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The atrocious Criminality of Perjury and profane
MATTHEW, V. 33-34.
Again, ye have heard, that it hath been said by them of old time,
Thou shall not forswear thyself, but shali perform unto the Lord thinc oaths ; But I say unto you, Swear not at all; nei. ther by heaven, for it is God's throne ; nor by the earth, for it is his footstool ; neither by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great king ; neither shalt thou swear by thy head, bccausc thou canst not make one hair white or black : But let your communi. cation be yea, yea ; nay, nay; for whatsoever is more than these, cometh of evil.
A TRULY religious man is one who, being wholly devoted to God, aims to glorify him in all things. As the love and fear of God rule in his heart, so by these his outward conversation is directed. He not only watches over his actions, but takes heed to his words. “ Out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaketh.” The drift of a man's speech indicates the disposition of his mind. Therefore “ by our words we shall be jus. tified, or by our words we shall be condemned."
There are various ways in which men offend by word ; but none of the offences of the tongue are more sure indications of a corrupt heart, more prejudicial to morals, and more injurious to the interests of society, than profane swearing ; the sin condemned in the text. Our Saviour says, “Swear not at all,” or by any thing, so we render the words; but they properly signify, “ Swear not by every thing," as the Jews were wont to do in their ordina. ry discourse. “He that sweareth, let him swear by the God of truth," or the true God.
We have shewn, in a former discourse, that our Saviour, in the words now read, does not forbid swearing, absolutely and upon all occasions, that the words themselves in fair construction will not admit this sense, and that many other passages of scripture necessarily exclude it. The example of God himself, of Jesus Christ, of angels, of the patriarchs, prophets and apostles ; and the plain commands and institutions of the supreme lawgiver, make it evident, that, on some great and important occasions, oaths may, and ought to be used. This is agreeable to the sense of all civilized nations, especially of nations favoured with divine revelation. Nor do I know of any who deny it, but such as refuse to admit the authority of the written word in its plain literal acceptation.
An oath is a solemn appeal to God for the truth of what one declares, or for his own sincerity in what he promises. He therefore who takes an oath must be supposed to believe the being and per. fections of God, his moral government and a fu. ture retribution; and to feel in his mind some reverence of the supreme majesty. Otherwise his oath adds no credit to his word. Absurd is it there. fore to impose an oath on a man of atheistical principles, on one who denies all future punishment; or on one of notorious impiety; for such a person feels no obligation from it.
By the Jewish law great care was taken to guard against false testimony, especially in cases where life was concerned. When one was accused of a capital crime, the matter was to be examined by the Judges with diligence, and the verification of it was to depend on the testimony of two or three reputable witnesses ; and that the sincerity of the witnesses might appear as fully as possible, their hands were to be first on the condemned person to put him to death ; for if they would not venture to be his executioners, it was presumed, they had spoken falsely, and their hearts, in this serious moment, misgave them.
To this rule in the divine law our Saviour alludes in his answer to those who brought to him a woman taken in adultery. They tell him, The law of Moses ordained, that such should be stoned, and ask, what was his opinion. He says, “ Let him who is without sin among you first cast a stone at her.” He plainly signifies, that unless they were free from notorious violations of the law, their testimony, by the law itself, could not be a just ground of her condemnation ; for by the law none are admitted as witnesses to condemnanother, who are themselves involved in the same guilt. The accusers felt the force of our Lord's reply, and retired with conviction and shame.
It being manifest, that oaths, in some great and important cases, are not only lawful, but necessary, and are both allowed and enjoined by divine authority, we cannot understand our Saviour as giving an unlimited prohibition of them. It will be asked then, What does he prohibit ?
The answer to this question is the second part of our subject.
1. He condemns perjury.
This is in scripture forbidden in express terms and under awful comminations. “ Thou shalt not
swear by God's name falsely. The Lord will not hold him guiltless, that taketh his name in vain. A curse shall enter into the house of him that swear. eth falsely, and shall consume it.”
Men may incur the guilt of this sin in various ways, by asserting on oath that which they know to be false, by suppressing that which they have sworn to declare, by promising under oath to do that which they have no intention to perform, by positively affirming that which is doubtful in their own minds, by using equivocal and indeterminate expressions to disguise the truth, and by neglecting that which they have voluntarily bound themselves to do, when they are laid under no providential disability.
False swearing is in no case more criminal, than when men are called to bear testimony before pro. per authority. In this case, it is such a complica. tion of villainy, injustice, impiety and impudence, such a prostitution of conscience, such an opposition to the great end of public judicatures, that no language can sufficiently express the atrocity of it. The divine law gives repeated and solemn cautions against this sin. “ Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour. Be not a witness against thy neighbour without cause. Put not thine hand with the wicked to be an unrighteous witness.” In case a person is detected in a false testimony, the law of Moses orders, that on him shall be inflicted the same punishment, as would have been inflicted on the accused, if he had been convicted. “If a false witness rise up against any man, and testify against him that which is wrong, the judges shall make diligent inquisition ; and behold if the witness be a false witness, and have testified falsely against his brother, then shall ye do to him, as he thought to have done to his brother.”
2. Christ here condemns customary swearing in common conversation.
“ Ye have heard that it hath been said, Thou shalt not forswear thyself, but I say unto you swear not at all,” in your common discourse,“ but let your communication be yea, yea; nay, nay." His meaning is, that in our ordinary affairs we ought not to interpose oaths, and make familiar appeals to the Deity under pretence of shewing our sincerity or resolution, but content ourselves with a simple affirmation or negation, which in common cases will be sufficient, if the speaker be a man of credit ; and if he be not such, his oath will be but a slender confirmation.
The divine name is too sacred to be used in vain; and in vain it is used, when it is wantonly appealed to in matters which are not important enough to deserve, nor doubtful enough to need a confirmation of this solemn kind.
This species of profaneness is still more horri. ble, when divine things are tossed about in sport without thought or meaning; especially when oaths and imprecations are made vehicles for the convey. ance of those malignant passions, which are crimi. nal in their nature, and ought to be suppressed in embryo.
This customary profaneness indicates an habitual disregard to the Deity; for it is impossible, that a man, impressed with a reverence of God's sacred character, should wantonly affront him by a trifling or passionate use of his great and dreadful name. And as it proceeds from habitual irreverence of God, so it soon extinguishes the faint sentiments of piety, which may still remain. Thus by removing the fear of God and of a future judgment, it opens the way for every kind of in piety and wickedness. It directly leads to perjury; for the man who swears frequently, will often swear