YOU SHALL NOT TAKE THE NAME OF THE LORD YOUR GOD IN VAIN
God names the first great creatures that come into being at his all-powerful word – night, day, heaven, earth and seas (Genesis 1:4,8,10). The human creature then names the birds and animals (Genesis 2:19). This is another way of saying that the human being is in God’s image, given dominion over all else that is on the earth. The human creature shares in God’s understanding of creation in ways that other creatures cannot. That appreciation is seen in the human capacity for knowledge and truth. In this we are like God.
To abuse our gifts for knowledge and truth is a betrayal not only of our own nature but also of God who is the truth of all things. The first commandment prohibits the making of images to represent God and this extends also to the language we use about God. We must not turn that language into a kind of idol, as if it ‘contains’ God. At the same time we have to use some language to refer to God even though we know it is not adequate. We call God ‘Creator’ and ‘Father’, ‘Wise’ and ‘Good’ but we do not really know what these words mean when applied to God.
The second commandment is concerned not so much with the adequacy of our language about God as with the use we make of it. In particular it prohibits perjury and all other forms of false witness. To lie is bad enough, but to call God as a witness to one’s lying (‘so help me God’) adds a deeper level of wickedness to it.
In contrast to idols that are dead and misleading, the God of Israel is alive and true. To attach God’s name to falsehood is to abuse it in a very fundamental way, putting it at the service of something that is directly contrary to what God is. If I swear to something using the name of God I am calling as a witness to my swearing the one who is Truth itself and always faithful. If what I am saying is false then clearly I am doing something perverse in claiming that Truth itself endorses my lie.
The hour of Jesus’ paschal mystery is the final showdown between the kingdom of Satan and the kingdom of God. In St John’s Gospel these two kingdoms are contrasted in a number of ways – life and death, light and darkness, truth and falsehood. Satan is ‘the father of lies’ whereas Jesus is ‘the way, the truth and the life’ (8:44; 14:6). In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus speaks about the practice of swearing oaths and says that in his kingdom of truth such swearing should not be necessary. ‘All you need say is ‘Yes’ if you mean yes, and ‘No’ if you mean no; anything more than this comes from the evil one’ (Matthew 5:37).
Saint Paul later echoes this teaching. A worldly person says ‘Yes and No at once’, Paul writes. ‘Jesus Christ was not Yes and No but in him it is always Yes. For all the promises of God find their Yes in him. That is why we utter the Amen through him, to the glory of God’ (2 Corinthians 1:19-20).
Thus we see the point of the second commandment. God is faithful and true and so the name of God should only be used in relation to what is faithful and true. To misuse that name, to ‘take it in vain’, is to distort reality intolerably, to act in a way that is deeply confused and confusing, for it means trying to make God a party to falsehood.
Jews have always sought to honour the name of God and to respect the holiness of that ‘great name’, in line with the second commandment. Christians try to live in the same way but see it extended now to include the name ‘Jesus’. Why should this human name, shared with Joshua in the Old Testament, be included in a commandment about God’s name? The answer is because it is the human name of the Son of God. Jesus is the eternal word and wisdom of the Father. We ought always to honour the name of Jesus and use it only with reverence.