God commanded his people not to take his name in vain. But what does that actually mean? It’s rightly believed that this prohibits speech that defames God’s name, but is that all there is to it? In his commentary on Exodus in the Story of God Bible Commentary, Christopher Wright shows how an Israelite would have understood the third commandment. Let’s see what he has to say.

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The Third Commandment

You shall not misuse the name of the Lord your God.” (NIV)

You shall not lift up the name of Yahweh your God to worthlessness.” (Heb)

Knowing God’s personal name, Yahweh, was one of the greatest gifts that God entrusted to Israel. This commandment protects Yahweh from being used “in vain”. The Hebrew shaw’ signifies something empty or worthless and is often used in association with evil or trouble-making intentions (cf. Ps 12:2; Prov 30:8; Isa 59:4). The commandment, therefore, is about much more than bad language.

Lifting Up the Name

“Lifting up” Yahweh’s name could apply to a variety of actions, which gives an equally wide variety to what it might mean to “lift up Yahweh’s name to worthlessness.”

  • Worship could be described as “calling on the name of Yahweh” (e.g., Gen 4:26). But worship could become corrupt, empty, or abominable when it took place in the midst of personal or public wickedness. Yahweh would thus be lifted up in vain (e.g., Isa 1:10-17; 29:13; Jer 7:1-14).
  • Judicial proceedings included swearing in the name of Yahweh to tell the truth (Deut 6:13). To take Yahweh’s name in oath and then tell lies in court was also to “lift up the name to vanity,” for perverse ends.
  • Vows and promises were also made in God’s name (e.g., Gen 28:20-22; Judg 11:30-31; Ruth 3:13; 1 Sam 1:11; 20:12-13). So, to fail to keep your word would constitute using Yahweh in vain (Deut 23:21-23; Ps 15:4; Eccl 5:4-5).
  • Prophets delivered their words in Yahweh’s name. Those who did so illegitimately, not having received any word from the LORD, were subject to severe penalty (Deut 18:17-22) and reproach (Jer 23:9-40)—they were effectively using Yahweh’s name for evil ends, including their own popularity.

So, the commandment condemned any or all of these abuses of Yahweh in Israel’s life. In these respects, Israel shared a sense of awe for the power of the name of their God in common with other ancient Near Eastern cultures, where the names of gods were regarded as powerful and handled with care and fear.

The Name Among the Nations

However, there is an additional layer of significance when we remember, once again, the story in which these commandments are set. A major theme of the exodus narrative is Yahweh’s determination to be known for who he is—the God of all the earth, God of creation and redemption. God’s express purpose in the prolonged battle with pharaoh is stated at a central moment: “I have raised you up for this very purpose, that I might show you my power and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth” (Exod 9:16).

Since, then, God’s desire is that his name should be acknowledged among all nations on earth as the only source of blessing and salvation (Isa 45:5-6, 23-24), then whatever damages or detracts from his name (especially through reprehensible words and behavior of his own people) hinders that universal goal. If people associate the name of Yahweh (or, in our context, Jesus Christ, or “the Christian God”) with people whom they revile and whose behavior they despise, then “they will not be drawn to this God and he will not receive its due honor and respect. At the deepest level, the use of God’s name is a matter of mission.”

Bearing the Name

This more strongly ethical and missional understanding of the commandment has recently been advocated by Carmen Joy Imes. Dr. Imes argues for a non-elliptical meaning of “bear the name of YHWH,” on the analogy of the use of the same verb when the high priest bore the names of Israel on his breastpiece and bore the name of YHWH on his forehead. “Bearing the name” meant representing the one(s) whose name(s) he bore. Accordingly, for Israel to do this meant they represented God in the world of nations by living in accordance with his ways and commands. To bear the name of the LORD “in vain” was to bring disgrace on their God by their moral and missional failures.

Keep Reading the Story of God Bible Commentary

The Story of God Bible Commentary “explains and illuminates each passage of Scripture in light of the Bible’s grand story”. Each passage of the Bible is discussed under the headings of listen, explain, and live. This three-fold approach to every passage helps the reader live as a faithful character in the story of God.

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