When my children were toddlers, I learned the value of rules and their enforcement. A toddler’s abilities, we might say, far outstrip their wisdom. Much of what they are “free” to do could harm them. For example, I found myself saying “No, Riley, you may not climb on top of the glass-topped coffee table and whack it with a wooden spoon like a Ubange warrior” and “No, Anna Kate, you may not chew the power cord to your mother’s laptop as if it were a Saltine cracker.” In other words, we gave our young daughters rules in order to teach them how to live and what it means to be part of the Ashford household.
By giving our toddlers rules, we also prepared them to respect God’s law, because his law how to live and what it means to be a member of the household of God. God’s rules are for the good of his creatures. They are not cruel or overweening. They are part of God’s plan for us to flourish. He is saying, in effect, “Because this is who I am, this is who you should be.” And these plans are laid out for us in the Ten Commandments.
In this installment of the “Ten Words for a Broken Society” series, we are exploring 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” (Ex 20:7). And, while many readers might say, “Whew. Here’s a commandment I never break,” In fact, it is one of the commandments we probably break most often. After all, this commandment is much deeper and broader than merely a command not to use God’s name in combination with curse words.
What is so important about God’s “name”? God’s name is not merely the letters “G-O-D” or “C-H-R-I-S-T.” God’s name denotes his nature, his word, his power, his presence. We cannot dissociate his name from who he is. When we invoke God’s name, we are invoking God himself. In order to understand what this means, consider, that in the Bible, a person’s name was supposed to express something of the person’s essence and character. A person’s name was tied to the reputation, honor, and strength of that person. And God’s name is the most renowned and the most powerful of all. It is the name that he gave to Israel when he declared himself, “the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob,” and the name he gives to us when he allows us to call ourselves “Christians.” We shouldn’t misuse God’s name because to do so is to dishonor God.
What constitutes the misuse of God’s name? We take God’s name in vain when we misuse his name by evoking it in any empty, careless, hypocritical, or false manner. And when we misuse his name in these manners, we diminish and denigrate God himself in the eyes of the people around us. When we misuse his name, we are being like false prophets. This Hebrew term used in this commandment (lassaw) is used in the Bible to refer to false reports, false witnesses, false worship, and false prophecy. This is why Jesus said not to even use God’s name in an oath; instead of incurring his name when making a promise, we should give a simple “yes” and let our word be our word.
This brings up the question of how we go about rightly using God’s name? We rightly use his name by taking it in blood earnest, by properly understanding and being ambassadors of his character, attributes, reputation, power, and Word. In practice, this means that we take seriously the fact that we call ourselves “Christians.” It means that we must rely on God’s grace to live lives of purity, joy, freedom, and extravagant grace and mercy. It means that we must be so “unlike” the world around us that our lives are “striking” and “shocking” to those who watch us. If we do not take God’s name seriously in this manner, we are, in effect, blaspheming the name we have attached to ourselves.
At the cultural level, and specifically in the sphere of government and politics, this means that we should be very careful when saying that something is God’s will when we do not know for sure that it is God’s will; for example, we should be careful when employing God’s name to justify going to war. Similarly, pastors should recognize that they are (usually) neither competent nor called to make public policy pronouncements in the name of God from the pulpit; of course, there are some exceptions to this rule of thumb, when a direct line can be drawn from a biblical teaching to a given policy. To offer yet another application, civil servants (such as presidents, congressmen, judges, and military officers) who swear an “oath of office” must indeed take seriously their promise to conscientiously uphold their office.
At the societal and political level, this commandment implies that we should not slander or treat badly persons who are made in God’s image. For example, when we mock the poor, we insult their Maker (Prov 17:5). Similarly, when we demean or degrade immigrants, we insult their Maker. Yet again, when we discriminate against people based on their physical appearance, ethnicity, or personality, we insult their Maker.
In summary, the point of the third commandment is this: we must take God’s name and his honor in blood earnest. We must be careful when invoking his name for a point we wish to make. We must do our best, by God’s grace, to live in conformity with his law, especially because we have attached ourselves to his name by calling ourselves “Christians.”