Sunday, March 27, 2011

When One Oath Becomes Two

Their laughter rings out several stores ahead of me, echoes reverberating around the dome-like ceiling of our local mall. It's Friday night, and I'm in the minority--one who isn't a teenager or the parent of a teenager.

As I walk to meet my husband for dinner, I weave around clumps of adolescents who act like logjams in a steadily flowing river.

This clump ahead of me is more animated than most. While I can't make out the words yet, their wide eyes and broad smiles tell me it's a story worth hearing. Then, the girl storyteller suddenly swings her right hand heavenward, as if taking an oath in a court of law, and says, "Really! I swear to God!!"

I cringe. It's not as if I expect God to send lightening from heaven or have the earth open to swallow her up for flippantly using His name, but my body physically recoils from the impact of those words anyway.

The phrase may be used without any intent to disrespect God, but as I've learned lately, the content of the words is always serious...sometimes deadly serious.

I'm back in the reign of King Zedekiah--Israel's last king.

Over the past few months, you've likely read a lot about him here. Zedekiah is the one who listened to prophets who counseled rebellion against the Lord. The one who asked the prophet Jeremiah for prayer, but who really wanted God to change His holy mind. The one who ultimately refused to choose faith in God over fear of others, resulting in horrific pain and suffering for himself, his family, and his people.

We've talked about this king's "end." But I've never delved into what started his downfall.

That beginning came when King Nebuchadnezzar captured Judah, carted all the important people back to Babylon, and set Zedekiah on the throne. It was a smart move on Nebuchadnezzar's part--Judah could be a quite profitable vassal state if it could "behave."

In order to ensure Zedekiah remained subservient to Babylon, Nebuchadnezzar made another smart move--he "made him take an oath in God’s name" (2 Chron. 36:13). The covenant involved Zedekiah swearing on the name of Israel's one true God, Yahweh.

The prophet Ezekiel confirms that Nebuchadnezzar "took one of the royal family [Zedekiah] and made a covenant with him, putting him under oath. He also took away the mighty of the land, that the kingdom might be in subjection, not exalting itself, but keeping his covenant that it might continue" (Ez. 17:13).

It made perfect sense to make a man swear by what he revered, respected, and feared most...even if Nebuchadnezzar didn't believe in Yahweh.

The problem was that Zedekiah and the people of Israel weren't really fearing or respecting God at this point in their history, and sure enough, not too long after Zedekiah entered into this covenant with Nebuchadnezzar, he broke it and "rebelled against him [Neb.] by sending his envoys to Egypt that they might give him horses and many troops" (v. 15).

So much for great tactical moves. One covenant broken as easily as it was made.

Thirty-five times in the Old Testament, God's people use the phrase "As the Lord lives" or "As surely as the Lord lives" when making an oath, a covenant. While Scripture doesn't record Zedekiah using this exact phrase in his oath with Nebuchadnezzar, I would bet he did because when God condemns Zedekiah's actions, He uses that same phrase: "'As I live,' declares the Lord GOD" followed by "Surely in the country of the king who put him on the throne, whose oath he despised and whose covenant he broke, in Babylon he shall die" (v. 16).

A few verses later, God uses the same covenant-making phrase again, but now in reference to a covenant Zedekiah made with God, Himself: "As I live, surely My oath which he despised and My covenant which he broke, I will inflict on his head...I will bring him to Babylon and enter into judgment with him there regarding the unfaithful act which he has committed against Me" (v. 19-20, my italics).

Although it may sound like it, God is not referring to two separate covenants--they are one and the same.

When Zedekiah said something akin to the modern-day "I swear to God," he only thought he was making a mere covenant between himself and a foreign king whom he neither respected or revered. In all likelihood, he was just saying the words to please Nebuchadnezzar and had no intent on keeping the oath in the first place.

Yet, his speaking the words, his taking an oath in God's name meant he was also making a covenant between himself and God--and God takes His name quite seriously.

Christ, Himself, warned against taking oaths: "Again, you have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not break your oath, but fulfill to the Lord the vows you have made.’ But I tell you, do not swear an oath at all: either by heaven, for it is God’s throne; or by the earth, for it is his footstool; or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the Great King. And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make even one hair white or black. All you need to say is simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything beyond this comes from the evil one" (Matt. 5:33-37).

I wonder if those in the audience remembered back to a king who broke covenant with man and God, resulting in a complete destruction of Israel...or if they had already grown so desensitized to hearing God's name used in oaths that they didn't give a second thought to using the phrase.

No comments:

Post a Comment