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S. M. Hutchens on the Third Commandment
I must begin by being sure that my hearers understand something that does not come naturally to people in our time, in our part of the world. For us, names, whether they be of people or things, tend to be thought of as merely symbolic. They stand for what is signified but are arbitrary or conventional. The thing or person is not conceived as existing in its name, but rather of “having” it. The writers of Scripture do not treat names, certainly the Name of God, in that way. The name stood for the person because it was a true appearance of the self for which it stood. When one uses the Name of God, one does not simply refer to him, but places himself, for good or ill, in communion with him. This is the first thing we must remember about the Name of God: God comes with it, and to speak the true Name of God is to call upon his very Self. Now we may begin on 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.
The commandments begin in the covenant, which is that the God who is the Lord, before whom there are no others, and who cannot be contained by man, even religious man, is both the Lord and the possession of his people. He has given them his Name, which is to say, his own Self, for the name not only stands for the self, but also the self, as we have said, is present and manifest in the name.
In this he has given us the privilege of not having to be religious, to seek him as if he were a lost or unknown God. Instead what he requires of us is righteousness: to love and obey the true God, whom we know, and may come to know better through obedience to his word. We dwell in and under the Name of God, and knowing him is our patrimonial privilege. We are to grow up with his Name upon our lips and his law in our hearts, coming to know him as a child comes to know the father into whose house he has been born. We do not need to be converted as though we were found wandering in darkness and needed to turn toward the light. Rather we dwell in the house of light, and the light of lights is upon us and falls upon all that we do.
Perhaps the greatest privilege, especially to those of us to whom the terrible shores of darkness have also been shown, is that of freedom from fear that the name upon which we call is not the Name of the one true God. It may not be that the answer we receive pleases us, or that we will be answered in our own time, but we still call upon him whom we know, whose life is within us, and in whose light we dwell. The confidence that the name upon which we call is the true Name of our God and Father, the one that calls upon his very person, is the greatest of gifts.
To call upon the Name of the Lord is to invoke his presence. This implies that he is not present to us in the same way at all times. There is a way in which God, who is always present, is not present at the same time—not necessarily because he is angry, or because of the separation caused by sin, but because he has made us gods with our own place of dominion. He made the place we live, and his power sustains it. He is present to all places and all times. But he has given us, made in his own image, the divine privilege of selfhood, and with it otherness from him. He does not invade this otherness without permission. He gives us, let us say, the privacy of our selfhood, and stands outside of it to see if its doors are opened, so that he may come in to us—not to usurp our dominion, but to order it fully within his and glorify it with his presence.
You will recall that the Lord told parables in which a Master set his servants in charge of things and then went away. The test was whether they would use what he had given them well or not. He did not interfere with them while they were doing it any more than the farmer constantly tinkers with the growing plant. He left them alone to grow, to become more like themselves, and to show fruit, good or bad. He does this with us all. He lets us be ourselves to see what kind of selves we will be, to see what we shall do with our freedom, to see whether we will call upon the Name of the Lord. Worship is the free opening of the human self to the Person of God, of calling upon his Name and thus allowing his chaste and lordly entrance into the reserved and holy place of the self.
But with our disobedience comes a terrible possibility, that we may take the Name of the Lord in vain, that is, in a useless way, in a way that is meaningless and in which there is no good. We may now say “God” or call the Name of one of the Holy Trinity without the intention of summoning the truth, of opening the door of our beings to his, and letting him be who he is with us. The best literary example of taking a name in vain I know is given by C. S. Lewis in his novel Perelandra. Here Satan has incarnated himself in the body of a famous physicist (who, in this form, is called the Un-man), and has traveled to a planet that is still unfallen. There he tries to tempt the Eve of that new world to sin after the manner of our own first mother. Ransom, the man who has been sent there to oppose the Un-man, encounters him while the lady is sleeping, and the creature calls his name:
“Ransom,” it said.
“Well?” said Ransom.
“Nothing,” said the Un-man. He shot an inquisitive glance at it. Was the creature mad? But it looked, as before, dead rather than mad, sitting there with the head bowed and the mouth a little open, and some yellow dust from the moss settled in the creases of its cheeks, and the legs crossed tailor-wise, and the hands, with their long, metallic-looking nails, pressed flat together on the ground before it. He dismissed the problem from his mind and returned to his own uncomfortable thoughts.
“Ransom,” it said again.
“What is it?” said Ransom sharply.
“Nothing,” it answered.
Again there was silence; and again, about a minute later, the horrible mouth said:
“Ransom!” This time he made no reply. Another minute and it uttered his name again; and then, like a minute gun, “Ransom . . . Ransom . . . Ransom,” perhaps a hundred times.
“What the Hell do you want?” he roared at last.
“Nothing,” said the voice.
Here you have it in essence. Ransom was the man’s true name, and to call upon it was to invoke his person. But when Ransom became present to the caller in response to his name, no-thing was said. And at the heart of this nothing was a denial of the person called upon, an aggressive attempt to negate his being, an attempt to equate him with nothing, an attempt to kill. God shall not hold guiltless those who do the same with him, for he is Something and those who attempt to kill him will find themselves overthrown.
Now there are many ways to say nothing to God. The first is the most respectable. It is the religious way to say nothing. Speaking through Isaiah, the Lord, in disgust, told his people:
What use are your ceremonies to me? I am nauseated by your offerings, and have no need of your sacrifices . . . Don’t offer me any more empty ceremonial. Your incense stinks, as do your appointed holy days, and your continual calling of religious meetings—especially the ones you regard as the most serious and solemn. I hate these things; they are a burden to me, and I am weary of them. When you pray to me, I will avoid you, even if you pray at great length. (Isaiah 1:12–15)
The problem was not, of course, in the ceremonies themselves, but that the people to whom this was addressed were disobedient. Prayer, and the extended communal prayer of public worship, are ways of saying nothing to God—taking his Name in vain—if they are not accompanied by obedience to his commands. God is no fool. You cannot trick him into doing things by putting on shows of piety as though he doesn’t know what is behind them. You can “do” the sacraments until you swim away in baptismal water with bread and wine coming out your ears, and pray until you are blue in the face, but if the heart that is behind them is not right with God, it will all be to no avail.
I can think of several churches where the people wanted to do something they knew deep in their hearts they probably shouldn’t. So what did they do? They called prayer meetings and prayed earnestly until they felt better about doing the things they knew they shouldn’t. It worked like a charm. One way of earning permission to do bad or useless things is to pray about them until you feel God owes you the privilege of allowing you to do what you wish. It is also a way of taking his Name in vain, of calling upon God and then when he comes asking you what you want of him, you reply with “Nothing.” For in such cases, you do want nothing from him. And nothing is what you will get. Or, you may receive what you think is something, but really is not.
This is calling upon his Name, and then negating him, as though he wasn’t who he is, that is, a God who is interested in righteousness, justice, and obedience to his commands. Our common prayer, and all that this involves, is to be an expression of this, and when it is not it becomes a cause of judgment rather than a means of redemption.
Related to this is saying nothing to the Name of God in teaching—in doctrine. The Name, and therefore the person of God, is called by those who presume to teach about him. To say his Name is to invoke his person, and therefore all that is true about him. This is not simply an intellectual transaction, but an act of worship in which one is related well, or not, to the Name one speaks. Pure objectivity is impossible. One cannot stand apart from God when one invokes his Name, one can only take the Name in vain or not. This is the great delusion of the religious academy, that God will hold faultless those who speculate about him, and err, because they were protected by the distance created by abstraction. They are not. Either they speak of God or they do not. If they do, they call upon his Name, and thus wager their souls.
The same is true of preaching and giving prophecies. Do you dare to speak in the Name of the Lord? Then be very sure you know what you are doing. Do you have a word from the Lord? Are you sure? Or are you using his Name and then in fact following it with an empty wind blown up by your own opinions and desires? Calling his Name and then saying what amounts to being nothing?
One of the places where the Lord’s Name is taken most in vain is in the expression of personal opinions about God: God is (how very, very heavy these words are: “God is,” and yet how easily we say them)—God IS thus and such because it does not seem to me that he—or she—could be otherwise. Thus God is made into our image, and thus his Name is used in vain, for we are not God, and to make him into a creature of our brains is to unmake him as God. It is to say “God” and then “Nothing,” for we ourselves are nothing apart from the God who is before us, and who determines the boundaries of our being. This offense is very common, and is frequently heard in the form of, “I think (or don’t think) Jesus would have . . .” And you may fill in the blank with what the person thinks Jesus would or would not have thought or done. The risk is precisely that of taking the Name of God in vain, for here one is holding forth, of summoning the Mind and the Name of a Person of the Holy Trinity, and then negating the real Person. The commandment makes it clear that when one says what Jesus would have thought, said, or done, one had better be right.
None of this is meant to discourage all preaching, teaching, or the attempt to discern and follow the mind of Christ, for these things also are commanded, and must be done. It is to instill in us the proper fear of God—and yes, I mean real fear, not just “holy awe”—of “not being held guiltless” when we do so. Each of these actions begins and ends with an invocation of the Name of God, and therefore involves the possibility of taking that Name in vain.
My own attitude toward all of this in my own ministry is a kind of confidence mingled with a kind of despair. I am confident that I have been given light—I could not live without this confidence, much less speak to you without it. On the other hand, I despair that handling this light will eventuate in anything but falsity and my own condemnation apart from the unspeakable grace of God in Christ Jesus. I have confidence in Christ, but I am most unconfident of myself. I speak and write because for now I must. I am compelled by the Lord’s rejection of the man who buried his talent to do something with what I have been given, and may God have mercy on my soul.
Normally we think of this commandment in the context of oaths or the blasphemy of using the Name of God in a light way, such as an expression of surprise or disgust. I have especially noticed this lately in Christians who have fallen into the habit of saying things like “Oh, God!” when they simply wish to express surprise or emphasize something. Short reflection will bring us quickly to the conclusion that these ejaculations are not meant as prayers. They are not special openings of the door of the self to the transcendent Presence. Rather they are expressions of ignorance that things are as they are and that discovering the reality of the situation is striking to us.
Put a guard on your lips. When the Name of God passes it, you stand upon holy ground, and he awaits you there. When he says, What is it that you want, my child? I should not like to have to say, Well, Lord, I just wanted to say that the soup was too hot, or a fact related surprised me. This does not seem respectful, and it certainly is a bad habit to cultivate—to treat holy ground as if it were common. Those who persist in this will not be saved, since they will be unable to discern between the voice and hand of God, to which they must respond if they would be saved, and other voices and hands that cannot save.
Do not curse, that is, say “God damn,” or even “damn” implying God, for only God can damn—unless you are very sure that you wish to take upon yourself the responsibility for it before the throne of God. Did you strike your hand with a tool? Do you wish to damn the set of circumstances that made it happen? The God-given life that made the pain possible? Your ability to lift the tool in your work? Your ability to feel pain? The pain itself? The prudence that this lesson will give you? Just what is it that you wish God to damn? Unless you are really daring enough to bring a curse upon something or someone, understanding the tendency of the curse to return to the curser, then put your hand over your mouth, and do not call upon God to damn anything or anyone. You will be safer that way.
Do not use the Name of the Son of God if you are not calling his very self to hear. Jesus Christ died for your sins and rose for your justification, and his Name is holy. Calling upon it without calling him in sincerity is the desecration of the holy; it is participating in his crucifixion, the ultimate and definitive act of desecration to which all other earlier acts of desecration spoke and from which all after it devolve. Those who killed our Lord attempted to negate him, to “Nothing” him, and those who use our Lord’s Name in an empty or useless way join them in the act. And it will not work. When it is said in the Old Testament that God will not hold him guiltless who takes his Name in vain, it is another way of saying that the Name cannot be done away with. It will come back to those who use it, and those who use it badly will find that it rises and comes again with them in mind. The Name of God cannot be extinguished; it cannot be said without results that involve the God who cannot be put away.
You will never hear me saying that the Holy Spirit is speaking through me giving a word of prophecy as though it were the word of God and to be heeded by all. While it is my hope and expectation that I shall speak as an oracle of God, and that is what I mean to do, I will not say that God has given me a word, for in this I fear him greatly. To say or even imply that my word is the word of God as delivered by the Holy Spirit is something I will not do. The prophets and apostles were inspired by God, and the word they spoke was because of God’s word. But we must not forget what the penalty was for saying “thus saith the Lord” when the Lord has said no such thing. It was death, both physical and spiritual, for the Lord will not hold him guiltless who uses his Name in vain.
The possibility of taking the Lord’s Name in vain is based not in ignorance, but in knowledge of God. It cannot be committed by those who don’t know the Name, only by those who do. It will not be done by those who are involved in false religion, but those who, having true knowledge of the true God, use him falsely, who trifle with him. It is a bit like the old story of the boy who called “Wolf!” except here the boy calls “God!” And instead of the village people who run to save him, it is God who comes, and when he asks what is wanted the boy says “Nothing.” When he keeps it up, it is not that God disappears, but that instead of seeing God, the boy now sees God as what he has called him: Nothing. He becomes blind to God, and it is his own fault. He stumbles over holy things, for he cannot see them. Wonders appear before his eyes, but he sees nothing. He touches miracles, only to deny them. He is alive, but at the same time dead. He has entered the doors of hell, for hell is a place where God can be seen, but his Name is now used only in vain by men who cannot use it any other way. The true Name is spoken, and nothing, nothing comes of it. This is the deepest horror imaginable, to speak the Name of God forever enclosed by the doorless walls of eternal privity, without faith that he will come for you, without hope that he will save you, and without love for the one who loves you.
How does one avoid this? Simply by not taking the Name of the Lord in vain. When one is in the habit of doing it, avoidance becomes hard. When one is in the habit of making God’s Name a part of trivial remarks, or the guarantor of a curse, or attributing the imaginings of his own spirit to the spirit of God, or his own opinions to the mind of God, one becomes his own God, his own idol, and his own savior, and richly deserves what he will get: the true God’s assistance in the project.
I think God’s Name is used too much, not only by the profane, but also by the religious. The more it is used, the more likely it is to be misused. Although we are not allowed not to call on the Name of the Lord, I think it would be better to do it once well than a hundred times ill. There is too much God-talk and not enough obedience, too much religion and not enough Christianity, too much invocation of the Name of the Lord, only to render it common and useless. Remember the words of the Savior who said, Why do you call me “Lord, Lord” (here is his Name, you see, used not once, but twice, very emphatically and religiously), but do not the things I say? In this he repeated the old command not to take the Name in vain. Let us concentrate on doing what he says first—which of course, we must take the time and trouble to learn—and then when we speak his Name, as of course we shall, it is far more likely to come out right. •
S. M. Hutchens works as a reference librarian in Kenosha, Wisconsin. He holds a doctorate in theology. He is a senior editor of Touchstone.