James 5:12 (NKJV)12 But above all, my brethren, do not swear, either by heaven or by earth or with any other oath. But let your “Yes” be “Yes,” and your “No,” “No,” lest you fall into judgment.
The words of James in our text today are very similar to the words of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount. It seems that within Jewish culture at the time it had become fashionable to redefine the nature of truth telling and lies in order to avoid accountability.
The Ten Commandments had specified quite clearly that in the taking of oaths, one was not to take the name of God in vain. In other words, one was not to swear an oath in the name of the Lord and then lie. Why? Because God would not hold him guiltless that takes His name in vain. When we swear in the name of God to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth – God takes our oath seriously and holds us to it.
But God’s people had, as sinners, studied for years ways to avoid the thrust of God’s clear words and came up with all kinds of subterfuges by which they could avoid telling the truth. They argued that as long as they didn’t invoke the name of God explicitly then all was acceptable. We can swear by heaven, or by earth, or with some other oath based on some creaturely item and then later break our word. How so? Well, we haven’t explicitly invoked the name of God.
In our passage today, James, like Jesus, denounces such a practice in the strongest terms. He exhorts us to be men and women of our word – men and women who, when we say something, mean it and follow through with it. For what is the origin of added oaths? When Billy is sharing some outlandish tale about martians landing on the roof of the supermarket in Buffalo, New York and his buddy expresses skepticism, Billy has to reinforce his word. He has to get his buddy to believe. So what does he do? He swears an oath. “I swear, I’m telling the truth – cross my heart and hope to die.” In other words, the origin of frequent oath taking is a propensity for lying and stretching the truth. And this doesn’t just happen with martian stories. Why do you think we are so burdened with legalese in the writing of rental contracts, sale contracts, employment contracts, etc? Because we are not people of our word.
So James exhorts us – let your yes be yes and your no, no. Be a man or woman of your word. And beware; if you aren’t, James warns us – just as God did in the giving of the commandments – if you aren’t a man or woman of your word, God will judge you.
So how are we doing? Are we men and women of our word? Or have we too resorted to various means to avoid responsibility for our speech and our commitments? Do we make promises to friends and family and then fail to keep them? Do we make frequent excuses for failing to fulfill our obligations? Do we endeavor to avoid our responsibilities under contracts that we have signed or handshakes that we have exchanged? There was a day in our culture when one’s word meant something – what does your word mean?
The righteous man “swears to his own hurt and does not change” (Ps 15:4b). Reminded that we violate our promises, that our word means little, let us kneel and confess our sin to the Lord.