By Isaac Barrow
"But above all things, my brethren, swear not." St. James v. 12.
Among other precepts of good life (directing the practice of virtue and abstinence from sin) St. James doth insert this about swearing, couched in expression denoting his great earnestness, and apt to excite our special attention. Therein he doth not mean universally to interdict the use of oaths, for that in some cases is not only lawful, but very expedient, yea, needful, and required from us as a duty; but that swearing which our Lord had expressly prohibited to His disciples, and which thence, questionless, the brethren to whom St. James did write did well understand themselves obliged to forbear, having learned so in the first catechisms of Christian institution; that is, needless and heedless swearing in ordinary conversation, a practice then frequent in the world, both among Jews and Gentiles; the which also, to the shame of our age, is now so much in fashion, and with some men in vogue; the invoking God's name, appealing to His testimony, and provoking His judgment upon any slight occasion, in common talk, with vain incogitancy, or profane boldness. From such practice the Holy Apostle exhorteth in terms importing his great concernedness, and implying the matter to be of highest importance; for, [Greek], saith he, "(Before all things), my brethren, do not swear;" as if he did apprehend this sin of all others to be one of the most heinous and pernicious. Could he have said more? would he have said so much, if he had not conceived the matter to be of exceeding weight and consequence? And that it is so, I mean now, by God's help, to show you, by proposing some considerations, whereby the heinous wickedness, together with the monstrous folly, of such rash and vain swearing will appear; the which being laid to heart will, I hope, effectually dissuade and deter from it.
I. Let us consider the nature of an oath, and what we do when we adventure to swear.
It is (as it is phrased in the Decalogue, and elsewhere in Holy Scripture) an assuming the name of God, and applying it to our purpose; to countenance and confirm what we say.
It is an invocation of God as a most faithful Witness, concerning the truth of our words, or the sincerity of our meaning.
It is an appeal to God as a most upright Judge whether we do prevaricate in asserting what we do not believe true, or in promising what we are not firmly resolved to perform.
It is a formal engagement of God to be the Avenger of our trespassing in violation of truth or faith.
It is a binding our souls with a most strict and solemn obligation, to answer before God, and to undergo the issue of His judgment about what we affirm or undertake.
Such an oath is represented to us in Holy Scripture.
Whence we may collect, that swearing doth require great modesty and composedness of spirit, very serious consideration and solicitous care, that we be not rude and saucy with God, in taking up His name, and prostituting it to vile or mean uses; that we do not abuse or debase His authority, by citing it to aver falsehoods or impertinences; that we do not slight His venerable justice, by rashly provoking it against us; that we do not precipitately throw our souls into most dangerous snares and intricacies.
For let us reflect and consider: What a presumption is it without due regard and reverence to lay hold on God's name; with unhallowed breath to vent and toss that great and glorious, that most holy, that reverend, that fearful and terrible name of the Lord our God, the great Creator, the mighty Sovereign, the dreadful Judge of all the world; that name which all heaven with profoundest submission doth adore, which the angelical powers, the brightest and purest Seraphim, without hiding their faces, and reverential horror, cannot utter or hear; the very thought whereof should strike awe through our hearts, the mention whereof would make any sober man to tremble? [Greek], "For how," saith St. Chrysostom, "is it not absurd that a servant should not dare to call his master by name, or bluntly and ordinarily to mention him, yet that we slightly and contemptuously should in our mouth toss about the Lord of angels?
"How is it not absurd, if we have a garment better than the rest, that we forbear to use it continually, but in the most slight and common way do wear the name of God?"
How grievous indecency is it, at every turn to summon our Maker, and call down Almighty God from heaven, to attend our leisure, to vouch our idle prattle, to second our giddy passions, to concern His truth, His justice, His power in our trivial affairs!
What a wildness is it, to dally with that judgment upon which the eternal doom of all creatures dependeth, at which the pillars of heaven are astonished, which hurled down legions of angels from the top of heaven and happiness into the bottomless dungeon: the which, as grievous sinners, of all things we have most reason to dread; and about which no sober man can otherwise think than did that great king, the holy psalmist, who said, "My flesh trembleth for Thee, and I am afraid of Thy judgments!"
How prodigious a madness is it, without any constraint or needful cause, to incur so horrible a danger, to rush upon a curse; to defy that vengeance, the least touch of breath whereof can dash us to nothing, or thrust us down into extreme and endless woe?
Who can express the wretchedness of that folly, which so entangleth us with inextricable knots, and enchaineth our souls so rashly with desperate obligations?
Wherefore he that would but a little mind what he doeth when he dareth to swear, what it is to meddle with the adorable name, the venerable testimony, the formidable judgment, the terrible vengeance of the Divine Majesty, into what a case he putteth himself, how extreme hazard he runneth thereby, would assuredly have little heart to swear, without greatest reason, and most urgent need; hardly without trembling would he undertake the most necessary and solemn oath; much cause would he see [Greek], to adore, to fear an oath: which to do, the divine preacher maketh the character of a good man. "As," saith he, "is the good, so is the sinner; and he that sweareth, as he that feareth an oath."
In fine, even a heathen philosopher, considering the nature of an oath, did conclude the unlawfulness thereof in such cases. For, "seeing," saith he, "an oath doth call God for witness, and proposeth Him for umpire and voucher of the things it saith; therefore to induce God so upon occasion of human affairs, or, which is all one, upon small and slight accounts, doth imply contempt of Him: wherefore we ought wholly to shun swearing, except upon occasions of highest necessity."
II. We may consider that swearing, agreeably to its nature, or natural aptitude and tendency, is represented in Holy Scripture as a special part of religious worship, or devotion towards God; in the due performance whereof we do avow Him for the true God and Governor of the world; we piously do acknowledge His principal attributes and special prerogatives; His omnipresence and omniscience, extending itself to our most inward thoughts, our secretest purposes, our closest retirements; His watchful providence over all our actions, affairs, and concerns; His faithful goodness, in favouring truth and protecting right; His exact justice, in patronising sincerity, and chastising perfidiousness; His being Supreme Lord over all persons, and Judge paramount in all causes; His readiness in our need, upon our humble imploration and reference, to undertake the arbitration of matters controverted, and the care of administering justice, for the maintenance of truth and right, of loyalty and fidelity, of order and peace among men. Swearing does also intimate a pious truth and confidence in God, as Aristotle observeth.
Such things a serious oath doth imply, to such purposes swearing naturally serveth; and therefore to signify or effectuate them, Divine institution hath devoted it.
God in goodness to such ends hath pleased to lend us His great name; allowing us to cite Him for a witness, to have recourse to His bar, to engage His justice and power, whenever the case deserveth and requireth it, or when we cannot by other means well assure the sincerity of our meaning, or secure the constancy of our resolutions.
Yea, in such exigencies He doth exact this practice from us, as an instance of our religious confidence in Him, and as a service conducible to His glory. For it is a precept in His law, of moral nature, and eternal obligation, "Thou shalt fear the Lord thy God; Him shalt thou serve, and to Him shalt thou cleave, and shalt swear by His name." It is the character of a religious man to swear with due reverence and upright conscience. For, "The king," saith the psalmist, "shall rejoice in God; every one that sweareth by Him shall glory: but the mouth of them that speak lies shall be stopped." It is a distinctive mark of God's people, according to that of the prophet Jeremy, "And it shall come to pass, if they will diligently learn the ways of my people, to swear by my name . . . then shall they be built in the midst of my people." It is predicted concerning the evangelical times, "Unto Me every knee shall bow, every tongue shall swear:" and, "That he who blesseth himself in the earth, shall bless himself by the God of Truth; and he that sweareth in the earth, shall swear by the God of Truth."
As therefore all other acts of devotion, wherein immediate application is made to the Divine Majesty, should never be performed without most hearty intention, most serious consideration, most lowly reverence; so neither should this grand one, wherein God is so nearly touched, and His chief attributes so much concerned: the which indeed doth involve both prayer and praise, doth require the most devotional acts of faith and fear.
We therefore should so perform it as not to incur that reproof: "This people draweth nigh unto me with their mouth, and honoureth me with their lips, but their heart is far from me."
When we seem most formally to avow God, to confess His omniscience, to confide in His justice, we should not really disregard Him, and in effect signify that we do not think He doth know what we say, or what we do.
If we do presume to offer this service, we should do it in the manner appointed by himself, according to the conditions prescribed in the prophet, "Thou shalt swear, the Lord liveth, in truth, in judgment, and in righteousness:" in truth, taking heed that our meaning be conformable to the sense of our words, and our words to the verity of things; in judgment, having with careful deliberation examined and weighed that which we assert or promise; in righteousness, being satisfied in conscience that we do not therein infringe any rule of piety toward God, of equity toward men, or sobriety and discretion in regard to ourselves.
The cause of our swearing must be needful, or very expedient; the design of it must be honest and useful to considerable purposes (tending to God's honour, our neighbour's benefit, our own welfare); the matter of it should be not only just and lawful, but worthy and weighty; the manner ought to be grave and solemn, our mind being framed to earnest attention, and endued with pious affections suitable to the occasion.
Otherwise, if we do venture to swear, without due advice and care, without much respect and awe, upon any slight or vain (not to say bad or unlawful) occasion, we then desecrate swearing, and are guilty of profaning a most sacred ordinance: the doing so doth imply base hypocrisy, or lewd mockery, or abominable wantonness and folly; in bodily invading and vainly trifling with the most august duties of religion. Such swearing therefore is very dishonourable and injurious to God, very prejudicial to religion, very repugnant to piety.
III. We may consider that the swearing prohibited is very noxious to human society.
The great prop of society (which upholdeth the safety, peace, and welfare thereof, in observing laws, dispensing justice, discharging trusts, keeping contracts, and holding good correspondence mutually) is conscience, or a sense of duty toward God, obliging to perform that which is right and equal; quickened by hope of rewards and fear of punishments from Him: secluding which principle, no worldly confederation is strong enough to hold men fast, or can further dispose many to do right, or observe faith, or hold peace, than appetite or interest, or humour (things very slippery and uncertain) do sway them.
That men should live honestly, quietly, and comfortably together, it is needful that they should live under a sense of God's will, and in awe of the divine power, hoping to please God, and fearing to offend Him, by their behaviour respectively.
That justice should be administered between men, it is necessary that testimonies of fact be alleged; and that witnesses should apprehend themselves greatly obliged to discover the truth, according to their conscience, in dark and doubtful cases.
That men should uprightly discharge offices serviceable to public good, it doth behove that they be firmly engaged to perform the trusts reposed in them.
That in affairs of very considerable importance men should deal with one another with satisfaction of mind, and mutual confidence, they must receive competent assurances concerning the integrity, fidelity, and constancy each of other.
That the safety of governors may be preserved, and the obedience due to them maintained secure from attempts to which they are liable (by the treachery, levity, perverseness, timorousness, ambition, all such lusts and ill humours of men), it is expedient that men should be tied with the strictest bands of allegiance.
That controversies emergent about the interests of men should be determined, and an end put to strife by peremptory and satisfactory means, is plainly necessary for common quiet.
Wherefore for the public interest and benefit of human society it is requisite that the highest obligations possible should be laid upon the consciences of men.
And such are those of oaths, engaging them to fidelity and constancy in all such cases, out of regard to Almighty God, as the infallible patron of truth and right, the unavoidable chastiser of perfidiousness and improbity.
To such purposes, therefore, oaths have ever been applied, as the most effectual instruments of working them; not only among the followers of true and perfect religion, but even among all those who had any glimmering notions concerning a Divine Power and Providence; who have deemed an oath the fastest tie of conscience, and held the violation of it for the most detestable impiety and iniquity. So that what Cicero saith of the Romans, that "their ancestors had no band to constrain faith more strait than an oath," is true of all other nations, common reason not being able to devise any engagement more obliging than it is; it being in the nature of things [Greek], and [Greek], the utmost assurance, the last resort of human faith, the surest pledge that any man can yield of his trustiness. Hence ever in transactions of highest moment this hath been used to bind the faith of men.
Hereby nations have been wont to ratify leagues of peace and amity between each other (which therefore the Greeks call [Greek]).
Hereby princes have obliged their subjects to loyalty: and it hath ever been the strongest argument to press that duty, which the Preacher useth, "I counsel thee to keep the king's commandment, and that in regard of the oath of God."
Hereby generals have engaged their soldiers to stick close to them in bearing hardships and encountering dangers.
Hereby the nuptial league hath been confirmed; the solemnisation whereof in temples before God is in effect a most sacred oath.
Hereon the decision of the greatest causes concerning the lives, estates, and reputations of men have depended; so that, as the Apostle saith, "an oath for confirmation is to them an end of all strife."
Indeed, such hath the need hereof been ever apprehended, that we may observe, in cases of great importance, no other obligation hath been admitted for sufficient to bind the fidelity and constancy of the most credible persons; so that even the best men hardly could trust the best men without it. For instance,
When Abimelech would assure to himself the friendship of Abraham, although he knew him to be a very pious and righteous person, whose word might be as well taken as any man's, yet, for entire satisfaction, he thus spake to him: "God is with thee in all that thou doest: Now therefore swear unto me here by God, that thou wilt not deal falsely with me."
Abraham, though he did much confide in the honesty of his servant Eliezer, having entrusted him with all his estate, yet in the affair concerning the marriage of his son he could not but thus oblige him: "Put," saith he, "I pray thee, thy hand under my thigh, and I will make thee swear by the Lord, the God of heaven and the God of the earth, that thou wilt not take a wife unto my son of the daughters of the Canaanites."
Laban had good experience of Jacob's fidelity; yet that would not satisfy, but, "The Lord," said he, "watch between me and thee, when we are absent one from another. If thou shalt afflict my daughters, or if thou shalt take other wives beside my daughters, no man is with us; see, God is witness between thee and me. The God of Abraham, and the God of Nahor, the God of their father, judge betwixt us."
So did Jacob make Joseph swear that he would bury him in Canaan: and Joseph caused the children of Israel to swear that they would translate his bones. So did Jonathan cause his beloved friend David to swear that he would show kindness to him and to his house for ever. The prudence of which course the event showeth, the total excision of Jonathan's family being thereby prevented; for "the king," 'tis said, "spared Mephibosheth the son of Jonathan, because of the Lord's oath that was between them."
These instances declare that there is no security which men can yield comparable to that of an oath; the obligation whereof no man wilfully can infringe without renouncing the fear of God and any pretence to His favour.
Wherefore human society will be extremely wronged and damnified by the dissolving or slackening these most sacred bands of conscience; and consequently by their common and careless use, which soon will breed a contempt of them, and render them insignificant, either to bind the swearers, or to ground a trust on their oaths.
As by the rare and reverent use of oaths their dignity is upheld and their obligation kept fast, so by the frequent and negligent application of them, by the prostituting them to every mean and toyish purpose, their respect will be quite lost, their strength will be loosed, they will prove unserviceable to public use.
If oaths generally become cheap and vile, what will that of allegiance signify? If men are wont to play with swearing anywhere, can we expect they should be serious and strict therein at the bar or in the church. Will they regard God's testimony, or dread His judgment, in one place, or at one time, when everywhere upon any, upon no occasion they dare to confront and contemn them? Who then will be the more trusted for swearing? What satisfaction will any man have from it? The rifeness of this practice, as it is the sign, so it will be the cause of a general diffidence among man.
Incredible therefore is the mischief which this vain practice will bring in to the public; depriving princes of their best security, exposing the estates of private men to uncertainty, shaking all the confidence men can have in the faith of one another.
For which detriments accruing from this abuse to the public every vain swearer is responsible; and he would do well to consider that he will never be able to make reparation for them. And the public is much concerned that this enormity be retrenched.
IV. Let us consider, that rash and vain swearing is very apt often to bring the practiser of it into that most horrible sin of perjury. For "false swearing," as the Hebrew wise man saith, "naturally springeth out of much swearing:" and, "he," saith St. Chrysostom, "that sweareth continually, both willingly and unwillingly, both ignorantly and knowingly, both in earnest and in sport, being often transported by anger and many other things, will frequently forswear. It is confessed and manifest, that it is necessary for him that sweareth much to be perjurious." [Greek], "For," saith he again, "it is impossible, it is impossible for a mouth addicted to swearing not frequently to forswear." He that sweareth at random, as blind passion moveth, or wanton fancy prompteth, or the temper suggesteth, often will hit upon asserting that which is false, or promising that which is impossible: that want of conscience and of consideration which do suffer him to violate God's law in swearing will betray him to the venting of lies, which backed with oaths become perjuries. If sometime what he sweareth doth happen to be true and performable, it doth not free him of guilt; it being his fortune, rather than his care or conscience, which keepeth him from perjury.
V. Such swearing commonly will induce a man to bind himself by oath to unlawful practices; and consequently will entangle him in a woeful necessity either of breaking his oath, or of doing worse, and committing wickedness: so that "swearing," as St. Chrysostom saith, "hath this misery attending it, that, both trangressed and observed, it plagueth those who are guilty of it."
Of this perplexity the Holy Scripture affordeth two notable instances: the one of Saul, forced to break his rash oaths; the other of Herod, being engaged thereby to commit a most horrid murder.
Had Saul observed his oaths, what injury had he done, what mischief had he produced, in slaughtering his most worthy and most innocent son, the prop and glory of his family, the bulwark of his country, and the grand instrument of salvation to it; in forcing the people to violate their cross oath, and for prevention of one, causing many perjuries? He was therefore fain to desist, and lie under the guilt of breaking his oaths.
And for Herod, the excellent father thus presseth the consideration of his case: "Take," saith he, "I beseech you, the chopped off head of St. John, and his warm blood yet trickling down; each of you bear it home with you, and conceive that before your eyes you hear it uttering speech, and saying, Embrace the murderer of me, an oath. That which reproof did not, this an oath did do; that which the tyrant's wrath could not, this the necessity of keeping an oath did effect. For when the tyrant was reprehended publicly in the audience of all men, he bravely did bear the rebuke; but when he had cast himself into the necessity of oaths, then did he cut off that blessed head."
VI. Likewise the use of rash swearing will often engage a man in undertakings very inconvenient and detrimental to himself. A man is bound to perform his vows to the Lord, whatever they be, whatever damage or trouble thence may accrue to him, if they be not unlawful. It is the law, that which is gone out of thy lips, thou shalt keep and perform. It is the property of a good man, that he sweareth to his own hurt, and changeth not. Wherefore 'tis the part of a sober man to be well advised what he doth swear or vow religiously, that he do not put himself into the inextricable strait of committing great sin, or undergoing great inconvenience; that he do not rush into that snare of which the wise man speaketh, "It is a snare to a man to devour that which is holy (or, to swallow a sacred obligation), and after vows to make inquiry," seeking how he may disengage himself the doing which is a folly offensive to God, as the Preacher telleth us. "When," saith he, "thou vowest a vow unto God, defer not to pay it; for He hath no pleasure in fools: pay that which thou hast vowed." God will not admit our folly in vowing as a plea for non-performance; He will exact it from us both as a due debt, and as a proper punishment of our impious folly.
For instance, into what loss and mischief, what sorrow, what regret and repentance, did the unadvised vow of Jephthah throw him; the performance whereof, as St. Chrysostom remarketh, God did permit, and order to be commemorated with solemn lamentation, that all posterity might be admonished thereby, and deterred from such precipitant swearing.