“of the Wicked One.” The word “of” is from the Greek preposition ek (#1537), which in this context would generally mean “from,” but in this case it can also mean “because of,” and both of those meanings apply in this verse (cp. Lenski’s translation, “due to” in The Interpretation of St. Matthew’s Gospel). So the translation of Matthew 5:37 should be expanded in our thinking to be something like, “But let your speech be, ‘Yes, yes,’ or ‘No, no,’ and whatever is more than this is from, and because of, the Wicked One.” The Devil is a liar and the father of lies (John 8:44), and he influences people to do ungodly things.
The Law of Moses clearly allowed for oaths and vows (Lev. 19:12; Numbers 30:2-16, esp. v. 2; Deut. 23:21-23; cp. Ps. 76:11; Ecc. 5:4) and godly people throughout the Old Testament vowed and made oaths (cp. Judg. 11:30; 1 Sam. 1:11; Isa. 19:21). So why would Jesus say not to make vows? The answer has to do with the culture of the time.
The Old Testament scriptures seem straightforward when it comes to vows: “You must not swear by my name falsely and profane the name of your God” (Lev. 19:12). “When a man vows a vow to Yahweh or swears an oath to bind his soul with a bond, he must not break his word; he must do according to all that proceeds out of his mouth” (Num. 30:2). “When you vow a vow to Yahweh your God, you are not to be slack to pay it” (Deut. 23:21). But by the time of Christ, the religious leaders had changed the clear meaning of the Mosaic Law.
The heart of the Law was that if you vowed, pay your vow, but at the time of Christ the religious leaders had perverted the Law and interpreted it to say, “When you vow a vow to Yahweh your God, you are not to be slack to pay it.” In other words, they taught, “I have to pay the vows I make ‘to Yahweh,’ but I can make vows to and about other things and not be obligated.” Matt. 5:33-36 shows us that at the time of Christ people were making vows based on things besides Yahweh, including heaven, earth, Jerusalem, and their own head.
We get a very good look at how the religious leader’s lying system of vows and oaths worked from Matthew 23:16-22. That section of Scripture shows that the religious leaders had devised a dishonest system of making vows such that a person could swear by the Temple (the “sanctuary”) and the vow be worthless, but an oath on the gold of the Temple had to be kept. Similarly, a vow on the altar in the Temple was worthless, but a vow made based on a sacrifice on the altar was binding. This meant that anyone who did not know the “secret code” of which vows were considered binding and which vows could be ignored was open to be deceived when dealing with those who purposely made vows they did not think they needed to keep.
In saying what he did, “let your speech be, ‘Yes, yes,’ or ‘No, no,’ and whatever is more than this is of the Wicked One,” Jesus did not change the Mosaic Law concerning oaths and vows, instead, he brought them back to God’s original intent. Any vow or oath must be kept, and in fact, even if a person did not vow but just said “yes” or “no,” that must be kept too. We know Jesus did not change the Law concerning oaths because he himself took one at his trial (Matt. 26:63-64). Also, Hebrews 6:16 confirms that oaths were still being made and ending disputes, and people such as Paul and James were still involved with oaths and vows after the time of Jesus (Acts 18:18; 21:23). On the other hand, people were still dishonest and trying to hoodwink people by false oaths, so James repeated what Jesus had said years before and tried to impress upon people that whatever they said or promised was binding. (James 5:12).
Ecclesiastes expresses the heart of God concerning what we say: “It is better that you should not vow than that you should vow and not pay. Do not allow your mouth to cause your flesh to sin. Do not say before the messenger that it [your vow] was a mistake. Why should God be angry at your voice and destroy the work of your hands? (Ecc. 5:4-6).
Believers should pay close attention to what the Bible says about making false statements, because it is a serious sin in the eyes of God. Today many untrue things are regularly said in many and various contexts. Advertizers regularly are deceptive about their products; the news media and politicians regularly distort the truth, and average people regularly lie about things to get their way, stay out of trouble, or gain some perceived advantage. All this lying in the world around believers makes it seem like lying is no big deal. But it is. We should make no mistake: lying is a way of the world, comes from the Devil, and is a sin. Believers should not lie.
“Wicked One.” The Greek is ponēros (#4190 πονηρός), which the BDAG Greek-English Lexicon describes as, “pertaining to being morally or socially worthless; therefore, ‘wicked, evil, bad, base, worthless, vicious, and degenerate.’” Ponēros is an adjective, but it is a substantive (an adjective used as a noun). A good example of a substantive in English is the adjectives in the well-known Clint Eastwood movie, “The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly.” The adjectives “good,” “bad,” and “ugly” refer to people (“good people,” “bad people,” “ugly people”), and thus they function as nouns even though they are adjectives. Similarly, “the wicked” here in Matthew 5:37 is a substantive and means, “the Wicked One,” which is the translation in most modern versions.
Other substantives in the Bible include: 1 John 5:19 where “the evil” also means “the evil one”; Revelation 1:18, where “the Living” actually is “the Living One”; Matthew 10:41, where “a righteous” actually refers to “a righteous one” (or someone righteous); Matthew 12:41, where “a greater” means “a greater one”; Romans 8:28, where “called” refers to “the called ones” (although some versions translate “called” in that sentence as if it was a verb, which it is not); 1 Thessalonians 4:6, where “avenger” is “an avenging one” and 1 Corinthians 2:6, where “the perfect” refers to “the perfect [or mature] ones.”
There are translators who do not believe that poneros is a substantive, but is only the word “evil.” However, evil does not just happen. The wording the Bible uses, that sin is “from” evil, points to a source. “Evil” is not just floating around, it comes from somewhere. It seems that if the Lord simply meant to say that swearing oaths by Jerusalem, or by your hair, was evil, he would have simply said, “it is evil,” and not, it “is from the evil.”
The Devil (Slanderer) is the fount and foundation of wickedness. It was in him that wickedness was first found, when he was lifted up with pride and decided to rebel against God. Ever since that time he has been true to his name, “the Wicked One,” and has been doing and causing wickedness wherever he can, which, since he is “the god of this age,” is a considerable amount of wickedness. [For more names of the Devil and their meanings, see Appendix 14, “Names of the Devil”].