Summary: As followers of Jesus Christ, we carry God’s name with us wherever we go, whatever we do.
What’s in a name? In Shakespeare’s "Romeo and Juliet," Romeo asks that very question: "What’s in a name? A rose by any other name still smells just as sweet." Romeo would have us believe that names are just arbitrary ways of saying who we are.
But names are far more important than Romeo would have us believe. Names often reflect a person’s character and personality. Just ask Frank Zappa’s children "Moon Unit" and "Dwezel" about the power of names. Those names tell you more about Frank Zappa’s weirdness than anything else. Or think of names like Jeffrey Dahmer, Adolf Hitler, or Saddam Hussein. These names conjure up all kinds of feelings, memories, and experiences. Yes, names are much more than arbitrary words.
We’ve been in a series through the Ten Commandments called LANDMARKS FOR A NEW MILLENNIUM. So far we’ve looked at the prologue to the 10 commandments, as well as the first and second commandments. In the first commandment we learned that there’s nothing more important than having the right God in the right place in our lives, and in the second commandment we saw that God is passionate for us to worship him accurately and on his terms. Today we’re going to look at the third commandment, that commandment against taking God’s name in vain. Today we’re going to discover why God reveals his name to us, ways we tend to misuse that name, and ways we can honor that name.
1. God Reveals His Name
Let’s begin by reading the third commandment: "You shall not misuse the name of the LORD your God, for the LORD will not hold anyone guiltless who misuses his name" (Deuteronomy 5:11 NIV).
Now let’s make some basic observations about this passage. This third commandment reads differently than the first two. In the first and second commandments God speaks in the first person singular: "You shall have no other god before Me" and "You shall not make an image because I the Lord am a jealous God." But here we find a shift from the first person to the third person. Instead of, "You shall not misuse My name," we find, "You shall not misuse the name of the Lord your God." The reason for this subtle shift is to call our attention to the word "Lord." The Hebrew word translated "Lord" here is the Hebrew name Yahweh, and we’ll talk more about this name in a minute.
Now to "misuse" God’s name is to "take" the name in an "empty" manner. In fact, this command literally reads in the Hebrew, "You shall not take the name of Yahweh in an empty way." The word "take" means to "lift up, carry or raise high" (NIDOTTE 3:162). So the emphasis of this commandment isn’t so much on saying the name, but on carrying the name.
Orthodox Judaism teaches that this means no one should ever pronounce this name, that it’s so holy, so awesome, so incredible, that to even pronounce the name Yahweh is to misuse it. But the prohibition here isn’t against saying the name, but lifting it up or carrying it in the wrong way.
So the text means: "You shall not carry the name of Yahweh your God in an empty way."
The word "empty" or "vain" means to use the name in a "worthless" or "deceitful" way, to use it to promote falsehood. This is why many Hebrew scholars believe this commandment originally addressed the issue of people making false oaths in the name of Yahweh. But I’m going to argue that this commandment deals with a lot more than false oaths.
Now the phrase "Yahweh will not hold anyone guiltless who lifts up his name for an empty purpose" is a motivation clause. This is God’s way of saying that he’s not going to just look the other way and pretend like nothing happened when we misuse his name.
Now let’s look a little deeper at the meaning and background to God’s Old Testament name Yahweh. 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?" 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.’" God also said to Moses, "Say to the Israelites, ’The LORD [Hebrew: Yahweh], 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 by which I am to be remembered from generation to generation (Exodus 3:13-15 NIV).
This is God’s calling to Moses from the burning bush, where God summons Moses from out of the desert to confront the Egyptian Pharaoh and to lead Israel out of their slavery. Here God identifies himself as the same God Israel’s ancestors worshipped, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. When Moses asks for God’s name, God says, "I am that I am." In the Bible a person’s name embodied his personality, so the name was the sum total of a person’s character, authority, power and reputation (Kaiser 321). "I am" is God’s way of saying that he’s eternally existent, self reliant, the living God, who exists in the past, the present and the future. In the context, this is God’s way of saying, "I am he who exists and who will be dynamically present then and there in the situation to which I am sending you" (Kaiser 321).