"But above all, my brethren, do not swear, either by heaven or by earth or with any other oath; but your yes is to be yes, and your no, no, so that you may not fall under judgment." (James 5:12)My grandmother was called as a witness during a criminal trial. When asked to swear that she would "tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help you God!" she declined and merely said, "I affirm." One of the lawyers took exception to this, but the judge upheld her right saying that some, because of their religious beliefs against swearing oaths, we allowed to simply affirm that they would tell the truth. They were allowed the right to merely say "yes" or "no." My grandmother was a believer and she would not swear any oath. Her word was sufficient.
The Greek word for oath means to construct an enclosure or to fence one in. It represents a restriction we place upon ourselves in showing others the assuredness of what we promise. However, God does not wish us to be bound by any oath, whether ours or not. Paul wrote, "It was for freedom that Christ set us free; therefore keep standing firm and do not be subject again to a yoke of slavery." (Galatians 5:1) We have need set free for freedom and God does not wish us to bound again, even under sworn oaths.
There was a time when Israel, under King Saul, was pursuing the Philistines. The men pursued hard and Saul put his entire army under an oath, "Cursed be the man who eats food before evening, and until I have avenged myself on my enemies." (1 Samuel 14:24) Unfortunately, his son Jonathan did not hear his command. As the day wore on, he became hungry. As they pursued the enemy into the forest, there was found honey on the ground and Jonathan, "put out the end of the staff that was in his hand and dipped it in the honeycomb, and put his hand to his mouth, and his eyes brightened." (1 Samuel 14:27) Those with him warned him of his father's oath, yet he retorted, "My father has troubled the land. See now, how my eyes have brightened because I tasted a little of this honey. How much more, if only the people had eaten freely today of the spoil of their enemies which they found! For now the slaughter among the Philistines has not been great." (1 Samuel 14:29-30) Latter that night, when God refused to advise Saul on his battle plans, it was discovered what Jonathan had done. Even though he was his son, Saul said, "May God do this to me and more also, for you shall surely die, Jonathan." (1 Samuel 14:44) However, the people interceded for Jonathan and Saul let him live. The story ends with this statement, "Then Saul went up from pursuing the Philistines, and the Philistines went to their own place." (1 Samuel 14:46)
Here are some things we can learn from this story as it relates to swearing and oaths, First, oaths can bind upon us unnecessary hardships God never intended. God had given a great victory to Israel and He never intended that the victory would come at the expense of their health or well-being. The greater the promise often the greater the harshness of the oath. God has set us free, why then do we seek to bind ourselves again by oaths? If we are people of our word then we don't need harshness of oaths as surety to our promises.
Secondly, swearing oaths often leads to dishonoring God. Often, when we swear, we often swear things that are hard or disagreeable; things we never want to do or things we never intend to do. We say, "Lord, if you get me out of this alive, then I will go to church every Sunday!" However, when God does preserve us alive, we forget our promise or only keep it a short while. In the end, our failure to keep our sworn oaths brings dishonor to God and harms our reputation as well. Saul has sworn an oath to God, yet he failed to follow through on it. King Solomon said, "It is better that you should not vow than that you should vow and not pay." (Ecclesiastes 5:5)
Finally, when we swear and break our oaths, then people stop listening to us and stop following us. When we break our oaths we loose our authority and our word becomes nothing. Israel was pursuing well, they were fighting well, they were winning the battle, yet when Saul let his oath fall to the ground unfulfilled and the people quit and they all returned to their homes. I have seen this often in families with children. Parents threaten with a promise, "If you do that then I will..." yet they never follow through. Their children learn that their word means nothing and they loose all authority in the home. They rant and rage and no one listens because they know their words are just wind. Far better not to sear or threaten than to do so and not follow through.