What’s in a Name?
by Derek Thomas
“Hallowed be your name” is what Jesus taught His disciples to say in prayer (Matt. 6:9). It expresses a desire that the Father will be revered and praised and spoken about in a manner that befits His resplendent glory and dignity. After hearing God speak and seeing a bush on fire with no apparent sign of being burned up, Moses asked, “What is your name?” In reply, God first said, “I am who I am” (or “I will be what I will be”), then shortened it to “I am,” then to “the Lord” (I AM translates the Hebrew Yahweh or YHWH, known as the tetragrammaton, a Greek term meaning “four letters.” English translations used to render it as Jehovah; Ex. 3:6, 13–16). Thus, God shows himself as the One who exists, eternally and without change, who is utterly trustworthy and dependable.
God’s name is who He is. And Yahweh or YHWH acts as a synecdoche—the part representing the whole. Thus, David sang, “O Lord, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth! You have set your glory above the heavens” (Ps. 8:1). And in the Third Commandment, God tells us very clearly that we are not to misuse His name: “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” (Ex. 20:7). So seriously do the Jews fear misusing God’s name that they refuse to utter it at all. But that is more superstition than obedience; God wants us to use His name—but with respect and dignity.
THE FINE PRINT
Commandments have positive and negative things to teach us. First, let us consider the negative. The Westminster Shorter Catechism puts it this way: “The third commandment forbids all profaning or abusing of anything whereby God makes himself known” (A. 55). Using God’s name in a frivolous or insincere way is wrong. Take bad language, for example. Television and movies are so littered with expletives that we have almost become immune to their destructive power. The use of “Jesus,” “Christ,” or “God” as a mere expletive, vocalizing frustration or anger or disgust, is blasphemy, make no mistake about it.
Or, take promises we make. The Old Testament spoke strongly against the practice of adding God’s name to a promise to add extra assurance of its trustworthiness (Lev. 19:12; Jer. 5:2; Zech 5:4). And Jesus revealed the Pharisees’ insincerity and hypocrisy, masquerading as pompous piety, when they said promises made that excluded God’s name could be broken with impunity (Matt. 5:33–37). The statement “I give you my word” ought to mean what it says. Christians should make promises guardedly and keep them carefully.
But we are merely seeing the tip of an iceberg. The truth is, we violate the third commandment whenever we invoke God’s name lightly on a T-shirt or bumper sticker (if we employ either, we’d better not intentionally be in violation of traffic laws); as a patriotic confirmation that “God is on our side,” justifying all ends and means of national and civic involvement; and in a thousand other ways.
Alarmingly, we trivialize and minimize God in our most sacred acts, producing what David Wells calls a “weightlessness” about God. “La parole a été donné à l’homme pour déguiser sa pensée – the reason for words is to conceal thought,” a French diplomat once said to a Spanish Ambassador. This is so true. Too often in worship, we speak without knowing—or caring—what we say. Careless and casual worship is sin:
Be not rash with your mouth, nor let your heart be hasty to utter a word before God, for God is in heaven and you are on earth. Therefore let your words be few. (Eccl. 5:2)
What of the positive duties of this command? The Shorter Catechism puts it this way: “The third commandment requires the holy and reverent use of God’s names, titles, attributes, ordinances, word, and works” (A. 54).
Think of Jesus as Lord—the Name above all names—at which every knee will one day bow and confess that He is Lord (Phil. 2:10–11). What will be true then ought to be true now. “How sweet the Name of Jesus sounds,” John Newton wrote, and Christians agree with all their hearts.
In particular, God is to be thought of and spoken about (and to) in the language of worship:
Ascribe to the Lord the glory due his name. (Pss. 29:2; 96:8)
Sing the glory of his name. (66:2)
Blessed be his glorious name forever. (72:19)
Bless the Lord, O my soul, and all that is within me, bless his holy name! (103:1)
That is what we are to aim for—living moment by moment in God’s presence, praising His name. Careful, dignified, thoughtful words—said, prayed, sung, listened to, “seen” in the sacraments, expressed with purpose and intent—should characterize our worship. How difficult this is, and how much we need to learn it.