The Third Commandment
“You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain, for the Lord will not hold him guiltless who takes his name in vain.”- Deuteronomy 5:11
Today we return to our study of the biblical doctrines covered in the Heidelberg Catechism and its examination of the Ten Commandments. We are in question and answer 99 of the catechism and its exposition of the third commandment: “You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain” (Deut. 5:11).
Most of us probably see in today’s passage a prohibition against curse words that include the words God, Lord, Jesus, and Christ, as well as a command against coarse speech in general. All of these things are certainly covered under the third commandment, but they do not exhaust its application. If we were to translate the Hebrew of this passage most literally, we would see that this law is telling us that we “shall not lift up the name of God to emptiness/worthlessness/vanity.” Often in Scripture, the same Hebrew term translated as “in vain” means “wickedness” or “evil” (Job 11:11; 31:5).
Although it is difficult to capture succinctly the meaning of the third commandment, this statute essentially orders us not to associate our Creator with wickedness or invoke His name in a trivial manner. This rule is tied closely to worship, as we lift up the name of the Lord in our corporate praise when we call upon His presence and grace. Consequently, we must never worship God in a corrupt manner or in a way He has not appointed (Isa. 1:10–17; 29:13; Mal. 1:6–8). Similarly, we take the Lord’s name in vain when we profess His name in public but do not love Him and His law (Matt. 15:1–9).
God also reveals His character and His attributes in His name. After all, when the Lord gave His name to Moses, He also revealed His self-existence. His name, “I AM WHO I AM” (Ex. 3:14), tells us our Creator depends on nothing outside Himself for His existence and character. We take His name in vain, therefore, whenever we regard Him improperly. When we try to weasel out of our righteous vows, we blaspheme God because we are acting as if He were not perfectly holy and will not hold us liable for our promises.
Much more can and will be said in the days ahead. We will conclude today with John Calvin’s application of the third commandment in the Institutes of the Christian Religion: “We ought to be so disposed in mind and speech that we neither think nor say anything concerning God and his mysteries, without reverence and much soberness; that in estimating his works we conceive nothing but what is honorable to him” (2.8.22).
In a culture such as ours, we easily fall into the trap of speaking of God irreverently. Even preachers can sometimes fail to give the Lord due reverence in their preaching and teaching, which is why they must take care whenever they open the Word of God to the people of God. All of us should endeavor to speak of our holy God only in a holy manner, to worship Him rightly, and to adore Him in our thoughts, words, and actions.
Passages for Further Study
1 Timothy 1:3–6
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