The Laws of Vows and Oaths
By now it should be plain how often James cited the Gospel of Matthew in his epistle. He did so again in James 5:12,
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; so that you may not fall under judgment.
This is a reference to the Sermon on the Mount, where Jesus says in Matt. 5:33-37,
33 Again, you have heard that the ancients were told, “You shall not make false vows, but shall fulfill your vows to the Lord.” 34 But I say to you, make no oath at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, 35 or by the earth, for it is the footstool of His feet, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. 36 Nor shall you make an oath by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. 37 But let your statement be, “Yes, yes” or “No, no”; and anything beyond these is of evil.
Jewish Tradition Concerning Oaths
Jewish tradition and practice was something that both Jesus and James faced every day in Jerusalem. According to the Talmudic tract Shevuoth, there were four types of oaths:
1. A promissory oath, where someone might swear either to do something or NOT to do something.
2. A vain or rash oath, where someone might swear to do the impossible; or swear that an impossible event happened; or swear that he would abstain from doing what God had commanded.
3. An oath concerning something left in trust. If the property is lost or stolen while in his care, he was to take an oath that he did not steal, kill, or destroy it himself (Ex. 22:11; Lev. 6:1-7).
4. A testimonial oath before a judge or magistrate (Num. 5:21).
John Lightfoot (1602-1675) tells us that most Jewish sects expressed caution in regard to vain oaths. But of some of these, he writes:
“Yet they concluded vain oaths in so narrow a circle, that a man might swear a hundred thousand times, and yet not come within the limits of the caution concerning vain swearing.” [Lightfoot, Commentary on the New Testament from the Talmud and Hebraica, Vol. II, p. 127]
In other words, they allowed so much leeway in their definition of a vain or rash oath that their restrictions were quite meaningless. He informs us further that they often swore by heaven or earth, saying, “If any adjure another by heaven or earth, he is not guilty.”
Again, they often swore by the Temple. Lightfoot writes:
“Bava Ben Buta swore by the Temple in the end of the tract Cherithuth, and Rabban Simeon Ben Gamaliel in the beginning; 'And so was the custom in Israel'. Note this, 'so was the custom'.” [Lightfoot, Vol. II, p. 128]
They also often swore by Jerusalem and even by their own heads, for men would require their neighbors to swear to the truth of a statement or promise, saying, “Swear to me by the life of thy head.”
Jesus contradicted all of these traditions, telling the people, “Make no oath at all, either by heaven... or by the earth... or by Jerusalem.” Lightfoot himself comments on this, saying,
“The sense of these words goes in the middle way, between the Jew, who allowed some place for an arbitrary oath; and the Anabaptist, who allows none for a necessary one.” [Lightfoot, Vol. II, p. 128, 129]
In other words, there are some Christians who took Jesus' words too far, forbidding all oaths—even those that were commanded in the law. Since Jesus said nothing to abrogate the law, but instead corrected men's misconceptions of it, it is apparent that Jesus did not forbid men to swear oaths when the law prescribed it. The Apostle Paul himself was led by the Spirit to make a vow (Acts 18:18).
Jesus forbade oaths in one's daily routine, for if a man had a reputation of keeping his word, no such swearing was necessary. And if a man were untrustworthy, no amount of swearing would hold him to his word if he wished to violate his oath.
Judgment for Vain Oaths
The law did not prescribe any particular judgment for breaking one's word or for lying, unless, of course, it caused measurable damage to someone else. However, the law might still prosecute a man with a beating according to Deut. 25:1-3. The seriousness of the case would determine the severity of the beating, as determined by the judges.
Neither did Jesus prescribe any particular judgment in His discourse, saying only that anything beyond a simple yes or no “is of evil.” James interprets this to mean, “so that you may not fall under judgment.” Most likely, James was speaking of direct divine judgment, rather than a beating at the command of earthly judges.
13 Is anyone among you suffering? Let him pray...
Did James suddenly start a new topic? It is more likely that this was a continuation of the previous topic. Is anyone among you suffering under divine judgment for arbitrary oaths? Let him pray for mercy and confess his sin, so that he might be healed.
This appears to lead James into his short discussion on prayer for healing.