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The third commandment states, “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). The Westminster Shorter Catechism expounds on the commandment this way:
What is required in the third commandment? The third commandment requireth the holy and reverent use of God’s names, titles, attributes, ordinances, word, and works. What is forbidden in the third commandment? The third commandment forbiddeth all profaning or abusing of anything whereby God maketh himself known. (Q&A 54–55)
We tend to think of the eight negative commandments (thou shalt not) as simply prohibiting certain things, whereas the two positive commandments (remember the Sabbath day and honor your father and mother) require certain behaviors. But each commandment, by implication, both requires some things and prohibits others. That is reflected in the catechism’s treatment of the third commandment.
In addition, most people think of the third commandment as simply prohibiting the use of profanity, making it a matter of the tongue. While it includes the prohibition of profanity, the commandment is not limited to that. As the catechism indicates, we are not to make light of the things of God. Instead, we are to treat all the things of God with due reverence and with a concern for His holiness.
There are two more things to consider in regard to the vain use of God’s name. First, the word translated “take” in Exodus 20:7 also has the sense of “bear, carry.” Exodus 28:29, giving us further insight into the meaning of the commandment, uses the same wording as Exodus 20:7. Compare “You shall not bear the name of the Lord your God vainly” with “Aaron shall bear the names of the sons of Israel.” Compare also Paul’s rebuke of “anyone who bears the name of brother” who is behaving in a sinful manner (1 Cor. 5:11). The believer bears the name of God. If, by the character of our lives, we bring shame on that name, then we have borne the name of God vainly.
Second, our sins profane the name of our God. To profane something in biblical usage is to take what is holy and make it common, to make it of no reputation. Offering children to Molech profaned the name of the Lord (Lev. 18:21). Misuse of sacrificial offerings profaned what was holy to the Lord (Lev. 19:8). In rebuking the false prophets, Ezekiel said, “You have profaned me among my people for handfuls of barley and for pieces of bread” (Ezek. 13:19). The people as a whole, by their persistent sin and wickedness, had profaned the name of the Lord. Ezekiel says this most pointedly in 36:20: “But when they came to the nations, wherever they came, they profaned my holy name, in that people said of them, ‘These are the people of the Lord, and yet they had to go out of his land.’ ”
The rebuke thus comes to us. Do we, not only by word but by deed, bear the name of our God in vain? Do we, by our words and our lives, profane the holy character of our God?