“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. (Exo 20:7)
For people swear by something greater than themselves, and in all their disputes an oath is final for confirmation.
What is it that responds so viscerally to the name of God? And surely this response only occurs in those who know the Word and its meaning. Once we learn His name, we become responsible for it. Once you know the Name of God, you can never go back. Once you’ve named that Thing you’ve always known, He can’t be ignored.
The Israelites became acquainted with the Name at the foot of Sinai. “I am the Lord (YHWH) Your God.” This God, the YHWH, had delivered them from Egypt, brought them through the Red Sea, given them manna in the desert. This was the God doing the impossible before their eyes. Is it possible to get used to something like that?
But once he had given out His special covenant Name, they were obligated to protect it, and not use it frivolously. Digging into the text a bit, we find that “take” means primarily to “lift” where vain means “empty”. Is this lifting your voice? Lifting up the Name? Offering false praise or empty praise?
It seems to me that the prohibition is two-pronged. First that all use of the Name be weighted accordingly, and second, all those who seek a place in the Name should live as such. They are not actually two, but since we are fond of separating our actions from our thoughts, we will do so here.
I have never heard hypocrisy addressed from this text but what if we considered this a prohibition against hypocrisy? I think it goes without saying hypocrisy is a cancerous corruption in any church. Recently I had opportunity to take in Arthur Miller’s The Crucible. In the play, honest, God-fearing “covenanted Christians” are put on trial for witchcraft. The villain, the scorned Abigail, declares that the whole church is full of hypocrites, and her righteous mission is to eradicate hypocrisy in the church. It made me wonder why God allowed the original trials to take place, and good men and women hung on a gallows. Could Abigail’s charge ring true? Certainly it is not a new charge. Do “good Christian people” take the name in vain, offer vacuous praise and empty soulless prayers? Haven’t we often reduced relationship with Christ to ritual within Church and true Christian fellowship to “a friendly church”? If God did judge Salem for hypocrisy, then He must surely apologize to them today.
And the Lord said: “Because this people draw near with their mouth and honor me with their lips, while their hearts are far from me, and their fear of me is a commandment taught by men, (Isa 29:13)
Consider the church that bears the Name of God, but with none of the characteristics of God. A Church that is unloving, unkind, closed to all but the insiders, and is only concerned about itself. Is this taking the Name of the Lord in vain? The Lord hates lying lips, and surely the Lord hates a Church whose name is on their lips, but pray with blood-stained hands.
Lying lips are an abomination to the LORD, but those who act faithfully are his delight. (Pro 12:22)
Suppose taking the Name in vain is a prohibition against heartless worship. To take His name in vain is more than swearing or using His Name as a curse word. It speaks to the whole manner of life of a person covered in such a name. The Israelites were God’s covenant people. A people called by His Name. Moses alludes to this when God threatens to destroy Israel after her sin with the golden calf.
But Moses implored the LORD his God and said, “O LORD, why does your wrath burn hot against your people, whom you have brought out of the land of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand? Why should the Egyptians say, ‘With evil intent did he bring them out, to kill them in the mountains and to consume them from the face of the earth’? Turn from your burning anger and relent from this disaster against your people. Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, your servants, to whom you swore by your own self, and said to them, ‘I will multiply your offspring as the stars of heaven, and all this land that I have promised I will give to your offspring, and they shall inherit it forever.’” (Exo 32:11-13)
But it is after this that we get the fuller expression of the Name of God as He passes over Moses in the cleft of the rock.
The LORD passed before him and proclaimed, “The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation.” (Exo 34:6-7)
It is not the bitter, vengeful God we are confronted with, but the merciful, kind, longsuffering God, who is holy and just. It is not a bitter, selfish God we offend, for in that we might be justified. But it is a loving, holy, and just God, who is all-powerful, all-knowing, and in all places at once.
This is why we never use our own name. We are weak and powerless. We might try someone else’s name, someone greater than us. (“Stop in the name of the Law!” or “In the Name of the King!”) but to call down the Name of the Almighty God makes everyone give pause. It makes a heart tuned to Him stop a moment, in the midst of a “god-damn” or a “Jesus H. Christ!” They are blasphemous, and they are wrong, but they get attention.
He has made everything beautiful in its time. Also, he has put eternity into man’s heart, yet so that he cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end. (Ecc 3:11)
If so, then we must be subconsciously aware of His power, since we automatically ascribe to Him all things beyond our comprehension and all things beyond our power and ability. We cry out to God for help when we can’t do anything else. As the old saying goes, “there are no atheists in foxholes.”
The danger of a “Christian” nation is that the ill-equipped and unchurched know enough to use God’s Name, and the power of the Name, to lace their expletives with it. The English words themselves carry no power, but they represent the Divine Being, and whether it is God, Gott, or Deus, they are all the Creator-God and Loving Savior of mankind. And God knew we would be both afraid of His power, but in our anger, would wield this power against our enemies, the most formidable power we know.
And so God laid out the boundary against the abuse of His Name. “Do not take the Name of the Lord Thy God in vain.” Do not abuse His mercy or His love. Leviticus 24:11-16 illustrates the point by calling for execution any who blaspheme the name, whether native or alien, among the congregation.
In Matthew 5:33-37, Jesus cautions anyone who misuses the name, saying, “let your yes be yes and your no, no.” That is to say, be honest in your every day conversation, and you wont’ have to swear by the Lord to convince others you are telling the truth.
It seems that Scripture declares a wide berth between the name of God and our ordinary language, unless our ordinary conduct reflects the character of God. Let your worship be authentic and your words reflect the glory and character of God. Don’t even try to use the words that pretend to blaspheme, like “golly”, “geez”, “gee-whiz”, or “What in the name of . . .?” Declare for yourself a wide berth between your language and the holiness of God.
The good person out of his good treasure brings forth good, and the evil person out of his evil treasure brings forth evil. I tell you, on the day of judgment people will give account for every careless word they speak, for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned.” (Mat 12:35-37)