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Saturday, December 11, 2004

Do not misuse God's name

Note: This post continues my series on meditations on the Ten Commandments. I started by reflecting on the heart of the commandments, and went through the first and second commandments. In between I also meditated on related topics in Moses' life.

The third commandment is another one that I have puzzled over for the longest time. What does it really prohibit, and why is the prohibition given? In the NASB, Exodus 20:7 reads: "You shall not take the name of the LORD your God in vain, for the LORD will not leave him unpunished who takes His name in vain." The NIV reads, "You shall not misuse the name of the LORD your God, for the LORD will not hold anyone guiltless who misuses his name."

It is usually understood that the third commandment is a prohibition against using God's name in profanity or even in a callous manner. Some take it to be a prohibition to use particular pronouns of God in common speech, and in order not to trespass this commandment, they avoid using any such names in speech or writing. If words needed to be used to refer to the divine, they replace the vowels so that the actual name for God is not spelt out. On the one hand, I respect the careful dedication of people who follow this practice dilligently, but on the other hand, I have an uneasy feeling that this seems like a capricious
God who worry about how we use his name in ordinary speech and gets offended because someone used it in profane speech.

That is why, I have a suspicion that it is more likely that the third commandment goes beyond just prohibiting the use of certain words in our daily conversations.

Let's think further about what Exodus chapter 20, verse seven says:
"You shall not take the name of the LORD your God in vain, for the LORD will not leave him unpunished who takes His name in vain."
In this verse, there is a prohibition and a consequence for breaking the prohibition. It is interesting to note that it says God will not leave the person who takes His name in vain unpunished. The NIV says, God will not hold that person guiltless.

In thinking through this issue, if taking God's name in vain is merely using his proper name glibly and profanely, then it is quite plain that many offenders seem to get away with their crime. Now one might argue that the punishment is coming for these riotous sinners, yet I wonder why God specifically highlights this particular transgression as one that He will not hold the trespasser unpunished or guiltless.

A couple of ideas from the the rest of Scriptures and culture might throw some light on this. One is the idea of "conversation." That word is used to denote citizenship or lifestyle in the KJV in passages such as Ephesians 4:20 and Philippians 3:20. Another idea is Jesus' own words, in which He says it is not the things which goes in, but those things that comes out, of a person's mouth that makes that person unclean. So, it appears that there might be a relationship between a person's words and his lifestyle and character.

Another idea that we can draw from is "blasphemy against the Holy Spirit" or "grieving the Holy Spirit." According to Jesus Christ, this sin is the only unpardonable sin. It appears that the idea between "unpardonable" and the idea from the warning in the third commandment of God not holding someone "guiltless" for violating the misuse of God's name can be co-related. It seems that there isn't any other references to an unpardonable sin in the Old or New Testatments. So, it seems to me that we can either co-relate these two passages as referring to the same thing, or we can at least say that they are unique and similar in at least that respect.

Another set of ideas that we can draw from is the idea that God's name refers to everything He stands for. In ancient customs, names appear to play a significant role in reflecting the personality or character of a child. So when Jacob was born, he was named for his fiesty spirit. Another set of concepts that can be drawn upon is the fact that in the so called Near and Far Eastern cultures, a name is a symbol of honor and respect and is to be upheld and maintained. Shame and derision accompany the person who brings disrepute to the name of his family. Could the third commandment be understood in these respect also?

Putting all these thoughts together, we can surmise that taking the Lord's name in vain can be understood as follows: Saying that you belong to Him--that you are His child, or that you are His follower--and yet living as if you were a pagan. Understanding the commandment to extend to the way you live rather than just a mere misuse, or careless, use of certain words seems to be more likely given the seriousness that God apparently took the prohibition. Yet, this way of construing the commandment doesn't preclude the need to treat the pronouns that are used to refer to God with respect and
to not use the name(s) callously and in profane speech. What it does is extend the traditional understanding of the third commandment to also include the injunction on the way we live, and to underscore the need for circumspection and alignment of our lifestyle with our profession and faith commitments.

When we live our lives indifferently to our relationship with our Father in heaven, we commit the sin of grieving the Holy Spirit - of blaspheming against the Holy Spirit. Jesus says that when the Comforter (Holy Spirit) comes, He comes to convict the world of sin, of righteousness and of judgment. And, if we continue to live our lives in disregard to His work in our lives, that is when we are in danger of the unpardonable sin, and that is when God does not hold us guiltless. We begin to have problems not just with the prospect of eventual punishment and judgment but with our own conscience, emotional and spiritual well-being.

Another related way we might transgress this commandment is to take His name, claim His authority in executing a plan or an action as if it were mandated by God and do so either in an unjustified way or do so in an ungodly manner. We claim authority from God when there is none, or we carry out our actions in a manner devoid of mercy, justice, love and grace. In other words, we give as our reason, a godly motivation or a divine mandate, but in the carrying out the very thing we say God directs us to do, we do so in a way contrary to His character. In either of these ways we would
also have contravened the principle under girding this commandment. This is true both on a personal level as well as, in a corporate sense.

In both of the above cases, taking the Lord's name in vain--misusing His name--have to do with how we live our lives, on how we act towards our fellow humans. In either cases it is a matter of integrity. It is about who we are as God's people, and as God's representatives for we are His ambassadors not only to the world around us but also to the spiritual hosts who rule the "principalities and powers." Our lives are lived out in the open, so to speak, and
so long as we do so in a less than godly manner, we take His name in vain. May God have mercy on us all!