On Names and Naming

We don’t think much about the Ten Commandments in my corner of the Christian world, which some of us would think is exactly as it should be—“we’re a people of grace!”—and I fit in the other camp when I wonder if our resistance to the commandments as law means we lose them as wisdom.

It doesn’t help that we call them the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20) rather than their Hebrew name of the Ten Words (or the Decalogue if we’re feeling fancy).

If I asked you to list the Ten Words most of us could get most of them and we’d get lost somewhere in the second tablet and forget that murdering is bad or something. Implicitly we’d know they were wrong though, even if we rarely think about how broadly applicable they are. Jesus teaches our application method in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7): if hate is murder and lust is adultery we should give careful thought to the scope of coveting, stealing and bearing false witness. Paul does the same thing in lots of his ‘vice lists’ if we look at them carefully.

Even then, some of them seem pretty odd to us. It’s obviously bad to murder people. We don’t like being stolen from, even if we aren’t quite sure how coveting stands at the same moral threshold. The first tablet is weirder to us: we get the first couple of them about worshipping God, but keeping the Sabbath is strange, honouring our parents doesn’t seem to have much to do with God, and why on earth is saying “Jesus!” in surprise as bad as killing someone?

Well, there are a host of false assumptions in my previous paragraph—one of our problems is that we don’t follow the internal logic of the words—but I’d like to zoom in on that final one: the third commandment.

Thou shalt not take the name of Yahweh thy God in vain

It’s the smallest seeming of them. It doesn’t seem to fit. And, if we grew up around the church, seemed to ban the light curse words without banning the strong ones.

Let’s get this out upfront, to not take the Lord’s name in vain has little to do with not saying “oh my god” as an exclamation—I think that’s an implication of the third word in the same way that not hating is an implication of “don’t murder,” but it isn’t the heart of the commandment. Which, in turn, makes us trivialise it and not consider some of the relevance it has for our own day.

It’s personal

All of the words are, which is why the KJV picks the personal ‘thy’ instead of the formal ‘you’ (which we totally forget is what those words mean), but more than that it’s do not take the Lord’s actual name, ‘YHWH’ in ‘vain.’ We aren’t talking about a generic God in general, we’re talking about the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.

God’s name is his revelation

All names have to be revealed, but Yahweh is a name that ties God to the specific redemption of Israel from Egypt and to his promises to the patriarchs. The Ten Words start with some of this story (Exodus 20).

God names himself

Unlike everyone else who has ever existed, God names himself. We don’t do that, our names come from others, they are received as identities as a gift from someone else. That is true of everything and everyone with a name except for Yahweh the Triune God.

In fact, to choose our own names amounts to an act of rebellion, a rejection of created order, and a bid to be gods ourselves. Which is true of breaking any of the Ten Words, but we would rarely think of this one—we instinctively believe we have a right to construct our own identities. In a number of ways this might be true, but in the most fundamental ways it is not.

Bearing the name

Peter Leithart, in his excellent little book The Ten Commandments, argues that the word translated ‘take’ doesn’t mean speak, it means lift up, or carry. We bear God’s name all of the time in everything that we do. Every sin is a violation of our bearing of his name, of our close personal association with him.

There’s a weight to this that few of us feel. Perhaps we should, though we should also be aware that Jesus calls his burden ‘light’ and ‘kind’ (Matthew 11).

It’s about Jesus

Jesus is the name of the Father—the Father is only a Father because he has a Son. His self-revelation is the Son. In the old covenant the Name dwelt in the temple and sanctified it by his presence.

Jesus bears the weight of the name—and is crushed by it in our place. The weightiest way to break the third word is to deny Jesus.

How then should we live?

This is not a command about social order, about certain kinds of speaking. It’s a demand to honour and give weight to God’s name—his self-revelation—in everything that we do.

It’s a requirement that we live as though in baptism we were gifted the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit—because we were. It’s a requirement to remember our baptism (Romans 6).

It’s a demand to live wise lives that know who we are, to remember that we too are temples for the Spirit of Yahweh (1 Corinthians 6) and so should live like we are, and that the church bears the name of Jesus and so should live like it does so.

It is no light thing at all, but it is a privilege.

Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash

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