Wildfire!

So the tongue also is a little member, and boasteth great things. Behold, how much wood is kindled by how small a fire! And the tongue is a fire: the world of iniquity among our members is the tongue, which defileth the whole body, and setteth on fire the wheel of nature, and is set on fire by hell (James 3:5-6).

Those who live in the eastern part of North America can be forgiven for wondering why wildfire might be a great concern; most of the time the east is green and lush. In the West, however, wildfire is an almost ever-present danger. The land is frequently dry. It does not take much to start a wildfire that burns tens of thousands of acres: an unattended campfire. A car accident. Lightning. Wildfires are very dangerous indeed!

James, the brother of the Lord, understood the power of fire and how a great conflagration could start with a small catalyst. Parts of the Levant are not unlike the American West in that way. He speaks of fire in order to help his beloved fellow Christians to understand the great danger behind another element which can start great conflagrations with the smallest of catalysts: the human tongue.

James had begun by warning Christians about not having too many become teachers on account of the stricter judgment teachers will face (James 3:1); he continued by pointing out that the one who does not stumble in word is able to control the body (James 3:2). He explored that illustration further, speaking of how horses are controlled by a small bridle in the mouth, and also introduced the notion of how a large ship is directed by a small rudder (James 3:3-4). He then speaks of the power of the tongue despite its small size (James 3:5-6); he would go on to recognize that while humans have tamed all animals the tongue cannot be tamed, and pointed out that we bless God and curse man with the same mouth, and that such things should not be (James 3:7-12). James therefore has a strong concern with the dangers that come from the use of the tongue.

James does not mince words about the dangers involved. The tongue is small, but boasts greatly. Of all the members of the body it is the tongue that can defile the whole, can set the world on fire, as it itself is set on fire by hell; such is the only use of Gehenna outside of Jesus’ use of the term in the Gospels.

We today know all too well about the dangers of the tongue. We have seen many people whose lives and careers were ruined because of an ill-timed remark or the wide sharing of a thoughtless remark. One is reminded of the story of Justine Sacco, who before departing for Africa made a foolish joke regarding not getting AIDS in Africa because she was white on Twitter. During the flight her tweet was shared many times; when she landed she was informed of the outrage her tweet had instigated and that she had been fired. The Internet proved merciless to Ms. Sacco; people would be foolish for judging her and her character based only on one decontextualized statement. Nevertheless, her example illustrates just how important it is for us to give consideration to what we say.

The danger of the tongue comes from many different sources. It may be, as in the case above, with a poor joke that may reveal more about our thought processes than we would like to admit. It may be the insult or cutting remark uttered in anger; you can claim that you did not really mean it, and ask for forgiveness, and even receive it, but the scars from those words will always remain. It may be gossip spoken and spread, ultimately reaching its subject. As they begin the words may seem very small and insignificant, and perhaps on their own they would be. And yet such messages can take a life of their own; ask any politician whose not well thought out comment would ultimately dog him throughout the campaign and cost him the election.

We do well to recognize how our tongues are always a potential wildfire within us. There are some times and certain contexts in which a foolish or thoughtless word may not cause too much difficulty or distress, as a spark that falls after a wet period in the forest. On the other hand, there are plenty of times and situations in which the ground is dry and the plants desiccated, ready to burn long and hot with only the smallest of sparks; the wrong word in the wrong situation and your life as you know it can be destroyed, your soul in danger of hellfire, and you are left wishing you could just take those words back.

Unfortunately, you can never take back your words. But you and I and all of us in Christ can resolve to not say them in the first place. In many ways wildfire control is dependent on humans using fire properly, and the same goes with our tongues. We must use the tongue to glorify God and bless man made in His image. We must give thought to how we speak for and about others so as to build up and not gossip, slander, or tear down. Foolish jesting is not worth our reputation and standing. May we all seek to control the wildfire in our mouths and seek to restrain our tongues!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Oaths

“Again, ye have heard that it was said to them of old time, ‘Thou shalt not forswear thyself, but shalt perform unto the Lord thine oaths’:
But I say unto you, Swear not at all; neither by the heaven, for it is the throne of God; nor by the earth, for it is the footstool of his feet; nor by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. Neither shalt thou swear by thy head, for thou canst not make one hair white or black. But let your speech be, ‘Yea, yea; Nay, nay’: and whatsoever is more than these is of the evil one (Matthew 5:33-37).

When in the middle of disputes it is easy to miss the forest for the trees, focusing only on the details of the issue at hand. Jesus resolutely maintained focus on the forest!

Jesus declares Matthew 5:33-37 in the midst of what is popularly called the “Sermon on the Mount”; it is also the fourth of six declarations whereby Jesus contrasts what the disciples and Israel had heard from what “I say unto you,” and in all six Jesus is contrasting the standard of righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees with that of God’s full purpose in His Kingdom (Matthew 5:17-48). Previous declarations involved murder, adultery, and divorce; in each circumstance Jesus also condemns giving expression to the desires that lead to those sins and returns to God’s purposes for marriage from the beginning (Matthew 5:21-32).

In Matthew 5:33-37 Jesus turns to the matter of oaths and vows. What Israel “had heard” as cited in Matthew 5:33 does not come from one specific passage but represents the substantive message of Leviticus 19:12, Numbers 30:2-16, and Deuteronomy 5:11, 23:23: God commanded for Israel to not swear falsely but to pay what they vow.

In days of old many in Israel took this commandment very seriously. Even though the covenant made between Israel and the Gibeonites was made under false pretenses, Israel decided to honor that covenant because they had sworn to the Gibeonites by the name of YHWH (Joshua 9:1-27). Jephthah made a foolish and rash vow, yet the text makes it abundantly clear that he did exactly what he vowed, even though it meant sacrificing his daughter as a burnt offering (Judges 11:30-39). While we might question why such vows should be honored, the Israelites did not. The vows should not have been made; they were rash and foolish; but once made they were obligated to follow through. The Law provided only a narrow provision for a vow to be repealed, and it only involved a vow of a woman in certain circumstances (Numbers 30:1-16).

Yet things had changed by Jesus’ day. We can see from Matthew 23:16-22 that the Pharisees had worked out an elaborate system on account of which some were obligated to keep their vows but not others: those who swore on the Temple or the altar were not obliged, but those who swore on the gold of the Temple or the offering on the altar were obliged. Jesus devastates that logic, asking which is greater, the gold or the Temple that sanctifies the gold, the altar or the One who sanctifies the altar, and making it quite clear that even in the first century, regardless of whether you swore on the Temple, its gold, the altar, its offering, or heaven in reality swears in the name of the One who accepts the gift on the altar, who dwells in the Temple, and who sits on the throne in Heaven. God was not confused nor was He amused: if Israelites swore on anything they were still obligated to pay their vows!

Nevertheless, in Matthew 5:34-37 Jesus goes even further. Throughout He never denies that if you swear you are obligated to pay your vow; He does not say otherwise here, and in Matthew 23:16-22 He makes His feelings about paying vows actually made quite well known. In Matthew 5:34-37 Jesus goes a large step further: do not swear at all!

Humans have a propensity toward swearing; yes, we could include the “cursing” kind as well, but we speak specifically of the impulse to make a vow. When we are doubted or challenged we impulsively swear to be telling the truth; not a few in our midst greatly desire for us to vow, or commit, to various projects. Humans show almost equal propensity to break vows as much as to make them; how many times will people swear to be telling the truth precisely when they are trying to pass off a lie? How many have given their word but do not follow through? Such is why God commanded Israel to not take His name in vain, concerned less about cursing and far more about swearing the truth in the name of YHWH flippantly (Exodus 20:7). Such is why God put such strong emphasis on Israelites paying whatever they vowed (Numbers 30:1-16). And this is why so many first century Israelites were trying to find an “escape route” out of their vows!

What good does swearing do, anyway? Is something we say or promise more valid if we swear by heaven? As Jesus says, it is God’s throne, His seat of power, not ours (Matthew 5:34; cf. Isaiah 66:1). What if we swear by the earth? It is not ours; it is the footstool of God’s feet (Matthew 5:34; cf. Isaiah 66:1). Jerusalem? The city of the great King (Matthew 5:34; cf. Psalm 48:2). Well, what about on our own heads? Jesus reminds us that we cannot make one hair white or black (and the premise is not contradicted by current hair coloring products; we are still not nearly in as much control of our existence as we would like to imagine but subject to all sorts of forces, Matthew 5:36). Swearing by our own righteousness would prove counter-productive (Romans 3:20, 23). Thus, in the end, we humans really do not have any basis upon which to swear; there is no external force that grounds our words as true.

Instead, as Jesus suggests, we ought to say yes and no; our integrity should be inherent in our words (Matthew 5:37). If we are trustworthy, our yes or our no should be sufficient. As Jesus says, anything beyond “yes” and “no” is of the Evil One, since it comes from a place of doubt, fear, mistrust, and sin (Matthew 5:37). For good measure James repeats the same command in James 5:12.

Whenever Jesus’ command to not swear is discussed many questions multiply about being sworn in as a witness in a trial, making contract commitments in general, and things of that nature. Is the prohibition absolute? The text does not say. Being sworn in as a witness in a trial is a way to observe the civil laws, a commendable thing in Romans 13:1-7, 1 Peter 2:11-15, and not the issue regarding which Jesus is discussing. Jesus’ concern is about our propensity to want to invoke other people, places, or authorities to somehow invest our words with greater veracity or authority. Yet, in reality, all we have is our “yes” and “no.” Our words are no more or less true if we swear on God’s name, heaven and earth, the grave of our mother, or anything else. Furthermore, when we make vows, we obligate ourselves to fulfill them, and is that a wise course of action? We do better to live with such integrity that those around us know that our yes or no can be trusted. Living with such integrity is how we may exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees and thus enter the Kingdom of God! Let us be true to our word, avoid swearing and vowing whenever possible, allow our yes to be yes and no, no, and speak and live in integrity before God in Christ!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Taking God’s Name in Vain

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 (Exodus 20:7).

Perhaps you have always wondered why the name of God in the Old Testament is often rendered as LORD in capital letters, or how some concluded that His name is “Jehovah,” or why to this day some among the Jews will only write “G-d.” It all goes back to a very strict interpretation of the third commandment: the Israelites were not to take the name of YHWH their God in vain (Exodus 20:7).

Long after the Ten Commandments were given, it was reasoned that if you never spoke the name of God, you would not take it in vain. Therefore, the Jews stopped saying “Yahweh” and would always substitute some other divine title– Adonai (Lord), Elohim (God), Ha-Shem (the Name). The Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible, consistently renders Yahweh as Kurios (Lord). Later on, as the Masoretes, the Jewish scribes who copied the Hebrew Bible texts in the first millennium CE, developed the vowel pointing system, they would always put the vowels for Ha-Shem, Adonai, or Elohim under the Divine Name YHWH so that even if a Jew thoughtlessly began uttering God’s name without providing an alternative substitute, what would come out of his mouth would be meaningless. This is how we got “Jehovah,” which is meaningless in Hebrew– it is the consonants of the Divine Name (YHWH) with the vowels for Adonai. To this day, many translations avoid transliterating God’s name as Yahweh and continue to use LORD in capital letters.

We mention all of this, partly in way of explanation, but also partly to show how some people have taken God’s commandment to not take His name in vain rather seriously. Yes, in many respects, this devotion was terribly misguided. It was not at all God’s intention to mean that His name should never be uttered– we have evidence from early Israelite history showing that people spoke of YHWH and sought His blessings for one another (cf. Ruth 2:4). God also did not intend for His unique name Yahweh to be upheld while other terms used to refer to Him, like God, Lord, etc., could be used more flippantly. We should also hasten to mention that this is not evidence of some conspiracy to remove God’s name from Scripture, as if we sin if we never refer to God as Yahweh, as some would allege. God, the Lord, Yahweh, even “Jehovah”– YHWH the Creator God knows when people speak to Him and about Him, whether in using His personal name or by referring to one of His divine titles and functions in the speaker’s native language.

Yet all of this ultimately serves as a distraction from what God was seeking in the third commandment. What is the big deal with taking God’s name in vain?

Some might suggest that this is yet another example of God’s insecurities and despotic behavior, as if God must absolutely be upheld and treated differently or else He finds Himself in difficulty. Yet there is no reason to even suggest this. God is all-powerful and Sovereign whether we uphold His name as holy or we do not (cf. Hebrews 1:3, Ephesians 1:21). No– the command to not take God’s name in vain was for Israel’s sake.

One of the great declarations of the Old Testament involves God’s holiness– God is holy, and Israel is to be holy because of it (Leviticus 11:44, 19:2). To be holy is to be separate and distinct.

Taking God’s name in vain is to show disrespect to God’s holiness, indeed. Far too many people only seem to get religious in their speech when they find themselves in compromising or compromised positions. Too many people speak of God only in vulgar speech, insults, or in various exclamations and interjections. Euphemisms for the names of God and Christ remain popular, even though the same spirit is there, but in our increasingly crude society, fewer people find the need for alternatives and just keep with the “real thing.”

Yet the challenge is not just in the disrespect demonstrated– the real difficulty is in how God is made mundane in the process. Israel was to show respect and reverence for God’s name in order to remember how holy and separate God really is (Isaiah 55:8-9). To utter God’s name in the common events of life– when one hurts oneself, as an unthinking response to some circumstance, and so on and so forth– is really to empty God’s name of its power, holiness, and importance. It is truly taking God’s name “in vain”– using God’s name in a throwaway sense, and in so doing, we nullify and make vain for us the power and holiness present in God. God, and Christ in our own day, is made too common and unthought of when God’s name is used in such trifling circumstances.

This is not an aspect of God that changes in the new covenant, as it is written:

Let no corrupt speech proceed out of your mouth, but such as is good for edifying as the need may be, that it may give grace to them that hear (Ephesians 4:29).

As believers we must give thought to what we say. We will be brought into judgment for every careless word uttered (Matthew 12:36). While it is popular in our society to invoke God’s name for swearing in all kinds of senses, in all kinds of casual, trivial circumstances that have no bearing on God’s great holiness and work in Jesus Christ, we must make sure that our speech is different. If we revere God as holy, we will speak about God as holy. We will understand that we should not trivialize or make common God’s name through frivolous and vain usage. We also will understand that euphemisms are no better; the same spirit is at work, and we are not giving grace through speaking them.

God wants us to speak about Him and to use His name to glorify Him, praise Him, and serve Him. But His name must be kept holy– separate and distinct– if we are going to truly revere Him as holy. Let us therefore consider our speech and strive to not take God’s name in vain!

Ethan R. Longhenry