Nightline and ABC news are doing a series on the Ten Commandments, one of which is the Third Commandment from Exodus 20:7, which reads:
You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain, for the Lord will not hold guiltless anyone who takes his name in vain.
The severity of the language that YHWH will not hold the person guiltless who takes the Name in vain deserves explanation. I grew up in American fundamentalism and this commandment was a biggie for us, and we were taught never to say “Oh my God!” It was held to strictly and I knew very few folks who talked like that except my “unsaved” neighbors, some of whom were unsaved because they were Catholic or Lutheran or liberal Presbyterians. So, I have to admit that language restrictions like this produce in me a sense of the overwhelming restrictions and constrictions of some forms of fundamentalism.
“But that has nothing to do with what Moses says here,” so I hear my biblical conscience tell me, and I’d like to offer a few reflections on what I believe is the foundation of this command and why we need, perhaps more than ever, to re-insert the Third Commandment as a character mark of followers of Jesus.
First, the command is anchored in the utter, incomparable, and awe-inspiring holiness of God and God’s pure, impeccable love for Israel and us, God’s people. We are not to divide God into Holy things and Love things — God’s holiness is a pure love and God’s love is a pure holiness. God stands behind the Name and that God is holy love. Our generation is morally culpable for a pitiful dismissal of God’s holiness and for a diminution of God’s glorious transcendence. For this reason alone we need more attention to this command.
Second, the “Name” is “YHWH,” the sacred Name given to Moses in Exodus 3:14. That Name, however, is not a restriction — as if we can say “God” and “Lord” all we want. No, the Name itself spreads holiness over everything that touches God — names, attributes, behaviors, and redemptive designs — including creation and humans and the Church.
[Added comment: Many are emphasizing in the comments that taking the Name is not just using the word “God” or any other name for God, and I would agree. The Israelites took this term in a more restrictive sense to swearing falsely but they also expanded it … and I touched on this in the above paragraph but it needs emphasis: Anything we claim God for, anything we “blame” God for, etc., falls within the overall emphasis on our need of reverence before God. The Third Commandment is an expansive idea.]
Third, Jesus honored that Name when he taught us to pray these words daily: “May your Name [this echoes Exod 20:7, the third command] be hallowed.” He’s affirming the utter sacredness of the Third Commandment.
Fourth, let’s back up to the context: it was customary and widespread among Jews not even to use the Name (YHWH) when speaking of God but to substitute the word “Lord” every time one saw that term. Thus, one way of protecting oneself from uttering the Name of the Lord in vain was never even to pronounce it. This was the world of Jesus and the early Christians and you don’t see them using this Name and you see them speaking of the “Name” in its place.
Fifth, it is too easy to slip this into the real of awe and sacredness and holiness and forget that Jesus cut the Ten Commandments, as did other Jews, into two kinds: Love God commands and Love Others commands. The Third Commandment, then, is a particular instance of what it means to love God.
I’ll put it this way. I love my wife and my kids (and their spouses and now little Aksel) in ways unlike my love for others, like my colleagues and friends. I would never make fun of my loved ones in public in a way that besmirched their integrity and their name and their honor.
How much so with God? If we love God, we don’t say “OMG” or anything that gets close.