Taking God’s Name In Vain
The 10 Commandments are a part of basic Christianity right? Every Christian should know them, and they are the kind of thing you learn as children. But it’s probably been a while since you’ve really looked over them or thought about them in detail. My guess is that you would be surprised as to what all the 10 Commandments actually teach.
We’re currently working through the 10 Commandments in our weekly Sunday School class, and it has been both encouraging and challenging for this reason. Each of the commandments has wide-reaching application, sometimes affecting things that I have never connected before. But there’s also the fact that some of the commandments are talking something pretty different than what I have always assumed. Sometimes this is because of translation. Other times it’s just because of the power of tradition. “I have always been taught that…” But a fresh study of the 10 Commandments brings to light some surprises. One of the commandments which has particularly stood out to me is the 3rd Commandment. Let’s take a look.
The 3rd Commandment
What does the 3rd Commandment say? “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” (Ex. 20:7).
I’m not quite sure how it happened, but lots of people were taught this commandment was about using foul language, or cussing. There’s probably some connection from the term “cursing,” which is certainly relevant for the 3rd commandment, being used now to mean “bad language” instead of its original meaning, or the connection might come from cuss-words that used God’s name. Whatever the story is here, the 3rd commandment is not primarily or even secondarily about bad language. Bad language can be criticized on other grounds, but most cuss-words are a matter vulgarity rather than actual blasphemy. The 3rd commandment, on the other hand, is specifically about profaning divine titles and attributes through insincere use.
The two key words to focus on are “take” and “vain.” The original Hebrew means more than the English translation lets on.
The Hebrew for “You shall not take the name of the LORD…” is literally, “You shall not lift up the name of the Yahweh…” The idea of “lifting up” is something like “invoking” or “calling up.” The immediate prohibition is against someone calling upon God for the wrong reasons or in the wrong way.
The word “vain” is a little more difficult. It isn’t the “vanity” that appears in Ecclesiastes. It also doesn’t mean “pride” like our modern word “vanity does.” It means something like “unreality” and is often a word used about idols or false gods. It’s the word used in Jonah 2:8, for example, “Those who regard worthless idols…” Not “taking Yahweh’s name in vain,” therefore, means something like, don’t treat Him like a false god or idol. God is real. In fact, He is the most real thing of all. He must be treated as real, and that means treating Him like the all-powerful creator, sustainer, and judge of the world.
People break the 3rd Commandment by doing what it says not to do. Whenever they treat God as unreal or as less-real than He has said to be, they take His name in vain. This applies particularly to the ways He has revealed Himself to us, namely in the person of Jesus Christ, through the Holy Scriptures, and in divine worship. Whenever we treat these things with a lack of respect and, ultimately, a lack of belief, we take God’s name in vain. We we do not truly believe that God is there and that He will do what He has promised, we take God’s name in vain.
This applies to insincerity and hypocrisy. But it also applies to unserious or frivolous uses of holy things. This is why your mother was right to tell you that you shouldn’t say “Oh my God!” all the time. If you’re crying out to God about something serious, then that’s one thing. But to just use that expression as a statement of surprise or excitement is wrong. It profanes the use of God’s name. This is even more the case for the use of “Jesus Christ!” as an exclamation or even a cuss word. Doing that is actually a form of blasphemy.
Whenever we take something that should be about God, which is to say something that should be holy and revered, and make it common or even base, we have taken God’s name in vain.
Flippancy in Worship
This goes past personal speech, though. It also applies to devotional and liturgical practices. Any flippant or silly expression of worship is a profanation of the divine name. This doesn’t mean that we have to only speak in flowery prose, but it does mean that we shouldn’t present Christianity in a childish way, and we shouldn’t make the church an object of ridicule. The Christian assembly should be dignified and appropriate to its calling, the people of God coming into the presence of God– the God Who is real.
This means that we cannot treat God as if He were our equal. We must honor and revere Him. While words like “casual” and “formal” can carry different connotations, on the most basic level, we really should never be casual with God. We must not be impertinent with Him. We shouldn’t presume to speak to Him the way that we would speak to our peers, and even though we know He has accepted us in Christ and called us friends, this friendship is still a friendship between the Infinite and the finite. We can only befriend a Consuming Fire if He first befriends us, and we can never appeal to that friendship in a way that makes light of the Fire. Friendly or otherwise, He’s still a Consuming Fire.
This extends to the worship and ministry of the Church. As Christians we should carry ourselves with an appropriate demeanor, and we should respect the ministry of the Church, particularly the speech we use in worship, our music, the reading of the Scriptures, and the celebration of the Sacraments. We should treat each of these things like holy things, and we should only participate in worship with the serious belief that it is real and it works. We must not take the name of the Lord in vain, and so when we lift up His name, we must do so in the conviction that He is real and our worship is real.
Keeping Our Word
One other aspect of the 3rd commandment is a little unfamiliar to modern readers– what it means for making promises or taking oaths. Historically, oath-taking was one of the most-prominent applications, and the Heidelberg Catechism adds two questions on oath-taking in connection to the 3rd commandment. The Bible itself makes this connection, with verses like Leviticus 19:12, Deuteronomy 6:10, and Deuteronomy 10:20 directly tying the breaking of oaths with “taking the name of the LORD in vain.”
The reason that the 3rd commandment applies to oaths is that they are formal promises made on the basis that God will judge the person who breaks the promise. Because God is real and because God is just, He will judge everyone who violates their promises. This is more specific than just “don’t lie.” This is talking about the official making of promises, oaths, and contracts, and the point is that a person should keep their promise, even if doing so works against their personal interests, because breaking a promise says something false about God.
But doesn’t Jesus tell us not to swear by God?
I say to you, do not swear at all: neither by heaven, for it is God’s throne; nor by the earth, for it is His footstool; nor by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. Nor shall you swear by your head, because you cannot make one hair white or black. But let your ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No,’ ‘No.’ For whatever is more than these is from the evil one. (Matthew 5:34-37)
Like so much of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus isn’t actually saying that all oaths are wrong. Instead, he is saying that we shouldn’t have to make oaths to increase the dependability of our word. We should be more honest, not less. We should understand that any time we “give our word,” that already invokes God, since He is the creator of all things, including ourselves. The point is that ever time we give an answer, we are giving our word. We are always making a promise. And as Christians, whenever we give our word, we are also implicating God. If what we are saying is true and honoring to God, then we are properly honoring Him. But if what we are saying is false, then we are bringing dishonor and “vanity” upon God’s name.
Perhaps the best way to keep the 3rd commandment, the best way to not “take the name of the LORD in vain,” is to be totally earnest in all things. We need to “get real,” but we need to do that in the most real way, by understanding who we are, what this world is all about, and that God is real and alive. Everything we say or do reflects back to Him, and we will have to “give an account for every idle word” (Matt. 12:36). This should inspire us to “fear and trembling” because it means that everything is very serious.
But if this does inspire us to fear and trembling, we shouldn’t simply stay afraid on our own. No, we should run to Christ and find our forgiveness and rest. We should admit that we are constantly given to flippancy and vanity and that we need salvation from our most natural tendencies and desires. And once we hear those pardoning words in Christ, we should resolve ourselves to walk appropriately, as fitting for those who have been forgiven and adopted by God. We should take God’s name again, but we should do so in sincerity and truth.