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HEBREWS vi. 16.
For men verily swear by the greater; and an oath
for confirmation is to them an end of all strife.
PERHAPs there are few who, in the course of their lives, are not, upon some occasion or other, called upon to take an oath. Therefore, if there is a thing which well deserves to be learnt-to be understood it is the nature and obligation of an oath. It is an article, indeed, in which the sentiments of mankind are not generally to be found fault with ; for if there be any one thing which men do hold sacred, it is an oath-if there be one character which they agree to condemn and detest, it is that of the perjured man. I believe it is generally true, that few or none have the hardiness to go about knowingly and deliberately to perjure themselves, but those who have given up all pretensions to virtue, and all concern about it, as well as all hopes of religion and interest about their future happiness or misery. And with some, perhaps, this is no security. But admitting that there is with the generality some concern for virtue at the bottom,
there is ground to believe, that their opinion of virtue is rather forced by custom than consideration ; and this shows it, that you shall frequently see men scrupulous enough about the observation of the law of oaths-as oaths, for instance, in evidence before a court of justice, and the like-who are very heedless, not to say worse, of the authority and obligation of an oath in other cases, -as oaths for the due discharge of their office, oaths relating to the customs, and oaths concerning their allegiance, and some others of a like kind. Now it is an oath in both cases; and men's care about the one, and indifference about the other, seem, I say, to indicate that their judgement of oaths is taken up rather from conforming to the prevailing way of thinking, than any just knowledge of the subject, or reflections of their own about it. ;
In treating this at present, we will observe the fol. lowing order: first, to say a few words concerning the form of oaths; secondly, their nature; and then the force and obligation upon the consciences of those who take them.
Now as to the form, an oath is a religious ceremony; and like other religious ceremonies not de scribed or pointed out in Scripture, is, and may be, in different countries and different ages of the world, very various, without any substantial alteration in the thing itself. Amongst the Jews, the person sworn held up his right hand towards the heavens, while he repeated the terms of his oath : which explains the meaning of an expression in the Psalms, “ And their
right hand is full of falsehood.” Amongst Christians,
his vengeance, or renouncing his favour, if what we say be false, or what we promise be not performed.
This is what the person who swears in effect does ; and no man can do that, and know what he is doing, without an awe or dread upon his mind both at the time and whenever afterwards he reflects upon the obligation he is under, and how far he hath been careful to fulfil it. The knowledge alone of what an oath is, is enough, with a serious mind, to enforce the authority of it beyond all other arguments.
In further explaining the obligation of an oath, we must lay out of the case the particular mischief which false security, and false swearing, may, in any instance, do, because that mischief is to be accounted the same as if compassed by any other means; this we will pass over, and observe the general guilt of false swearing, which is what we are to consider. Thus, if we take away the life of another by false swearing, it is just the same as if we stabbed him; there is no difference. If by false swearing we make a cause go otherwise than it would have done, and ought to have done, and thereby deprive the losing side of what he would otherwise have obtained or preserved, it is the same as if we robbed him; the manner of depriving another of his just right makes no difference. Whatever we consider the general nature and guilt of false swearing to be, these particular effects and aggravations are incalculable.
In order then to show, that oaths carry with them a proper force and obligation of their own, it will be necessary for me to show, that there is good reason to believe that God will punish false swearing with more severity than a simple lie, or breach of promise ; for unless there be cause to think so, it cannot be contended that an oath has either use or virtue in itself; but that men's bare word or promise might as well be taken, if there be the same guilt in breaking them as a solemn oath. Comparisons of crimes are to be made with caution, for they are attended with this disadvantage that when we mention one crime to be greater than another, the hearer is led to fancy the less crime to be none at all, or to be inconsiderable. Thus, while we prove that false swearing is a greater sin, and will be more severely punished than lying, we are apt to think lying can be no great sin in the sight of God, nor the punishment much. This is not an uncommon, but surely a very weak way of reasoning; for lying remains just the same crime, and the punishment which awaits it will be just the same, whether perjury be a greater sin or not. It does not make the guilt of one action less, to show that the guilt of another is greater, any more than it diminishes the height of one tower or mountain to say that 'another tower or mountain is higher.