“But above all things, my brethren, swear not, neither by heaven, neither by the earth, neither by any other oath: but let your yea be yea; and your nay, nay; lest ye fall into condemnation.” (James 5:12, AV)
I remember growing up, sometimes kids would promise to do something and even swear that they would do it. They were not cursing, but were making a statement to convince you that they were serious in their commitment to do it. It might have gone something like this, “I swear that I will do your chores if you will do this right now.” Yet, when it came time for them to do your chores, and you reminded them, they might say, “I had my fingers crossed.” In other words, what they said with their fingers crossed was somehow nullified.
James is dealing with a similar issue in this verse, the practice of sworn oaths. This swearing by something is not a new practice, it happened in ancient times also. While there is a biblical precedent in the Old Testament for sworn oaths, James wrote about practices that were not prescribed in the Scriptures, but were established by traditions. In the Bible, we see that there were solemn oaths or vows into which one entered (See Genesis 24:2-4; 2 Chronicles 15:14). The rabbinical view was that sworn oaths unto the Lord were binding and others were not. The practice with which James addressed was one of carefully constructing oaths that that gave the one making the oath a way out according to the established traditions. Jesus spoke of this same problem in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt 5:33-37). James’ words parallel Jesus’ teaching on this matter.
Jesus and James stated the most important thing was a need for honesty and integrity. To swear by any thing in heaven or by earth is to bring God into the equation. Jesus stated that to swear by heaven was to swear by the throne of God (Matt 5:34) and to swear by the earth is to swear by God’s footstool (Matt 5:35). Thus, people need to realize that to swear under an oath is not the issue. The issue is that they should be people who keep their word. Let their yes be yes and their no be no. It is not to be yes or no with their fingers crossed. A person’s word is binding.
When I planted a church with a lot of young believers, I ran into this problem head on. I would organize a ministry and have people sign a commitment card. What I discovered is that the signed commitment card meant nothing. People would say yes, I will be a part of this ministry. When it came time to launch the ministry, half the people who made the commitment were nowhere to be seen. They never participated.
People need to understand that God has called us to live under a different set of principles from this world system. We are to live under the principles of the kingdom of God. We are to seek to pattern our lives after the Lord himself. His yes was always yes. He modeled the essence of perfect integrity and honesty. His yes being yes took Him to the cross according to the plan of God. I am grateful that His yes is always yes.
What about our yes and no. Before you make a commitment and give an answer as to yes or no, be honest. If you can do it say yes. If you cannot say no. Do not say yes with your fingers crossed. However, I say this a bit tongue in cheek for I know that there will be many who, if they know their yes will be binding, will never say yes to anything. Do not be that person. If the Lord is calling you to do something, do it. If you make a commitment to be at an event, be there. If you say you will do something, do it. Demonstrate godly integrity.