What does the Bible say about swearing?
Swearing is as old as the human race. The Bible is filled with examples of people who swore. Let me share and comment on several verses which apply and then share several Biblical principles that might help us all in determining our level of swearing—or not swearing!
But, first let’s define the word. Swear has two main usages. First, it is used in the context of swearing an oath. To swear means to make a solemn declaration, invoking a deity, or a sacred person or thing, to confirm the honesty or truth of the declaration. One example of swearing an oath is swearing on a Bible to “tell the truth and nothing but the truth” in a court of law. Jesus denounced this practice in Matthew 5:33-37: “Again, you have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not break your oath, but keep the oaths you have made to the Lord. But I tell you, Do not swear at all: either by heaven, for it is God’s throne; or by the earth, for it is his footstool; or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the Great King. And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make even one hair white or black. Simply let your ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No,’ ‘No’; anything beyond this comes from the evil one.”
In addition, the word, “swear, may also be defined as using abusive, violent, or blasphemous language. Words like, “S-O-B” and “G-D,” to initialize just a few words, are good examples of this second definition of swearing.
David, I am assuming that your question has mostly to do with the second definition. So, let me share some Scriptures.
First, many people look to the second commandment, “Thou must not take the Lord’s name in vain” (Exodus 20:7) as a prohibition against swearing. However, this commandment has nothing to do with cursing. It refers to the sin of emptying the Name of God of power—thus saying that God is not able to create, judge or provide the strength for victorious living.
Second, in the Sermon on the Mount Jesus declared the consequences of swearing and pronouncing curses upon another person. Jesus said, “You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ But I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to his brother, ‘Raca,’ is answerable to the Sanhedrin. But anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell” (Matthew 5:21-22). By the way, Raca” means vain, empty, or worthless. The Jews used it as a word of contempt. It was derived from a word root meaning, “to spit.”
Third, in his letter to the Galatians, Paul used what could be considered the strongest swear word in the Greek language to denounce the people who were tempting his readers to alter or desert the true Gospel of Christ. Paul wrote: “But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let him be eternally condemned! As we have already said, so now I say again: If anybody is preaching to you a gospel other than what you accepted, let him be eternally condemned!” (Galatians 1:8-9). Notice that Paul repeats his invective. Paul seemed to violate Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 5:21-22. I am not certain how to reconcile this discrepancy except to say that Paul was speaking with tremendous righteous indignation in order to keep the Gospel pure and clear.
Fourth, no one will dispute that Peter’s cursing as he denied Jesus was shameful and wrong. But notice that he cursed himself—not others: “Then he began to call down curses on himself and he swore to them, ‘I don’t know the man!’” (Matthew 26:74). We are never to curse ourselves. Cursing ourselves is to forget the high calling and great worth we are to God as Christ Followers. In Romans 12:3-4, Paul warned us about the dangers of pride: ”Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the measure of faith God has given you.” The corollary to this principle is to not think of ourselves too lightly either. As God’s children, loved by Him, sins forgiven, we are never to curse ourselves.
Finally, let me add two helpful principles.
Jesus gives us advice on how to respond when we are negatively cursed by others. By the way, cursing may take many forms. It can be as innocuous as talking derogatorily “behind our backs.” It can be verbal and quite hurtful. It can be as demonstrative as using vulgar and unmistakable hand gestures out a car window. Jesus encouraged us in Luke 6:27-28: “But I tell you who hear me: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you.”
Paul gives us positive advice on how to use our words—not to curse—but to bless others. He wrote in Ephesians 4:29-30: “Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen.” The meaning of “unwholesome talk” is rather is rather obvious. One of the purposes of our talk is to build others up—according to their needs. This implies that we know what their needs are. They may need comfort, guidance, encouragement, acceptance, approval or even loving rebukes—just to name a few things. Can you imagine what our homes would be like if nothing but wholesome talk came out of our mouths? What wonderful people to be around!
Well, David, thanks for asking such a timely and relevant question.