The Third Commandment

R. Kendall Soulen
Wesley Theological Seminary

This essay is from the book tentatively titled: Ten Commandments for Jews, Christians, and Others, edited by Rogern van Harn (Eerdmans, forthcoming)

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. (Exod 20:7)

Speaking About God

Most of the time, Christians and Jews talk to God and about God unselfconsciously, and this is as it should be. Without a measure of childlike confidence, one would scarcely dare to pray, praise, confess, teach, or comfort in God's name. If every time a person spoke in faith, she stopped to second guess herself, faith itself would soon whither. Yet from time to time Christians and Jews do become self-conscious as they speak to and about God. They become afraid that what they say is tinged with frailty, vacuity, or falseness. Then they may falter and fall silent. And this too is as it should be. For as experience shows, it is easy when speaking of God to cross the line that separates childlike confidence from foolish and culpable presumption.

According to both Christian and Jewish traditions, the mingling of the ordinary and the momentous that colors all religious language is especially concentrated in the Name of God. Indeed, it is God's Name that imbues the language of faith with both qualities. Because God has a name and makes it known, we can speak to God and about God in way that is not presumptuous but that is ordinary in the best sense of the word, as becoming to our lips as conversation with a beloved spouse or child or friend. Rightly understood, the very self-evidence with which Christians and Jews have called upon God down through the ages points to the undergirding mystery of biblically informed speech, the gift of God's name. For by this gift God has made it possible for his people to approach him personally, gain his attention, address him and communicate with him.

But the gift of God's name also imparts profound gravity to religious speech. It raises the stakes on "God talk" by an infinite degree. It makes it impossible for our religious language to be merely a free-floating flight of exploration and fancy, or a dispassionate analysis of doctrinal grammar or logic, or a colorful and heartfelt supplement to our rhetorical resources. What we say and how we say it goes to the heart of our relationship to God. And so the use and misuse of this language is always, ultimately, a matter of life and death.

Both the use and the abuse of God's name are the concern of the third commandment. The commandment warns against misusing the Name even as it presupposes its indispensability for the daily life of faith. To reflect on the Third Commandment, therefore, is to meditate on how the awesomeness of God's name is to be made visible in its every ordinary use.

The Third Commandment in Context

We get important clues about the meaning of the Third Commandment by considering its context within the Decalogue as a whole. The First Table of the Decalogue is all about preserving the integrity of the covenantal relationship that the LORD has established between himself and God's people, Israel, or, as the church reads the Decalogue, the enlarged people of God made real through Jesus Christ. In the first two commandments, the LORD prohibits Israel from violating the covenant in extra mural fashion, by forsaking the LORD for other gods or idols. The next two commandments, in contrast, are concerned with what we might call the intra mural integrity of the covenant. Here the looming danger is not relationship to false gods, but false relationship to YHWH, Israel's God. The fourth commandment guards against this danger by directing Israel to remember what God has done, singling out the Sabbath for its own sake and also to represent all God's other generous benefits. But the third commandment, the topic of this essay, guards the intra mural integrity of the covenant at an even more intimate and sensitive point. Its concern is the proper acknowledgement of who God is, a concern that the Scriptures naturally express by invoking God's name.

Literally rendered, the third commandment states, "You must not lift up the name of the LORD your God frivolously/falsely."1 The misuse that God appears to have directly in view is swearing an oath in God's name with the intent to deceive or in trivial circumstances. By nature, such oaths make God a party to foolishness at best or villainy at worst. What is worse, perhaps, they contradict and obscure the fact that God's testimony is supremely reliable and weighty. (If it were not, of course, then the act of invoking God as a witness would be vacuous, a fact that suggests that making a false oath is the epitome of all self-contradictory speech-acts, the irrational act par excellence.)

Significantly, however, God does not choose to use the words that elsewhere in Scripture refer most directly to swearing falsely (Lev 19:12). Instead, God uses the broader and more polyvalent term that is commonly translated "in vain." This suggests that God's concern in the third commandment is more than defective oaths. More broadly, we might say, the commandment warns Israel away from any word or deed that belies or belittles the integrity with which God speaks and acts in God's own name. False oaths certainly do that, of course, but so too do other forms of speech, such as, for example, false prophecy (cf. Jer 14:13-16; 23:16; Ezek 22:28). Or, in positive terms, we might formulate God's instruction this way: "Use my name in a way that corresponds to how I use it."

But how does God use God's name? Or, more to the point, we may wonder, how on earth can human beings use God's name in a way that corresponds to God's use? In fact, the Bible is rather clear on both points. According to a large if disparate choir of biblical witnesses, God uses God's name to two chief ends: to make it known, and, in so doing, to bless God's people. Human beings, in turn, reflect God's use of the name when they demonstrate by word and deed that they "know that the LORD is God" and "bless God's holy name" in return.

Seen in this light, the Third Commnandment offers a vista into the heart of the whole sweep of God's history with creation. To better appreciate this vista, we will explore three marks that characterize how God uses God's name to make it known and to bless, and some implications for how God's people are to use God's name.

God's Name Declares God's Uniqueness

A first way in which God uses God's name is to declare God's uniqueness. From the encounter at the burning bush, to God's majestic self-declarations in Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel, to the vision of a New Heaven and a New Earth vouchsafed to John, no other note associated with God's name sounds throughout the Scriptures more brilliantly and urgently than that of the sheer incomparable uniqueness of God. "I am the LORD: that is my name: and my glory will I not give to another, neither my praise to graven images" (Isa 42:8).

As the mark of God's uniqueness, God's name shows that God is both identifiable and uncircumscribable.2 When in the third commandment, God refers to "my name," He is not referring to an abstraction or an ineffable idea. God is referring to YHWH, the name God uses to identify himself at the opening of the Decalogue "I am YHWH your God." This, of course, is the same name that God made known to Moses at the burning bush (Exod 3:15), and "made great" by delivering Israel from Egypt. The most remarkable thing about the name YHWH is that it is a personal proper name more or less like any other, apart from the fact that it belongs to God. God uses the name to identify himself, and by making it known, God permits others to use it in the same way, to "call on His name."

Yet God's name also betokens God's uncircumscribability. As God's personal proper name, YHWH is in fact not like any other name. Unlike the names of the animals under Adam's dominion and most human names, God's name does not originate in human invention or whimsy. Uniquely among all personal proper names, it radiates the abysmal eternity of God. At the burning bush, God supplies the name YHWH with His own interpretive gloss, "I am who I am" (Exod 3:14), a perpetual warning against every attempt to define or delimit God's being.

Taking our cues from the preceding, we might formulate a first way of obeying the third commandment in the following way. Speak of who God is in a way that honors God's mystery, and honor God's mystery in a way that extols who God is. The opening of Psalm 113 illustrates this balance beautifully.

Praise the LORD! Praise, O servants of the LORD, praise the name of the LORD!
Blessed be the name of the LORD from this time forth and for evermore!
From the rising of the sun to its setting the name of the LORD is to be praised!
The LORD is high above all nations, and his glory above the heavens!
Who is like the LORD our God, who is seated on high,
who looks far down upon the heavens and the earth? (113:1-6)

The Psalmist celebrates who God is by invoking the Tetragrammaton with percusive insistence, while at the same time using vivid images to underscore the "infinite qualitative distinction" between this God and everything else (God must look "far down" just to see the heavens, creation's farthest edge!). Today, we do not always find the Psalmist's balance easy to strike. Some believe that God's mystery can be protected only by denying that God can be reliably identified at all! (The tiresome repetition of the saying "You can't put God in a box" often tends toward such a denial). Others, it seems, are so eager to invoke God by name that they fail to heed the warning it contains, "I am who I am." According to the Third Commandment, however, God's incomparable identity and God's uncircumscribable mystery must not be played off against each other. Apart from God's concrete whoness, God's mystery would be empty, blank and featureless, and thus no real mystery at all. But apart from God's uncircumscribability, God's identity would be a datum to be described and manipulated, a sterile fact, and thus not the identity of God.

The ancient Jewish practice of honoring the Tetragrammaton by not pronouncing it, still customary among Jews today, is wonderfully suited to teach the heart to recognize both the identity and mystery of God.3 Christians have sometimes caricatured the practice as a craven and sub-Christian superstition (Calvin). In fact, the practice is even more integral to the New Testament than it is to the Old. Everywhere in the New Testament we notice a heightened scrupulosity with respect to the Third Commandment, as in the pervasive use of pious circumlocutions in place of God's name, or in Jesus' own command to refrain from all oaths, not just false or frivolous one (cf. Matt 5:33-37). Even when noticed, the theological passion that informs this restraint is often misunderstood. Its root is not a general cultural sense of God's increased remoteness or quarrelsomeness, as is sometimes suggested. Its root, rather, is a passionate, end-time longing that God at long last overshadow our human talk about God with God's talk about God. Whenever Christians pray, "Hallowed be thy Name!," they are, in effect, saying, "God, use your name as you have promised! Sanctify it, so that all the earth may know that you are God!" And by referring to YHWH's name indirectly, they formulate this petition in a way that underscores its content, pointing away from themselves and toward the incomparable identity and uncircumscribable mystery of God.

God's Name Declares God's Reliable Presence

A second way God uses God's name is to declare God's reliable presence to God's people. That, at any rate, is the joyous message of the burning bush. God's shattering "I am who I am!" has hardly ceased tolling when God continues his reply to Moses: "Tell the Israelites, `I AM sent me to you'" (Exod 3:14). With that, God repeats God's pun/name in a new and comforting register: God makes it a promise to be with Moses and the Israelites in their need and distress.

We find the same glorious movement from God is who God is! to God is who God is for us! in the continuation of Psalm 113. At last mention, we recall, YHWH was looking "far down upon the heavens and the earth." The Psalm continues:

He raises the poor from the dust, and lifts the needy from the ash heap,
To make them sit with princes, with the princes of his people. (Ps 113:7-8)

With plunging suddenness, the God who is high above all things is also at the side of the poor and needy, raising them up from dust and ashes. We get an almost dizzying sense of God in motion, stooping, reaching down, bending low not merely to the earth, but to the lowest of earth. Here, too as at the burning bush, God declares God's uniqueness by coming to the side of endangered human beings.

Over the span of the biblical story, the link between God's name and God's faithful presence grows ever stronger, from the burning bush, to the temple in Jerusalem where God's makes God's name to dwell (cf. Deut 12:11, 1 Kgs 8:23-29), to (for Christians) the wonder of the child in Bethlehem, called "Emmanuel" (Matt 1:23). But here we must be careful to understand the message of God's name aright. If God's name proves time and again to be the place of God's reliable presence toward us, then this is because God's name conforms to God's most holy character, and not to our desires and expectations. This comes through loud and clear in the story that recounts how YHWH declared His name to Moses a second time, after the incident of the golden calf. God "descended in a cloud" and "stood with" Moses and "proclaimed the name" (Exod 34:5).

"The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, yet by no means clearing the guilty, but visiting the iniquity of the parents upon the children and the children's children, to the third and the fourth generation." (34:6-7)

God's name brings God's reliable presence, yes. But God's being there is trustworthy because God is both merciful and righteous toward us, both gracious and exacting, both slow to anger and at times angry. True, God promises that the former qualities outweigh the latter, even vastly so. Nevertheless, God uses God's name to declare that God is both the one and the other. Even in the jubilation of Psalm 113 we hear the overtones of God's judging righteousness, as we picture "the princes of his people" shocked out of their self-sufficiency by God's new seating arrangements for the poor.

In light of the preceding, we can draw one or two further lessons for what it means for God's people to use God's name rightly. First, all talk that touches on divine things, however light of heart or learned it may be, takes place coram Deo, in the presence of God. Christians and Jews are prohibited from supposing that they can ever talk about God behind God's back, as it were, whether idly in the manner of a gossip or jokester, or full of serious intent, like a doctor discussing her patient. Secondly, Christians and Jews must cultivate a scrupulous honesty with regard to the character of God's reliable presence toward us. We must avoid confusing God's I am with you with the trouble-free maintenance of our life-projects. (Moses' plans, after all, didn't survive his encounter with the burning bush). Above all, we must avoid cleaving asunder what God has joined in God's name, namely, God's mercy and God's justice. The human spirit strains against this rule, for nothing, it seems comes more easily to us than a desire to distribute God's justice towards others and God's mercy towards ourselves. Conversely, our American religious life today sometimes suggests God's job is to be a supportive presence that helps everyone to do whatever it is they choose. In truth, to speak rightly in God's name is to strive to make clear to ourselves and others that God-with-us is neither an indulgent and sentimental grandparent, nor a malicious and vindictive tyrant, but YHWH, the living God of steadfast love and righteousness.

God's Name Declares God's Transforming Blessing and Claim

A third way God uses God's name is to pronounce God's blessing. At the close of the Ten Commandments, God promises, "In every place where I cause my name to be remembered, I will come to you and bless you" (Exod 20:24). Here we have the "logic" of God name in a nutshell: From God's uniqueness ("wherever I cause my name to be remembered") to God's presence ("I will come to you") to God's blessing ("I will bless you"). Aaron's well-known blessing, pronounced daily over the people, expresses the connection between God's name and God's blessing even more forcefully.

The LORD spoke to Moses, saying: Speak to Aaron and his sons, saying, Thus you shall bless the Israelites: You shall say to them,
    The LORD bless you and keep you;
    the LORD make his face to shine upon you, and be gracious to you;
    the LORD lift up his countenance upon you, and give you peace.
So they shall put my name on the Israelites, and I will bless them. (Num 6:22-26)

When God wishes to bless the Israelites, he causes his name to be "put" on them, again and again, like an extravagant quantity of fragrant oil poured over their heads. The blessing that God confers through God's name gives a great benefit to those who receive it, indeed, the greatest benefit of all: life in fellowship with God. Yet we would badly misunderstand the nature of this benefit if we overlooked the fact that it claims and transforms those who receive it, so that they are suited for the service of God's name before the eyes of the world. In the Bible, a common sign of coming under God's sway is that a person's own name is changed. As people are swept up into fellowship with God, their personal proper names melt and take new shape before the transforming presence of God's uniqueness. Abram becomes Abraham, Sara becomes Sarah, Jacob receives the name Israel, and so on, until ultimately God has what God desires: "a people called by the name of the LORD" (Deut 28:10). No wonder the Psalmist ultimately ascribes to God's name not only the redemptive power that rescues Israel from destruction time and again, but the creative power that undergirds the universe.

If it had not been the LORD who was on our side-- let Israel now say-- if it had not been the LORD who was on our side....then over us would have gone the raging waters. Blessed be the LORD... Our help is in the name of the LORD, who made heaven and earth" (Ps. 124).

By the transforming power of God's name, God creates a people whose life is a parable of creation's own deepest secret.

There are two distinct but interlocking axes along which God shapes Israel into a community able to "know that the LORD is God" and "bless God's name." A first axis is its practices of worship and cultic purity. We have already noted the divine promise that sustains these practices: "In every place where I cause my name to be remembered I will come to you and bless you" (Exod 20:24). This promise has its echo when the people bless God's name in return, in ways both communal and individual, both prescribed and spontaneous.

Then the Levites... said, "Stand up and bless the LORD your God from everlasting to everlasting. Blessed be your glorious name, which is exalted above all blessing and praise." (Neh 9:5)

Then the women said to Naomi, "Blessed be the LORD, who has not left you this day without next-of-kin; and may his name be renowned in Israel! (Ruth 4:14) Bless the LORD, O my soul, and all that is within me, bless his holy name. (Psalms 103:1)

Especially in the Psalms, Israel offers praise with the intent of moving the rest of creation to join in blessing God's name.

Make a joyful noise to the LORD, all the earth...Give thanks to him, bless his name (Psalms 100:1a, 4b)

My mouth will speak the praise of the LORD, and all flesh will bless his holy name forever and ever. (Psalms 145:21)

Yet as these verses hint, God's blessing also creates a second axis of mutuality that exists within God's people and between God's people and the nations (cf. Gen. 12:1-5). Already in worship and praise, the people are knit together in a new way, as a community whose focus and ultimate loyalty is God. But if the community is to reflect the glory of God's name, its worship must be accompanied by ongoing practices of daily living, which draw the common and ordinary tasks of life into the orbit of God's uniqueness and give them something of its imprint. A last glance at the closing verse of Psalm 113 provides a simple but moving illustration.

He gives the barren woman a home, making her the joyous mother of children. Praise the LORD! (Psalms 113:9)

After having first praised God's name on a cosmic scale and then celebrated God's dramatic upending of unjust economic and political arrangements, Psalm 113 ends with a scene of surprising domesticity: a happy mother presiding over a noisy household. Yet the picture has bite, for the woman's endless rounds of chores and satisfactions are the measure of how fine-grained and all-consuming the transforming power of God's blessing is. The people Israel is this household writ large. The law of Moses is its schedule of domestic chores and satisfactions. In the large family as in the small, God's blessing penetrates and transforms every nook and cranny of the household's common life, and makes its daily rhythms a witness to God's name.

God blesses with God's name in order to create a people whose lives will be altogether and in every part a sanctification of God's name. We should not be surprised, therefore, when God equates, as though in passing, the keeping of all God's commands with the observance of the Third Commandment.

Thus you shall keep my commandments and observe them: I am the LORD. You shall not profane my holy name, that I may be sanctified among the people of Israel: I am the LORD. (Lev 22:31-32)

We can now draw a further lesson about observing the Third Commandment. To honor God's name, to "know that the LORD is God," is to desire that the transforming claim of God's blessing pour its drenching oil over every inch of our lives, from our deepest desires to our merest cycles of daily existence, and make of them something new and pleasing to God: a hymn of praise to God's name.

The Profanation and Vindication of God's Name

Up to this point we have chiefly considered the right use of God's name, and its abuse only in passing. Yet to leave the matter there would be untrue to the Third Commandment, both with respect to its literal wording and its canonical setting. The third commandment explicitly states the sanction attached to its violation (curiously, it is the only commandment to do so): "for the LORD will not acquit anyone who misuses his name." Moreover, the Decalogue appears half-way between two markedly different occasions when God declares God's name to Moses. The first comes just before God will "make a name" for himself by liberating Israel (Exod 3), while the second comes just after Israel has poured contempt on God's name by worshipping the golden calf (Exod 34). This setting invites us to consider how God deals with God's people when they profane God's name, and what this implies for how we are to use God's name.

The sin of the golden calf represent Israel's wholesale failure in its primary vocation: to be a people whose existence and conduct resounds to the glory of YHWH's name. The crisis is so severe that YHWH's initial reaction is to wipe out Israel and start over.

I have seen this people, how stiff-necked they are. Now let me alone, so that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them; and of you I will make a great nation. (Exod 32:9-10)

This passage is exceptionally interesting because it raises the central question at stake in the teaching known as supersessionism: whether God will abandon Israel for its failings and take a new people in its place. At the crucial moment, Moses intercedes:

O LORD, why does your wrath burn hot against your people, whom you brought out of the land of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand? Why should the Egyptians say, 'It was with evil intent that he brought them out to kill them in the mountains, and to consume them from the face of the earth'? Turn from your fierce wrath; change your mind and do not bring disaster on your people. Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, your servants, how you swore to them by your own self, saying to them, 'I will multiply your descendants like the stars of heaven, and all this land that I have promised I will give to your descendants, and they shall inherit it forever.' (Exod 32:11-13)

Significantly, Moses changes God's mind by appealing to the oath that God swore "by your own self." If God destroys Israel, the gentiles will talk. God's reputation will suffer. By reminding God of the promises he has made, Moses shows that what God has in mind is inconsistent with God's own character and purpose. It is at odds with God's name. The passage concludes, "And the LORD changed his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring on his people." (Exod 32:11-14). God punishes Israel for their genuine and grievous sin, but preserves them as his people for his name's sake.

Throughout Israel's long history, the themes of this story recur time and again: intercession on behalf of a disobedient people, and God's pardon, forgiveness, and reforming discipline for the sake of God's name. From Ezekiel in the time of the exile we hear:

Therefore say to the house of Israel, Thus says the Lord GOD: It is not for your sake, O house of Israel, that I am about to act, but for the sake of my holy name, which you have profaned among the nations to which you came. I will sanctify my great name...and the nations shall know that I am the LORD, says the Lord GOD, when through you I display my holiness before their eyes. (Ezek 36:22-23)

And from Isaiah

For my name's sake I defer my anger, for the sake of my praise I restrain it for you, so that I may not cut you off. See, I have refined you, but not like silver; I have tested you in the furnace of adversity. For my own sake, for my own sake, I do it, for why should my name be profaned? My glory I will not give to another. Listen to me, O Jacob, and Israel, whom I called: I am He; I am the first, and I am the last. (Isa 48:9-12)

According to these and other passages, the holiness of God's name towers above the abject failure of God's people to live in a way that reflects God's holiness in return. Still, God does not abandon God's people, but sanctifies God's name before the nations in a yet more awesome and glorious way: by forgiving and restoring the fallen. These considerations suggest two further lessons concerning the use of God's name, lessons that are among the most important of all. First, with respect to ourselves, it is not possible to speak truthfully to God and about God without regularly confessing our sin, and without continually renewing our commitment to greater obedience. Second, with respect to the others, it is infinitely easier to speak worthily of God by interceding for the fallen, then by reading them out of the people of God.

The Name Above Every Name and the Name of Jesus

All the themes that we have considered in this essay come together in a striking way in the New Testament witness to Jesus Christ. Perhaps the best way of gaining an overview of both the continuity and the novelty of this witness is to read the following passage from Paul's letter to the Philippians in the light of Psalm 113:

  1. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
  2. Who, though he was in the form of God,
    did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited,
  3. but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness.
    And being found in human form,
  4. he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death-- even death on a cross.
  5. Therefore God also highly exalted him and
    gave him the name that is above every name,
  6. so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend,
    in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
  7. and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord,
    to the glory of God the Father. (Phil 2:5-11)

Psalm 113 told of the condescension of YHWH and the rescue of human beings. Paul's hymn tells a similar though somewhat more intricate story. It begins not with YHWH's condescension but with Christ Jesus,' who, though himself in want of nothing, became a human being in need of rescue for the sake of others. God honored Jesus' condescension by delivering him from death and restoring him to his former condition. Moreover, in God's own act of condescension, God gave to Jesus God's own name ("the name above every name," [vs. 9] an oblique reference to the Tetragrammaton). The hymn then ends in the way that Psalm 113 began, with all creation joined in praise of God's name, thus dissolving once and for all the distinction between the covenant's intra mural and extra mural integrity which we noted at the start of this essay. But now at the conclusion of the hymn, God's name (designated this time by "Lord" [vs. 11], another oblique reference to the Tetragrammaton), bears the mark of mutuality that formerly characterized God's relation to creation. True to God's condescension, creation praises God's name with the words, "Jesus Christ is Lord," while true to Christ's condescension, Christ receives creation's praise "to the glory of God the Father."

In reflecting on this hymn, one scarcely knows what to marvel at more. Is it the fidelity with which it preserves earlier associations between God's name and God's uniqueness, reliable presence, transforming power, and forgiving judgment? Or is it the over the top way in which these associations are reshaped by the gospel? In either case, we can formulate one last rule concerning the Christian observance of the Third Commandment. Speak in Jesus' name so as to give glory to the God of Israel, and glorify the God of Israel by speaking humbly but confidently of Jesus.


1 Herbert B. Huffmon, "The Fundamental Code Illustrated: The Third Commandment" in The Ten Commandments: The Reciprocity of Faithfulness, ed. William P. Brown (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004), 207.

2 Here I am indebted to Christopher Morse's excellent discussion of God's being and name of God in Not Every Spirit: A Dogmatics of Christian Disbelief (Trinity Press Int., 1994), chap. 7.

3 On the Tetragrammaton in the New Testament and intertestamental period, see the fine book by Sean McDonough, YHWH at Patmos: Rev. 1:4 in its Hellenistic and Early Jewish Setting (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 1999).