The third commandment is about much more than careless profanity.
Chapter 20 of Exodus gives us the Ten Commandments (as Christians call them) or the Ten Words (as Jews call them). The ten commandments have played a huge role in Christian instruction, such as the many catechisms that theologians have composed to instruct believers in the doctrines and morality of Christian living.
Those catechisms have provided extensive exposition on the meaning of the commandments and their application to daily living. I do not want to add to that mass of words. My readers can explore that exposition by turning to the many catechisms that they will find in traditional churches, both Catholic and Protestant.
One of the most popular in my own Presbyterian circle has been the Heidelberg Catechism of 1563. Questions 41-81 of this catechism contain a detailed explanation of each of the commandments.
Instead, in this posting and the next, I will comment on just two of the commandments—Commandment 3 and Commandment 10*. The first, because a frivolous interpretation of it drains it, in my opinion, of its more serious meaning. The second, because it stands apart from all the others by its focus.
The third commandment reads:
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 (Exodus 3:7).
When I was a child, parents and Sunday school teachers drilled into me that this commandment prohibited any kind of profanity. Especially that meant any swear words that used a variation of name of God or of Jesus. For example, we could not say the word Gee (it was regarded as an abbreviated form of Jesus) nor Yikes (it was regarded as an abbreviation for Christ). If we did as children, we found our mouths washed out in soap.
We find throughout Exodus–and for that matter, the whole Bible–a concern with protecting the good name of God.
For good measure, the prohibition was extended to any other swear words, especially words referring to sex or bowel movements. I grew up in an environment largely free of foul language. It continues to influence my speech to this day.
A Deeper Interpretation
But I’ve come to believe that this interpretation of the commandment distracts us from a more serious violation of the commandment.
We find throughout Exodus–and for that matter, the whole Bible–a concern with protecting the good name of God. Like all of us, the God of the Bible shows a concern with his reputation in the world. His work in liberating Israel is motivated in part by the purpose that God’s name be proclaimed throughout the earth. That is said explicitly in Exodus 9:16, when God tells Moses to say to Pharaoh:
But this is why I have let you live: to show you my power, and to make my name resound through all the earth.
We find an echo of this thought in Psalm 135. The psalm contains a celebration of what God did to liberate and lead Israel out of Egypt. The psalmist concludes that celebration by saying:
Your name, O Lord, endures forever,
and your renown, O Lord, throughout all ages. (Psalm 135:13)
Isaiah sees word about what God has done on behalf of Israel as triggering a curiosity or longing to learn more about this God. In Isaiah 2, the prophet foresees a time when all nations will stream to Jerusalem. Why? Because…
Many peoples shall come and say,
‘Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord,
and to the house of the God of Jacob,
That he may teach us his ways
and that we may walk in his paths.’
For out of Zion shall go forth instruction,
And the word of the Lord from Jerusalem. (Isaiah 2:3)
The word-of-mouth spread of the news of what God has done on behalf of Israel is expected to cause astonishment in other peoples. They will be moved to ask questions about this God.
Nothing is more inclined to turn people away from God, to reject and despise God, than the linking of God’s name to attitudes and behaviors that misrepresent the character and purposes of God…
In this sense we might say that evangelism will not be a deliberate mission of Israel. Rather it will be a by-product of other people hearing and talking about the story of Israel in what might amount to casual conversation. This happens all the time when we share excitedly with one another some tidbit of news we have heard (“Have you heard that….”).
Advertisers say nothing works so powerfully as word-of-mouth endorsements of a product from family members, friends, and colleagues. We trust such endorsements because we trust the people giving them. The same is true in matters dealing with the spirit.
Nothing is more inclined to turn people away from God, to reject and despise God, than the linking of God’s name to attitudes and behaviors that misrepresent the character and purposes of God, especially when we link the authority of God to some social or political ideology we espouse. When we cite God’s will as authority for some such ideology, we need to be quite sure we are understanding God’s will correctly.
A Case in Point
A good example of what I mean was reported in a recent issue of The Washington Post.** A columnist was commenting on the oral arguments that went on in the Supreme Court over whether the new Texas law on abortion was constitutional. Many saw this case as a direct challenge to the Court’s decision in Roe v. Wade.
Outside the court demonstrators assembled in vocal protest of or in support of abortion. Metal barriers divided opposing sides. The columnist reported that the two sides tried to outshout each other. One woman opposed to abortion used a bullhorn to drown out the others.
She screamed at those who support abortion in these words (according to the columnist): Maybe some of you should have been aborted, you wicked, nasty, disgusting, ungodly–I don’t even want to call you women! You are bloodthirsty animals! This is what happens when you allow women to emasculate men! God hates you! In the name of Jesus Christ, shut your vile, sick mouth!
I shuddered when I read that. Personally I don’t favor abortion. But to scream at someone who supports abortion that God hates them and that in the name of Jesus Christ, they should shut their vile mouth is a direct violation of the third commandment, as I see it. It is defaming the character of God. In my theology, God does not hate anyone, nor does Jesus order any person to silence their voice. This kind of talk brings disrepute upon the proclamation of the gospel. I recoil in horror at this misuse of the name of God.
The third commandment targets this kind of practice by which we malign the name and character of God when we clothe our misunderstandings and willful purposes in the language of divinity.
A Legacy of Skepticism
I experienced this disrespect for God’s name frequently as a child when I grew up in the church. Many a minister in a sermon thundered from the pulpit about some issue or action which he demanded that we practice because it was God’s will or which he denounced as a violation of God’s will. This is in fact standard content in many sermons. As I grew more mature in my faith, I came to believe that so many of them were dead wrong in their understanding of God.
… a preacher should feel some sense of fear and trembling when he or she mounts the pulpit and sets out to declare the word of God for the assembled congregation.
This has left me with a deep legacy of skepticism. One who expresses how this unintended consequence happens is the Biblical scholar Terence E. Fretheim. Here is what he says about the third commandment:
A central issue at stake for God is the declaration of this name to the world and the effect the hearing of that name will have on people. Will they be drawn to it or repelled by it or remain indifferent to it? If that name has been besmirched in some way by the manner in which it has been used by the people of God or by the practices with which it has been associated, then the divine intentions may fall short of their realization.***
This is not to say that preachers have no right to claim the authority of God as sanction for some of the things they say. There are some clear indications in the Bible about God’s will, and the Ten Commandments are examples. But it seems to me that a preacher should feel some sense of fear and trembling when he or she mounts the pulpit and sets out to declare the word of God for the assembled congregation. How easily we can unwittingly deceive ourselves and mislead the people of God.
Jesus, too, is aware of the great danger arising from careless speech about God as well as from our hypocritical actions. After instructing his disciples that they must change and become like little children in order to enter the kingdom of God, he then goes on to warn them of misleading those who seek to enter the kingdom. He says:
If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were fastened around your neck and you drowned in the depth of the sea. Woe to the world because of stumbling blocks! Occasions for stumbling are bound to come, but woe to the one by whom the stumbling block comes! (Matthew 18:6-7)
A Proper Reticence
Another way we can disrespect the name of God is when we use God’s name in empty phrases or in easy religious talk. I often wonder if people are even aware of what they are saying when they spontaneously say “Oh, my God” in a casual conversation. Often it strikes me as nothing more than an empty phrase, although unconsciously they may be acknowledging a divine presence of which they appear unaware in their daily living.
Another example is the kind of testimony giving that is a common practice in the churches where I grew up. A genuine testimony to God’s action in one’s life can be a powerful experience for a listening congregation. But too many of the testimonies I heard in church as a child struck me as cliched and vacuous. They were often an occasion for people to demonstrate how pious they were.
Reticence in using the name of God seems to me one way we can honor the Third Commandment.
I recognize that I need to be cautious in making this criticism. People may use cliched language because it is all they have available to express their genuine experience. When that is the case, the genuineness is likely to come through in the tone of the voice. But too many testimonies do not pass the test of genuineness for me.
As a result, I have become highly reticent in attributing things that happen in my life, good or bad, to God. It is not that I believe God is not at work in the events of my life. Rather it is that I am highly skeptical of my ability to discern what is of God and what is not. The way of wisdom, it seems to me, is to be careful in what I say.
Reticence in using the name of God seems to me one way we can honor the Third Commandment. Devout Jews set what I regard as an instructive example for many Christians. Throughout the Hebrew Bible, the proper name for God is spelled YHWH. Whenever Jews encounter this name in the text, they do not pronounce it. Instead they substitute the word Adonai (My Lord).
This has been such a long practice that scholars do not know for sure what is the proper pronunciation of the name. They speculate that it is Yahweh. And some English translations adopt that pronunciation. But it remains speculation. No one knows for sure. So reticence is proper.
* Different faith traditions number the commandments in different ways, by separating some and uniting others. I follow the enumeration in my faith tradition, which is Reformed and Presbyterian.
** Dana Milbank, ‘Roe’ is dead; the Roberts Court’s ‘stench’ will live forever, a column in The Washington Post, December 2, 2021. Page A23.
*** Terence E. Fretheim, Exodus: Interpretation Commentary. Louisville: John Knox Press, 1991. Page 228.