“He hears an oath.” This is a great example of a verse that cannot be understood without understanding the scope of Scripture and the culture of the time. The reference is to testifying in a courtroom, and this verse is tied to the following verse, Proverbs 29:25, which says that being afraid of people brings “a snare” into one’s life.
The context and vocabulary in Proverbs 29:24 tells us that the person being called to testify in court as a witness has partnered with a thief, who has now been caught and is on trial. In the trial, there was generally understood to be some kind of oath or “oath-curse” for people to tell the truth (Lev. 5:1). Here in Proverbs 29:24, the witness hears the “oath,” but refuses to speak. The witness has some kind of partnership or understanding with the thief, and he is afraid, but that fear is about to bring a snare into his life. The Hebrew word translated “oath” is alah (#0423 אָלָה), and it means both “oath” and “curse.” The reason for the two meanings of alah is understandable in the culture because many of the “oaths” were more accurately “oath-curses,” that is, the oath and the curse were bound up together into one statement.
For example, after Elijah killed the prophets of Baal in Jezebel’s kingdom, she said, “So may the gods do to me, and more also, if I don’t make your life as the life of one of them by tomorrow about this time!” (1 Kings 19:2). In other words, Jezebel was making an oath-curse and saying she would kill Elijah by the next day, and if not the gods could do the same to her and worse. The king of Israel said the same kind of thing about Elisha when there was a famine in Samaria that he blamed on Elisha (2 Kings 6:31). When David’s son Adonijah, who was Solomon’s rival, asked to have David’s last concubine, Abishag, Solomon said the same thing about Adonijah (1 Kings 2:23), and then did in fact execute him (1 Kings 2:25).
When a person was called to testify in court the oath or oath-curse was spoken, and even if there wasn’t one, there was a general understanding from the Mosaic Law that if a person lied in court and was caught he too would receive the punishment that the criminal himself received (Lev. 5:1; Deut. 19:16-19). Although Deuteronomy is specifically about someone who lies about another to incriminate him, everyone understood that the Mosaic Law, the “Torah,” was given for “instruction” (“Torah” means “instruction,” not “law”), and the Torah gave general instruction for guidance, and thus the regulations about false testimony in court applied for both lying in court to incriminate someone and lying in court to cover for someone else’s sin.
Proverbs 29:24-25 teaches a powerful lesson. People who enter into relationships with evil people “hate their own soul;” they ruin their lives. People involved in evil usually get more and more deeply involved and end up living in genuine fear for their lives and welfare. The pressure and fear can be so great that they lie in court, as the person in Proverbs 29:24 does. The way out of the trouble and mental anguish is to trust God and obey Him. That does not mean that there will not be serious consequences in this life, because sometimes there still are, but it does mean that in the end there will be protection and even being exalted by God. Romans 8:18 tells us that the sufferings of this life are not comparable with the glory we will experience in the next life.