February 2022 GPS
Earlier in this study we looked at what the different names of God tell us about His nature, character and attributes. In this month’s study we will look at ways in which God’s name is to be used – and how it is not to be used. This time we will look at a way in which His name is not to be used.
In Exodus 20:7, we read: “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.” Why is the prohibition so important and how is it to be obeyed?
This prohibition is so important because of the function which God’s name performs. His names reveal His nature/character/attributes. If we think about the names of God that we have studied so far, we will notice that there is one quality that is common to all of them. They all reflect the fact that God is nonmaterial. We cannot see the qualities portrayed in them except as they are manifested in His behavior. We cannot see love, but we can see how it acts. We cannot see holiness, but we can see how it is manifested in His behavior.
John made this one quality clear in the prologue to his Gospel: “No one has seen God at any time; the only begotten God who is in the bosom of the Father, He has explained Him.” (John 1:18, NASB95) That is why the second of the Ten Commandments prohibits idolatry. “You shall have no other gods before me. “You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me.” (Exodus 20:3–5, ESV) Any physical representation of God would distort the truth about Him. When God manifested His presence in the Tabernacle/Temple, it was in the form of a cloud or pillar of fire, not in the form of an animal or person or thing that could be touched. When the Samaritan woman brought up the question of the proper location where God manifested His presence, He said, “God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.”” (John 4:24, ESV)
How then are we to conceive of God? Isaiah 40:9b-31 helps us answer that question, as it is a self-portrait of God. I will not quote it here, but you can read it yourself. You will notice that all of it deals with God’s power. It is an exposition of one of God’s names, El Shaddai, God Almighty, a name that we studied in September’s GPS. In other words, our conception of God is to be formed by contemplating His attributes as they are revealed in Scripture. An important part of that revelation in Scripture is composed of the names He has given us for Himself there.
The LORD’s response to Moses’ request to see His glory is very instructive in this regard. “The Lord descended in the cloud and stood with him there and proclaimed the name of the Lord. The Lord passed before him and proclaimed, “The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation.” (Exodus 34:5–7, ESV) In this passage “the name of the LORD” is composed of a list of His attributes.
His name is so closely identified with Himself that there are even a few times in the Old Testament where His name seems actually to be a reference to Himself. “Behold, the name of the Lord comes from afar, burning with his anger, and in thick rising smoke; his lips are full of fury, and his tongue is like a devouring fire; his breath is like an overflowing stream that reaches up to the neck; to sift the nations with the sieve of destruction, and to place on the jaws of the peoples a bridle that leads astray.” (Isaiah 30:27–28, ESV) What comes is “the name of the LORD,” but the following phrases make it clear that the LORD Himself is the one coming. Notice how “the LORD” is synonymously parallel with “the name of the God of Jacob” in the following verse: “May the Lord answer you in the day of trouble! May the name of the God of Jacob protect you! May he send you help from the sanctuary and give you support from Zion!” (Psalm 20:1–2, ESV)
The same kind of identification can be observed in the New Testament. For example, after the chief priests and the council deliberated regarding what to do with Peter and the apostles, “when they had called in the apostles [from prison], they beat them and charged them not to speak in the name of Jesus and let them go. Then they left the presence of the council, rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer dishonor for the name. And every day, in the temple and from house to house, they did not cease teaching and preaching that the Christ is Jesus.” (Acts 5:40–42, ESV). Another example is found in Acts where Luke quotes Joel 2:32: “For “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.”” (Romans 10:13, ESV) Surely, the point in each of these passages is the “the name” refers to the Person in view, the Lord Himself. Still another example is found when John alludes to brothers who are working for Christ by saying of them: “For they have gone out for the sake of the name, accepting nothing from the Gentiles.” (3 John 7, ESV) Again, “the name” must be a reference to the Lord. Israel was forbidden to take His name(s) in vain because they reveal His nature/character/attributes.