A solemn affirmation accompanied by an appeal to the Supreme Being. God has prohibited all false oaths, and all useless and customary swearing in ordinary discourse; but when the necessity or importance of a matter requires an oath, he allows men to swear by his name, Ex 22:11; Le 5:1. To swear by a false god was an act of idolatry, Jer 5:7; 12:16.
Among the Hebrews an oath was administered by the judge, who stood up, and adjured the party who was to be sworn. In this manner our Lord was adjured by Caiaphas, Mt 26:63. Jesus had remained silent under long examination, when the high priest, rising up, knowing he had a sure mode of obtaining an answer said, "I adjure thee by the living God, that thou tell us whether thou be the Christ." To this oath, thus solemnly administered, Jesus replied that he was indeed the Messiah.
An oath is a solemn appeal to God, as to an all-seeing witness that what we say is true, and an almighty avenger if what we say be false, Heb 6:16. Its force depends upon our conviction of the infinite justice of God; that he will not hold those guiltless who take his name in vain; and that the loss of his favor immeasurable outweighs all that could be gained by false witness. It is an act of religious worship; on which account God requires it to be taken in his name, De 10:20, and points out the manner in which it ought to be administered, and the duty of the person who swears, Ex 22:11; De 6:18; Ps 15:4; 24:4. Hence atheists, who profess to believe that there is no God, and persons who do not believe in a future state of reward and punishment, cannot consistently take an oath. In their mouths an oath can be only profane mockery.
God himself is represented as confirming his promise by oath, and thus conforming to what is practiced among men, Heb 6:13,16-17. The oaths forbidden in Mt 5:34-35; Jas 5:12, must refer to the unthinking, hasty, and vicious practices of the Jews; otherwise Paul would have acted against the command of Christ, Ro 1:9; Ga 1:20; 2Co 1:23. That person is obliged to take an oath whose duty requires him to declare the truth in the most solemn and judicial manner; though undoubtedly oaths are too often administered unnecessarily and irreverently, and taken with but slight consciousness of the responsibility thus assumed. As we are bound to manifest every possible degree of reverence towards God, the greatest care is to be taken that we swear neither rashly nor negligently in making promises. To neglect performance is perjury, unless the promise be contrary to the law of nature and of God; in which case no oath is binding. See CORBAN, and VOWS.
A customary formula of taking an oath was "The Lord do so to me, and more also;" that is, the lord slay me, as the victim sacrificed on many such occasions was slain, and punish me even more than this, if I speak not the truth, Ru 1:17; 1Sa 3:17. Similar phrases are these: "As the Lord liveth," Jg 8:19 "Before God I lie not," Ro 9:1; "I say the truth in Christ," 1Ti 2:7; "God is my record," Php 1.8. Several acts are alluded to as accompaniments of an oath; as putting the hand under the thigh, Ge 24:2; 47:29; and raising the hand towards heaven, Ge 14:22-23; De 32:40; Re 10:5.
a solemn appeal to God, permitted on fitting occasions (De 6:13; Jer 4:2), in various forms (Ge 16:5; 2Sa 12:5; Ru 1:17; Ho 4:15; Ro 1:9), and taken in different ways (Ge 14:22; 24:2; 2Ch 6:22). God is represented as taking an oath (Heb 6:16-18), so also Christ (Mt 26:64), and Paul (Ro 9:1; Ga 1:20; Php 1:8). The precept, "Swear not at all," refers probably to ordinary conversation between man and man (Mt 5:34,37). But if the words are taken as referring to oaths, then their intention may have been to show "that the proper state of Christians is to require no oaths; that when evil is expelled from among them every yea and nay will be as decisive as an oath, every promise as binding as a vow."
Heb 6:16; "an oath for confirmation is the end of strife (contradiction)." Therefore, Christianity sanctions oaths, but they are to be used only to put an end to contradiction in disputes and for confirmation of solemn promises. God, in condescension to man's mode of confirming covenants, confirmed His word by oath; by these "two immutable things in which it is impossible for God to lie, we have strong consolation who have fled for refuge to lay hold upon the hope set before us." And "because He could swear by no greater, He sware by Himself": also Heb 7:28. Jesus Himself accepted the high priest's adjuration (Mt 26:63). Paul often calls God to witness the truth of his assertions (Ac 26:29; Ro 1:9; 9:1; 2Co 1:23; 11:31; Ga 1:20; Php 1:8). So the angel, Re 10:6. The prohibition "swear not at all" (Mt 5:34; Jas 5:12) refers to trivial occasions, not to oaths on solemn occasions and before magistrates. In every day conversation your simple yea or nay suffices to establish your word.
The Jews held oaths not binding if God's name did not directly occur (Lightfoot, Hor. Heb.). "Thou shalt perform unto the Lord thine oaths" meant in the Jews' view, which Christ combats, if not sworn to the Lord the oath is not binding. Jesus says on the contrary, every oath by the creature, heaven, earth, etc., is by the Creator whether His name be mentioned or not, and is therefore binding. In the perfect Christian state all oaths would be needless, for distrust of another's word and untruth would not exist. Meantime, they are needed on solemn occasions. But men do not escape the guilt of "taking God's name in vain" by avoiding the name itself, as in the oaths, "faith!" "gracious!" "by heaven," etc. The connection in Jas 5:12 is, Swear not through impatience to which trials may tempt you (Jas 5:10-11); in contrast stands the proper use of the tongue, Jas 5:13.
To appeal to a pagan god by oath is to acknowledge his deity, and is therefore forbidden (Jos 23:7; Jer 5:7; 12:16; Am 8:14), as in swearing to appeal to God is recognizing Him (De 6:13; Isa 19:18; 65:16). An oath even to a pagan king is so binding that Jehovah's chief reason for dethroning Zedekiah and giving him over to die in Babylon was his violating his oath to Nebuchadnezzar (Eze 17:13-20; 2Ch 36:13). Jewish criminal procedure admitted the accused to clear himself or herself by oath (Nu 5:19-22; 1Ki 8:31); our Lord, Mt 26:63. Oath gestures were "lifting up the hand" (De 32:40; Ge 14:22; Isa 3:7; Eze 20:5-6). Witnesses laid their hands on the head of the accused (Le 24:14).
Putting the hand under the thigh of the superior to whom the oath was taken in sign of subjection and obedience (Aben Ezra): Ge 24:2; 47:29; or else because the hip was the part from which the posterity issued (Ge 46:26) and the seat of vital power. In making (Hebrew "cutting") a covenant the victim was divided, and the contracting parties passed between the portions, in token that the two became joined in one. (See COVENANT.) In Ge 15:8-17 Abram was there, and God signified His presence by the burning lamp which passed between the pieces (Jer 34:18). Compare Jg 19:29; 1Sa 11:7, where a similar slaughter of the oxen of any who should not follow Saul is symbolized.
The false witness was doomed to the punishment due to the crime which he attested (De 19:16-19). Blasphemy was punishable with death (Le 24:11,16). The obligation in Le 5:1 to testify when adjured (for "swearing" translated "adjuration," 'alah) was that on which our Lord acted before Caiaphas (Mt 26:63). Alah, from 'Eel "God," is used for "imprecations" (Nu 5:23). "Shaba," from sheba' "seven" the sacred number, is the general word "swear"; compare the seven ewe lambs given by Abraham to Abimelech in covenanting (Ge 21:30).
A solemn asseveration with an appeal to God that what is said is true. The apostle said that among men an oath for confirmation is the "end of all strife" or dispute; and God, willing to show "the immutability of his counsel, confirmed it by an oath; that by two immutable things His word and His oath in which it was impossible for God to lie, we might have a strong consolation." Heb 6:16-18. Jehovah swore that the Lord Jesus should be a priest for ever after the order of Melchizedek. Ps 110:4.
Le 5:1 has been interpreted as signifying that when the voice of adjuration was heard, persons were compelled to confess what they knew as to any charge. Thus the Lord Jesus when adjured by the high priest answered him. The Lord was under an accusation, and was adjured to say if it was true. He acknowledged that He was "the Christ the Son of God." Mt 26:63-64.
The Lord exposed the folly of the tradition that some oaths were not binding. Mt 23:16-22.
In the common intercourse of life there should be no oaths, the simple 'yea' and 'nay' should be enough, "swear not at all," Mt 5:34-37; Jas 5:12; the context of these passages shows that they do not refer to judicial oaths: cf. also Heb 6:13,16; 7:21; Re 10:6.
The principle on which an oath is held to be binding is incidentally laid down in
viz. as an ultimate appeal to divine authority to ratify an assertion. On the same principle, that oath has always been held most binding which appealed to the highest authority, as regards both individuals and communities. As a consequence of this principle, appeals to God's name on the one hand, and to heathen deities on the other, are treated in scripture as tests of allegiance.
etc. So also the sovereign's name is sometimes used as a form of obligation.
Other forms of oath, serious or frivolous, are mentioned, some of which are condemned by our Lord.
(There is, however, a world-wide difference between a solemn appeal to God and profane swearing.) The forms of adjuration mentioned in Scripture are --
1. Lifting up the hand. Witnesses laid their hands on the head of the accused.
2. Putting the hand under the thigh of the person to whom the Promise was made.
3. Oaths were sometimes taken before the altar, or, as some understand the passage, if the persons were not in Jerusalem, in a position looking toward the temple.
4. Dividing a victim and passing between or distributing the pieces.
As the sanctity of oaths was carefully inculcated by the law, so the crime of perjury was strongly condemned; and to a false witness the same punishment was assigned which was due for the crime to which he testified.
OATH, a solemn invocation of a superior power, admitted to be acquainted with all the secrets of our hearts, with our inward thoughts as well as our outward actions, to witness the truth of what we assert, and to inflict his vengeance upon us if we assert what is not true, or promise what we do not mean to perform. Almost all nations, whether savage or civilized, whether enjoying the light of revelation or led only by the light of reason, knowing the importance of truth, and willing to obtain a barrier against falsehood, have had recourse to oaths, by which they have endeavoured to make men fearful of uttering lies, under the dread of an avenging Deity. Among Christians, an oath is a solemn appeal for the truth of our assertions, the sincerity of our promises, and the fidelity of our engagements, to the one only God, the Judge of the whole earth, who is every where present, and sees, and hears, and knows, whatever is said, or done, or thought in any part of the world. Such is that Being whom Christians, when they take an oath, invoke to bear testimony to the truth of their words, and the integrity of their hearts. Surely, then, if oaths be a matter of so much moment, it well behoves us not to treat them with levity, nor ever to take them without due consideration. Hence we ought, with the utmost vigilance, to abstain from mingling oaths in our ordinary discourse, and from associating the name of God with low or disgusting images, or using it on trivial occasions, as not only a profane levity in itself, but tending to destroy that reverence for the supreme Majesty which ought to prevail in society, and to dwell in our own hearts.
The forms of oaths, says Dr. Paley, "like other religious ceremonies, have in all ages been various; consisting, however, for the most part of some bodily action, and of a prescribed form of words." Among the Jews, the juror held up his right hand toward heaven, Ps 144:8; Re 10:5. The same form is retained in Scotland still. Among the Jews, also, an oath of fidelity was taken by the servant's putting his hand under the thigh of his lord, Ge 24:2. Among the Greeks and Romans, the form varied with the subject and occasion of the oath; in private contracts, the parties took hold of each other's hands, while they swore to the performance; or they touched the altar of the god by whose divinity they swore: upon more solemn occasions, it was the custom to slay a victim; and the beast being struck down with certain ceremonies and invocations, gave birth to the expression, ferire pactum; and to our English phrase, translated from this, of "striking a bargain." The form of oaths in Christian countries is also very different: but in no country in the world worse contrived, either to convey the meaning or impress the obligation of an oath, than in our own. The juror with us, after repeating the promise or affirmation which the oath is intended to confirm, adds, "So help me God;" or, more frequently, the substance of the oath is repeated to the juror by the magistrate, who adds in the conclusion, "So help you God." The energy of this sentence resides in the particle so: So, that is, hac lege, upon condition of my speaking the truth, or performing this promise, and not otherwise, may God help me! The juror, while he hears or repeats the words of the oath, holds his right hand upon a Bible, or other book containing the Gospels, and at the conclusion kisses the book. This obscure and elliptical form, together with the levity and frequency of them, has brought about a general inadvertency to the obligation of oaths, which, both in a religious and political view, is much to be lamented; and it merits public consideration, whether the requiring of oaths upon so many frivolous occasions, especially in the customs, and in the qualification for petty offices, has any other effect than to make such sanctions cheap in the minds of the people. A pound of tea cannot travel regularly from the ship to the consumer, without costing half a dozen oaths at least; and the same security for the due discharge of their office, namely, that of an oath, is required from a churchwarden and an archbishop; from a petty constable and the chief justice of England. Oaths, however, are lawful; and whatever be the form, the signification is the same. Historians have justly remarked, that when the reverence for an oath began to diminish among the Romans, and the loose epicurean system, which discarded the belief of providence, was introduced, the Roman honour and prosperity from that period began to decline. The Quakers refuse to swear upon any occasion, founding their scruples concerning the lawfulness of oaths upon our Saviour's prohibition, "Swear not at all," Mt 5:34. But it seems our Lord there referred to the vicious, wanton, and unauthorized swearing in common discourse, and not to judicial oaths; for he himself answered, when interrogated, upon oath, Mt 26:63-64; Mr 14:61. The Apostle Paul also makes use of expressions which contain the nature of oaths, Ro 1:9; 1Co 15:31; 2Co 1:18; Ga 1:20; Heb 6:13-17. The administration of oaths supposes that God will punish false swearing with more severity than a simple lie, or breach of promise; for which belief there are the following reasons:
1. Perjury is a sin of greater deliberation. 2. It violates a superior confidence. 3. God directed the Israelites to swear by his name, De 6:13; 10:20; and was pleased to confirm his covenant with that people by an oath; neither of which, it is probable, he would have done, had he not intended to represent oaths as having some meaning and effect beyond the obligation of a bare promise.