So says Juliet in Romeo and Juliet. What’s in a name she asks? It doesn’t matter what you’re called, what your name is, it’s just a label that we use for convenience.
It’s the same way we use names today, they’re a helpful way of referring to people. When I shout up the stairs for one of the children to come down (in principle!) the right child comes. Their actual name doesn’t matter that much, we don’t pick baby names with the serious expectation that it will influence the character and identity of the child as they grow up.
But in the Bible, names are much more than simply tags so we know who we’re talking about. In the Bible, names tell you about the character of the person, it tells you what they’re like. Their name is intimately wrapped up in who they are as a person, in their identity. Treating someone’s name in a certain way was the equivalent of treating the person themselves that way.
So how we treat and speak God’s name is how we are thinking of and treating God himself – the two can’t really be separated. Hence, the third commandment is so important even though in the midst of the other nine it’s often overlooked.
As we’ve seen in previous weeks the context of this commandment is important. A few chapters earlier God has revealed his name to Moses, “I am who I am.” He is the God of Israel’s Fathers, the God who has made and kept in covenants with them, the God who is powerful, the God who can save and rescue them.
When we speak God’s name it’s the good and powerful God of underserved rescue who we are speaking of. And so, our use of His name should have the right sense of gravity and weight behind it. We should treat God’s name in the same way we treat God.
To take God’s name in vain has the sense of making it worthless or emptying it. It’s to use God’s name in a way that is false to who He really is. That might be by using God’s name inappropriately, swearing an oath on God’s name or wrongly claiming to speak words from God as we see elsewhere in the Bible.
But, and perhaps close to home, it’s also when we use God’s name in a way that empties it of its meaning – that makes God into someone much smaller than he is.
When we pray we take God’s name and often in our speech we use God’s name. But are we doing it in an empty or meaningless way? Does the way we use God’s name reflect who he really is, or does it distort or empty him?
It’s worth a thought over the coming week.