The spoken word is itself an invisible thing, yet it is the most powerful and important force in the universe.
It was by the spoken word that Elohim (God) called the universe into existence. It is the very Word of Elohim that has been given to us to instruct us in the Way of life, and the very Memra (Word) of Elohim who was manifested in the flesh of our Lord Yeshua who pardons us from the eternal consequences of our sins (Cf. Romans 3:25).
The work of our Savior on the cross was accompanied by the spoken word before that work was made complete, when He said, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:24), and “It is finished” (Yokhannan 19:30).
Our teshuvah (repentance) also must be accompanied by the spoken word of confession before the eternal consequences of our transgressions against the Word of Life can be remitted (Cf. Mishlei / Proverbs 28:13, Yokhannan Alef / 1 John 1:9).
The words of Parashat Matot convey something of HaShem’s high standards for His children with respect to their words; specifically, the taking of vows and the swearing of oaths. The words of the people of Malkhut HaShamayim (the Kingdom of Heaven) are to be spoken with the utmost care—they are not to be spoken frivolously.
Moshe (Moses) says to the people of Yisrael (Israel),
“If a man vows a vow to the LORD [YHWH], or swears an oath to bind himself by a pledge, he shall not break his word. He shall do according to all that proceeds out of his mouth.”
– Bamidbar (Numbers) 30:2, ESV
Moshe later reinforces this instruction, saying,
“If you make a vow to the LORD your God [Elohekha], you shall not delay fulfilling it, for the LORD your God will surely require it of you, and you will be guilty of sin. But if you refrain from vowing, you will not be guilty of sin. You shall be careful to do what has passed your lips, for you have voluntarily vowed to the LORD your God what you have promised with your mouth.”
– Devarim (Deuteronomy) 23:21-23, ESV
Speaking of the importance of our words, the Lord Yeshua says,
“I tell you, on the day of judgment people will give account for every careless word they speak, for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned.”
– Mattityahu (Matthew) 12:36-37, ESV
As the Lord Yeshua says, coming into the presence of HaShem is conditioned upon the spoken word.
“So everyone who acknowledges me before men, I also will acknowledge before my Father who is in heaven [HaShamayim], but whoever denies me before men, I also will deny before my Father who is in heaven.”
– Mattityahu 10:32-33, ESV
It is clear from the Scriptures: our words are very important.
Making Vows and Swearing Oaths
If the mere utterance of words carries so much weight, why would there ever be a need to speak an oath or make vow? If every idle word we speak has an eternal effect to our benefit or harm, how is an oath or a vow any different from simply saying, ‘I will or will not do such and such a thing’?
How often have you been told by someone that they would call you, for example, only to not hear from them at all? It can be bothersome, but by the grace of Elohim we are patient with informal commitments. Usually no serious harm is done in such cases, especially if an emergency of some kind or another pressing matter interfered.
People in the West have grown so accustomed to this casual way of speaking that it should not be difficult for us to understand why our Savior says that it is better to just let our ‘Yes’ be yes and our ‘No’ be no. Of course, this does not mean that we are not bound by the things we have said. The servants of the Lord Yeshua are not to be known for saying one thing and doing another.
Yet when words are spoken without much thought, they do sometimes come out in unintented ways. While still serious, the degree of culpability is less when one speaks without a vow or an oath.
When a person swears an oath, however, or makes a vow to pay something, they have spoken into existence a specific agreement as binding as any contract before Elohim. Expectations are created through formally spoken commitments, and the consequences for the parties involved are usually much more severe than when no formal commitment has been made.
The Torah itself prescribes oaths for certain situations. If we do swear an oath, our oaths are to be sworn in the Name of Elohim (Cf. Devarim 6:13, 10:20), since it is HaShem that is our witness and our Judge. In so doing, one calls Heaven to witness against them.
We certainly are not authorized at any time to swear falsely, yet some people take their formal commitments far too casually. Vowing things like, “for better or worse, in sickness or in health, until death do us part”, and then leaving one’s spouse when they face some form of difficulty often has devastating results.
But even if the parties to an agreement do not take their formal agreements seriously, our Father in HaShamayim (in Heaven) takes them very seriously. In the day of Judgment, formally spoken words will be treated with much greater severity than forgetting, or not being available, to do something that was said without a vow or an oath.
Swearing Falsely Condemned
The Lord Yeshua addressed false oath taking in the days of His flesh when it was common to swear an oath “by Heaven”, or “by the altar”, for example, instead of swearing an oath in the Father’s name as we are commanded.
This was done so that, while it would sound authentic enough, and be accepted as sincere, the oath would not be as legally binding according to the Torah—or so some people thought (Cf. Mattityahu 6:33-36). There is a spirit and intention behind the letter of HaShem’s instructions, however, through which all of the mitzvot (good deeds / commandments) must be observed.
That spirit is love—for HaShem our Elohim and for our neighbour (Cf. Mattityahu 22:35-40). As the Lord Yeshua says, whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Torah and the Prophets (Mattityahu 7:12). Shaul (Paul), the servant of the Lord Yeshua, likewise says love does no harm to its neighbour, therefore love is the fulfillment of the Torah (Cf. Romans 13:10).
Twisting the letter of the law to wrong one’s neighbour is therefore a clear violation of the spirit of the Torah, whereas the spirit is life and peace (Cf. 2 Corinthians 3:6). The motivation of the heart, together with the way one goes about doing a thing, are just as important as the specific instructions defined by the letter of His Torah, and the intentions of our hearts are exposed by how we apply, or twist, the Torah.
False and unauthorized oaths reflect the evil hearts of the hypocrites who engage in them (Cf. Mattityahu 6:37). Breaking one’s word has been compared by some to stealing because it often costs the other party time, materials, money, or emotional distress. Sometimes it causes the other person a lost opportunity. Sometimes it even causes a death.
If one says “until death do us part”, not even a divorce can truly render such a vow null and void. Let no one separate what Elohim has joined together, as the Lord Yeshua says (Mattityahu 19:6). In such a case, only a breach of the covenant in the form of sexual immorality is considered by Elohim a sufficient reason for issuing a certificate of divorce.
So when we make our commitments to and before Elohim and one another as adherents of the Faith of the Holy One of Yisrael, how casual should we allow our words to be spoken? How seriously should we take our commitments?
Should we follow the pattern of the world, which hardly takes any commitment seriously anymore? Or should we follow the pattern of our Maker, Whose words and commitments remain true and faithful to this very day even after the passage of thousands of years and to all generations?
As Shlomo HaMelekh (King Solomon) says, it is better not to vow than to vow and not pay it (Kohelet / Ecclesiastes 5:4-6). The old adage has merit and is appropriately applied here, that “A man is only as good as his word”.
The Scriptures state that we are to be like our Lord (Cf. Mattityahu 10:24-25), in whose mouth was no deceit (Cf. Yeshayahu / Isaiah 53:9, Kefa Alef / 1 Peter 2:22). Likewise, Yokhannan sees 144,000 whose lips will be blameless and who will follow the Lamb wherever He goes (Cf. Revelation 14:3-5).
One thing is certain: our Father in HaShamayim is calling us today to a much higher standard of communication than what the world is calling us to and perpetrating. Let all the servants of the Lord Yeshua strive to excel in that high and noble calling as we work to walk honorably before our King.