The Third Commandment and the Divine Name

POSTED 20 FEBRUARY, 2011

What is the significance and meaning of the Divine Name of God in light of the Third Commandment?

When Christians today think about “the name of God,” a wide variety of possible meanings are often applied that may or may not have any root in the Scriptures. When your average Christian typically thinks of God’s “name,” what he or she is actually thinking about are titles for the Supreme Deity, namely the terms “God” and “Lord.” While these titles are certainly important to respect in our conversations and reflections on the Almighty, they ultimately only describe who He is. When we see the topic of God’s name addressed by the authors of the Old Testament, we see a slightly different perspective. The name of the Lord is something that they look to for specific theological and etymological significance. As Isaiah 26:8 explains it, “In the path of thy judgments, O LORD, we wait for thee; thy memorial name is the desire of our soul” (RSV).

The challenge that we face today as emerging pastors, Bible teachers, and possibly even theologians, is to convey a strong sense of reverence and respect that the ancient Hebrews had for the name of God, that is evidenced throughout the Old Testament. No better statement summarizes the significance of God’s name than the Third Commandment. As it appears in most English Bibles, “You shall not take the name of the LORD your God in vain; for the LORD will not hold him guiltless who takes his name in vain” (Exodus 20:7; cf. Deuteronomy 5:11). Most Christian interpreters will apply these verses as meaning that the English terms “God,” “Lord,” and “Jesus Christ” should not be used as blasphemous slurs or in a dishonorable way. Jack S. Deere summarizes this interpretation well, observing, “This command forbids using God’s name in profanity but it includes more. The third commandment is a directive against using God’s name in a manipulative way (e.g., His name is not to be used in magic or to curse someone). Today a Christian who uses God’s name flippantly or falsely attributes a wrong act to God has broken this commandment.” It is doubtful that any of us would find a sincere believer who would disagree with these views.

There is, however, more to consider regarding the Third Commandment. The NJPS Tanakh, a Jewish Bible version, renders Exodus 20:7 in a somewhat different way than in our Christian versions: “You shall not swear falsely by the name of the LORD your God; for the LORD will not clear one who swears falsely by His name.” The NJPS translators have decided to extrapolate that the Hebrew phrase l’shav relates to one swearing falsely in God’s name, rather than using His name in vain. The HALOT lexicon indicates that shav has a variety of possible meanings, including “lie, deception, triviality, with different spellings…,” further indicating that in Psalm 12:3, 41:7, and 144:8,1, the phrase nasa shem l’shav could be used “to utter a name in vain, unnecessarily to abuse a name in an evil way (in a magic ritual or in an oath).” One could possibly assume that the reference to oath taking is a reflection on a Jewish interpretation of the Third Commandment. Indeed, this is confirmed by Nahum Sarna who comments, “The ambiguities allow for the proscription of perjury by the principals of a lawsuit, swearing falsely, and the unnecessary frivolous use of the divine Name.”

While it is important to consider these valuable opinions of the Third Commandment, as they give us a framework of the views present in both Christianity and Judaism, how are we to consider what the Third Commandment itself tells us? When we look at the Hebrew behind our English translations, the Third Commandment really does not tell us to “not misuse the name of the LORD your God” (Exodus 20:7, NIV), but rather to “not misuse the name of YHWH your God.” This is because the Hebrew name [yod-hey-vav-hey], often represented in English as either YHWH or YHVH, is represented as “the LORD” (in SMALL CAPITAL LETTERS) in almost all Bible translations. Whereas one might see representations of God’s name such as “Yahweh” or “Jehovah” used in various scholastic books and references, your average Christian can be somewhat separated from the profound theological significance of God’s name.

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