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Watson's Biblical & Theological Dictionary

Oath

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a solemn invocation of a superior power, admitted to be acquainted with all the secrets of our hearts, with our inward thoughts as well as our outward actions, to witness the truth of what we assert, and to inflict his vengeance upon us if we assert what is not true, or promise what we do not mean to perform. Almost all nations, whether savage or civilized, whether enjoying the light of revelation or led only by the light of reason, knowing the importance of truth, and willing to obtain a barrier against falsehood, have had recourse to oaths, by which they have endeavoured to make men fearful of uttering lies, under the dread of an avenging Deity. Among Christians, an oath is a solemn appeal for the truth of our assertions, the sincerity of our promises, and the fidelity of our engagements, to the one only God, the Judge of the whole earth, who is every where present, and sees, and hears, and knows, whatever is said, or done, or thought in any part of the world. Such is that Being whom Christians, when they take an oath, invoke to bear testimony to the truth of their words, and the integrity of their hearts. Surely, then, if oaths be a matter of so much moment, it well behoves us not to treat them with levity, nor ever to take them without due consideration. Hence we ought, with the utmost vigilance, to abstain from mingling oaths in our ordinary discourse, and from associating the name of God with low or disgusting images, or using it on trivial occasions, as not only a profane levity in itself, but tending to destroy that reverence for the supreme Majesty which ought to prevail in society, and to dwell in our own hearts.

"The forms of oaths," says Dr. Paley, "like other religious ceremonies, have in all ages been various; consisting, however, for the most part of some bodily action, and of a prescribed form of words." Among the Jews, the juror held up his right hand toward heaven, Psalms 144:8; Revelation 10:5 . The same form is retained in Scotland still. Among the Jews, also, an oath of fidelity was taken by the servant's putting his hand under the thigh of his lord, Genesis 24:2 . Among the Greeks and Romans, the form varied with the subject and occasion of the oath; in private contracts, the parties took hold of each other's hands, while they swore to the performance; or they touched the altar of the god by whose divinity they swore: upon more solemn occasions, it was the custom to slay a victim; and the beast being struck down with certain ceremonies and invocations, gave birth to the expression, ferire pactum; and to our English phrase, translated from this, of "striking a bargain." The form of oaths in Christian countries is also very different: but in no country in the world worse contrived, either to convey the meaning or impress the obligation of an oath, than in our own. The juror with us, after repeating the promise or affirmation which the oath is intended to confirm, adds, "So help me God;" or, more frequently, the substance of the oath is repeated to the juror by the magistrate, who adds in the conclusion, "So help you God." The energy of this sentence resides in the particle so: So, that is, hac lege, upon condition of my speaking the truth, or performing this promise, and not otherwise, may God help me! The juror, while he hears or repeats the words of the oath, holds his right hand upon a Bible, or other book containing the Gospels, and at the conclusion kisses the book. This obscure and elliptical form, together with the levity and frequency of them, has brought about a general inadvertency to the obligation of oaths, which, both in a religious and political view, is much to be lamented; and it merits public consideration, whether the requiring of oaths upon so many frivolous occasions, especially in the customs, and in the qualification for petty offices, has any other effect than to make such sanctions cheap in the minds of the people. A pound of tea cannot travel regularly from the ship to the consumer, without costing half a dozen oaths at least; and the same security for the due discharge of their office, namely, that of an oath, is required from a churchwarden and an archbishop; from a petty constable and the chief justice of England. Oaths, however, are lawful; and whatever be the form, the signification is the same. Historians have justly remarked, that when the reverence for an oath began to diminish among the Romans, and the loose epicurean system, which discarded the belief of providence, was introduced, the Roman honour and prosperity from that period began to decline. The Quakers refuse to swear upon any occasion, founding their scruples concerning the lawfulness of oaths upon our Saviour's prohibition, "Swear not at all," Matthew 5:34 . But it seems our Lord there referred to the vicious, wanton, and unauthorized swearing in common discourse, and not to judicial oaths; for he himself answered, when interrogated, upon oath, Matthew 26:63-64; Mark 14:61 . The Apostle Paul also makes use of expressions which contain the nature of oaths, Romans 1:9; 1 Corinthians 15:31; 2 Corinthians 1:18; Galatians 1:20; Hebrews 6:13-17 . The administration of oaths supposes 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 sin of greater deliberation.

2. It violates a superior confidence.

3. God directed the Israelites to swear by his name, Deuteronomy

Hebrews 6:13; Hebrews 10:20; and was pleased 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.

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Bibliography Information
Watson, Richard. Entry for 'Oath'. Richard Watson's Biblical & Theological Dictionary. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/eng/wtd/o/oath.html. 1831-2.

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