The Third Commandment
From Profanity to Praise
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The Third Commandment: From Profanity to Praise
"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).
The Third Commandment focuses on showing respect. It addresses the way we communicate our feelings about God to others and to Him. It encompasses our attitudes, speech and behavior.
Respect is the cornerstone of good relationships. The quality of our relationship with God depends on the love and regard we have for Him. It also depends on the way we express respect for Him in the presence of others. We are expected always to honor who and what He is.
God wants us to love and respect Him. Honoring Him begins in our thoughts.
Conversely, the use of God’s name in a flippant, degrading or in any way disrespectful manner expresses an attitude of disdaining the relationship we are supposed to have with Him. This can vary from careless disregard to hostility and antagonism. It covers misusing God’s name in any way.
The New Revised Standard Version translates the Third Commandment: “You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not acquit anyone who misuses his name.” The meaning of the Hebrew word saw, translated “wrongful use” and “misuse”—“in vain” in other translations—is “deceit; deception; malice; falsity; vanity; emptiness” (Vine’s Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words, “Deceit”). God demands that we represent Him accurately, sincerely and respectfully as a condition for having a close relationship with Him.
Respecting God and His name
Let’s consider a few of the ways we should be associated with God’s name. God created us in His image with an opportunity to become His children. Those who receive the Spirit of God are members of the Church of God. The laws of God define for us right standards and values, and our hope lies in being a part of the Kingdom of God. Everything important to us is a gift of God, “for in Him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28).
Notice how forcefully the book of Psalms expresses respect toward God. “Bless the Lord, O my soul! O Lord my God, You are very great: You are clothed with honor and majesty” (Psalm 104:1). “Let all the earth fear the Lord; let all the inhabitants of the world stand in awe of Him” (Psalm 33:8).
King David wrote: “I will extol You, my God, O King; and I will bless Your name forever and ever. Every day I will bless You, and I will praise Your name forever and ever. Great is the Lord, and greatly to be praised; and His greatness is unsearchable” (Psalm 145:1-3).
Profanity and slang
Probably the most obvious way of breaking the Third Commandment is through the use of profanity—using God’s name in abusive, vulgar and irreverent slang and jargon. The defiling of the name of God—or that of His Son, Jesus Christ—is nearly universal. Since the dawn of history, most of mankind has failed to show the respect to God that He deserves.
One should never even exclaim “O my God!” unless it is part of an actual prayer to God. Such misuse of God’s name violates the Third Commandment. Yet society is inundated with it. The same goes for euphemistic expressions many consider innocent, such as “O my gosh!” and “Geez”— substituting similar-sounding words for God and Jesus.
Profanity is not the only way we can abuse God’s name. Anyone who carelessly uses the name of God—or Christ—in his everyday speech simply doesn’t know God as he should. Yet, strangely, he may think and insist that he does.
In some ways such a person is similar to Job, who explained his perspective of God—both before and after God pointed out to him how pride was motivating much of his thinking. “I have heard of You by the hearing of the ear,” confessed Job, “but now my eye sees You” (Job 42:5). Job finally realized that he had not known God as well as he had thought.
Many who have heard much about God carelessly assume they know Him—that they have an acceptable relationship with Him. Yet they have never learned really to respect Him.
They demean and degrade Him by flippantly using His name in everyday conversation. They unwittingly announce to all who hear them that respect for God is simply not important to them, even though they may believe He exists. Even saying something like “Thank God!” can break the commandment if God is not being truly and consciously thanked.
No matter how indifferently one may regard this kind of disrespect for God, the Third Commandment makes it clear that God Himself does not take it lightly—“for the Lord will not hold him guiltless who takes His name in vain.” Misusing His name in any way spiritually defiles us in the eyes of God.
Most of us have at times expressed disrespect for God. Like Job, we probably have had to—or still need to—reevaluate our own attitudes toward our Creator. Once Job grasped his irreverent attitude, He saw himself in a realistic light. “Therefore I abhor myself, and repent in dust and ashes” (Job 42:6). In the same way, we need to repent of attitudes that would lead to irreverence. We need to guard our speech and treat God’s name with respect.
Jesus Christ fully reveals God to us
God so desired that we understand what He is like— especially His nature, or character—that He sent Jesus Christ as the perfect example of all that He is.
“He who has seen Me has seen the Father,” said Jesus (John 14:9). He came as “the brightness of His glory and the express image of His person” (Hebrews 1:3). By revealing to us—through His own example—what His Heavenly Father is like and what He expects of us, Jesus Christ has opened to us the way to eternal life (John 17:1-3).
“Therefore God also has highly exalted Him and given Him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of those in heaven, and of those on earth, and of those under the earth, and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Philippians 2:9-11).
Notice how completely Jesus reflects the glory of God: “For it pleased the Father that in Him all the fullness should dwell, and by Him to reconcile all things to Himself, by Him, whether things on earth or things in heaven, having made peace through the blood of His cross” (Colossians 1:19-20).
The importance of Christ’s name
The name Jesus, significantly, means “God is salvation” or “God saves.” Christ means “anointed [one]”—the same as the Hebrew word transliterated into English as Messiah—a title of the One prophesied to restore Israel and rule over all nations. As the Son of God, Jesus Christ is both our Savior and King. Only through Him can we receive salvation. “Nor is there salvation in any other, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12).
The name of Jesus Christ is crucial to our salvation, but simply repeatedly saying His name without understanding its significance and allowing it to influence our lives is meaningless. Paul explained to Timothy, “Nevertheless the solid foundation of God stands, having this seal: ‘The Lord knows those who are His,’ and, ‘Let everyone who names the name of Christ depart from iniquity’” (2 Timothy 2:19).
Those who repent of their sins and are baptized in the name of Christ receive the Holy Spirit and become Christians; they become Christlike (Acts 2:38). “And,” Paul tells them, “whatever you do in word or deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through Him” (Colossians 3:17).
In other words, whatever Christians do is to be done according to the approval, authority or authorization of Jesus Christ—in His name. Using His name, however, in any manner that would bring reproach, disrespect or shame on that name is a sin and violates the Third Commandment.
Honoring God by our example
Because those who follow Jesus Christ are known by His name, and perform their service to God in His name, their behavior always either honors or dishonors Him. God’s Word portrays those who obey His commandments as the “salt of the earth” and the “light of the world” (Matthew 5:13-14; (Matthew 5:18). They represent Him and what He stands for before all of humanity. They carry His name as “His own special people, zealous for good works” (Titus 2:14). They are called and chosen to honor His name by their faithful example (Revelation 17:14).
Moses explained this point to the people of ancient Israel: “Surely I have taught you statutes and judgments, just as the Lord my God commanded me, that you should act according to them in the land which you go to possess. Therefore be careful to observe them; for this is your wisdom and your understanding in the sight of the peoples who will hear all these statutes, and say, ‘Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people.’ For what great nation is there that has God so near to it, as the Lord our God is to us, for whatever reason we may call upon Him?” (Deuteronomy 4:5-7). Moses wanted their conduct to so honor God that all nations would gain respect for Him.
Examples that dishonor God
Ancient Israel, however, failed in honoring God. Through sin they profaned God’s name among the nations. The Israelites finally brought so much shame on God’s name that He allowed their enemies to remove them from their land as prisoners.
But He promised to later bring back their descendants and restore them as a nation for the purpose of reclaiming the honor to His name. He says, “I had concern for my holy name, which the house of Israel profaned among the nations where they had gone. Therefore say to the house of Israel, ‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says: It is not for your sake, O house of Israel, that I am going to do these things, but for the sake of my holy name, which you have profaned among the nations where you have gone. I will show the holiness of my great name, which has been profaned among the nations, the name you have profaned among them. Then the nations will know that I am the Lord, declares the Sovereign Lord, when I show myself holy through you before their eyes’” (Ezekiel 36:21-23, NIV).
How will this happen? God will once again give the descendants of Jacob (Israel) the responsibility of bringing honor to His name. “Now it shall come to pass in the latter days that the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established on the top of the mountains [in Jerusalem], and shall be exalted above the hills; and all nations shall flow to it.
“Many people shall come and say, ‘Come, and let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob; He will teach us His ways, and we shall walk in His paths.’ For out of Zion shall go forth the law, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem. He shall judge between the nations, and rebuke many people; they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore” (Isaiah 2:2-4).
At that time the earth’s inhabitants, seeing the blessings of obedience, will understand the reality of the true God and honor His name.
Blaspheming God by our conduct
The apostle Paul explains that people who hypocritically call themselves by God’s name and portray themselves as His people—while refusing to obey Him—actually blaspheme His name. Speaking to some of his countrymen, he says: “You, therefore, who teach another, do you not teach yourself? You who preach that a man should not steal, do you steal? You who say, ‘Do not commit adultery,’ do you commit adultery? You who abhor idols, do you rob temples? You who make your boast in the law, do you dishonor God through breaking the law? For ‘the name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you’” (Romans 2:21-24).
Paul explains that even some who regard themselves as Christians can disgrace God’s name by their conduct: “Let as many bondservants as are under the yoke count their own masters worthy of all honor, so that the name of God and His doctrine may not be blasphemed” (1 Timothy 6:1).
Our conduct should be above reproach. Paul explains that Christians are “ambassadors for Christ” (2 Corinthians 5:20), His personal, designated representatives. Discourteous or disrespectful conduct by those who represent themselves as God’s servants dishonors Him in the eyes of others. It reproaches the name of God, which they claim to bear.
Jesus condemns religious duplicity
Promoting obedience to God while finding ways to skirt obedience oneself is outright hypocrisy. Jesus Christ assailed those who would practice religious duplicity. “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs which indeed appear beautiful outwardly, but inside are full of dead men’s bones and all uncleanness. Even so you also outwardly appear righteous to men, but inside you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness” (Matthew 23:27-28).
People are usually quite comfortable with giving accolades to God—as long as they can pursue their own point of view and way of life. But God’s complaint throughout history has been that most people do not have their hearts in honoring Him.
Jesus said: “Hypocrites! Well did Isaiah prophesy about you, saying: ‘These people draw near to Me with their mouth, and honor Me with their lips, but their heart is far from Me. And in vain they worship Me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men’” (Matthew 15:7-9).
He further pointedly asked, “But why do you call Me ‘Lord, Lord,’ and do not do the things which I say?” (Luke 6:46).
How we should honor God
God desires far more than lip service. He wants a relationship with us that stems from the heart. Jesus tells us: “A good man out of the good treasure of his heart brings forth good; and an evil man out of the evil treasure of his heart brings forth evil. For out of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaks” (Luke 6:45).
In the end, it is not enough to just avoid misusing God’s name. He wants us to love and respect Him. Honoring Him begins in our thoughts. We must know who and what He is. We must know what He requires of us and why. We should admire His wisdom, love, fairness and justice. We need to stand in awe of His power and recognize that our existence depends on His goodness.
Then we should talk to Him in prayer—every day. We should follow the admonitions in the Psalms to give Him thanks and praise Him, openly expressing our appreciation for all that He gives us. We should acknowledge His greatness. We should ask Him to create in us His way of thinking and character. We should request the power of His Spirit to enable us to wholeheartedly obey and serve Him.
We honor God most of all by loving Him so much that we desire above all things to be like Him and to accurately represent Him to everyone who sees or knows us. If that is our mind-set, even the mere thought of ever misrepresenting or disgracing His name will repulse us. Our strongest resolve will be to never knowingly take any of God’s names in vain!