The 10 Commandments were referred to in various ways in the Old Testament:
- The "words" - Ezekiel 20:1
- "Words of the Covenant" - Deuteronomy 5:22
We read in Exodus 31:18 that they were written by God Himself and given to Moses at Mount Sinai. Moses returned from the mountain and found the people worshiping a golden calf fashioned by non-other than Aaron, Moses' brother. Exodus 32:15-16 says that Moses, in anger, broke the tablets containing God's commands.
God gave Moses a second set which were eventually deposited in the Ark of the Covenant which was kept in the Holy of Holies (Exodus 34:1; 40:20). These were eventually lost.
There are different opinions as to how the commandments were separated on the tablets. The concept that some commandments were on one stone and the others were on another led many to imagine how they may have been. The custom at the time for the declaration of laws by a king was that two copies were made. One for the king and one for the people.
Scholars are fairly certain that according to the custom of the period, God fashioned two tablets of stone with all 10 commandments on a single tablet front and back. Both were then put into the ark which symbolized the place where God and man met.
Augustine (4th-century theologian) supposed that there were three on one and seven on the other. He was the one who grouped the 1st and 2nd commands into one command and divided the 10th into two commands - a division Roman Catholics use to this day.
Later Protestant theologians (Calvin in the 16th century), as well as modern scholars, have grouped them into four and six on respective tablets. This accommodates the length, divides the duties to God and man, and also reduces well to two basic commands as Jesus said in Matthew 22:34.
|Augustine / Roman Catholic Division||Calvin / Protestant Division|
|God only/Forbidding images - 1||God only - 1|
|God's Name - 2||Images - 2|
|Sabbath-3||Respecting God's Name - 3|
|Parents - 4||Sabbath - 4|
|Murder - 5||Parents - 5|
|Adultery - 6||Murder - 6|
|Theft - 7||Adultery - 7|
|Lies - 8||Theft - 8|
|Covet Goods - 9||Lies - 9|
|Covet Wife - 10||Covet goods & wife - 10|
Division notwithstanding, these were not totally new ideas. The commands concerning the treatment of others were already incorporated in Egyptian legal codes. The command to respect God's "name" was also followed by the more enlightened cultures in their religious practice.
What was truly new were the 1st, 2nd, and 4th commands:
- To worship only one God because only one existed - this was new.
- To refrain from characterizing God with idols and images - this was new.
- To set aside a particular day every week for the worship of God - this was new and particular to the Jewish people.
Altogether the commandments summarized the basic moral responsibilities men had towards each other and introduced the true nature of God as well as an acceptable way of addressing Him. All of this was given to man with the accompaniment of miracles to confirm the truth.
Let us now turn our attention to the 3rd commandment.
You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain, for the Lord will not leave him unpunished who takes His name in vain.
- Exodus 20:7
Note another command that states the ordinance and the punishment for failure to comply.
Names in Jewish Culture
To properly understand this command we have to understand the role of names in Jewish and other ancient cultures. For these people (as well as indigenous cultures here in America) a person's name represented his heritage, his character as well as his role in the community. The name was given with this in mind.
- Eve: "the mother of all living" (Genesis 3:20) or "life-giver"
- Abraham: "Father of many nations" (Genesis 17:5)
- Jesus: Greek form of the Hebrew name Joshua which means "Jehovah saves"
This focus on names is less prevalent in our society, but it is nevertheless still important. How many would name your sons Adolph or your daughters Jezebel? How many of us have names that mean something or represent someone we love or remember? Even for us today names are meaningful and important.
The Name of God
God revealed His name, Jehovah, to the Jews. This name in Hebrew means "self-existent/eternal." The name implies not only who God is but also denotes His nature, His power and His authority among other things. Because He is what His name represents, the 3rd Commandment requires us to use that name, as well as other references to Him, with respect.
The inference is that to use references (like God's name) without respect is to disrespect God Himself and God promises to punish those who do so. People who have unusual or complex family names can relate. If you make fun of their name, you make fun of them. Because God is supreme and unique as God, anything that lacks respect is an offense to Him.
How do we break this Commandment?
We do it in a variety of ways:
1. Using God's Name to witness in frivolous matters.
- "I swear to God, I'll be there on time"
- "This is the best ______ under heaven"
This does not mean we cannot take an oath using God as our witness (e.g. oath of office/marriage/court). These are serious things and we are asking God to witness and help us carry out our duties and responsibilities. In these cases we are not using His name to validate ourselves or our witness.
It is a serious offense to violate an oath or covenant that we have asked God to witness. The patriarchs in the Old Testament saw the value and seriousness of oaths and covenants - so much so that they took God as witness when they made a promise or offered a blessing.
In Matthew 5:37 when Jesus teaches on oaths, He is instructing the people to allow their word as Christians to be their bond in everyday matters (let your yes be yes, no be no) and to not take God as witness to their everyday affairs which would be disrespectful to Him and His name - and dishonest on their part.
2. Using God's Name in careless or disrespectful ways.
Using God's name in "exclamations" that are not in context of worship or study. For example:
- "Oh my God" / "My Lord"
- "For God's sake"
- "For the Love of God"
- "Oh Jesus"
- Using it in coarse ways or to curse.
- Making fun of God/Christ
- Using God or Jesus' name in swearing/cursing
- Euphemisms ("sounds like")
- Jeez (Jesus) Jiminy Christmas
- Gosh (God)
- Words that sound like "Christ"
These are simply habits that are hard to break.
How do we keep this Commandment?
Let no unwholesome word proceed from your mouth, but only such a word as is good for edification according to the need of the moment, so that it will give grace to those who hear.
…and there must be no filthiness and silly talk, or coarse jesting, which are not fitting, but rather giving of thanks.
- Ephesians 4:29; 5:4
Eliminate those words, phrases and verbal habits that disrespect God. Replace them with words, phrases and verbal habits that show faith, respect and gratitude. For example: "Praise God," as an exclamation for happiness or encouragement. Note what Isaiah writes concerning his experience of being in the presence of God:
1In the year of King Uzziah's death I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, lofty and exalted, with the train of His robe filling the temple. 2Seraphim stood above Him, each having six wings: with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew. 3And one called out to another and said,
"Holy, Holy, Holy, is the Lord of hosts,
The whole earth is full of His glory."
4And the foundations of the thresholds trembled at the voice of him who called out, while the temple was filling with smoke. 5Then I said,
"Woe is me, for I am ruined!
Because I am a man of unclean lips,
And I live among a people of unclean lips;
For my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts."
6Then one of the seraphim flew to me with a burning coal in his hand, which he had taken from the altar with tongs. 7He touched my mouth with it and said, "Behold, this has touched your lips; and your iniquity is taken away and your sin is forgiven."
- Isaiah 6:1-7
Isaiah's glimpse of the heavenly glory moved him to see the sinfulness of his lips (even though he was an extremely pious and educated Jew). People who do not know God are usually the ones who break this command. The more we know and interact with God through Christ, the more we want to honor Him with our lips. We do not take the Lord's name in vain if we are continually using our lips to praise, thank, tell and talk to Him in Christ.