This article is an extract from the Western Reformed Seminary Journal, by John Battle, “The Third Commandment and Godly Environmentalism.” Used with permission.
The familiar words of the third commandment have much to say about our relation to God’s creation: “Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain; for the Lord will not hold him guiltless that taketh his name in vain” (Ex. 20:7).
At first sight, it might seem rather farfetched to say that this commandment relates to environmentalism. But on further examination, we can see a strong connection.
First, we can discover that the “name of the Lord” includes not only his actual names in the Bible, but all the ways by which he makes himself known, including his creation.
Second, to “take his name in vain” means not only using it carelessly or profanely in speech, but also misusing any of the means by which he reveals himself, including his Word and his works. This second truth directs us as we live in this world, which God has created to reveal his wisdom, power, and goodness.
In order to determine what the third commandment requires, we first must determine what it means when it says, “the name of the Lord thy God.” Just what is meant by his “name”? Identity with God himself The name of God includes the many names given him in the Bible, such as “God,” “the Lord,” “the Almighty,” “the Holy One,” “Yahweh (or Jehovah),”1 and many other names. However, the name of God means much more than these individual words. In Scripture the name of God is the equivalent of his attributes and person. To “fear his name” is just another way of saying to “fear God” himself: “If thou wilt not observe to do all the words of this law that are written in this book, that thou mayest fear this glorious and fearful name, THE LORD THY GOD.” (Dt. 28:58)
Likewise, the prophet Malachi says that to insult the name of God is to insult the person of God.2 In a similar way, the “name of God” can be said to act as God himself acts: “The Lord hear thee in the day of trouble; the name of the God of Jacob defend thee” (Ps. 20:1). When David said that the “name of God” would defend us, he meant that God himself would defend us. These illustrations show that the name of God stands for God, because it reveals to us the person of God. The varieties of God’s name What then is the name of God? It is more than the words naming him in the Bible.
It is any means by which God makes himself known to us. The Westminster Shorter Catechism puts it this way:
What is required in the third commandment? A. The third commandment requireth the holy and reverend use of God’s names, titles, attributes, ordinances, word, and works. (WSC 54)
This point is particularly specified in the following question:
What is forbidden in the third commandment? A. The third commandment forbiddeth all profaning or abusing of any thing whereby God maketh himself known. (WSC 55)
By combining these two answers, we can see exactly what the Westminster divines had in mind when they spoke of the name of God. They saw it as “any thing whereby God makes himself known,” and they specified these things as his “names, titles, attributes, ordinances, word, and works.” It is clear from Scripture that all six of these items reveal God to us. God’s names and titles in the Bible clearly show us the kind of God he is. God’s attributes, seen in his works, also are spoken of as revealing God to us: And they sing the song of Moses the servant of God, and the song of the Lamb, saying, Great and marvelous are thy works, Lord God Almighty; just and true are thy ways, thou King of saints. Who shall not fear thee, O Lord, and glorify thy name? for thou only art holy: for all nations shall come and worship before thee; for thy judgments are made manifest. (Rev. 15:3-4) God’s ordinances or laws for us show us more of God. His commands reveal his moral nature, and his ceremonial laws reveal his holiness and his grace. For example, this passage in Malachi declares that the offerings God commanded the Jews in the Old Testament reveal his character to them and to the Gentiles. For from the rising of the sun even unto the going down of the same my name shall be great among the Gentiles; and in every place incense shall be offered unto my name, and a pure offering: for my name shall be great among the heathen, saith the LORD of hosts…. But cursed be the deceiver, which hath in his flock a male, and voweth, and sacrificeth unto the Lord a corrupt thing: for I am a great King, saith the LORD of hosts, and my name is dreadful among the heathen. (Mal. 1:11, 14) Of course, the Word of God reveals him to us. The Word of God has come to humans through special revelations.
These were given in direct appearances, visions, dreams, prophecies, and other manners. Later, Jesus himself spoke God’s words to us. God, who at sundry times and in divers manners spake in time past unto the fathers by the prophets, hath in these last days spoken unto us by his Son, whom he hath appointed heir of all things, by whom also he made the worlds. (Heb. 1:1-2) This special revelation has been preserved for us in the Bible, which itself is the written Word of God. Since the Bible is the primary means by which God now makes himself known, the third commandment requires us to treat it with the same respect as we do the name of God itself, “for you have exalted above all things your name and your word” (Ps. 138:2). The final way the Shorter Catechism defines the name of God is “his works.”
As a proof text the Westminster divines listed Job 36:24, “Remember to extol his work, which men have praised in song.” This is the category that is directly related to our relation to God’s world.
We are not to misuse his works, but are to treat them as revealing God. God’s works as an extension of his name The way that God reveals himself through his creation and his works of providence is known as general revelation. God reveals himself through his works of creation and providence.
[T]he creation itself declares the wisdom, power, and goodness of God. When God created the universe, he designed it so as to demonstrate his awesome power and greatness. The sun, moon, and stars not only provide for life on the earth and measure our times and seasons, but their very magnitude and grandeur reflect the glory of God (Ps. 19:1-6). Modern scientists have become more astounded to see the precise “fine-tuning” of the physical constants of the universe. Only the slightest alteration in any of these constants would render the entire universe unfit to sustain human life anywhere.
Citations & References
1. It is interesting to note that Jewish superstition about misusing the name of God, Yahweh, came even to forbid its being used at all. After a time it was only spoken one time a year, by the high priest in the Most Holy Place, then later it was not spoken at all (see Josephus, Antiquities 2:12:4; cf. the note on p. 60 of the Whiston ed.).
2. Mal. 1:6-7, 11-12; 2:2.
3. See, for example, Hugh Ross’s books, published by Intervarsity Press: The Fingerprint of God: Recent Scientific Discoveries Reveal the Unmistakeable Identity of the Creator (1991), and The Creator and the Cosmos: How the Greatest Scientific Discoveries of the Century Reveal God (1993). Arguments are being constantly updated at his website, http:/ /www.reasons.org.