“You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not acquit anyone who misuses his name.” (Exodus 20:7)
The third commandment posses an interesting puzzle. At face value it seems simple, almost too simple to contain within the Ten Commandments. Often, it is described as prohibiting cussing or using the name of God as a common phrase (such as “o my god”). Sometimes it is used to illustrate how one must tell the truth when taking oaths, or reminding individuals not to swear on God’s name. Yet surely, the third command is deeper than prohibiting cussing? Is cussing so egregious that it’s prohibition should be included in the Ten Words?
The Ten Commandments are predicated on who God is; “I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.” There is a basis for these commands; Israel has been freed from slavery, and they have been freed because of the power of the LORD God. Israel owes the LORD their freedom. The first two commands build upon this foundation. Have no other gods before me, and make no graven images. The LORD God is supreme, and must remain supreme in the life of the people. Nothing else, no created thing, could in any way compare to the LORD our God. God is above all.
God’s actions at Sinai even build upon what God has already done. The plagues on Egypt and the parting of the Red Sea were powerful displays of God’s glory and might. What other god could bring Egypt to it’s knees, and then part the waters of the Red Sea creating dry ground in the middle? Surely, there is no God like the LORD our God? The LORD God states this truth in the lead up to the seventh plague on Egypt, the plague of hail. The LORD, through Moses, tells Pharaoh the plagues are coming upon him and his people so that they will know that none compares to the LORD God. God could have reached out a hand and ended Egypt in a moment, God says, but chose to act in this way “to show you my power so that my name may be proclaimed in all the Earth.” (Exodus 9:16) The plagues were sent against Egypt so that God’s name would be glorified on the Earth. The actions were done to exalt the name of the LORD God and keep God’s name as holy.
This truth provides insight into understanding the third commandment. The third commandment is not simply avoiding cussing or keeping oaths; it’s about honoring the name of the God among the nations. The command is to keep God’s name as holy. Israel is thus not just being commanded to avoid cussing. Israel is being called to make sure in any actions they undertake, they are undertaking these actions in such a way that the name of the LORD God is glorified among the nations. Through the exodus moment, God’s reputation has been connected to Israel. If Israel acts in an ungodly way, it will harm the name of God among the nations. Thus the importance of living in such a way that the name of God is kept holy.
Christians today have the same requirement. What the world knows of God is in many ways tied to what the world knows of Christians. If Christians act in ways that are loving and compassionate, God’s name/reputation will be raised up among the nations (non-Christians or unbelievers). In the same way, if Christians act in ways that are hateful and judgmental, God’s name/reputation will be lowered among the nations. Christians must strive to keep God’s name as holy among the nations.
An important question to ask is what does it mean to act in such a way that the name of the LORD our God is glorified among the nations? Or perhaps framing the question differently, when others, especially non-Christians, view the way I live, the decisions I make, the ways I choose to engage or not engage others, or the causes I’m for (and the causes I am against), what impact does that have on the way they view God or Christianity? This type of life involves much more than truth and being right. It’s about attitude. It’s why do I respond the way I do? It’s remembering the words of Jesus, “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.” (Matthew 9:13, 12:7) It’s about not just proclaiming to follow God, but living that life everyday. It’s sharing truth, but in a way that is kind, not vindictive. It’s actively serving the community, welcoming the strangers, and binding up the brokenhearted.
Keeping God’s name as holy is so much more than just the words we say, it’s the way we live. Are we living in a way that the name of the LORD our God is glorified among the nations in a way that the nations want to be disciples of Jesus? If so, then we are keeping the command.