A formal appeal to God or some sacred object as a support to fulfill a promise. Ancient societies lacked laws and documentation as a means of legal enforcement. Binding transactions depended upon the power of a person's word. Without a modern judicial system, the very security of the society demanded that people speak the truth to one another. The oath maintained the obligation to speak honestly.
Solemn oaths in the Bible were binding. Violation of an oath was serious and could not be disregarded (Ezekiel 17:13,Ezekiel 17:16,Ezekiel 17:18-19).
The Old Testament and Oaths The making of covenants revealed the binding nature of the oath. See Covenant. The parties made oaths to enforce the awareness that a violator of the covenant would suffer the same fate as the sacrificed animal.
Symbolic acts often accompanied an oath. Oath takers often raised their right hands or lifted both hands to heaven (Genesis 14:22;
Daniel 12:7; compare
Revelation 10:5-6). Bible writers could even use human images to describe God, saying the Lord swears by His right hand (Isaiah 62:8).
Invoking the name of a reigning monarch was another symbolic act joined with oath taking. Using the Lord's name in an oath directly appeals to His involvement regarding testimony and establishes Him as the supreme Enforcer and Judge. To violate the Lord's name was to violate the Lord; therefore, oaths that used God's name carelessly are condemned (Exodus 20:7;
The oath reinforced God's promises to His people (Exodus 33:1;
Psalms 132:11). The oath established boundaries around human speech and set guidelines for human conduct (Numbers 30:1;
Deuteronomy 23:21). Israel ratified their treaties by oaths (Joshua 9:15,Joshua 9:18,Joshua 9:20), and the writer of Ecclesiastes reminded his readers that it is better not to make a vow than to make a vow and not keep it (Ecclesiastes 5:4-5).
The New Testament and Oaths The New Testament raised the oath to a new level of understanding. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus established a different standard of speech, one based not upon oaths but upon simple integrity. A clear yes and no would be sufficient for communication (Matthew 5:33-37; compare
James 5:12). Jesus spurned oaths made by the Temple (Matthew 23:16-21). At His trial before Caiaphas, He was silent to the questions until a binding oath was placed upon Him (Matthew 26:63-65). Jesus did not condemn oaths, only the abuse of God's name in the taking of oaths.
Other New Testament passages reveal the gravity of oath taking. Peter's denial of Christ was first, a simple refusal to acknowledge Jesus. An oath accompanied his second denial. He issued his final denial in the form of a curse (Matthew 26:69-75). The apostle Paul frequently called upon God in the form of an oath to witness to his own sincerity (Romans 1:9;
2 Corinthians 1:23;
Galatians 1:20). Hebrews establishes the superiority of Christ's priesthood over the Levitical priesthood because it was promised with an oath whereas the Levitical priesthood was not (Hebrews 7:20-22).
Throughout church history, some Christians have insisted that oath taking is a concession to the evil of this present age. Certain Christian groups have refused to take oaths under any conditions. Most Christians do not condemn oaths under any circumstance, but they condemn the abuse of God's name in oaths.