Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain; for the Lord will not hold him guiltless that taketh his name in vain.
We have come from the object of worship in the first command, to the means of worship in the second command; in the third command, we are given God’s name.
Looking at the preface of these commandments, the name that God gives His people is His covenant name- Yahweh. The giving of this name will cause us to think back to the first time this name was given to Moses at the burning bush. Moses asked God in the burning bush: “Who shall I say that it is who sent me? What is His name?” And God replies with I AM THAT I AM, which in Hebrew contain the four letters, YHWH, which literally means “He is.” This is His covenant name, the name that stands in relationship with His people. And His intent in displaying His name at the time of the burning bush was to show that He is God- so Israel would know that He is God and that they are His people, so Egypt will know He is God, and that everyone will know that He is God when He does all the wondrous things for Israel and in Egypt. He is making a name for Himself on earth among all His peoples. “I AM,” YHWH stands above all other gods on earth. His name is the greatest and most honorable name upon the earth because of whom it belongs to.
What is in a name?
Let’s think of a President of the United States for a moment, or some other illustrious leader of the world. It could hardly be called a relationship if you were to take a picture of him at one point and then take it around with you. Carrying around his image does not mean that you have a relationship with the president, it may mean that you admire him, but there is no reciprocation involved. Perhaps you meet him while he is in office, yet the initial relationship you have with him would necessitate that you to call him “Mr. President” because there is still a formality of relationship. But what would it mean if he were to come back in sincerity and say “Call me George”? Now at this point you have entered into a relationship that is beyond mere formality and is moving into a more meaningful and personal relationship because he has given you his personal name, a name that only his friends and family may call him.
It is a similar situation here, it is more than a formality of relationship in this command. God had called Abraham friend, and God gives us the right to call Him by His personal name. Here, we are given the privilege to be on a first-name basis with the Sovereign of the universe. God is giving Himself to be enjoyed by us along certain lines and we are to enjoy those lines. So in this command, we have something extraordinarily precious.
We cannot be flippant or cheap when using God’s name, it is a great honor and we can’t forget who we are talking to or forget who we are talking about. Do not call on His name if you are not speaking to Him and we are to speak of Him in a manner that is worthy of Him. This command shows us that God takes great displeasure when His name is misused and we are to use it reverentially. In the Old Testament, there was a tight identity between a person’s character and their name. What you do to the name, you do to their character. If you were to insult their name, you would insult them. If we use it flippantly, we are saying something of what we think of their person. Names speak to something of the identity of the person.
However, we can use it, and we ought not be struck with such servile fear that we do not use it, like the Orthodox Jews are famous for doing. What if you refuse to use the President’s name? What are you saying about your relationship with him. By not using it, you are keeping yourself aloof, but God is not distant like that. He is near to us, intimate, and in a relationship with us, and is evident in this command by the giving of His name.
There is also the notion of acting in the name of someone. This adds an authoritative category regarding names, and a weightiness to their use. If you take their name upon you when you do something, they are involved in what you do. Like a Lieutenant carrying the orders and commands that a General gave. Yet, the Lieutenant can speak wrongly of the General’s commands and it reflects poorly on both the Lieutenant and the General. To act or speak for another person, their integrity is involved. This is certainly true with God’s people. We are called by His name and His name is implicated in everything we do. If we discover a prophet, one who comes claiming to speak on God’s behalf, to be false, the least we can do is ignore them or depose them (or in the Old Testament times, they would be stoned). But if the prophet is of God, he carries the authority of God’s command.
The strict scope that this command has in mind has to do with the name YHWH. It is about not using this specific name in a vain, empty way, or without respect. C.S. Lewis picked out an issue regarding this command. In “The Abolition of Man” he imagines two people before a waterfall. One says that the waterfall is pretty, the other says “that’s sublime.” Have they both said something true? Yes, but there should be something with the words that we use that corresponds with reality. Our words should be ordered with it, not disordered. If the serial killer who says “Jesus is Lord” right before cleaving someone’s head open with an ax, is he speaking truth? One one level, yes, but on the other it is blasphemy. The context of his words have dishonored the name of Christ because his actions have not reflected this truth. We are to recognize what we are standing in front of and do it justice with our words. Our language must reflect that and when it doesn’t, it becomes flippant. Our words should not just have a grammatical context, but an emotional, spiritual, mental, and personal context, as well. So, take sufficient regard so as to speak rightly about it. To speak of God is one thing, but to speak of God rightly is another. The context counts, so our life needs to reflect who we are talking about.
The expanded scope of this command is that we are to be mindful and seek the glory of God in our use of language, especially theological language. The words used of God, about God, and to God are to be said and done in a way and context that are honorable, true, and pleasing to Him. There is always a context involved in the use of our language. In commenting on this command, The Westminster Catechism’s term “conversation” gives us the understanding that our whole form of life is used to communicate something. We are presenting ourselves. So, we must always use language in ways that maintain and reflect God’s glory and His weightiness. We are never to use language that would fail to maintain God’s glory.
Our relationship to God is a language-based relationship. And this word-based relationship is made all the more significant since the Son of God is called the Word of God. Words, conversation, prayers, preaching, knowledge, writing- all of it is important. His name has been entrusted to us as a precious gift.
Blasphemy is right out, the using of God as a curse word, and this should be first and obvious. Any “Oh my God” or “Jesus Christ” or “God damn it” as a knee-jerk discharge of words are clearly light and flip invocations of God and are demeaning to His character. We should also be careful with formulaic forms of using God’s name- like reciting the Lord’s prayer as a mantra and not in the right heart because it is too familiar, or using the name “Lord’ as a filler word in prayer. Let not His name merely be words coming out of your mouth. This also applies to speaking the name of God as it pertains to a hunch. People in some Christian circles are quick to say that “God told me,” or, “God is leading me” when people are really describing their desires. It is not always wrong to say that “God has led me…” but it is usually after the fact that we can be certain about this. There ought to be a heavy level of certainty to what you are saying before you attach God’s name to something like that.
How does this affect civil religion? After dwelling upon this command, how should one feel when a government makes its national motto to be “In God We Trust”? There are enormous dangers that can run afoul against this command with these kinds of things being used in the civil circle. Politicians will invoke the name of God here, wanting to show their religious credentials, and use godliness as a means of gain. So, out of a reverence and respect for God’s name gleaned from this command, is it better to have His name left out of this, especially if this motto no longer reflects the nation’s attitude? Perhaps there can be some discussion about this in the comments.
Theologians take a significant amount of time accounting that that “taking” the name of God is like unto taking an oath, swearing by His name, or taking a vow of allegiance, or invoking His name to testify of the veracity of something. The Anabaptists would say that there ought to no oaths period. The Reformers would say that there is an appropriate place for an oath, and that taking an oath in God’s name can even be a call to honor and glory toward God- Calvin says in connection to Isaiah 45:23: “Now, if the bowing of the knees be a token of adoration, this swearing which is connected with it is equivalent to an acknowledgment that He is God.” Chapter 22 of the Westminster Confession says that the name of God alone should be sworn upon with all and utmost weightiness and solemnness, like if you were upon the witness stand and the weight of justice stood upon the testimony of your words. The idea behind this is like taking the name of God with you to upon your endeavors and to add credence or veracity to them. If you swear by God’s name and go about a life of dishonesty or immorality, it will cause people to think negative things about God’s name.
Calvin goes on for further heart-implications for this command- “It is silly and childish to restrict this to the name Jehovah, as if God’s majesty were confined to letters or syllables; but, whereas His essence is invisible, His name is set before us as an image, insofar as God manifests Himself to us, and is distinctly made known to us by His own marks, just as men are each by his own name. On this ground Christ teaches that God’s name is comprehended in the heavens, the earth, the temple, the altar, (Matt. 5:34,) because His glory is conspicuous in them. consequently, God’s name is profaned whenever any detraction is made from His supreme wisdom, infinite power, justice, truth, clemency, and rectitude… men should not drag in His name in light matters, as in sport or derision of it… But since nothing is more difficult than to restrain men’s licentiousness in this respect, and to excuse or at least diminish the sin, the slipperiness of the tongue is pleaded, its punishment is here denounced: that if God’s name is rashly exposed to reproach or contempt, He will avenge it.” (Calvin’s Commentaries, 2:409-410)
So, with all of our words, we are “to speak of God and divine things with all humility, reverence of heart, and manifestation of respect… confess the Lord holily and boldly… glorify God in all that we say or do… to be zealous for His Name and cause… to call upon the name of the Lord; that is to bow reverently before Him, worship Him due to His glory, and humbly request from Him all that you have need of in every given situation… [and] to swear by His Name in a holy manner.” (a’Brakel, 3:128-129)
Disclaimer: The content of this series is drawn from much of my notes of Dr. Bruce Baugus’ lectures. The language and arguments are adjusted to fit an easier reading flow, the content is catered to my writing style, and may not always accurately reflect Dr. Baugus’ sentiments or statements. Other sources are also used to draw in information.