‘You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain; for the Lord will not hold him guiltless who takes his name in vain” (Exodus 20:7)
I have to begin by admitting that this is a sermon I never thought 15 years ago that I would ever need to teach in a congregation of people devoted to living lives pleasing to God.
Why? Because in moments of stress or surprise, we sometimes say things that we don’t realize would fit into this category: it is one of the rules a believer needs to observe in his life: be careful of sacred things. This general rule is expressed with particular reference to the Lord’s name in the third commandment of the Decalogue.
The first commandment dealt with the object of our worship, and the second the means of our worship, the third commandment deals with our verbal worship of God.
Imagine a common occurrence: someone hears horrifying news and cries, “Oh, my God!” Someone else arrives on the scene of a bad accident and says, “Oh, Christ, what happened here!” Whatever else may be appropriate to say in these situations, to use some holy name as an exclamation is not appropriate.
Are you telling someone about God or Christ when you say those names? Are we speaking to them? No. Usually it’s a vain word that is used in those moments or surprise or shock or grief…but they are inappropriate. In those situations, we are using God’s name in vain. (There have been times when friends/family/members are asked if they are aware of the words they have just used, in one of these situations. They become quite angry when ‘accused’ of using God’s name in a vain way…yet in every situation, they have come back later and acknowledged they were speaking ‘in vain’ and were apologetic to the one who had pointed it out).
Anger will cause some people to use God’s name to invoke an evil curse on another person. The offended person utters a vile prayer that asks God to damn someone who is made in God’s own image and a neighbor to the one speaking.
What sort of wicked thinking has led us to think there is a point to profanity? Why do we need words that approximate the world’s gross use of God’s name as an oath in our vocabularies? The divine name is sacred, and we sin by treating it offensively or by using it to vent our frustrations and anger.
In order to determine the meaning of this commandment we must first understand the meaning of two things: first, the concept of the “name of the Lord,” and second, the meaning of the term “vain.”
Both are explained by Kaiser: “What then is involved in the ‘name’ of God? His name includes:
(1) his nature, being, and very person (Ps. 20:1; Luke 24:47; John 1:12; cf. Rev. 3:4)
(2) his teaching and doctrines (Ps. 22:22; John 17:6, 26)
(3) his ethical directions and morals (Mic. 4:5).
The ‘vain’ or ‘empty purposes’ to which God’s name may be put are:
(1) to confirm something that is false and untrue
(2) to fill in the gaps in our speeches or prayers
(3) to express mild surprise
(4) to use that name when no clear goal, purpose, or reason for its use is in mind, whether it be in prayer, in a religious context, or absent-mindedly invoked as table grace when no real heart, thankfulness, or purpose is involved.
Since the Exodus, God was known among the Israelites as Ha-shem, which means “The Name.” The people knew God’s name, but God is so holy that even his name is holy. The Rabbis would not speak or write down the Lord’s name., it was so special to them.
The third commandment came to be interpreted so narrowly among the Jewish people that they began to avoid pronouncing the divine name altogether. Their fear of some vain use of the covenant name evolved to the point that it was pronounced only once a year by the high priest on the Day of Atonement.
At other occasions which called for the use of the deity’s name, even when reading from the biblical text itself, they would not attempt to pronounce the holy name Yahweh but would substitute the Hebrew word Adonai (i.e., Lord) or Elohim (i.e., God).
He reveals that character in these Ten Words:
- He is jealous. There is no room for other Gods in the relationship.
- He holds generations accountable for the sins of those who reject his ways. That seems so harsh, but it is reminder that our poor choices and bad behavior remain among our children for a very long time.
- He is faithful and kind to thousands of generations of the ones who are devoted to him. God saved Israel because of a promise he made to Abraham. You and I are blessed by the devotion of saints who lived long before us. God blesses us because of their faithfulness to him.
Jesus taught us what this third word to live by really means. There’s a certain danger of misuse when it involves swearing by God’s name. Jesus teaches us to simply speak the truth. If your “Yes is Yes and your No is No” all the time then you have the character of God and are not simply dropping his name to make your point.
(Matthew 5:33-37 (ESV) “Again you have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but shall perform to the Lord what you have sworn.’
34 But I say to you, Do not take an oath at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God,
35 or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King.
36 And do not take an oath by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black.
37 Let what you say be simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything more than this comes from evil.
What’s In a Name?
We are sometimes too flippant and careless with words. Thus we hear people say, “Oh, there’s nothing in a name.” To be sure, a word does derive its meaning through convention and assignment.
You don’t want to be called by any of the following terms: idiot, traitor, liar, or thief. And you certainly wouldn’t consider naming your child Judas or Benedict Arnold.
In Scripture the significance of one’s name is even greater than in our customary usage. It is no mere assigned label. It stands for the person, reveals his character, and identifies his role. This is why a number of important figures in Scripture are given new names at crucial points in their lives.
Recall the father of the Hebrew nation as a case in point. The Lord appeared to him and said, “No longer shall your name be Abram [i.e., exalted Father], but your name shall be Abraham [i.e., father of a multitude]; for I have made you the father of a multitude of nations” (Gen. 17:5; 17:15). The man’s name was changed to signify the new role he would play in the unfolding of the work of God among men.
When the time came for the birth of Christ to the virgin Mary, the angel told Joseph the miraculous nature of her pregnancy and said, “She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus (i.e., savior], for he will save his people from their sins” (Matthew 1:21).
The name was not accidental but was chosen to signify the position this child would occupy in the divine scheme of things. His name is so special, so sacred, that Peter could say, “And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4: 12).
The covenant name of Israel’s God (i.e., Yahweh) proclaimed him as the one true God whose saving power and faithfulness to his people were genuine. That is why his name was not to be trifled with or treated contemptuously. There is something in that name!
The name is not a “magic word,” but it is a sacred and holy word. It was holy to Israel because it signified the special relationship he had with those people under the Mosaic covenant.
Divine names, institutions, and ordinances must be treated with respect. It is a part of living by the rules of heaven to observe this principle. There is something in a name, then, and a generation which prides itself on its irreverence should sit up and take notice of that fact.
Ecclesiastes 5:4 (ESV) When you vow a vow to God, do not delay paying it, for he has no pleasure in fools. Pay what you vow.
Have you any unfulfilled vows to God? Have you any to some fellow human being? Give your word cautiously, seriously, and reliably; it is a sacred matter.
This third rule to live by is not intended to discourage our use of the name of God. It is rather designed to insure that we use that name in a way consistent with its intrinsic holiness. Use the Lord’s name in your life, but use it properly and reverently.
Don’t use it to make a promise you do not intend to keep. Don’t use it to voice your shock or dismay. Don’t use it to curse another human being, a flat tire, or a smashed thumb. Don’t wear the holy name Christian if you are not going to make a serious attempt to honor the Lord in your daily life.
Do have the name of God on your lips to honor him. Acknowledge him as the giver of every good thing in your life. Let it be a natural thing to speak of him, his goodness, his will. Think and speak in terms of doing everything in your life so as to live consistently with his will for you.
Jesus said, “So everyone who acknowledges me before men, I also will acknowledge before my father who is in heaven” (Matthew 10:32).
Use the Lord’s name in frequent and fervent prayer. Have it on your lips in praise, worship, and adoration. Use his name when talking to somebody who is not a believer or who is a weak brother or sister.
Yes, use the name of God constantly. Don’t take this commandment in the way the Jews took it as a prohibition against letting that holy name pass your lips; that is not the point of the command.
If your mouth has been foul and profane, clean it up. I know some mothers who literally wash out their children’s mouths with soap when they say bad words or use God’s name improperly.
That may be useful; it is a negative reinforcement against the child’s use of that word again. But, of course, that doesn’t really get to the root of the problem. You have to get your heart purged in order to keep your mouth clean.
Matthew 15:18 (ESV) But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this defiles a person.
You may need to ask the Lord’s help to get out of some vocabulary habits you have nurtured.
If you have been careless with your promises and pledges, start treating your word as your bond. It is given in the presence of God always, and your integrity is on the line whenever you speak.
We are not through with our words once they have been spoken. The Lord said we will meet them again in Judgment; we will be justified or condemned on the basis of them.
Matthew 12:36-37 (ESV) I tell you, on the day of judgment people will give account for every careless word they speak, for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned.”