God named himself, and because he did, his name is beautiful, precious, revelatory, and perfect. He calls himself “Yahweh”—from the Hebrew verb “to be.” It means that God is self-existent, full of life, and eternal. He owes his existence to no one, and no one exists apart from him. Because of the utter sacredness of his name,” God was sometimes referred to simply as “the Name” (e.g., Deuteronomy 12:4-6, 11; Isaiah 30:27, etc.).
What God forbids in the Third Commandment is not the use of his name but the misuse of is name: “You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain, for the Lord will not hold anyone guiltless who takes his name in vain” (Exodus 20:7). Just as people would not want their own name dragged through the mud, so God doesn’t want his name dragged through the mud, either. But the stakes are higher with him because his name signifies much more than the audible syllables by which he is called. God’s name represents:
- His being and person (e.g., Isaiah 24:15; Psalm 20:1, 75:1)
- His nature and character (e.g., Proverbs 18:10; Isaiah 30:27-28)
- His teaching and ways (e.g., Psalm 22:22; Micah 4:5)
To take God’s name “in vain” means to use it lightly, flippantly, callously, or carelessly. It means to swear falsely using his name, which was a recurring problem in Israel (e.g., Leviticus 19:12, Psalm 24:3-4, Jeremiah 5:2, etc.). The entire judicial system in the ancient world depended upon truthful testimony; there were no lie detectors, DNA samples, videotapes, etc.
So, it was common to hear expressions in temple courtrooms such as: “May Marduk (or Dagon, or Baal, or Chemosh, etc.) strike me dead if I my testimony is not truthful.” Because of the austere legal setting, and a heightened sense divine retaliation, those swearing falsely would often lose their nerve and back away from their claims. Judges could reasonably conclude, then, that the unwavering party likely was telling the truth.
It is clear from this command that God does not want to be associated with his people’s falsehoods in any way. Nor does he wish to be misrepresented by those who claim to belong to him (through false teaching, false prophecy, false divination, etc.). He wants his people to create for him a good reputation in both their local communities and around the world. In short, God’s people are to revere God’s name and character.
Therefore, God’s people today should be very reluctant to use phrases such as, “God told me…” or—even worse—“God told me to tell you….” If such statements are not completely accurate, they are violations of the Third Commandment. Indeed, believers should never be held hostage by such claims when directed at them, even when spoken by other well-meaning believers. Simply ignore them and refuse to be on the receiving end of their power play.
Quite significantly, the expression “the Name” is sometimes used as another name for “Jesus” in the New Testament (e.g., Acts 5:40-42; Romans 10:9-13, quoting Joel 2:32; etc.), thus illustrating the Apostles’ belief in the deity of Christ—at whose name every tongue will one day confess that “Jesus Christ is Lord” (Philippians 2:11).
Series: Carved in Stone: Some of God’s Ways for All of God’s People
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