The first three commandments in Exodus 20 set the stage for the latter seven. The first three commandments communicate expectations for how God should be treated and the following commandments (covered in earlier articles) establish expectations for how people should treat one another. This series has looked closely at the commandments in Exodus 20, starting with the tenth commandment, exploring values of community and justice as God intended for those who would follow. Now, as the series moves into the first three commandments, another value emerges to confirm to the people how they are to worship God.
The third commandment reads You should not lift up the name of Yahweh, your God, in vain. For Yahweh will not acquit anyone who lifts up his name in vain. This commandment emphasizes an appeal to authenticity. God desires to be called upon earnestly, by those who would seek authentic communication with God. The commandment comes with a warning—anyone who calls upon the name of God should do so carefully and with conviction.
What’s in a name?
Across centuries, it has been believed that knowing the real name of someone powerful can in itself invoke power. Stories and fairytales often include this kind of name-magic. Think of Rumpelstiltskin. In the end, the only way for the queen to save her firstborn child was to learn and say the name of the magical little man who made her devil’s bargain in the first place. The New Testament tells of miracles performed in the name of the Lord Jesus, and because of this some young men thought they would get in on the action, motivated by their pursuit of personal fame. They pronounced the name of Jesus in attempt to drive out evil spirits, but the name was called upon in vain. The scripture tells that the evil spirit lept upon them and overpowered them, sending them running out of the building. (Acts 19:11-20) This story demonstrates the danger of calling upon God insincerely.
The name of God, often translated into English as Yahweh or LORD, is a collection of four Hebrew symbols that are without pronunciation; the letters are a functional symbol for the name of God. Jewish tradition held that the name of God could not be spoken, because God is considered so far above humanity. Scribes could not even write the name of God without great attention to cleansing procedures.
Calling upon the name of God remains a mystical practice even today. Different denominations and church movements call upon God in different ways. Some maintain a great sense of awe and reverence when God’s name is used. Others invite the name of God into common conversation. One thing that this commandment makes clear is that however the name of God is invoked, God must be approached with humility and sincerity.
Vanity, Vanity! All is Vanity (Eccl. 1:2)
In the third commandment, the word vain signifies worthless. It also carries a connotation related to magic or a magic spell. It is as if this commandment rebukes the use of magic as worthless while also setting a standard in that God’s name should not be called upon to invoke power. The Israelites, having come out of Egypt, were familiar with the use of magic to invoke power from the gods. Was it conceivable that the God who performed amazing wonders in leading them out from Egypt did not wish to be called upon for power? In time, followers of God would continue to call upon God for acts of power.
Joy Davidman, known best perhaps as the wife of C.S. Lewis, wrote: today, with two thousand years of additional practice, we have invented many new ways of breaking the Third Commandment. We still misuse God’s power and we still despise it; we call upon God to justify our sins; we commit the ultimate blasphemy of not calling upon God at all. Many churchgoers think of the Third Commandment as meant primarily to forbid casual profanity. Yet casual profanity is perhaps the least of our offences against it. It is true that we often speak of God too lightly, making an empty noise out of the most real and profound of human experiences, substituting a meaningless verbal habit for a serious concept of the Almighty. (1954)
Davidman appeals to those who wish to live faithful lives to call upon God carefully and assuredly. Over and over throughout the Bible, God reminds people of one thing—God is in all and over all. To obey God is absolute authentic devotion. To call upon the name of God is a gift. Our response should encompass an attitude of reverence and of sincere devotion to God who saves, redeems and performs miracles in all of creation.