What Does It Mean to “Take the Lord’s Name in Vain”?

  • Sumo

Of all of God’s commandments, the one that—my guess here—gets broken more often, and more unconcernedly or unknowingly, than any other is the Third Commandment. That God-given edict, found in Exodus 20:7, goes as follows:

"You shall not take the name of the LORD your God in vain; for the LORD will not hold him guiltless that takes his name in vain." (New King James / Revised Standard / New American Standard)

What I am about to share about that commandment, I have never heard from anyone else. So I cannot cite any sources or authorities. That's not to say that others haven't previously said what I am going to say. But I am simply trying to apply the most literal interpretation that I can bring to this scripture.

The operative word there is “vain.” It is in taking the Lord’s name in vain that someone offends God.

We know what “vain” means. It means to do something uselessly. If I know that a rainstorm is approaching and if I try to keep my lawnmower from getting wet by pushing it beneath the limbs of a tree, then I do that in vain. That’s because the rain will quickly saturate the tree’s foliage and drip through onto my lawnmower. So I acted to no avail. It was all in vain.

How do we apply that to using God’s name? (And by the way, I will not make any distinctions here between using “God” as God’s name, or using “Jehovah” as His name, or any other name given by scripture.)

Well, first we must ask ourselves how we might use God’s name in a way that is not in vain.

One way would be to address God directly, as through prayer. Many begin their prayers with “God” or “Dear God” as their salutation to Him. That is using His name in a way that is purposeful. It identifies Him. And that is how the user also intends it—as an identification of the one to whom the individual is speaking.

Another way to purposefully use God’s name, or Jesus’s name, for that matter, is to speak about either of them intentionally. I might say to someone I know: “God is all-seeing and all-knowing.” Or I might say, “Jesus did not perform any miracles until after His baptism.” When I make remarks like those, I am using those names intentionally and purposefully. God and Jesus have names because we need to have names for them, to be able to discuss them among ourselves. When we speak of them in these ways, we are not using their names in vain.

Now, imagine for a moment that you have been driving in traffic and, as you come to a stop at a traffic light, one car in the lane beside you rear-ends the car in front of it. The driver of the rear-ended car bursts out of his vehicle, looks at the damage, and shouts into the air, “Jesus Christ!”

What does Jesus Christ have to do with what happened there?

There is a reason why people employ sacred names when they hurl such remarks. It is because these sacred names are not generally bandied about in this manner (or at least should not be). The “norm,” or what ought to be the norm, has us carefully avoiding such usages. A certain shock value attaches to them, when they are uttered at times of disgust, anger, or surprise. Using the name that way becomes a mode of expressing strong emotion, and drawing attention to one's mood.

There are times when even those people who are mild-mannered feel a temptation to communicate their displeasure through such means.It is a way of sending a message to everyone around them. The person who rarely or never curses might one day have a mishap befall him that is hard to swallow. He might wish the everyone could see just how disturbed it makes him. Maybe this “helps” him in that it sends a warning to all around—don’t cross me this way, because you can see how angry this makes me, or how upset I am. Using a “shock value” expression, whether it is the words “Jesus Christ!” or just the word “God!” or even just an offensive or sexually charged word can achieve that result for him.

But this person was not trying to speak to God nor was he trying to say something about God to those within earshot of him. No, he was simply trying to express dissatisfaction or displeasure.

There can be other instances. Maybe in using God’s name as an epithet a person is simply trying to identify himself to his peers as someone who is not all so goody-goody. Maybe we wants to fit in and be accepted. Maybe his peer group uses the terms “God” or “Jesus” liberally in their speech.

But what all of these instances have in common is the fact that God or Jesus were not being intentionally addressed, nor was the user trying to communicate something to his peers about God or Jesus. He was using the names in a rather meaningless way. A vain way. The only meaning that could be attached to it would be one of emphasis. He was trying to use them to be emphatic. Profanities are intensifiers. They say more about the person using them than they do about the target of the profanity.

But intensifying one's message - any message - is not what proper names are for. Using names that way is using them in vain - to no purpose or to the wrong purpose.

I don’t think I’d be flattered if, every time someone was upset or rankled or disgusted, they hurled my name. Nor would I be flattered if they applied it for emphasis or intensification even when they were pleased, for I’d know they were not thinking of me at all. That which is profane is still profane, even when done in "happier" circumstances.

Using God’s name even in happy moments—unless the person is truly, consciously, thanking God or intentionally sharing something about God—is disrespectful. We all know that some of us do not like to have it uttered that way. Doing so shows disrespect to all such people. Should such hearers be offended? It’s easy to say they shouldn’t. It’s easy to say that words shouldn’t hurt anyone. It’s easy to say that no one should be “judged.” But the fact is that it is universally known that such things are offensive to some. And whether or not those words or names should be offensive, the person doing it doesn’t care. The person doing it does it anyway, in full knowledge that it will bother some people. And that is insensitive, at the least.

If the names for Jehovah or for Christ were not held to be sacred, those names would not exert the effect that they have when uttered in vain. But they are held to be sacred, at least by many of us, and therefore when they are uttered with such abandon and such disregard, they have an effect. It is an attention-getting effect. The preacher at a church where I used to attend used to say, “Cursing is the weak individual’s way of getting attention.”

The fact is that taking God’s name in vain shows contempt for God and for God’s commandments. I don't know if this would be taking it to an extreme or not, but let's consider even so "innocuous" a remark as "OMG!" The G in “Oh my God” is neither a salutation to God nor is it a comment about God. Is God offended by that usage? I don't know. But we can see from the sheer proliferation of such remarks (and similar ones) that there is a great laxity in our society about these usages.

The expression "Oh my God!" is purely a remark to say something about oneself, whether that something is the idea that the person is bothered or surprised or delighted, or that the person is not so straitlaced as to be a “prude.”

But we should not worry about such labels as prudery. There is nothing “prudish” in trying to be respectful toward God. There is nothing weak in not taking God’s name in vain. There is something weak, rather, in those who do.

“Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain.” In advising us to behave that way, God is not just "looking out for himself." He is guiding us in steps that will make us better individuals. He is lifting us up, more than Himself.



One Response to “What Does It Mean to “Take the Lord’s Name in Vain”?”

  1. Terry says:

    Taking God's name in (Vain) best understood by how they heard what was said. Go back to the Hebrew language and define the word as to how they heard it and you will get a better understanding of what God meant. Many times we define words of scripture by how we hear a word and not how they heard it.
    By doing so I believe you will be able to gain a better understanding.
    Only those in a covenant relationship can have a problem with this issue. If we live in a covenant relationship this will not be an issue anyway.

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