Taking the Lord’s Name in Vain

I have often wondered how Jesus’ name is on the lips of everyone, from saints to sinners, from the faithful to atheists. Even from the same person the blessed name of Jesus comes out at times in praise and blessing, and at other times in anger and a curse. How does one explain the power this name has over the human race?

It is well known that in the ancient times names were considered inseparable from one’s identity, a very part of a person as much as a hand or a leg. In fact, sometimes persons have more than one name, one of which they keep secret, for fear that their enemy might find it out and bring a curse upon that person through magic. This is hard for us to imagine today because, for many of us, names are mere proper nouns, random verbal sounds chosen for auditory effect. In other words, we tend to choose names for how they sound, with little thought that they might have any connection at all with our child’s actual character or person-hood.

The only way to explain the third commandment of not taking God’s name “in vain,” is to understand names in their ancient context. The name “YHWH” (pronounced Yahweh) can be understood to be something like God’s secret name that He revealed to His people in the intimacy of covenant. By giving Israel this personal name, He was giving something of His very self to them. God was making Himself vulnerable, for by revealing the name, He was placing it in the power of His people. They could choose to keep it most holy, using it only in worship and praise, or they could profane it by using it in false testimony or in curses or for magical purposes. The prophets were forever accusing Israel for profaning the name that God revealed to them out of love.

We have seen that the first two commandments are highly relational ideas in ancient Israel. All of life is lived “before the face” of YHWH, and the making of idols so as to manipulate the gods by magic is contrary to the covenantal ideal of relationship. Likewise, the name of God, that special name YHWH, has everything to do with relationship. What a precious name is YHWH! For Christians, the Spirit convinces us that the YHWH, the “Lord” of the Old Testament, is Jesus in the New Testament (I Cor. 12:3). The very name of Jesus is in fact an extension of the Incarnate God! What power is in this name! One cannot remain neutral with it. We either love it and keep it holy, or we profane it. In fact, by “swearing” with the name Jesus or God, however casual it may be, we are actually involving ourselves in an occult act, for it is, however crude or thoughtless, invoking God’s name in a curse. What is “God Damn” if it is not a curse formula? A curse is only as strong as the name that is invoked. This is why humans intuitively use the name Jesus for good or ill; it is proof of His divinity! It is a very great sin to bring down curses by invoking the name of God.

If we are honest, we know how close our heart is at any given time, given the right provocation, to misuse the divine names. It comes up from the deep dark depths within. This commandment forces us to face this dark fact about our human hearts, and take stock of how deep and true our relationship is with the Lord. To guard the divine name is to guard our very hearts.

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