“Profaning God's Name”

“But when they came to the nations, wherever they came, they profaned my holy name, in that people said of them, ‘These are the people of the Lord, and yet they had to go out of his land.’ But I had concern for my holy name, which the house of Israel had profaned among the nations to which they came.”
(Ezekiel 36:20-21)

What does it mean to profane God’s “holy name”? This does not mean to curse, swear or blaspheme God’s name as our modern word “profanity” might suggest. To the Israelite, all of life was divided into two broad categories – the “holy” and the “common”.

Most of life was common. There was nothing wrong with this. Ordinary people, places and things were simply common. If they were set apart for sacred use (‘sanctified’) then that made them holy. The entire nation of Israel was holy, set apart from the rest of the nations of the world for God’s special purpose (Ex. 19:4-6). But for the most part, ordinary things in life were either clean (normally) or unclean (because of some ritual or moral defilement).

So, the word “profane” is not necessarily derogatory or negative, it just means common or ordinary, no different from anything else in that category. Now we are getting closer to answering our question. All holiness flows from the LORD, the one who is uniquely other, separate and exalted above everyone and everything. He is utterly distinct from all other things and His name cannot be classed among other things or other gods. He can never be common because He could never be one in a class of many. He is in a class all by Himself, which is the very definition of holiness.

Levitical priests were given the important duty to instruct the rest of the people on the distinctions between the holy and common (Lev. 10:10-11). In Ezekiel’s day, far from teaching the distinctions, the priests taught that there was no distinction, thus doing violence to God’s law and profaning His name (Ezek. 22:26).

Babylonian exile was another huge step in the wrong direction for the nations to take notice of Yahweh’s holiness. You could imagine the discussions when God’s people were taken to Babylon. The locals would be asking, “Who are these vagabonds?”

“These are Israelites taken from Judah by Nebuchadnezzar.”

“What is the name of their God?”

“I heard they call him ‘Yahweh.’”

“So, they are Yahweh’s people but they’ve been kicked out of Yahweh’s land? This Yahweh doesn’t sound very powerful. He’s probably not that much different that all the other nations’ gods our king has conquered. Praise Marduk!” (cf. 2 Kgs. 18:33-35)

This is how the ancient world thought about gods. The defeat of a nation meant the defeat of its god. And gods were only effective within the boundaries of their land. The Judean exiles were proof, according to the nations’ wisdom, that either Yahweh had abandoned His people because He was powerless (what Moses feared in Num. 14:16) or He was malicious (what Moses feared in Ex. 32:12). Either way, to the Babylonians, Yahweh was defeated, no better than the rest of the national gods that had succumbed to the might of Babylon. Yahweh’s name would be mocked as a loser.

In exile, “wherever they came, they profaned my holy name.” (Ezek. 36:20) Instead of being Yahweh’s royal priesthood, shining His holiness to the rest of the nations (Ex. 19:4-6), Israel had become the exact opposite, a landless, roving band who profaned God’s name and gave His reputation a black eye wherever they went.

The New Testament authors show how God “had concern for [His] holy name” (Ezek. 36:21) and acted to save us in Christ (1 Pet. 1:18-20; 2:24-25) by calling us with a “holy calling” (2 Tim. 1:9). In this act of salvation God turns the tables in His (and our) favor. In Christ, we are saved from forever profaning God’s holy name and liberated us to proclaim His holy name to the world abroad.

As Peter says, Christians “are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. Once you were not a people, but now you are God's people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.” (1 Pet. 2:9-10)

This holy calling in Christ makes living a holy life reflective of our holy God possible (1 Pet. 1:15-16). In Christ, we are taught afresh to distinguish between the holy and the profane, proclaiming his excellencies in our thinking and behavior as is befitting a royal priesthood and a holy nation. And others should be able to tell the difference.

In fact, Peter expects others to see the difference in the life of a Christian and ask about it (1 Pet. 3:15). No one should ever say of a Christian, “These are the people of the Lord, and yet… they don’t look any different than anyone else.” To wear God’s holy name and be viewed as common by others is to profane God’s holy name. And yet ironically, this religious hypocrisy is one of the most commonly lodged complaints against Christians today and one the most vehemently denounced sins by Christ Himself (Mt. 7:1ff).

The more unique our neighbors view us the clearer we are reflecting God’s holy image. After all, wasn’t it the Lord Himself who said people have a right to judge a tree by its fruit (Mt. 7:20)?