Honouring God's Name

Ten Commandments - 3

Honouring God's Name

The Meaning of the Third Commandment

(Ezekiel 36:22-32)

The third commandment, often assumed to refer to swearing and profanity by the irreligious, in fact emphasises the responsibility of believers to worthily represent the God whom they believe in. This address, preached by Rob Yule, minister of St Alban’s Presbyterian Church, Palmerston North, New Zealand, on 20 September 1998, underlines the ever-present dangers of religious hypocrisy and the importance of God’s people living what they profess.

‘Danger - 130,000 Volts!’ Signs like this warn us of the danger of behaving carelessly at an electricity generating station or substation. Sometimes a young person responding to a dare or a drunk mindless of the dangers gets fried after disregarding such signs and climbing the protective fences. The dangers are far more serious than we often realise. Electricity employees are warned to take short steps and not raise their hands, lest they get zapped by a bolt of high tension electricity.

‘The third commandment is not just a nice-Nellyish warning against profanity,’ says Joy Davidman in her book on the Ten Commandments. ‘It is much more like the sort of warning you see around power plants: "Danger - High Voltage!" ’ (Smoke on the Mountain [London, Hodder & Stoughton, 1963], p. 42). We have already seen how the appearance of God on Mount Sinai was an awesome demonstration of the majesty and holiness of God. The third commandment further underlines the immense seriousness of our dealings with God. Our God is an awesome God. He is creator of the universe. He is God Almighty, not God Almatey. It is a serious matter to invoke his name.

Misusing God’s Name

‘You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain’, says the third commandment (Exodus 20:7). This is often thought to be a reference to swearing and profanity, misusing God’s name by turning it into an expletive. But the root meaning of the verb shawe, ‘to take in vain’, is ‘empty’ or ‘groundless’ - something that is objectively without reality or substance, something worthless, without a basis in reality (Brevard S. Childs, Exodus [London, SCM Press, 1974], pp. 410-11).

Thus this commandment, while including swearing, profanity, lying, perjury and false witness, goes far beyond speech to imply a whole attitude toward God: an attitude of indifference, of irreverence, casualness or flippancy in using God’s name. A better translation might be: ‘You shall not use the name of God to no effect’, or ‘You shall not misuse the name of the Lord your God.’ Its meaning is: ‘Your behaviour should be consistent with your belief,’ ‘Your life should not contradict your profession,’ ‘You should walk the talk’. This commandment includes everything from profanity to hypocrisy, from blasphemous speech to conduct that dishonours God. It especially condemns religious hypocrisy.

Profanity

Profanity is a form of taking God’s name in vain, but in a different way than we commonly realize. Profanity is the blasphemous and constantly repeated use of God’s name by those who don’t acknowledge him.

In one sense profanity is not entirely in vain - it is a back-handed tribute, by unbelievers, to God’s existence and universal significance. After all, what workman says, ‘O Buddha!’ when he hits his thumb with a hammer? What woman cries ‘Mohammed!’ when she has forgotten to save her document on the word processor?

But profanity is calling on God in vain when it doesn’t lead to godly behaviour. At the judgment, I suspect the blasphemer will be judged, not for naming God’s name, but for taking it in vain; for doing nothing at all to honour God and live for him.

Incidentally, how should you behave when someone around you is always swearing? Try this: ‘Sam, I didn’t realise you were so interested in Christ! Where did you learn about him?’ ‘Linda, you talk a lot about God. I didn’t know you were such a religious person! Would you like to come with me to church this Sunday? You can learn more about this God you talk about!’

Perjury

Profanity is the specialty of unbelievers. But both unbelievers and believers can be guilty of perjury: breaking an oath of truthfulness, wilfully lying when on oath. If we swear an oath in court in God’s name that we will tell ‘the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth’, and then lie, conceal, or distort the truth, we are taking God’s name in vain.

More generally, when we give our word that we will do something, and then fail to do it, we are dishonouring God’s name. God is true, he is faithful to what he undertakes, so failure to keep our word is a denial of God’s faithfulness. Promise-keeping honours God’s name. Not keeping our promise is taking God’s name in vain. How many problems we create for ourselves if we tell lies, if we shift our opinions to suit the occasion. It is much easier simply to tell the truth. What good advice Jesus gave us when he said, ‘Let your word be "Yes, Yes" or "No, No"; anything more comes from the evil one.’ (Matthew 5:37).

Hypocrisy

The thrust of the third commandment, however, is not towards unbelievers, but believers; not them, but us. An ever-present danger for Christians is to become formal, mechanical, or hypocritical in our faith. How easy it is to grow cool in our devotion, to become glib and presumptuous in our attitude toward God, to take God’s name in vain. Think how easy it is to be over-familiar with God, to make glib promises to follow him, to pray thoughtless prayers, to sing songs and hymns without attention, to live lives that contradict our profession.

‘Not everyone who says to me "Lord, Lord", will enter the Kingdom of heaven,’ said Jesus,’but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven’ (Matthew 7:21). How often do we call him Lord, but treat him like a servant. Prayers telling God what to do, instead of humbly and patiently waiting for him to guide us, and tell us what to do. The third commandment points to the seriousness of our dealings with God, our obligation to worthily represent him.

Hypocritical Religion

Hypocritical religion is one of the chief ways that we believers dishonour God’s name. Boring services, formal ceremonies, going through the motions, is taking God’s name in vain. How many people have rejected God because of their experience of church; its legalism, uncaringness, hypocrisy. Boring, conventional Christianity has been one of the biggest turnoffs to people’s belief in God. For better or worse, we are God’s advertisment. ‘You will have to look more redeemed if I am to believe in your Redeemer,’ said the nineteenth century German atheist Friedrich Nietzsche. In fact, reacting against conventional, domesticated, bourgeois Christianity was the main reason why many leading nineteenth century thinkers, like Karl Marx, became atheists.

We are to live a life worthy of our calling (Ephesians 4:1). Failure to do so dishonours God, brings God’s reputation into disrepute. When we fail lo live lives that are consistent with our profession we are giving God a bad press, a bad image. We are not representing him well, as he deserves. This is the kind of lifeless, killjoy Christianity that Bob Dylan scathingly satirised in his song ‘Desolation Row’ (on the 1965 album, Highway 61 Revisited):

The Good Samaritan, he’s dressing
He’s getting ready for the show
He’s going to the carnival tonight
On Desolation Row.

The Church on Desolation Row - joyless, lifeless, formal Christianity - is a wicked misrepresentation of who God is, a travesty of real Christian community. It is taking God’s name in vain - a form of religion without the substance (2 Timothy 3:5).

God’s Reputation

This theme was a concern of the biblical prophets. They were zealous to protect God’s reputation and honour. I’ll give you two examples.

1. Ezekiel’s prophecy of Israel’s regathering to their land (Ezekiel 36:22-32), emphasises over and over again that God will do this not because of what Israel has done, but ‘for the sake of my holy name, which you have profaned among the nations’ (22). Israel’s entitlement to the land of Cannaan was conditional on their obedience to God’s will and their faithfulness in walking in his ways. Because of their unfaithfulness, taking God’s name in vain by turning to idolatry, they forefeited their entitlement to their land and were scattered among the nations. But God makes this amazing promise to regather them from the countries of their dispersion and bring them back to ‘the land that I gave to your ancestors’ - a prophecy that is being fulfilled two and a half millenia later, with the return of Jews to the land of Israel in our own day. ‘It is not for your sake, O house of Israel, that I am about to act’, says the Lord, ‘but for the sake of my holy name, which you have profaned among the nations.’ (22)

2. Joel’s call for a national prayer assembly (Joel 2:15-17), in response to a devastating famine and economic collapse of the nation caused by a locust plague which he saw as God’s judgment on the nation for their evil ways. Joel summoned the people to call on God to intervene, turn around their desolate state, and restore them for the sake of his name:

Blow the trumpet in Zion;
sanctify a fast;
call a solemn assembly;
gather the people.
Sanctifiy the congregation;
assemble the aged;
gather the children,
even infants at the breast.
Let the bridegroom leave his room,
and the bride her canopy.
Between the vestibule and the altar
let the priests, the ministers of the Lord, weep.
Let them say, ‘Spare your people, O Lord,
and do not make your heritage a mockery,
a byword among the nations.

Why should it be said among the peoples,
‘Where is their God?’

The heart of this prayer is the humble acknowledgement that God’s people are the reason why God’s name is dishonoured. Our condition, our conduct, reflects on God’s honour. We must take steps not to take the Lord’s name in vain. We must start taking God seriously. As Joy Davidman says, the positive meaning of this commandment is: ‘You shall take the name of the Lord your God in earnest!’ (Davidman, op. cit., p. 47).

Rob Yule
20 September 1998

© 1998, St Albans Presbyterian Church,
Palmerston North, New Zealand