Let Your “Yes” be “Yes”

I have had recent opportunities to listen to and speak to the woes of young parents within my sphere of influence. As I reflect back on our own parenting experiences, I am grateful for a couple of encouragements that served us well. The first was through the late Howard Hendricks who encouraged parents to have very few rules, and the few should focus on things like the respect for self and others. Many rules, he suggested, required time and effort to enforce, drawing parental attention away from the “meatier” role of parenting (like character development).

A second helpful parental admonition came through a few different sources and was something akin to “Let your yes be yes and your no be no,” especially in the moment. Attempts to overexplain decisions often go south. If you are a parent, you know what I mean. Sometimes we just need our kids to trust us. Hmmm – sounds like something God might say, too.

Both admonitions point to an intentionality associated with steadfast parenting.

As stated in previous blog postings, I have been in the habit of spending daily times with God reading through the Psalms – a 25-year habit (see Fore-Edge Paintings). For the past few weeks, I have been immersed in Psalm 119, the long one focused on the psalmist’s love for God’s word, precepts, statutes. The psalm is written acrostically, 7-8 verse stanzas for each of the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet. This week I read from the stanza associated with the letter Nun (נ):

Your word is a lamp for my feet,
    a light on my path.
I have taken an oath and confirmed it,
    that I will follow your righteous laws. (Ps. 119:105-6, NIV)

The first verse brought back memories of a classic old song based on the passage. What caught my attention is the beginning of the second verse – I have taken an oath and confirmed it. The wonderment that caused me to pause: “How and what does it mean to confirm an oath?” On the surface, the answer seems quite straightforward, even black and white. One either took an oath or they didn’t. The question kept ruminating in my mind. Maybe there was more to it…

What IS an oath? My dictionary says an oath is a solemn promise, often invoking a divine witness, regarding one’s future action or behavior. By this definition, the psalmist was making a solemn promise to God to follow his righteous laws (precepts, statutes, or judgments, depending on the biblical translation). The Hebrew word used here for oath is shâba‛ (שָׁבַע) which literally means “to seven oneself.”

A common practice in Hebrew antiquity was to make seven declarations when making an oath. This could mean making the oath seven times or doing seven things to show the sincerity of the oath (i.e. seven sacrifices). Keep in mind that the number “seven” was sacred in Jewish tradition signifying that they took their oaths quite seriously.

But what does it mean to confirm one’s oath? I would think that declaring the oath seven times would be confirmation enough. Dabbling a little deeper into the text, we discover the root Hebrew word for confirm to be qûm (קוּם) which suggests the psalmist was steadfastly purposed in fulfilling the oath. Steadfastly purposed would lead me to believe there was intentionality associated with the oath – intentionality in following God’s law.

Over time, oath-making had gotten a little out of hand. When Jesus arrived on the scene, the religious leaders and their lawyers had turned “oathing” into something that served them well. They had invented a system of traditions laced with loopholes. They took the position that only when they made an oath were they required to be truthful. Oaths were commonly sworn in such a manner that unless the name of God was specifically mentioned in the oath, it wasn’t binding (first-century fine print!). And thus lengthy arguments and debates ensued over when an oath was or was not binding. It seems like a pretty significant departure from the psalmist’s intentionality to follow God’s laws.

It was enough of a departure that Jesus addressed oath-making during his discourse we know as the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7). Employing his oft-used “You have heard it said, but I say to you” formula, Jesus negated the use of oaths…

But I say, do not make any vows [or oaths]! … Just say a simple, ‘Yes, I will,’ or ‘No, I won’t.’ Anything beyond this is from the evil one. (Matt. 5:34-37, NLT)*

What Jesus was saying was profound and simple. Cultural Judaism and traditions were focused on oaths, promises, and rules. Their time and energy were focused on either keeping their oaths, promises, and rules or developing workarounds to suit their needs. God was left out of the equation. Thus his rebuke of their tradition-focused behavior in which they neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness. (Matthew 23:23)

It’s an easy trap to fall into. In wanting to live an exemplary Christian life, we can easily be drawn to cultural Christian traditions that focus on what and how and end up neglecting the weightier matters (the why) of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness. It requires intentionality.

* Some translations read (and the Greek affirms), “Let your ‘yes’ be ‘yes’ and your ‘no’ be ‘no.'” By the way, this must have resonated with Jesus’ own brother, James. He reiterated the thought in his epistle. See James 5:12