In Vain

This past Sunday was Pentecost. It was the day when Christians should have been celebrating the gift of the Holy Spirit descending upon Jesus’ Apostles in “tongues of fire” where people from all nations heard the Gospel in their native language. This Good News would spread from Jerusalem to Judea, Samaria, and the ends of the earth. This should have been a Sunday of celebration.

Instead, Christians around the USA gathered—mostly virtually—in the aftermath of another unjust, pointless murder of a black man at the hands of a white police officer. Rather than celebrating the Holy Spirit’s presence through tongues of fire, we watched flames of destruction leap from neighborhoods and buildings across our land.

If your worship service was anything like mine, it was one of lament for the racial divisions and injustices that continue to plague our world. Racial and ethnic discrimination is rampant everywhere. In my view, it’s the real pandemic.

The Jewish festival that brought the disciples of Jesus together was Shavuot, the Feast of Weeks. Like most Jewish religious festivals, it was tied to the agricultural harvest calendar. In this case, the harvest of wheat—the staple crop of the ancient world. In the second temple period, Jews linked this festival to an important historical event: the giving of Torah at Mt. Sinai—God’s wedding present to His bride, Israel.

God’s covenant with Israel begins with the Ten “Words” (we call them commandments). God tells Israel, “I will be your God, and you will be my people.” God will care for them, protect them, and deliver them from any harm. In turn, God called Israel to live according to Torah. These Ten “Words” are foundational to Judaism and Christianity.

For several years now, I have found myself thinking about one of these commands often:

Thou shalt not take the name of the LORD thy God in vain; for the LORD will not hold him guiltless that taketh his name in vain.

Ex 20:7, KJV

I can’t help but hear Charlton Heston’s voice when I read that in the King James version. As Christians break up the Ten Words, this is the second commandment. For Jews, this is number 3. I think the Jews got this one right, but that’s a discussion for another time.

Growing up, I was taught that this commandment forbids cursing using God’s name. I was taught to not even use “God” as an expression of exasperation. This prohibition was further enhanced with Mark 3:29 that says, “whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never have forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin.” In short, I was conditioned to stay far away from speaking the name of God. I suspect that many of my Jewish brothers and sisters can identify with this. From before the time of Jesus, Jews have revered the name of God (YHWH) to the point that they did not speak it. In fact, we don’t even know how to pronounce it. When spoken in Hebrew, it’s substituted with “Adonai.” In our English bibles, the divine name is rendered “the LORD.”

Is there more to this prohibition than how and when we utter God’s name? Have we overlooked something more profound in this command?

While the King James version is what I memorized as a child, I think it loses some of its meaning in modern English. Here is my translation from the Hebrew:

You will not take up the name of the LORD, your God, for a false purpose because the LORD will not leave unpunished anyone who takes up His name for a false purpose.

There are two Hebrew words in this directive that are important to our understanding. The first is the verb n-ś-ʾ (pronounced nasa). It means to lift, carry, or take up. It is the prohibitive verb in this command: “you will not lift/carry/take up…” The second word is the noun shavʾ. It can mean vain, false, or empty. In this command, it describes the intent or purpose of taking up the divine name. The verb nasa is often used idiomatically in phrases like “lift up your voice,” “lift up your eyes,” even “lift up your sins.” So, I am not arguing with how most English translations state it.

But, it strikes me that Hebrew has other words that could have been employed here if the meaning only dealt with saying or uttering curse words or legal oaths. The imagery that this phrase evokes is someone lifting or carrying the name of the LORD with them (or upon them). As such, the depth of this command goes beyond cursing and swearing in legal testimony. It goes to the very way in which a person of God lives.

Just before giving these commandments to Israel, the LORD states the objective of this special relationship:

Now therefore, if you obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession out of all the peoples. Indeed, the whole earth is mine, but you shall be for me a priestly kingdom and a holy nation. These are the words that you shall speak to the Israelites.

Ex 19:5-6, NRSV

They are to be a kingdom of priests. They are to be the representatives of the LORD on the earth. Why? So that the nations passing through the Promised Land on the international trade routes would know the nature of Israel’s god, YHWH. They were called to live differently, to uphold a higher moral code than the other nations. If they carried the name of the LORD improperly, it would destroy their mission. In the ancient world (and modern), the behavior of the “priests” directly reflected the reputation of the god.

The Apostle Peter (also a good Jew) knew these texts well. He understood how they applied to this new Jewish movement called Christianity:

But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.

1 Pet 2:9

Jews and Christians are commanded to bear the name of the LORD properly–not for a false purpose. In other words, to live in a way that reflects the nature of the God you worship. If you take up the LORD’s name, you better live like He has called you to live!

Jesus summed up what it means to carry the name of the LORD in two commandments. Using a brilliant rabbinic interpretation technique, he says, 

‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.

Matt 22:37-40

The essence of what it meant to live in proper relationship with God summarized in two commands: love God and love your neighbor as yourself. In fact, what Jesus does is even more startling. He equates these two commandments. If you really love God, then you will show it by how you love your neighbor.

Loving your neighbor as yourself means that you seek the well-being of others. It values human life above personal property. Loving your neighbor means that you do everything within your power to resolve the injustice that is being perpetrated against people of color. It means that you seek to understand other’s circumstances and see if you might be part of the problem. Loving your neighbor means you show grace to those who have wronged you—the same grace and mercy you desire for yourself.

Earlier this week, I witnessed a demonstration of this principle within my city, Austin. All weekend peaceful daytime protests for social justice gave way to violence and looting at nightfall. Police, by their admission, wrongly shot two peaceful protesters with beanbags. Both persons were fighting for their lives in the hospital. Tensions were running high.

In the face of another evening of violence, the police chose to take a different approach. Rather than face off against the protesters, they decided to walk with them to the Capitol building in solidarity. When the demonstrators raised their hands in protest, the police raised theirs too. That simple, but bold gesture made all the difference. There was no widespread violence that evening.

Were people still angry? Absolutely. Did they still protest the systematic injustice toward people of color? You bet. But that simple demonstration of “love your neighbor as yourself,” abated the violence that had previously marred these protests. Perhaps more actions like this would enable us to correct the wrongs in our society.

Please don’t misunderstand what I am saying. I am not condoning acts of destruction and violence. The overwhelming majority of those protesting condemn them too. However, we must also understand that meeting protests “with domination” is equally unbiblical (see “eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth).

Jesus said, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.” I pray that God’s people will properly carry His name to bring shalom to a world that needs it desperately. God have mercy on us if we don’t.

3 thoughts

  1. Amen ROB. I just sent an email to a friend saying the same thing. I refer to that passage as a speaker I once heard as L1 and L2.
    If we get that right, most of the rest follows.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. 100% right Rob.
    Proverbs 31:8-9 is one of many passages that instruct us to look beyond our own self interests. Identity, for those who follow Jesus, is rooted in what you outlined so well. Thanks!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Until I read this I thought that Matt 6:5 was the strongest scriptural condemnation of the blasphemous stunt our President pulled last night. Thank you for the great clarity and exposition.

      Liked by 1 person

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