The Third Commandment
In his short instruction on Rules of Civility George Washington wrote, “When you speak of God or his Attributes, let it be seriously.” This sensitivity to the person and attributes of God is largely lost on sinful humanity. We naturally know how to curse, not how to speak reverently. What we know about reverent language we learn only accidently from our rebellion against it. That is why we must turn to the scriptures for instruction. This is because of the natural disposition of the sinner’s heart. Like all of the commandments, the third commandment corrects our rebellious and deluded moral vision like glasses on blurry eyes. The third commandment tells us how to talk about God and what our hearts should feel in terms of believing in and loving him. The goal of this chapter is to convince the reader of the moral weight of one’s speech about God, and more basically one’s heartfelt affection toward God which leads to speech.
The Third Commandment’s Meaning
The third commandment reads as follows, “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.” (Exo. 20:7 NAU). Ethical terms that surround this commandments are the likes of blasphemy, praise, honor, reviling, heresy, slander. To blaspheme God is to revile his name, word, or attribute. To praise God is to speak well about him, his word, and works.
The main interpretative issue regarding the third commandment centers around one question: what does take mean? The root word has a very flexible meaning. One of the major Hebrew lexicons (BDB) spends several pages given examples of probable meanings which could fit this text. Here are some of the meanings of לֹ֥א תִשָּׂ֛א (Exo 20:7 WTT), nas‘a= bear up, take up.. lift up, swear and oath by authority of God (exodus 6:8), being highly considered (2Kings 5:1), to lift up one’s voice in weeping Saul in the sermon text), to use something, to instigate something (take up a practice). The meaning is flexible. What is needed then is to weigh the various meanings in the texts in the contexts of God’s name. Whenever there is ambiguity in our interpretation it could be found in the lack of clarity of the use of interpretative language. The word take has a flexible meaning, and the commandment has a lot of applications. The method we will go by is to listen to the text and find a center of gravity within the terminology and subject matter.
There are three general interpretations of this commandment. First, many understand take to mean speak. The core of the commandment, they say is about how one speaks the name of God. This fits generally with the use of the term take in the Hebrew. There are examples of people taking up and singing, taking up lamentation, taking up oath language, and taking up the very name of God. This fits here. There are also many verses which center in the use of language as a way of violating this commandment. For example in Matthew 12 Jesus spoke about the blasphemy against the Holy Spirit, and taught that by one’s words one will have been condemned or else justified. The way one speaks about God is surely one way of violating the commandment. It also fits the lexical meaning of the word take. Still, it seems that this is an application of the center of gravity, and not the center of gravity itself. This can be seen from the vantage point of the second major interpretative view.
Second, some understand take to refer to bearing the name of God (either of Yaweh, or the Triune Name of the Lord) as one’s covenant Lord. Bearing God’s name makes good lexical sense of the word take, as taking the name of God on oneself is certainly part of the applications of the commandment in scripture. Being a hypocrite means having the covenant name and sacrament placed upon oneself and yet living in a way inconsistent with that public profession. For this interpretation the key is the theme of the covenant ownership and Lordship of God.
Speaking the name and bearing the name are both mentioned in scripture, and certainly are potential for violation and adherence to the third commandment. When one considers this theme of bearing the name in the Bible, and contrasts and compares it with the view of speaking the name, it becomes clear that there must be a third thing which is a center of gravity which holds these two together. To bear the name does not require that we speak the name, and speaking the name can be violated with great immorality even by those who do not bear the name in covenant with the Lord. There must be something to account for the relationship of these two terms, which are certainly used in the text of scripture. That is where we turn to in the third view, which is the one we hold.
The third view, which we believe to be the central meaning of the commandment is using God’s name. This is flexible enough to fit all of the lexical meanings of the term take, and also makes sense as a center of gravity for the texts and subjects related to the third commandment. Most of all it brings together on one foundation the two (apparently contradictory) interpretations of the word here, namely speaking and bearing. Zacharius Ursinus in his Commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism argues the meaning of use for the word nas‘a (Ursinus, 437). J. Douma also argued along these lines in his translation of the commandment, “You shall not misuse the name…” (Douma, 73). These terms works as an outline for the next section. We will explore the uses and misuses of the name of the Lord. The goal is that the reader will firmly grasp the meaning of the term here in the commandment as use or misuse so that the commandment will make sense of the various applications of it in the Bible.
Uses and Misuses of the Name of God
The first use of the commandment is the praise of God’s persons, attributes, words and works. Exodus 22:28 tells us “You shall not curse God, nor curse a ruler of your people.” This shows clearly that the direct violation of the commandment would be in speaking against God, or those whom he has appointed in speaking against their reputation. One may potentially disagree with a leader and appeal to a higher power, namely scripture, and this would not be reviling or speaking against a ruler. So the meaning here is not that we never say anything in disagreement with a ruler, but rather that we never slam his good name. The same would be true to the Lord. We are not to curse God, but to praise him. This includes not only praising him, but also speaking well and with reverence for his attributes (as George Washington would say. It also refers to his works. On key passage on this is in Jeremiah 9. Speaking about the inclusion of the gentiles and the judgment on Israel, as well as the coming day of judgment, Jeremiah reveals the heart attitude one is supposed to have toward these acts of God. He says, “‘let him who boasts boast of this, that he understands and knows Me, that I am the LORD who exercises lovingkindness, justice and righteousness on earth; for I delight in these things,’ declares the LORD.” (Jer 9:24). He then states the thing in which the Lord delights, which is judgment day, “‘Behold, the days are coming,’ declares the LORD, ‘that I will punish all who are circumcised and yet uncircumcised– 26 Egypt and Judah, and Edom and the sons of Ammon, and Moab and all those inhabiting the desert who clip the hair on their temples; for all the nations are uncircumcised, and all the house of Israel are uncircumcised of heart.’” (Jer. 9:25-26 NAU). Many are embarrassed of the day of judgment a a theme in the Bible. It is seen as harsh and unloving by the modernists. The temptation to think like the modern world is strong. Nevertheless, the call is to praise God for his person, nature, works, and word. This is at root an attitude which leads to the words of one’s lips. Accepting God and praising God and his revelation is a moral exercise in applying Biblical ethics. In fact doing the science of ethics is the exercise of the third commandment. It is accepting the Lord’s word with praise concerning the moral nature of the world he created.
Profession of Faith
The third commandment also applies to confession of the faith before man. Our Lord Jesus made the good confession before Pontius Pilate. The Apostle Paul concludes from this perfect example of the Lord Jesus in his obedience to the Father that Timothy ought to keep God’s commandment as a preacher. He wrote, “I charge you in the presence of God, who gives life to all things, and of Christ Jesus, who testified the good confession before Pontius Pilate, 14 that you keep the commandment without stain or reproach until the appearing of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1Ti 6:13-14 NAU). The “commandment” to which Paul referred was to the charge of the flock as minister of the word. Timothy had the special duty as his vocational calling to testify to the truth of God. This is an application of the third commandment, in specifically testifying to the world about one’s personal acceptance of the Lord, God’s word, and his work.
1 Peter 3:15 instructed the Christian church “always to give an answer for the hope that is within you.” This is an ethical exercise, and one which shows the disposition of the heart. Lack of faith also shows the true disposition of the heart. For example, Matthew 10:33 recorded how Jesus promises to deny before his Father those who deny him before man. The reason is because they really do not believe in him, and that is why they said they do not.
One’s Lifestyle Witness
Another application of the third commandment is how one’s lifestyle communicates one’s praise of God. 1 Peter 2:11-12 instructs the Christians who live as exiles in the world to abstain from fleshly lusts so that the gentiles will see the good works and as a result enter glory on the day of Jesus’ return. There is a missional motive to the third commandment there. The world looks on and sees the dramatized Gospel liberation from sin, becomes jealous and finds rest for their souls in the good shepherd. Jesus also told his disciples to let their light shine before men for the same purpose (Matt. 5:13-15). Letting one’s light shine refers to one’s testimony before the onlooking world and has potential for great use to the praise of God. This is really the highest aim of mankind, namely praising and glorifying God in our bearing of his name and redemptive work in our lives before the onlooking world. The third commandment holds great potential usefulness for the glory and praise of God. This is not only in the positive obedience of the believer, but also abstinence from sin and evil. It can even be through the gates of being persecuted because of the name. In Acts 5 the apostles were released from prison and immediately praised God because they had been given the privilege to “suffer shame for the name.” (Acts 5:41). We may suffer shame for the name, but because we bear the name, we rejoice in even suffering for that was the pattern of Christ.
Lawful Oaths and Vows
Marriage, military, church office, court-testimony, business transactions and anywhere one swears allegiance in the name of the Lord, one has taken the name of the Lord up. This is one of the lexical meanings of the word “take up.” In fact it is a very common way to speak of taking up the name of the Lord. It is important that when we swear, even if God’s names I not mentioned, because we are in God’s universe, we must swear yes, yes; and no, no. Examples of this theme abound in scripture.
Lev 19:12 You shall not swear falsely by My name, so as to profane the name of your God; I am the LORD.
Jam 5:12 But above all, my brethren, do not swear, either by heaven or by earth or with any other oath; but your yes is to be yes, and your no, no, so that you may not fall under judgment.
Deu 6:13 “You shall fear only the LORD your God; and you shall worship Him and swear by His name.
Deu 10:20 “You shall fear the LORD your God; you shall serve Him and cling to Him, and you shall swear by His name.
Mat 5:33 “Again, you have heard that the ancients were told, YOU SHALL NOT MAKE FALSE VOWS, BUT SHALL FULFILL YOUR VOWS TO THE LORD.
Mat 5:34 “But I say to you, make no oath at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God,
Jer 4:2 And you will swear, As the LORD lives, In truth, in justice and in righteousness; Then the nations will bless themselves in Him, And in Him they will glory.”
Mat 26:63 But Jesus kept silent. And the high priest said to Him, “I adjure You by the living God, that You tell us whether You are the Christ, the Son of God.”
2Co 1:23 But I call God as witness to my soul, that to spare you I did not come again to Corinth.
Heb 6:16 For men swear by one greater than themselves, and with them an oath given as confirmation is an end of every dispute.
These passages, though we did not give commentary, show that the theme of swearing any oath to God or vow to another person refers to the Lord as witness ultimately of the vow made. Making vows to other people and God is a light thing today. Marriage vows are lightly taken. Ordination vows and vows to confessions of faith mean little in mainline denominations. Military service vows may be one of the last places where the general practice, is to not desert one’s post or break one’s vow. This is probably because the failure to keep the vow is severely punishable.
Self-Promotion by God’s Name
One misuse of the name of God is in promoting one’s own authority by way of appeal to God’s authority invested in oneself in an illegitimate way. One example of this is Simon Magus. He is the person from which we get the term simony, which refers to how he tried to purchase the apostolic authority for money from Peter. Peter rejected the offer to purchase the power of God. Here is the narrative in its entirety.
9 Now there was a man named Simon, who formerly was practicing magic in the city and astonishing the people of Samaria, claiming to be someone great; 10 and they all, from smallest to greatest, were giving attention to him, saying, “This man is what is called the Great Power of God.” 11 And they were giving him attention because he had for a long time astonished them with his magic arts. 12 But when they believed Philip preaching the good news about the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ, they were being baptized, men and women alike. 13 Even Simon himself believed; and after being baptized, he continued on with Philip, and as he observed signs and great miracles taking place, he was constantly amazed. 14 Now when the apostles in Jerusalem heard that Samaria had received the word of God, they sent them Peter and John, 15 who came down and prayed for them that they might receive the Holy Spirit. 16 For He had not yet fallen upon any of them; they had simply been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. 17 Then they began laying their hands on them, and they were receiving the Holy Spirit. 18 Now when Simon saw that the Spirit was bestowed through the laying on of the apostles’ hands, he offered them money, 19 saying, “Give this authority to me as well, so that everyone on whom I lay my hands may receive the Holy Spirit.” 20 But Peter said to him, “May your silver perish with you, because you thought you could obtain the gift of God with money! 21 “You have no part or portion in this matter, for your heart is not bright before God. 22 “Therefore repent of this wickedness of yours, and pray the Lord that, if possible, the intention of your heart may be forgiven you. 23 “For I see that you are in the gall of bitterness and in the bondage of iniquity.” 24 But Simon answered and said, “Pray to the Lord for me yourselves, so that nothing of what you have said may come upon me.” 25 So, when they had solemnly testified and spoken the word of the Lord, they started back to Jerusalem, and were preaching the gospel to many villages of the Samaritans. (Act 8:9-25 NAU)
Simon the magician, or Simon Magus ended up cursed by God for the curse of God’s name thinking that God could be controlled by the apostles, and that he could be brought with money. What Simon was after was power. He wanted to continue as the “Power of God.”
The same thing could be said for those who engage in false prophecy, sorcery, words of knowledge, and fake signs and miracles in the church and in paganism today. Television healers, and those who engage in charismatic words of knowledge are seeking a spiritual self-promotion that is not authorized in the church or the word. This speaking for God, of course presumptuously is taking up the name of the Lord in authority in vain. (Douma, 85). The Same can be said for trusting in men who have arrogated to themselves more authority than the scriptures. For example the Roman Catholic church with its papal authority, sacred tradition, and church epistemology all arrogate authority to themselves over God’s word, and thus become anti-Christ and take the name of God in vain.
False Language about God
Another example of misuse of the name of God includes taking the name of God up wrong in our language. This is one of the main views of the second commandment mentioned above. Though it is not the main center of gravity of the commandment, it is certainly true. Calling oneself divine and teaching heresy about the nature of God are obvious violations of the commandment. Anyone who says that Jesus did not come in the flesh is anti-Christ, and blasphemes.
Casual and flippant language about God is not necessarily untrue language, but it is not done in seriousness. If a child compares Jesus to a superhero and says the superhero is stronger than Jesus, one is provided with a “teachable moment,” as they say. The Lord is not only stronger than any fabled superhero, but he is never to be compared as inferior in any way to anything, even though in his humanity he may have been weak, he is exalted over all names.
Speaking about God in a way that denies his glory also applies to being embarrassed of his word. It is not uncommon to feel the pressure of the modern world, or the world in general in any society with its rebellious attitude toward God. The world does not affirm or praise God as it should, and does not affirm the system of doctrine taught in scripture. It is natural to the world to rebel, and where there is some level of the world being a law unto itself in recognizing God’s order in creation, the world perverts it into a parody of the truth morality and order of the natural law. This antithesis to the word of God and the truth of God puts pressure on the believer who holds firmly to the word of God to capitulate and blaspheme by being embarrassed to hold the truth.
Bringing a bad reputation and witness to the name of God through an immoral lifestyle is also a violation of the command not to use the name of the Lord in vain. In Romans 2, the Apostle Paul gives the example of how the Jews had been living hypocritical lifestyles among the gentiles. He concluded that the word of God was blasphemed because of them among the gentiles. He wrote:
You, therefore, who teach another, do you not teach yourself? You who 1preach that one shall not steal, do you steal? 22 You who say that one should not commit adultery, do you commit adultery? You who abhor idols, do you rob temples? 23 You who boast in the Law, through your breaking the Law, do you dishonor God? 24 For “THE NAME OF GOD IS BLASPHEMED AMONG THE GENTILES BECAUSE OF YOU,” just as it is written. 25 For indeed circumcision is of value if you practice the Law; but if you are a transgressor of the Law, your circumcision has become uncircumcision. 26 So if the uncircumcised man keeps the requirements of the Law, will not his uncircumcision be regarded as circumcision? 27 And he who is physically uncircumcised, if he keeps the Law, will he not judge you who though having the letter of the Law and circumcision are a transgressor of the Law? 28 For he is not a Jew who is one outwardly, nor is circumcision that which is outward in the flesh. 29 But he is a Jew who is one inwardly; and circumcision is that which is of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter; and his praise is not from men, but from God. (Rom 2:21-29 NAU)
Notice that the Jews had taken God’s name up upon themselves in their circumcision, but were not living in light of the reality of spiritual circumcision. The formal external circumcision was blasphemy because their lifestyle did not match up with it.
There are many uses and misuses of the name of God in scripture. This begins the application, and by no means exhausts it. It is our hope that sensitivity to our use of the name of God will increase as our sensitivity to the truth of God on the subject increases.
The Unforgivable Sin – Blasphemy against the Holy Spirit
The unforgivable sin is some form of blasphemy called the blasphemy against the Holy Spirit. There are many interpretations of this. Our view is that blasphemy against the Holy Spirit is a result of the hardness of the depraved and desperate heart of man, which is unable to receive the offered Gospel of grace. Matthew 12 is the text in question. Jesus healed a demon possessed man, and then was accused of being a demon himself. He responded with several defenses. One of which was that all must gather to him. He said, “He who is not with Me is against Me; and he who does not gather with Me scatters.” (Mat 12:30). This is the unforgivable sin: not responding to the Holy Spirit offering the Gospel of free grace to gather to Jesus. If one is not able to respond to the free offer, then that is because one is in the bondage to the evil one and old nature still. This is why this blasphemy is different from other blasphemies. Jesus said, “Therefore I say to you, any sin and blasphemy shall be forgiven people, but blasphemy against the Spirit shall not be forgiven.” (Mat 12:31). The Holy Spirit and the bride say come to the waters and drink water is without cost. If anyone rejects the Gospel he will be condemned, and if anyone accepts the Gospel he will be justified. The Lord said, “For by your words you will be justified, and 1by your words you will be condemned.” (Matt 12:37) . We can believe what people say, because they speak from the nature of their hearts. A good tree will produce good fruit, and a bad tree will produce bad fruit. The blasphemy against the Holy Spirit then is a rejection of the Gospel.
The Dogmatic Roots of the Third Commandment
Ethics are always grounded in what is. The dogmatic belief about the nature of God and the world he created is the ground on which this ethic stands. God made the world with order, and with man as able to praise and glorify God. This reality leads to an ethical end result that all must believe in God and reverence him, as he is worthyof this worship. Contrast the root attitude of atheism to this attitude of the heart of devotion and worship. The root of atheism is not disbelief but hate. Note that the special information in this command is a reason clause, “For the Lord will not hold him guiltless who takes his name in vain.” (Exo. 20:7). That God will not hold him blameless confronts the assumption held by the sinner that God will hold him blameless. This assumption is rooted in disbelief that God really has the dignity due his name, because God does not exist the way he says he does. The belief that God does not exist is accompanied by derisive blasphemy against God. It has the emotion of hate and contempt for God in it. When the professed unbeliever hates God it shows that they do believe God exists, yet they hate him and disbelieve that he will hold them guilty. So God warned, “I will not hold him guiltless who takes my name in vain.” The root attitude of atheism which motivates the claim that God does not exist is actually the deeper felt belief that God does exist, and that the blasphemer hates God.
The root of Christian devotion is not only belief but simultaneous love and reverence. God will act at the last judgment. He will hold in contempt those who held him in contempt. He will hold in honor those who honor him.