The Ten Words: The Third
Names. We all have one, or two or three, maybe even four or five! Names identify us, don’t they? At least to some degree. Yet, we recognize that we are more than merely our name(s). My parents could have decided to name me by any other name besides David, and yet I would still be me. Our human names have a certain kind of arbitrary character to them. This truth tends to cause us to miss some of the truth about God’s third commandment which deals directly with God’s name. Unlike our names, God’s names (he actually has several) have nothing arbitrary about them.
When we recognize that God’s names reveal his character and conduct, or who he is and what he does, we are better able to understand what it means to take his name in vain, and, hopefully, avoid doing it.
In the third commandment, the Hebrew term that is generally translated take is most often in the Old Testament translated as lift, carry or bear. Another legitimate way to translate the first part of Exodus 20:7 would be: “You shall not lift the name of Yahweh, your God, to vanity or worthlessness.” Of course, one may still be left wondering: What precisely does this mean? It all revolves around the importance of the name Yahweh.
God first revealed his name Yahweh to Moses (Exod. 3:14), when he embarked on freeing His covenant people, Israel, from the Egyptians, because of His faithfulness to his covenant promise made to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob (Exod. 2:23). Of course, Yahweh had called Abraham as fulfillment of His covenant blessing that he bestowed upon Noah, which was Yahweh’s continuance of his covenant relationship first established with Adam (Gen. 1:26-28; 6:18; 9:1-17; 12:1-3). In other words, Yahweh is the covenant making creator and redeemer. Indeed, he is the latter precisely because he is the former. Yet, God did not reveal His name Yahweh to these other men. He revealed it first to Moses.
It is the name Yahweh that is mentioned in the third commandment and is rightly translated “I AM,” although there are a few other ways to translate it. But all faithful translations of it reveal that the God who is so named IS; He is life; He exists eternally. He revealed Himself to Moses and thereby His covenant people, Israel, as the eternal, infinite creator, who is also their redeemer. Still, He is the God of Adam and Eve, Noah and his wife and their sons and their wives. He is the God of Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebekah, Jacob and Rachel and Leah, and all their sons and daughters. Yahweh is the Covenant Making Creator and Redeemer Lord of all creation. He ought to be worshiped, revered, relied upon, and obeyed. And He will be, because of who He is and what He does, because He makes Himself known. That is, Yahweh reveals who He is through what He does. Or, put another way, because of what Yahweh does to the objects of His covenant steadfast love, He causes them to know Him, to know of His greatness, His majesty, infinitude, unchangeableness, wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness, truth, and authority. His names reveal these things, and they are summed up in Yahweh.
Thus, there is nothing vain, empty, or worthless about Yahweh, and he ought not to be responded to as such in our thoughts, words or actions. To take the Lord’s name in vain is to think of, and treat God as less than what He is, and to invite and encourage others to do the same, whether we recognize we are doing this or not. To take the Lord’s name in vain is to say incorrect or inaccurate things about God. Incorrect theology is to violate the third commandment, and this includes how we live. Immoral and slothful living that acts as if Yahweh is not your holy majestic judge to whom you answer, and who is able to rescue you from your immorality and slothfulness lifts Yahweh up to derision and disrespect. The apostle Paul summed up Israel’s sin in Romans 2:24 by quoting Isaiah 52:5, “The name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you.”
Violating the third commandment, includes, but is not confined to, using “God” or “Jesus Christ” in our speech to utter exclamatory anger or excitement. No, to take the Lord’s name in vain is to not live in light of who God is and what He does and to invite and encourage others to do the same. But among those who truly know and call upon his name, they are enabled to revere and rely upon Yahweh, and thereby glorify his name, for He IS.
David P. Smith (Ph.D.) is the author of B. B. Warfield's Scientifically Constructive Theological Scholarship (Wipf & Stock) and co author with Ronald Hoch of Old School, New Clothes: The Cultural Blindness of Christian Education Wipf & Stock). David is Pastor of Covenant Fellowship A.R.P. Church in Greensboro, North Carolina.