You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not acquit anyone who misuses his name. Exodus 20:7
Point by Point
- This law is more about actions than about words
- Israel tried to get around it by never saying God’s name at all
- The real issue is reputation: God’s reputation due to our actions
- Paul declares that in spite of never saying God’s name, Israel had ruined God’s rep
- Fact is, no one can keep from emptying –spilling– God’s name
- Left to our own, we would do no better than old Israel; I know…
- By sticking close to God the work he does through us is supercharged
- Amazingly, that is precisely how God plans to make his name great
- God is reclaiming all creation through his rarely faithful folks: us
- When God is finished everyone will give God credit for doing the impossible; that’s the plan
Although we often relate this third law-word to the issue of swearing. In fact, a prohibition on cursing is a secondary implication of the core meaning of this law. An older translation, to take God’s name in vain, caught in “take in vain” the sense of the meaning “to empty.” [lit. to treat like a fart!] Any use of the name of God in casual speech that caused God to be belittled or God’s status as king and lord to be diminished in the eye of the one who heard or the one who spoke, was forbidden. More importantly, the actions of people spoke louder than their words.
Over time, the Israelites, as a way of trying to avoid breaking this law, ceased to say the proper name of God (now represented by the consonants YHWH) at all. The idea was, ‘If we never say the name of God then we cannot say his name in vain.’
Such a negative practice missed the point of the law because any activity in which an Israelite took part carried the name of God right into that effort. After all, an Israelite was assumed to be a believer in Yahweh. Thus, if some Israelites were known lawbreakers; cheats, thieves or oppressors of the poor, they made wrongful use of the name of Lord through their actions regardless of how reverently they used God’s name when they went to formal worship. They emptied the name of meaning in the way they lived their lives. St. Paul speaks of the poor reputation which Israel’s God had among the Gentles because of the behavior of the Jews over the centuries:
Now you, if you call yourself a Jew; if you rely on the law and boast in God; if you know his will and approve of what is superior because you are instructed by the law; if you are convinced that you are a guide for the blind, a light for those who are in the dark, an instructor of the foolish, a teacher of infants, because you have in the law the embodiment of knowledge and truth — you, then, who teach others, do you not teach yourself? You who preach against stealing, do you steal? You who say that people should not commit adultery, do you commit adultery? You who abhor idols, do you rob temples? You who boast in the law, do you dishonor God by breaking the law? As it is written: “God’s name is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you.” Romans 2:17-24
The problem was, the people of Israel knew the law but they could not keep it. There is a certain kind of power in the law, the power to know the difference between what is healthy and wholesome and generous and what is not. While such knowledge can be a great advantage, there is no power in the law to keep us from breaking the law.
As Paul says clearly in the same letter, “We know that the law is spiritual; but I am unspiritual [I am powerless], sold as a slave to sin. I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do. And if I do what I do not want to do, I agree that the law is good” (Romans 7:14-16).
I remember as a kid, I decided the best way to keep this “swearing” law was to say the curse words like “G-d” and d-mn” and “h-ll” as little as possible, just enough to fit in with my friends and that the cuss words, such as sh-t and the f-bomb were really impressive and not so bad as long as you did not use them around adults.
However, say “jeeesus kriiist!” and you were going to go straight to hell. Do not pass go, etc., full stop. That system worked out well enough for years and years (or months and months – time moves at a slower pace when you are a kid) until one time when I said it.
I remember the hot flush, starting in my head and moving down through my body. I was doomed. I was going to go to hell! I was …or wait a minute; …or was I? Had I not made that deal myself?” Come to think of it, had I not made it with myself? Had I actually made that deal with anyone? Was there anyone actually there to make deals with? Did it matter what I said? Did anyone actually care what I said? Did anyone care at all whether I lived or died or ate or shat? Anyone?
It was a lonely moment in which I resolved that if there was a god at all and if that god was merciful then he probably would not destroy a kid for one slip-up, would he? I decided on the basis of a rumor I had heard –that with God there might be second chances – to try again. Still, I was sad. My own attempt at care-taking a little corner of what I understood to be being “good” was forever soiled by my stupid mouth. I had spilled what could not be put back in the bottle.
So how do we ever succeed in keeping God’s name holy, i.e., whole, peaceful, powerful, etc., if we lack the power to do what we know is good? Well, we don’t succeed just as I did not. We screw up just as Paul says. We spill. We fail. That is the condition of people who have separated themselves from God and from God’s power. The powerful ways of structured and systemic sin and evil are all around us and they will sweep us away apart from the power of God operating in our lives.
I hope as you have read through these discussions of the written-in-stone law-words of God that you have come to see your only hope and my hope and the hope of the world is in running for help to our Abba, our Father-God, who it turns out is all about second and seventy-seventh chances. Saint Paul, having surveyed the issues and problems and the options and the possibilities as only he could do, concluded, “Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (Romans 7:24-25a).
When we run to Jesus we do not become better. We become new. And this running to God is something we must do over and over again. We must become new again, we must surrender, again, we must be healed and hugged and bathed and empowered again and again and again. It is only in our pride that we imagine a year or two or thirty-five or sixty years into our relationship with God that we have finally “made it,” have finally achieved a successful life, a life without spilling, with no sin. A well-known author and radio preacher was suggesting just a few years ago that it might be possible to go two or three days without sin. Well, if you limit sin to sex and then you reach a certain age, well then, perhaps…
But worry is sin, jealousy is sin, rudeness is sin, impatience is often sin. Greed and gluttony are sins. Perhaps, at my age, at 62, with a libido which no-longer cruises along as it did when I was twenty, I can go a few days without an inappropriate thought about a woman but I cannot go a day without fear nor without some of the inappropriate words and actions which flow from fear. I have the Spirit of God but I am a sinner, saved by grace. And so I daily take the name of God in vain, not by swearing so much –check with my wife on that when I am stressed, hungry, tired, in pain or angry –as by living for minutes at a time as though God does not love me, as though God does not have my best interests at heart, as though God was too far away or was not big enough to help or just really does not understand my situation! And so I must be forgiven and I am. And so I rejoice and so I move out again to take the name of God into my very small life. And try again to not spill it!
You know what? Every inch I journey holding the name of God aloft in my life, every minute I show up, walking close to the Father, the kingdom is advanced and the angels rejoice. Here is the secret, friends. God has decided to advance his kingdom until it covers the whole earth using sinners, saved by grace. We who regularly show up, take some ground, fall down, get up, run home, get cleaned up, show up again and gain a few more inches for the king: we are his army; we do greater things than he did on the earth: he said so himself. We who cannot keep from emptying the name of God for more that a few minutes at a time are the army he has chosen to do the work he began nearly two millennia ago. As St. Paul puts it, we carry the knowledge of the glory of God in clay jars (II Corinthians 4:6-7)! And why? So that God’s name, far from being emptied of significance, may be magnified so that no one can miss it: Some day they will say, “He conquered the whole earth using an army who forgot over and over what it meant to ‘Love God with everything you’ve got’ and ‘Love your neighbor as much as yourself.’ Yet God won over the whole world anyway!”
Glory be to God and to us be blessing and joy, forever. Do you hear what I am saying?
Glory be to God and to us be blessing and joy, forever!
Lord Jesus, it has taken me years to begin to understand this business of your strength being made perfect in my weakness but I think I am beginning to understand this wisdom which is foolishness to the social order in which I live. Help us Lord, to keep our heads on straight, to keep showing up, doing the best we can do, striving hard but not beating ourselves up when we fall short. Lord let us never make our imperfections into a cop-out and when we do, set us straight again, Lord, put us on the right path again. Lord, your name is magnified in our living and our dying, in our co-operating and our back-biting. So, we “hasten” again, “with eager yet faltering footsteps, O Jesus, O master, for help, unto thee.” In Jesus’ name, Amen!