Unless you live in a monastery or convent, you don’t have to listen too hard these days to hear God’s third commandment take quite a verbal beating.
Plenty of folks don’t even break a sweat when casually invoking God’s name to make themselves look more trustworthy or electable, even though they oftentimes are actually being misleading and self-serving. Some in our fractious society think that the more we can parade God and Jesus into classrooms, courtrooms, and political debates the better.
Problem is, somehow or other, somewhere along the way – or maybe it’s just always been that way, people have lost their fear of the consequences that await when you mix in God too freely and flippantly in venues where the divine name does not properly belong. Thus the third commandment remains firmly in place as both reminder and warning: God is not our mascot, which is the place where our walk through the Ten Commandments brings us this morning.
The Lord does not lend us his name to do with what we please but to do with it what pleases him. And what pleases God is honest proclamation of God’s sure promises and covenant faithfulness, which climaxes in the death and resurrection of his Son, Jesus, and the baptismal arrival of their Holy Spirit.
God and God alone governs the divine name, and we use it only the ways that God wants it to be used: Namely, in praise, and in worship, and in prayer; in precise witness to God’s identity as the God whose giving knows no ending. All other uses constitute taking God’s name in vain, a profane act that the third commandment forbids.
May this short word study on the name of the Lord capture your mind and heart.
God’s first-time revelation of the divine name “Yahweh” comes when Moses encounters the Lord in a burning bush, early in the Old Testament book of Exodus, more than a dozen chapters before God gives Moses the Ten Commandments.
The name “Yahweh” means either “I am who I am” or “I will be who I will be.” And within that heavenly name lies the glory of Good News: Yahweh abides forever and always with us. The Great I Am is life itself – the bright, cosmic center of grace and mercy.
Our use of this name that reveals so much about God – and now our use of the holy name of “Jesus” – deliver some hefty loads of theological weight, trafficking in all that is sacred and hallowed about Father, Son, and Spirit.
Listen for the Word of the Lord and the reason why you take not in vain the name of God.
Moses was keeping the flock of his father-in-law Jethro, the priest of Midian; he led his flock beyond the wilderness, and came to Horeb, the mountain of God.
There the angel of the LORD appeared to him in a flame of fire out of a bush; he looked, and the bush was blazing, yet it was not consumed. Then Moses said, “I must turn aside and look at this great sight, and see why the bush is not burned up.”
When the LORD saw that he had turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, “Moses, Moses!” And he said, “Here I am.”
Then the LORD said, “Come no closer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.” He said further, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” And Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God.
Then the LORD said, “I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. Indeed, I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them from the Egyptians, and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey, to the country of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites. The cry of the Israelites has now come to me; I have also seen how the Egyptians oppress them. So come, I will send you to Pharaoh to bring my people, the Israelites, out of Egypt.”
But Moses said to God, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?” God said, “I will be with you; and this shall be the sign for you that it is I who sent you: when you have brought the people out of Egypt, you shall worship God on this mountain.”
But Moses said to God, “If I come to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your ancestors has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?” God said to Moses, “I AM WHO I AM.” He said further, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘I AM has sent me to you. Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘The LORD, the God of your ancestors, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you. This is my name forever, and this my title for all generations. (Exodus 3:1-15)
The word “vain” – as in, do not take the Lord’s name in vain –derives from the Latin word vanus, which means “empty.”
Apparently, it is quite possible to use God’s sacred name in ways that drain dry its river of power and pollute its real beauty. In misusing or misapplying God’s name, God’s reputation gets damaged, and that is the very essence of blasphemy.
Blasphemy at its core is theft from God – a felony that steals away from God sacred names, words, and symbols, then twists and perverts them for ill-gotten gain, and so makes those names, words, and symbols communicate the exact opposite of heaven’s intent. The names, words, and symbols intended to bring life and rebirth instead bring insult and death.
An everyday form of this blasphemy is taking the name of Jesus Christ and using it express anger, vent frustration, or belittle someone. What happens next is that “Jesus Christ” becomes associated with the very kinds of negative feelings from which he comes to the release us in the first place. Blasphemy therefore blocks the real meaning of Jesus, and the real character of God, and the real work of the Holy Spirit. It steals the Lord’s own name and language in such ways that God is left with nothing to say and the Spirit has no room to work!
Think, perhaps, of what happens to the symbol of the Cross when the KKK burns one in front a black family’s home. The Cross becomes a symbol of hatred – a roadblock to peace instead of a doorway to shalom.
When we survey the wondrous cross, when we contemplate that sacred head now wounded, we are supposed to be filled with such dumbfounded love and speechless longing that we wonder with the hymn, “What language shall I borrow to thank thee, dearest friend?”
But when the Cross, or the name of the Savior on that Cross, becomes blasphemed, then things turn upside down and backward. The Lord himself now has no language to borrow to get the Gospel’s Good News through our thick skulls when his chosen way to communicate is blasphemed to the point that it produces revulsion instead of love. Blasphemy robs God not of his holiness, which cannot be corrupted, but of his ability to display his holiness in the way God prefers.
The third commandment also governs more than the way we speak of God. No. 3 has just as much to do with how we present God to the people around us.
How our faith rules our actions and influences our decisions creates associations in people’s minds when it comes to the name of Jesus, the symbol of his Cross, and the imagery of the Christianity in general.
Our behavior as believers either opens up the beauty of God and faith in Christ or throws up a roadblock around which non-believers easily detour. You and I either lead others to feel positively about Christian faith, or they come to associate Christianity with hatred, intolerance, and a harshly judgmental outlook. Small wonder more and more people these days want less and less to do with Christianity and its Church!
As much as we need to rebuke all those who use the Lord’s name in vain by employing it as profanity, we within the Church need to make very certain – whenever we ourselves invoke God’s holy name, whenever we display the key symbols of our faith – that we do so in ways consistent with the Gospel’s core of grace, love, mercy, and compassion. That is the upside of the third commandment.
Which bring us to Psalm 99, likely not the most obvious choice to help unpack the Lord’s third word. After all, we’ll shortly hear nothing about blasphemy or taking the holy name in vain. But it well illustrates our call to help people praise God by how we present God to them. We call “all nations” – the whole world – to render praise to God.
And for that to happen, we ourselves must both speak reverently of our God and ensure that the God we present to the world is the real God as revealed to us in Scripture. The proper use of God’s name, as I shared earlier, helps us to confess God, pray to God, and praise God in all our living. And that same proper use of God’s name helps all others enter these activities as well. This, then, is Psalm 99:
The LORD is king! Let the nations tremble!
He sits on his throne between the cherubim. Let the whole earth quake! The LORD sits in majesty in Jerusalem, exalted above all the nations.
Let them praise your great and awesome name. Your name is holy Mighty King, lover of justice, you have established fairness. You have acted with justice and righteousness throughout Israel.
Exalt the LORD our God! Bow low before his feet, for he is holy! Moses and Aaron were among his priests; Samuel also called on his name. They cried to the LORD for help, and he answered them. He spoke to Israel from the pillar of cloud, and they followed the laws and decrees he gave them.
O LORD our God, you answered them. You were a forgiving God to them, but you punished them when they went wrong. Exalt the LORD our God, and worship at his holy mountain in Jerusalem, for the LORD our God is holy! (Psalm 99:1-9 NLT)
Back at that Burning Bush, Moses screws up the nerve to ask God about the divine name.
As is so typical, the Lord God is gracious enough to answer, and the name God gives Moses is recorded in the original Hebrew as the simple letters Y-H-W-H. Over time someone arbitrarily purchased some seemingly random vowels to add an “a” and an “e,” which is how get to “YaHWeH.”
Scholars note that the letters YH and WH represent breathing sounds – aspirated consonants, the linguists would call them. When pronounced without those added vowels, Y-H-W-H actually sounds like breathing. YH, inhale; WH, exhale.
Thus, with the first breath of a baby’s first cry, every newborn speaks the name of God.
So also the deep sighs and painful groans of mom’s labor were calling God’s name with contractions and constrictions too intense for mere words.
Even the atheist speaks God’s name, blissfully unaware of each breath giving constant nod to God. Likewise, the saints leave this earthly world when God’s name no longer fills their lungs.
Indeed, when you cannot utter anything else, your grunts and whimpers forever call out God’s name. Being alive means you express God’s name constantly – always the loudest when you’re most quiet:
In sadness, breathing heavy sobs.
In joy, lungs feeling almost like they will burst.
In fear, holding one’s breath then receiving the encouragement to breathe slowly into a place of calm.
In the face of insurmountable odds, inhaling deeply and finding courage to shun the taskmasters.
God chooses a name you can’t help but speak from life’s first cry to final breath!
All of us, always, everywhere: Waking, sleeping, breathing, with the name of God on our lips, praising the Lord’s down-to-earth love for each and every blessed one of us.
“Yahweh!” “I am who I am!” “I will be who I will be.”
The Name of the Lord. The Word of the Lord. Thanks to be God!
Pastor Grant M. VanderVelden shared this message during worship on Sunday, July 30, 2023. Scholarship, commentary, and reflection by Doug Bratt, Walter Brueggemann , Sandra Thurman Caporale, Scott Hoezee, Stan Mast, and The Bible Project inform the message, which is the third in Pastor Grant’s series on The Ten Commandments.