Themes in James: Oaths and Instructions for the Suffering, Cheerful, and Ill

“Do not swear,” James tells his readers (Jas. 5:12, English Standard Version). He doesn’t mean here using words that have to do with the most private behavior of human beings—the apostle Paul covers that—but with taking spurious oaths. Today, we may hear someone say, “I swear on my mother’s grave.” That comes short of swearing to God, but it still sounds pretty serious, doesn’t it? We find this kind of talk among the externally religious only. That’s what a lot of the Hebrews in James’s day were, but if they’re Christian believers, their religion should be something more than externally ritualistic.


By ritualistic, in this context, I mean taking part in an activity that one shouldn’t, but now feels one can because the worst part of the activity is understood to have been removed. This is technicality righteousness, really a form of Phariseeism: “I didn’t use God’s name to swear by, so if I don’t keep my oath, I’m not guilty of using his name in vain.” Conversely, “Because I swear by something or someone less than God, like the heavens or the earth, then it’s not too serious if I don’t keep my oath.”

The mind reels at the complexity of how religious hypocrisy seeks to justify itself. If the swearer has no intention of keeping the oath, or is less than sure that he will, why is he swearing at all? Well, to somehow convince the one before whom the oath is taken that he really means it, even though he doesn’t. Yet is his believability realistic? Can we believe someone because this time they’re swearing, whereas the rest of the time, when they’re not swearing, they likely are not telling the truth?

If they were believable, they’d have no reason to swear an oath at all, saying instead yes or no (v. 12b) or, frankly, I don’t know or don’t know yet. Speaking this way enough times shows people that what you mean when you’re saying what you’re saying makes having to swear oaths to be believed unnecessary. That’s James’s point, as it was the Lord Jesus,’ who said the same thing in the Gospels (Matt. 5:37).

Words Matter

James says, “But above all, my brothers, do not swear” (v. 12). Is he emphasizing this kind of mindless trespass over others? The text also allows for another sense. “Above all” can also mean before all, or before all that’s said, suggesting that oaths may be too easily and quickly taken on the lips before these believers try to communicate something. In other words, it’s a bad habit resident with the wider community of which these Hebrew believers are a part—a habit that they need to change now that they’re part of the community of the new creation.

Perhaps an example of this today is the phrase “to be honest,” or “to be honest with you,” used as a prelude to something someone is ardent about conveying. (I admit to having used it.) That’s not an oath, but it has the same effect: it calls attention to the speaker’s truthfulness, but by doing so it also calls attention to the likelihood of his not being truthful when he doesn’t use the phrase.

Christianity has a history of some sects being unwilling to take oaths in a court of law because of this teaching. But is that really what’s in view here in James? Is the issue that seriously taking an oath is forbidden? Isn’t it rather that making or taking an oath spuriously, or lightly, while trying to come across as serious is what’s forbidden? Taking an oath in court with one’s hand on the Word of God is serious business, nothing to be taken lightly. In fact, it’s still done because it’s understood that the witness will speak truth lest God judge him or her. Perjurers shrug this off, but God doesn’t.

It’s not that oaths are impermissible. It’s that spurious oaths are. Men are commanded to settle important matters between themselves with oaths before God (Exod. 22:11–12). A meaningful oath before God is a witness to his glory before unbelievers (Jer. 4:2). And God himself swears an oath, condescending to our finite understanding (Heb. 6:17).

The Place for Oaths

There’s a place for oaths, but day-to-day conversation in life and business is not it. Truth telling doesn’t necessarily mean always baring one’s heart. But it does mean speaking the truth, in love (Eph. 4:15–16). The more we do that, the more we set a tone for more of the same both around us and beyond us, so that, except for in a court of law, swearing by heaven or by earth or by anything or anyone else is unnecessary.

James has an appreciation for the vicissitudes of life. Christians aren’t exempt from life’s turmoil. The difference is they’re equipped with a spiritual set of tools to meet it. Are you suffering? James asks. If so, pray (v. 13). That seems obvious, yet how often do we turn to ourselves or to others to find a way out of our suffering? But only the Lord can provide grace, peace, and a way to overcome suffering. That doesn’t mean we don’t avail ourselves of resources that are ours or don’t look to brethren for help. But it does mean there’s a focal point that should primarily draw our attention during such times—the Lord.

What better example do we have of this than David in the Psalms, who goes to God with his requests for all kinds of suffering: physical, psychological, social, and of course spiritual? Are you suffering, or as another translation renders it, “afflicted” (v. 13, King James Version)? Then pray. What’s that going to do? We learn more about the power, not of, but in, prayer toward the end of James’s letter. For now, we can recall not only David’s imploring requests, but the fact that their answers are often recorded in the same psalms in which these requests are made. These are prayers of faith! That should be an encouragement to us.

We may not be suffering, but be cheerful because of God’s blessing in our lives. James doesn’t say here that that’s the time to go out on the town to celebrate, as it were, to let it all hang out in revelry, but instead to sing praise to God (v. 13b). Holy Roller stuff, some may say. Praise to God should never be forced or mechanical. It’s given to us here as a command, but it can never be summoned and expressed by just taking it as an order.

Praise and Thanks

Praise can and should be spiritually natural to the Christian, pervading life in an air of thankfulness, and for the smallest thing to the largest. When we’re happy, James says, that’s our cue, not to run into the world to yelp, but to look up with praise and thanksgiving, from where we’ll then know how to joyfully interact in the world.

What if you’re sick? Call the elders of the church to come and pray for you, James says (v. 14). In effect, this happens whenever we ask our pastors to pray for us when sick. The other elders and congregation are likewise notified. It’s a great comfort to know that God’s people are praying for you in your infirmity, isn’t it? What about having the elders come and anoint you with oil, as James points out (v. 14b)? Oil was thought to have medicinal value in the ancient world. That’s the connection to the elders’ prayers along with the anointing with oil.

I knew an elder years ago who continued this practice, taking what’s said here in James on face value, and I’d be the last to criticize him for the practice. If anything, it assured that he physically visited infirm or ill church members to anoint them with oil, yes, but also to pray with them and bring a scriptural word of hope and encouragement in person. But the medicinal value of being anointed with oil, we now know, is not what had been thought.

The Prayer of Faith

James here also expresses confidence in the elders’ prayer of faith over the ill. Believing prayer is powerful, as James goes on to explain. It’s understood that this is believing prayer that however ardent and engaged is nonetheless subject to the good providence of God. Nonetheless, whether the sick Christian is saved from dying and raised up from his bed or not, he will be saved and raised up on the last day, since, if he’d committed any sins, we are told, they will be forgiven (v. 15).

If you’re suffering or in trouble, if you’re happy or cheerful, if you’re sick or infirm—here are instructions from God’s Word for you. Pray, praise, turn to the church’s leaders for help. Simple enough, isn’t it? And yet how often these turn out to be the last things we do rather than the first. Many of us like to think we can figure things out for ourselves, and then reward ourselves accordingly when things go our way. We often think we can pull ourselves up by our own spiritual bootstraps. After all, we’re not sissies. Yet here James shows us where true strength lies. It’s made perfect in our weakness when we turn to God.


Mr. Gerry Wisz is a writer, college instructor, and retired public relations professional who, with his family, attends Messiah’s Reformed Fellowship (URC) in New York City.