A Most Special Name
(Westminster Shorter Catechism Questions 53-56)
(watch the video for an expanded commentary)
by Bob Burridge ©2011
It has always been one of Satan’s tactics to make wrong things seem acceptable. In our imperfect condition we are often very willing to go along with the deception. We tend to pay more attention to our own comforts and pleasures, than to why we are here as those God created for a special purpose in his Creation.
Since we are all heirs of Adam’s corrupt nature, we tend to think of God in terms of what we selfishly want him to be, instead of what he is and reveals about himself in his word. Other interests become the real gods of our lives. We also tend to look for satisfaction of our wants in things we can see, instead of trusting in the invisible but very real God who is behind it all. Images and objects we make can distort the way God himself teaches us to worship him. These principles are summed up in the first two commandments.
The Third Commandment is about how seriously we should take all our mentions of God. Question 53 of the Westminster Shorter Catechism quotes from Deuteronomy 20:7, the wording of the Third Commandment.
Deuteronomy 20:7, “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.”
Sadly, this commandment, like all the others, is often misunderstood.
First, we need to understand what it means
by the “name of the LORD our God”.
There are two words used here; LORD and God.
1. The word LORD translates the Hebrew name “Jehovah”, YHVH (יהוה).
Instead of using the word “Jehovah” many translators used the all upper case word “LORD”. There is a very ancient tradition behind this. In ancient times, the Israelites did not want the sacred name of God to be read carelessly. When readers came across the four sacred consonants they would say the Hebrew word Adonai (אדוני), which means “Lord”. At a later time when vowels were added to the written language, the vowel markers for Adonai were adjusted to fit into the letters “YHVH” giving us the word “Yehovah”. When the Bible was later translated into the Germanic languages the sound “Y” was represented by the letter “J”. This is how the common English word “Jehovah” was born. A closer pronunciation to the original name of God would be “Yahveh”.
When Israel was set up as a modern nation after World War 2, a lot of research went into restoring the ancient Hebrew pronunciation. More accurate research in the field of Orthoepy shows that the ancient Hebrew pronunciation was probably “yăh-VĔH”. (See: “Ben-Yehuda’s English-Hebrew Hebrew-English Dictionary” first printed in 1961 based upon the pronunciation guide in the “Merriam-Webster Dictionary” of 1947, 1951 – “Conversation Manual: Hebrew” a Living Language Course text book first printed in 1958, and “Hebrew in 10 Minutes a Day” by Sunset Series printed in 1992. Article at “Hebrew for Christians” about pronouncing this name of God. Watch the video on the pronunciation of “vav” as opposed to “wow” by Nehemia Gordon.) In the New Testament the Holy Spirit led the inspired writers to use the Greek word for “Lord” (κυριος) when quoting Old Testament passages using that special covenant name (יהוה).
This name is combined in the Bible with others words that describe God. They were used as if they were descriptive titles. He’s called:
YHVH Yir’eh [Jireh] (יהוה יראה) “Jehovah will provide” Genesis 22:14
YHVH Nissi (יהוה נסי) “Jehovah my banner” Exodus 17:15
YHVH Shalom (יהוה שׁלום) “Jehovah is peace” Judges 6:24
YHVH Shammah (יהוה שׁמה) “Jehovah is there” Ezekiel 48:35
YHVH Tsid-kenu (יהוה צדקנו) “Jehovah our righteousness” Jeremiah 23:6, 33:16
YHVH Tse-va’ot (יהוה צבאות) “Jehovah of hosts” 1 Samuel 1:11
2. The word God translates the Hebrew word El (אל).
The plural of that word is Elohim (אלוהים). This form is often called the “Majestic Plural” because it was used to show things of grandeur and wonder. The word for “heaven” and other such words are usually found written in this same Majestic Plural form.
He is called El Shaddai, which means “God Almighty”. In Isaiah 9:6 he is called, “… Wonderful, Counselor, The mighty God, The everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace.” Sometimes God is called Lord in the Old Testament, using the Hebrew word, Adon (אדן), or Adonai (אדוני).
In the New Testament the common word for “God” is Theos (Θεος). He is also called “Lord” using the Greek word Kurios (κυριος). Our Savior was given name Jesus Iaesous (Ιησους). In his own language of Aramaic his name was Yeshuah (ישוע). It would be brought into English by using the name Joshua.
The title of “Christ” comes from the Greek word Christos (Χριστος), which means “the Anointed one”, like the Hebrew Old Testament word Messiah.
It would be wrong to limit this Third Commandment to only these words. God himself expanded on what his name is in Exodus 34:6-7, “The Lord, the Lord God, merciful and gracious, longsuffering, and abounding in goodness and truth, keeping mercy for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, by no means clearing the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children and the children’s children to the third and the fourth generation.”
Martin Luther called this verse in Exodus, “God’s own commentary on his name.” The name of God includes all the perfections and judgments that identify him. The commandment is not just about particular titles or proper nouns. It applies to all our references to him, and to whatever words we use to represent him as we speak.
God’s name must not be use in vain.
Before we can understand the teaching of this commandment, we also need to understand what it means to take up something in “vain”.
The most obvious offense to this moral principle is when people speak of God with open anger or disrespect. Blasphemy is when people show anger toward God, ridicule him, or degrade him in some way. Some angrily blame God for the wrongs they see in our world. However, that is not all this commandment forbids. The original Hebrew word translated “vain” is shav’ (שוא). It means to use something carelessly, without meaning, or thoughtlessly.
Today it has become very acceptable and common to use God’s name this way. His name is disrespected if it is use as an expletive. That is when people use his name to express their emotions. They use his name when they are surprised, frustrated, or hurt themselves. They might say things like, “Oh my God!” or “My Lord!” Or they blurt out the name of “Jesus”, or the word “Christ” when they are shocked about something.
In situations like this they are not really addressing God or Jesus. Most times it is just a habit, something people pick up because they hear it so much. They say, “Oh, I’m not being disrespectful. I don’t mean anything by it.” That is exactly what this commandment is forbidding.
God’s name, all the words that identify him or describe him, are not to be used carelessly or without thought or meaning. It degrades and offends him. It violates this Third Commandment.
There are many ways this commandment is broken every day.
One way this moral principle is violated is in profanity. The word “profane” means to treat something sacred as if it was common, or not important. It is when holy things relating to God and his work are degraded as if they were not special.
God alone is holy and all glory should go to him. People speak of “holy cows,” but they do not really mean that the cows are actually sanctified or set aside as special to God. They exclaim “Heavens!” or “for heaven’s sake”, but certainly they are not thinking about God’s place of glory. When they use those words without thinking of their awe, holiness, and glory, they are being used vainly. These are not to be treated as common things. They are things that should humble us before our Maker.
People might laugh at such an idea, objecting, “what could possibly be wrong with such innocent expressions?” They say, “Nobody really means anything by them.”
That’s exactly the point. God wants us to speak of him with thought and respect. His name and the words that describe what he is and does are holy. They should never be used in vain, carelessly, or without meaning.
The commandment also forbids vulgarity. Every language and culture has acceptable ways to describe normal things. They also develop crude, distasteful words for the same things. Every believer needs to avoid words that are offensive and in bad taste. These words degrade things God made for honorable purposes.
Vulgarity includes those words that are obscene. That means they offend with excessive immodesty or sexual indecency. God created us male and female to have children, and to love each other for life. That is the model God uses to show our relationship to Jesus Christ as his bride. Therefore it is wrong to use crude words about our sexual relationships.
Today, society is confused about the proper way to satisfy normal and good desires, so it perverts them into degrading offenses against God’s law and human respectability. Foul terms and descriptions fill music, movies, books, radio, video games, and TV programs. They even get into a child’s or teen’s vocabulary. They show disrespect for what God designed to be good and honoring to him.
This commandment forbids cursing. Cursing is when a person dares to call down God’s judgment upon someone or something. Damnation is a prerogative unique to God. Words like “hell” and “damn” are serious biblical words about the horrible consequences of sin. Only God has the right to pronounce eternal judgments and condemnations.
When people use words like that in anger, to impress others, or they just stick them in sentences meaninglessly, they degrade this fearsome penalty of sin, and trivializes God’s judgments.
People say, “It’s just a habit, I don’t mean anything by it.” That is exactly what this commandment forbids. Cursing, is when someone speaks about God’s wrath and judgment in a vain, thoughtless way.
Another area we need to be careful about is humor. Everyone appreciates a good joke. There is a lot to laugh about in God’s world. However, we need to show good judgment in not letting ourselves laugh at God or at what is holy.
Jokes about hell should not be thought of as funny if we appreciate the horror and reality of it. People would not think of making jokes about those who died in the 9/11 attacks, or the victims of a serial killer, or a child molester. It is considered bad taste to make light of things like that in jokes. But there is no greater horror than what people will face in the final judgment. To laugh at heaven, hell, Satan and eternal judgment is crude and blasphemous.
The world makes it popular to ridicule or satirize God and holy things. That sense of humor should not be acceptable to God’s people.
Of course they say, “Come on, where’s your sense of humor. We don’t mean anything by it.” Again, that is exactly what this commandment forbids. We should never make meaningless references to God and his glory. When people profane God’s name and glory, they become Satan’s unwitting accomplices.
Most surprisingly, sometimes God’s name is used in vain in worship. It is so easy to let our minds wander while our mouths keep on speaking or singing. People sing of the glories of Jesus and of God’s power, or recite creeds, while they think about their schedules, the temperature of the room, how their hair looks, or what somebody else is thinking or doing during worship.
No one should say God’s name as an empty, vain repetition. Yet, it happens in the gathering of the churches every Sunday during their times of worship. Do not be busy in your mind with your schedule, plans, or some little project while you speak or sing about God’s glory.
Our children also need to be taught to pay attention to God’s honor during worship. They should not be just entertained or kept distracted in church while worship is going on. They need to learn how to sing the hymns at a very young age. Encourage them to pay attention to the words and to listen to the sermon. Teach them to join in praying for the needs of the church, and to see themselves as a part of the family of God gathered together for this special purpose.
One idea is to have them try to draw something the pastor mentions or teaches. Use the drawings later to talk about the sermon topic. This will encourage them to broaden their attention span. Later they can graduate to writing down the main points of a sermon, or the ways it can apply to things they see or struggle with in their own lives.
We all need to be careful not to use God’s name in vain while in worship. We need to pay attention to everything said and sung.
The Commandment shows us how serious this matter is to our God.
It says, “the LORD will not hold him guiltless who takes His name in vain”
Did you notice the effects this has upon our children when this principle is mentioned in Exodus 34? When God explained his name to Moses, he said he is “by no means clearing the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children and the children’s children to the third and the fourth generation.”
What the little ones hear around home and from adults will shape their own way of speaking. This is why it says this sin stays with offending families from generation to generation.
To please the God who made us, and who loves us in Christ, we should never take up his name in an empty, vain, or meaningless way. we should never degrade holy things or speak lightly of what God uses to display his truth and glory. The names of God represent what he makes known to us about himself. So to disgrace his name is to disgrace him.
On the positive side, we ought to honor God’s name.
Psalm 19:14 teaches us to speak of God very carefully. It says, “let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in Thy sight, O LORD, my rock and my redeemer.” (KJV)
As a believer, you bear God’s name in all you say and do. You were baptized into the name of the Triune God: the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. It is your duty to bear God’s name well. We are called “Christians”, the “People of God”, “Christ’s Church”. What the world sees in you, should be evidence of the power and wonder of Christianity.
You bring dishonor to his name if you speak frivolously, using God’s name in a vain way, or if you contradict what God’s name stands for by your attitudes, words, and actions. Along with offending God, you bring spiritual and moral disaster to yourself and to those you say you love.
It is sad if those who have the power of the living Christ in their lives, live as if he was not there. They are convinced by those around them that to appear to be assertive, confident, and grown-up they should use crude language. By trading in their moral convictions to get the world’s acceptance they show themselves to be weak and very immature. To use words about God, or about his works and glory in an empty way, is a criminal act against our Creator and Redeemer.
We are put here in this world, and given life, resources, and health to represent God as his ambassadors. When we live honorably, reflecting the words and work of Christ, our humble gratitude toward our God and Savior honors his name.
We are the light of the world. We need to make sure that our conversation does not dim that light. In Matthew 5:16 Jesus said, “Let you light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven.” (KJV)
In Matthew 6:9, in the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus taught you to pray, “hallowed be thy name.” “To hallow” means to set something aside as special, to mark it out as holy. Pray that God’s name is not taken up in vain: neither in profanity, nor in the careless use of it. Pray that God’s people will display the honor of his name by using it respectfully and often. Pray that the glory of all that his name represents will be proclaimed faithfully by you and others to your neighbors, friends and daily contacts.
When you appreciate all that God’s name includes,
it stirs you to love and to honor him more.
Right after God proclaimed his name to Moses In Exodus 34:6-7, the next verse describes how Moses responded. It says in Exodus 34:8, “So Moses made haste and bowed his head toward the earth, and worshiped.”
The 23rd Psalm says that God leads us in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake. This is why he gives us life and calls us to love him. Our obedience honors his name because we represent him to the world.
When you live obediently, God is served well, you promote his glory, and you grow spiritually. God promises great benefit for using his name honorably. You will reap the great blessings that God attaches to spiritual obedience.
It is an awesome privilege to be able to take up God’s name in ways that honor him. When you do, his grace is at work in you. You grow in Christ, and enjoy his blessings. Use God’s name as often as you can, but use it with meaning and respect. Be a beacon of light in this dark world.
(The Bible quotations in this lesson are from the New King James Version of the Bible unless otherwise noted.)