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Synopsis of AN ABORTION OF HIS POWER
Today’s slice of the bread of life comes from: Exodus 20:7 “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.” Or, as the venerable King James version has it, “Thou shalt not take the name of the LORD thy God in vain…”
On a bulletin board outside a church recently was this message: “You say his name often enough on the highway. Why not try saying it in church? You’ll feel much better using the Lord’s name in prayer. Worship with us this Sunday.”
God is talking to residents of south Florida, and doing so in a typically mysterious way. Roadside ads along Interstate 95 were joined by this white-on-black billboard question: “What Part of ‘Thou Shalt Not…’ didn’t you understand?” [and it was signed] “God.” Drivers on a jammed commuter road faced this warning, in the same lettering: “Keep using my name in vain, I’ll make rush hour longer,” also signed simply “God.” None of the statements are attributed to anyone but God. That anonymity came at the orders of the person who paid for the ad campaign. This mornings slice of the word of God said, “You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the LORD your God…” We insult a holy and righteous God when we use the divine name loosely. Not only might we go to hell, momma might wash our mouth out with soap in preparation for our descent into the abyss.
The problem is language. We grew up hearing the prohibition against using the Lord’s name “in vain’. But, in modern speech, the phrase “in vain” implies failure. If any Major League team did not hit home runs in the games last night, the sportscasts this morning could say their attempts were IN VAIN. No homers. Or if a young man sends flowers and candy and all sorts of indications of affection to the girl of his dreams, but she does not respond appropriately, we say his gifts were IN VAIN. A failure. But using the name of the Lord IN VAIN??? Failure? That makes no sense.
What else could it mean? We can go back to the Elizabethan English of the King James Version. We recall “Vanity of vanities, saith the preacher…” from Ecclesiastes. VANITY there means “nothingness” or “emptiness” or “meaningless.” Aha. Perhaps a clue there. The more modern translations of the commandment, “You shall not make WRONGFUL USE of the name of the LORD your God…” as we read from the NRSV version, are quite correct.
One thought on the use of God’s name as an expletive… the fact that this is NOT what prompted the commandment is all the more obvious when we know that the last thing an Israelite man or woman would have considered saying was something as frivolous as
“G—D—–.” This was the name of the one they worshiped. Throw that name around casually in conversation? Not on your life. If an Israelite had said that word about anything,” he would have meant it. It would not have been a statement; it would have been a prayer.
I read once of a missionary to India who was returning home to America on a steamer with his young son. The boy was young enough to have never even been to his homeland, and was looking forward to it with great anticipation. It was an American vessel with American sailors and American passengers. It was the boy’s first real contact with anything American outside of his immediate family. On the trip, he heard some expressions that were brand new to him, so he mentioned them to his father. You can imagine. Finally, the father felt compelled to say something about the problem to the others on board. He said, “My little boy was born and brought up in a heathen land, a land of idolatry, but in all his life, he has never heard someone blaspheme his maker until now.” The story ends there with no indication as to whether the language improved during the rest of the voyage, but we would hope so.
Back to the commandment and what it does mean. The best rendering of the ancient instruction I have seen is this:
“Thou shalt not lift up the name of YAHWEH for mischief.”
What kind of mischief? There was a certain practice in the religions of the East that surrounded the nation of Israel that involved the over-and-over repetition of the name of their God in an almost magical incantation. The name of the God was used like we might use “Abra-Cadabra,” for magic, and God says do not do that.
“You shall not use the name of the Lord your God for mischief.” …..Hmmmmm! Another situation that prompted the commandment was one to which Jesus made reference – taking an oath. Lines such as, “AS GOD IS MY WITNESS, promise to…do this or that,” or “MAY GOD STRIKE ME DEAD, if I fail to…do this or that.” The idea is that God is offered as guarantor of the promise. That’s serious stuff.
“You shall not use the name of the Lord your God for mischief.” One more issue in this third commandment, and it is as up to date as tomorrow’s newspaper. Perjury.
“Do you swear to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, so help you God?” “I do.” A fair and effective judicial system in any society is dependent on the truthfulness of witnesses.
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