Jamesby Douglas Estes
The last chunk of wisdom James grants to his readers seems short and unexpected. ″Above all″, he begins, speaking to his fellow ″brothers and sisters″ as if this is his final point (James 5:12). And it is this: we must not swear-″not by heaven or by earth″ nor, as he adds, by any other kind of oath (v. 12). What is this ″swearing″ of which James speaks?
First, it does not refer to crude or vulgar language. Second, it does not mean commitment, such as we may make to our country as a citizen, at least as long as that commitment does not interfere with our faithfulness to God. Third, it also does not refer to promises, at least when promise is understood to mean an agreement.
James clearly means something much stronger, such as an oath or a contract between two parties that is sealed with statements to strengthen the pact. In this case, if we make an oath with someone else on heaven's throne (for example), then we have usurped God's authority to make agreements with people. This kind of oath signals that we believe we are greater than God.
James instructs us to simply say ″yes″ and ″no″ when we make agreements with others. As he does throughout his book, he echoes the teaching of Jesus (Matthew 5:37).
This final thought is unexpected, as we might think James would save more important bits of wisdom for last (he does, but not as a warning; see James 5:19-20). Since the beginning, readers of the book of James have wondered why this short proverb is here, and there are many possible reasons.
Here's the one I believe fits best with what we have learned from James: as Jesus' followers, we should be unambiguous about who we are. If we follow Jesus, and our wisdom for living comes from heaven, then we want to be as clear as possible about that with others. But if we fail to follow Jesus, and start deriving our wisdom from the lies that circulate in our world, then we are no longer clear about who we are. We are ″like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind″ (1:6). We are ″double-minded″, unstable in all that we do (1:8).
When we follow the wisdom that comes down from heaven, we will show it in our words and deeds (3:13-16). If we make oaths, violating God's plan in word and deed, we reveal a true double-mindedness in ourselves. To James, this may be the ultimate test of character.
What types of swearing do we encounter today? How can we avoid swearing?
Are there situations in life where making ″yes″ and ″no″ our way of speaking brings greater glory to God?