What’s in a Name? Thoughts on the Third Commandment — and its not a trivial matter!

Exodus 20: 1; 7

1Then God spoke all these words:

7 You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not acquit anyone who misuses his name.

Today we take up the third commandment.

You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God

What exactly is prohibited?

Here is one interpretation.

This past week, Karen and I went with 13 friends to play tennis at Sea Colony in Bethany Beach, Delaware.

We played a lot of tennis.

But not necessarily good tennis.

There was, from time to time after an errant shot, the use of, shall we say “colorful language”.

Someone asked me what I would be preaching on this week and I said the third commandment.

Most people think it means as my mother’s “Country Commandments” plaque puts it “Don’t use bad words”.

Someone said that if our colorful language violated the third commandment, we were all doomed.

Maybe not.

The third commandment is not about words – it’s about how we use the Lord’s name.

As most of you know, I am someone who has a great deal of difficulty with remembering names.

I often struggle to come up with the name of someone I know pretty well.

I also know that I am not alone.

I am also aware of what it is like to know someone for years and have that person not remember my name.

When I was a boy, I spent many summers with my grandparents in Edinboro, PA.

They had a boat on the lake that my brother, Tom, and I would use.

The marina owner, Frank, knew us both for years, but could not remember our names.

He called us both “Timmy”.

He would even say to folks at the marina when we came in for gas, “Look, here comes Timmy and Timmy.”

People in Edinboro still call me Timmy.

It makes me think of my favorite passage from Rev. Peter Gomes, “The Good Book” where he describes such situations.

One of the most embarrassing social situations, upon which even Miss Manners and other arbiters of social etiquette have failed to provide a useful strategy, is the one in which you have more than a nodding acquaintance with someone. At the point of introduction, you got the person’s name, forgot it, asked it again, and forgot it again. Meanwhile, you go on meeting this person, chatting and being chatted with, but you have clearly passed beyond the point where you can ask for the name again. It is easy enough to maintain the façade of friendship until that awful moment comes when you are required to introduce your nameless friend to a third party.

Clearly, we are supposed to learn and remember the names of those who inhabit our social circle.

If we know someone’s name, we know that person, right?

We have a relationship with that person.

But as I re-read this Gomes quote, I started to think of the third commandment.

First, does God have a name?

Apparently, because the third commandment prohibits its wrongful use.

So, if God has a name, do we know it?

If we ever knew it, have we forgotten it?

Have we gotten to the point where we cannot actually introduce our nameless God to a third party?

And if we can’t remember the name, how do we keep from misusing it?

So, first things first.

We need to know the name of God, so we can be sure not to misuse it, right?

So, what is God’s name?

We see many names in the Old Testament for God, right?

Names we have come up with to describe who God is and what God does.

Descriptions of how we experience God.

Here are some descriptions God has been given in the Old Testament:

In the New Testament we have the same thing.

  • Father
  • Son
  • Spirit
  • Redeemer
  • Savior
  • Anointed one
  • Christ
  • Messiah
  • Comforter
  • Advocate
  • Counselor
  • Might God
  • Everlasting father
  • Prince of peace

Even the name Jesus Christ is a description.

It means “God Saves by the Anointed One”.

You get the idea.

Dr. J. Hampton Keathley, III puts it this way:

… [T]o many the names God or Lord convey little more than designations of a supreme being. It says little to them about God’s character, His ways, and what God means to each of us as human beings. But in Scripture, the names of God are like miniature portraits and promises. …

So, these are not really God’s names.

Because neither Israel, nor us for that matter, is allowed to name God.


… Naming [in the time of Exodus] carried special significance. It was a sign of authority and power. This is evident in the fact that God revealed His names to His people rather than allowing them to choose their names for Him.

To name someone is to imply ownership of, authority over, possession, or control.

We have neither ownership of, or authority over, God.

Walter Brueggemann, Old Testament scholar, connects the third commandment with the first two when he says:

… [T]he prohibition of images [and names][is] an assertion of the unfettered character of Yahweh, who will not be captured, assigned, or managed by anyone or anything, for any purpose.

OK then, what is God’s name?

It turns out that is not an easy question to answer.

In his book, Theology in Exodus, Professor Donald Gowan uses an entire chapter on this subject.

He says that the first time God is asked God’s name is when Moses wants to know what to say to the Israelites when they ask Moses, “Who sent you and gave you this authority?”

God’s response was, “I am who I am.”

OK, who is that?

I am the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.

I am the one intervening here.

But you can call me “Yahweh”.

Now we have a name.

What do we do with it?

Or better yet, what don’t we do with it?

How do we not misuse it?

What does the 3d Commandment prohibit?

And why is it such a big deal that God put it in his top 10.

The name of God is thought to have tremendous significance and meaning.

One author puts it this way:

The foundational character of the Exodus story only serves to underscore the significance of the name of God. It is by this name that God is revealed. It is by all the words and deeds associated with the name YHWH that one shall know who and what God is, what God is like and what God does. Through this name, human beings have access to the knowledge of God. By this name God is present, and through this name God is worshipped.

Through that name we worship.

Jesus teaches us to hallow God’s name.

When we invoke God’s name, we imply God’s presence.

For what things we invoke God’s name determines how others will perceive God.

They will see God through our eyes and in our words.

So we must be very careful when we appeal to God.

It looks a little like this, I think.

Have you noticed that the most common place we observe people praying outside of a church service is at a sporting event?

It starts with folks who are regular church attenders, but whose regular attendance coincidently coincides with important Steeler and Penguin games.

Next up is the pre-game player huddle prayer.

Then there is the sign of the cross before an at bat or an important in game event.

And finally, the sky directed finger pointing after a goal, touchdown, or home run.

Here is a story from sports reporter John Blake of CNN.

Rich Franklin cornered the man who challenged him and launched a looping kick that caught him on his jaw.

The man’s face flushed red, and his knees wobbled. Franklin moved in, pounding his opponent with haymakers until he collapsed, grimacing.

Franklin, an Ultimate Fighting Championship middleweight, had just scored another victory. The chiseled fighter took the ringside microphone and faced the roaring crowd.

“I want to say thanks to God, all praise to him,” he said. Then he bowed and folded his hands in prayer as his groggy opponent was led outside the ring.

Was it Franklin’s right hand or was it the hand of God that helped him smite his opponent? Ringside viewers may disagree, but God seems to be standing in the corner of a lot of victorious athletes these days. …

Thanking God from the winner’s circle has become so common that one British newspaper published a letter to the editor entitled: “Leave me out of your petty games –Love, God.”

I admit I prayed before wrestling matches and soccer games.

Sure, the words I used asked for God to help me do my best and make sure no one got hurt.

But my best would surely bring home a win, right?

If I did win … well does God really care about such things?

Which, interestingly enough, brings us to the third commandment.

Are these folks asking God to be a part of a trivial matter?


The invocation of his name as some sort of ally in a cause, or a reference of credibility, or some judgmental hit-man, trivializes God.

And the 3d Commandment really says we are not to trivialize God.

We are not to invoke the presence of God for trivial things because to do so implies a trivial God.

How do we know when we are doing that?

According to the New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary it is this:

To make “wrongful use of the name”, … means to invoke through utterance the power and purpose of Yahweh in the service of some purpose that is extraneous to Yahweh’s own person. That is, the ultimate violation is to make Yahweh (who is an ultimate end) into a means for some other end. …

Yahweh will not “acquit” those who seek to use God for their own purposes …

Why such a sever pronouncement?

Because if we invoke God for our “mischievous” trivialities, we treat God like an idol.

And God is not the divine wish granter.

Nor is God our personal assistant.

So, what does invoking God as a means to an end rather than as the ultimate destination look like today.

Let’s take a moment to think about where and when God is invoked?

We certainly see a good deal of this in American politics today.

And this is nothing new.

Abraham Lincoln illustrates it in his second inaugural address.

He talks about the war and then says this.

Both read the same Bible, and pray to the same God; and each invokes his aid against the other. … The prayers of both could not be answered–that of neither has been answered fully.

I think Lincoln had it right.

Old Testament Scholar, Walter Brueggemann puts it this way:

… Yahweh … has no utilitarian value and … cannot be recruited or used for any social or human agenda. The God who commands Israel is an end to be honored and obeyed, and not a means to be used or exploited.

Like athletes praying for victory in a game, politicians claiming God is on their side, to opponents in a war, the invocation of God’s name is an effort to coerce God to take a side.

When we do that, we use God’s name as a means to achieve the end of our personal or political or national or even our athletic desires.

That is a violation of the third commandment.

What we are called to do in the third commandment is to invoke God’s name only to achieve God as an end.

What is that?

Loving God and loving our neighbor.

To have a relationship with God.

What does that look like?

You know what I am going to say.

Feeding the hungry.

Clothing the naked.

Giving water to the thirsty.

Welcoming the strangers.

Caring for the sick.

Visiting the oppressed.

When we do these things for each other, we do them for God.

So if we want to have folks see God through our eyes and our words and our actions, maybe these would be names they use to describe God.

Feeder of the hungry.

Clothier of the naked.

Giver of water to the thirsty.

Caregiver to the sick.

Visitor to the oppressed.

The one who intervenes here.

These are the things of God.

And they are not trivial.


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