The Ten Commandments: no vain vows
We’re continuing on our series of sermons on the Ten Commandments, and today we come to: “You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain.”
Now, a lot of people, when they hear that, think of all the loose use of God’s name – or of Jesus’ – in rough talk, which has led me from time to time to remind people that Jesus’ last name is not Christ, and his middle initial is not H. I also remember a time when we were down in White Oak, TN, with our youth mission team, and somebody asked me to pray before we went out on our various construction projects. Looking over our crew, with me and Jerry and a bunch of junior high kids, armed with saws and hammers and drills trying to build something together that would – you know – stand up after we were done with it, I prayed, “Give us a safe day, and Lord, keep the cussin’ to a minimum.”
Well, using God’s name as a curse word is something we could all probably be admonished about now and then, but it’s really not the point of this commandment; though our general feeling that there’s something taboo about flinging God’s name around does come from Jewish practice. If you look in most Bibles, you’ll notice that in the Old Testament, the word “Lord” is generally written in small capital letters. Those small caps are there to remind you that the actual word in the Hebrew text is “Yahweh,” the sacred, personal name of God himself. And thus, the commandment actually reads, “You shall not take the name of Yahweh your God in vain.”
Now, for many years, up to and beyond the reign of King David, I suppose, the use of God’s own name was usual in referring to him. When someone wanted to make a more emphatic statement, he would call God to witness, saying, “As Yahweh lives, your servant (me) has not done this thing.” Likewise, when one made a vow – a promise – one might call God to witness, saying, “Yahweh do so to me and more also if I fulfill not this vow.” That would be accompanied by a ritual gesture, with the thumb over the belly, as if being ripped open by a sacrificial knife.
As time went on, though, people became uncomfortable with using the name, “Yahweh,” fearing that they might inadvertently “take it in vain.” So they began using circumlocutions. They said “Adonai,” the Lord -- or “Ha-shem,” the Name – instead of “Yahweh." The use of God’s name as witness to your words thus became, “As the Lord lives, your servant has not done this thing” OR “The Lord do so to me and more also if I fulfill not this vow.” And the feeling spread that any use of God’s own name was somehow scandalous or indelicate.
Now, ancient Hebrew had no vowel letters, so the Torah scroll contains only consonants. But Hebrew bibles contain vowels as little marks written above the letters, and the old rabbis would put the vowels for “Adonai” (Lord) over the consonants for “Yhwh” – so you would know to pronounce Adonai when you encountered the Sacred Name. The first Protestant translators didn’t know this, and so when they encountered the consonants Y (or J)-H-W-H with the vowels a – o – ai, they thought the name of God was "Yahowaih," or “Jehovah”; which it assuredly was not, though we still use that name in some of our hymnody.
All of which is fascinating, but really a red herring to our purpose today. I’m sure God is not pleased when people use his name to cuss with, but what he is demanding here is that his children not use his name as a witness to falsehood or faithlessness. Listen to kids today, as they tell stories to each other: one attempting to convince the others of the veracity of one’s tale will say, “Swear to God, man, swear to God” – basically the same formula as one finds in the Old Testament, “As the Lord lives, your servant has said nothing but the truth.” The problem with calling on God to witness to your words, of course, is that the fact that you have to say it again and again to get people to believe you simply shows that you have a reputation for NOT telling the unvarnished truth on other occasions.
We live in a world of spin doctors. Listen to the endless primary debates – or the President’s State of the Union speech. Politicians constantly say things – use numbers – mention events – in such a way that they are wrenched from context, becoming either a brickbat to be thrown at an opponent or a shield to cover one’s own exposed flank. Are they lying? Well, a barefaced lie would be a liability, so it’s better to use the truth, but a good spin doctor can lie with the truth even better than with a falsehood, and this is what a lot of political speech amounts to. After a while, in the heat of the exchange, it becomes nigh impossible to figure out what the truth actually is, so you’re merely left with the impression the politician makes – which was his intent all along.
And even we, in our personal relations, shade and shape the truth very carefully – so much so that much of what we say is simply a massive exercise in self-justification. After 36 years in the pastorate, I have learned that even the nicest people’s words have to be listened to carefully; and sometimes, the most important thing is what is NOT being said, so you have to listen to what is not said as carefully as to what IS. And the reason for this, of course, is that all of us are relentless pursuers of our self-interest.
I’m sure this is a concern to God, since in our speech as well as in our prayers, he desires us to be Christ-justified, not self-justified. Still, most of us tell the truth pretty fairly, so long as we don’t have too much skin in the game, so I don’t want to spend too much time on this aspect of our behavior, either.
You can tell by Christ’s reference in the Sermon on the Mount where the actual thrust of this commandment lies:
Again you have heard that it was said to the men of old, "You shall not swear falsely, but shall perform to the Lord what you have sworn." But I say to you, Do not swear at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. Let what you say be simply "Yes" or "No"; anything more than this comes from evil.
The behavior that most concerned God when he gave us this commandment was our tendency to promise what we could not or would not deliver – and to call him to witness as a co-signer (so to speak) on our promissory note. And on the subject of keeping promises, I think there’s a LOT to be said. I agree with Robert Service, who said in “The Cremation of Sam McGee,”
A promise made is a debt unpaid,but a lot of promises never get paid off. To quote Harry Chapin,
The cat’s in the cradle and the silver spoon
Little Boy Blue and the Man in the Moon
When you comin’ home, dad?
I don’t know when, but we’ll get together then, son
You know we’ll have a good time then
When I was a boy, I had big dreams – as did others my age – and we enjoyed talking about all the things we wanted to do someday. Even so, we knew there was a point where we were just being silly. There were some dreams so out-sized that they were merely fantasies, and I didn’t really think I would ever seem them fulfilled. I also noticed that grown-ups made a lot of promises, and we kids would perk up our ears when the talk came of all the places we could go and the wonderful things we could do, if we just got our act together and did 'em.
Teachers talked this way. Coaches talked this way. Preachers talked this way. Scout leaders and parents and yr favorite uncles. And what I noticed was that some grown-ups were a lot better at teasing kids with possibilities than in making them into realities. Maybe they were just day-dreaming themselves. But I remember, distinctly, deciding that I didn’t want to be like those guys; I wanted my words to count for something. I wanted people to believe me when I said what we could do. And so I made it a policy, long before I knew what a “policy” was, to always attempt to under-promise and over-perform. And it bothers me to this day when I can’t make something stick that I’ve opened my mouth and said I would do – “a promise made is a debt unpaid,” indeed.
But it doesn’t seem to bother a lot of folks. There are lots and lots of people – some of them, good, church-going folk – whose promises must be severely discounted. They say they’ll be there for X meeting or program, but they can’t seem to show up; they say they’ll serve on a task force or committee, but they don’t ever do anything; they get all excited about some program or event, but then they cancel at the last minute. And I’m not going to pick and choose among excuses; if someone says they can’t do what they said they’d do, okay – but the next time, we all know what so-and-so’s words are worth. And I know I become reluctant to risk much on the commitment of this person, or that person – while I know, by experience, that if THAT person says “I’ll take care of it," you can take that to the bank.
We’re talking about integrity. People who have integrity don’t need to call God to witness with extravagant oaths. Their unadorned Yes is the gold standard in promises. And their No is what gives value to their Yes. I would rather have something tell me No a hundred times, knowing that when that person finally does tell me Yes that I can count on it, than that someone make me all kinds of promises, telling me Yes in order to please me or flatter me or not disappoint me or just to shut me up. In the end, all those easy Yesses wind up worth no more than a Continental dollar – mere paper, with nothing to back them up.
God is faithful, and he wants us to be faithful, too – not only to him, but to each other. And this isn’t just a personal challenge, a warning to your soul or mine that we should say what we mean and mean what we say, lest God decide our words are worthless. This is the essential problem of the Church today -- not just our little church, but of the whole church everywhere.
“Unto us are given exceeding precious and great promises,” say the Scriptures; but how can anybody believe in those promises when the promise-bearers are so disappointing? I don’t know how many times I’ve seen it – a church struggling to find its way, to grow, to become what it ought to be. They all want to know the programmatic answer. And they ask, What can we do? And I reply, Welcome those who come seeking God and love them. And they say, But there’s nobody there. C'mon, what's the trick?
They cannot see all the faces pressed up against the glass, wondering if HERE they will be welcomed, if THESE people will love them, if the train to heaven starts from HERE. I see them all the time, but to those whose dance cards are full – who have all relationships they can handle – those we should welcome are just invisible.
One more snatch of an old song before we’re done:
Pulled into Nazareth, was a-feeling 'bout half-past dead
Just need a place where I can lay my head
Hey, Mister, can you tell me, where a man might find a bed?
He just grinned and shook my hand: No, was all he said.
We’re very nice folks, us good church-goin’ people, y’know? We’re good at the hearty meet-n-greet – but our follow-through is weak. Someone stands before you – and says (not in these words, but this is what is being said),
Will you love me? (grins, shakes) “No”
Will you teach me? (grins, shakes) “No”
Will you include me? (grins, shakes) No”
Will you have time for me? (grins, shakes) “No”
Will you make sure I get told when the next big happening is? (grins, shakes) . . .
We SAY that if you come along with us, we’ll all go to heaven together, and we’ll share our love along the way. And oh! The things we dream about doing – someday.
Lord, make us feel the weight of unpaid promises, make us burn with a desire to make our brags good, silence our silly blather and give us the grace to mean it when we say Yes to you and to each other; for Jesus’ sake and to the honor and glory of your Name.