“You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain.”
This command is universally understood to mean that God’s name is not to be used as a curse-word, or as a mere exclamation. And who would deny that? To use the very name of God to express irritation or surprise, to add verbal oomph to a promise, or to simply use His name as a joke would surely violate this command.
How do we know that? Is there anywhere in the rest of the Law of Moses that explains and applies the Third Commandment? Not explicitly, anyway. Apparently, this command supplies a principle, to which believers were, and are, supposed to supply applications. We somehow feel that the most popular applications of this command are correct, though we don’t have many cross-references to back them up.
What is the principle? Since one’s name represents one’s person and character, the name of God represents more than simply the verbal pronouncement or written letters of God’s names or titles. The name of God represents God’s person. To take His name in vain, is to take His person, character and reputation in vain. “To take in vain” is to treat as light, empty, or worthless. It is to misuse something in a fashion that trivializes its dignity, devalues its import, or profanes its uniqueness. The timeless principle of the Third Commandment seems to be: do not treat God in any way that trivializes, devalues, or profanes Him. Positively: fear God, and give Him the glory due His name (Ps 29:2).
One can easily see how using God’s actual name as a swear-word would profane God. But are there not other lawful applications of this command? What about treating His Supper as common? What about treating His Day like any other day? What about making light of God’s Word in a sermon? What of Sunday School songs that make God into something comical or amusing? What about methods of evangelism that ‘theme’ the gospel after some form of entertainment or leisure? What about worshipping God with forms used for revelry, narcissism and entertainment? Are there forms of speech, song, poetry, prayer, dress that would portray God as lightweight, inconsequential or unimportant? Could a certain kind of behaviour drag God’s reputation through the mud, particularly by those who name Him?
We’re probably only getting started with possible applications. The point is, the Third Commandment, like most of them, gives a command which is timeless, and therefore generalized. “Treat God’s Person With Respect”, might be a paraphrase. This broad principle then needs to be worked into differing ages, cultures, and situations. God gives us the etiquette – treat Me with reverence – and expects us to apply it.
And there’s the rub. We can take God’s relative silence about how to flesh out the Third Commandment two ways. We can assume that the only moral aspect of the Commandment is the timeless principle, while the applications, because they may differ from culture to culture, are amoral. What becomes moral, in this way of thinking, is the desire, or the sincerity with which a person wishes to reverence God. The actual forms, habits, speech, dress and musical forms contain no meaning except insofar as they give a moral agent an opportunity to express his sincere desire to revere God.
The other approach is to see morality extending from the timeless commandment through to the applications, even when these applications are not spelt out by Scripture. The applications are moral insofar as they carry meanings. These meanings can communicate, in a given culture, reverence for God or its opposite. This meaning comes about in several ways, but since it is present in every culture, what is needed to keep the Third Commandment is more than sincerity, but discernment. Every moral agent needs to grow in knowledge, to judge the meaning, in his culture, of his acts, habits, gestures and responses to God. I’d like to defend this second approach in the next posts.