a psalm that makes clear that the great king to come and rule from Jerusalem is none other than Yhwh Himself. One cannot simply call Yhwh ’s city as surety for an oath as if he were calling Yhwh Himself in as witness. The scene is utterly ridiculous and begs the question of who is in charge of whom. Can mere man call upon God to validate his statements? Is man sovereign over God? To swear by either the heavens, the earth, or Jerusalem is a gross overreach on man’s part that profanes God’s name by not treating Him as holy.

The fourth and final example abandons the logic of what was and was not considered valid by the religious elite and continues the theme of sovereignty. If one is prohibited from swearing by heaven, earth, and Jerusalem because these areas fall under God’s domain, then surely one can swear by his own head. After all, a man’s head belongs to himself does it not? Yet possession is not synonymous with sovereignty. A man’s head belongs to him and yet he is unable to control said head. Can man turn back time to when his white hair was black and thus regain the vigor of youth? Can he turn time forward to turn his black hair white and thus gain the wisdom of age? A man can do nothing of the sort and is thus completely at God’s mercy who does have sovereignty over a man’s head. Thus, it is ridiculous for a man to swear even by his own head because he has no claim of sovereignty over it.

The issue here is a heart condition of submission and its outworking of truthfulness. In an effort to be taken seriously (either in earnest or in order to deceive) men regularly and habitually call upon God’s person, nature, and works to act as witness or stand as surety for their claims. Such claims are shockingly arrogant as they reach well outside of one’s sphere of sovereignty and make claims that are not theirs to make. Rather than demanding the Creator confirm the word of a creature, would it not be better for the creature to conform to the word of the Creator?

Jesus’ Application: Don’t Follow the Master of Lies (v. 37)

So, let our word be ‘yes, yes’ ‘no, no’, so anything beyond this is from the evil one.

Jesus’ application is therefore very simple. There is no need, and indeed no allowance, for anything beyond a simple statement. If one answers in the affirmative: “yes”. If one answers in the negative: “no”. To this nothing can be added except to repeat the statement: “yes, yes” or “no, no”. God’s faithfulness is predicated upon His truthfulness. Therefore, His people do not look for loopholes, excuses, or ways to exploit ambiguities. Rather, God’s people speak like Him because they are like Him. Any other way of speaking or living is not of God but of God’s enemy, the evil one.

The articular adjective τοῦ πονηροῦ (the evil one) is far less ambiguous than many think and refers specifically to Satan, the evil one. This is a naked indictment against the scribes and Pharisees. The whole discussion regarding valid vs. invalid oaths makes a mockery of God’s name, character, and creation. This is the work of Satan. To continue down this path is to follow the prince of darkness and the father of lies. That’s right. To follow the religious elite is to follow Satan. Therefore, a choice is presented even here. Will Jesus’ disciples continue to follow the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees (and Satan), or will they follow Jesus alone?

[1] The Greek conjunction δὲ (and/so/but/also) is not part of the summary but joins to summaries together.

[2] Apparently swearing by (ἐν) Jerusalem was not considered a valid oath and yet swearing toward (εἰς) Jerusalem was. D. A. Carson, Walter Wessel, and Mark Strauss, Matthew & Mark, Revised, vol. 9, 13 vols., The Expositor’s Bible Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Academic, 2010), p. 187.

[3] Hendriksen, p. 307-8.

[4] Quarles, Sermon on the Mount, p. 140.

[5] ἐν τῷ οὐρανῷ…ἐν τῇ γῇ…εἰς Ἱεροσόλυμα…ἐν τῇ κεφαλῇ.

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