Oath-maker or law-keeper. Which are you?
Last time, I introduced you to Uhtred, a Saxon raised by Danes, the hero of the Saxon series by Bernard Cornwell.
Uhtred is a warrior. He is bold and brave, impulsive, volatile and extremely violent. He is a brilliant tactician, noble, fiercely loyal, capable of great and awful deeds, supreme on the battlefield.
So what makes him a hero?
Why is Uhtred brave? It isn’t because of romantic love. Certainly, he loves Gisela, one of his wives, but he has no respect for the institution of marriage. He does not fight for his wife. Instead, an enduring theme in the books is the brotherly love he has for his friends. The bond forged with his brothers-in-arms is created by facing death together, by standing side by side in the shield wall. Sihtric, Leofric, Finan, even Osferth, these are the people he loves. He risks his life beside them over and over again.
It is a truism in war that soldiers fight not so much for the cause as for the brother by their side. Forget freedom or patriotism or the regiment, a soldier will risk all to save his friend, who’s dying in a hole a hundred yards away. That is self-sacrificial love, the kind of love we associate with God.
And Uhtred has it in spades.
Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. John 15.13
Courage and brotherly love are admirable, but it’s the following character trait that portrays the strongest connection with Christian belief. He is an oath-maker.
What binds a warrior to his lord? What ties a great warrior to his king? Oath-making. In the ninth century, everyone had a lord. Each person was bound to that lord by their oath. And Uhtred was no exception.
Everything about Uhtred screams chaos. He is a wild animal who detests King Alfred. He thinks his religion is absurd and ridiculous. He has no respect for priests or monks. You expect him to abandon Alfred at the earliest opportunity. But he doesn’t. He can’t.
Because he has made an oath.
In fact, he makes at least three oaths to Alfred. He says,
I had given Alfred my oath and without oaths we are no better than beasts.
It is oath-making that underpins everything that happens in the Saxon series. Without oaths, Uhtred would abandon his king, and Wessex would be lost. Without oaths, Uhtred would have no warriors bound to him, men who follow him into battle time after time. Without oaths, there is only chaos. Oaths are the foundation of society, the invisible webbing that holds the whole structure in place.
Not laws. Oaths.
By contrast, Alfred, while relying on oaths, values law. He’s forever making laws for the England of his dreams. Indeed, Alfred believes it is laws that civilise a man. Uhtred says,
The law says I own that land, and the law, we are told, is what makes us men under God instead of beasts in a ditch.
Is it laws or oaths that make us men, make us human? Who is right, Uhtred or King Alfred?
Certainly, a country cannot prosper without laws. A country without institutions and the rule of law becomes engulfed in corruption. However, laws come with a cost to us personally. They are impersonal and rigid. They are used by others to condemn us. They have no feeling, and they cannot save us.
They do not give life.
In Galatians, St. Paul tells us that the law was added because of transgressions. It is a light illuminating our weakness, our need for a Saviour. It is a means to an end, not the end itself.
For God did not make us for law, but for relationship.
How tragic, then, when we misunderstand the law, for in so doing we misunderstand God himself. The Pharisees were condemned by Jesus for their hypocrisy, for loving the law without loving God. Instead of drawing people to God, they hindered the people’s ability to enter into relationship with a loving God.
Laws can do that. They can hinder our ability to connect with God, because they are never a source of grace. And only when there is the possibility of grace is there life, for grace gives life. When we see only law, instead of the grace to which it points, our hearts become hardened. It happens even in the church.
What do law-keepers look like in church?
Since law-breaking is often external, law-keepers are more interested in how things look than in what’s going on inside a person.
Respectability matters a lot. It’s important to project an image which is highly regarded by the group. That indicates law-keeping.
They make judgements about others based on their own ideas of what is acceptable. Behaviours outside cultural norms are signs that a person is not “one of us.” They often lack grace.
They value behaviour over relationship.
The law cannot impart life. And law-keepers, those who value the keeping of laws, are looking in the wrong place for their salvation. When they use laws to judge others, they find themselves judged. Laws may be necessary for society, but they are not where life is found.
Because for life, we need grace.
That’s why we should look to oaths. Promises.
In Uhtred’s world, oaths are promises. The equivalent biblical term is “covenant.” At his best, Uhtred is a covenant-keeper, a promise-keeper. In Cornwell’s books, that’s what oath-making is all about. A covenant is a promise. And promises require sacrifice.
Just ask Uhtred. He is bound to a man he hates. He can’t stand Alfred’s stuffy, law-making, religious attitudes. He hates all of it. He is a man of action and decision, but an oath is an oath.
Well . . .
I write that, but in reality, Cornwell knows how to spin a great yarn. There are times when Uhtred’s most cherished beliefs clash. Like swords crashing into shields, Uhtred’s belief in fate crashes into his oaths. That’s why, at times, he wavers. He says,
Making an oath is like steering a course, but if the winds and tides of fate are too strong, then the steering oar loses its power.
Under severe pressure, he struggles to hold onto the steering oar, and sometimes he cannot stay true to his oaths.
Not so our God. Our oath-keeping God.
A covenant with Noah.
A covenant with Abram.
A covenant with David.
Through the Abrahamic covenant in particular, he is bound to the people of Israel, who betray him over and over again. They break the covenant repeatedly, yet he does not flinch. He does not pull out. He goes all the way, making the ultimate sacrifice through the Lord Jesus. He is the ultimate promise-keeper, whose promises are rooted in his great love for us.
That’s why Uhtred’s oaths remind me of my God.
The Lord keeps his oath, his promise. It is a sign of his great love for us. And like Uhtred’s love for his brothers-in-arms, our God’s love leads him to sacrifice himself for his friends, to rip himself asunder for the sake of relationship, not law. For grace can only be birthed by a promise-keeping God, who stays the course, who risks all to gain all.
To gain us, his beloved people.
So when Uhtred does keep his promises, he reminds me of my God. The psalmist speaks of him as a fortress. In Uhtred’s world, his family home, Bebbanburg, is a fortress built on massive piece of solid rock.
A solid rock. Unmoveable. Unshakeable. Unchangeable.
Just like our God. As the hymn writer, Edward Mote, writes,
On Christ, the solid rock, I stand,
All other ground is sinking sand,
All other ground is sinking sand
Our God is faithful, reliable, a solid rock on which we stand. He never changes, never veers from his goals, never lets us down. Because his promises are rooted in his character.
And when he says he will be with us to the end, he means it.