Thou shalt not take the name of the LORD thy God in vain; for the LORD will not hold him guiltless that taketh his name in vain (Exodus 20:7).
Perhaps you have always wondered why the name of God in the Old Testament is often rendered as LORD in capital letters, or how some concluded that His name is “Jehovah,” or why to this day some among the Jews will only write “G-d.” It all goes back to a very strict interpretation of the third commandment: the Israelites were not to take the name of YHWH their God in vain (Exodus 20:7).
Long after the Ten Commandments were given, it was reasoned that if you never spoke the name of God, you would not take it in vain. Therefore, the Jews stopped saying “Yahweh” and would always substitute some other divine title– Adonai (Lord), Elohim (God), Ha-Shem (the Name). The Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible, consistently renders Yahweh as Kurios (Lord). Later on, as the Masoretes, the Jewish scribes who copied the Hebrew Bible texts in the first millennium CE, developed the vowel pointing system, they would always put the vowels for Ha-Shem, Adonai, or Elohim under the Divine Name YHWH so that even if a Jew thoughtlessly began uttering God’s name without providing an alternative substitute, what would come out of his mouth would be meaningless. This is how we got “Jehovah,” which is meaningless in Hebrew– it is the consonants of the Divine Name (YHWH) with the vowels for Adonai. To this day, many translations avoid transliterating God’s name as Yahweh and continue to use LORD in capital letters.
We mention all of this, partly in way of explanation, but also partly to show how some people have taken God’s commandment to not take His name in vain rather seriously. Yes, in many respects, this devotion was terribly misguided. It was not at all God’s intention to mean that His name should never be uttered– we have evidence from early Israelite history showing that people spoke of YHWH and sought His blessings for one another (cf. Ruth 2:4). God also did not intend for His unique name Yahweh to be upheld while other terms used to refer to Him, like God, Lord, etc., could be used more flippantly. We should also hasten to mention that this is not evidence of some conspiracy to remove God’s name from Scripture, as if we sin if we never refer to God as Yahweh, as some would allege. God, the Lord, Yahweh, even “Jehovah”– YHWH the Creator God knows when people speak to Him and about Him, whether in using His personal name or by referring to one of His divine titles and functions in the speaker’s native language.
Yet all of this ultimately serves as a distraction from what God was seeking in the third commandment. What is the big deal with taking God’s name in vain?
Some might suggest that this is yet another example of God’s insecurities and despotic behavior, as if God must absolutely be upheld and treated differently or else He finds Himself in difficulty. Yet there is no reason to even suggest this. God is all-powerful and Sovereign whether we uphold His name as holy or we do not (cf. Hebrews 1:3, Ephesians 1:21). No– the command to not take God’s name in vain was for Israel’s sake.
One of the great declarations of the Old Testament involves God’s holiness– God is holy, and Israel is to be holy because of it (Leviticus 11:44, 19:2). To be holy is to be separate and distinct.
Taking God’s name in vain is to show disrespect to God’s holiness, indeed. Far too many people only seem to get religious in their speech when they find themselves in compromising or compromised positions. Too many people speak of God only in vulgar speech, insults, or in various exclamations and interjections. Euphemisms for the names of God and Christ remain popular, even though the same spirit is there, but in our increasingly crude society, fewer people find the need for alternatives and just keep with the “real thing.”
Yet the challenge is not just in the disrespect demonstrated– the real difficulty is in how God is made mundane in the process. Israel was to show respect and reverence for God’s name in order to remember how holy and separate God really is (Isaiah 55:8-9). To utter God’s name in the common events of life– when one hurts oneself, as an unthinking response to some circumstance, and so on and so forth– is really to empty God’s name of its power, holiness, and importance. It is truly taking God’s name “in vain”– using God’s name in a throwaway sense, and in so doing, we nullify and make vain for us the power and holiness present in God. God, and Christ in our own day, is made too common and unthought of when God’s name is used in such trifling circumstances.
This is not an aspect of God that changes in the new covenant, as it is written:
Let no corrupt speech proceed out of your mouth, but such as is good for edifying as the need may be, that it may give grace to them that hear (Ephesians 4:29).
As believers we must give thought to what we say. We will be brought into judgment for every careless word uttered (Matthew 12:36). While it is popular in our society to invoke God’s name for swearing in all kinds of senses, in all kinds of casual, trivial circumstances that have no bearing on God’s great holiness and work in Jesus Christ, we must make sure that our speech is different. If we revere God as holy, we will speak about God as holy. We will understand that we should not trivialize or make common God’s name through frivolous and vain usage. We also will understand that euphemisms are no better; the same spirit is at work, and we are not giving grace through speaking them.
God wants us to speak about Him and to use His name to glorify Him, praise Him, and serve Him. But His name must be kept holy– separate and distinct– if we are going to truly revere Him as holy. Let us therefore consider our speech and strive to not take God’s name in vain!
Ethan R. Longhenry