Mat. 5:34-37 – Blessings of the 9th Commandment (Part 2 of 3)

A Sermon by Nate Wilson for Christ the Redeemer Church, Manhattan, KS, 26 June 2011

Nate’s Translation:

33. Again, y’all heard that it was declared to the men of old,
            “You shall not make a tainted vow,” but “you shall deliver to the Lord your vows.”

34. And I myself am saying to you not to swear as a whole,

            neither by heaven (since it is the throne of God),

35.       nor by the earth (since it is the footrest under His feet),

            nor by Jerusalem (since it is “the city of the great King”),

36.       nor should you swear by your head (since you are not able to make a single hair white or black)

37. But let your word “Yes” mean “Yes;” and “No,” “No.”

            The excess of these is from the evil one.

Intro: False Advertising

1.      Drugs: Pfizer’s Bextra pain reliever  

2 years ago, PHARMACIA & UPJOHN COMPANY, a subsidiary of Pfizer, pled guilty to a felony violation of the Food, Drug & Cosmetic Act, for misbranding the drug, Bextra, with the intent to defraud or mislead... a criminal fine of $1.195 billion… [But these companies] promoted the sale of Bextra for some of the very uses and dosages that the FDA had declined to approve—such as for general acute pain and surgical pain—and about which the FDA had raised specific safety concerns. It also promoted Bextra with false and misleading claims of safety and efficacy. Moreover, when so promoting Bextra, PHARMACIA did not inform physicians… that the FDA had specifically refused to [approve of these uses of the drug] in part because of safety issues, including potential cardiovascular risks.

2.      Finances: H&R Block’s Express IRA’s  

Five years ago, New York Attorney General Spitzer sued the nation’s largest tax preparation company for fraudulent marketing of individual retirement accounts (IRAs). H&R Block Company steered hundreds of thousands of its clients into IRA investments that were virtually guaranteed to lose money because of a combination of hidden fees and low interest rates [that benefited H&R]… Customers were told that the IRA paid "great rates" and was "a better way to save," but 85 percent of the customers who opened the accounts paid the company more in fees than they earned in interest… H&R Block’s senior management knew that many of its customers were losing money on their Express IRAs… [but] The company’s management took no action to address these concerns. Instead, H&R Block continued to tout the Express IRA as a good way for lower and moderate income people to save.

3.      Food: Kellog’s Claims re: Frosted MiniWheats  

Two years ago, Kellogg Company, the world’s leading producer of cereal, agreed to settle Federal Trade Commission charges that advertising claims touting a breakfast of Frosted Mini-Wheats as “clinically shown to improve kids’ attentiveness by nearly 20%” were false and violated federal law… The complaint alleges that, in fact, according to the clinical study referred to in Kellogg’s advertising, only about half the children who ate Frosted Mini-Wheats for breakfast showed any improvement in attentiveness, and only about one in nine improved by 20 percent or more… Federal Trade Commission Chairman Jon Leibowitz said, “…it’s especially important that America’s leading companies are more ‘attentive’ to the truthfulness of their ads and don’t exaggerate the results of tests or research...”

Disclaimer: I have not personally investigated whether these claims are true or false, but this information is all from reputable government websites. It is not my intention to sway you one way or the other on these particular products, but rather to show that the things Jesus talked about in His day are still issues we need to address today.

Review O.T. Law on truth-telling summarized by Jesus (5:33)

·         Leviticus 19:11-12 You shall not… lie; neither shall one bear false witness as an informer against his neighbour. And you shall not swear unjustly by my name, and you shall not profane the holy name of your God: I am the Lord your God.  You shall not injure your neighbour… neither shall the wages of your hired man remain with you until the morning. (LXX-Brenton)

·         God Forbids:

o       Lying - 9th Commandment (Ex. 20:16/Deut. 5:20) “You shall not bear false witness”

o       Giving false testimony in court (Exodus 23:1)

o       Being silent to protect wicked men from punishment (Lev. 5:1)

o       Profaning God’s name – 3rd Commandment (Exodus 20:7) “You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain…” (through “cussing,” through swearing falsehoods in His name, or through worshipping other gods in addition to Him - Zeph. 1:5, Jer. 7:8)

o       Breaking promises (Num. 30:2-9) or being tardy at fulfilling contracts (Deut. 23:21, Eccl. 5:3)

·         God punished these transgressions with severe judgments (Deut. 19:15-20 Malachi 3:5, Acts 5)

·         God encourages:

o       Telling the truth (1Ki. 22:16 || 2Ch. 18:15)

o       Giving accurate testimony in court (Numbers 5:19, Zech. 8:16-17)

o       Speaking out against evil (Ezr. 10:5, Neh. 5:12, Neh. 13:25)

o       Giving glory to God’s name, including appealing to His authority to establish truth (Deut. 6:13, Hebrews 6:13-16) and to judge what is right (Ex. 22:10-11, 1 Thess. 5:27), and going to Him to confess transgressions and gain His forgiveness (Lev. 5:4-5)

o       Keeping promises and honoring contracts (2 Kings 11:4)

So Jesus says in v. 34…

᾿Εγὼ δὲ λέγω ὑμῖν μὴ ὀμόσαι ὅλως· Matthew 5:34a
                μήτε ἐν τῷ οὐρανῷ, ὅτι θρόνος ἐστὶ τοῦ Θεοῦ·
  Matthew 5:34b

                μήτε ἐν τῇ γῇ, ὅτι ὑποπόδιόν ἐστι τῶν ποδῶν αὐτοῦ· Matthew 5:35a
                μήτε εἰς ῾Ιεροσόλυμα, ὅτι πόλις ἐστὶ τοῦ μεγάλου βασιλέως·
  Matthew 5:35b

                μήτε ἐν τῇ κεφαλῇ σου ὀμόσῃς, ὅτι οὐ δύνασαι μίαν τρίχα λευκὴν ἢ μέλαιναν ποιῆσαι. 36

34. And I myself am saying to you not to swear at all,

            neither by heaven (since it is the throne of God),

35.       nor by the earth (since it is the footrest under His feet),

            nor by Jerusalem (since it is “the city of the great King”),

36.       nor should you swear by your head (since you are not able to make a single hair white or black)


NOTE: Jesus does not say, “Do not swear at all.” He said, “Do not swear at all by heaven or by earth or by Jerusalem or by your head.”


Why shouldn’t people swear by these things? I see two main reasons:

1.      They refer to a specific set of formulas by which Jews of Jesus’ day crafted promises without ever intending to fulfill them.

2.      No one should swear by created things because created things are not God and therefore they should not be appealed to to establish truth.


I want to delve into these two reasons separately, so let me start with the issue of wording oaths with loopholes, which Jesus alludes to here. Then I’ll try to address the issue of the authority behind truth.

1) Loopholes for lying:

·         In His sermon on the mount, Jesus was addressing a particular pattern of lying in his culture.

·         He explained it further in Matthew 23:16-22 "Woe to you, blind guides, who say, 'Whoever  swears by the temple, that is nothing; but whoever  swears by the gold of the temple is obligated… whoever swears by the temple, swears both by the temple and by Him who dwells within it. And whoever swears by heaven, swears both by the throne of God and by Him who sits upon it. (NASB)

·         Here’s what some of those “blind guides” wrote:

o       "He that swears בשמים by heaven, and by the earth, and by the sun, and the like; though his intention is nothing less than to Him who created them, this is no oath.'' ~Maimonides Hilch. Shebuot, c. 12. sect. 3

o       “If any adjure another by heaven or earth, he is not guilty [if he breaks his word].” ~Talmud

o       Lightfoot also quotes a Rabbi named Judah who wrote down a whole list of things you could swear by, including the temple, the altar, the lamb, the chambers of the temple, the sacrifices. Furthermore he wrote, “He that says, ‘By Jerusalem,’ says nothing, unless with an intent purpose he shall vow towards Jerusalem.’”  (cf. Misnah Nedarim, c. 1. sect. 3) Once again, this wording was used as a loophole for telling a lie, and Jesus is also calling it for what it is, evil.

·         William Hendriksen summarized it well when he wrote, “The scribes of Jesus’ day had misplaced the emphasis of the O.T. passages… [to mean that in the case of ] an oath in … which the name of the Lord was not expressly mentioned … one did not need to be quite so conscientious about keeping it…”

o       It’s the difference between “You shall not swear by the name falsely” (Lev. 19:12) and “You shall not swear by the name falsely” – oh we can swear a false oath, just not in God’s name. HMMM…

o       Or take Num. 30:2 “When a man makes a vow to Jehovah or swears an oath… he shall not break his word” – oh yeah, but if the man makes a vow by heaven, it’s o.k. to break his word then. NOT!

o       Or take Deut. 23:21, “When you shall make a vow to Jehovah your God, you shall not be slack to pay it” – ah yes, but there’s a loophole for lying, ‘cause it says, “When you shall make a vow to Jehovah your God, you shall not be slack to pay it” – see, I didn’t make the vow to Jehovah, I just made it in my head… AAAAAAAAA! That’s not what God meant; God said He desires truth in our inward parts! (Psalm 51:6)

o       “Jesus forbids this hypocrisy… He tells them that an oath ‘by heaven’ must be truthful and must be kept, for was not heaven God’s throne? … when oaths were sworn with an appeal to any of these objects they were as definitely binding as if the name of the Lord had been expressly invoked…” ~William Hendriksen

·         That was then; this is now. We don’t do that anymore do we? Oh yes we do:

o       Exaggeration is socially acceptable these days. How often do we stretch the truth to give it a little extra emphasis?
FOR INSTANCE, I often find myself exaggerating about how late it is when I am running late. One night at 11:30, I was tired and cranky, and several of my kids were awake and out of bed. So I fussed at them, “What are you doing up still? It’s midnight!! I was trying to impress on them the impropriety of being up so late, and it was pretty close to midnight, but it wasn’t actually midnight. I exaggerated, and that leads to distrust next time I tell them what time it is.

o       Or how about Political promises – we don’t expect politicians to have integrity, so we give them latitude for a certain amount of untruth before we really get upset with them. We expect famous people to play a little fast with the truth to make their points, and we excuse them for it because we like the general direction they’re going, and besides, they don’t play as loose with the truth as some other public figures. But that doesn’t make falsehood and broken promises O.K.!

o       Or here’s another case where I hear loopholes for lying: When people say things in a way that is intentionally misleading – telling stories in such a way as to make them look good and other people look bad.
ILLUSTRATION: Around my house, it often goes like this: Little Peter comes up to me wailing and saying, “Amos hit me!” Oh dear, that looks bad. Peter was just innocently sitting there, and big, mean brother Amos came by with a stick and mercilessly beat him up! Yikes! We’d better have a talk with Amos. What does Amos have to say? “Peter bit me, so I pushed him away!” Ahh, so now it looks like Amos was innocently minding his own business when suddenly his maniacal little brother came by and rabidly tried to bite a hunk out of poor Amos’ arm. On an on the one-sided stories can go – lying by telling only that part of the truth that makes you look like you were in the right. We need to tell the whole truth and confess when we do wrong. That’s why the Bible says, “Therefore, confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another so that you may be healed…” (James 5:16a NASB)


In addition to the fact that we should not have a fudge factor when it comes to telling the truth, there is also the idolatry factor. As I showed in my Functions of Deity series, truth is something which only a god can establish, and to appeal to anything besides the one true God when taking an oath to establish the truth of a matter is to say that something else is God. So it’s a problem to swear by the heavens.

2) God’s Exclusive Authority over Truth

Not by heaven: (v.34b)

§         Space is big, and the heavens contain a mindboggling amount of matter and energy in dazzling astral displays,

§         but the heavens are not God. They are merely a “throne of God:”

o       Psalm 11:4a  Jehovah is in His holy temple; Jehovah’s throne is in heaven...

o       Psalm 103:19  Jehovah established His throne in the heavens, and His sovereignty rules over all. – Heaven is not “over all;” God is over all!

§         This is the exalted God that the faithful prophets Micaiah and Isaiah and John saw in their visions of the heavenly throne-room in 1 Kings 22:19 and Isaiah 6 and the book of Revelation.

§         So, the heavens are not enough to swear by. What about the earth?

Not by the earth (v.35a)

§         The earth is a mighty big place – almost 197 million square miles, and it is a mighty significant place in the universe, but the earth does not have what it takes to provide the ultimate standard of truth (no matter what secular scientists say),

§         because it is a “footstool for His [God’s] feet.[1]

§         Footstools are sometimes called ottomans. It’s anything you’d prop your feet up on.

§         In the culture in which Jesus lived, generally anything touched with the bottom of ones feet was considered dirty, lowly, degraded. ILLUSTRATION: One of the etiquettes I had to learn while I was doing mission trips in the Middle East was not to cross my legs and expose the flat of my shoe to an Arab. That was considered insulting.

§         In James 2, we see that one way to put a poor man in his place was to seat him down by your footstool on the floor rather than in a chair beside you.

§         And in Psalm 110 we see that the footstool is where enemies were to be placed.

§         Here Jesus quotes from Isaiah 66:1 Thus says the Lord, “Heaven is my throne, and the earth is my footstool: what kind of a house will you build me? and of what kind is to be the place of my rest? My hand made all these things!”(LXX)

§         Here we see that God is greater than the heavens and He is greater than the earth. Because He is so much greater, He deserves the honor of being appealed to in an oath rather than the heavens or the earth or any other thing He Himself created.


O.K. so neither heaven nor earth is great enough to establish the truth. What about Jerusalem?

Swearing by Jerusalem: (v.35b)

§         Some have been inclined to use Jerusalem as a reference point for truth, for certainly it was a strategic city in God’s redemptive plan and it is mentioned often in the Bible.

§         J.B. Lightfoot wrote that when turtledoves and young pigeons were sometimes sold at Jerusalem for a penny of gold, Rabbi Simeon ben Gamaliel would say, המעו הוה “By this Temple I will not rest this night, unless they be sold for a penny of silver!” And so, I suppose, he haggles price of doves down.

§         But once again, the problem is that Jerusalem is not God, and so, even though it is an important city, it cannot be used as a reference point for truth. Only God can be used as the ultimate appeal for truth. Why?

§         Jerusalem is the “city of the great king” – that “great king” being Jehovah-God. Any greatness enjoyed by Jerusalem is derived from the greatness of God Himself, so we should not swear by the city, but by the God who makes cities great!

§         This is a quote from Psalm 48:2 “Great is the Lord, and greatly to be praised in the city of our God, in His holy mountain. The city of the great King is well-planted on the mountains of Zion... God is known in her palaces, when He undertakes to help her.” (LXX-Brenton)

§         Don’t give glory to the city. Give glory to the Lord of the city.

§         Applications:

o       Don’t focus so much on the geographical location of modern-day Israel that you lose your focus on God Himself.

o       Also, don’t focus so much on your own country or your own property that you lose focus of God. We are called to invest in the welfare of our country and of our house, but God is to be the focus of our attention. (More on that when we get to the next section on turning the other cheek.)

o       Patriotic feelings are no substitute for the truth of the Gospel.


So, don’t swear by heaven, earth, Jerusalem… or even by your own head!

Swearing by your head (v.36)

§         Jewish judges taught people to swear by their head, “One is bound to swear to his neighbor, by saying, ריד לי כחיי ראשך ‘Vow (or swear) to me by the life of your head…’” ~Sanhedrim 3

§         But Jesus said even that was foolish because we can’t control even the color of one hair. Again, you’re not God; Jesus is God!

§         Making your “hair white or black” may be referring to Leviticus 13 where all these words can be found in the context of healing from leprosy.

§         The difference between whether or not you had leprosy – whether or not you could function in Jewish society as a clean person – was whether the priest found white hair or black hair on your skin – those were part of the instructions in Lev. 13.

§         The implication is that you can’t have total control over the health of your body.

§         You could make a promise to do a certain task next year, but you couldn’t guarantee that you would not contract leprosy and be unable to fulfill that task a year from now.

§         ILLUSTRATION: One of my classmates in seminary has a teenage son named Shawn. Shawn graduated from High school and was training to be an auto mechanic. That was before the car wreck. When we visited Shawn in the hospital in Denver last year, Shawn had been in bed, unable to move for weeks. He was just beginning to get into a wheelchair to be wheeled around by nurses. Doctors said He will never again be able to stand under the hood of a car and fix an engine. You don’t know what your life will be like tomorrow.

§         Your person is too susceptible to disease and accidents to be able to guarantee anything. You need someone greater than your self to guarantee truth and security for the future. God is the only one who can do that.

§         And, by the way, God is able to make His hair white (Dan. 7:9, Rev. 1:14)

APPLICATION: Is this irrelevant?

We don’t swear by things other than God these days, do we? Oh yes we do:

o       When it comes down to it, what really drives trust in us is the confidence of the person delivering the information to us. The more confident they sound, the more likely we are to believe it. That’s the game that con men play; they know that if they act confident enough, they can pull the wool over people’s eyes and take advantage of them, and the world is full of con men who present information diametrically opposed to God’s word with such bold confidence that we believe them despite what God has said. God help us!

o       In our culture, we believe that if a speaker has a Ph.D., they are inherently more trustworthy, even though the PhD degree probably means they have been exposed to far greater lies than anyone with just a Bachelor’s Degree. Furthermore, if the expert got their Ph.D. from Harvard or Yale, why, we’d trust them all the more, even though the more prestigious a school is, generally, the further removed from fidelity to God’s word it tends to be.

o       Alfred Kinsey earned his PhD in biology from Harvard in 1920, and went on to publish research stating that 10% of American males were homosexual, concluding that homo­sexuality is normal and O.K. This was a revolutionary move against God, who clearly teaches us in the Bible to repent from sexual sins like that. But people believed Dr. Kinsey, and, from what we heard in our city hall over the past year, people still believe him, even though his research has been debunked as fraudulent. People would rather believe a confident human who tells them what they want to hear than believe what the Bible says.

o       It seems that just quoting a Bible verse is not enough to establish something as true these days. Bible teachers are expected to quote scientific research in addition to the Bible to prove their points. Now, statistics and stories can be interesting, but you should smell a rat in any teacher who doesn’t think the word of God is enough of an authority to establish a truth.

o       Jesus is the Way, the Truth, and the Life. He said that God’s “word is truth” (John 17:17) Psalm119:160 “The sum of Your word is truth, And every one of Your righteous ordinances is everlasting.” (NASB) That’s where the truth is: the Bible. Christians appeal to the Bible and the God of the Bible – not to created things – to establish what is true.


So, Let us abandon our culture’s loopholes for lying,
                  honor God alone as the source of all truth,
                 walk as men and women of integrity who speak the truth simply and without adornment,
                 and walk as witnesses to the truth of Jesus Christ.



[1] I do not understand why the KJV, NKJV, ESV, and NIV remove the phrase “under His feet” even though it is found in all the Greek manuscripts.