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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 judgment. (5:12)
But above all. Here, James is very cautious when dealing with the point that he is about to make. He says, no matter what else you might do in your human imperfection, it best not be this. He saw the action he was about to describe as a transgression (a wicked act) of a very atrocious kind. Of all the sins James has discussed in this letter, this is the one to be avoided at all costs. It was prevalent for the Jews of James’ day to swear an oath on various things. And they had now converted to Christianity, and they needed to avoid doing so. Keener writes, “Oaths were verbal confirmations guaranteed by appeal to a divine witness; violation of an oath in God’s name broke the third commandment (Ex 20:7; Deut 5:11).” (Keener 1993, 681-2) Arnold writes, “James does not refer to uncouth speech but to invoking God’s name as the guarantee of truth or a future course of action. Such oaths are apparently being abused in James’s day.”
Do not swear. James likely had the words of Jesus in mind,
Matthew 5:33-37 Updated American Standard Version (UASV)
33 “Again you have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but shall perform to the Lord what you have sworn.’ 34 But I say to you, Do not swear at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, 35 or by the earth, for it is his footstool of his feet, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. 36 Nor shall you make an oath by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. 37 But let your word ‘yes’ be ‘yes,’ and your ‘no’ be ‘no’; anything more than this is from the wicked one.
Douglas J. Moo writes, “When James says Do not swear, it is not coarse or vulgar speech he prohibits but invoking God’s name to guarantee the reliability of what a person says.” When James says, “above all,” he is not suggesting that refraining from swearing, in general, is the most important thing of all. There was the need to take oaths for legal matters in the Ancient world just as there is today, which was common and acceptable. What they were not to do was to make oaths where they invoked God’s name. James likely also meant that they should not be swearing aside from anything else they were doing, as swearing would be a misuse of the tongue that would result in more sinning by using unproductive and worthless words. Likely, too, he was suggesting that it was worse than grumbling against one another. So, once more, James is not referring to oaths that would be required of witnesses in a court of law or at times when dealing with a very significant or severe nature in human dealings.
James and Jesus spoke of swearing by “heaven and earth” precisely because the Pharisees had no problem swearing by anything except God. When Jesus covered this issue, he was clear that to swear by the things that God created is worthless, and worse still; it is displeasing to God. Swearing by such things was simply a pretense or convenience, avoiding the use of God’s name in a worthless way. The person swearing on insignificant things was simply trying to make his words carry more weight than they did. Kistemaker and Hendriksen write, “The people knew the commandment, ‘You shall not misuse the name of [Jehovah] your God, for [Jehovah] will not hold anyone guiltless who misuses his name’ (Exod. 20:7; Deut. 5:11, [ASV]). To remain guiltless, the Jews had made a distinction between binding and nonbinding oaths. Instead of using the divine name (which would be binding), they swore: “by heaven or by earth or by anything else.” In their opinion, that would be nonbinding and would not incur the wrath of God. Both Jesus and James denounce this practice; the intention of appealing to God remains the same, even though one pretends to avoid using God’s name. Persons, who are always saying, “I swear by …” are only evidencing that they are impulsive, unsteady and undependable persons. – Matthew 23:16-22.
When James says that we should let our “yes” be yes and your “no” be no, he is referring to forthright, straight, simple, and certain answers. If our word has always been one that can be trusted, there is no need to go through extra steps to be convincing or impressive or to come off as being honest because everyone knows that our “yes” is yes and our “no” is no. If we cannot be trusted to be honest and forthright in oaths or vows that do not involve God, how are we to be taken seriously when our word does involve God? Suppose we are constantly invoking God, “I swear to God,” in every little thing that we say. In that case, we come off as a person that cannot be trusted, and why would anyone want to be involved in a religion of a person that cannot be trusted, meaning our witnessing about Christ would be impeded.
Keener went on to write, “Like some groups of Greek philosophers, some kinds of *Essenes would not swear any further oaths after they had completed their initiatory oaths (according to *Josephus, Jewish War 2.135, in contrast to the Essenes who wrote the *Dead Sea Scrolls); the *Pharisees, however, allowed oaths. On swearing by various items as lesser surrogates for God, see comment on Matthew 5:33-37. Oaths generally called on the gods to witness the veracity of one’s intention and had to be kept, or invited a curse on the one who had spoken the untruth. Vows were a more specific category of oaths to undertake some duty or abstain from something for a particular period of time. The difficulty is ascertaining what sort of swearing is in view in the context. Some scholars have suggested a warning against taking a *Zealot-type oath (cf. Acts 23:12); while this could fit the context of James very well, his readers may not have recognized something so specific. The idea may be that one should not impatiently (5:7-11) swear; rather one should pray (5:13). One should pray rather than swear because the fullest form of an oath included a self-curse, which was like saying ‘May God kill me if I fail to do this’ or (in English preadolescent idiom) ‘Cross my heart and hope to die.’” (Keener 1993, 681-2)
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 Clinton E. Arnold, Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary: Hebrews to Revelation., vol. 4 (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2002), 116.
 A quotation from Lev. 19:12
 Douglas J. Moo, The Letter of James, The Pillar New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI; Leicester, England: Eerdmans; Apollos, 2000), 232.
 Christian Publishing House finds it a bit insulting when modern translations remove the personal name of God for a title (i.e., “the Lord”), and verses such as this makes our position even clearer. How can one have a verse that speaks of misusing God’s name (not title), and the translators remove that name and replace it with an impersonal title? The irony is that these translators are following a Jewish tradition by removing God’s personal name, and what did Jesus say about the traditions of the Jewish leaders? He said they were ‘making void the word of God by their tradition that they had handed down.’–Mark 7:13.
 Refer to SB, vol. 1, pp. 332–37, for rabbinic sources. Also see D. Edmond Hiebert, The Epistle of James: Tests of a Living Faith (Chicago: Moody, 1979), p. 310; D. Edmond Hiebert, “The Worldliness of Self-Serving Oaths,” Direction 6 (1977): 39–43.
 Simon J. Kistemaker and William Hendriksen, Exposition of James and the Epistles of John, vol. 14, New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1953–2001), 172.
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