What’s in a name? Well, it turns out that the answer to that question is “a whole lot.” Names can be venerated and names can be tarnished. They can follow someone around, and they can come to symbolize character and personality. Names matter. Especially the Name of God.
There is power in a name. It’s difficult for us to understand this, because for moderns, a name is more of a “handle” than a definition of character. I came across an interesting fact, though, as I was putting this talk together. Adolf was a popular name in Germany prior to World War 2, with several notable rulers of Germany as well as Saints and others appearing with the name. After the war, it is almost unheard of. And the name “Hitler,” an anomaly, has completely disappeared. Indeed the I read a New York Times article explaining that Adolf Hitler’s siblings changed their names and moved intentionally, in order to “end the Hitler name and bloodline.” The name itself is associated with evil incarnate.
We come this morning to a study of the third of the “ten commandments” or “ten words.” Earlier in Exodus, Israel’s God has given his Name to his servant Moses (Ex 3:13–15; 6:2–7)—it is an enigmatic Name that both reveals and conceals his nature and character. He is the God who “Is.” And he is the God who makes covenant with Israel in Exodus 20. At the heart of this covenant are these ten words, which contain the portion of the law central to all that Israel is called to be.
The first commandment sets the tone, and in some ways forms the heart, of the first tablet: “you shall have no other gods before me.” For Israel, this is to be their God, the God who delivered them, who made himself known not only by the four letters of His Name, but by his powerful actions on their behalf: he rescued them from the harsh bondage of slavery in Egypt and is bringing them to the land he had promised Abraham. The other gods of the world—and the world was rich in gods—are as nothing. It is important to recognize that the character of this God is quite different from that of all other gods. Those who have read the Gilgamesh epic or Homer recognize that difference. These gods are pernicious, evil, self-seeking, glory-hound jerks.
Israel’s God, though, the God who has revealed himself as “YHWH,” is different. This is the God who “heard the cry of [his] people” in their affliction and is moved to rescue them—not by hubris and not by a lust for sacrifice, but by compassion. And through Israel this God is coming to rescue the entire world. Israel was thus saved from bondage, not to for their own sake, but to show the world this God, the God, the only true and living God. It began with Pharaoh, who replied to Moses “I do not know this God”—and who would soon be introduced to him.
In Exodus 20, Israel is given the Name of this God as their own, they are to be associated with him. They will be his people, and he will be their God. Thus, they are to reflect his character, and they are not to take his Name in vain. It is important to note that Israel took this seriously, at least at some point. In order to avoid violating this commandment, they built a hedge around the Name, and thus the pronunciation of the Name is lost to history.
Despite this, though, the Name of the LORD was taken in vain. In texts like Ezekiel 20 and 36, we see that Israel had indeed blasphemed the Lord’s Name, though not in ways we might expect. They weren’t simply using it as an oath, or as an interjection. Instead, Israel was engaged in idolatry and in misanthropy. The people of God’s Name, God’s missionary nation, chased after other gods and bore terrible witness to his person and character. And despite his longsuffering, the LORD did not ultimately hold them guiltless. Through a series of devastating invasions and defeats, he brought punishment upon them and purified them of this blasphemy.
Well, what about us? In some ways, the 10 commandments, especially the first half, seem so antiquated. Though we definitely have our own idols, we don’t see carved images very often (if at all). And really, nothing is seen as particularly “holy” in our world. In fact, in a strange way, the use of God’s name in vain by our secular society actually preserves its holiness! No one says “O my Todd.” No one names their dog after the Lord (though they will after various pagan deities). So there is at least some recognition of some holiness there.
But, as Christians, we are reminded in the New Testament that, in his faithful service, his death and resurrection and ultimately his glorification, our Lord Jesus has been given the “Name above all names,” the very Name of God—LORD Jesus Christ.
I can remember that it was very important to my family and those others whom I knew that we not say the Lord’s Name in vain. We were shocked when we heard people say “Oh my god.” Even euphemistically, I can remember those who would react strongly to the euphemism “Oh my gosh” and other things. And this is good. It is good to remember things are holy. It is good to not speak the Lord’s Name (commonly Jesus Christ today) in a careless or off-hand way.
But we must remember, even as Israel forgot, that we bear the Name. Embedded in the name “Christian” is the Lord’s royal title. And all that we do or say, the way we act, how we treat others and how we revere God, bears witness to his Name.
It matters not if I go my whole life without speaking the Lord’s Name in vain if by my actions he is blasphemed.
If the world sees through me the character of God as something other than what it is, I am taking his Name in vain. If the world looks at Christians and sees us chasing after other gods—politics, power, wealth, position, whatever those may be—we may be assured that he will not hold us guiltless.
Let us remember Paul’s command: And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.
We are God’s image and Name bearers, and all that we do should be in keeping with this. How we speak to our husbands or wives, our children, and the people around us; how we treat the helpless and the oppressed; how we comport ourselves in graciousness and love or in avarice and caprice and selfish pursuit; all of these things bear witness to our Lord Jesus Christ.
If our lives do not reflect his character, and we bear his name, we are taking that Name in vain.