“You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain, for the Lord will not leave him unpunished who takes God’s name in vain.” Exodus 20:7
What comes to mind when you read those words – the Third of the Ten Words?
Growing up I understood it to mean using “Jesus!” or, “God damn it!” to express anger, frustration or shock. And, in an only slightly less serious way, swearing in general. Even seemingly harmless words like “Crikey!” or “Blimey!” still had their etymological roots in taking God’s name in vain, and so were off-limits. And anyone who swore with these kinds of words was committing blasphemy, was taking God’s name in vain. So this particular sin was most likely committed by “heathens,” because “good Christians” would never use those words. But I no longer think that way. Today I’m far more convinced that this is a sin of the pious, and not the irreligious. And that it has little to do with cussing.
It’s important to note that if there’s a ranking to the seriousness of breaking these Ten Words (other than numerical order), then the Third Word is pretty heavily weighted. It’s the only Word that describes explicit consequences for breaking it, and whose prohibition is repeated within the Word itself. Which is one reason why I think it’s not about swearing. And why violating this Word is more likely to look something like the image at the beginning of this post, than that of, say, a “foul-mouthed” comedian in a club.
The Lord – in Hebrew, YHWH – had revealed Godself to those freed slaves in this way: “I am the Lord your God who brought you out of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.” So, it seems that if you claim this Lord as your God, what you say – and what you do – ought to reflect this liberating God. The God who brought a new exodus through becoming one of us in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. So if you’re going to claim the Name of Jesus, then how you speak and act ought to look at least something like the portrayal we find of him in the four Gospels. I am convinced that breaking the Third Word involves talking about God, or doing things in God’s name that are contrary to how God has revealed Godself in the Bible, most explicitly in the person of Jesus.
That is why I think groups like the Phelps family are guilty of violating the Third Word every time they hold such signs up at the funerals of soldiers – or anywhere else for that matter. That is why people walk away from the church when we label them as “sinners”, but insist on telling them that we’re only saying harsh things about them “because we love you.” That is why New Model Army wrote “Christian Militia” (the lyric with which I begin this chapter) three decades ago. All too often our behaviour has not been experienced the way we think it ought to be, but rather has looked to some like,
“Worshiping the devil in the name of God.”
The Third Word may be the most difficult to come up with a playlist for. Are there songs that come to mind that claim to be about the God revealed in the Bible, yet are more likely to weigh people down with heavy and painful loads rather than setting them free? Or songs written by people who’ve walked away from the church because of the hypocrisy they’ve experienced or the violence of the language they’ve encountered there? I look forward to reading your suggestions in the comments below. One of them will score a copy of TEN. Please do click on one of those little buttons below and invite others to contribute a song.