Ten Words

The second word in the gracious law given to the Israelites at Mt. Sinai during their wilderness wanderings is found in Exodus 20:7,

“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.”

If you have gone through the American church system, this commandment is solely restricted to the infamous “OMG”; so conditioned have we become, we blush when we read King David’s words in Psalm 25:2, “O my God…”.  No, King David is not using God’s name in vain.

If it is acceptable for David to say “Oh my God”, then perhaps we need a reorientation around what this commandment is saying.  The Jews understood the commandment, but were somewhat misguided in their understanding.  They understood that we are never to speak, carry, or bear the Lord’s name irreverently or without consideration of His glory.  Their solution? Never say His name!

This is tragic because God had graciously revealed His name to the Israelites, intending for them to know their God.  Exodus 3:13-15 tells this story, basically God says, “I AM WHO I AM…this is my name forever, and thus I am to be remembered throughout all generations.”  Essentially, there is a big and persuasive justification that isn’t really fit for a blog post that shows that this self-disclosure in Exodus 3:13-15 says, “my name is Yahweh”.

Then, we start seeing manuscripts from the Jews that substitute YHWH with a different word, adonai, which means lord or master.  Our translations indicate that this is a special substitution for YHWH by putting it in all capital letters, LORD.  God’s name was considered too holy to pronounce, so when Scripture was read, adonai was substituted for Yahweh.  Now, if that totally bores you and seems irrelevant–bear with me.

The goal behind the commandment, and the motivation behind the Jews’ substitution, is that Yahweh does not want His name to lose its weightiness to the world.  Unfortunately, we often misuse it–even if you never drop the OMG.  Fact is, we bear His name just by being Christians.  When we tarnish our witness through judgmentalism or hypocrisy, we wrongly bear God’s name.  When we sing worship songs without worshiping, we make God’s name common and without weight.

God graciously revealed Himself to us– his name, his character, his standards.  Even more so by becoming flesh and dwelling with us in the person of Jesus, by whom “there is no other name under heaven…by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12). When we are in view of the character and standards of Jesus Christ, we bring honor to his name.


Different traditions attribute different numbering to the Ten Words; however, the Catholic/Lutheran numbering of the Ten Words is what makes the most sense from the text.  According to that tradition, the first commandment is Exodus 20:2-5,

“I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. You shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for youself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I the LORD your God am a jealous God”

This commandment being given to the Israelites who, for the past couple hundred years had been in slavery to one of the most idolatrous nations to have ever existed.  The Egyptians were no strangers to worshiping various images or creatures or creations.  They routinely made statues or paintings of people or things they worshiped.  This commandment is something quite out of the ordinary for the Israelite people.

For us, it may seem a bit less explicit.  We don’t tend to build statues and bow down before it.  So, to see the relevance of this gracious word, an explanation of what an idol is might be helpful.  Here is a quote from Pastor Mark Driscoll from an interview on Nightline,

” An idol is someone or something that occupies the place of God in your life–preeminent, prominent, the center of your life, most important person/thing, gives you identity, meaning, value, purpose, love, significance, security–when the Bible uses the word ‘idol’ that’s what its getting at.”

John Calvin says, “the human mind is a perpetual factory of idols”.  Idolatry did not end when the commandment came.  It did not cease when America was born.  And it certainly is not a foreign practice to us today.  If a 1st century Jew was teleported to a 21st century basketball game, political rally, concert, mall, it would appear to him to be some sort of worship ceremony.

Our trust is in how big of a hard drive we have; our identity lies in our grades, skills, careers; our affections and thoughts center around boyfriends/girlfriends; the most valuable thing to us is our ipod; the most consistent activity in our days is prime time television.  We are idolaters.  Do not be fooled.  This commandment may be one of the most relevant for us today.

Why is this gracious?

“I the LORD your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments” (Exod. 20:5-6).

God’s character is to be incredibly jealous for his worship.  When we worship him alone, he shows steadfast love to us for thousands of generations.  This commandment is for our supreme enjoyment of a gracious God.

“I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6).  There is no right worship of God without a rightful worship of his Son, Jesus.  Perhaps this is why the apostle John concludes his first epistle with this statement, “[Jesus Christ] is the true God and eternal life. Little children, keep yourselves from idols.”

 I never realized that the law was actually an incredibly gracious act on God’s part until I studied the religious climate of Ancient Near East.  Here is a quote from a prayer that was found on a tablet dated to the mid-seventh century B.C.  It is called “a prayer to every god”

May the wrath of the heart of my god be pacified!
May the god who is unknown to me be pacified!
May the goddess who is unknown to me be pacified!
May the known and unknown god be pacified!
May the known and unknown goddess be pacified!
The sin which I have committed I know not.
The misdeed which I have committed I know not.

This dude had no idea what to pray so he prayed to every god, he knew he had made something or someone upset, but didn’t know what he had done or why it was angry.  Whoever wrote this prayer had no relationship or knowledge of his god, had no clue how to enjoy his god, had no clue what angered his god, or even who his god was.  He just knew that he had done something wrong. 

It is in this religious context that Yahweh, the God of Israel says, “if you will indeed obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession among the peoples, for all the earth is mine; and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Exodus 19:5-6). 

 It is the fact that Yahweh graciously revealed Himself and his holiness to Israel through the law that makes Israel say among the nations, “what great nation is there that has a god so near to it as the LORD our God is to us, whenever we call upon him? And what great nation is there, that has statutes and rules so righteous as all this law that I set before you today?” (Deuteronomy 4:7-8).  The relationship between Israel and God was something unheard of in the Ancient Near East, and it remains the distinguishing mark of God today–He loves his people, he lived with his people, and he suffered for his people.

     The Ten Words, more famously known as the 10 Commandments, has been a very abused and forgotten piece of our Bible.  Remember, God first gave them to us in Scripture not on the plaque that hangs in your kitchen.  It is not a secular moral code that is common to all cultures and religions, it is the gracious direction and covenant stipulations from God for our enjoyment of Him.   Exodus 19:5-6 is why we need to treasure these gracious words of the Lord, “if you will indeed obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession among all peoples, for all the earth is mine; and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.”

     The format of this covenant, is much like the format of all covenants occurring in the Ancient Near East.  The suzerain (in this case, Yahweh), initiates a treaty with the smaller and weaker vassal (in this case, the nation of Israel).  There is a historical prologue (in this case, Exod. 19:4, “you yourselves have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself”).  There are stipulations laid out (ie. the Ten Words).  And there are sanctions laid out (blessings/curses for obedience/disobedience).

May we be faithful in understanding the role of these gracious words for our lives, even now when our justification does not lay in the old written code but on the blood of Jesus, yet may we be diligent to consider the whole counsel of Scripture in our worship Jesus.