Careful with God’s Name

Let’s turn to Exodus 3 to begin. We’re going to first learn a little about….

God’s Name

Moses was pasturing his father-in-law’s sheep around Mt. Horeb, that is Mt. Sinai, when something off to the side caught his eye. It was a bush on fire. As he looked at it for a moment he noticed it was like no bush fire he had ever seen. The leaves were not wilting and the branches were not even turning black. The bush was on fire, but was remaining unaffected by the flames. His mind must been whirling trying to wrap itself around this phenomenon he was observing. It was so unusual he had to get a closer look. So he started to walk toward it. Then the voice came. His heart must have leaped into his throat. The voice apparently knew him. “Moses, Moses!” He said, “Here I am.” The voice said, “Do not come near here; remove your sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.” As Moses knelt down to remove his sandals, the voice said, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” Moses  then pulled his cloak up over his head to hide his face for fear that he would die if he saw God. In the ensuing conversation God commissioned Moses to return to Egypt so that He could lead the Israelite nation out from there. Moses tried to inform God, “I’m not the man for the job. I’m nobody special.” God said, “You’re the one, and I’ll be with you. You will bring the nation out and lead them to this mountain and worship Me here.”

Moses had so many questions and uncertainties. The first one that came to his mind had to do with God’s name. Exodus 3:13, he said to God, “Behold, I am going to the sons of Israel, and I will say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you.’ Now they may say to me, ‘What is His name?’ What shall I say to them?” You see, the word “God” was not a name. It was just a description. Like the word “man”. That’s what I am. I am the man of the house of Ally and Noah and Joel. But “man” is not my name. Half of you here also fit the description.  My name is James. The word “God” was like that. It was not a name. It was a description. It means powerful one, mighty one, great one, higher one. In Moses’ day most people acknowledged many beings in the spirit realm that fit the description. If Moses were to go to the Israelites in Egypt and say “God has sent me to you” they would say, “Which one?” And if he were to say, “The God of your fathers has sent me to you,” Moses can imagine that they would eventually ask, “Well, if you’ve really been talking with Him, what’s His name?” And if he can’t even tell them His name,  then, Moses thinks, they’re not going to believe that he is really an ambassador of the God their fathers as he claims. So Moses wants to know God’s name.

v14, “God said to Moses, “I AM WHO I AM”; and He said, “Thus you shall say to the sons of Israel, ‘I AM has sent me to you.’” In our culture personal names commonly are little more than labels to distinguish one person from another. But in Bible times names had a much deeper significance. Names often described the person or the destiny they would hopefully live out or communicated a message. God at this point with Moses doesn’t describe in detail who He is.  The revelation of His nature, power and character would come later (Ex 5:2; 14:30-15:18; 34:6-7). Here God just says, “I am who I am. So call me I-am for short.”

In the Hebrew language, which this was originally written in, this the word in English letters is “HYH”. Originally Hebrew strangely did not have any vowels, just constants. You were supposed to know how the words were pronounced. But later Scribes wrote in some little dots and lines to indicate what the vowels were and how to pronounce the words. So this word is pronounced something like “ehyeh.” So, “Moses, when they ask for My name, you can tell them it’s ehyeh, I AM.”

Now, in v15 God gives another form of the same name. Sort of like if your name is David, you might also go by Dave, or if your name is William you might also go by Bill. Sort of like that we have another form of God’s name in v15. But you wouldn’t know it from just our modern English translations. v15 in most our English versions reads something like this, “God, furthermore, said to Moses, “Thus you shall say to the sons of Israel, ‘The LORD, the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you.’ This is My name forever, and this is My memorial-name to all generations.” The way that reads in most our English versions makes it sound like His name is the “The LORD.” But that’s not His name. I’ll explain in just a bit why they translated it “The LORD.” But for now in your mind erase the words, “The LORD” from v15 and we’re going to replace it with the Hebrew word in English letters. It is YHVH. Or some transliterate it YHWH. But it’s a German sort of W; it sounds like a V. It’s perhaps pronounced “yahveh,” but we’re not really sure, because the ancient Hebrew scribes did not give us any pronunciation marks for this word. Nobody is quite for sure how it was pronounced. This word is very related to “ehyeh,” I am. This word means “He is.” They are both derived from the verb “to be.” Ehyeh is 1st person singular of the verb “to be”: I am. YHVH is 3rd person singular of the verb “to be”: He is. So God tells Moses “You can tell the people My name is Ehyeh (I am). Or you can tell them My name is YHVH (He is).” But the word that the Moses and the Israelite people and the rest of the writers of the Old Testament (OT) chose to call God is YHVH. You only see God called Ehyeh in Exodus 3:14. But YHVH is what God is called thousands of times in the Bible. You with me so far? What’s God’s name? YHVH. What’s it mean? He is.

Another passage about this is Exodus 6:2-3. “God spoke further to Moses and said to him, “I am YHVH [I am “He-is”]; 3 and I appeared to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, as God Almighty [El-Shaddai], but by My name, YHVH, I did not make Myself known to them.” So Abraham, Isaac and Jacob knew God as El-Shaddai, God Almighty. But I hear this saying that they did not know His name, YHVH. God had not revealed His name to them. He revealed His name first to Moses at the burning bush. Now, some say, “Wait a minute if you read the book of Genesis you see God’s name YHVH all over the place, even in the conversations that God had with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. His name is mentioned in their conversations. So how can you say that they did not know God’s name?” Well, I think that’s just because Moses wrote the book of Genesis, and Moses knew God’s name, and in telling the story about God’s dealings with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, Moses used God’s name in telling the story. But this verse, seems to me, clarifies that Abraham, Isaac and Jacob did not actually know God’s name. They just identified Him as El-Shaddai, God Almighty.

So God has a name like you have a name. All the others things that God is called in the Scriptures like “God Almighty” “God Most High” “The Holy One” “the Fear of Isaac” “the Judge of All the Earth” “Our Maker”… those are descriptions of Him. But His name is YHVH.

Jewish Tradition Regarding God’s Name

Now, a tradition developed among the Jewish people around the close of the OT of never ever speaking this name. Most believe that the tradition developed primarily because of the third of the ten commandments, which we’re continuing our study of this morning, if you didn’t know. We’re on commandment #3. Exodus 20:7, the third of the ten commandments, says this, “You shall not take the name of YHVH your God in vain, for YHVH will not leave him unpunished who takes His name in vain.” The ancient Jewish people took that command very seriously. They had a healthy fear of using God’s name in vain. So they decided to just not say His name at all to ensure that they would not break that commandment. If a Jewish man was reading aloud the Scriptures in a synagogue and he came upon the name YHVH in the text, he wouldn’t say it. Instead he would say a different Hebrew word. In English letters with the vowels for pronunciation it’s “edonai”, which means “Lord”. They would always say edonai, Lord, instead of YHVH. Eventually the name came to be regarded as too scared to be uttered by ordinary human lips. According to the writings of a 1st century Jewish man named Philo and also according to the Jewish Talmud we learn that from about the time of the end of the OT when the Jews returned to the land of Judah from Babylonian captivity and rebuilt the temple, from that time on this name was only pronounced by the priests in the temple. No God fearing Jew anywhere else would ever speak it. Now, I think it’s okay to speak this name, because you read of people of God all through the OT speaking this name without having any reservations about it. It is okay to speak God’s name, as long as you’re not speaking it in vain.

But it’s because of that ancient Jewish tradition that most our English versions render the Hebrew word YHVH as “the LORD.” But you may have noticed that it is in all capital letters. When it is in all capital letters that is to tell you that the word in the Hebrew is YHVH. If it has lower case “o-r-d” then it’s probably the word edonai in the Hebrew. And I don’t think that’s a bad thing that our translations do because they indicate what the word is in Hebrew by capitalizing the letters. And the writers of the NT, when they quote OT passages where you find the word YHVH, they quote it as “the Lord,” because that’s what you did in that day. If the NT writers thought it was okay, I think it’s okay.

But in some English versions you find a different word. In the old American Standard Version and Young’s Literal Translation and in a few places in the KJV and some others, YHVH is rendered “Jehovah.” Jehovah is kind of a made up word. It’s a concoction that originated in medieval times. To come up with it, whoever did, they just took the vowels of edonai and they put them between the letters of God’s name. And they came up with YeHoVaH, or Jehovah. So now you know a little about God’s name.

Is the third commandment concerned with just God’s name or other references to Him as well?

Let me ask you a question here that you can reason through with me. Does the ancient Jewish tradition of not saying the name YHVH at all ensure that one will not violate the third commandment? The third commandment says, “You shall not take the name of YHVH your God in vain…” Or more literally “You shall not lift up the name of YHVH your God in worthlessness” or “to no good.” Does that specifically only have to do with our usage of this particular name? Or is there a principle here that God wants us to see that has a much broader application, a principle that would apply to our usage of all references to Him, like Lord, God, Almighty, Father, Jesus Christ, Holy Spirit, and so forth? Is God saying, “Just be careful with My name specifically?” Or is He giving us a principle saying, “Be careful in referring to Me?”

I think it may help us to answer that if we ask this question, “Why did God say be careful with My name?” Is it because there is just something about this particular combination of letters and sounds that is not the case with other words? Is there a mystical magical sort of quality in this particular word; that when this word is spoken there is unleashed an unseen power of some sort, and so God says be careful with YHVH? No, I don’t think that’s the reason. There’s no indication in the Scriptures that this particular combination of letters has some sort of magical mystical quality. There is no indication that anything different happens when you say YHVH over another expression like God Almighty or Heavenly Father. So why the third commandment? Why does He say, “Be careful with My name?” Seems reasonable to me that it’s more because God is concerned about how people view Him and their attitude toward Him. I think that was a main concern behind the second commandment, “Don’t make any image to represent God.” Why? Because whatever you construct or sculpt or come up with to represent Him will be a horribly bad picture of Him. It will do nothing but demean who He really is. God is concerned about how people view Him. And when people use His name in irreverent ways or for bad purposes it not only reveals corruption in their own hearts toward God, but also reflects poorly on God’s character and nature to those who hear them.

Now, if that’s more the reason behind the third commandment, and I think it is, then we have with this commandment not a regulation that applies only to the use of YHVH, but a principle that applies to the use of all references to God. I think it violates the same principle today to say “God” or “Lord” or “Jesus” in vain as it does to say “YHVH” in vain.

Now, there are…

Various ways in which we can employ God’s name or titles in vain

(… or in worthlessness, or to no good.) We could do this through hypocrisy. If we identify ourselves with God, claiming to trust and follow Him, or if we sing “O how I love Jesus,” but then live sinfully, that’s using His name in vain, isn’t it? And that’s reflecting poorly on His character to those around us who don’t know Him. Or another way of course would be to mention Him to make light of Him or mock Him. But there are three ways that I wanted to talk a little more about.

One, by…

Taking False Oaths

From the beginning of time almost, men have always brought God in to witness a formal oath and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with doing that. We do that at weddings. We say, “In the presence of God and these witnesses…” What we’re saying is, “Remember it’s not just that there are visible witnesses present, but God is looking in on this. He is an unseen witness to what is happening.” There are certain oaths that are taken where you raise your hand and swear by God to a certain thing.

And there’s nothing wrong with taking an oath necessarily. The Israelites were commanded in certain circumstances to swear by God’s name and to take oaths employing God’s name (Ex 22:11; Num 5:19; Deut 6:13). You find God Himself a few times in the Scripture swearing oaths by Himself since He could swear by no one greater. Jesus on trial before Caiaphas, the high priest, Matthew 26:63, Caiaphas said, “I adjure You by the living God [or your version might say “I put you under oath by the living God”], that You tell us whether You are the Christ, the Son of God.” And Jesus did not say “Well, I can’t take an oath.” He just said, “You have said it yourself…” in other words, “Yeah, I’m the Christ, the Son of God.” Paul would call God to witness his statements sometimes. Like Galatians 1:20, Now in what I am writing to you, I assure you before God that I am not lying.” An angel of God in Revelation 10 raised his right hand to heaven and swore by God. So I think it’s okay to swear by the name of God.

But know that when you do that God holds you all the more responsible for telling the truth or keeping your promise. Ecclesiastes 5:5, “It’s better that you should not vow than that you should vow and not pay.” Leviticus 19:12 God said, “You shall not swear falsely by My name, so as to profane the name of your God; I am the LORD.” To profane to means to make common; to treat something or someone that is holy as though it were just ordinary and insignificant. God’s name stands for who He is, it stands for Him. You are profaning God when you say you will do things and invoke His name to affirm it and then back off and don’t do it. You’re saying God is nobody to be feared, that He’s nobody significant. He’s just like a toy you can pull of the shelf and do what you want with and put back and it doesn’t matter. God says, “O it matters.” It’s bad enough to lie and deceive, but to invoke God’s name in your lie angers God at a whole other level.

A second way of using God’s name in worthlessness is…

False Teaching

Martin Luther made a statement that I think may be true when he said “the greatest abuse” of this commandment occurs “when false preachers rise up and offer their lying vanities as God’s Word.”

It’s one thing to be mistaken in your beliefs about God and His will. But it is an entirely other thing to teach as fact wrong things about God and His will. One can become a new Christian and be acceptable before God and yet not have a correct understanding of a lot of issues. A Christian may not know God’s will on marriage and divorce, on worship, on how God wants us to talk, on how He wants us to control our anger. They may not know what the Bible teaches exactly about the afterlife and what all will happen at Christ’s second coming. They may have misunderstandings about the Lord’s Supper and a host of other issues. But that doesn’t mean that God doesn’t accept them. Much of what’s in the letters of the NT was written to teach saved Christians about those issues. Hebrews 5:14 mentions the ability to discern between good and evil as something that comes with spiritual maturity. As we grow, we come to better understand what’s right and wrong in many areas. So you can be mistaken about a lot of stuff and God will still accept you as long as you’re trying to learn His will and live according to it. But God is not so tolerant of us teaching people as fact wrong things about Him and His will. I think that’s why James 3:1 say, “Let not many of you become teachers my brethren knowing that as such we will incur a stricter judgment.” When your idea of something cannot be established with a word from God, but you teach it as authoritative truth anyway, you’re likely misrepresenting God and damaging His character in the minds of people and possibly damaging people’s relationship with Him.

So if we’re going to tell others something about God or His will for their lives, let’s make sure we can prove it from His word, or, if we can’t, let’s make sure we inform people that, “This is just what I think and this is what I base it on.” Let’s not make firm authoritative statements about God that we can’t substantiate with His word. And you can do me a favor if you ever hear me stating things that you don’t see in the Scriptures by asking me, “How do you know that?” or “Can you prove that?”

And then a third way in which we can take God’s name or titles in vain is probably what normally first comes to mind when we think of the third commandment….

Using references to God as just an expletive

… just a word to vent emotion, calling on God to damn your golf club when you slice a tee shot off into the rough, flippantly using the phrases “God” or “Oh my God” or “Jesus” or “Lord” or “Good Lord” to express surprise or excitement or disgust or frustration.

You might feel like that’s no big deal, because that’s how everybody talks today. The Parents Television Council reports that in 2007 95.9% of the uses of the word “God” on primetime network television were in vain. I’d believe that.

A little girl was attending Sunday School for the first time one Christmas season, and she eagerly listened as her teacher told of the birth of God’s Son. She was enthralled with the story of the angels and shepherds and the manger and then the star and the wise men and the gifts. Then the teacher added, “And they called His name Jesus.” She looked over at the kid next to her and asked, “Why did they call the baby a swear word?” Well, sadly today that’s the only usage of the name “Jesus” that some kids hear.

It’s so common today and most people don’t think anything of it. I agree that it’s probably not as bad as swearing falsely in God’s name or teaching falsely in His name, but still it sure appears to me that it’s a way of using God’s name or titles in vain, in worthlessness, to no good.

Why do we do this in our culture? I mean how come when we’re mad or disgusted at something we don’t just “grrrrr” and say “I hate it when that happens”? And when we’re surprised, why we don’t we just “Whoa! Wow!'”? Why do we have to spout off titles for God? It doesn’t make sense to me. Though it kind of does when I remember that the Bible calls Satan the “god of this world” and “the ruler of this world,” and it does make sense that he would incorporate things into the culture that are wrong and irreverent to God.

I like this list of reasons I found. It’s called “Ten Reasons I Swear.” Or you could call it “Ten reasons I use God’s name in vain.”

  1. It pleases my mother so much.
  2. It is a fine mark of manliness.
  3. It proves I have self control.
  4. It indicates how clearly my mind operates.
  5. It makes my conversation so pleasing to everybody.
  6. It leaves no doubt in anyone’s mind as to my good breeding.
  7. It impresses people that I have more than ordinary education.
  8. It is an unmistakable sign of culture and refinement.
  9. It makes me a very desirable personality among women and children and in respectable society.
  10. It is my way of honoring God who said, “Thou shall not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain.”

Importance of the Third Commandment

It was apparently very important to God that the Israelites not take this commandment lightly. God wanted to make sure that they didn’t say, like so many today, “O it’s just words. They’re only words. Just words can’t be a big deal.” So God attached this statement to the commandment, “for the LORD will not leave him unpunished who takes His name in vain.” The God of the Bible never says, “O they’re just words, no big deal.” You remember Jesus said, Matthew 12:36-37, “I tell you that every careless word that people speak, they shall give an accounting for it in the day of judgment. For by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned.”

Why does God take our words so seriously? For one, because they reveal character. Jesus said, “You can tell what a tree is by its fruit. If it bears good fruit, you know it’s a good tree. If it bears bad fruit, you know it’s a bad tree.” He said that in the context of talking about our words and He said, “The mouth speaks out of that which fills the heart.” Socrates would say when he first met a man, “Speak, that I may see you.” Our words reveal who we are inside. How we speak of God and how we use references to Him says a lot about what we think of Him and how we feel about Him.

But also God takes our words seriously, because they can have such a tremendous impact on other people. James 3 explains “Yeah, the tongue is just a little thing, but so is a bit in a horse’s mouth. That little bit controls a thousand pounds of animal. So is the rudder on a ship, that little blade that sticks out the rear of a ship, but it determines the direction and course of the entire ship. And see how great a forest is set aflame by such a small fire.” The human tongue pound for pound is probably the most powerful physical thing on earth. As those who claim to be God’s people our words about Him and the way we employ references to Him tells those around us who don’t know Him whether He’s somebody to be taken seriously and revered or not.

Let’s close with just an exhortation from the apostle Paul. Ephesians 4:29, “Let no unwholesome word proceed from your mouth, but only such a word as is good for edification according to the need of the moment, so that it will give grace to those who hear.” There are many sort of words, lying words, slanderous words, vulgar words, angry words that we must not let “from the tongue unbridled slip. May the heart’s best impulse ever check them ere they soil the lip.” But especially may our hearts check references to God that serve no good purpose, because that one is so important it made it into the ten commandments.

– James Williams

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