2014-12-21 – At a little after five this afternoon, we reach the Winter Solstice. At a little after five this afternoon, the sun will be down for 45 minutes or so. It’s been dark like this at five for a few weeks now. With the arrival of the Winter Solstice, we can say one thing: it’s not going to get any worse—at least not in the dark afternoon department. It’s still going to be cold for a couple of months at least. It’ll be slow coming at first but, as of today, the sun is on its way back!
Folks used to worship the sun.
I’m not talking about beach bunnies who spend their days on the beach working on their tans. (Not much of that happening in Chicago today.) I’m talking about real worship. The sun is pretty important, after all. And it’s reliable. You can count on the annual cycles. People all over the world have worshipped the sun as a god. Throughout history.
The ancient Egyptians worshipped Sun Ra. And then the Pharaoh’s of Egypt took on the authority of the god on earth. When he died he became the god of the dead, and a new Pharaoh became god on earth. A repeating cycle, like the cycle of the sun.
It is against this backdrop that I want to talk about the third of the Ten Commandments: Thou shalt not take the name of the LORD thy God in vain.
It is customary for people to equate this with a prohibition on swearing, but biblical scholars agree that the third commandment is not aimed at foul-mouthed adolescents.
The third commandment is part of a set of five commandments about authority:
- Don’t have other gods
- Don’t make idols.
- Don’t take the name of God in vain.
- Remember the Sabbath day (for, it says, God defeated Pharaoh to give rest to the Israelites).
- Honor your father and mother.
In context, the clear meaning is that we are prohibited from . . . doing what Pharaoh did. We are prohibited from using God’s name for our own purposes, from claiming the authority of a god to lord it over others.
It demands a kind of modesty from believers. It demands that you NOT use the name of God as a cudgel to beat others to your will (or for any other purpose, really). It requires you to live the righteous life, not talk about it, and not demand it of others.
You could argue that the third commandment requires a kind of separation of church and state. Think about it. If the state acts in the name of God, isn’t it taking the name of God in vain?
And wouldn’t this have made sense thousands of years ago to the Israelites who had just emerged from the darkness of slavery to a Pharaoh who was a “god”?
The Bible makes clear that the first generations after slavery had a clear understanding of this. There was a deep reluctance to allow godly power to human leaders—not even to Moses. Not even to Joshua. There were those who clamored for a visible god, but they were resisted.
It was only after the memory of the Pharaoh was dulled by the passage of time were the first kings of Israel anointed. With great reluctance.
No, the third commandment is not aimed at teenage boys sitting in the pews. It is aimed at those standing at the altar, warning them, and us, against excessive claims of power. That’s what it means to take the name of the Lord your God in vain.
Of course, I could be wrong. I don’t want to be dogmatic about this. Truth is, I’m just happy that we’ve reached the Winter Solstice. It’s the first sign. And I’m looking forward to Groundhog Day. That’s when the return of the sun will really start to speed up.