The Reverent Use of God's Name

by Steven R. Key

From a sermon preached at Randolph Protestant Reformed Church on September 21, 1997. Scripture text: Psalm chapter 145 and Exodus 20:7
    As we continue our consideration of the Ten Commandments, as that divine guide for our life of thankfulness to God our Savior, we come this morning to the third commandment. The Heidelberg Catechism, in what one might consider an unusual development, devotes two Lord's Days to the third commandment. Lord's Day 36 treats the third commandment at its essence, explaining what is required of us in the third commandment, but also setting forth the terrible nature of the sin forbidden here. "There is no sin greater or more provoking to God than the profaning of His Name." But having expounded the law of God set forth in the third commandment, the Catechism then devotes Lord's Day 37 to a subject which also falls under the general theme of this same commandment, namely, the use of the oath or confirming one's testimony by taking an oath in God's name. That careful and lengthy exposition of the third commandment serves to demonstrate the seriousness and holy fear with which we must stand before the name of God. For the name of God is certainly the subject of this commandment. "Thou shalt not take the name of the LORD thy God in vain; for the LORD will not hold him guiltless that taketh his name in vain."

We have seen that God is God alone. In thankfulness to God for His great work for us and in us, we worship Him as God alone. We will have no other gods before us. And because we acknowledge that He alone is sovereign and that He alone has the right to demand of us what He wills, we also have received from His mouth the second commandment, which in essence calls us to worship Him only in the way that He Himself has appointed in His Word, chiefly hearing Him in the lively preaching of His Gospel, in order then to respond to Him with thankful praise. Those, as you recall, were the first two commandments. Now we come to the third, a command that has its basis in the truth that the God Who has saved us and therefore the God Whom we serve as our heavenly Father, is the God Who is perfectly holy. And if He is holy — and He most certainly is — then His name, by which He reveals Himself to us, is also holy. And we who use His name must do so with reverence and holy fear, to adore and glorify it, and to represent it also by lives of holiness unto the Lord. With that brief introduction, then, I call your attention to:

The Reverent Use Of The Name Of God

We notice:

I. God's Holy Name

II. The Abuse Of That Name

III. The Proper Use Of God's Name

  1. As We Consider The Requirement Of The Third Commandment, We Want To Begin By Considering God's Holy Name.

    What Is Meant By The Name Of God?

    Among men we speak of a name in more than one sense. Among us a name can be little more than a handle, a designation which sets one person apart from another. We have our personal names, and sometimes even nicknames, by which we refer one to another, and address one another as persons. But one thing holds true about a name — it is inseparable from the person to whom it is attached. Person and name are inseparable. When a person signs his name to a document, he expresses that he personally endorses that document or is responsible for its contents. But because a person and his name are inseparable, a name also denotes a man's reputation. By a man's name, and what is told about him, his reputation is recorded in the minds of others as a man with a good or a bad name. And so in the Proverbs 22:1 we read that a good name is rather to be chosen than great riches. And in Ecclesiastes 7 we are told that a good name is better than precious ointment. Therefore we also realize that when a man's name is reproached or slandered, it is his person that bears that expression of hatred and contempt.

    God's name also is inseparable from His very Being. By His name He reveals Himself. The name of God is that which He Himself makes known of Himself and all His virtues. In the first place, that name of God is unveiled in all the works of His hands, in creation and in history. Through all those things God has made Himself known, establishing His reputation, if you will. In the chapter which we read earlier, Psalm 145, the psalmist announces his resolution to praise the name of God, his King, forever and ever. He speaks of God's name as that by which God has revealed Himself. Listen: "Every day will I bless thee; and I will praise thy name for ever and ever. Great is the LORD, and greatly to be praised; and his greatness is unsearchable. One generation shall praise thy works to another, and shall declare thy mighty acts. I will speak of the glorious honour of thy majesty, and of thy wondrous works. And men shall speak of the might of thy terrible acts: and I will declare thy greatness" (Psalm 145:2-6). He continues to speak of the works of God in all the creation, and in the outworking of His counsel in history, standing in awe of the fact that "The LORD is righteous in all his ways, and holy in all his works....The LORD preserveth all them that love him: but all the wicked will he destroy" (verses 17 and 20). And so he concludes, "My mouth shall speak the praise of the LORD: and let all flesh bless his holy name for ever and ever" (vs. 21). In Psalm 8 the same truth is expressed, namely, that God's name is made manifest in the works of His hands, and is especially magnified in the eyes of us who are His. For our confession is exactly this: "O LORD, our Lord, how excellent is thy name in all the earth!"

    But we know His name in a special way by His revelation which is recorded for us in the Scriptures. There our heavenly Father has revealed to us His personal names, names with which we may address Him and by which we may speak about Him. They are also the name through which He enters into personal fellowship with us. There are many such names of God, all of which reveal a different aspect of His glorious Being. Whether we speak of Him as God, or Lord, or Most High, or Almighty, or Father, or Holy One, each name, consciously spoken, brings us into fellowship with Him and moves us to approach Him in praise and adoration. His names are a gift to us His people! Take note of this! How unfathomable is the great mercy of our God! He Who is the Holy One introduced Himself by name to us! He approached us personally, us, who are not only mere creatures of dust, but who are also sinners, unworthy and incapable of using His name aright!

    There is more. This act of boundless mercy and grace was possible only because it also pleased our God to reveal Himself to us with a name that is above every name, a name in which and through which He made it possible for sinners such as we to approach Him without terror, to enter into fellowship with Him, and to address Him as our God and Father. Do you boys and girls know what is the name above every name? The answer is found in Philippians 2. It is the name JESUS. And it magnifies another of God's names, a wonderful name, the name YAHWEH or Jehovah. YAHWEH is the name by which God revealed Himself to Moses as the God unchangeably faithful to His covenant. He is the I AM, Who changes not. He has established His covenant with Abraham's seed, and in Him with the children of the promise. And He is unchangeably faithful to that covenant. He will take His people into His own fellowship and bestow upon them His love. He will do that in spite of their oft unfaithfulness. He does that, saying in Malachi 3:6, "For I am JEHOVAH, I change not; therefore ye sons of Jacob are not consumed."

    And in the most personal way possible God revealed Himself as Jehovah our God, by sending His own Son in the likeness of our sinful flesh, though without sin. Moreover, sending His Son, He instructed Joseph to name Him JESUS, for, said He, "he shall save his people from their sins." Jesus means Jehovah-salvation. In that name God reveals Himself to us His people as the God of our salvation! As the God of grace and mercy, Who blotted out all our sins and forgives all our iniquities, Who makes us holy and worthy to dwell with Him, Jehovah enters into personal fellowship with us, taking us into His own covenant life of unspeakably blessed love. When, therefore, as the redeemed and sanctified people of God, we hear the name of Jehovah our God, we immediately think of that name JESUS. Whatever names of God we may use, we can take them upon our lips only in and because of that name JESUS. And it is also in that name that we hear the third commandment, "Thou shalt not take the name of the LORD thy God in vain."


    That is why we find so many references in the Scriptures to God's holy name. In the call to worship of Psalm 99, we read in verse 3, "Let them praise thy great and terrible name; for it is holy." Or again in Psalm 103, part of which is so familiar to us, being heard in the Form for the Lord's Supper, we have the call in verse 1: "Bless the LORD, O my soul: and all that is within me, bless his holy name." And to mention only one more, listen to Psalm 111:9: "He sent redemption unto his people: he hath commanded his covenant for ever: holy and reverend is his name." Do you know what it means, young people and children, that God is holy? It means, for one thing, that He is totally set apart, to Whom no one can be compared. He is separated by an infinite chasm from all that is called creature. And it means that as the Only Good, the infinitely perfect God, He loves Himself and seeks His own glory in all things. God is Self-seeking. Because He is Holy! God alone has the right to be self-seeking. If you and I are self-seeking, it is wicked. But God can be and is Self-seeking because He is Holy. Oh yes, you and I are also called to be holy. And in Christ we are even said to be holy. But holiness for us is not to be self-seeking, but to seek God. With us holiness means that we are consecrated to the living God and to His glory, that our lives are centered in Him.

    His is a name, therefore, that is set apart. His name is not common! Because the Lord our God is holy, His name likewise is the revelation of His holiness. As He in a very personal way reveals Himself to us that we might speak to Him and about Him, He does so as God Who is God alone. His name is unique, separated from and infinitely above all other names. That is the basic principle which underlies this third commandment. So that in this commandment God, as it were, speaks to His people and says, "I am Jehovah your God, your Redeemer. There is no other God, no other Savior. I have made known My name, in order that you might know Me and glorify Me, sanctifying Me in your heart and in your life. Beware, lest you take My name in vain; for I will not hold him guiltless who takes My name in vain.



    Orthodox Jews have long taken the position that the sacred name YAHWEH is too holy to take upon our lips. But nowhere in Scripture do we find any indication that we are forbidden the use of that name. As I have explained, that name is a most beautiful revelation of our covenant God to us. And although that name receives the emphasis in the letter of the third commandment — Thou shalt not take the name of JEHOVAH thy God — it does not say, "upon thy lips." Rather, it says that we must not take that name in vain.

    That means that we must not take the great name of our God and make it common. That is what it is to take His name in vain. It is to use it in vanity, to drag it down into the realm of that which is common. It is to take that which is perfectly holy, set apart, and obliterate the distinction from those names which are common. Among men all names are common. Oh, some names are rather unusual. But they don't mark the person bearing that name as different. The fact is, every person who bears a name is a member of a creaturely race, and is sinful besides. When we take God's name, therefore, and use it in vain, what we do is either intentionally or unintentionally erase the distinction between the Creator and his creatures. Still worse, we take the holy name of God and drag it down to the mud and filth of sin. We defile His name.


    We immediately recognize the violation of this commandment when we hear someone cursing and swearing by God's name. When we hear God's name spoken in words of angers, a vehicle to express corrupt emotions, hatred and envy and malice, even drunken revelry, we cringe in knowing the dreadfulness of the sin. And we recognize, as our Catechism expresses it, that there is no sin greater and more provoking to our Holy God than the profaning of His name. So great is the sin, that in the Old Testament, He commanded this sin to be punished with death. And if we ask, why does any man or woman take God's name and abuse it like none other, using it to express bitter anger and hatred? Why do they flippantly utter the name of Christ, and take the name above every name, Jesus, and use it as an expletive? The only answer is: "The carnal mind is enmity against God." And such sin is the expression of that carnal mind.

    But the same sin comes to expression in many other ways, some very subtle ways. It may simply consist in this, that we use the name of God thoughtlessly, that we use His name, but there is no corresponding thought of fear and reverence in our hearts. Oh, how this commandment exposes our sins! How frequently are we guilty of this, beloved! How quickly in the worship service, e.g., do our minds wander. In the singing of the songs of Zion, we are taking the name of the ever glorious God upon our lips, and our thoughts are far from Him! We are taking His name in vain! Or in our prayers, and especially in public worship, as the minister leads us to the throne of grace, even while we are calling upon God's name, our thoughts go here and there, or we start to doze off. Do we realize what we are doing? Does our profanity in worship shame us and cause us great sorrow of heart? Or do we just shrug our shoulders at it? Let us understand, when we take the name of our God upon our lips, when our mind is far from Him, we profane His name, and commit the very sin of which He says, "I will not hold him guiltless that taketh my name in vain." Oh, how we need Jesus!

    Profane it is too, whenever we fail to confess the name of Jehovah in the times that we should. We cannot keep the third commandment by simply being silent and never using the name of God. God gave us His name that we might confess it, and that we might sanctify and glorify Him in the midst of the world. Sometimes it is necessary to defend that name. That is what the Catechism means when it says that this commandment requires of us that we not by silence or connivance be partakers of these horrible sins in others. Most men would quickly come to the defense of the names of their wives, should someone in their hearing begin to speak evil of them. How is it then that we can let men profane the name of God, and not say anything? I don't mean to imply that we must respond every time with words of rebuke. The real question is: Are we willing to respond? Do we simply shrug off the profanity of others, or does the offense cut deeply into our own soul? There is a proper way to respond. We must not respond in such a way that brings only deeper reproach upon our God. We ought not respond with a "holier than thou" attitude, or with sharp words that are interpreted as words of hatred. But we ought to freely defend the name of our God. And especially must we warn those who go by the name Christian, that they ought not abuse the name of God Who is holy. And because our very lives reflect upon Him Whose name we bear as Christians, we must guard our own walk, and also obey the biblical injunctions which call us to speak to the brother or sister who walk in the way of sin, calling them to turn from evil, and to stop reflecting so negatively upon the name of our great Redeemer.

    Finally, although there are other ways in which God's name can be and is profaned by men, I would also mention one more thing. The name of God is profaned by false prophecy, by corrupt preaching. Don't forget that either. Especially in our day, I would urge upon you the importance of remembering that truth. When God's truth is misrepresented, His name is profaned. For He reveals Himself to us by His Word of truth. The Scriptures make clear that when false prophets pretend to speak God's Word, but come with their own, they not only lie, bearing false witness, and they not only make a graven image with the mind, but they also profane the name of Jehovah. That is a striking thing when you study the Old Testament. False prophets declare, "Thus saith the LORD," when in fact they have not been sent by Him, and when in fact He does not speak through them. The Scriptures expose such men (and I might add women) as diviners. That is, they pretend to speak that which is divine. While prophecy comes with the word of Jehovah, divination comes with its own philosophies or its own predictions. And it does so while pretending to come in the name of God! That too is nothing less than taking God's name in vain. And so Ezekiel is given to speak (Ezekiel 13:8,9), "Therefore thus saith the Lord GOD; Because ye have spoken vanity, and seen lies, therefore, behold, I am against you, saith the Lord GOD. And mine hand shall be upon the prophets that see vanity, and that divine lies: they shall not be in the assembly of my people, neither shall they be written in the writing of the house of Israel, neither shall they enter into the land of Israel; and ye shall know that I am the Lord GOD."


    Increasingly common has this sin become. That is not only reflective of the increase in wickedness and the development of sin in the world, but that is evidence that Christ's coming draws near! We are told in Revelation 13:6, that the coming of Antichrist, that great dragon, is a coming marked by blasphemies. So we read as John sees this monster of iniquity in his vision on Patmos: "And he opened his mouth in blasphemy against God, to blaspheme his name, and his tabernacle, and them that dwell therein."

    Furthermore, when you bear in mind that Antichrist has a religious face, and arises from the realm of Christendom, it is all the more evident that his influence is seen in our day. That also is a striking thing. You may hear people without any religion use the name of God as if He were dead and does not hear. But among the pagans, among those of idolatrous religions, you will not hear them use the names of their gods as an expletive. You will not find Hindus or Buddhists using the names of their gods in such a way. They use the names of their gods (which really are no gods) only in their prayers, and refuse to use them as interjections, because they are afraid of being punished by the wrath of their gods! But within the realm of Christendom, and in those nations where historically the Christian church was established, cursing has become customary! Even our young people in Christian schools are subjected to this profanity, especially with the misuse of the name of Jesus or Christ, but as well with those holy attributes that only belong to God, much as holy, mercy, goodness and the like. That is a sad thing to observe. For its testimony is clear: It is a sign of a Christianity that is no longer living and vibrant, but that is dead. A Christianity that is no longer vibrant quickly develops into something worse than paganism. There is no fear of God and His exalted Christ. There is no consciousness of the truth that there is no sin greater or more provoking to God than the profaning of His name. Such common profanity is a symptom of unbelief, a heart estranged from the only Savior, spiritual death!

    And let us understand: This sin is not limited to any age group or any class of people. This is a sin committed by all, from young to old. And especially to us who are in Christ Jesus, this command is proclaimed with fervency. As children of God we carry God's name. As those named Christians, as those baptized into Him, we bear the name of Christ. We must not carry His name unto vanity. Very striking it is that Scripture points us to the importance of living in godliness, lest the name of God be blasphemed. That comes down to such a daily task as doing our work properly and honoring those whom God has placed over us, whether that be for our employer or for our teacher in school. This is what we read in I Timothy 6:1: "Let as many servants as are under the yoke count their own masters worthy of all honour, that the name of God and his doctrine be not blasphemed." When we walk in sin, when we fail to confess with honor the name of Christ, and choose instead to walk with the world, when we show indifference toward the things of God, or even abuse those who are His servants and children, we blaspheme the name of God! And when the sinner makes such an attack upon the holiness of God's name, that Almighty God assures us, "I will not hold him guiltless that taketh my name in vain."



That requires in our hearts the wonder work of God's grace in Christ Jesus. You understand that, don't you? How we use God's name reveals the deepest recesses of our hearts. From the horrible corruption of our sinful flesh which makes us so often treat God as if He doesn't even exist, from the enmity of our heart which moves us to trample under foot the holy name of God and live in such a way that we drag Him through the mire of sin, we have been delivered by the power of God's irresistible grace. We hear this law now as those who stand on Mount Zion, redeemed by the blood of Christ, delivered from the bondage of sin and death.

 Therefore we recognize that the name of Jehovah our God is not to be taken lightly. The Hebrew term that speaks of God's glory is a term that pictures something very weighty. God's glory and His holiness is a weighty matter. We are moved to acknowledge His imposing greatness and give Him the praise that is fitting for the level of His majesty. We know that, when used with fear and reverence, God's name may be spoken with confidence in prayer and praise and conversation and instruction. But His name must be spoken in no other way than with fear and reverence.


As we read, so we are to confess with the psalmist in Psalm 145:5: "I will speak of the glorious honour of thy majesty, and of thy wondrous works." With that heart-resolution, with that God-centered attitude, conscious too that we have but a small beginning of this obedience, we are also eager to be instructed by God's holy law, asking, "Lord, what wilt thou have me do?" Is that your confession, your desire? Does God's name receive its proper place with you?

Then we also hear the words of II Timothy 2:19: "Let every one that nameth the name of Christ depart from iniquity." In honor of His name, you and I are called to live unto Him. Thank God for this wonderful freedom He has given us, to walk in the way of His Word. For this sin, punishable by death, was borne by His Son on our behalf and in our place. Christ is the fulfillment of the law for righteousness to every one who believes. In Him is our life. And in the way of obedience is our freedom. Do you believe it, beloved? Live unto Him, confessing His name with reverence and holy fear.


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