What Constitutes Using God’s Name in Vain?

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Just about everyone who knows anything about God has heard it said that we must not use the name of the Lord in vain. This is the 3rd commandment given by God on Mount Sinai.

But what does it really mean, to not take the name of the Lord in vain?

I have looked through “Strong’s Concordance”, the “JPS Hebrew-English Tanakh”, my Soncino edition of the Chumash, and the “Complete Jewish Bible” to find an answer. What I found were, from these different sources, all different versions. And when this commandment is repeated later in Deuteronomy the Hebrew is identical but the English interpretation was a little bit different.

I “Googled” the term “in vain” and this is what I got:

Vain is from Latin vanus “empty,” and in English it originally meant “lacking value or effect, futile”; we still say “a vain attempt” using that sense, and the phrase “in vain” means “without success.” Normally, though, vain means “conceited, too proud of oneself.”

There is an additional part of this commandment which (apparently) doesn’t get as much attention; God further states that he will not hold anyone taking his name in vain guiltless. Clearly, God doesn’t take this lightly.

Lightly….that is the way the JPS Tanakh interpreted the commandment. In other words, don’t just throw God’s name around like it doesn’t mean anything. Don’t use it in an oath, don’t use it as a way to demonstrate importance and don;t use it flippantly.

The Chumash states that this commandment deals with oaths and vows, in that we shouldn’t use God’s name for vanity or falsehood. His name must not be used to testify to anything that is untrue or empty or in a manner that renders it useless by joining it with anything that is insincere or unimportant.

The rabbinical tradition states the name of the Lord is not to be used or uttered unnecessarily in common conversation. The only valid use of God’s name is when taking an oath in a court of law.

God’s name is the Tetragrammaton, the four letters that are printed in the Torah that God first gave to Moses. Those letters are Y-H-V-H (Yud-Heh-Vav-Heh) and Jews pronounce it as Adonai, which means “Lord.” There are no vowels in Hebrew so we don’t know how it was originally pronounced, but that is God’s Holy Name, his “first name” (if you will) and the one that definitely is the one he means when he gave the third commandment.

We use the term God, but that isn’t really a name- it is a descriptive label. Lord, HaShem, Adonai, Father, Creator…all these “names” for God are really labels, in a way- they are what he is and what he does, but they aren’t his name. If we use any of those in a false oath or a lie, we are still violating the third commandment.

I see all too often God’s Holy Name, the 4-letters, being used left and right, being plastered on someone’s Face Book page, and being pronounced in (at least) 5 different ways, each person adamant that they are saying it correctly. Not to sound bigoted, but the ones using God’s name are, overwhelmingly, Gentiles. And in my opinion people who constantly use God’s name are being disrespectful to God. No Jewish person would think of using the Tetragrammaton as a Face Book avatar, or in a banner for a discussion group, or in conversation.

I understand that Gentiles have grown up using God’s name and calling on Jesus constantly, in everything they do, in their prayers, as an expletive, and as a means of getting someone’s attention in a conversation. Since most of the Torah is ignored by the Christian world, this commandment is often known but not obeyed. I understand that is how they were brought up, but that doesn’t make it acceptable. Not to God.

The name of the Lord is to be respected and used only when absolutely necessary, as in making a sincere oath or when swearing to a truth in a court of law. That is what Jews have done since God told us not to use it vainly.

Let’s not forget that using something vainly also infers a conceited attitude. I have seen, way too often, arguments by people who are using God’s holy name as a means of showing off how much they know. They argue that their years of study justify their pronunciation and they flagrantly announce God’s name every chance they get. They are using God’s name to show how much they know, with no respect for the name or who’s name it is. That is the ultimate “use in vain” as far as I’m concerned.

One of the great methods for preventing sin that the Rabbis have created is called placing fences around the law. To prevent trespassing (violating) the law they put a “fence” around it. For instance, to make sure we do not to boil a calf in its mother’s milk (Lev. 11) we will not boil any calf in milk at all (first fence.) But that may not be enough, so let’s not have meat and dairy together (second fence.) A fence around the fence around the fence around the law. It is a good way to prevent accidentally violating the commandments, but the downside is that it is also a snowball rolling downhill, and the good idea became a terrible burden on the people, which is the argument Yeshua had when he talked against the traditions of the Pharisees. Traditions are not bad, but the ones that add to God’s laws so much they become an additional burden, are.

To those that are thinking about Joel 2:32, or Romans 10:13, or 1 Cor.1:2, or whatever other verse you find that tells us we should “call on the name of the Lord” it doesn’t mean we are commanded to use the Tetragrammaton. To “call on the name of the Lord” does NOT mean that we are to use his actual name, the Yud-Heh-Vav-Heh: it means to ask him for something, to open our hearts to him and approach him with a humble and contrite spirit in repentance. It is more of a metaphor than a commandment, and it is not justification for using the holy name of God.

I will never try to pronounce the Tetragrammaton. I respect the Lord too much to try to get on a “first name” basis with him. The tradition not to use the holy name of God that Jews have followed for millennia is, for me, a really good one. It is not burdensome and is (in fact) an excellent way to avoid accidentally violating the Third Commandment. I think that if you also do not ever write, use or pronounce God’s holy name you will be blessed.

Try it- what could it hoit?

if only i knew then what i know now….

I would guess that everyone, at one time or another, has thought to themself, “What if….?” What if I had known that was going to happen? What if I hadn’t said that? What if I had said that?

What if I had met my wife earlier? I can tell you, for myself, if I had met Donna when I was in my twenties neither one of us would have had any use for the other. She was different and I was very different, and I doubt she would have given me a second look.

The problem with thinking about what would have been different is that it represents a level of dissatisfaction with the way things are now. Just wondering what it would be like if you had taken that job or if you had met someone sooner doesn’t mean you are unhappy; however, if you really wish things had been different there is no way to deny you are unhappy with how things are now.

The question is: are you where you are because you listened to God’s plan for your life, or are you where you are because you rejected God’s plan for your life?

Personally, I didn’t care what God wanted for me until I was in my 40’s. Thinking about what would have been different if I had cared before then would drive me crazy…OK, you’re right. It would make me crazier than I am now.

If I was to allow myself to think about “if only I had…” I can go back over thousands of things I did that I would like to change. But then I remember something that stops me in my tracks- I like the way things are now.

The grass is always greener on the other side of the fence” and “Be careful what you wish for because you just may get it“: two very wise warnings about what happens when you start to relive the past and wish that it had been different.  The bottom line is that we, as humans, will make mistakes. When we do make a mistake we have two choices: we can dwell on it, or we can overcome it.

If I had known the Lord when I was a kid, my entire life would have been different. The experiences that have made me what I am today would not have happened: my friends, my wife, children, parents, everything- everything would not be what it is now. And there is no way I can be sure it would be better. It could have been much worse; in fact, I could be dead. If I had stayed in the Marine Corps I would have been in the Gulf War (both of them) and who knows who I would have married, if I ever married at all. If I had not left the jobs I did when I did, I might have been a block away from the World Trade Center when it collapsed, or maybe even in it.

The point is we need to accept that God is doing what He does- helping us to have the best life we can. We are the ones who screw it up, and we are the ones who make it better. Do you want to be happy? Then just accept that where you are today is where you should be, and there is nowhere else you could be. And more than anything else, do not allow yourself to regret what you have done (or not done) because regret is a tool of the enemy.

I looked at my Strong’s Concordance for how many times the word “regret” is used in the bible, and would you like to know how many times I found it?

Not once.

Not once does the word “regret” show itself in the bible (well, at least, not according to Strong’s interpretation) so if no one anywhere in the entire Word of God has had any regrets for what has happened in their life, then neither should I. And neither should you.

Where we are now is where we have been led; yes, there have been times (I am sure) that God was directing us elsewhere and we went off on our own, but that only meant God had to create a detour. Maybe we would have done what He wanted earlier, but God will always have His way. Mordecai told Esther (Hadassah) that if she didn’t go before the king, salvation for the Jews would come from somewhere else, but perhaps she was where she was for such a time as this. We are all in that very same spot: maybe what we do or don’t do will be in God’s will, or out of it, but God’s will will succeed. If we believe we hear God’s call on our life and we try to run to Tarshish (as Jonah did), if God really wants us to do this thing He will make events happen that will bring us into alignment with His will. And if He doesn’t really want you or me to do whatever it is, He will choose someone else.

Sometimes I find it interesting to think, when reading about the people in the Bible, how many others would have been there if they had been more open to God’s calling? But, again, it is a useless endeavor to think about that because what really matters is what God wants from me. And what He wants from you.

So, don’t waste your emotional energy or bring yourself “down” by thinking, “What if…?” It is a waste of time, a waste of effort and a disrespect for God’s intercession in your life. God is in charge, and even though we are allowed to go where we want to go, God will always find a short cut back to the path He wants you to take, so long as you are willing to set your spiritual GPS to Him.


Basic Rules for Torah Interpretation

I thought we’d take a different path this morning and talk about the mechanics of Torah interpretation. I am constantly telling people to read the Manual, yet I haven’t really helped anyone in understanding how to read the Torah.

The following suggestions are from a Bible study class I used to give on interpreting the Torah. I hope it is useful to you.

Essentially, when reading the Torah (or any scripture) we need to look at what the text says, then we need to look at how it says it.

There are 4 different levels, if you will, of interpretation:

1. P’shat- the plain meaning of the text, i.e., what you see is what it means

2. Drash- the homiletic meaning (from which we get the Midrash)

3. Remez- the esoteric meaning

4. Sod- the hidden, Kabbalistic meaning

These levels may not all be present, and generally the Ruach will be the driving force in understanding the Drash and deeper meanings.

One of the keys to working within these levels is to observe and review how well the meanings fit and make sense with regards to the other writings in the Bible. This is called Hermeneutics. Hermeneutics means that there is continuity of meaning. We are told that God is the same now, before and in the future- He never changes. The meanings and statements made in the Bible should also have this sameness about them- if you interpret something in a way that goes against other, established understandings then you should review what you’re thinking. If something in what you read in Leviticus seems to be totally against what you read in Romans, then there is something wrong, or missing, in that interpretation.

That may not be the best example, since Romans is historically used as a polemic against the Torah when, in fact, it is an apologetic, but the point is that the Bible is the same from start to finish and the interpretations should all be hermeneutically aligned.

You need to always use (what I learned as) Circles of Context. This means to know who wrote what and to whom, and to incorporate both textual and cultural context when forming your interpretation.  Don’t assume that the slave talked about in Leviticus is the same type of slave we had in America. At that time, being a Jewish slave to another Jew was more like being an indentured servant than the horrible torture and misuse that the slaves in America during the 16th through 19th Centuries had to endure. Also, words had different meanings. For example, in Mattitayu 5:17 when Yeshua said He came to fulfill the law, the word “fulfill” did not mean to “complete” something but to interpret it correctly. When you look at the surrounding text, He goes on to say nothing will change. Yet, poor interpretation has constantly led people to teach that His “fulfillment” of the law was to complete it, thereby doing away with it forever. Wrong-o!

Another biblical form of writing is the use of repetitive statements, and you need to review these very carefully. When the tribes of  Reuben and Gad asked to remain east of the Jordan, they said they would build pens for their cattle and homes for their families. Later that is repeated by Moshe, but he tells them to build homes for their families and pens for their cattle. Moses reversed the order of possessions. The Kumash tells us that this was on purpose to show that Moses wanted the leaders to understand that family is more important than possessions. By carefully reading the repetitious statements and stories you can gain a better understanding of what was happening. The same thing can be seen in the story of how Abraham’s servant found Rachael. The story has subtle changes between the first narrative of the event and then, later, what the servant tells Laban.

Finally, I would like to offer some tools that I use. Of course, the main tool in your shed should be the Ruach HaKodesh, the Holy Spirit, to lead you in your understanding. But, besides that, it couldn’t hurt to have a few other tools.

Extra-biblical writings are useful, but I offer this with a caveat- don’t forget that what you are reading is someone else’s interpretation and you have to verify it against the original text. One that I trust is Strong’s Concordance (you may need to do some weight-lifting to get in shape to carry that book); you can also use a good Hebrew-Greek-English Dictionary and selected commentaries from established biblical experts (again- they usually repeat what they have been told so verify verify verify.)

There are many different Bibles- the Complete Jewish Bible, the JPS Hebrew-English Tanakh, the NIV, the KJV, interlinear bibles, and many, many other Bibles, all with their own interpretations found in what the text says. I am not against reading different versions; in fact, I think it will help to identify the differences and that will help you to find the interpretation you are most comfortable with as being the correct one.

The Kumash is a great tool. I use it over and over. The one I have is the Soncino Pentateuch and Haftorahs: the quintessential Bar Mitzvah present. In fact, the one I have is from my Bar Mitzvah, and it’s still in good shape. Embarrassingly enough, that’s because I never even opened it until I came to know Messiah Yeshua, but (at least) I kept it.

Ultimately, however you do it,  you need to study the Word of God. All of it, from Genesis to Revelations. Heck- you should even take a gander at the maps, now and then, if for no other reason than to be able to picture in your mind where these events are taking place.

Read the Word, study the Word, and get to know the Word, intimately. It is the sword of God, and without knowing what God has told us, through human writings, you can’t possibly be prepared for what is coming.

When you go to a baseball game, they tell you, “Get your scorecards- you can’t tell the players without a scorecard!” If you don’t know what God is telling us about the Messiah, what God is all about (He tells us all about Himself in the Bible) or what evidence there will be of the coming Acharit HaYamim (End Days, Judgement Days), you will not know how to protect your soul from the Enemy.

The Enemy will not come right out and announce himself- he will sneak in behind someone else and slowly, carefully lead you into taking the mark and being forever cursed. If you don’t know the warning signs, you won’t know how to avoid damnation. It’s that simple.

Take your Bible and read it; study it; know it; otherwise, you better have a good supply of Coppertone.