A Substantive God

You shall not take the name of the LORD your God in vain, for the LORD will not hold him guiltless who takes his name in vain (Deuteronomy 5:11, ESV).

Social media is a wonderful way to keep track of old friends and family, and it has become a venue for airing political or social opinions in a proper setting. But, I admit, I have “de-friended” some because of the crass and crude language that many use, and I am tempted to do the same with some others. I would do so, not because I am a Christian, but because the profanity that I am forced to read to keep track of these friends is simply gratuitous. Unlike the airwaves where the FCC used to monitor and “bleep” offensive language, social media is self-monitoring (or, often, unmonitored).

But let’s be clear…as offensive as this language is, it does NOT violate the third of the Ten Commandments. Moses didn’t command the Hebrew people to refrain from crass speech (neither did he encourage it); he commanded the people to refrain from references to the God of Israel that reduced Him to a common status. The word, “vain,” could also be translated “empty” or “deceitful.” Whenever we extract the meaning of the name (character) of the God of Israel in our speech, we have violated this command.

To avoid violating this command the ancient Hebrews were careful not to pronounce the personal name of God — the one given to Moses in Exodus 3 when they met at the burning bush. The four letters would be translated into our English language as “YHWH.” The Hebrew language does not have any vowels, so those would have to be supplied by the readers and the sacred name is usually translated “Jehovah.” But Hebrew scribes were so very careful not to mispronounce the Name or to use it in an empty/vain way that they did not pronounce it at all. Instead, when they read the Scripture aloud, they substituted the word “Adonai” which means “Lord,” and which could refer to either a human or a deity. The scholars who translated the Scripture into English faced a dilemma about how to remain true to the written Hebrew text while avoiding vain or empty usage. Is there ANYONE who has not read the words of a text or sung the words of a song while his mind was distracted in some way? To read a reference to the God of Israel in this way would violate this Third Commandment for many people.

The solution that the English translators arrived at years ago was to follow the lead of the Hebrew scribes. When the Hebrew text makes reference to the personal name of the God of Israel, “Jehovah,” the translators will use the word, “LORD.” To distinguish the Hebrew word “Adonai” from the personal name of God, they will write “Adonai” as “Lord” and “Jehovah” as “LORD.” Most translations follow this convention. 

So, if the crude “sailor’s language” does not violate the Third Commandment, what does? In a word, irreverence. Personally I take greater offense at references to the Sovereign Lord of creation as “the good Man above” or “the Man upstairs” than to the four-letter-words that FB friends will use (though I still sometimes “de-friend” them!). That reference suggests to me that He just an average Joe that I might “shoot the breeze” with over coffee/coke/beer or sandwich. Such an impression has reduced Him to a common position.

I am also concerned in our world today at all of the hints and suggestions that the God of Israel is no different than any other religion’s god. It is common today in much music/conversation to refer to Him as simply “God” rather than to Him as “Lord” (implying submission) or to “Jesus” (referring to His revelation of Himself). I am not attributing any improper motivation in this but in a society that has interpreted grace to be license and blended the holy with the common, I have to wonder about the ways in which we refer to the Lord we worship. Sometimes I wonder if an adherent to some other religion could sing our worship songs, substituting in their minds “Allah” or “Buddha” in place of “God.” Is our worship distinctively Christian? Have we substituted something empty for the name of the God of Israel?

After spending nine and a half chapters explaining the supremacy of Christ over the entire religious system of the Jews, the writer to the Hebrews wrote, “Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus, … let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith” (10:19-22, ESV). I like to read the word “confidence” as “audacity” because it implies to our modern minds that He is NOT just like the rest of us. He is substantive and separate.

 

Picturing the God of Israel

“‘You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or serve them; for I the LORD your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments” (Ex. 20:4-6, ESV). 

We are a very visual society, and they say that a picture is worth a thousand words. Thousands of images float through our minds each day, spurred on by TV, internet, magazines, billboards and a host of other outlets. Early pagan worship made use of images carved into trees or charms on jewelry. Not all images are objects of worship. God told the Hebrews to bind the Scripture on their hands and foreheads and to put them on the doorposts of their homes as a reminder to keep the truth always before them (Deut. 6:8-9). To this day in some orthodox Jewish communities the men wear phylacteries in an attempt to follow this command.

In some ways images stimulate the imagination to more imagery, as the pornography “industry” can attest. It is no accident that many of the idolatrous images of paganism were intended to excite the sexual imaginations of the worshipers. Political ideology can also be promoted by carefully selecting images (or not). As I write this, there is a big flap in our culture war over a reference by our President to a street gang that is responsible for some heinous crimes. Those that are against the President’s position denounce his statement that they are “animals” by appealing to the image of God in every human being, never using any pictures of these people. On the  other hand, those that take the President’s side show pictures of these people who have tattooed every square inch of their faces. They are seen (typically) as part of riotous scenes and the narrative tells of the sickening crimes for which they are responsible. Happily the reporters refrain from images of their mutilated victims.

But in other ways images limit our imaginations. A popular picture of Jesus that I recall from my youth portrayed Him to be a winsome and gentle Shepherd, caring for the lambs in His charge. That image is utterly irreconcilable to the picture of Him that comes to my mind when I read of Him driving out the money-changers from the Temple (which He did twice, if you read the texts carefully). I cannot conceive of this gentle Teacher and compassionate Friend pronouncing the woes upon the hypocritical scribes and Pharisees in Matthew 23. If this picture of Him dominated my understanding of Him, there would be several facets of His personality that I would miss. It is not by accident that no picture of Him has remained from the era in which He walked the earth (if one ever existed).

When God (through Moses) forbade the use of images in true worship it was for the sake of stimulating the whole of our imaginations concerning His character. He didn’t want one image of Him to dominate our understanding. That happens when people overemphasize one aspect of His character to the exclusion of another. That happens anyway, by the way, but it would be even more prevalent if there were pictures of Jesus available to our sight.

The passage quoted above indicates that the jealousy of God is incited when we worship a false image of Him. That false image could involve any degree of misrepresentation. The warning that His wrath would be visited on succeeding generations for failing to follow this command indicates how earnest He is in this matter. The point is that God cares deeply what we think of Him, that it should be true to His revelation of Himself, and that we would take care to never distort the revelation that He has made of Himself in the Scripture.

The Primacy of the God of Israel

“I am the LORD your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.  You shall have no other gods before Me” (Deuteronomy 5:6-7, NASB). 

For many people in our modern society, the Ten Commandments seem distant and for another era. We acknowledge that they are foundational to our system of laws in America, but they don’t seem to have any bearing upon our daily lives any more. The Culture War in which we are currently embroiled has made the display of them a point of contention with conservatives fighting to preserve them and progressives wanting them to be removed. Sadly, however, many conservatives want them to remain only because they have a place in our history. They are less concerned about their having a place in our hearts. As a society we wantonly violate them — even if we acknowledge their historical importance.

The first Commandment tells us that it is our responsibility to hold the God of Israel FIRST in our lives. No god is to have a higher value to us. Yet, for much of American society, there are many things that we value more than the God of Israel.

One of our gods is success. We prize success so much that we will sacrifice truth before it. We justify “bending” the truth even if we don’t break it, but David told us that the man of integrity, the man who is true to the God of Israel, will “swear to his own hurt and not change” (Ps. 15:4) Success comes in many forms — popularity, power, influence. It’s not by accident that so many vie to be the “American Idol” with all of the popularity, material prosperity, and influence it accords. Success is even more important than the God of Israel in the contemporary church. It is more important today to appear successful than it is to be faithful to the revealed Truth of Scripture.

Another god of America is ease. As long as it is easy, we will follow Jesus, but when following Him is uncomfortable, many fall away. This was Jesus’ point in Mark 4:5-6 and 16-17 in the Parable of the Soils (some call it “The Parable of the Sower”). When the seed is planted in rocky soil, the heat of the sun burns up the plant because the root has no depth. The heat of the sun is illustrative of the affliction that ALWAYS comes to believers in Jesus.

Another soil is the thorny soil of our god of pleasure. It is closely related to the god of ease. Hedonism has invaded the church in subtle ways. For many today, ministry is no different than entertainment. We switch churches as readily as we switch channels on our TVs. Paul spoke of the coming time when men would choose a church because the teaching “tickled” the ears (2 Tim 4:3) instead of being true. What Paul saw as a future expectation is now a present reality.

Relationships, for many, are more valued than the God of Israel. Jesus Himself told us that no one is worthy of being His disciple if he is not willing to put Him before family (Matt 19:29, et.al.). Some parents of unbelieving children stay home from worship when the kids are visiting rather than declaring their allegiance to the Lord over their children. How many, in defiance of the clear commands of Scripture, marry unbelievers thinking that they “can’t live without him/her”? Invariably, that relationship draws the believer away from the Lord rather than drawing the unbeliever to Him. This idolatry is not just true of young people and parents. Some preachers fear offending certain people in their congregations more than they fear offending the God of Israel by compromising the revealed truth of Scripture.

When my children were small we had a big back yard surrounded by a privacy fence that kept them in and danger out. The Ten Commandments function in that same way for our society. There is great freedom within their boundaries, but much danger when they are torn down. Admittedly, when my children were small, they knew they needed parental permission to venture outside the boundaries of the fence. We moved from that home before they challenged that expectation. But in this society the Church has failed to stand against the challenge to these boundaries. Perhaps that failure is because we are not sure we believe it ourselves. Whatever the reason, we need to repent and return Him to His proper place — first in our lives.