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upon any occasion ; founding their scruples concerning the lawfulness of oaths, upon our Saviour's prohibition, Matth. v. 34. “ I say “ unto you, swear not at all.”
The answer which we give to this objection cannot be understood, without first stating the whole passage: “ Ye have heard, that it hath “ been said by them of old time, thou shalt not “ forswear thyself, but shalt perform unto the “ Lord thine oaths : but I say unto you, swear “ not at all ; neither by heaven, for it is God's “ throne ; nor by the earth, for it is his foot« ftool; neither by ferusalem, for it is the city " of the great King ; neither shalt thou swear by “ thy head, because thou canst not make one “ hair white or black : but let your communica“ tion be yea yea, nay nay, for whatsoever is 6 more than these cometh of evil.”
To reconcile with this passage of Scripture, the practice of swearing, or of taking oaths, when required by law, the following observations must be attended to.
1. It does not appear, that swearing" by “ heaven,” “ by the earth,” -“ by Jerusalem," or “ by their own head,” was a form of swearing ever made use of amongst the Jeres in judicial oaths: and consequently, it is not probable that .
they were judicial oaths, which Christ had in his mind when he mentioned those instances.
2. As to the seeming univerfality of the prohibition, “ swear not at all,” the emphatic clause “ not at all” is to be read in connection with what follows; “not at all," h. e. “ neither by " the heaven,” nor“ by the earth,” nor by “ Jerusalem,” nor by thy " head :" " not at all” does not mean upon no occasion, but by none of these forms. Our Saviour's argument seems to suppose, that the people, to whom he spake, made a distinction between swearing directly by the “ name of God,” and swearing by those inferior objects of veneration, “ the heavens," “ the earth,” “ Jerusalem,” or “ their own head.” In opposition to which distinction he tells them, that, on account of the relation which these things bore to the supreme Being, to swear by any of them, was in effect and substance to swear by him; “ by heaven, for it is his throne ; by “ the earth, for it is his footstool ; by Jerusalem, “ for it is the city of the great King ; by thy “ head, for it is his workmanship, not thine, " thou canst not make one hair white or black :" for which reason, he says, “ swear not at all,” that is, neither directly by God, nor indirectly by any thing related to him. This interpretation
is greatly confirmed, by a passage in the twentythird chapter of the same gospel, where a similar distinction, made by the Scribes and Pharisees, is replied to in the same manner.
3. Our Saviour himself being “ adjured by “ the living God,” to declare whether he was the Christ, the son of God, or not, condescended to answer the high priest, without making any objection to the oath, (for such it was) upon which he examined him. “God is my witness,” says St. Paul to the Romans, “ that without “ ceasing, I make mention of you in my pray“ ers :" And to the Corinthians still more strongly, “ I call God for a record upon my soul, that, to “ spare you, I came not as yet to Corinth.” Both these expressions contain the nature of oaths. The epistle to the Hebrews speaks of the custom of swearing judicially, without any mark of censure or disapprobation : “ Men verily swear “ by the greater, and an oath, for confirmation, “ is to them an end of all strife.”
Upon the strength of these reasons, we explain our Saviour's words to relate, not to judicial oaths, but to the practice of vain, wanton, and unauthorized swearing, in common discourse. St. James's words, chap. v. 12, are not so strong as our Saviour's, and therefore admit the same explanation with more ease.
IV. Oaths are nugatory, that is, carry with them no proper force or obligation, unless we believe, that God will punish false swearing with more severity than a simple lie, or breach of promise; for which belief there are the following reasons:
1. Perjury is a fin of greater deliberation. The Juror has the thoughts of God and of religion upon his mind at the time; at least, there are very few who can shake them off entirely. He offends, therefore, if he do offend, with a high hand, in the face, that is, and in defiance of the fanctions of religion. His offence implies a disbelief or contempt of God's knowledge, power, and justice, which cannot be said of a lie, where there is nothing to carry the mind to any reflection upon the Deity, or the divine attributes at all.
2. Perjury violates a superior confidence. Mankind must trust to one another; and they have nothing better to trust to than one another's oath. Hence legal adjudications, which govern and affect every right and interest on this side the grave, of necessity proceed and depend upon oaths. Perjury, therefore, in its general conse
quence, strikes at the security of reputation, property, and even of life itself. A lie cannot do the same mischief, because the same credit is not given to it. *
3. God directed the Israelites to swear by his name ; † and was pleased, “ in order to show 66 the immutability of his own council,” I to confirm his covenant with that people by an oath : neither of which it is probable he would have done, had he not intended to represent oaths, as having some meaning and effect, beyond the obligation of a bare promise ; which effect must be owing to the severer punishment, with which he will vindicate the authority of oaths.
V. Promissory oaths are not binding, where the promise itself would not be so: for the several cases of which, see the Chapter of Promises.
VI. As oaths are designed for the security of the imposer, it is manifest they must be interpreted, and performed in the sense in which the imposer intends them ; otherwise, they afford no security to him. And this is the meaning and reason of
* Except, indeed, where a Quaker's or Moravian's affirmation is accepted in the place of an oath ; in which case, a lie partakes, 10 far as this reason extends, of the nature and guilt of perjury.
+ Deut. vi. 13. X. 20.
I Heb. vi. 17.