Truth is sometimes hard to find. There was a time when people were as good as their word—and some still are. There were no written contracts, just a handshake or an “I promise.” But now we have a credibility gap.
What do people associate with your name? Parents once taught the importance of a good reputation and warned children not to ruin it.
My aunt once engaged a man to cut trees on her property. She made only a verbal agreement, but signed no papers. The man came, cut, and took off. My aunt lost out.
Paul Harvey once told a story about four high school boys who were late to their morning class. They all told their teacher they had a flat tire. They had missed a test, but the teacher told them they could make it up. He gave them paper and pencil and sent one boy to each of the four respective corners of the room. They would pass the test if they answered one question: “Which tire was flat?”
Many individuals are suspect. Such as the proverbial used car salesman, preachers, lawyers, politicians, income tax return cheaters, and those who plagiarize.
The Roman orator. Cicero, said, “Nothing is sweeter than the light of truth.”
The English poet, Chaucer, remarked, “Truth is the highest thing that man may keep.”
Daniel Webster said, “There is nothing so powerful as truth—and often nothing so strange.”
Even Jewish rabbis recognized lying—along with scoffing, hypocrisy, and slander—as one of the four great sins that would keep a person out of God’s presence.
In Jesus’ day, truth was revered, but buried under a pile of tradition. God’s law had been brought down to the people’s level.
According to this Scripture, we have three choices to measure our words by: what the Law of Moses said, what the rabbis had corrupted it to say, or what Jesus said.
Our Words According to the Old Testament
What Jesus says is based on several passages in Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy and speaks of perjuring ourselves or swearing falsely.
In oaths, the name of something or someone was added for credibility. Such as having to have collateral to get a loan before we sign a legally binding document.
In the oath, we may use God’s name (“I swear to God”). An oath is to be the absolute truth.
In the Old Testament, God provided for oaths to be made by his name. When Abraham sent his servant Eliezer back to his homeland to find a bride for Isaac, he made him swear by God’s name not to find a wife among the pagans.
David and Jonathan also did this when they agreed together when Saul was trying to kill David. “So Jonathan made a covenant with the house of David, saying, May the Lord call David’s enemies to account” (1 Samuel 20:16).
God sometimes made oaths using his own name. After Abraham demonstrated his willingness to give up his son, God said, “By myself I have sworn, declares the Lord, because you have done this thing, and have not withheld your son, your only son, indeed I will greatly bless you, and I will greatly multiply your seed as the stars of the heaven, and as the sand which is on the seashore; and your seed shall possess the gate of their enemies” (Genesis 22:16).
Just as God accommodated in divorce, so he did in making oaths. He knew we were prone to deceit and lying, so he made provision for oath giving in his name. He knew we had the propensity toward dishonesty. Oaths increase our motivation to tell the truth like contracts do our motivation to do our job.
Oaths are only as reliable as the people who make them. Peter in his denial of Jesus denied with an oath that he had been with Jesus. His oath did not make his words true.
We can also make rash oaths. Jepthah, one of the judges of Israel, did this as he advanced against Ammonites. “If you give the Ammonites into my hands, whatever comes out of the door of my house to meet me when I return in triumph from the Ammonites will be the Lord’s, and I will sacrifice it as a burnt offering” (Judges 11:30). His daughter was the first to meet him.
The Mosaic law established the seriousness of vows. Henry David Thoreau, thinker and naturalist, wrote, “Rather than love, than money, than fame, give me truth.”
Our Words Perverted
Like many of God’s laws, this one was perverted. The emphasis was placed in the wrong place. The missing ingredient was the proper and serious circumstance to make a vow. Any vow was permitted for any purpose as long as it was fulfilled. Vow making became virtually meaningless. Just about anything was promised when making vows. Vows became so commonplace that no one took them seriously. Vows became a mark of deceit instead of honesty. People looked on vows with skepticism. The people who made them couldn’t be trusted
The misplaced emphasis came in limiting honesty only to vows made to God. People were to keep these, but others were optional. People swore by anything that impressed those they tried to deceive. They swore by heaven, earth, Jerusalem, their head, or anything to look sincere.
Such vows were acceptable unless they involved the name of the Lord. Vows made to anyone but God could be reneged on.
This rabbinical standard lowered God’s standard. God wants us to be honest with others and him. If we don’t believe in objective truth, there is no standard.
Our Words According to Jesus
Jesus’ says no reason for a vow exists. We should mean what we say and be trustworthy. Then, we won’t need a vow.
Jesus is probably not ruling out vows on important occasions. Rather, he rebuked the flippant attitude that had developed. He also renounced the hypocritical and dishonest attitude. He wants us to have complete truthfulness in thought, word, and deed. This rules out the need for vows.
William Barclay said, “We will regard all promises as sacred if we remember that all promises are made in the presence of God.”
At 24, Abe Lincoln served as postmaster of New Salem, Illinois, and was paid an annual salary of $55.70. The office had closed in 1836, but several years before an agent had arrived from Washington to settle accounts with an ex-postmaster. By this time, Lincoln was a struggling lawyer who was not doing well. He owed $17 to government. Lincoln opened an old trunk, pulled out a yellow cotton rag, and returned the money. He said, “I never use any man’s money but my own.”