The original title for today’s devotional was going to be “Just Don’t Swear!” Well, working with the book of James is sometimes just about enough to make a New Testament linguist swear. I won’t go so far as Martin Luther did in expressing doubts and concerns as to the canonical authenticity of this writing (much of that because of the complicated works/faith discussion), but I understand the feeling at least a bit.
My original schedule called for a full day given to verse 12 alone …
James 5:12 – Above all, my brothers and sisters, do not swear—not by heaven or by earth or by anything else. All you need to say is a simple “Yes” or “No.” Otherwise you will be condemned.
Most outlines of James – both in Bible version headings and in commentaries – isolate this lone verse as a single thought and topic onto itself … another bullet point of thoughts in a final list of exhortations by James. But really? Not swearing (in the sense of oath-taking, not in the sense of cursing) is an item that deserves the introduction, Above all?
Yes, James’ older brother Jesus spoke on this also in Matthew 5:34-37 – But I tell you, do not swear an oath 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. All you need to say is simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything beyond this comes from the evil one.
My sense of this is that people of this time had a particular habit of bolstering their words by giving them the extra surge of authority, attaching them to divine providence … whether this was true or not. How can you argue with that? It is sort of like the way people in our day shut down much debate on the legitimacy of a decision by saying “I just feel led by God to ____.” How do you argue with that? You are not likely to say in response, “No, God didn’t lead you to do that!”
Here’s my take on this. We should not isolate this verse from what follows with separate headings, but put them together. James goes on to talk about the need for prayerful dependence and yieldedness toward God, and others …
James 5:13 – Is anyone among you in trouble? Let them pray. Is anyone happy? Let them sing songs of praise. 14 Is anyone among you sick? Let them call the elders of the church to pray over them and anoint them with oil in the name of the Lord. 15 And the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise them up. If they have sinned, they will be forgiven. 16 Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective.
17 Elijah was a human being, even as we are. He prayed earnestly that it would not rain, and it did not rain on the land for three and a half years. 18 Again he prayed, and the heavens gave rain, and the earth produced its crops.
Putting all of this together, I think James is saying, “Don’t be brash and bombastic and self-dependent, rather demonstrate your neediness in all times and situations, especially in difficult times of trouble or sickness. Pray much, and by doing so you will see God’s power and answers.”
A specific time for prayer is in the situation of illness. The sick person has the resource of requesting the spiritual leaders of the church to come to pray for him or her and to be anointed with oil. So this is a get-out-of-the-hospital-free card, right? Not exactly.
The word used here for “anoint” is not the word used for sacramental anointing. There is another word specifically for that. This verb means to “smear” or “daub” … the idea of oil being used as a medicinal treatment. So the sick person has the resource of prayer and medical treatment. And, the person is urged to confess their sins. If the sickness is sin-related, the prayer of confession and the treatment will result in recovery. But since the word “if” is used, we understand that not all sickness is sin-related, and therefore not all sickness can be guaranteed a healing. If that were true, we’d never die from sickness; we would never get the full healing of life eternal.
Prayer is powerful. The illustration of Elijah’s great prayer is recalled. And we underestimate the power of prayer … always, always. We say we believe it is the most effective thing we can do; but when the time is set aside to gather to bring petitions to God, a small minority actually show up to do it. Hey, why be dependent when there is so much else you can do in your own power? Again, I think being warned against that attitude is the warning that James is giving to the people of his time, and by the Spirit’s inspiration and preservation – to us today. Don’t swear, pray.