The Name of God

The Name of God. Speaking the Name of God. But not using or speaking the Name of God lightly or misusing or using in vain … but how? And what about Christians, non-Hebrew speaking Christians, who never use YHWH and use translations that have LORD and not YHWH? What about us? What are we to learn from this? Does it even “apply” to us? What about you — Do you have any scruples, rules, or principles to follow when it comes to the Third Commandment? Do you pronounce the Name? Or do you reverence that Name by using “Lord” or “LORD” or “God”? Does the Bible prohibit the use of the Name or the misuse of the Name?

The Third Command:

“You shall not misuse the name of the LORD your God, for the LORD will not hold anyone guiltless who misuses his name (Exodus 20:7).

Or, “Do not swear falsely by my name and so profane the name of your God. I am the LORD (Lev 19:12).

We are reading Patrick Miller’s new book, The Ten Commandments: Interpretation: Resources for the Use of Scripture in the Church.

We begin with this: the Third Command is about using the Name of God deceptively in oaths. It is about using God’s Name in oaths that are false. It is about using God’s Name in oaths that are worthless.

At the core of this is irreverence.

At the same core is the Name, YHWH. While many connect this Name to Exodus 3:13-15 (after the jump), the so-called Yahwist source of the Pentateuch has it from Genesis 2 on. (Thus, see 2:4; 4:26; 12:8.) [I’d rather not get into a discussion of the origins and development of the Pentateuch; I’m using the categories of Miller’s book.)

In essence, to use the Name is to connect oneself to the realities of that God. It is to claim a relationship to that God, but that God is revealed in and through that Name, and that means using it means standing under the realities of God. To use that Name is to invoke all that YHWH has done, is doing and will do — and it invokes all YHWH is.

Here is the beautiful passage in Exodus 3 about the Name of God:

13 Moses said to God, “Suppose I go to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ Then what shall I tell them?”

14 God said to Moses, “I AM WHO I AM. This is what you are to say to the Israelites: ‘I AM has sent me to you.’”

15 God also said to Moses, “Say to the Israelites, ‘The LORD, the God of your fathers—the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob—has sent me to you.’

“This is my name forever,
the name you shall call me
from generation to generation.”

This is the Name; it refers as much to “being with” (Exod 3:12) as to self-existence (which is more Greek philosophy than anything else), and it refers to the promise that God will be “with” and “for” Moses (and Israel). That Name, then, embodies the covenant relation of God to Israel. Taking the Name lightly is breaching the covenant relation.

But there’s more: the Name of God embodies the Actions of God, and those actions include a presence to be “with” as the One who is “for” in the sense that God gives and liberates and brings to himself:

Exodus 6:2-8: 2 God also said to Moses, “I am the LORD. 3 I appeared to Abraham, to Isaac and to Jacob as God Almighty, but by my name the LORD I did not make myself fully known to them. 4 I also established my covenant with them to give them the land of Canaan, where they resided as foreigners. 5 Moreover, I have heard the groaning of the Israelites, whom the Egyptians are enslaving, and I have remembered my covenant.

6 “Therefore, say to the Israelites: ‘I am the LORD, and I will bring you out from under the yoke of the Egyptians. I will free you from being slaves to them, and I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and with mighty acts of judgment. 7 I will take you as my own people, and I will be your God. Then you will know that I am the LORD your God, who brought you out from under the yoke of the Egyptians. 8 And I will bring you to the land I swore with uplifted hand to give to Abraham, to Isaac and to Jacob. I will give it to you as a possession. I am the LORD.’”

See also Exodus 34:4-8.

Now we ask: What does it mean not to take the Name in vain?

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  • Phil N

    I’ve often thought of it in religious circles as too swiftly claiming things were from God. As in “God told me”…”the Spirit is prompting me”…For fairly trivial things, or items of that persons fancy.

    One person at a meeting I was attending spoke of a committee on behalf of us all that “God was leading us too…”, and I corrected him that I never agreed to such talk. We were still exploring and seeking direction on the matter. I think falsely associating God’s leading with our own whims and ideas is taking God’s in vain pursuits.

  • Greg Brown

    I was in Ethiopia in 2005 and some friends were criticizing the Ethiopian Orthodox Church for not talking enough about Jesus. When I asked my guide at the national cathedral in Addis about it, he explained that it was exactly this. They also hold the name Jesus in greatest reverence and do not pronounce it at every whim, using God instead. In deference to us, he spoke the name in order to point out the emphasis on Christ in the rest of the tour. Seems more praise worthy to me than using Jesus almost like a comma in our public prayers.

  • “Taking the Name lightly is breaching the covenant relation.”

    Imagine using your spouse’s name whenever we wish to curse something as in “[Spouse Name] Damn you!” or whenever we feel the urge to erupt in disapproval “[Spouse Name]!” It’s rather an abuse of our beloved’s name, don’t ya think?

  • OMG, Dios mio …

  • Richard

    In addition to what has been shared here, I’ve always approached this in light of the Near East cultural tendency for names to reflect on character. If I’m doing or saying something out of line with God’s character, I’m taking his name in vain. Or in the case of Christian prayer, if I’m asking something “in Jesus’ name” that is out of line with his character, I should have no expectation that my request will be granted as I’ve desired.

  • Bob Smallman

    Ezekiel 36:16-23 equates the sinful conduct of God’s people with profaning “my holy name.” This aspect of the third commandment seems also in view in 1 Timothy 6:1 (“so that God’s name … may not be slandered”) and James 2:7 (“Are they not the ones who are slandering the noble name of him to whom you belong?”).

    So the commandment has to do with our conduct and not simply our speech.

  • Percival

    I see lots of good thoughts above on good character and conduct and cursing and false prophesying, but I don’t think that’s what the primary meaning is. The first meaning is that if you take an oath or a promise by God, you have to do it. In the Middle East here we joke that when someone says, “By God…” you know he’s lying. It is more serious to swear by something else like the Qur’an or on your eye or almost anything. After 20 years I still can’t get used to the amount of oath-making that is done here, and a lot of it is just lying. I believe Jesus is referencing this commandment/word when he says don’t swear by anything but let your yes be yes and your no be no.

  • DRT

    I thought there was a component of name magic in the ANE. What I mean is that by knowing one’s name that gave the bearer the ability to bless or curse. So, by having the LORD’s name the holder could misues it for purposes that are other than the LORD’s purpose.

  • I have been teaching my sons that this means that taking God’s name in vain is to say it or attach it to something that God has not said or is not doing. Yes, it is irreverent. Yes, it is trying to make God back is your ideas or circumstance. Yes, it is presumptuous.

    We need to study the Scriptures for what God said … and we need to listen together to discern what God is saying through the Holy Spirit. Those who speak “thus saith the Lord” as prophets of old speak condemnation onto themselves if what they say is not true.

    Unfortunately, there are too many who take the name of the Lord their God in vain — and those who are listening are not like Paul found the folks in Berea to be: those who studies the scriptures to see if what they were hearing is in line with God’s words already received.

    Words have much more power than people nowadays realize. Not necessarily “magic” — but more mystical than many want to admit.

  • …wow, too many typos. Hopefully, you get the gist. 8)

  • Luke B

    Thanks for these comments, a number of things I hadn’t considered.

  • Hank

    Scot, have you ever read In Search of God: The Meaning and Message of the Everlasting Names by Tryggve Mettinger? It’s an assigned textbook in my Theology of God in the OT class. So far it is a brilliant book, and really has opened my eyes to the importance of names for the ANE, and the implications it has not only for the OT but for the entire bible.

    My Professor today was talking about how Yahweh appropriated the names el and baal both as titles, and how the implications of these names impact our conception of Yahweh (ie El the gracious and merciful old king creator god who sits on his mountain, Baal the young lord god who standing battles the sea, and fights for the freedom from bondage that chaos holds the world in). That’s a vast oversimplification about what he said, but man oh man. It was mindblowing stuff.