Taking the Lord's Name in Vain

By: Wendyl Leslie

More and more, our society today is becoming godless and without shame. No longer is God's holy name being honored, but instead is used as a cuss word.

Biblical scribes so honored the name of God that they would wash their hands before and after they wrote it, yet today it is despised and ridiculed. People try to justify using God's name in vain by saying that God's name is "just a word" that they don't even think about when they use it. Their own mouth condemns them. His precious name rolls off their sinful tongue without a second thought, as though He didn't exist. By giving His name no honor, they certainly use His name "in vain." Humanity may take this sin lightly, but God doesn't. He gives it the death sentence.

Though the New Testament doesn't specifically record the third commandment as it's given in Exodus 20:7, it does have much to say about the use of God's name in an unworthy manner. And it applies to us today as it did during the time of the ancient Israelites.

Before we get into some New Testament passages that speaks to using God's name in vain, let's take a look at what some of the words in the original command means. This will better enable us to understand the gravity of this sin. The Old Testament rendering reads: "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" (Exodus 20:7).

As always, in the Bible the word choices of the Holy Spirit are very important. The Hebrew word nasa, translated "take," is widely used to describe willful misuse or manipulation of an item or idea. The Hebrew word for "name," shem, literally means "a position" and carries the idea of a mark or memorial, implying a description of character." It suggests something high or elevated, a monument implying majesty or excellence. It is an outstanding mark, sign, or reputation. As such, "name" is a word by which a person, place, or thing is distinctively known. A name identifies, signifies, and specifies.

Misusing the name of God is clarified by the final phrase "in vain," translated from the Hebrew word shav, which describes "a desolation, an evil, a useless or worthless thing." The Scriptures makes it clear: "And you shall not swear by My name falsely, nor shall you profane the name of your God: I am the LORD" (Leviticus 19:12).

Thus, making a false (untrue, unrealistic, unmeant) statement using God's name is wrong (Jeremiah 5:1-3; Matthew 5:33-37). Also, wounding the name of God through words or actions is equally wrong (Leviticus 20:1-5). A bad testimony (Ezekiel 36:20-23), improper service (Ezekiel 20:39-40), or giving the second best to God (Malachi 1:10-14) disobeys this commandment.

Furthermore, this commandment has nothing to do with the proper pronunciation of God's name, which no one knows for certain how to say anyway. It also has nothing to do with superstition or magic. This commandment's application is much broader, deeper, and more dignified than that.

This commandment is certainly against common swearing, including the use of euphemisms so common today such as "gee," "golly," "gosh," "doggone," or "Oh my God!" However, it also includes the light or disrespectful use of any of God's attributes or character traits. More directly than any other, the third commandment teaches how much God is to be a part of our every word, deed, and attitude.

In the Bible, a name is not merely a label of identification but also an expression of the bearer's essential nature. It includes its bearer's reputation, character, and distinctiveness from others. For example, in all probability Adam named the beasts based on his observations of the distinctiveness of their natures. Similarly, to know the name of God is to know God as He has revealed Himself, that is, to know some of His nature.

Additionally, in the Bible, a name is inextricably bound with the named thing's existence. Nothing exists unless it has a name, and its essence is concentrated in its name. Hence, creation is not complete until Adam names all the creatures. To cut off a person's name is to end the bearer's existence, or to change a person's name is to indicate a shift in his character and standing before God.

To speak or act in another's name is to act as that person's agent and to participate in his authority. To be called by another's name implies that person's ownership, and one bearing that name falls under the authority and protection of the one whose name is called upon. The third commandment sets the standard of the spiritual cleanliness in a person using the name of God because it is so weighty. It must be used or borne in truth, without hypocrisy or vanity but in purity of conduct. A person is better off being sincerely wrong than being a professing Christian and denying God's name by the conduct of his life.

Herbert Lockyer, well-known minister and prolific Christian author, in his book titled All the Divine Names and Titles, lists 364 names and titles for Jesus Christ alone. Through His names and titles, God has chosen to reveal a great deal about His attributes, offices, authority, prerogatives, and will. Each name designates some distinct virtue or characteristic of God's nature. Thus, God has made known the glory of His nature through His names. They are not to be abused.

So, where in the New Testament do we find passages that speaks to this command "not to take the name of the Lord in vain"?

It was Jesus who's told us how to use God's name — it's to be "hallowed" (Matthew 6:9). "Hallowed be Your name" exalts the name of the Lord. It sets for us our attitude and mindset of Him, a submission to His will that is sustained in everything we do and say (1 Corinthians 10:31; Colossians 3:17, 23-24). Where God's name is hallowed, He will be loved and revered, His kingdom eagerly anticipated, and His will obeyed. God's name speaks of more than a title such as "God," "Lord," or "Jehovah." It speaks of God Himself and is the composite of all His attributes.

Psalm 102:15 says, "So the nations shall fear the name of the LORD, and all the kings of the earth Your glory." It's not just God's name that the nations fear; it's the embodiment of all He is. Jesus prayed, "I have manifested Your name to the men whom You have given Me" (John 17:6). He did that by revealing who God is. John 1:14 says, "And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth." Jesus told Philip, "He who has seen Me has seen the Father" (John 14:9). Jesus is the manifestation of all who God is.

God is holy and deserves our highest respect and our humble obedience. Manifesting the priority of God in our lives involves acknowledging who He is and approaching Him with a reverent, humble spirit that is yielded to His will. As we do that, God will hallow (honor) His name through us. Such a God deserves our highest respect and reverence. He is our gracious and loving Father, but He is also the sovereign, majestic God of the universe. Consequently, we must guard against thinking of Him as a buddy, addressing Him flippantly, or using His name in vain.

While it is true that the Ten Commandments in their original form are not binding on people today, it is also true that God continues to be serious about the vain use of His name. In Matthew 12:36-37, Jesus explained: "But I say to you that for every idle word men may speak, they will give account of it in the day of judgment. For by your words you will be justified and by your words you will be condemned." While Jesus' warning against idle words is broader than just using the Lord's name in vain, it certainly would include that as well.

Unfortunately, many today no longer respect God's name. Not only does the skeptical community misuse and abuse God's name, many of those within Christendom have lost respect for His name as well. One of the most common abuses of God's name is the exclamation, "Oh my God." This phrase is used by millions of people every day who give no thought to God when they are using His name. They say these words in an idle, useless, vain way that shows contempt for God. Both the Old and New Testaments (Colossians 3:8) explain to us that God views this as a sin and will not hold him guiltless who uses His name in such a way. Another common way the Lord's name is abused is in statements of exclamation, such as "Good Lord," or "Lord, no," or "Lord, have mercy." Unfortunately, many who understand the fact that the phrase, "Oh my God" is using the Lord's name in vain, fail to see that saying "Good Lord," without thinking about the Lord, is equally wrong. Notice that Exodus 20:7 says not to take the name of "the Lord your God in vain." That verse includes both the terms "Lord" and "God."

Since the Bible explains that Satan is the "god of this world" (2 Corinthians 4:4), it only makes sense that he would incorporate things into culture that are sinful and wrong. The cultural acceptance of the phrases "Oh my God," "Good Lord," "Lord have mercy," and a host of vain uses of the Lord God's name is exactly what we should expect from the world's sinful culture. We should remember, however, that Christians are not to conform themselves to the sinful mold of this world (Romans 12:1-2). Instead, Christians are called to live a life of reverence to God and obedience to His Word. And that also means to carefully consider what comes out of our mouths and determine that we will not use the Lord God's name in vain.

Take care and may the peace of God which surpasses all understanding guard your heart and mind in Christ Jesus.

Published 6-9-2015