The third of the Ten Commandments reads: “Thou shalt not take the name of the LORD in vain; for the LORD will not hold him guiltless that taketh his name in vain” (Exodus 20:7). Often we think of this as not using God’s name in cursing. But is this all of that it means? And considering that many consider the Ten Commandments to be suggestions anyway, what difference does it make how we treat God’s commandments? The text we are going to study today from the Book of Malachi will shed much light on this commandment.
Exposition of the Text
The Book of Malachi was written at the end of the Old Testament era. It is the final word of the Old Testament prophets who wrote about 400 years before Christ. God’s voice would go silent in Israel during this period until the time of John the Baptist. Malachi in his prophecy tells of the coming of John as well as Jesus. At the time of Malachi, the land of Israel was ruled by the Persians. The Persians ruled their provinces through governors who ruled with all the authority of the Persian King. Nehemiah in the Bible was one of the appointed governors.
The Persians ruled as absolute monarchs and expected exact obedience. Not paying respect to his governors was punishable by death. Subjects were also required to pay their taxes to Persia and obey her laws, or else. In other words, it was wise police to fear the governor. Judah was a slave state ruled over by a governor appointed by the king of Persia.
The LORD who makes his complaint against Judah is also the LORD over all the earth. In other words, the king of Persia is his slave. Seeing this is true, then the LORD was worthy of even more fear and respect than the Persians. He hints at his sovereignty, but more directly addresses Judah as a father to his disobedient son. In other words, the LORD who is to be feared would rather be loved by his children. The name of Yahweh is a special name which indicates the covenant the LORD made with Israel.
As the Lord of all and the father of Israel, Yahweh deserved the very best from his children. But Israel showed itself faithless to another of the Ten Commandments. They did not honor their covenant Father. To fail to do so brought a curse. Israel thought it could maintain this family covenant by simply going through the ritual of worship. They did not seem to think that anything else was necessary. In verse six, they seemed blind to the real state of affairs. They asked how they had offended the LORD.
The LORD not demonstrates how they had taken Him lightly. They had treated the table of the LORD with contempt. They were offering blind animals in sacrifice as though the LORD was blind to what they were doing. The Law prescribed that all sacrificial offerings be perfect and from the best of the flock. They had given themselves the best, and the LORD the rest.
The LORD held this kind of offering in contempt. It did not even meet the lesser standard of what a slave owed to his master out of obligation. In verse 14, the LORD asks Israel that if they treated their royally appointed governor with such contempt, then how would Persia respond to this insolence? But because of the special father-son relationship between Yahweh and Israel, their transgression was even worse.
The LORD tells Israel that because they have treaded Him with contempt that the LORD would have contempt for their offerings. He tells them that He will no longer listen to their prayers or take notice of their worship. In light of this, the LORD calls them to heartfelt repentance. If they truly loved the LORD as a son loves his father, they would try much harder to please Him. They would want to honor their father who is head of the family and assure that the other nations would know of the greatness of the God of Israel. They would offer the pure incense and the best of their flocks. They would treat the LORD with special reverence instead of going through the rote of their empty and heartless ritual.
To put it simply, Israel’s actions were taking the name of the LORD in vain and breaking the third commandment. In a sense they were breaking all of the commandments by their actions. They may have mouthed the right words. Formally they did not cuss using the LORD’s name. Nonetheless, they made a God of their possessions, were stealing from the LORD, committing spiritual adultery, profaning the Sabbath, making idols of their worship, and putting other gods above him. Their worship was a lie to the LORD, and He through Malachi calls them to task for it and commands them to repent.
The situation does not appear to have changed much in the time of Jesus some four hundred years later. Jesus who took pains always to glorify the Father in all He said and did told Israel: “These people draw near with their mouth and honor me with their lips, but they worship me vainly because they are only concerned with teaching the commandments and doctrines of men” (Matthew 15:8-9). These word of Jesus are a perfect commentary of the worship of Malachi’s day. Nothing had changed. The LORD was walking among them, who would be rejected by them and crucified. This was no way to treat the LORD of glory. They treated Him lightly rather than with the gravitas He deserved. It is interesting that the Hebrew word for glory can be translated as “heavy”. But Israel of Jesus’ day treated the LORD as a lightweight. The nation would soon suffer the curse for violating the third commandment. The Romans would come as the scourge of God and sweep away their city and Temple which they gloried in, the works of their own hands, an idol.
The Lord Jesus died for our sins and was raised on the third day. We confess this every Sunday in our creeds. We confess that the Trinity is holy. We confess the glorification of Jesus to the right hand of God with our mouths. In other words we know how to say the right things. We do know how to be orthodox.
But does this mean that things are right between us and God. I would remind all of us that the Israel of Jesus’s day, and our day, confess daily: “The LORD our God is one LORD”. This is a perfectly orthodox statement from Deuteronomy. Of course the next verse shows how this is to be done. “You shall love the LORD with all your heart, with all your mind, and with all your strength.” This motivation of love is at the heart of proper worship. Then the book of Deuteronomy gives the specifics of how this is to be done. Without this heartfelt, all of the other motions are useless and God will not pay any respect to the offering. Our offering would be as the offering of Cain rather than Abel.
The children of Israel seemed to sense that something was wrong with their cut rate worship. They asked: “Why?” When we look at the church today and the creeping spiritual deadness we see in all to many places, we ask: “Why”? Maybe we need to consider our ways. Are we offering the Lord Jesus our very best? Are our churches dying because we have lost the witness of love? The world is watching every move in the church. If the church does not honor her Lord, why should they?
However, when re repent and get out priorities right, the empty shell of our Spirit-less worship will fade away and the glory of the LORD will again be seen in the House of God. People will be attracted to the reality of God’s presence among us. The world is used to phonies. They have spent their entire lives perfecting the art. We do not need to reform our forms of worship as though if we just change the style that will fix the decline we see in the church. What we need it to reform the substance of our worship. We need to stop treating God lightly and instead give Him the glory due His name. We will then no longer be the empty form of a family. We will be God’s family, indeed.