Using God’s Name

Sunday Worship at Black Forest Community Church
Black Forest, CO
January 25, 2015
© Rev. Diane Kay Martin

                                                                                              Using God’s Name

Scripture Reading:       Exodus 20:1-6

Then God spoke all these words: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and the fourth generation of those who reject me, but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments. 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.”

This is our third Sunday in the series on the Ten Commandments. As I did last week, I wrote today’s Call to Worship as a way of revisiting some of the major themes we’ve covered so far.

We revisited the first commandment, “You shall have no other gods before me,” and the second commandment, “You shall not make for yourself an idol [of me],” and then the reading introduced the third commandment, “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.” This commandment is possibly better known as, “You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain.”

And I know, the first thing that comes to mind when we hear this commandment is cursing. Using “Jesus” or “Jesus Christ” or “God” or “God Almighty” as an exclamation—that’s the person-on-the-street understanding of what this commandment means. And now we see online quite oftenvideos of people—even small children—shouting out profanity, and the adults who are recording it thinking it’s cute. The original version of many pop and most hip-hop songs is filled with profanity and obscenity, and all they have to do to make it legal is to label it “Explicit,” and it’s considered “okay.” It’s every-day; it’s commonplace; it’s not pretty. And if the person-on-the-street has the correct interpretation of this commandment, then each of these people—both child and adult—is doomed to God’s eternal wrath because of their misuse of God’s name.

If that were the correct answer, I could stop preaching right now and we could all go home and not bother ever coming back, because 99 percent of us are guilty of breaking this command. Who here has ever hit your thumb with a hammer and not been able to stop certain unanticipated words from coming out of your mouth? We’re almost all guilty of profanity, so what’s the point of trying anymore? We’ve broken the law, God will not forgive, and we must pay.

Every single commentator I read on this passage focused on the “angry God” approach to the text. God will not forgive this! God will never forgive this! And I came away very discouraged. Very confused. Very sad.

Until I looked at the original Hebrew text. The word naqa is translated here “acquit.” In other versions of the Bible, it’s rendered “hold guiltless.” What does acquit, naqa, mean? Does it mean “forgive”? No, it means “find not guilty.” This verse says God will not “find you not guilty”; God will find you guilty, which is appropriate, because we are guilty! And we know it! We heard that ugly word escape our lips when that hammer came down, when that car pulled out in front of us, when we slipped and fell on the ice. We know we’re guilty of using God’s name in this way.

And so we don’t need acquittal; we don’t need to be found not guilty; we need to be made not guilty. We need forgiveness, and that is God’s specialty. God offers forgiveness all through the Old Testament and the New—through the ritual offerings under the old covenant, and through Jesus under the new covenant. Because God created us, and God knows we’re not perfect.

But is that all there is to God’s name, all there is to taking it in vain?

What’s in a name? As we have learned, in the customs of ancient civilizations, a person’s name represents their whole nature, their whole being, their very ethos, everything they are.

This is why naming a baby is such a significant event in many cultures. When my daughter Stacey was expecting her first baby several years ago, she and I visited a friend of hers who was proud of his Cherokee ancestry. He asked her if she had chosen a name for her unborn son, and when she replied, “Yes. His name is Israel,” he asked her, “But how do you know?” That’s because in Native American (and some other modern) cultures, a child can’t be named until her or his true nature is known. It would be impossible to name a child before birth because then the name couldn’t capture the person’s very ethos— everything they are.

That’s why, when Moses asked God what God’s name is, God said, “I Am.” God’s name is a declaration of being. It is a statement of God’s existence. So one way to misuse God’s name would be to deny God’s name, “I Am,” and say that God does not exist. To simply deny God’s existence would be an affront to this God who longs to be in covenant—in relationship—with us.

Another way to misuse God’s name would be to “take it in vain.” When you say you did something “in vain,” does that mean your efforts had the intended result? No, you tried, but to no avail. You were powerless to succeed.

When we take the name of the Lord in vain—or, in my favorite version of this verse, from Young’s Literal Translation—when we “lift up the name of the Lord as a vain thing”—we are saying that God’s entire nature is “a vain thing”: empty, meaningless, worthless, powerless. We are saying that God is incapable of changing anything in our lives. But God is capable. In fact, God has many more names, sprinkled through the Old Testament, that describe God’s nature. God is Elohim (Creator); El Shaddai (Lord God Almighty); El Olam (God of the Ages); Jehovah Sabaoth (the Lord of Power); Jehovah Tsidkenu (the Lord Our Righteousness); Jehovah Mekoddish (the Lord who Sanctifies); Jehovah-Nissi (the Lord my Banner); Jehovah-Raah (the Lord my Shepherd); Jehovah-Rapha (the Lord who Heals); Jehovah Shammah (the Lord Is There); Jehovah Jireh (the Lord Will Provide); Jehovah-Shalom (the Lord Is Peace).

When we take God’s name (nature) in vain (as to no avail), we are denying all of those names. When we take God’s name in vain, we are saying God can’t mend a broken heart. We are saying God can’t heal a sick body. We are saying God can’t use chemotherapy to eradicate cancer. We are saying God can’t bring a peaceful death. We are saying God can’t help us in our finances. We are saying God can’t cure—or use doctors to treat—mental illness. We are saying God can’t speak to our hearts when we pray privately at home. We are saying God can’t give the abused person the courage to finally leave the abuser. We are saying God is God, but what’s it worth, because God can’t change anything anyway?

But God can, and God does! Albert Einstein said, “Coincidence is God’s way of remaining anonymous.” So many times, good things happen that there is no way we could have planned—and the best explanation is that “it’s a God thing.”

Here’s an example: Nathan and I hiked down Pikes Peak a few years ago. Eight miles from the bottom, my hips started aching something fierce—burning, like bone on bone—I wanted to stop, needed to stop, but there was no way to get down but keep walking. (I had had Guillain-Barre Syndrome as a teenager, and the paralysis of that disease had left my hips stiff and weak, so I assume this episode was a long-term side effect of that.)

I cried with each step, for hours, but I had not thought to bring any pain relievers on this outing. I was in so much pain, I contemplated throwing myself to the ground and trying to roll down the mountain. I thought that might be less excruciating. Of course that wouldn’t have worked. Nathan made a sling with his shirt, and we both put our arms in it as a way for him to bear some of my weight. It wasn’t enough. At some points, he even tried carrying me.

As we struggled down the trail, a man who was hiking up the mountain saw us and stopped to ask what the problem was. By “coincidence,” he “happened” to be a doctor, and he “happened” to have eight Advil tablets in his pack, and he “happened” to know that, considering the circumstances, I could safely take that many at a time, and maybe that would get me down the mountain. I cried in gratitude. I took the Advil, and I made it down the mountain. That “coincidence” was definitely a God thing.

When we start to recognize God at work in our lives—when we stop “lifting up God’s nature as a vain thing”—an interesting thing happens. We still get surprised and delighted when those “God things” happen in our lives, but we begin to relate to God on a new level. We begin to trust God in new ways—for ourselves, for others, for our church, for our community, for our country, for our world. And more good things, more “God things,” more coincidences happen, until the only thing that feels right to say is, “Holy God, We Praise Your Name!”


The Names of God

With Number of Occurrences and Scripture References

  • The most common one—the one we’ve already talked about in this sermon series—is Yahweh or Jehovah, which means I Am (I Was, I Am, I Will Be).
  • More than 2,000 times, starting in Genesis 1:1, God is called Elohim, which means Creator.
  • 28 times, beginning in Genesis 14:18, God is called El Elyon, which means Most High God.
  • Seven times, beginning in Genesis 17:1, God is called El Shaddai, which means Lord God Almighty.
  • Three times, starting in Genesis 21:33, God is called El Olam, which means the Everlasting God, the God of Eternity, the God of the Universe, the God of Ancient Days.
  • 434 times, beginning in Genesis 15:2, God is called Adonai, which means Lord, Master.
  • Six times, starting in Exodus 20:5 (the second commandment), God is called Qanna, which means Jealous or Zealous.
  • 286 times, starting in 1 Samuel 1:3, God is called Jehovah Sabaoth, which means the Lord of Hosts, the Lord of Powers.
  • Twice, starting in Jeremiah 23:6, God is called Jehovah Tsidkenu, which means the Lord Our Righteousness.
  • Twice, starting in Exodus 31:13, God is called Jehovah Mekoddish, which means the Lord Who Sanctifies, the Lord Who Makes Holy.
  • Only once, in Exodus 17:15, God is called Jehovah-Nissi, which means the Lord My Banner, the Lord My Miracle.
  • Only once, in Psalm 23, God is called Jehovah-Raah, which means the Lord My Shepherd.
  • Only once, in Exodus 15:26, God is called Jehovah-Rapha, which means the Lord who Heals.
  • Only once, in Ezekiel 48:35, God is called Jehovah Shammah, which means the Lord Is There.
  • Only once, in Genesis 22:14, God is called Jehovah Jireh, which means the Lord Will Provide.
  • Only once, in Judges 6:24, God is called Jehovah-Shalom, which means the Lord Is Peace.