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Hebrew for Christians
The Third Commandment

Hebrew Names of God

Using the Name in Vain

by John J. Parsons

Soren Kierkegaard tells the story of two young portrait artists who both sought to capture the essence of beauty in their paintings. One artist looked high and low for the "perfect face of beauty" but never found it. Tragically, he later gave up painting and lived in despair. The other artist, however, simply painted every face he saw and found beauty in each one. Now here's your question: Which of the two was the sincere artist?

Although this story is about the way we choose to see, it can also be applied to the way we choose to speak (or listen)... Kierkegaard could have used two poets instead of two portrait artists in his vignette. Then we would have two people who both sought to express the "perfect" description of Beauty (i.e., God) in their words. One poet searched all the words in all the world's languages but never found the perfect expression; the other, however, found words of praise for everything he encountered using the plain language of "mama loshen" - the language of heart. Again, which of the two was the real poet?

There are people out there who want to find the "perfect Name" for the LORD, and often focus in on the Name YHVH (יהוה) in the pages of Tanakh.... In Jewish tradition, of course, it is forbidden to utter this Name (except by the High Priest during the Yom Kippur ceremony) and therefore various substitutions are used in its place. This custom is meant to avoid breaking the Third Commandment, "you shall not lift up the Name of the LORD in vain (lashav), a word that means in an empty or thoughtless manner (the LXX translates lashav as ἐπὶ ματαίῳ, "worthlessly" or "thoughtlessly"). Obviously "lifting up the Name" of God lashav includes the use of profanity, but it also includes "lip-service" expressions of faith, mechanical confessions, heartless acts of service, etc. The prohibition, in other words, means that God wants you to engage Him with "kavanah" (concentration): You cannot "call upon His Name" without first exercising reverence by recognizing His all-consuming glory and power...


When we bless others we are exercising our likeness to God ("lifting up the name"), but when we curse others, we do the opposite.  "Life and death are in the power of the tongue" (Prov. 18:21). The false prophet Balaam (bil'am) was named "swallowing the people" (עַם + בֶּלַע) by his mother. How strange, and yet some people apparently want to give birth to "charmers," to occultic seers -- even to "homicide bombers" and those whose life's mission is to curse people... Moses was given his name by an Egyptian princess who adopted him (the Egyptian root appears in the names Ahmoses, Ramsees, etc.), but God overruled her linguistic intent by having the child "draw the people of out" of Egypt. Balaam's mouth was likewise overruled when he sought to curse the children of Israel. The LORD took hold of his tongue and made this "donkey" of a man speak words of truth....

Getting back to the Name of God... There are hundreds of Names and Titles, each one revealing something about the attributes and character of the LORD, and each one therefore worthy of study and appreciation. The main Name, the personal Name, however, is YHVH (יהוה), and among some people it's become something like the "quest for the Holy Grail" to discover how to pronounce it correctly. It is interesting to note that though the Greek language was capable of transliterating this Name, it was never done, not in the the Septuagint (i.e., the ancient Greek translation of the OT), nor in the Greek New Testament, where the name ὁ θεὸς was used in place of YHVH (יהוה). We have no textual evidence that Yeshua ever used this Name (he apparently followed the practice of using the circumlocution of "Adonai"). Of course Yeshua's most common Name for God that we know about was "Father" (πατήρ in Greek; אֲבִי or אַבָּא in Hebrew).


Following Kierkegaard's lead, let's consider the knowledge of the Name of God (i.e., the use of our religious language) from a different perspective. Kierkegaard notes that we can "know" things in different ways. What he calls "the way of objectivity" concerns itself with what is reflected upon. In the case of religious language, the concern would be whether this form of language, this word, this utterance, "represents" the true God.  Knowing the Name of God "objectively," then, is about truth, power, invocation, etc. To the objectivist, knowing the Name is about Hebrew letters, about sounds, about symbols, and ultimately about obtaining some kind of spiritual power...  On the other hand, what Kierkegaard calls "the way of subjectivity" concerns the "how" or "mode" in which our language relates to God. Only when we use language relating to God in a "God-relation," that is, in worship, humility, and abandonment to the glory of God, do we properly "speak" the Name of the LORD.  Here's how he once put this idea:

    If someone lives in the midst of Christianity and enters, with knowledge of the true idea of God, into the house of God, the house of the true God, and prays, but prays in untruth, and if someone else lives in an idolatrous land but prays with all the passion of infinity, although his eyes are resting upon the image of an idol - where, then, is there more truth? The one prays in truth to God although he is worshipping an idol; the other prays in untruth to the true God and is therefore in truth worshipping an idol.

The point here is simple.  God is not as concerned about your "orthodox terminology" as much as he is looking for you to passionately and truly seek His face.  The service of your lips must be accompanied with genuine service of the heart, lest the Name be used "lashav" - in vain...  The same can be said about invoking the Name of God.  God is not a snob.  He doesn't get offended if someone might "lisp" His Name or tangle up their words when they call upon Him... God looks at the heart and to see if the soul truly wants His Holy Presence. As the prophet said, "You will seek me and find me, when you seek me with all your heart, and I will be found by you, declares the LORD" (Jer. 29:13-14).

Knowing the Name of the LORD means being in a personal, vital, and all-important relationship with the truth. The Holy Spirit is called the Spirit of Truth (רוּחַ הָאֱמֶת). This means understanding God's character as "merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, extending kindness to the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity, transgression, and sin" (Exod. 34:6-7). Since the Hebrew idea of word (דָּבָר) is coextensive with truth (i.e., "thing"), Jesus is called the Word of God (דְּבַר אֱלהִים) who represents the Name of God to all who trust in Him (John 17:26, Heb. 1:3). Jesus (Yeshua) is the Name of God, the "thing" of God, the "substance" of God, the "exact imprint and representation of His nature," and so on.

"His eyes are like a flame of fire, and on his head are many diadems, and he has a name written that no one knows but himself. He is clothed in a robe dipped in blood,
and the name by which he is called is 'The Word of God'." - Rev. 19:12-13

As a final note, I am NOT suggesting that it is unimportant to study Hebrew and learn the Hebrew Names and Titles of God!  We should always strive to apprehend the revelation of the Scriptures as clearly as possible, and we must "translate" the source text into our own target language. My point here is simply not to "miss the forest for the trees."  There is a deeper message from God regarding His Name that transcends morphology, phonetics, linguistics, etc.  "God is love" (ὁ θεὸς ἀγάπη ἐστίν); "God is Light" (ὁ θεὸς φῶς ἐστιν), "God is Spirit" (ὁ θεός πνεῦμα ἐστίν); "God is goodness" (ὁ θεός ἀγαθὸς ἐστίν), etc. There is a big difference between knowing about God and knowing Him personally, in living relationship...  Shalom, chaverim.


May God give you a heart to seek and find Him today....



Kierkegaard was using hyperbole, like many of the great teachers of the past... His point was that the heart is the gateway to truth more than mere intellectualism. In his day, Hegel was "the" theologian, and most of "Christianity" followed his highly cerebral teachings. Kierkegaard used the comparison of an idolater worshipping the true God and the (merely) professing Christian worshipping an idol to jar his readers awake... Note the common term here is worship... Kierkegaard was saying that we know truth through true worship, bekhol levavkha - with all our heart, all our soul, all our being, and that true worship always is characterized by such inner passion. That was his essential point, not to suggest that people can believe whatever they want - so long as it is sincere - and that alone will suffice...

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