This morning I received an e-mail from someone who has a huge amount of money available for some charity purpose. The sender pretended to be an English widow. Her wealthy husband had recently passed away and she probably had only a few months left to live. They had been married for fifteen years, and neither of them had children. Now she wanted to contact someone who could help her find a good destination for their estate of 20 million English pounds. If I wanted to mediate in this, that would, of course, be quite advantageous for me.
What struck me most (and annoyed me immensely) was the pious tone of the letter. The sender knew that she would soon go to ‘the bosom of the Almighty’ and wanted me to pray for her. The epistle ended with the wish that Almighty God would bless me.
Apart from the fact that this letter is an attempt at extortion (because eventually I would have to provide my banking details), it is also a flagrant violation of the third of the Ten Commandments. Most Bible-believing Christians are familiar with the classic formulation that comes from the King James Version: ‘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.’ The NIV gives this translation: ‘You shall not misuse the name of the Lord, your God, for the Lord will not hold anyone guiltless who misuses his name.’
Often the ‘vain use’ or ‘misuse’ of God’s name has been interpreted mainly as cursing. The third commandment makes it clear to us, according to the most common explanation, that we are not allowed to use terms of force. But that is not how the Israelites understood it when the law was first proclaimed. For them it was clear that they were not allowed to use the name of God to give extra weight to a promise or an oath. Jesus would later, in his Sermon on the Mount, also underline this interpretation and tell his followers that their ‘yes’ and their ‘no’ had to be sufficient.
In the letter of the English widow the name of God was very clearly misused. We use God’s name ‘in vain’ whenever we connect God’s name to something God doesn’t want to be associated with. All too often this happens when questionable things receive a pious dressing, or when people present their own ideas as divinely revealed truths. It also happened in the (not so distant) past when weapons were blessed before the army went to war.
But the most annoying form of the ‘vain’ use of God’s name took place a few days ago in the Rose Garden of the White House, in Washington, DC. After Donald Trump had threatened to use the US army against the protesters, using words like ‘anarchy’ and ‘terror,’ and announcing with much aplomb that ‘authority’ should ‘denominate the streets’, the police used tear gas and rubber bullets to clear a path for the American president so that he could walk to St. John’s episcopal church. He didn’t go there to attend a service or even burn a candle. He was only there for a photo-op in front of the church while holding up a Bible. The picture had to show: Here’s a God-fearing president who will uphold authority and order, as from Bible-believing, God-fearing authorities can be expected. And it is in the interest of the nation that this genius will be re-elected in November!
Here God’s name was used in an awfully ‘vain’ way. Here faith, church and Bible were not used in honor of God, but in honor of DT. It was for the political agenda of a man who shows absolutely no evidence of Christian and moral principles. But DT will also have to take into account what the third commandment says to all of us: The Lord will not hold him guiltless that taketh his name in vain.’