Thoughts on Oaths

Pastor's Pen

The Heidelberg Catechism Lord’s Day 36-37 discuss the Third Commandment.  “You shall not misuse the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not hold anyone guiltless who misuses his name.” Exodus 20:7 NIV 84

Sermon writing involves taking a lot of notes, about 60%-90% of those notes never make it into the final Sunday morning text.  I will use this space to think out loud about this text and give you a glimpse of the many ways a text like this can speak to our world today.

  1. Context:  God is speaking to Moses at Mount Sinai.  Moses is the first person to be told God’s name.  He is also the first to be commanded about the misuse of God’s name.  This is the third commandment, like the first two, this commandment deals with our relationship with God.  We are to not have any other gods, not to make an idol… and relatedly, we are not to make an idol out of the name of God either.
  2. OT Context:  Most uses of God’s name involve oaths.  This is still true today when a person swears to God, or says something like “God is my witness,” or “I promise to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help me God.”  This kind of language is shorthand for something like “May God judge me, be it ever so severely, if I am not telling the truth.”  Basically, the person who says such things is bringing God in as a second witness, for in Bible times testimony required two witnesses to be valid.  Now, to misuse the name of God, would be to swear to something that is false.  Because, you have now made a false claim about God, you have made God party to your lie.  Understandably, this is a forbidden form of speech for it dishonors God.  We understand this implicitly, in terms of advertising and trademarks.  How often have we heard something like “the views expressed in this program are not the views of …”?  The overseeing company or broadcaster does not want to take credit for views that are not their own.  God doesn’t want do such a thing either.
  3. In Leviticus, the penalty for misuse of God’s name is stoning.  Basically, a crowd would throw stones at a person until they were killed and then covered over with stones.  Dying this way would leave a pile of stones over the body.  Piles of stones, in the Bible are memorials that cause people to remember.  So a young person might walk by such a pile of stones and an older person would say, that is what happened to the one who misused the name of the Lord.  That would have sent a powerful message.
  4. NT  Context.  In the sermon on the mount,  Jesus says that his followers should not make oaths at all.  “Let your yes be yes and your no be no.”  Here Jesus points out that the need to swear an oath presupposes the possibility of lying.  If your yes is always yes and no is always no, there is no need to swear an oath.  This command is repeated in James 5:12.  On the other hand, we do have examples of the Apostle Paul swearing an oath.  See 2 Corinthians 1:23.  “I call God as my witness that it was in order to spare you that I did not return to Corinth.”  Therefore, the Heidelberg concludes that oaths may be used in God’s name if they are done reverently, when the government demands it or necessity requires it.
  5. Blasphemy.  This is a second type of misuse of God’s name.  swearing oaths wrongly is the first type.  Blasphemy involves making yourself equal to God.  We could say that a false oath is a kind of blasphemy because the person is claiming to speak for God and is not in fact actually speaking for God.  Blasphemy also includes claiming to be God or claiming to have God’s authority, when one does not actually have God’s authority.  Finally, and most plainly, blasphemy means insulting or cursing or belittling God, speaking of God with a disrespectful tone.  This would include careless uses of phrase “Oh my God” or “Oh God.”
  6. Language in general. Many Christians have interpreted this commandment more generally to include what is politely called “bad language.”  The commandment demands that we say what we mean and mean what we say.  As John Calvin once put it: “I consider looseness with words no less a defect than looseness of the bowels.”  Christians should be marked by sincere and reliable speech.
  7. Contemporary context.  In the 1700s a man in England loaded up a ship full of kidnapped women in an attempt to bring them as brides to the British Colonies.  He was found out and the women were freed.  He was hanged.  However, he was not hanged for kidnapping.  He was hanged for misusing the name of the King.  He claimed the King had authorized his trip.  The misusing of the kings name is serious business.  Moving closer to our time, I already referenced disclaimers that TV shows commonly use to distance themselves from the opinions of those on the show.  This is about preserving the name of the TV show.  Anyone who has had their identity stolen online, also knows how much damage the misuse of a person’s name can be.
  8. Idols also have their own blasphemy rules.  What is a person not allowed to say?  The answer to this question will show what is valued and what is worshiped.  For example:  When a football player refused to stand for the national anthem, he was criticized.  He had dishonored the name of his country.  The idol is the country, the blasphemy is the sitting down instead of singing the words to the national anthem.  A scientist has his reputation tarnished for studying cold fusion.  The idol here is a bit trickier to pick out:  Lets call it “respectable science” where what determines “respectable” is not scientific. See this.  The blasphemy is daring to study what should not be studied.  We can go deeper here.  How many times have you posted something online, only to delete it?  How many times have you censored what you were going to say, because you were worried about what someone else online might think?  The god of eros reigns online, and any attempts to limit pornography or to discuss sexual ethics are quickly punished. It is blasphemous to the god of eros to say that not all things that happen between consenting adults should happen between those adults.  Say what you cannot say, and the idol appears.
  9. But this is not true for God.  The prohibition against the misuse of God’s name, frees up rather than limits discourse.  The creation is now open, and all aspects of it can be studied and discussed.  In speaking of God rightly, we come to speak of ourselves rightly as well.  We have learned much about the world, about humanity and anatomy, about cultures, about psychology, biology, physics, and about human sexuality precisely because people have been willing to let their yes be yes and their no be no, to talk honestly about their experiences, no matter how difficult or surprising those experiences have been.  The fact that this commandment, and Jesus’ interpretation of it in the sermon on the mount, opens the door to exploration of the world shouldn’t be overlooked in a society that madly trying to create safe spaces, pass hate crime legislation, and limit free speech.  The idols which enforce their own rules of blasphemy may silence us all, and our world begins to look like that described in Romans 1, where the truth is suppressed…
  10. Now for something different… When people are blessed in Numbers 6, the Bible says that by this blessing, God puts his Name on the people.  Similarly, in Matt 28 when Jesus gives what is called the Great Commission,  the disciples are called to baptize in the Name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.  Thereby putting again the name of God on God’s people.  This is a double edged sword.  On the one side, this means that When God’s name is misused Christians are abused.  For our reputation is wrapped up in the name of God.  On the other side this means that when Christians behave badly, they bring dishonor to God’s name, for we are wrapped up on the name of God.  Positively, this means that we do carry the name of God wherever we go, as has been said often, you might be the only Jesus someone ever meets.

I think that is enough for now.