We move on to the Third Commandment today which continues to be concerned with idolatry. Here the specific concern is with bearing God’s name faithfully. Literally, the Third Word says: “You shall not lift up the name of Yahweh your God to vanity/worthlessness because Yahweh will not hold unpunished he who lifts His name to vanity” (Ex. 20:7). Frequently, we cite the Third Commandment when people swear or use God’s name frivolously, but that is merely a small expression of something much greater. For God to instruct His people to be careful with His name is to imply that His people bear His name.
Naming as Creation, Rule, and Love
The act of naming goes back to the act of creation in the beginning. When God created, He also named. And one of the signs of Adam’s calling to imitate God and grow up into His creativity and rule is found in Adam’s first task of naming the animals (Gen. 2:19). Then after God created the woman, it was Adam who named her woman (Gen. 2:23). Naming is bound up with creating and ruling. God is the original Creator and sovereign ruler, but man is created to join with Him in that creativity and rule. But naming is also an act uniting and relating, an act of love. To name is to distinguish: this is not that, but it is also to open the possibility of relating two different things. Adam names her woman in order to love her, to cleave to her, to be united to her.
Two Kinds of Cultures: Two Kinds of Naming
Throughout the pages of Scripture, naming is always full of this magic. It is creative and powerful speech. But two very different sorts of cultures emerge from two different kinds of naming: Cain built a city and named it after his son Enoch – and this was the beginning of a way of life founded on violence and tyranny. Seth on the other hand is named as the seed after Abel has been murdered, and at that time, people began to call on the name of the Lord. Noah was named for the rest that was hoped for after the ground was cursed, and then God intervened and confused the languages at Babel. Their plan was explicitly to make a name for themselves so that they would not be scattered abroad over the face of the whole earth (Gen. 11:4). And it’s not an accident that immediately following this story, Abram is called away from his home, and God promises to make him a name. “I will make you a great nation; I will bless you and make your name great…” (Gen. 12:2-3).
Bearing the Name
The early chapters of Exodus are therefore unsurprisingly all about names as well. The Hebrew name for the book of Exodus is “Names” from the first line of the book: “Now these are the names…” (Ex. 1:1). The Hebrew midwives are named, as is Moses, Moses’ mother, and his sister, while the tyrannical, blood thirsty pharaoh goes nameless. At the burning bush, Moses requests God’s name, and God says, “I Am Who I Am… Thus you shall say to the children of Israel, ‘I Am has sent me to you… Yahweh 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 this is My memorial to all generations” (Ex. 3:13-15). The Lord insists that it is His name Yahweh that will be known to Israel when He brings them out of Egypt and rescues them from their bondage, when they see His great judgments, when He acts to claim them as His people, then they will know that He is Yahweh their God (Ex. 6:3-7). When Yahweh destroys pharaoh, then His name will be declared in all the earth (Ex. 9:16). And at the Red Sea, the Israelites sing praises to the name of Yahweh (Ex. 15:3), and when they are delivered from the Amalekites, Moses builds an altar and names it “Yahweh is My Banner” (Ex. 17:15).
Conclusions & Applications
Thus, with God’s name upon them, Israel is called to exhibit God’s creativity, sovereignty and love while fleeing vanity and worthlessness. Through the rest of Scripture, this warning is particularly bound up with using God’s name as a banner for idolatry, for evil, a cover for sin and oppression. God’s people may not lie about who God is through their actions or words. God’s people are called to be a faithful testimony, a truthful witness to the world of the true and living God.