What’s in a Name?
One of the first duties of parents is to name their children. This can be a difficult task. The parents make lists. They read baby name books and field suggestions from family members. They try various combinations and say them out loud to see how they sound. They consider all the possible nicknames, and then they check to see what the initials spell. Even after all this, they may still end up at the hospital not having reached agreement about what to call the child!
The one thing that is certain in all of this is that the parents will do the naming. Human beings do not name themselves. Our full names are given, not chosen, which shows that naming is an act of authority. I remember holding each of my newborn children in my arms, calling them by name, and telling them that I was their daddy. Naming a child is the first way that parents exercise their God-given authority.
By contrast, one of the remarkable things about God is that no one ever named him. Admittedly, from time to time people have come up with various false names for God. But God’s true name is chosen and revealed by God himself. We do not tell God who he is; he tells us. God has his own naming rights, and this is a sign of his sovereign authority. God’s name comes before all other names.
Much More Than a Name
In Exodus 3, God calls attention to his special covenant name Yahweh, or Lord. This was a name God revealed long before the Israelites even reached Mount Sinai. Back at the burning bush Moses asked for God’s name, and because of his great love for his people, God gave it to him:
God said to Moses, “I am who i am.” And he said, “Say this to the people of Israel, ‘I am has sent me to you.’” God also said to Moses, “Say this to the people of Israel, ‘The Lord, the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you.’ This is my name forever, and thus I am to be remembered throughout all generations.” (Exodus 3:14, 15)
The name that God revealed was his personal name Yahweh, sometimes called thetetragrammaton because in Hebrew it consists of four letters: YHWH. Literally God’s name means “I am who I am” or “I will be who I will be.” It speaks of God’s self-existence, self-sufficiency, and supreme sovereignty. As the events of the exodus unfolded, it also testified to his saving power. The Israelites learned from their deliverance that the God who revealed his name to Moses is a God who saves.
As we start unpacking the meaning of God’s name, it quickly becomes obvious thatYahweh, or “Lord,” is much more than a name. It is God’s identity. This was the whole Hebrew understanding of names. For us a name is a label; it is something we have, not something we are. But for the Hebrews the name was inseparable from the person. It expressed a person’s inward identity. When we use the name of God, therefore, we are referring to the essence of his divine being.
Misusing God’s Name
Like the rest of God’s moral law, the third commandment is both negative and positive. In its negative form it forbids the misuse of God’s name. To quote the old King James Version, “Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain.” Or to give a more literal translation, “You shall not lift up the name of the Lord your God for nothingness.”
What does it mean to “lift up” God’s name? This term had a fairly technical meaning. It was used in legal situations to refer to the taking of an oath. When witnesses needed to confirm their testimony, instead of swearing on a Bible, they lifted a hand and swore by God’s name. However, the term was also used more broadly for other situations when people took God’s name on their lips. His name was “lifted up” in worship and whenever else people talked about him.
God’s people were not forbidden to use God’s name. Many orthodox Jews take this commandment more strictly than God intended, refusing to use God’s special divine name at all, for fear of misusing it. But God wants us to use his name! This is proven by the Old Testament, where God’s sacred divine name is used all over the place—almost 7,000 occurrences in all. God gave us his name so that we would be able to address him personally. Calling him by name strengthens our love relationship with him.
What God forbids is not the use of his name, then, but its misuse. To be specific, we are not to use it in a vain or empty way. The specific misuse that God has in mind is speaking about him carelessly, thoughtlessly, or even flippantly, as if he didn’t matter or really didn’t exist at all. God’s name has deep spiritual significance. So to treat it like something worthless is profanity in the truest sense of the word: It is to treat something holy and sacred as common and secular.
A Very Great Sin
To dishonor God’s name in any way is to denigrate his holiness. It is a way of saying that God himself is worthless. Anyone who breaks the third commandment will be held accountable: “The Lord will not hold him guiltless who takes his name in vain” (20:7b). The precise punishment is left unspecified. In fact, the threat seems almost understated: The lawbreaker simply is said not to be without guilt. However, this expression is what grammarians call a meiosis, in which less is said, but much more is intended. For example, when people in authority say, “I wouldn’t do that if I were you,” they are not simply offering a casual opinion but are issuing a stern warning. So when God says that he will not hold us guiltless, what he means is that he will condemn us. We will not be innocent but guilty—reckoned unrighteous by Almighty God.
The reason God will condemn us is because misusing his name is a very great sin. It is a direct attack on his honor and glory, and anyone who makes such an attack deserves to be condemned. When people break the third or any other commandment, they are guilty before God, and ultimately they will be judged for their sins.
There are many examples in the Bible. Perhaps the most shocking occurs in Leviticus 24. A dispute broke out between two Israelites, one of whom was part Egyptian. As they fought, the man of mixed descent blurted out a curse against God. The Scripture says that he “blasphemed the Name, and cursed” (Leviticus 24:11a). The bystanders were appalled at what the man said; so they seized him and brought him to stand trial before Moses. The Lord did not hold the man guiltless but said, “Bring out of the camp the one who cursed, and let all who heard him lay their hands on his head, and let all the congregation stone him. And speak to the people of Israel, saying, Whoever curses his God shall bear his sin. Whoever blasphemes the name of the Lord shall surely be put to death” (Leviticus 24:13–16a).
When God says that anyone who misuses his name will be held responsible, we should take him at his word!
Philip Graham Ryken is the president of Wheaton College in Wheaton, Illinois. He is a contributor to the ESV Men’s Devotional Bible and the author of numerous books, including Exodus: Saved for God's Glory.