The Second Commandment
Rev. Rolf Preus| August 15, 2010
“You shall not take the name of the LORD your God in vain, for the LORD will not hold him guiltless who takes His name in vain.” Exodus 20:7
What does this mean?
We should fear and love God that we may not curse, swear, use witchcraft, lie, or deceive by His name, but call upon it in every trouble, pray, praise, and give thanks.
God gave the Ten Commandments to a specific nation at a specific time of history. He gave them through Moses to ancient Israel about 1,400 years before the birth of Christ. Sometimes we use the term “moral law” to describe the Ten Commandments. By “moral” we mean that they are a standard for all human conduct. The Ten Commandments aren’t time bound. They teach permanent truths about what is right and what is wrong. Right and wrong don’t change.
The Ten Commandments served as civil law for ancient Israel. To a large extent they still serve as civil law today. For example, the Second Commandment, “Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord, thy God, in vain,” forbids perjury. That’s against the law in every state in the Union. Of course it forbids more than that. Any misuse of God’s name is a sin, even when it isn’t a crime. To use God’s name as an expletive, as if it is a four-letter word, is a sin. When Christians say “Christ” and “God” as expressions of surprise, disgust, annoyance, or anger, they dishonor the one whose name they bear in Holy Baptism. The Second Commandment forbids every misuse of God’s name. To curse your neighbor, calling God’s anger down on him, is a sin. To use God’s name in service to any kind of lie is a sin. To say that God said it when God didn’t say it is a sin. To use God’s name to cover up any kind of wrongdoing is a sin. And God takes this sin against the Second Commandment seriously: “The LORD will not hold him guiltless who takes His name in vain.”
The ancient Israelites were quite legalistic in the way they applied the Second Commandment. The name of God in the Hebrew of the Old Testament is Jahweh. Our English language Bibles simply render this as L-O-R-D in all capital letters. The Hebrew word, Jahweh, comes from the Hebrew for I AM. It is the name that God gave to Moses at the burning bush. The Israelites were so concerned about the guilt they would bring upon themselves by taking Jahweh’s name in vain that they came up with a simple solution that would prevent them from ever breaking this commandment. They never used the name Jahweh at all. Whenever they spoke of Jahweh, they called him by name title, “Lord,” instead of by his personal name, Jahweh. They figured that they could hardly misuse God’s name if they never used it at all.
But they were wrong. As with all of the commandments, it is not just a matter of what we must not do, it is also a matter of must we must do. And so Luther’s explanation is quite right when it explains that we must not “curse, swear, use witchcraft, lie, or deceive by God’s name” and then goes on to say that we must “call upon it in every trouble, pray, praise, and give thanks.” To use God’s name in service to a lie or a sin is a sin of commission. To ignore God’s name altogether is a sin of omission. God says, “Call upon me in the day of trouble, I will deliver you, and you will glorify me.” (Psalm 50:15)
Obviously, using or misusing the name of God goes much deeper than the mere use or non use of such words as Lord, God, Christ, Jesus, and so forth. God’s name is not a magical sound. God’s name is everything the Word of God says to describe God. His name is his reputation. His name has to do with his honor. The most serious violation of the Second Commandment is not using God’s name as a cuss word, it is rather attributing to God a teaching or message that is not from God. In this way God’s reputation suffers among those folks who believe the teaching comes from God.
Luther makes this point in the Large Catechism on the Second Commandment:
The greatest abuse, however, occurs in spiritual matters, which pertain to the conscience, when false preachers arise and peddle their lying nonsense as the Word of God. (Large Catechism, Part I, paragraph 54)
The reason people don’t care about false doctrine is because they don’t care about God. They don’t care to honor his name. The Second Commandment is simply putting into practice the First Commandment. The First Commandment deals with the heart. Who you do fear, love, and trust in the most? To whom do you look for all help in your every need? On whom do you rely? Your faith is either in the true God or an idol. The First Commandment deals with who our God is. The Second Commandment deals with what we say about him. Do we talk of him in such a way that his reputation is honored and magnified and that his name is hallowed, as we pray in the Lord’s Prayer? Certainly this requires, first and foremost, that we speak the truth about him. And surely we cannot speak the truth about God if we don’t know what the truth is.
There are some things about God that he chooses not to reveal to us. That’s his business, not ours. St. Paul puts it this way in today’s Epistle Lesson:
Oh, the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments and His ways past finding out! For who has known the mind of the LORD? Or who has become His counselor?
But people aren’t satisfied to leave the unsearchable judgments of God up to God and so they seek out information that God forbids them to have. They consult mediums, astrologers, witches, psychics, and others who make a living out of defying the Second Commandment. Sorcery of every kind and description is sin, and it is no joking matter. The devil and his angels are real enough. Since the holy angels obey God and surely wouldn’t speak to people who seek divine guidance in defiance of God, the only possible source of information through sorcery, fortune telling, séances, and the like is the devil and his evil angels.
The name of God and the word of God are tightly joined together. Listen to how St. Paul connects God’s name with God’s word in his Epistle to the Romans.
For whoever calls upon the name of the LORD shall be saved. How then shall they call on Him in whom they have not believed? And how shall they believe in Him of whom they have not heard? And how shall they hear without a preacher? And how shall they preach unless they are sent? . . . So then faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God. (Romans 10:13-17)
Calling on God’s name is nothing more than an expression of faith. Faith comes from hearing the gospel that is preached. So to use God’s name faithfully is to pray, praise, and give thanks to the one who speaks his word of the gospel to us.
The greatest worship outwardly is the preaching of the gospel. The greatest worship inwardly is the believing of the gospel. The way we use God’s name simply reflects what we believe about God.
God’s name is hallowed, blessed, praised, and adored by God’s holy people when the pure, wholesome, saving gospel of Jesus Christ is preached and believed.
The law of God shows us a goodness and justice and majesty of God that must not ever be compromised. God’s law reflects the perfection of God’s holy nature. Any compromise of God’s law is to take his name in vain. We do not have the right to amend God’s commandments to make them more popular. That is taking God’s name in vain. When the law hurts those whom we love we had better remember whose law it is. It is God’s, not ours. The law does hurt, but that’s not God’s fault. It’s the fault of sinful men, women, and children.
But we would be fools to rely on the law of God for spiritual growth. For that we need the preaching of the cross. We need to hear of Christ’s crucifixion for us. This honors God’s name. For in the suffering and death of Jesus God’s goodness is seen it its true and eternal purity. Our God is full of mercy and compassion. People just talk about feeling your pain. They don’t really feel it and they couldn’t if they wanted to. But God joined himself to our own flesh and blood and became one of us. He joined us as a man and he suffered. He felt our pain. He faced the curses of the whole world against the holy God. He, the pure, innocent, God-man, bore the curse of Almighty God against sinners. This is what the Bible says:
Christ has redeemed us from the curse of the law, having become a curse for us (for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who hands on a tree”). (Galatians 3:13)
He faced not only the curses of men, but also the curse of God against sinners. He faced it and he bore it and he took it away from us. The Second Commandment meets its goal when we with unclean lips and corrupt hearts lay before our gracious God all of our sins of thought, word, and deed, and we listen in humble faith to his words of forgiveness. To preach and to believe that gospel is the goal of the Second Commandment. Believing that for Christ’s sake all our sins are forgiven, we have peace with God, and we have a home in heaven forever, is the foundation and strength of all our prayers, praise and thanksgiving to God. Amen.