High Voltage: God's Holy Name

by Joe McKeever

"And David arose and went...to bring up from there the ark of God which is called by The Name, the very Name of the Lord of Hosts who is enthroned above the cherubim" (II Samuel 6:2).

You don't have to read far in the Bible, particularly that portion we call the Old Testament, to observe that the writers seem to be bending over backward not to actually speak the name of God.

In Psalm 20, for example, we read this blessing: "May the name of the God of Jacob set you securely on high."

That reads like they have left a blank for God's actual name, under which they penned in tiny letters: "You know, the name of the God of Jacob."

We could use some of that. We desperately need more reverence for the name of God today.

I read the other day that the Catholic Church has announced it will no longer be referring to God by the name "Yahweh." That, to the best of our knowledge, is the proper way of spelling and pronouncing the YHVH or YHWH which is found in the Hebrew Bible everywhere the name of God is given. Not to belabor a point you probably know from having read it countless times, but the Jews would not pronounce that name, and so gradually lost the vowels that accompanied those four consonants. Instead of pronouncing the proper name (YHVH), Jewish worshipers would say "Adonai," meaning "the Lord."

The Hebrew for "the Name" is "Ha-Shem." A common expression was "Baruch Ha-Shem": Blessed be the Name.

Somewhere along the line, transcribers took the vowel points from Adonai and stuck them under YHVH and gave us Jehovah (or something close to it). But that "name" was just an invention on their part.

In the 1960s, when I would try to dialogue with members of the Jehovah's Witnesses, they would insist how absolutely necessary it is that a church carry the proper name for God (that being "Jehovah", of course). A dozen years later, by the time their leaders had learned their mistake, they changed their tune. Then, when we would "dialogue," they would say, "It doesn't really matter; it's the spirit of the thing that counts." To be sure.

I have a dozen or more books on the Ten Commandments. Almost all of them, on arriving at the third commandment-"Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain"-they stress the many ways by which we misuse the Lord's name. High on that list is attaching His name to anything He has not said, blessed, commanded, or called. If I say, "The Lord told me to tell you" and He didn't, I have taken His name in vain.

I grant you those are ways of taking His name in vain, but rather than going into all the secondary applications of the third commandment, could we just park on the primary application for a bit? We are not to misspeak His name, not to use it in any unholy way.

Rob Schenck explains that in the Hebrew language, the literal meaning of the third commandment is "No lifting up of the Lord's name." He quotes Everett Fox in translating it, "You are not to take up the name of YHWH your God for emptiness." Schenck adds, "One way of interpreting this peculiar idiom is to say, No stealing the Lord's name.'" (Rob Schenck's book is The Ten Words That Will Change a Nation.)

Joy Davidman, the wife of C. S. Lewis, also wrote a small book on the Ten Commandments. She says, "the third commandment is not just a nice-Nellyish warning against profanity. It is much more like the sort of warning you see around power plants: Danger-High Voltage!' For the ancient Hebrews seem to have thought of God almost literally as a live wire. 2 Sam. 6 relates how Uzzah, who touched the Ark unwarily while trying to keep it from falling, was struck dead by the indwelling Power. The implied moral seems to be: Be careful how you touch God-He's dangerous!"

She goes on to quote her husband, who said, "Those who think to make their concept of God larger by talking of ultimate principles and such in reality are only making it vaguer; they are reducing the good, wise, and loving Being to an abstraction incapable of goodness, wisdom, or love-and indeed of being too! Offhand, it would seem as if there were no harm in a man's inventing his own name for the Almighty, yet in practice rejecting the word almost always leads to rejecting the reality. For words do have one sort of magic-they have a magical power over the operations of our thinking. When we drop the word God,' we are on the way to losing touch with the truth behind it. There is no virtue in not calling upon Him on the ground that he isn't there to answer" (Her book is called Smoke on the Mountain).

In his outstanding book The Ten(der) Commandments, Pastor Ron Mehl talks about the common expression in which people call on God to "damn" this thing or that person. He says, "Why would God say, Don't take my name in vain?' Because He loves you and me so much. The problem with most people is that they think they can get by with it because they say anything they want to and nothing has happened.' Yet when you read the Scriptures you discover something about sowing and reaping, and it is this: you never, never reap in the same season you sow. But God's Word is true. And using His name in vain will affect your life."

In his book God's Ten Words, Tuscaloosa's Buddy Hanson quotes Presbyterian scholar Jack Scott: "The first commandment is concerned about the object of worship, the second commandment concerns the means of worship, and [the third] commandment concerns the manner of worship, forbidding all careless, or profane use of His name, and commanding a holy reverence from us in all our solemn addresses to Him, or ordinary mention of His name."

It has long been observed that people swear by that they consider most holy. In an adventure novel set in the Far East, the author had one of his characters declare, "I swear by the name of the Christian's Jesus." I wanted to tell the novelist, "Cheap shot, friend. That doesn't work. No one talks that way."

No Christian swears by Buddha or Krishna or Baal. No Buddhist swears by Jesus, no Muslim takes the name of Christ in vain. People swear by that they deem most sacred.

The next time you hear someone using Jesus Christ as a swearword, it might be interesting to ask him if you could test a theory with him. You've heard it said that people swear only by that they consider holiest, so, "I was just wondering if that's true in your life, if you have that much reverence for Jesus' name that He's the One you swear by."

At any rate, believers who take their faith seriously (are there any other kind?) should tread softly before calling out the holy name of our Heavenly Father. Choose your words carefully. Do not rush into His presence without thinking-we are entering high voltage territory.

Joe McKeever is director of missions for the Baptist Association of Greater New Orleans.

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