WHAT DO YOU DO IN VAIN?
T. PIERCE BROWN
Most of the sermons and articles with which I am familiar dealing with vain worship use Matthew 15:9, “But in vain do they worship me, teaching as their doctrines the precepts of men.” If they are writing in opposition to the use of instrumental music in worship, they then emphasize that the use of such is not authorized of God, and thus is a precept of men and vain worship. This is correct. I am not sure how those who advocate the use of instrumental music in worship use or misuse the verse. However, I suggest that teaching false doctrine is not the only way to worship in vain.
For example, thousands of Christians who oppose mechanical instruments in worship (or at least do not use them) may have sung last Sunday,
In vain in high and holy lays,
My soul her grateful voice would raise;
For who can sing the worthy praise
Of the wonderful love of Jesus!
My guess would be that a large number of those did not have any idea of the meaning of the phrase, “In vain in high and holy lays.” If not, then they were worshipping God in vain, if they were worshipping at all. What they mean by “in vain” and what a “holy lay” is are unknown to many. What the song is saying is that even if I sing high and holy lays (melodies or songs) with a grateful voice, it is in vain for expressing the wonderful love of Jesus, for no words can properly express the wonderful love of Jesus. Try as I may, there is no way I can express the inexpressible, so my words are in vain for that purpose. Note carefully that they may not be completely in vain, for they may accomplish some other purpose. This may raise an interesting and perhaps a confusing question: If we are admitting when we sing the song that our words are in vain, does that make the song in vain, and therefore our worship in vain? My answer to that question is, “No, for we are merely saying that although it is proper and right and good for us to gratefully raise our voices in praise of the wonderful love of Jesus, no words can do it properly. The fact that we try in vain to express adequately the praise we feel for the wonderful love of Jesus does not make our effort or worship vain, nor or our words in vain in all respects.” Our worship is vain if we do not mean what we say and say what we mean and know what we mean by what we say. Whether it is any worse to worship God in vain by singing, or to worship God in vain by using unauthorized mechanical instruments is not my concern at this time. It would seem about as useless to argue about as it would to discuss which is worse to substitute sprinkling for baptism, or to substitute pouring.
It is my judgment that many of us may make the same kind of mistake as we view the prohibition in Exodus 20:7, “Thou shalt not take the name of Jehovah thy God in vain; for Jehovah will not hold him guiltless that taketh his name in vain.” Most of those who have spoken of this in my presence seemed to think it involved only the use of God’s name in cursing, as if someone were to ask God to consign or condemn one to the Stygian pits of darkness. The Hebrew word here is “shav” approximately equivalent to the Greek word “mataios,” which means “useless, empty, profitless.” In the 22 times it is used in the Old Testament at no time does it refer merely to cursing. In none of the five times “mataios” is used in the New Testament does the word refer to cursing.
It is certain that when we use God’s name to invoke a curse upon a person, or consign him to hell, it is in vain. But from a consideration of the way the word is used in the Bible, we must conclude that we may use God’s name in vain any time we use it in a useless or irreverent way, without meaning anything. When we hear someone say, “O, my God!” when they are not actually calling on God or praying to Him, this is using His name in vain. Even Christians approach very near to it, if they do not actually do it, if they cry out in exasperation, “O, Lord.” Let us be careful that we not only do not worship in vain, or use God’s name in vain. It would be wise to do nothing else in vain that can be done in a more successful manner. Note that I may try in vain to live a life that is completely pleasing to God and free from sin. The fact that my trying was not successful, or was in vain, does not mean that I am wrong to try. I may try in vain to show my wife how much I love her, for no act that I can perform can do that. But I can think of no case where I should do a thing in vain when it is possible to do it otherwise.
Let us realize that to be “in vain” or useless or profitless in one respect does not necessarily mean it is in vain in all respects. For Paul to try to be justified by keeping the law was to try in vain. That does not imply or suggest that keeping the law was vain or useless in all respects. Using God’s name in vain and worshipping in vain are useless in all respects, as far as we can discern from the Bible.