“My brothers, do not swear.” (James 5:12, ESV)
Imagine having a conversation with someone about your favorite places to eat. You talk about greasy spoons and five star restaurants and everything in between. You regale them with all sorts of stories about your dining experiences, and maybe issue a word of caution or two. In the thick of your conversation, you say, “I can’t believe Tom Brady is retiring.”
Where did that come from? Yet that seems to be just what James does. He has been teaching us about suffering as believers, holding up saints of old as examples to us (5:10-11). In verse 13 he asks, “Is anyone among you suffering?” But sandwiched in between, seemingly from left field, James asserts: “But above all, my brothers, do not swear, either by heaven or by earth or by any other oath, but let your ‘yes’ be yes and your ‘no’ be no, so that you may not fall under condemnation” (James 5:12).
Not only does James introduce a random topic, he gives it particular prominence when he says, “but above all.” It’s like he makes the tangent the main motion. What is going on?
Though it is difficult to fit teaching about oaths in the flow of thought, it does fit with the perspective James has been giving us. We’ve noted similarities between the epistle of James and our Lord’s Sermon on the Mount. There Jesus taught: “Do not take an oath at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God... Let what you say be simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything more than this comes from evil” (Matthew 5:34, 37).
We’ve also noted that James has been called "the Proverbs of the New Testament," laying out wisdom for godly living. Old Testament wisdom literature contains teaching on vows (e.g., Prov. 20:25). Particularly helpful is Ecclesiastes 5:4-6 that cautions on taking vows. That caution is framed by teaching on our speech, citing a fool’s many words (Eccl. 5:3) and how an abundance of words are prone to vanity (Eccl. 5:7).
This may help us see the mind of James, with his concern for wisdom over foolishness and his teaching on the tongue. It may well be that James is emphasizing our responsibility to use our tongues truthfully and constructively in keeping with the One whose kingdom we serve. In James 5:5, we are told not to grumble so that we “may not be judged,” and now in verse 12 we are told to use our tongues so that we “may not fall under condemnation,” giving us a connection on circumspection in our communication.
The “above all” by which James prefaces his call not to swear may well introduce an overriding principle that directs our eyes to our King in our speech and our allegiance to Jesus Christ in all things.
1. How does serving Christ govern what you say, how you say it, and why you say it?
2. Why does Jesus speak of judgment based on idle words? (Mt. 12:36-37)
“May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in Your sight, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer.”