First published RTR XLVII, no. 1 (1988).

It is often assumed that there is little controversy surrounding the meaning of the Third Commandment. On the two occasions in which it appears in the Decalogue it has an identical form both in the Masoretic text and in the LXX (Exod. 20:7; Deut. 5:ll). At times the greatest deviation in viewpoint seems to come over the question of whether it is just speech in general which is the subject or specifically the swearing of oaths. For a translation which embodies this latter understanding, one can compare that of the NJPS: “You shall not swear falsely by the name of the lord your God.” This is not a modern interpretation but a very old one, being found in the Targum Jonathan on the Pentateuch, the Fragment-Targums, the Peshitta, and in medieval Jewish commentaries.

There are good reasons why the equation of “in vain” in this commandment with the word for “false” (cf. Exod. 23:1) is invalid.1For an excellent summary see B. S. Childs, Exodus (SCM Press, 1974), pp. 410 ff. The Hebrew expression “in vain” certainly goes much farther than just the idea of what is false or a lie. It expresses the idea of emptiness, worthlessness, lack of reality. Whatever other objections can be brought against this ancient interpretation, this linguistic aspect renders it suspect.

Within the contexts in which the Decalogue appears (Exod. 20 and Deut. 5) there are factors which suggest that some other interpretation should be considered, and one which goes beyond the restricted idea of a prohibition which relates only to speech. Firstly, there is the general point that due consideration must be given to the covenant setting of the Decalogue. Following the identification of the covenant God of Israel in the opening words of the Decalogue2Irrespective of whatever view is taken in relation to the division of the Ten Words, the opening words “I am the LORD your God…” must fall within the Decalogue as a whole and were a constituent part of it as written on the stone tablets., the commandments deal with the exclusive claims which God made on his covenant people. The context in which the Decalogue appears is important in both Exodus and Deuteronomy. In Exodus it follows the commitment of the people to be the Lord’s people and to be willing to do everything the Lord said (Exod. 19:8). This was the response from a people who were declared to be God’s treasured possession, a kingdom of priests and a holy nation (Exod. 19:5-6). In Deuteronomy the Decalogue follows the summary of the covenant contained in Chapter 4, which has all the features of a miniature treaty document. This setting of the Decalogue in a covenant framework is important, for it reminds us that the Decalogue contains the basic covenant demands of the God who had redeemed his people. It is the LORD, the saviour of his adopted people, who makes exclusive demands upon them.

Secondly, the comparison between the Third and the Ninth Commandments is important. If the Third Commandment is taken to refer only to sins of speech then it becomes very similar to the Ninth Commandment with the prohibition of false witness. Clearly the legal process is in view in that latter commandment, and one in which an oath in Cod’s name would be employed. Interpreting both commandments of sins of speech also fails to explain the addition of the threat of divine punishment in the case of the Third, and its absence from the Ninth.

If the Third Commandment is taken to refer only to sins of speech then it becomes very similar to the Ninth Commandment.

Thirdly, another factor which suggests re-consideration of the translation of the Third Commandment is the manner in which the LXX translated it. Corresponding to the Hebrew verb nasa, the LXX uses the Greek verb lambano. While this is clearly an attempt to stay close to the Hebrew expression, yet it is a strange way to express in Greek a prohibition of blasphemous speech. It is possible that the use of the Greek verb was similar to the later New Testament use of lambano in reference to receiving something, and hence the LXX rendering may mean “Do not receive (into your possession) the name of the Lord your God thoughtlessly”.

Numerous discussions of this commandment have suggested that it must be interpreted in a broader way without limiting the application just to sins of speech. However, few have dealt with the basic question of how to translate the verse which is a question which must be settled before proceeding to any discussion of its meaning and application. A few examples of such broader interpretation will be given. In their discussions in the Larger and Shorter Catechisms the Westminster divines considered the breadth of application of the commandment. They stated that “the third commandment requireth the holy and reverent use of God’s names, titles, attributes, ordinances, word, and works”, while forbidden by it was “all profaning or abusing of anything whereby God maketh himself known” (Questions 54-55). In the Larger Catechism the list is much longer, and they include in the sins forbidden “the maligning, scorning, reviling, or any wise opposing of God’s truth, grace, and ways; making profession of religion in hypocrisy, or for sinister ends; being ashamed of it, or a shame to it, by uncomfortable, unwise, unfruitful, and offensive walking, or backsliding from it” (Question 113).

Two recent illustrations from evangelical writers may also be cited. James Boice, in his Foundations Of The Christian Faith, discusses the Decalogue. He speaks about hallowing the name of God as meaning the honouring of God, and then discusses the significance of some of the names of God. He concludes by saying: “Moreover, our actions matter as much as our words. Whenever our conduct is inconsistent with our profession of Christian faith, even if it is a thoroughly orthodox profession, we dishonor God. Those who belong to God have taken his name, so to speak, and must hallow it by their actions.”3J. M. Boice, Foundations of the Christian Faith: A Comprehensive and Readable Theology (VP, 1986), p. 233. Peter Craigie in his comments on Deuteronomy 5 rightly recognised that “blasphemy (in the simple sense), however, is too narrow a subject for the commandment in its original setting”. He proceeded to suggest that the commandment was related to the use of magic in the Near East, and what was forbidden was the attempt to harness God’s power for selfish ends. In contrast to those punished for such wrong use of God’s name, “those bound to God in covenant, who know his name in the relationship of love, learn to live within the family of God.”4P. C. Craigie, The Book Of Deuteronomy (NICOT, Eerdmans, 1976), pp. 155f.

The covenant setting of the Decalogue, and the broader interpretation given to the Third Commandment over the centuries, suggest that closer attention must be given to the translation of it before the meaning is re-considered.

1. ‘To Take the Name of the LORD’

The common Hebrew verb nasa, used here in the Third Commandment, regularly means to bear, to carry, to lift up, to take away. On a few rare occasions it is used of taking a name upon one’slips, but in these cases the contexts make it plain that speech is intended. For example, the verb is used in Psalm 16:4 of uttering the names of heathen gods, but the addition of “on the lips״ makes is clear that speech is intended (cf. Ps. 50:16 for a similar expression but with “my mouth”). I cannot cite a single instance in the Old Testament where the Hebrew verb nasa standing alone has the meaning of speak, utter.

Here in the Third Commandment the verb nasa has as its object the phrase the name of the LORD. In Hebrew usage the word name did not just mean the vocable by which someone or something was known. Rather it was a term which often included the ideas of existence, character, reputation.5For an excellent summary discussion on the biblical use of name, see W. C. Kaiser Jun., “Name”, ZPEB, 4, 360-370. This was especially so in relation to the LORD. Moses, for example, posed the question that some of the people would ask: What is his name (Exod. 3:13)? The intended response to that question was not just the designation by which God would be indicated, but rather the character of God especially as it related to the needs of the people in their distress and misery. There is no reason to think that in the Third Commandment the word name does not assume this broader significance. Whatever the precise nature of the sin forbidden, it related to the character of the covenant God. Throughout the Decalogue the repeated use of the tetragrammaton emphasises that the stipulations were from the God who had graciously entered into a covenant with his people.

There is another aspect of name which could be very significant in relation to this commandment. Application of a particular name to a person or place often signified the existence of a relationship of possession. Just as God named the various aspects of creation, so imitating God, named the various animals brought to him, thus demonstrating his dominion over them (Gen. 2:19f.). To give a name to a conquered city (2 Sam. 12:28) or to lands (Ps. 49:11) demonstrated a right of possession. This was not an innovation in biblical times but a continuation of a much older extra-biblical practice.6See the discussion in G. J. Wenham, “Deuteronomy and the Central Sanctuary”, TB, 22 (1971), 114.

Application of a particular name to a person or place often signified the existence of a relationship of possession.

In the Third Commandment there occurs the verb nasa in the sense of bear or carry, along with the phrase the name of the LORD. I suggest that the idea is not of lifting up the name of God in speech, but instead that of Israel carrying or bearing the character of God. It then would fit in with the description of Israel in Exodus,19 as being the special possession (segullah) of the LORD, a description re-echoed in Deuteronomy where Israel is on three occasions called the people of God’s possession (am segullah, Deut. 7:6; 14:2; 26:18). God’s own people had a special responsibility to demonstrate by their actions that they were his people.

As Moses was later to remind Israel, they were God’s holy people, and in keeping the Commands of their God, “all the peoples on earth will see that you are called by the name of the LORD, and they will fear you” (Deut. 28:10).

In support of this interpretation of the commandment, two other factors can be mentioned. The Hebrew expression used here is rare in the Old Testament. When we look for linguistic parallels to this expression, the closest one in the Old Testament occurs later in the Book of Exodus. Twice in Chapter 28 reference is made to the fact that the names of the sons of Israel were to be engraved on stones on the ephod and the breastplate worn by Aaron (Exod. 28:12, 29). When Aaron went in before the Lord he was bearing the names of the twelve tribes on his priestly garment. As G. A. F. Knight puts it: “Thus just as Moses represented all Israel when God promised, ‘I will come with you’, 3:12, so too Aaron bore all Israel upon his shoulders like golden filigree epaulettes when he entered the holy place.”7G. A. F. Knight, Theology As Narration: A Commentary on the Book of Exodus (Handsel Press, 1976), p. 172. He was a divinely appointed, representative of the people and this was made evident by his bearing their names when he came before the Lord. Another helpful parallel is the use in Numbers 6:27 of the expression “to put my name on the Israelites”. This occurs immediately following the Aaronic benediction in vss. 24-26. Those who bore the name of God and reflected his character in their lives, would experience the blessing that was pronounced. In that way it is the positive assertion which corresponds to the negative prohibition in the Third Commandment.

The second line of evidence is of a different kind. Various attempts have been made to see if Deuteronomy in particular expounds the Decalogue in a systematic way. Last century the German Old Testament scholar W. Schultz argued that Deuteronomy 6-26is structured to correspond to the pattern of the Decalogue. Few followed up his discussion, until Herman Schulz, Stephen Kaufmann, Walter Kaiser, and G. Braulik did so in recent years.8I have discussed the various approaches in “The Structure Of Deuteronomy, With Special Reference To Chapters 5-26”, The Tyndale Paper, Vol. XXXII, 5 (November, 1987), 1-7. 1 express my thanks to those members of the Tyndale Fellowship who took part in the discussion when the paper was presented. Also, I wish to acknowledge with thanks the written contribution on my paper from W. P. Gadsby, and to note that some of the ideas set out by him have been incorporated in this present article. These scholars, along with the Dutch commentators Holwerda and Vonk, all argue for a very discernible grouping of the Deuteronomic laws. When it comes to the Third Commandment, it is striking that Schultz, Kaufmann/Kaiser, Holwerda/Vonk, and Braulik all take Deuteronomy 14 as part of its exposition. However, this chapter is not dealing at all with speech but with distinctiveness of behaviour. The Israelites were reminded that they were children of their God and called to a holy life (vss. 1-2). Included in the lifestyle demanded of Israel were customs relating to mourning rites, dietary provisions, tithing and feasting. These provisions were part of the commitment of a holy nation who were not to bear God’s character in a vain way. If further study confirms this general line of approach to the structure of Deuteronomy, then there would be supporting evidence for viewing the Third Commandment as one affecting general behavioural patterns and would help to confirm the view set out above.

2. ‘In Vain’

Some comment is needed on the addition of the prepositional phrase “in vain” in the Third Commandment. Earlier it has been pointed out that the Hebrew noun used here cannot be equated with the word for “false”. It is true that while the Ninth Commandment in Exodus 20:16 has the word “false”, the parallel in Deuteronomy 5:20 has the word normally translated “vain”.

While the word “vain” may on occasion have the connotation of what is false, usage in the Old Testament suggests that its meaning is much broader than just the idea of falsity. While the occurrence of this word in the Third Commandment is the most familiar to us, yet it appears in a variety of Old Testament contexts. It appears most often in the Psalms, Ezekiel, Job, and Jeremiah. Seemingly it comes from a root which indicates emptiness. Since what was empty was regarded as worthless, the word is used of a variety of situations to indicate lack of reality. Thus, for example, Isaiah commands the people to stop bringing worthless offerings (1:13), while idols are described by use of this word because they are without substance. It is possible that there are some Old Testament passages in which the word virtually becomes a synonym for idol.9See for suggested passages M. Dahood, The Psalms (Anchor Bible). 1, p. 151, though it is very uncertain that Isa. 1:13 and Job 1:1 should be in his list. Cf. also the older discussion by W. E. Staples, “The Third Commandment”, JBL 58 (1939), 325-329.

It is not just idols which are referred to as deceptions by the use of this word, but the words of false prophets as well (Lam. 2:14; Ezek 13-6-9, 23). Such words of a false prophet had no reality corresponding to them. Perhaps some of the false prophets had no intention of deceiving, but simply spoke out of their own minds (Ezek. 13:2), and hence there was no objective reality to what they prophesied. Their words were unreal and consequently false.

It is difficult to find a satisfactory word in translation to cover the various nuances of this Hebrew word. The LXX tried by rendering it as epi mataio, “thoughtlessly”. This does not go far enough, as the idea of unreality has to come to the fore. In some contexts of the use of the English word “hypocritically” comes nearest to the real meaning.

“Hypocritically” comes nearest to the real meaning.

In the Third Commandment this phrase is part of the prohibition. Following the above discussion I take it to be a command to God’s covenant and redeemed people, as those on whom he has set his name not to live in an unreal way. Because of its use in connection with idols and false prophets the element of contrast between real and unreal worship may well be emphatic. True commitment to God had to be based on reality. There was no place for sham or hypocrisy in his service. Anyone who was called by the name of the Lord, and was a bearer of his character, had to reflect the reality of the living God in their lives.

3. The Application of the Covenant Curse

Appended to the Third Commandment is a motive clause. Motive clauses, grammatically subordinate to a command, are a common feature of Old Testament legislation. In the Ancient Near East they constitute a clear peculiarity of Old Testament law in comparison with other legal codes. Some of the motive clauses give a simple explanation, others provide an ethical basis for certain actions, while others, like that in the Third Commandment, set out a religious ground. Here, as in the case of the First Commandment, the character of God forms the basis for obedience.10Cf. for a discussion on motive clauses in the G.T., B. Gemser, Adhuc Loquitur (Brill, 1968), pp. 96-115.

The LORD will not hold guiltless anyone who bears his name hypocritically.

The threat appended to the Third Commandment is that the LORD will not hold guiltless anyone who bears his name hypocritically. The form of the clause is a litotes, in which an affirmation is expressed by denying the opposite. The verb used in Hebrew is nqh, and it frequently has the meaning of being freed from punishment. Thus it is used of freedom or exemption from military service (Deut. 24:5), or a husband’s freedom from iniquity if, when declaring his wife unfaithful, he followed the legal procedures (Num. 5:31). The latter passage is also significant, because it shows that being held guiltless is the opposite of bearing iniquity. When this verb is used in the Piel it always (with the sole exception of 1 Kings 2:9) has God as the subject. Thus, prayers for acquittal are made to him, and he is the one who does not leave the transgressor guiltless and unpunished.

In Exodus 34 there is the account of God’s revelation of himself to Moses as he renews the covenant broken by the sin of the people (Exod. 34:10, 27). As Moses presented himself with the two stone tablets, the LORD declared: “The LORD, the LORD, gracious and compassionate, long-suffering and abundant in steadfast love and truth, maintaining steadfast love to the thousandth (generation), forgiving iniquity, transgression and sin, surely not leaving (the guilty) unpunished…” (Exod. 34:6-7). The revelation was in response to a request by Moses to be shown God’s glory, and was expressly a declaration of God’s name (Exod. 33:19). The words, which are largely from the Second and Third Commandments, set out the nature of God which expresses itself in complementary actions. While he is by nature abundant in covenant love and faithfulness, yet he is at the same time the God who will not permit the transgressor to go unpunished.

The place of the curses in the Decalogue has received considerable attention in recent years. In common with other Near Eastern treaties, the Old Testament covenants embody blessings and curses. These are reflected in the Decalogue, though not nearly as explicitly as elsewhere in the Bible. The word curse does not occur in Exodus 20 or Deuteronomy 5, but the threats expressed in the Second and Third Commandments constitute in essence a divine curse. In the case of the Third Commandment, the threat is that anyone of the holy nation who failed to live in accordance with the pattern set for them, would be regarded as guilty before God. The covenant people had a responsibility to imitate their God and so display his character to the world. This practical display of God’s laws was to have a missionary purpose, and would lead others to wonder at the nature of the God of Israel and at the righteous decrees and laws he had given to his people (cf. Deut. 4:5-8).

The impact of this threat in the Third Commandment has far more force if the understanding of the sin involved which has been presented above is accepted. To see this threat as applying only to blasphemous speech or false oaths, or the use of God’s name for magical purposes, is out of keeping with the nature of foe covenant curse. The threat is not directed to a peripheral aspect of Israel’s life but to the very core. In both Exodus 23 and Deuteronomy 27-28 (and reflected so often in the prophetic descriptions of coming judgement) the curse presented is the threat that rebelliousness on the part of Israel would result in Israel standing condemned before God and be punished because she was guilty.

4. Conclusion

Some of the discussions of the Decalogue which gave a broad application to the Third Commandment were clearly correct, even if the exegetical basis for it was not understood. Good theological sense led in the right direction and at times the wording used was very near the mark. Thus the words of the Westminster divines that this commandment forbids “making profession of religion in hypocrisy” (L.C. Question 113) were most apt and go to the heart of the prohibition.

Central to the thought of this commandment is the position of Israel in relation to God. Earlier in Egypt God had declared Israel to be his first-born son (Exod. 4:22f.) and had adopted Israel as his own people (Exod. 6:7). The chosen nation had to be a kingdom of priests and a holy nation (Exod. 19:6). Bearing the name or character of God was intrinsic to that role, and any false profession would mean a repudiation of the covenant relationship itself. The Third Commandment, with its associated curse, was to be the constant reminder to Israel of the need to fulfill her election and to demonstrate the character of God to a watching world. The basic idea of this commandment finds its counterpart in New Testament teaching, especially in the Pauline and Petrine epistles. In writing to the Ephesians Paul encouraged his readers to live in accordance with their new selves, “created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness” (Eph. 4:24). “As God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved” (Col. 3:12), New Testament believers are encouraged to manifest that new nature which is being renewed in the image of its creator. An adopted people, made into a royal priesthood and holy nation, is required to live to declare the praises of God so that the pagans may glorify God (1 Pet. 2:9-12). This passage, with its striking application of Exodus 19:4-6 to the Christian church, embodies the heart of the Third Commandment. Those brought out of darkness into the wonderful light of God, and who have received his mercy, must show the reality of that change by living before him without deceit and hypocrisy (1 Pet. 2:1).