The Second Commandment

The Second Commandment was transliterated from Latin, as so the command not to take the Lord’s name in vanum became in vain. The Latin in turn reflects a puzzling and idiomatic Hebrew, where the word shav often means “in vain” in the sense of pointless but usually means “false”. Sometimes the meaning is clear: when Psalm 127 says that “unless the Lord builds the city, they labor in shav who build it”, it clearly means “in vain”, and when Deuteronomy’s version of the Commandments speaks of “not bearing shav witness against one’s neighbor”, it clearly means “false”.

So the meaning of shav seems to lean heavily on the verb: one can’t labor falsely, and one usually speaks falsely and not in vain. But how does one “take up” or “bear” the “Lord’s name”? In speech and in thought, no doubt, and in doing so it should not be shav. What does that mean?

Perhaps one of the reasons for putting the command negatively was because to put it positively would make it too long. Our speech about God must not be shav because it ought to be intentional, reverent, grounded, true, substantial. The commandment is usually understood to be speaking about the first two, i.e. don’t use “God” as in interjection or blasphemously, but it demands that speech about God also be grounded, true, substantial.

So the ground is Scripture, right? Yes and no: Contemporary philosophy makes clear that speech or language is not fundamentally text but participation in the life of a community. Seen from this angle the Second Commandment is fundamentally demanding that our speech about God take place within the community of which God himself is a part. Scripture has a crucial role to play as the record of that community, but the community itself is the living persons living thought time, which is one element of what Christ meant in saying that Moses “calls the Lord ‘the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.’ He is not the God of the dead but of the living, for to Him all are alive (Lk. 20-37).”


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