“Don’t take the Lord’s name in vain.”
Parents have said this to children. One friend has said this to another. This is a common phrase within many Christian circles. The idea of taking the Lord’s name in vain is so renowned that even nonbelievers have an understanding of this verse.
People often attribute taking the Lord’s name in vain to mean using the word “God” in conjunction with a curse word. Some take this misinterpretation even further by saying that calling on the Lord for trivial purposes is also using His name in vain. An example would be someone scaring another and then the scared person says, “Oh my God.” Though the initial person’s actions were just a scary prank, the second person should not have said God’s name some would say.
The issue with this verse is that everyone appears to have their own definition, but not often do people go back to the verse’s origin for a better and true understanding. We can find out the answer now by asking the question – what exactly is the meaning of this verse from Exodus?
What Does Exodus 20 Mean by Taking the Lord’s Name in Vain?
Exodus 20 is one of the most cited passages in Scripture. The reason being is that in this chapter God delivers the Ten Commandments to Moses and his brother Aaron, who are then tasked with sharing these with the Jews. Moses acted as interpreter, while Aaron was the communicator (Exodus 4:10-14). This all takes place on Mount Sinai, the later location for Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. In this passage of Exodus 20, God communicates each of the Ten Commandments. Each commandment God speaks receives its own verse in the passage. The third commandment within the list is the one says to not take God’s name in vain.
“Do not misuse the name of the Lord your God, because the Lord will not leave anyone unpunished who misuses his name.” (Exodus 20:7)
After Moses and Aaron receive the commandments, they venture back down the mountain to the other Israelites. They find their people to be very frightened by the sounds and smoke they witnessed on the mountain (Exodus 20:18). The Israelites never went up the mountain, per God’s requirement, but did witness what they could from a distance. And after Moses encourages the people to not be afraid, he also tells them to build an altar to the Lord. He mentions specific requirements for this altar and indicates its use will be for burnt and fellowship offerings (Exodus 20:24). By doing as the Lord commands, He promises to bless them.
In the entirety of this passage, God is direct about what He wants and what He does not. However, less clear is understanding how certain rules should be carried out. The reason the Ten Commandments are open to misinterpretation is that some rules lack indication of best practice. For example, people often differ on how to honor mothers and fathers because people exist in different cultures and have been raised differently. Certain cultures pay more emphasis to grandparents, while others to younger adult parents. Some people have been blessed with loving parents, while others had abusive parents.
Similarly, there is confusion about using Lord’s name in vain. Clearly, this is something God does not want. There is even a promise of punishment for people who break this command. Yet, how do we avoid it? For us to better understand the meaning of this verse we have to first understand the definitions of vain and misuse. Vain can indicate a preoccupation with self or mean that something is worthless. The word misuse means to misappropriate something by using it for an unintended purpose.
This is why people misinterpret the commandment. Casually saying, “Oh my God,” suggests a lack of importance in God’s name. Accidentally misquoting God as saying something that actually doesn’t appear in Scripture would be an example of misuse. What this commandment really means is to misappropriate God’s teaching for malpractices. As Dennis Prager describes this commandment, “the worst sin is committing evil in God’s name.” He goes on to say that in the original Hebrew translation, the commandment reads, “do not carry,” as opposed to “do not take.”
Kevin DeYoung shared with Crossway.org, “The word vain (as it’s rendered in the ESV) can mean “empty,” “nothing,” “worthless,” or “to no good purpose.” We are forbidden, therefore, from taking the name of God (or taking up the name or bearing the name, as the phrase could be translated) in a manner that is wicked, worthless, or for wrong purposes.”
What are some of these wrong purposes? Leviticus 19:12 and Hosea 10:4 mention not swearing falsely with God’s name. God’s name should not be used to deceive others. Jeremiah 23:25 says not to prophesy lies in God’s name, and Leviticus 18:21 even mentions child sacrifice to Molech as something that would profane the name of the Lord. There are other mentions as well like Leviticus 22:2 concerning touching the holy things unlawfully. God’s name is who He is; the Bible is full of exaltation for God’s name and gives glory for all God has done. So doing evil in connection with God’s name and leading others astray with God’s name is a violation against God, who He is, and all that He stands for.
What Else Does the Bible Say about Taking the Lord’s Name in Vain and How We Use It?
“Therefore, I tell you, people will be forgiven every sin and blasphemy, but the blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven” (Matthew 12:31).
It is important to note that blaspheming the Holy Spirit is not a one-time sin; it is a persistent rejection of God’s grace through the Holy Spirit, a continual hardening of the heart, denial of Jesus Christ as the Savior. An example would be the association by some that Jesus was connected with Satan – the Pharisees and Scribes accused Jesus of casting out demons by the prince of demons (Matthew 12:22-24 and Mark 3:22).
“Stop fighting, and know that I am God, exalted among the nations, exalted on the earth.” (Psalm 46:10)
In many places throughout the Bible, we see a variety of different people exalting God’s name. To exalt is to emphasize importance. Each time someone exalts God’s name, they render Him important for themselves and also for others. The Bible encourages us to call on the Lord, whether in prayer, song, or in conversation. Throughout the Psalms, we receive a number of passages reflecting our various emotions toward God. Sometimes we feel close to Him, and at other times we feel far away.
With the various people in the Bible such as David, Paul, or Jesus, they were tasked with spreading God’s message to others. In order to successfully perform what God sent them to do, they would have to teach, not the message they preferred, but rather the message they were given. If any of the significant Bible figures chose not to preach God’s work, but preach their own and for evil purposes, that would bring ruin upon their listeners and also defame God’s holy name.
Therefore, what we can conclude is that misusing the Lord’s name is not as simplistic as saying statements like, “Oh my God,” even if such statements are inappropriate. The wrong use of the Lord’s name, the one the Bible warns against is using God’s name for evil. Doing that would require much more intent, effort, and indicate that we do not have the right relationship with God.
Simply telling someone what they are doing is wrong is not enough. We should strive to exalt His name and do what the figures in the Bible did before us. If we want others to follow God, we need to share His teachings, not our own.