The God Who Requires Reverence

Exodus 20:7

The Reverend Bryn MacPhail / October 3, 2004


            Names are important to us. This is evidenced every time you witness a married couple attempting to come up with a suitable name for their soon to be born child. Most every couple buys one of those books that has thousands of names, and the meaning of those names, listed in alphabetical order.


            If you have gone through this process, inevitably, you came across a name that you liked only to have your spouse say, ‘We can’t give her that name; that was the name of my aunt—you know, the one that nobody liked, the one that was grumpy all the time.’ Or, your spouse finds a name, and you say, ‘We can’t call him that. That was the name of that strange man who used to live down the street.’ Eventually, you go through every name in the book—‘Zowie’ was your last hope, and now you have to start again at the beginning of the book.


            When you go through the name book, of course, you are not simply thinking about how the name sounds, or looks, but you also consider the meaning of the name. And, if the meaning of the name is impressive, it makes us more inclined to consider that name. Those of you named ‘Margaret’ probably know that your name is derived from a Greek word meaning ‘pearl’. If any of you know a ‘Pamela’, the name means ‘all sweetness’. One of my favourite names, in terms of what it means, is the name ‘Matthew’, which means ‘gift of God’.


            I don’t think my mother and father were able to get their hands on one of those name books. The name ‘Bryn’ is a Welsh name, meaning ‘little mound’. Not very impressive, is it? If my parents had done their homework, they could have at least lengthened my name to ‘Brynmor’, which means ‘great hill’.


            There is an interesting story told about a lawyer, named ‘Odd’. As you can well imagine, Odd took quite a bit of ribbing from his colleagues, and even from some of his clients. They would call him up and say things like, ‘Hello Odd-ball, how are you?’ Odd grew tired of this bantering and so when he wrote up his last will and testament, he gave specific instructions to leave his name off of his tombstone. He had enough trouble with his name in life, and didn’t want to have to deal with it in death. So, instead, he had inscribed on his tombstone the words: ‘Here lies an honest lawyer’. Subsequent to his death, people would walk through the cemetery, read the inscription, and exclaim, ‘Well, isn’t that odd!’


            Names are important to us. Names, and their meanings, have been important to us in every age. And, as we turn our attention to the Scriptures this morning, what we find is that God’s name is of paramount importance.


            If the first commandment deals with aligning ourselves with the correct God, and if the second commandment deals with how we think about this God, the third commandment deals with how we speak about this God.


            It is not difficult to see the relation between the second and the third commandment. If our thoughts about God are not appropriate or accurate, it is likely that our inappropriate and inaccurate thoughts about God will spill over into inappropriate and inaccurate words spoken about God. The third commandment serves as a stern warning in this regard:


You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain, for the Lord will not leave him unpunished who takes His name in vain (Ex. 20:7).


            Before we look at the ways in which we misuse the name of God, we must first return to that point in Scripture where we learn the name of God.


            After appearing to Moses in the burning bush, and commissioning him to bring the sons of Israel out of Egypt, Moses asks “Suppose I go to the Israelites and say to them, 'The God of your fathers has sent me to you,' and they ask me, 'What is his name?' Then what shall I tell them?” (Ex. 3:13).


            And God said to Moses, “I AM WHO I AM . . . Thus you shall say to the sons of Israel, ‘I AM has sent me to you’ (Ex. 3:14).


Is there anyone here who knows exactly what that means? “I AM WHO I AM.” It is a bewildering statement to be sure, and that is because God’s name points to His immensity.


            The Hebrew consonants rendered in English read Y-H-W-H. There is some uncertainty as to how to even pronounce this, but most have settled on ‘Yahweh’. ‘Yahweh’ is derived from the verb ‘Hayah’, which means, ‘to be’. In other words, ‘Tell the sons of Israel, I WILL BE WHO I WILL BE.’


            Do you see how the name of God makes a statement about the nature of God? The name of God implies self-existence. The name of God implies omnipotence. The name of God implies immutability. The name of God implies total autonomy and absolute sovereignty.


            Remember, the sin of the second commandment is any attempt to contain or confine God. We are not surprised then, to find that the name God determines to be known by is a name that articulates His total freedom and His absolute power: ‘I AM WHO I AM’; ‘I WILL BE WHO I WILL BE.’


            And what we find in the Scriptures, time and time again, is that the name of God is supremely precious to God. In Exodus 9:16, we learn that God intends to have His name proclaimed “through all the earth.” In Malachi 1:11, the Lord promises, “My name will be great among the nations, from the rising to the setting of the sun.” Through the prophet Isaiah, the Lord declares: “I am the LORD ; that is my name! I will not give my glory to another or my praise to idols” (Isa. 42:8).


            It follows that, if God’s name is precious to God, then God’s name should also be precious to us. This is why we have the third commandment. How we speak about God, and how we use His name is no insignificant matter. And lest we miss the importance of this commandment, an addendum is provided: “the Lord will not leave him unpunished who takes His name in vain.


            What are the ways human beings take the Lord’s name in vain? The misusing of God’s name occurs in a myriad of ways, but most abuses of God’s name tend to fall into two broad categories: profanity and hypocrisy.


I don’t want to presume to know how you will fair as you evaluate your own success in keeping the third commandment, but if you allow Scripture to closely inspect your behaviour I suspect that your self-evaluation will yield worse results than you first expected. This is because we tend to think of taking the Lord’s name in vain exclusively in terms of using harsh language, or swearing.


Maybe you have been on the golf course with someone who is consistently missing his five-foot putts and who repeatedly responds to these missed putts by shouting the name ‘Jesus Christ’. If I am golfing with this person, and the person is familiar to me, I often use that opportunity to explain the silliness of blaming Jesus for their dreadful putting. What often follows is a look of total confusion. Many people who curse and yell using the name of Jesus are totally unaware of what they have said.


Unfortunately, for a great many people, careless use of God’s name has become second nature. And, for these same people, they can sit through an entire movie without even noticing that the Lord’s name has been taken in vain with astonishing regularity.


But this target is too easy. It is too easy to look at the guy who yells the name of Jesus when he accidentally slams the car door on his finger, and say, ‘Look at that guy—has he no regard for the third commandment?’ Unfortunately for us, profanity involves much more than just swearing.


In seminary, my Old Testament professor explained that the sin of profanity was to treat that which is holy as ordinary. Profanity is to treat that which is holy as ordinary. If we begin to think of profanity in these terms, it is not hard to see our own shortcomings in keeping the third commandment.


It saddens me to say that it has become shamefully common for professing Christians to be careless in their treatment of God’s name. One of the most common phrases we hear is the exclamation, ‘Oh my God!’ Ninety-nine percent of the time, that phrase is uttered without any real thought for the God of this Universe. When we speak like this, we treat that which is holy as ordinary. When we do that, we commit the sin of profanity, breaking the third commandment.


Professing Christians should also guard against flippancy when using God’s name. Referring to God as ‘the man upstairs’ is one way to treat God’s name with flippancy. Another way is to speak God’s name in a manner that is superficial or insincere (Begg, Pathway To Freedom, 94). That is to talk about God with a detached heart.


Martin Luther, that great reformer, wrote that he could face his enemies without fear, but he could not ascend the pulpit without his knees knocking together. This is because Luther understood, what we must understand: Speaking about God is serious business, and to do this lightly, or carelessly, is to expose ourselves to the punishment referenced in Exodus 20, verse 7.


We must not even imagine that we are safe in this context from breaking the third commandment. As we sing our hymns each Sunday, we use magnificent words to extol God for His attributes. And yet, it is often the case that while we sing those magnificent words with our mouth, our mind is elsewhere. Every Sunday we pray the words, ‘Hallowed be Thy name’, but is that something that we consciously strive for?


Up to this point, everything that has been said about the third commandment has had to do with speaking the name of God. And yet, the biblical witness indicates that one of the common ways we break the third commandment is through hypocrisy. The testimony of Scripture declares that there is a relationship between how we behave, as covenant people, and the status of God’s name in the world.


In the Old Testament, the driving force behind everything God did was a passion for His own name. And, as the people of God recognized this, it affected how they prayed. King David prayed, “For the sake of your name, O Lord, forgive my iniquity” (Ps. 25:11). Jeremiah prayed, “Although our sins testify against us, O Lord, do something for the sake of your name” (Jer. 14:7).


The people realized that as their disobedience incurred God’s chastisement, the neighbouring nations would begin to mock, not only Israel, but also the God of Israel. Conversely, the Israelites also understood that their faithfulness and success was often used by Yahweh to establish His name among the nations.


This is not difficult to understand. Surely, it has been our own experience that godly living attracts people to Christ, while hypocrisy repels people and tarnishes the name of Christ.


How then shall we live? How well we obey the third commandment, depends on how careful we are to heed the rest of God’s laws. The author of Psalm 119 demonstrates his understanding of this principle when he writes, “I remember your name, O Lord, and I will keep your law” (119:55). The honour of God’s name on earth is inextricably tied to the relative holiness of His people.


Parents understand this principle. We want our children to be well behaved, smart, and successful, in part, for their own sake. But if we are honest, we will also admit that we want these things for our children for our sake, and for the sake of our family name. This is because we understand that how our child gets on in this world reflects back on our family name, bringing to our name either honour or shame.


Beloved, what a privilege it is to be counted as God’s children. What a privilege it is to be marked by the name of Christ. In light of this privilege, we must be careful how we speak and how we live. We must be careful because God’s name is supremely precious to God. And may God’s name be equally precious to us. Amen.