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Presented at Trinity Fellowhip on 02/09/1997
"You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain, for the Lord will not leave him unpunished who takes his name in vain."
The First Commandment prescribes the proper Object of worship: the true God, who will tolerate no others in His presence. The Second Commandment deals with the right manner of worship: in spirit and in truth, not by means of the images of our own devising. The Third Commandments is concerned with how we honor God in our speech.
In the First Table of the Law, which deals with our relationship to God, why is the way we use his name important enough to be singled out for treatment? The first reason is the Pivotal Nature of the Tongue. James tells us, "If anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man, able to bridle the whole body as well. Now, if we put bits into the horses' mouths so that the may obey us, we direct their entire body as well. Behold the ships, also, though they are so great and are driven by strong winds, are still directed by a very small rudder wherever the inclination of the pilot desires. So also the tongue is a small part of the body, and yet it boasts of great things" (Ja. 3:2-5).
Why does the tongue have such power to control the direction of our lives? Because language is the ability that most distinguishes man from the animals and unites us to God. We were the first creature in Genesis that God addressed directly; the first thing we did was to name the animals. Both facts signal our special relationship to God and our special role as his sub-regent over creation. It is no accident that when God wanted to express the clearest revelation of his nature he said, "In the beginning was the WORD." For language is the heart of the imago dei, the image of God; it is the point of contact between us and our articulate Creator, who used language both to speak the universe into existence and give it form and value. "Let there be . . . Let this be divided from that . . . It is good." Animals respond to objects in their environment. But language enables Man to contemplate objects not physically present to him, or even objects (from abstract relationships to spiritual realities) that cannot be "physically" present at all. From this comes the capacity for abstract thought and reason, and also for our moral nature--for language allows us to give an account for our actions in a way not open to animals. In all these ways it separates us from them and unites us to God. Nothing is more intimately connected to our identity, to who we are.
Second is the way Language both Enables and Affects Thought. Try to think without words. You can probably with discipline imagine a picture, a scene, in your head without thinking of any of the words that name the objects pictured. But without using language you cannot analyze that picture, ask questions about it, and you are hence severely handicapped in solving any problems related to it. Nor can you communicate any of that to others. So obviously language enables thought, makes it possible. But the relationship between language and thought goes beyond that--it is a reciprocal relationship. Language affects thought, but thought also affects language. Solomon tells us that "As a man thinketh in his heart, so is he" (Prvb. 23:7). How we think affects the way we talk. But how we talk also affects the way we think. This applies even to the language we hear. I remember working on construction crews in summer jobs, surrounded by profane men whose vocabulary was full of what Spock euphemistically refers to as "colorful metaphors" (Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home). I would have to maintain an iron discipline for a full two months after coming back to school to keep their favorite profanities and vulgarities from emerging from my own mouth. If I had allowed those speech patterns to become habitual it would have been even worse. You cannot throw God's name around constantly and flippantly to cover the inadequacies of your vocabulary and expect to maintain within, much less communicate to others, the honor and respect, the awe and fear we ought to feel for him.
A third reason for the importance of this commandment is the Particular Fallenness of the Tongue. James addresses the issue again: "The tongue is a fire, a very world of iniquity. The tongue is set among our members as that which defiles the entire body, and sets on fire the course of our life, and is itself set on fire by Hell. For every species of beasts . . . is tamed and has been tamed by the human race. But no one can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil and full of deadly poison" (Ja. 3:6-8). Is the evil of the Fall not evenly distributed among our members? Apparently not. The higher something is, the lower it can fall if it falls; only the truly noble can become truly debased. We have all noticed the tendency of even the tongues of the most disciplined thinkers to run ahead of their brains. That was James' point in 3:2--if you can control the tongue, you can control anything. Therefore, we should make the tongue a special priority in the process of sanctification whereby the Spirit enables us to live worthily of our calling, to bring honor to the Lord Jesus Christ. A good way to do this is to make it a positive point that we honor God and bring glory to him with our tongue, in the way we speak of him. Hence, the Third Commandment: "You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain."
The first thing we must understand about this commandment is the significance of the name of God. The Jews had a very superficial understanding of this. They would not pronounce the word Jahwheh, the personal name of God, at all, on the theory that if they never said it they could hardly take it in vain. But God would not have revealed his name if he did not want us to use it. The Jewish approach treats the commandment as purely negative, and thus obscures its positive corollary: that we are to use the name of God rightly. It also ironically narrows its reach to a single word. In reality, since the purpose of God's name is to make us think of him even as it communicates his essential nature (the self-existent One--"I Am!"), therefore the commandment applies to any utterance that makes or implies a reference to him.
Obviously, then, the Third Commandment forbids any explicit reference to God that uses his name, not as a proper noun in a statement attributing truth and glory to him, but as a mere expletive, an expression of displeasure. I am going to actually say some of them so that you will know exactly what I am talking about. (You will note that in so doing I am not transgressing the commandment myself, for it is not a mere superstitious avoidance of certain syllables that is at issue. I am not now using these words as expletives but as the names of phrases that often are used as such.) Utterances in this category would include "God!", "By God!", "God damn!", or even the favorite oath of one of my aunts, "Lordy, Lordy!" But implicit references, speech that only implies rather than overtly stating a lack of respect for God, are also included. Supposing I just use the word "Damn!" without "God" as a prefix. I have technically requested some one or some thing to be condemned to eternal punishment. Well, aside from the uncharitable nature of this sentiment (which is a real concern in itself, but not our concern today), who has the authority to do this? God, God only, God alone. He is included in the statement by implication even if he is not explicitly mentioned. The use of "Hell!" not as the name of the region of eternal perdition but as an expletive has the same effect. But then what of the words often called "minced oaths"--"Golly!" and "Gosh!", which are softened mispronunciations of the word "God," "Gee!" which is short for "Jesus," or "Darn!" which is a watered down version of "Damn!" These are ways of saying the other words without saying them. People often use them thoughtlessly, and I am not suggesting we go on a self-righteous crusade to condemn them. But in so far as we can learn to do without them, we do well.
The second important phrase in the commandment is "in vain." This means the use of God's name in a way that is empty, futile, flippant, or frivolous. God does not want us to use his name lightly or thoughtlessly, but in a way that implies the reverence and respect we should have for the Person to whom it refers.
Finally we come to the verb, "Take." The primary reference is to the "taking" of an oath in a court of law--we are not to say that we will tell the truth "So help me God" unless we actually mean it. Secondarily, it refers to any speech, for the attitude toward God that we have in a formal and official setting is one that should characterize us at all times. To "take" God's name in emptiness or futility would be first then a reference to perjury. But since we should not do this, neither should we use it frivolously, lightly, carelessly, or thoughtlessly out of habit. Would we want anyone to treat the name of any one else that we loved that way? A disrespectful reference to one's mother or sweetheart could lead to blows in an older society more conscious of honor. Well, we should not punch out people who treat our greatest Love disrespectfully, but we should understand the sentiment that could lead there; we should feel it as an injury both to God and to the speaker and to ourselves and to every one else who hears.
Let us then look more closely at the two major ways of breaking the Third Commandment.
The first and most primary breach of this commandment is Perjury: to go through the form of a public oath invoking the Deity without seriously attending to or meaning what one is saying. I think we should pause for a moment on the importance of this point. Traditionally, it was understood that the sanctity of an oath of office or the oath of a witness depended upon God. Originally, a witness called on God to curse him if he lied. Courts viewed this as a real deterrent to false witness, a real help in guaranteeing true testimony. Who would want to incur the wrath of God? This was done because perjury is the worst of crimes, destroying not just an individual's life or property or reputation but the whole fabric of society, the whole possibility of justice being done. As Thomas More said in "A Man for All Seasons," "When a man takes an oath, Meg, he is holding his own soul in his hands like water [he cups his hands]; and if he should open his fingers then--he needn't ever hope to find himself again." So it is no accident that secularism and lawlessness grow up together in society.
Our Mennonite brethren understand this very literally to forbid any taking of such an oath at all, relating it to Jesus' statements that we should let our yea be yea and swear not at all. But they forget that he also said to render unto Caesar that which is his and that Paul tells us to obey the government and to honor the king. These commandments are reconciled if we see Jesus as referring to normal conversation rather than to a formal deposition. Even Paul and other biblical saints could say "As God is my witness," in which they were affirming the essence of what a formal oath in court calls upon us to say (2 Cor. 1:23, Phil. 1:8). Moreover, "in vain" does not mean "not at all." It means "in vain." Therefore we are right to see perjury as the primary situation the commandment has in view. (Perjury is more than lying, which is covered under a different commandment--it is lying under oath, and what is forbidden here is the lack of respect for God implied by using his name idly in such a context.) If we call God as our witness, in other words, we must not do it in vain or emptily; we had better mean it and not have our fingers crossed behind our backs.
Most of us will not often be in the situation where we will be called upon to take an oath. But at all times we must face the implications of this commandment for the idle swearing and cursing that happens thoughtlessly in informal conversation. But we must not miss the importance of this area as well. Every false swearing is an act not only of blasphemy but of lawlessness, rebellion, anarchy. If we do not respect God's authority, how shall we respect that of the state? You are probably not tempted to commit perjury. But the flippant use of God's name in informal conversation is first cousin to that sin. It shows the same disrespect, and it desensitizes both your mind and the minds of those who hear you to the issue of the honor God deserves. Therefore, it contributes a small bit to the general atmosphere in which God is taken lightly all the time and even in serious oaths.
When you hear "Jeeeesus Christ!" said in anger, does it make you wince? Does it pain you? If not, this is proof that the process of desensitization is already far advanced. If God does not receive the honor he deserves from our tongues, and if language affects thought, then you can be sure he is not receiving that honor as he should in other areas of our lives either. Therefore, it should be a high priority in our lives to purge from our speech all light, frivolous, flippant references to God which do not honor him.
How then do we positively obey this commandment? Let me suggest three practical ways.
First, when an improper reference to God slips out before you think, stop immediately and apologize for it. People may look at you strangely, but it will be an eloquent testimony to where your heart is, and it is also a very effective way of getting these slips to stop happening.
Second, lovingly object to at least the most flagrant violations of others. Though they do not realize it, they are speaking of one you love. Would you not object if they treated the name of your spouse or you mother or father in such a way? Surely God deserves the same response. But we must be careful here that what we express is our love for him rather than our distaste for the speaker. If we cannot come across in that way, we had best stay silent.
Finally, use his name positively as it was intended to be used. The best antidote to the abuse of anything is its right use. So be much in the praise of his name. That indeed is what we are here for. As George Herbert put it,
Of all the creatures both in sea and land, Only to Man hast thou made known thy ways And put the pen alone into his hand And made him Secretary of thy praise.
"Conceive of this duty of praising God," wrote Puritan pastor Richard Baxter, "according to its superlative excellencies, as the highest service that the tongue of men or angels can perform." This is so because "to be much employed in the praise of God will acquaint the world with the nature of true religion and remove their prejudice against it. Many are averse to a holy life because they think it consisteth but of melancholy fears or scrupulosity. But who dare open his mouth against the joyful praises of his maker?" Surely this is the most appropriate use we can make of our tongues, and therefore the most important way of keeping this commandment in the long run.
Since God's name is the expression of his excellent character, his unsearchable holiness, his immeasurable grace, and his incomprehensible majesty, let it never come from our lips without conveying something of those qualities to others--to the honor and glory of his name. Amen.
Here endeth the lesson.
Dr. Donald T. Williams