We all know the third commandment: “You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain, for the Lord will not leave him unpunished who takes His name in vain.” (Exodus 20:7 NASB) Most people assume it just means we shouldn’t use God’s name as a swear word. However, this cursory reading misses the deeper significance of this verse and what it actually means to take God’s name in vain.
Observing the third commandment goes far beyond what the modern church has said it means. Like most of the Law, it goes beyond simply abstaining from a particular action and focuses on our attitude toward God. Let’s see if other Bible verses and information can shed light on this topic.
Same Words in Other Verses
The Hebrew word translated as “take” in Exodus 20:7 is translated in three primary ways elsewhere in the Bible:
- “Swear”, as in to make a promise
- “Profane”, in the context of shaking one’s fist at God
- “Blaspheme”, as in cursing God’s name
None of these alternate translations indicate that the act of exclaiming God’s name when we’re surprised or startled falls under the third commandment. Rather, these verses refer to misusing God’s name for our own purposes, whether as a sign of defiance or poor treatment of other people. (The NLT translates “take” as “misuse” in Exodus 20:7, more in keeping with this idea.)
Claiming God’s Name Falsely
To simplify, the third commandment covers any improper use of God’s name. One could argue that shouting “Oh my God!” when startled falls under this prohibition as well, and many Christians would agree. However, we also have to acknowledge that the act of swearing is, based on the other verses using the same word, not condemned nearly as strongly as blaspheming God or using His name to treat others badly. While both betray something of a lack of respect toward God, one is much more severe.
Examples of Taking God’s Name in Vain
So, if it isn’t just swearing, what does taking God’s name in vain look like in practical terms? Using the standards set by the other verses, here are a few examples of a situation where someone could be said to be misusing God’s name:
- A pastor (or anyone) who says God wants a particular political party or candidate to win.
- Anyone who claims to speak for or know the mind of God, or who claims to be an earthly representative of God’s exact truth.
- A man who goes to church and professes Christ, but is physically or emotionally abusive to his family at home. This is particularly egregious if he uses the Bible to justify his behavior.
- Anyone who quotes the Bible out of context to justify a sinful choice.
- Promising before God, or just based on one’s Christian faith, to uphold a promise and then intentionally violating said promise.
Pro Tip: While it’s a sign of respect to not use God’s name to curse, the third commandment is more concerned with not using God’s name to make a false promise.
A Commandment with Far-Reaching Implications
To summarize, the third commandment refers to more than the simple act of saying a curse word. This verse refers to our respect (or lack thereof) toward God as evidenced by how we treat His name. Of course, high regard for God means we likely wouldn’t swear anyway. But it matters much more to avoid claiming we can speak on God’s behalf or twisting the Bible to justify an action we know is wrong.
Join the conversation to learn more about what it means to respect the name of God.