By Joshua Spurlock
How do people know that you’re trustworthy?
Do you need to promise to do what you say? Or perhaps “solemnly swear”? Is a handshake necessary? Or are you just known to be a truthful person?
One of the games kids in America sometimes play is that anything they promise to do while they are crossing their fingers doesn’t count. As a result, the other kids have no idea the child making the vow intends to break it. It is a despicable way for children to learn and practice the art of deception.
Adults often do similar things. They make promises they have no intention of keeping. They may say they didn’t mean what they said, or they might lie about why they couldn’t keep their word. They might simply shrug off the broken promise. Yet the seriousness of not doing what one says is greater than most realize.
Such behavior is not consistent with the character of HaShem (the LORD) our G-d, Who spoke and the universe came into being; Who speaks and does, decrees and fulfills, blessed be He (Pesukei D’Zimrah, Shakharit, The Complete Artscroll Siddur, Nusach Sefard)! When HaShem speaks, He is always speaking the truth.
HaShem, Who never lies, always keeps His promises. We who are made in His image (Cf. Bereshit / Genesis 1:26-28), must also act as He does (Mattityahu / Matthew 5:48), speaking the truth in love (Ephesians 4:15). To speak is a gift from HaShem, and this gift permits mankind to exercise the authority which HaShem has given us, engaging in complexities of life that are not accessible to creatures without words.
HaShem, Whose word is sacred, therefore, takes our words very seriously, as well; especially our deliberate vows and oaths, as we learn in Parashat Matot (Bamidbar / Numbers 30:2-32:42):
“Moses [Moshe] spoke to the heads of the tribes of the people of Israel [Yisrael], saying, “This is what the LORD has commanded. If a man vows a vow to the LORD, 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) 30:1-2, ESV
While HaShem expects us to be truthful in our speech at all times (Cf. Mishlei / Proverbs 6:16-17), one who vows and one who swears an oath is engaging in a very deliberate form of speech, and calls on HaShem to be a witness against them in the performance of their vow or oath.
One must therefore be very deliberate to do according to the words of their vow or oath. Failing to perform a vow or oath is a serious crime in Malkhut HaShamayim (the Kingdom of Heaven). So if you say that you will do something, you better do it.
As Moshe (Moses) reiterates in Devarim (Deuteronomy),
“If you make a vow to the LORD your God [Elohekha], you shall not delay fulfilling it, for the LORD your God [Elohekha] 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 [Elohekha] what you have promised with your mouth.”
– Devarim 23:21-23, ESV
To make a deliberate vow and to not perform it is a serious transgression of the Torah (Instruction, Teaching, Law) of HaShem. Since vows aren’t generally necessary, except for in rare circumstances, they are better to be avoided. Yeshua HaMashiakh (Jesus the Christ), our Lord, emphasizes this point in His Sermon on the Mount, a point which is stressed within Judaism.
The Lord Yeshua says,
“Again you have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but shall perform to the Lord [HaShem] what you have sworn.’ But I say to you, Do not take an oath at all, either by heaven [HaShamayim], for it is the throne of God [Elohim], or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem [Yerushalayim], for it is the city of the great King. And do not take an oath by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. Let what you say be simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything more than this comes from evil.”
– Mattityahu (Matthew) 5:33-37, ESV
While there is a place for swearing oaths in the Torah (E.g. Bamidbar 5:19-22, Devarim 6:13, 10:20, Cf. Mattityahu 4:10, Luke 4:8, Tehillim / Psalms 63:11), and the Lord Yeshua in no way means to make these void (Cf. Mattityahu 5:17-20), our Rabbi teaches that it is better to refrain from vows and oaths in general, if possible.
The truth is, taking vows and swearing oaths on a deceased parent’s grave, for example, is unnecessary for the faithful servant of HaShem. Because he who wants to be trusted should simply be trustworthy, and do what they say—even without making promises.
Watching What You Say
This idea is well-understood within Judaism. The Hebrew phrase Bli Nedar, which means ‘without a vow’, refers to the legitimate intention of doing a thing, yet without making a vow. It recognizes that circumstances outside of our control could prevent the best of intentions from coming to fruition.
It is used because pious Jews take their words very seriously—even when they aren’t making explicit vows. And it’s not just modern-day pious Jews who treat their words with such care. Yaakov (James), the brother of Yeshua according to the flesh, likewise teaches that one must speak in this way.
“Come now, you who say, ‘Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and make a profit’—yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes. Instead you ought to say, ‘If the Lord [HaShem] wills, we will live and do this or that. As it is, you boast in your arrogance. All such boasting is evil.’”
– Yaakov (James) 4:13-15, ESV
Let that sink in for a moment. We are to consider the circumstances before making promises and vows, and we certainly shouldn’t boast about our plans, because we are entirely at the mercy of HaShem. We cannot control the circumstances of our lives—nor even our very living itself—and it is arrogant to speak like we can.
The parable of the wealthy man who boasts of his plans for his wealth is a great example. The man had a successful harvest, having grown far more than he could eat in a year. In his future he saw leisure and a quasi-retirement for himself and purposed to build bigger barns instead of being rich toward G-d (Cf. Luke 12:16-21).
That man was in for a sad surprise. That night, he died, being counted a fool in the eyes of HaShem. His wealth was left to another, and all his plans came to nothing. While Yeshua’s point in the parable was to preach against greed and covetousness, it is noteworthy that He points to the arrogance of the man as being an aspect of his error.
Indeed, even what one tells oneself should be guarded. Shlomo HaMelekh (King Solomon) had the following to say about words in the Temple of HaShem.
“Be not rash with your mouth, nor let your heart be hasty to utter a word before God [Elohim], for God [Elohim] is in heaven and you are on earth. Therefore let your words be few. For a dream comes with much business, and a fool’s voice with many words. When you vow a vow to God [Elohim], do not delay paying it, for he has no pleasure in fools. Pay what you vow. It is better that you should not vow than that you should vow and not pay.”
– Kohelet (Ecclesiastes) 5:2-5, ESV
It’s simple, really, if not for the deceitfulness of the flesh: not making a vow is better than saying that you will do something and not doing it.
In another parable spoken by the Lord Yeshua, He describes two sons whose father gives them instruction. One says he will obey, but later does nothing. The other says he won’t do what his father says, but later changes his mind and obeys. The one who said he would not do but obeyed after all is better than the one who said he would obey and did not.
Clearly, our words demand the action they promise (Cf. Mattityahu / Matthew 28:28-31).
The Power of Words
There is an old saying, that, “sticks and stones may break my bones, but [words] will never hurt me.” Nothing could be further from the truth. HaShem created the universe through His Word, and so our words, too, have immense power.
“From the fruit of a man’s mouth his stomach is satisfied; he is satisfied by the yield of his lips. Death and life are in the power of the tongue, and those who love it will eat its fruits.”
– Mishlei (Proverbs) 18:20-21, ESV
Yaakov says that the tongue is capable of “great things”, even of setting the entire life of a person on fire (Cf. Yaakov / James 3:5-6). A lying tongue will do just that!
“A man of crooked heart does not discover good, and one with a dishonest tongue falls into calamity.”
– Mishlei 17:20, ESV
David HaMelekh (King David) also spoke repeatedly against those with lying and deceptive lips. Speaking of the enemies of Yisrael (Israel), David calls upon HaShem to consume them in His wrath for their lies and curses (Tehillim / Psalms 59:12-13).
There is even a warning for those who keep their promises. The story of Yiftakh (Jephthah) illustrates how seriously one should take the performance of their vows.
Yiftakh vowed to HaShem that, if HaShem would give him victory in battle, Yiftakh would give to HaShem whatever came out of his dwelling to meet him (Shoftim / Judges 11:30-31). And who is it who comes out to meet him? His only daughter!
While there is debate about the proper interpretation of the words which follow in the passage, one interpretation has it that the fulfillment of Yiftakh’s vow was to consecrate his daughter to the service of HaShem, in which she would not get married or have children. Surely if there was ever a time to break a rash vow, it would have been then.
But Yiftakh and his daughter both demonstrate real emunah (faith) when even that is not enough of a reason to break a vow. Yiftakh says he cannot break his vow—and his daughter agrees!
“And as soon as he saw her, he tore his clothes and said, “Alas, my daughter! You have brought me very low, and you have become the cause of great trouble to me. For I have opened my mouth to the LORD, and I cannot take back my vow.” And she said to him, “My father, you have opened your mouth to the LORD; do to me according to what has gone out of your mouth, now that the LORD has avenged you on your enemies, on the Ammonites [Bnei Amon].”
– Shoftim (Judges) 11:35-36, ESV
These words are a great example to us about how important it is to think about what we say before we say it, to guard our lips carefully—and then to perform what we say we will do. Sometimes, keeping our word hurts, but how you behave in that moment speaks volumes about your character.
The Likeness of HaShem or the Likeness of HaSatan?
While not making a vow is preferable to breaking one, if you have found yourself with a promise made, your character is displayed by whether or not you keep it.
“O LORD, who shall sojourn in your tent? Who shall dwell on your holy hill? He who walks blamelessly and does what is right and speaks truth in his heart…who swears to his own hurt and does not change.”
– Tehillim (Psalms) 15:1-2,4b
“Who shall ascend the hill of the LORD? And who shall stand in his holy place? He who has clean hands and a pure heart, who does not lift up his soul to what is false and does not swear deceitfully.”
– Tehillim 24:3-4, ESV
Where does the honest and truthful one end up? Those who speak the truth come into the presence of HaShem—especially those who do not swear falsely.
The Lord Yeshua didn’t mince words, on the other hand, in speaking of those who are not truthful in their words and their deeds.
To these, he says,
“You are of your father the devil [HaSatan], and your will is to do your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning, and does not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks out of his own character, for he is a liar and the father of lies. But because I tell the truth, you do not believe me.”
– Yokhannan (John) 8:44-45, ESV
So who does your tongue most imitate? Are you like HaShem, Who cannot lie (Cf. Bamidbar / Numbers 23:19) and always keeps His Word? Or does your tongue smell like smoke?
We are surrounded by opportunities to lie and break our word. We make promises to our friends, our spouses, our co-workers, and even to ourselves. Do we keep them?
Perhaps the best test for how well you do at speaking the truth is the child-test. If you were to say the same thing to your small child, would they expect you to do it? Or would they understand that “circumstances got in the way”?
So do what you say you will do. And if you aren’t sure you can or will, restrain yourself from speaking. It is surely better to bite your tongue than to be set on fire by it.
Therefore does Ruakh HaShem (the Spirit of HaShem) lead us to pray,
“Set a guard, O LORD, over my mouth; keep watch over the door of my lips!”
– Tehillim (Psalms) 141:3, ESV
May your lips utter what is true this week and always in the grace of our Lord, Yeshua HaMashiakh, who is The Truth (Yokhanan / John 14:6).