The Third Commandment : Honour God’s name
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 sometimes think that the third commandment is the most misunderstood and the least respected of the ten. There’s no doubt that it’s breached very regularly by Christians and non-Christians alike.
For many years, I only ever considered it in the context of watching my language and I certainly paid scant attention to the serious ‘health warning’ that goes along with it.
I suppose I thought that there are surely much worse sins than this. However, a closer look at this commandment has radically altered my thinking.
So what’s in a name?
We need look no further than Genesis 1:1 to see the absolute magnificence and power of God when He spoke the entire creation into being. We simply can’t even begin to comprehend this kind of supremacy and in our attempts to understand God, we somehow manage to ‘reduce’ Him, in our own minds at least, to something we can handle intellectually. But, of course, God is fully outside of our comprehension and His greatness is unfathomable.
In Scripture, names in general and God’s names in particular carry great significance. There are quite literally hundreds of names for God. They serve to teach us who God is and they define some of His many and varied attributes.
It’s clearly outwith the remit of this article, not to mention far outwith my ability, to launch into a discussion about God’s names but let’s at least take a brief look at what the Bible has to say about the subject.
O Lord, our Lord, how majestic is Your name in all the earth! (Psalm 8:1)
Sing praises to the Lord, O you His saints, and give thanks to His holy name. (Psalm 30:4)
Your name, O Lord, endures forever, Your renown, O Lord, throughout all ages. (Psalm 139:13)
There is none like You, O Lord; You are great, and Your name is great in might. (Jeremiah 10:6)
I am the Alpha and the Omega, says the Lord God, who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty. (Revelation 1:8)
We can see from these few examples that just as God is majestic, holy, enduring, mighty, powerful and eternal, so also is His name. What does it mean to take God’s name in vain? I can think of at least four ways we breach this commandment.
Among other things, the word ‘vain’ implies; empty, idle, insincere, frivolous and disrespectful.
Perhaps the most obvious misuse of God’s name is when we use it as a careless epithet in our speech. We hear it all the time, ‘Oh my God…’ ‘For God’s sake…’ ‘For Christ’s sake…’ Jesus!’ and the like. In fact, God’s name is so widely misused that we even see it reduced to a three-letter abbreviation (OMG).
The use of coarse language is a singularly unattractive quality in anyone but what’s interesting is that for many people, including those whose speech is regularly peppered with profanities, taking God’s name is regarded as a very mild form of expletive and suitable for pretty much any audience. It seems that we’re more likely to be offended by a classic ‘four-letter’ word than by hearing God’s majestic, holy, enduring, mighty and eternal name defamed.
As Christians, this careless use of God’s name demonstrates, at minimum, a woeful ignorance on our part if not an offensive lack of respect towards almighty God.
Even in church, we need to show reverence for God’s name by not using it lightly. ‘God bless you’ or ‘Praise the Lord!’ or ‘Hallelujah!’ (which means God be praised) may seem somehow holy and uplifting but we have to ask ourselves whether our sentiments are heartfelt and sincere.
Oaths and curses
Another way we misuse God’s name is when we swear by it. I’m sure you’ve heard phrases such as ‘I swear to God…’ ‘As God is my witness…’ ‘As God is my judge…’ and the like.
The problem is that God IS our witness; Even before a word is on my tongue, behold, O Lord, you know it altogether. (Psalm 139:4)
And God IS our judge; You shall not swear by My name falsely, and so profane the name of your God: I am the Lord. (Leviticus 19:12)
The Lord will not hold him guiltless who takes His name in vain. (Exodus 20:3)
In fact, Scriptures exhort us not to swear by anything but rather that our simply stated word should be our bond. Just like the third commandment, this exhortation also comes with a ‘health warning’!
But above all, my brothers [fellow Christians] do not swear, either by heaven or by earth or by any other oath, but let your ‘yes’ be yes and your ‘no’ be no, so that you may not fall under condemnation. (James 5:12)
Another way we break this commandment is through hypocrisy. In Luke’s Gospel Jesus asks, Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord’, and not do what I tell you? (Luke 6:46)
The dictionary gives the following definition of hypocrisy:
• The contrivance of a false appearance of virtue or goodness, while concealing real character or inclinations, especially with respect to religious and moral beliefs.
• The claim or pretence of having beliefs, standards, qualities, behaviours, virtues, motivations, etc. which one does not actually have.
• The practice of engaging in the same behaviour or activity for which one criticises another; moral self-contradiction whereby the behaviour of one or more people belies their own claimed or implied possession of certain beliefs, standards or virtues.
Well, that’s quite some definition. But are we guilty of this? Do we pray without believing? Do we worship with a cold heart? Do we claim to love Jesus but don’t keep His commandments? Is our private life, right down to our thoughts and desires, congruent with our public testimony? Do we claim His name (Christian) but live according to our own desires?
And [Jesus] said to them, “Well did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written, This people honours me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’ (Mark 7:6-7)
Misrepresentation of God’s name or His word
God’s name is fully synonymous with His word.
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. (John 1:1)
We live in difficult times where religious wars and terrorist attacks, sometimes supposedly in the name of God, are an all too frequent component of world news. We may be tempted to demonise such things as Islamic jihad but of course, state-sponsored Christianity has its own chequered past – think of the crusades and the Inquisition. It’s extraordinary to think of some of the atrocities that have been carried out in God’s name – whatever the religion. Of course, these sins will come under God’s judgement; sins that are compounded by defaming and bringing into disrepute His holy name.
It’s unlikely – I hope! – that this level of blasphemy and misrepresentation would be an issue for most of our readers but twisting God’s word to justify any type of sinful behaviour is also to take God’s name in vain.
The most common example that springs to mind is the often misused ‘speaking the truth in love’ excuse. This is sometimes used to justify the right to offer up all sorts of judgmental and critical comment and opinion. The context of the verse however is about unity and growing maturity and any comments we may make are to be with purpose of building up our brothers and sisters in Christ. Speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into Him who is the head, into Christ. (Ephesians 4:15)
I’m sure that there are many other examples but the principle is that we mustn’t misuse God’s name, God’s will or God’s word to justify what we do. And it’s not a function of a supposedly ‘big sin’ versus a ‘small sin’ because God’s name is above all other names and sin is sin whatever the degree and the two are wholly incompatible.
Does this commandment apply to us under the New Covenant?
There is a school of thought that implies that the Ten Commandments were for the Israelites under the Old Covenant and that they’re no longer applicable to us as Christians today. Perhaps the simplest way to address this issue is to refer to what Jesus had to say about God’s name.
Pray then like this: Our Father in heaven, hallowed be Your name. (Matthew 6:9)
(Let Your name be kept holy, or Let Your name be treated with reverence. Amplified version)
The word hallowed means to honour something as holy, to revere greatly. It seems to me that if we hallow God’s name, that absolutely rules out taking it in vain.
Let’s revisit Christ’s words when He interpreted the law for us; You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength. (Mark 12:30)
Loving God with all our heart
Our love for another person is often evidenced by our respect for them. Everything about them is special and even their name is precious to us. So it is with God. We’re enjoined to love Him with all our hearts; all our feelings and emotions. If this is how we love God we’d be unlikely to misuse His holy name.
Loving God with all our soul
When God’s grants us salvation, we become part of God’s family.
The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs – heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ. (Romans 8:16-17)
Remember that our soul is eternal. It’s what makes us unique and, therefore, it identifies us. As redeemed children of God, we have new identity; … heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ.
Why would we ever defame our own identity and family name?
Loving God with all our mind
God’s Word is totally sufficient for all of our needs.
All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work. (2 Timothy 3:16-17)
As we study and learn from God’s words, it influences our thoughts and behaviours. Perhaps we didn’t realise how far-reaching some of the commandments are, including this third one, but ignorance of the law doesn’t negate the need to observe it. We love God by learning what He requires of us and then by putting it into practice.
Holy and awesome is His name! The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom; all those who practice it have a good understanding. (Psalm 111:9-10)
Loving God with all our strength
Putting God’s law into practice is evidence of our love for Him. It may be that we’ve become lazy or careless or thoughtless in our speech and so we need to apply effort and discipline to bring all we say and do into alignment with His will.
Whenever we invoke God’s name, we should be aware that we can’t dissimulate our motives behind lofty words. For the Lord sees not as man sees: man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart. (I Samuel 17:6)
The third commandment : 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.
This commandment addresses our understanding of who God is and our attitude towards Him and it’s a far more comprehensive commandment than we might first imagine. Whenever we misuse God’s name, for whatever reason, just one time, we break this commandment.
Guilty as charged.