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ON TAKING THE NAME OF GOD IN VAIN.
Exodus xx. 7.— Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy
God in vain.
The laws given to the Israelites were of three kinds—ceremonial, judicial, and moral. The ceremonial consisted of those religious observances and rites which were partly intended to separate the peculiar people of God from surrounding nations, and partly to prefigure the most essential truths and blessings which were to be communicated to mankind at the advent of the Messiah. These being in their [nature] typical, necessarily ceased when the great Personage to whom they pointed made his appearance. The judicial laws respected the distribution of property, the rights of rulers and subjects, and the mode of deciding controversies, together with a variety of other particulars relating to civil polity, which is always of a variable and mutable nature. The third sort are moral : these are founded in the nature of things, and the reciprocal relations in which God and man stand towards each other, and are, consequently, unchangeable, since the principles on which they are founded are capable of no alteration. The two former sorts of laws are not obligatory upon christians; nor did they, while they were in force, oblige any besides the people to which they were originally addressed. They have waxed old, decayed, and passed away.
But the third sort are
still in force, and will remain the unalterable standard of right and wrong, and the rule throughout all (periods of time). The Ten Commandments, or the “ Ten Words,” as the expression is in the original, uttered by God, in an audible voice, from Mount Sinai, belong to the third class. They are a transcript of the law of nature, which prescribes the inherent and essential duties which spring from the relation which mankind bear to God and to each other. The first four respect the duty we owe to God, and the last six that which we owe to our fellow-creatures. The first ascertains the object of worship; the second the mode of worship, forbidding all visible representations of the Deity by pictures or images; the third inculcates the reverence due to the divine name; the fourth, the observation of the sabbath, or of a seventh part of our time to be devoted to the immediate service of God. These ten rules, in order to mark their preeminent importance and obligation, were inscribed by the finger of God on two tables of stone, which Moses was commanded to prepare for that purpose.
Our attention is, at present, directed to the third of these precepts—“ Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain ;” in treating of which we shall endeavour
1. To determine what is forbidden in this commandment; and,
II. The grounds on which this prohibition proceeds.
I. In considering what is forbidden by the precept before us, it were easy to multiply particulars; but the true import of it may, if I am not mistaken, be summed up in the two following:
1. It forbids perjury, or the taking up the name [of God] for the purpose of establishing falsehood. Vanity is frequently used in scripture for wickedness, and particularly for that species of wickedness which consists in falsehood; and after all that has been [advanced] on that famous saying of our Lord, every idle word that men shall speak, they shall give account thereof in the day of judgement,”* it is most probable that he means, by idle word, a word which is morally evil, partaking of the nature of falsehood, malice, pride, or impurity. It is in this [view] only, as it appears to me, that the truth of our Lord's saying can be soberly and consistently maintained.
When the pretended prophets are threatened on account of their uttering vain visions, the vanity ascribed to them meant their falsehood. In all civilized countries, recourse has been had to oaths, which are solemn appeals to God respecting a matter of fact for the determination of controversies which could not be decided without the attestation of the parties concerned, and of other competent witnesses. Hence an oath is said, by the apostle, to be “ an end of all strife.”of To take a false oath on such occasions, which is the crime of perjury, is one of the most atrocious violations of the law of nature and of God which can be committed, since it involves two crimes in one; being at once a deliberate insult to the majesty of God, and an act of the highest injustice towards our fellow-creatures.
* Matt. xii. 36.
† Heb. vi. 16.
A perjured person is, accordingly, branded with infamy, as well as subjected to severe punishment, which is equally demanded by the honour of God, and the welfare of society. It may be reasonably hoped there is no person in this assembly who has been guilty of this crime, or is under any strong temptation to commit it. But I cannot omit this opportunity of expressing regret that the multiplication of oaths by the legislature, in the affairs of revenue and of commerce, has tended to render them too cheap, and has greatly diminished the horror with which the very idea of a false oath ought to be accompanied. Though it is always lawful to swear to a fact of which we are well assured, at the requisition of a magistrate or a public functionary; yet it deserves the attention of a christian legislator, whether the introduction [of oaths] on every the slightest occasion, can have any other tendency than to defeat the purpose, by rendering them of no authority; to say nothing of the blow which it strikes at the root of public morals.
If it was a complaint made by an ancient prophet, “ By reason of swearing the land mourneth,” we have assuredly not less reason to adopt the same complaint. Perjury, it is to be feared, is an epidemic vice in this nation. Among many
it is reduced to a system; and, awful to relate, there is, as I am credibly informed, a tribe of men who make it their business to take false oaths at the custom-house, for which they are paid a stated price. The name by which these wretched men are known is, it must be confessed, highly apposite; they are styled damned souls.* But to proceed.
2. The second way in which this precept is violated, is the profane use of the name of God on trivial occasions; in familiar discourses, whether it be in mirth or in anger. There are some men who are in the constant habit of interlarding their common discourses with the name of God; generally in the form of swearing, at other times in the language of cursing and execration, without any assignable motive, except it be to give an air of superior spirit and energy to their language. The mention of the Deity is often so introduced as evidently to appear a mere expletive; nor is any thing more common than to hear such persons declare they absolutely mean nothing by it. When persons of this description are inflamed with anger, it is usual for them to express their resentment in the form of the most dreadful execrations, wishing the damnation of their fellow-creatures. There
* On Friday, the 15th of July, 1831, the Marquis of Landsdowne declared in the House of Peers, on introducing a bill for the regulation of oaths in certain government departments, that 10,000 oaths were taken in the department of the Customs, and 12,000 in that of the Excise, during the preceding year.--Ed.