The 3rd Word

February 1, 2010 — 4 Comments

It is interesting to note that in the Old Testament, what we call the 10 Commandments, are not ever referred to as such. In the Septuagint (Greek translation of the OT) they are referred to as the Decalogue, which in Greek would mean the 10 words. The Hebrew comes out meaning “the 10 pronouncements,” so when I titled this blog “The 3rd Word,” I am referring to what would otherwise be known at the 3rd commandment. If the counting may seem off, it is because the Jews consider the declaration “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt…” as the 1st Word, and then they combine v. 4-6 as a single pronouncement (or the 2nd Word).

Backing up a bit, from where we stand now, we tend to think that there is really only 2 commandments. We are to love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, mind, and love our neighbors as ourselves. Jesus affirms this in the Gospels, and you have it present as well in the Shema of Deuteronomy (6:1ff, specifically v. 4-9).

While this is true, then what the 10 Words really are then are more in line general abstract principles that are basically applying the 2 other commands to several facets of life. This has lead many to affirm (and rightly so) that if you love God and love people, you won’t have to worry about breaking any of the 10 Words/Commandments.

This of course should be treated like the Proverbs are, that is, it is a general principle, not a transcendent promise. All of us break commands at some point, and I think we generally are guilty of violating the first 3 because of how blind our culture has made us towards how to actually uphold those particular Words.

We cannot, in and of ourselves, actually love God the way that we should, and so we are generally habitual breakers of the first three commandments, and I think we actually have completely even missed the point on how follow the 3rd one.

Hence the need to zero-in on it in this post.

In order to better grasp how to understand the command to, “not take the name of the Lord your God in vain,” a little digging is necessary. It would seem we should pay this particular one a little more attention since in Exodus it comes with the warning that “the Lord will not hold him guiltless who takes his name in vain.” This is repeated in both places the Words appear (Exodus 20:7, Deuteronomy 5:11).

On first glance this probably does not refer to saying things like “Oh my God!” since that would have been completely off the conceptual grid of the ancient Israelites. It is hard, if not impossible to fathom a typical Israelite in that day exclaiming the name of Yahweh inappropriately. They had much more reverence and fear for God than that, even if they did slip into idolatry in a habitual way. One thing was for sure though even in their unfaithfulness: a deity’s personal name was not something you uttered flippantly.

All of this though is not the real reason that it is likely the command points in a completely different direction. What will provide the illumination we need is a brief study of case laws in the ANE.

In both places the 10 Words are given (Exodus 20, Deuteronomy 5), there follows a listing of case laws that are connected to the previously given pronouncements. The case laws served the purpose of given concrete examples of how to apply the 10 Words (which were general and abstract) to real life situations. One can see that over time the situations increased exponentially since initially only 3 chapters were needed (Ex. 21-23) and then later it took from Deuteronomy 12-25 to explore the ways to apply the initial commands.

Now, in order to see how the 3rd Word was applied, one need only examine Deuteronomy 14 to see how the Israelite case laws demonstrated its application.

This however, should probably confuse you just a bit, since in Deuteronomy 14 one is met with the dietary laws, and prohibitions against head-shaving and cutting, as well as instructions on how to tithe.

At first, this may seem unrelated, until you consider the motivation behind why the people are not to “cut themselves or make any baldness on their foreheads for the dead” (v.1). It is because they are people “holy to the Lord” and are to not behave like the pagan nations around them do. This is initially specified in reference to what they eat and how they treat their bodies, but it seems the general principle is that the people have “taken God’s name” upon themselves and are to now live accordingly.

Today, this would be applied as living like a Christian if you are going to claim the name of Christ. To claim Christ, and then to live like the world around you in terms of outlook on life and behavior Mon-Sat, but then go to church on Sunday and play church is to take God’s name in vain. You are taking the name “Christian” as a name tag, but then just living like you want for the most part.

For the person that practices this sort of hypocrisy, “the Lord will not hold him guiltless.” Or in other words, God takes seriously when you claim the name of Christ, and expects holy living to ensue. In the New Covenant, we have the provision of the Holy Spirit in order to enable us to live holy to God, so we are not simply on our own. When we look back to what Christ has done for us on the cross to redeem us and to stand in our place, saving us from our sins, our grateful response to this demonstration of love should be to strive to live lives that are holy and pleasing to Him.

However, too often, we not only forget the gospel in this regard, we forget the name tag we are wearing and introduces ourselves to the world around us under another name, and thus by our lifestyle, we take God’s name in vain. The 3rd Word then, should stand as a reminder that when we claim Christ, we need to live like Christ, and this will have implications for every area of our life.


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I'm an avid reader, musician, and high school Bible teacher living in central Florida. I have many paperback books and our house smells of rich glade air freshners. If you want to know more, then let's connect!

4 responses to The 3rd Word

  1. Thank you for this thought provoking perspective on the 3rd Word. It is so important to remember the context and the implications of that context rather than “update” the text into our own “Time/context”.

    This should enforce us Christians to take seriously how we live and ensure our lives our lives of integrity and consistency every second, of every hour, of every day forever.

    Praise the Glory of His Grace,

Trackbacks and Pingbacks:

  1. Don’t Answer a Fool According to His Folly « Marturo - March 11, 2010

    […] For starters, his philosophical understanding of the nature of the 10 commandments is woefully deficient. The 10 commandments constitute 10 moral abstractions or areas of life in which the (1) command to love the Lord your God can be pursued. The specific applications for Israel are then delineated in the case laws (Ex 21-24, Dt 12-25). In the instances were Hitchens was left wondering how a certain command applied, he needed only consult the case laws to understand the spirit behind each command. This would have saved him several mis-steps (for more on this, see my post here). […]

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