The Third Commandment

Yahweh is a precious word to the Hebrews.

Yahweh is the Hebrew word that means God and is often spelled YHWH [without the vowels].  This is meant to discourage man from saying God’s name which was an act of respect, a sign of highest regard, a use of language to mean an appreciation of God beyond anything we can understand.

Yet why do I often hear God’s name used today when a character on a television show or a movie gets angry?  Recently, I heard a politician use God’s name when he was addressing people at his rallies.  Why is it becoming so common to hear people exclaim “Oh My ___!” when they are surprised at something that happens in life?  I hear these and other instances and wonder what the Hebrew people would think about the misuse of their special word?

The Third Commandment is “You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain.”

What does “taking God’s name in vain” mean?  With our loose use of God’s name in the world today, is this commandment even relevant anymore?

John Stott* seems to think so.  He writes that the name of God represents the nature of God and God’s nature should be respected.  “There is much in the Bible which commands us to reverence His name, and in the Lord’s Prayer we are taught to pray that His name be hallowed” [66].  Psalm 8: 1 provides evidence that Stott is correct:  “Lord, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth!  You have set your glory in the heavens.”  Psalm 111:9 says “He provided redemption for His people; He ordained His covenant forever—holy and awesome is His name.”   Exodus 20: 7 warns “You shall not misuse the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not hold anyone guiltless who misuses His name.”

Why today do we not heed the words of James in Chapter 3, verses 9-10: “With it [the tongue] we bless our Lord and Father and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God.   From the same mouth come blessing and cursing.  My brothers, these things ought not to be so.”  The book of Proverbs alone contains sixty warnings against sins of the tongue.  According to James the tongue can be like a small fire that sets the whole forest ablaze and stains the whole body.  We read of all these cautions and yet today there are frequent examples of people using the Lord’s name in the act of cursing.

Before we go too far with this topic, language use is often rooted in habit.  I have known individuals who use profane language on a daily basis.  I have also seen some of those people give their life to Christ and the profane language does not stop automatically.  Strong habits are hard to break.  What should happen over time is the realization that to represent Christ, language habits should change.  Poor language use can undermine any witness that a person can have with others who don’t know Jesus. 

Sometimes use of God’s name in vain is not just a “bad habit.”   It is a symptom of a deeper “heart issue.”  When someone uses God’s name in vain, it shows a heart that does know to have a proper fear of God [“fear” meaning respect].   Christians should know that they are to be held to a higher standard.  They should know better than to curse others using the name of the Lord.  They should know to take the Third Commandment seriously.

This emphasis on language can lead to “legalism” which means that some Christians can get “self-righteous” over their personal language use.  My wife and I had a conversation about the use of the word “geez.”  She said that words like gosh, or the use of abbreviations like OMG may help some people  steer clear of using more profane language even though they may be substitute words for saying God’s name in vain.  Some Christians may indulge in “nitpicking” others’ language, condemning all efforts to improve expression.  Condemnation or exoneration really depends on a person’s intent.  Some folks do not have a disrespectful intent in their language use whereas others may indeed knowingly disrespect God by their use of substitute words.  “For who knows a person’s thoughts except their own spirit within them? In the same way no one knows the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God” [1 Corinthians 2:11].  Whatever your means of expression, if we use our language as a way to give thanks to God the Father, this stands as the basis for evaluating borderline terms like geez, gosh and OMG.  Over time we may become more aware of terms that can bring dishonor to God and when that awareness happens, we should work hard to remove those words from our conversation and writings in order to honor God in word and deed.

Stott writes that the use of God’s name in vain is not just the use of words.  It is indicative of a person’s thoughts and deeds.  We need to have consistent behavior in order to have a positive impact on the world.  “Whenever our behavior is inconsistent with our belief or our practice contradicts our preaching, we take God’s name in vain” [66].   As Christians we are declaring God as our Lord so our language should reflect that declaration.  If you pray in His name, take His name as part of your identity but disobey the third commandment, you run the risk of Christ saying “I never knew you.  Away from Me” on judgement day [Matthew, 7: 21-23]. 

“To take God’s name in vain is to talk one way and act another. This is hypocrisy” [Stott, 66].

I agree and I suspect those Hebrews would too…

*from his book Basic Christianity

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