Matthew 5:33–37. Swearing. Cleaning Up Our Language.
Key Note: Swearing and cursing. Why swearing? Lies: 14 kinds. Good and bad talk in the Proverbs.
This passage challenges the common use of language. We have previously talked about words that demean others. (Matt.5:21–26). Now we take up speech that demeans God. Our speech is full of slang expressions that we use from habit and without thinking about their origins. When we are finished, we will have to reinvent our vocabularies. It is quite a prospect.
5:33 The OT forbids false swearing. Jesus says we should not swear at all. He rebukes those who swear by Heaven (God’s throne), by Earth (God’s footstool), by Jerusalem (City of the Great King—God) and even by our own heads (which God created and over which we have only nominal control.). The Jews were forbidden to say the Name of God, so they would swear by these lesser powers. Jesus said they were not to do that either (whether they understood the implications or not).
Swearing invokes the name of God to strengthen our speech. The words used may also be a substitute for God, like heaven or Jerusalem, rather than His Name as such.
Formal oaths invoking God were common in the early days of Israel’s life, especially in Genesis, and became increasingly rare in its later history.
Abram made an oath to the King of Sodom not to accept any of the spoils of war. (Gen.14:22–24). He later used an oath in a pact with the Canaanite king Abimelech. (Gen.21:23–4). Abraham took an oath from his servant that he would get a wife for his son from the land of their ancestors. Gen.24:3,9
Jacob and Laban made a pact at Mizpah (Gen.31:47–54) and Jacob swore “by the fear of his father Isaac.”
Jacob made a vow to God at Bethel. Gen.28:20–21
Ruth swore a promise to Naomi that she would never leave her. “The Lord do so to me and more also if ought but death part you and me.” Ruth 1:17; KJV
God cemented His relationship to the Patriarchs by His own Name. "By Myself I have sworn....” was God’s oath to Abraham after he had offered his son Isaac. (Gen.22:15–16) The oath was confirmed to Isaac. Gen.26:3
God made an oath in His covenant with David. Psa.89:3, 49
God’s oath confirmed Christ as priest after the order of Melchizedek. Psa.110:4
Jesus was compelled to assert his deity with an oath to the Sanhedrin. Matt.26:64
God makes an oath to us:
“So when God desired to show more convincingly to the heirs of the promise the unchangeable character of His purpose, He interposed with an oath, so that through two unchangeable things, in which it is impossible that God should prove false, we who have fled for refuge might have strong encouragement to seize the hope set before us.” Heb.6:17–18
So formal use of the oath is authenticated in Scripture and is a powerful device for marking spiritual milestones. There are Scriptural rules for making promises.
On swearing: “You shall not swear by my Name falsely and so profane the Name of your God. I am JHWH." Lev.19:11–12
On pledges: “When a man vows a vow to the Lord or swears an oath to bind himself by a pledge, he shall not break his word; he shall do according to all that proceeds out of his mouth." (Num.30:2)
On vows: “When you make a vow to the Lord your God, you shall not be slack to pay it, for the Lord your God will surely require it of you and it would be sin in you. But if you refrain from vowing, it shall be no sin in you." Deut. 23:21–22
In summary, swearing that profanes God’s name is sin.
We must keep our promises.
Vows made to the Lord are binding, but we are not compelled to make them..
Formal oaths are required for witnesses in court, and for induction of public officials.
A formal oath is part of the wedding vows. Otherwise oaths are forbidden.
We should not demand vows of young people to go the mission field or other spiritual ministry.
We need first to distinguish common cursing from swearing. Swearing is using God’s name in a disrespectful way. Cursing is praying evil on another person or thing.
Examples of curses:
God damn it.
To Hell with it.
May you have a kidney stone.
Get lost. Drop dead.
May you live in interesting times.
A plague on both your houses.
Examples of swearing:
For Christ’s sake!
I swear to God!
We have many examples of diminished oaths ( minced, made fine) in our language. These oaths are the kind Jesus refers to in this lesson. They are oaths taken lightly because they are based on trivia. Minced oaths may also take the name of God or Christ and change the expression to make it more socially acceptable.
Heavens to Betsy!
Why do people swear? Most of these expressions came into our vocabulary from our families and acquaintances when we are young. We think they are humorous and add spice to our conversation. They have no meaning to us and we are not usually aware of their original significance. The original intent of swearing, however, as we see from Scripture, is to add strength to our speech, to assure the other person that we mean to do what we say. If you calmly say “Yes, I’m coming.” they may not believe you , but if you say “I’ll be there, by crackie” they think you mean it. The Jews of Jesus’ day did not think much of their words either and evidently used derived oaths quite freely.
The hidden agenda of swearing is that we must reinforce our declaration with a swear-word in order to be believed. We are not believed because we do not have a reputation for honesty. Almost everybody exaggerates. Everybody tells white lies and speaks flatteries. In fact, there are whole classes of discourse in which it is very likely that the truth will be difficult to discern.
These are formal kinds of lying.
The Letter of Recommendation. It may not be false, but the negatives are omitted.
Diplomatic exchanges. “We made a treaty”...until we have time to reload.
Litigation. The job of the prosecutor is to get a conviction. The job of the defender is to get his client off.
Statistics. “We left out some points to make the curve look better.”
Talk to the seriously ill and dying, and children in general. "Everything will be all right."
Marriage vows: “I promise to love, honor and cherish…till death do us part.”
Advertising. “Bayer saves lives.”
False religions. “You are a part of God”.
Preparing the surprise party.
Lovers’ talk. “Till the end of time….” “How do you like my dress?”
The Political Speech. ”I will not raise taxes. “
The answer to “How are you?”
Family stories. “My grandfather always….”
The Placebo. “Take this pill. It will make you feel better.”
Yet there is a deep concern for the truth in our Country. Truth is a virtue. We have many sources of information and the truth can usually be discerned. We must be those whose word can be trusted. We must tell the truth.
If we cannot use offensive words against our opponents, and if we cannot use dirty (sexual or scatological) expressions, and if we cannot curse or swear, what is left of our speech? Some of our common words have sexual connotations (jazz, rock and roll) . The expletives are especially troublesome because they come up when we are caught unawares. How can we express great surprise or shock? I can’t even exclaim “My word!” How does the Bible say we should talk?
Can we, who are accustomed to abusing God’s name, learn instead to bless God and bless others? How can we please the Lord with our speech? What would that sound like?
“Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for edification as fits the occasion, that it may impart grace to those who hear.” (Eph.4:29)
“Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer everyone.” Col.4:6
GOOD TALK. BAD TALK. A LESSON FROM THE PROVERBS. (Text from NRSV.)
Talking is our favorite recreation. People would rather talk than eat. We do more talking than sleeping. This is a big topic and there is much information in the Proverbs. The verses are divided into categories.
THE POWER OF THE TONGUE.
"Death and life are in the power of the tongue, and those who love it (life) will eat its fruits." (Prov.18:21)
"A rebuke strikes deeper into a discerning person than a hundred blows into a fool." (Prov.17:10)
"Pleasant words are like a honeycomb, sweetness to the soul and health to the body. " (Prov.16:24)
"With patience a ruler may be persuaded, and a soft tongue can break bones." (Prov.25:15)
"If you faint in the day of adversity, your strength being small; if you hold back from rescuing those taken away to death, those who go staggering to the slaughter; if you say, “Look, we did not know this”— does not He who weighs the heart perceive it? Does not He who keeps watch over your soul know it? And will He not repay all according to their deeds?" (Prov.24:10–12)
THE WEAKNESS OF WORDS.
"In all toil there is profit, but mere talk leads only to poverty." (Prov.14:23)
"By mere words servants are not disciplined, for though they understand, they will not give heed." (Prov.29:19)
"Whoever flatters a neighbor is spreading a net for the neighbor’s feet." (Prov.29:5)
"A lying tongue hates its victims, and a flattering mouth works ruin." (Prov.26:28)
"Let another praise you, and not your own mouth — a stranger, and not your own lips." (Prov.27:2)
"A perverse person spreads strife, and a whisperer separates close friends." (Prov.16:28)
"The north wind produces rain, and a backbiting tongue, angry looks." (Prov.25:23)
"If you curse father or mother, your lamp will go out in utter darkness." (Prov.20:20)
"Do not say, 'I will do to others as they have done to me; I will pay them back for what they have done.'” (Prov.24:29)
"It is a snare for one to say rashly, 'It is holy,' and begin to reflect only after making a vow." (Prov.20:25)
"Whoever belittles another lacks sense, but an intelligent person remains silent." (Prov.11:12)
Usual commercial talk.
"It is bad; it is bad, says the buyer, but when he goes away, then he boasts." (Prov.20:14)
"One who gives an honest answer gives a kiss on the lips." (Prov.24:26)
"There is gold, and abundance of costly stones; but the lips informed by knowledge are a precious jewel." (Prov.20:15)
"Anxiety weighs down the human heart, but a good word cheers it up." (Prov.12:25)
"To make an apt answer is a joy to anyone, and a word in season, how good it is!" (Prov.15:23)
"A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in a setting of silver." (Prov.25:11)
"A soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger." (Prov.15:1)
"Pleasant words are like a honeycomb, sweetness to the soul and health to the body." (Prov.16:24)
"Better is open rebuke than hidden love (Prov.27:5)
"Whoever rebukes a person will afterward find more favor than one who flatters with the tongue." (Prov.28:23)
"The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge; fools despise wisdom and instruction." (Prov.1:7)
"No one who conceals transgressions will prosper, but one who confesses and forsakes them will obtain mercy." (Prov.28:13)
"Those who guard their mouths preserve their lives; those who open wide their lips come to ruin." (Prov.13:3)
"Every word of God proves true; He is a shield to those who take refuge in him. Do not add to His words, or else He will rebuke you, and you will be found a liar." (Prov.30:5–6)
" To watch over mouth and tongue is to keep out of trouble." (Prov.21:23)