“You shall not give false testimony against your neighbor.”
- Exodus 20:16
“Again, you have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not break your oath, but fulfill to the Lord the vows you have made.’ But I tell you, do not swear an oath at all: either by heaven, for it is God’s throne; or by the earth, for it is his footstool; or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the Great King. And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make even one hair white or black. All you need to say is simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything beyond this comes from the evil one.
- Matthew 5:33-37
For most of my life, people have read the ninth commandment and reduced it to “Thou shalt not lie.” The NIV translation could be interpreted “Thou shalt not lie under oath.” When we consider what Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount about giving oaths, or rather not giving oaths, we might interpret this somewhere within a blend of those extremes.
Could we say that we should not say or put in print anything that could cause harm in any way against our neighbor? Now we are getting closer to what God had in mind. To the accused in a criminal case, the wrong man may go to jail. In a civil case, an award of money could break the bank account of an innocent party.
Should we veer totally away from not lying? Probably not, but are there good lies? What? Good lies? A minister was teaching a Bible Study during the week. The subject came up regarding lying. Some of the people in the class were talking about lying being the worst offense ever. There were no good reasons to lie. He then gave an amusing scenario.
“Suppose that you are at home, minding your own business, when a close friend knocks on the door. The friend says that murderers are chasing him and he needs to be hidden. You take him to your hall closet. Then there is another knock on the door. This time the door is opened to a man with a bloody knife in one hand and a pistol in the other. He asks if you have seen your friend. According to your view, you won’t just admit that you’ve seen him, you’ll show the murderer where your friend is hiding with two questions. Have you seen your friend? Where is your friend?”
Of course, the response was that the argument was absurd and that scenario would never happened. They could not admit that their value of always telling the truth was impractical. These same people would hate for someone to spread their embarrassing secrets to others, and I’m sure they have lied to their children about hidden birthday presents, etc.
Yet, we could look at the basic idea of giving oaths. The greatest warning is possibly the story of the judge, Jephthah (Judges 10:6 – 11:40). Jephthah swears an oath before God that he will give a burnt sacrifice to God if God delivers the Israelites from the Ammonites. He says within the oath that he’ll sacrifice the first thing that walks out of his house. In those days, the houses contained livestock on the lowest level with a partial wall leading to the human living quarters. In all likelihood, a chicken or a lamb would come out as the humans made their way to the door. The problem is that his daughter was waiting to greet him. He was bound to his oath and his daughter had to be killed. It would have been better with a less specific oath, best with no oath at all. Note that Jesus warned against giving oaths in Matthew 5:33-37 (above) and in Matthew 23:16-22.
Also remember that Herod killed John the Baptist because he had sworn an oath (Matthew 14:9).
Failed marriages are probably the biggest source of oath violation.
Another area where we commonly fail this commandment is in the area of promises. It seems that someone true to his word is not a ‘thing’ anymore. Have you ever had someone give a large production regarding a promise that they make. Then, they never make good on their promise? It reminds me of Jesus’ discussion of fasting in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 6:16), they get their reward by their public performance, and then there is no further motivation to uphold the promise.
My wife on the other hand would sink us into bankruptcy in order to stay true to her promises. Once, she had shoulder surgery. Her recovery was worse than expected. She was supposed to host a Red Hat outing. She had set up everything. All that was lacking was one phone call to give the hosting restaurant a headcount. The walking through craft stores in a picturesque setting was unscheduled free time. The Queen Mother berated my wife for not keeping her promise completely. As far as I know, it is the last promise that my wife was less than 100% in keeping. With her health issues, she makes few guarantees these days. Promise keeping is extremely important to her.
When we stay true to our word, we are honest enough with others to be considered trustworthy and loyal. We will say nothing that will hurt their feelings intentionally (outside of the modern idea of everything you say or do offends me just because I don’t like your views). We definitely don’t lie under oath. We need to restore the concept of trustworthiness in our society or we will no longer be civilized.
And what of God? God is faithful to us. He is trustworthy. As a Christian, if our promises mean nothing or if we swear against something over which only God has authority, we are dishonoring ourselves and God and harming our fellow man.