A Separate People

“‘Observe the Sabbath day, to keep it holy, as the LORD your God commanded you. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God. On it you shall not do any work, you or your son or your daughter or your male servant or your female servant, or your ox or your donkey or any of your livestock, or the sojourner who is within your gates, that your male servant and your female servant may rest as well as you. You shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the LORD your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. Therefore the LORD your God commanded you to keep the Sabbath day” (Deuteronomy 5:12-15, ESV).

My kids think I am older than dirt. I’m so old that I remember the Blue Laws, the laws that forbade Walmart (et. al.) from being open 24-7-365. In my small hometown when I was young, only one (of the two) grocery stores was open on Sunday with minimal staff for emergency purchases. The only pharmacy would be open just a few hours on Sunday afternoon and the few gas stations would rotate being open on Sunday. The calendar that we got each year from our bank would identify holidays in red — Sundays were considered holidays (or “holy-days”).

But those days are gone now. I need to take down all of my Bibles from my bookshelves and end tables and night stands and cross out Deuteronomy 5:12-15, along with Exodus 20:8-11. While I am at it, maybe Isaiah 58:13-14 should go too! But if I did, then what would I do with the passage in Hebrews 13:8 that says, “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever”? Was His statement to the Pharisees that He is “Lord of the Sabbath” (Luke 6:5) intended to dismiss the fourth commandment altogether?

We who hold to the authority of the the revealed Truth of Scripture wrestle with this in our current generation. The culture around us has chosen to ignore the God we worship and the Truth He has revealed about Himself. One way that it has done this is to encroach upon the Sunday observance. The choice before us seems to be between legalistic observance and total disregard. Some Christians try to justify the latter position by claiming that this is the only one of the Ten Commandments that is not repeated in the New Testament in some form. But that position places this statement in the category of the Ceremonial Laws that restricted what foods the Jews could eat or what sacrifices should be made for various offenses. The Ceremonial Laws were once-and-for-all fulfilled by the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross. Those who hold the position that the Fourth Commandment can be ignored still believe that the Moral Law is valid. But — interestingly — this commandment is the only one that Moses tied to the creation, predating the Law given at Mt. Sinai. Even if our theological perspective discounts the Old Testament Law, we are still products of the creation, so the weekly day of rest is still important to observe for believers, if Scripture has any authority. 

The best way to reconcile this dilemma is to read the word “holy” as “separate,” which is its original definition. Just as every penny to our names comes from Him, just as every morsel we consume comes from the earth that He created (Ps 24:1), every moment of every day is a gift of His grace. In one sense, it is all holy, but earnest believers who want to honor the Redeemer SEPARATE a portion of their income to offer it as a token of the whole. These believers bow to acknowledge that the source of their meal is the earth that He watered, and they SEPARATE a portion of their 168 hours each week for worship. Solomon reminded us that honoring the Lord should come from the FIRST of our produce (Prov 3::9-10); it is customary to bless our food BEFORE we consume it and it is appropriate that we START our week with a time of worship. Certainly these things can all become legalistic observances, but they don’t have to be.

When Moses approached Pharaoh to let the people of Israel go to worship their God, Pharaoh’s response was to increase the intensity of their servitude. If they had so much idle time to go and worship, they could work more, he reasoned (Ex. 5:17). As we have moved away from the Sunday observance laws, employers have become much bolder in requiring work on Sundays, much like Pharaoh of old. Sunday work is no longer limited to doing good and to deeds of mercy (Matt 12:12). 

But the intent of the observance of a day of rest was to identify the Hebrew people with the God they worshiped — the Lord God of Israel (Ex. 31:12-17). This was originally why it was incorporated into our laws. He is and was separate and distinct from every other pagan deity, and His people should be separate as well, identifying themselves as His.

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.