I was listening to the Christian radio station on my way home from work, when I heard a voice narrating the following passage from the book of Jeremiah:
“And the Lord said, you are my battle axe and weapons of war for with you will I break the nations into pieces, and with you will I destroy kingdoms; And with you will I break into pieces the horse and his rider; and with you will I break into pieces the chariot and his rider; With you I will also break into pieces men and women; and with you will I break into pieces old and young; and with you will I break in pieces the young man and the maiden; I will also break into pieces with you the shepherd and his flock; and with you will I break into pieces the shepherd and his yoke of oxen; and with you will I break into pieces captains and rulers.
This has been the Family Bible Fellowship on Family Radio, biblical truth for the whole family.”
That’s a brutal piece of scripture, especially for a kid-friendly radio show. But truth be told, our scripture this morning—which also comes from Jeremiah—is also pretty harsh. And I want to be clear that Jeremiah’s understanding of God is very different from my own; unlike Jeremiah, I don’t believe that God is jealous, or vengeful, and I don’t believe that God breaks people into pieces. When studying the Ten Commandments, which were composed in ancient Israel; and if we want to have any hope of understanding what these commandments are really all about, we need to look at things through the lens of the ancient near east.
And for the authors of the Ten Commandments, there was a single traumatic event that shaped their entire ethos. In the year 586 BC, the city of Jerusalem was sacked by the Babylonians, sometimes referred to in scripture as the Chaldeans. And the Temple—the very heart of Jewish civilization, where God was believed to dwell in the innermost sanctum—was utterly destroyed.
Naturally, this raised all kinds of theological questions about their relationship with God—had God abandoned them? Was God angry? Had they done something to deserve this? And these very questions likely contributed to the establishment of the first three commandments. In fact, though the stories are much older, the Ten Commandments were probably written down for the first time shortly after the Fall of Jerusalem, in the late 6th century BC. This is significant, because these rules were likely recorded for posterity to ensure that a catastrophe like this never happened again.
You see, the ancient Israelites—Jeremiah in particular—believed that God had actually sent Babylon to conquer Jerusalem as punishment for their idolatry; the Israelites had a bad habit of veering into polytheism and idol worship, praying to all of those graven images. God’s protection was taken for granted, His hallowed name taken in vain, until the armies of Babylon turned up at the gates of Jerusalem. Some of the city’s inhabitants thought they would be safe inside the Temple, on holy ground; but they couldn’t have been more wrong.
I’ll never forget the first time that I took the Lord’s name in vain. I was probably about seven years old. It was my birthday. We’d thrown a party in my grandmother’s backyard—grilling up burgers, playing pin the tail on the donkey, eating cake, all that good stuff. My parents decided to let us all have a water balloon fight. I thought this was a great idea; being the birthday boy, I figured that I deserved a kind of diplomatic immunity, that no one would throw anything at me, and that I could pick off the other kids with ease. I thought I was safe.
Boy was I wrong. The other kids decided to team up on me, nailing me point blank with a dozen water balloons all at once. With tears welling up in my eyes, I ran into the house and locked myself in the bedroom. And soaking wet, overwhelmed with an unjustifiable rage, I cried out God’s name, along with a few other choice words that I can’t repeat here. I sure hope my sons are better kids than I was.
But to my credit, I was instantly overcome with remorse. I actually fell to my knees and begged God’s forgiveness, still weeping but for an altogether different reason than before.
I said some things that day that I shouldn’t have. And sometimes, I still do. But crying out to Jesus when you get cut off in traffic is more than just irreverent—it’s symptomatic of a greater illness. The Ten Commandments aren’t injunctions against crimes with defined punishments; they’re behaviors that come naturally when we have a good relationship with God. And if we find ourselves crying out to God in frustration, or in anger, or in fear more often than in love, if we find ourselves invoking the name of God in rush hour traffic more often than in prayer, then that probably means that our relationship with God needs some work.
It’s not a matter of sin, or punishment. God didn’t destroy Jerusalem because Israel turned away. But they did turn away, and maybe that was the greatest tragedy of all.
Rev. Seth Ethan Carey
(Excerpt from Tetragrammaton, September 2012)