HELEN WAS complaining to her husband about their son. “He promised faithfully to tidy his room and he hasn’t done a thing!” Dad said nothing, but shrugged his shoulders. “And you’re not much better,” she railed. “You threaten to punish him and don’t. No wonder I can’t believe a word he says.”
What a different world it would be if everybody always meant what they said! In a court of law, witnesses are usually required to swear an oath or give an affirmation that they are telling the truth—in an attempt to ensure that they really do tell the truth. Because it’s acknowledged that very often, people do not.
‘Your word is your bond’ used to be a popular maxim. It is a principle which is endorsed strongly by the Lord Jesus: “You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but shall perform your oaths to the Lord.’ But I say to you, do not swear at all… But let your ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No,’ ‘No.’ For whatever is more than these is from the evil one” (Matthew 5:33–37).
Swearing oaths was common in Bible times, and was regarded as a serious undertaking. Even God Himself swore oaths. For example:
“For when God made a promise to Abraham, because He could swear by no one greater, He swore by Himself, saying, ‘Surely blessing I will bless you, and multiplying I will multiply you.’ And so, after he had patiently endured, he obtained the promise. For men indeed swear by the greater, and an oath for confirmation is for them an end of all dispute. Thus God, determining to show more abundantly to the heirs of promise the immutability of His counsel, confirmed it by an oath” (Hebrews 6:13–17, referring to Genesis 22:16–18).
Now without any doubt, God most certainly cannot lie (Titus 1:2). While some of His promises are conditional (that is, God will only fulfil them if the people to whom He has made the promise keep their side of the agreement, for example Deuteronomy 11:13–28), His words are always true. They are His divine and sure guarantee. He does not need to reinforce what He says by making an oath. Clearly, then, the primary reason for God’s swearing is to emphasise to us the gravity and certainty of a promise. It is therefore instructive to look at occasions when God ‘swore’.
The Bible phrase ‘raised my hand in an oath’ is quite common, and so an oath is implied when God raised His hand in a promise, for example Psalm 106:26. The table below shows examples where the words ‘swore’, ‘oath’ or ‘raised His hand’ are used in relation to a promise of God. The brown shaded boxes contain promises of punishment or judgement as opposed to blessing. (The list is not exhaustive, as there are examples where God simply makes a statement and it is later revealed to have been an oath, for example Deuteronomy 4:21 which refers back to Numbers 20:12.)
Specific affirming terms used by God are: ‘as I live’ (this is used more than ten times for punishments; twice in blessing; and once to say that He ‘has no pleasure in the death of the wicked’, this is Ezekiel 33:11); ‘by Myself’ (this is used twice in blessing, one of which is quoted twice again, and four times in punishments); ‘by My holiness’, ‘by My great name’, ‘by the pride of Jacob’, ‘by God’s right hand’, ‘know certainly’, ‘it shall stand’, ‘God will not relent’ and ‘in truth and will not turn’.
Lessons For Us
There are some very important messages in these examples. Firstly, they show the critical importance of the land of Israel (and hence the Jews) in God’s eternal purpose. Secondly, God used very strong language indicating that the words are not ‘empty’.
Numbers chapter 14 is illuminating. Twelve spies had been sent into the Promised Land to investigate how the Israelites could capture it, and ten of them had reported that they did not believe it was possible. They lacked faith in God.
The people were distraught, accused God of cheating them, and started to plot a rebellion and a return to Egypt from which they had recently escaped. God in His anger threatened to disinherit them and to make a nation of Moses instead (vs. 11–12). Moses pleaded for the people, drawing on the oath God swore to the Jewish fathers and on His unchanging character (vs. 15–19). God did forgive, but He then swore by His very existence that despite the faithlessness of His people the earth would one day be filled with His glory (v. 21). Then He said that ‘as I live’ that faithless generation would not enter the land which He had sworn to their ancestors (vs. 28–29). There are three oaths in this interchange. The incident shows the potentially terrifying judgement of God on the faithless, but that this was accompanied by an amazing mercy for the faithful, together with the absolute surety of God’s ultimate purpose.
This is exactly how God is. These unchanging characteristics of Almighty God were first demonstrated in the very beginning, when Adam and Eve listened to the lie of the serpent and God punished them for their sin but also promised them a special ‘seed’ who would undo the work of the serpent (Genesis 3:15). Time and time again the Jewish prophets warned God’s people of impending judgement if they did not obey, but with a repeated golden thread of promise that God’s plan of salvation would come to pass and that the earth would eventually be transformed, with the prospect of eternal life for the faithful.
A similar point was made by the Apostle Paul to believers in his day: “Therefore consider the goodness and severity of God: on those who fell, severity; but toward you, goodness, if you continue in His goodness. Otherwise you also will be cut off”
(Romans 11:22). His words are a warning to us.
God is not like Helen’s son and husband: His word is sure. His plan of salvation is absolutely guaranteed, but only for people who both believe in Him and believe Him. This involves believing that He exists, truly believing His word and promises
(Hebrews 11:6), repenting and being baptised (Mark 16:16), and resolving with purposeful determination to obey and serve Him to the best of their ability. Thus resolved they can, like the apostles, await the return of Jesus with confident hope
(2 Timothy 4:8).