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Taking God's Name In Vain
An Introduction and Overview

This article was written at the request of my good friend William for his Facebook group.  The group raises awareness of the holiness of God's name and the need to keep it holy.

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God’s name is special because it represents His personal identity, including His character and nature.  How we use God’s name demonstrates what we think about Him.  We must show respect for his holy name and only use it appropriately, never falsely or lightly.

Until our modern era, believers historically have treated the Name of God with reverence and awe.  God’s chosen people, the Israelites, would not even speak His personal name (YHWH or Yahweh, ”Jehovah” in the English language), often substituting Elohim or simply “the Name”.  When Hebrew scribes were transcribing Scripture and came upon a secondary name of God (El, Elohim, El Shaddai, etc), they switched to a new pen to write the name.  Whenever they came upon God’s personal name YHWH, they bathed, purified themselves and changed clothes before returning to write His name with a new pen.  Even today, many Jews write “G-d” instead of “God” out of concern that the paper could be soiled or torn.

Contrast this respect with that of modern day America, a country founded upon biblical principles, where we can rarely turn on our televisions, go out to eat, or do almost anything else without hearing the Lord’s name taken in vain.  Most people now appear to believe that God’s last name is Damn.  What happened?  We could talk about many things, but for the sake of brevity, we’ll mention only one.  We choose Hollywood, since the entertainment industry is both a driver and a reflection of our culture.  Little by little, movie and television writers continued to push the envelope, including more and more offensive language into their programming.  Each time they took the next step, they waited for a public outcry that never came.  One day, they finally profaned the Holy Name of God, yet Christians remained relatively silent.  Some might say it would not have done any good to speak up, but there are still many words that Hollywood refuses to use.  It has now gotten to the point where words are banned that might offend certain ethic groups, cults, alternate lifestyles ect, but it is considered perfectly acceptable to offend the one holy God, creator and sustainer of the universe.

We now look at why we should stop taking God’s name in vain, beginning with the biblical basis for our topic.

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Biblical Basis

In the first book of the Bible (Genesis), we witness God’s choosing of Abraham to be the ancestor of the nation of Israel.  We then see God’s promise renewed in his descendants Isaac and Jacob (aka Israel), and observe God’s preservation of His people through Jacob’s son Joseph by moving them to Egypt.  The next book (Exodus) picks up the narrative by reporting that the nation had multiplied and filled the land.  After about 400 years, a new dynasty arose in Egypt, who feared and enslaved the Israelites.  Exodus then recounts the story of God delivering His people from Egyptian bondage, bringing them to Mt Sinai where he gave the Law to Moses.  The Law consisted of all the civil, ceremonial, and moral statutes given throughout the five Books of Moses (Genesis thru Deuteronomy) and included the Ten Commandments.  The third of these commandments is recorded in Exodus 20:7 (see also Lev 19:12 and Dt 5:11):

You shall not misuse the name of the LORD your God, for the LORD will not hold anyone guiltless who misuses his name.

The ESV, NASB and NKJV translations render it as

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.

The Hebrew word for “vain” (shav’ or shāw’) carries the meanings of “in vain”, “emptiness” and “falsehood”.  Thus the command prohibits the use of God’s name for any worthless, trivial, hypocritical, dishonest or unholy purposes.  The first violation of this commandment that probably comes to mind in our modern day is that of cursing or profanity.  While this was not the primary idea behind this law, we must say that profaning God’s name certainly violates the spirit and pattern of meaning of not only this commandment, but the remaining context of Scripture as a whole.  To take His holy name “in vain” is to consider His name (and God Himself by extension) meaningless, and to deny His power and presence in our lives.

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How We Take God's Name in Vain

We now list some of the most common ways of taking God’s name in vain.  Many are obvious, such as the aforementioned cursing and profanities, but many other means are less obvious.  A major violation to this commandment during biblical times was swearing falsely to an oath.  Oaths were taken much more seriously than today.  A similar offense for our day would be to commit perjury.

Perhaps the most popular method of abusing God’s name is to use it for personal gain.  The most obvious situation is the false teachers who are in the ministry for financial gain.  We see many of these on television each week, but this is not unlike the politician who throws in some religious language for the sole purpose of gaining support.  After Christians turned out in record numbers to elect George W Bush in 2004, the Dems brought in “religion fluent” liberal advisers such as Jim Wallis to teach them how to speak the Christian language.  Most were not interested in becoming a Christian, but wanted to learn a few key buzzwords in order to pull off some votes.  A person joining a church merely to solicit business from trusting members, or a boy pretending to know God in order to obtain permission to date someone’s daughter would also fall into this category.

We can also desecrate the third commandment scoffing at Scripture or those attempting to live according to God’s word.  We can even take God’s name in vain when we worship, by insincerely going through the motions without reverence for His holiness and His majesty.  So, we see that we can take God’s name in vain both by thinking or acting in a forbidden manner, and by failing to speak or act in the correct manner as prescribed in Holy Scripture.

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Do the OT Laws Still Matter?

At this point, many might concede the authority of the law during OT days, or on non-believers, but question whether or not these laws are still binding upon Christians.  After all, aren’t we now under grace instead of the law?  We briefly addressed these questions in the OT Law chapter of our Literary Genre section and determined that the moral law can’t be dismissed as invalid (see also Mt 5:17-19).  Therefore, we must examine the relationship between the moral law and the law of grace.  As with many of the other topics in the article, we’ll offer a few concise remarks, then elaborate further in future articles.

The moral laws are based on, and thus reveal, the character and nature of God.  Their primary purpose for unbelievers is to expose the corrupted disposition of man and as a result, to drive them to Christ.  Once a person becomes a believer, not merely by intellectual belief but trusting in Christ as Savior and Lord, he or she is no longer under the law in a legal or judicial sense (Rom 6:14, Gal 3:12).  The law then functions as principles and instructions for spiritual growth and holy living (Rom 15:4, 1Cor 10:6,11).

We should also mention that nine of the Ten Commandments are re-affirmed in the NT.  The one exception, keeping the Sabbath (Saturday) holy, was replaced by the first day (Sunday) because Jesus was resurrected on that day.  Jesus Himself acknowledged the validity of all, including the prohibition of vain swearing (Mt 6:34, see also Ja 5:12).

In addition, while the commandments are stated in the negative (as a prohibition) in the OT, they are often announced in the positive sense in the NT.  In the case of the third commandment, the prohibition against vain use of the Name is upheld by the numerous proclamations of the holiness of God’s Name, even equating His Name with God Himself.  In teaching the model prayer to his followers, Jesus began with “Our Father in heaven, hallowed [kept holy, honored, revered] be your name ”.

Quite frequently, I hear someone say that, if we love God and love our neighbor (see Mt 24:34-40), we can disregard the remainder of the law.  This begs the question, “How do we love God”?  Over half of the mentions of the word “love” in the NT are found in the writings of the Apostle John.  In both his gospel (Jn 14:15) and his first epistle (1Jn 5:3), John equates our love for God with keeping his commandments.

Another question that we hear is, since Christians are freed from the legality of sin (no longer under a death sentence), does this mean we can live any way we like?  Certainly not.  The NT writers caution against this attitude on multiple occasions (eg Rom 6:1-14).  Although believers are freed from the ultimate penalty of sin (death), there are still consequences for breaking God’s commandments and blessings for honoring them.  This is true not only for individuals, but corporately (families, groups and even nations) as well.

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Consequences of Breaking the Law

The OT is full of blessings and curses for keeping or breaking the covenants, and a major stipulation for keeping the covenant was of course, keeping the Law.  As we stated earlier, believers are no longer judicially punished whenever we go against God’s will (the spiritual requirements of the NT law).  Our legal relationship to God is not altered when we sin, but our fellowship with Him and the joy of our salvation (but not our salvation itself – see Ps 51:12) can be temporarily damaged until we repent.

God may also remove His protection during this time and allow the results of our sin to run its course.  To illustrate, suppose as parents, our son takes the family car to a party without permission and wrecks it on the way home.  Legally, he is still our son and we would eventually forgive him, but many consequences might remain, such as damaged trust and reduced privileges.  In addition, he might have to work extra hours to pay for repairs.  In worse cases, such as with alcohol involved, the outcome could be an arrest record, loss of job, injuries etc.

For corporate results, we have to look no further than the rulings in the early 1960s that removed prayer and the Ten Commandments from our schools.  Within a few years, crime rates quadrupled in almost every major category.

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Blessings for Keeping the Law

We’ve already mentioned several personal benefits of keeping God’s commands, such as righteous living, spiritual growth and pleasing God.  We could add a closer walk with God, being made into the image of Christ, and many more; not to mention the avoidance of the negative consequences.

For corporate benefits, we turn one again to our country. T he Psalmist wrote “Blessed is the nation whose God is the LORD” (Ps 33:12).  In addition, the writer of the Chronicles recorded God’s promise that “if my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then will I hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and will heal their land” (2Chr 7:14).

There are some that say that these verses are applicable only to the nation of Israel.  This position is true in the strictest local setting, but I believe that by looking at the context within all of Scripture, we can apply them to all nations.  See Can America Claim the Promise of 2nd Chronicles 7:14?

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Final Thoughts

We’ve now seen the importance of not taking God’s Name in vain, or to re-state in the positive, the importance of honoring the Name of God.  We’ve also discussed the Biblical basis for the command, and some of the many ways that we can violate this decree.  We’ve also briefly examined the question of OT authority over the Christian, as well as the results of keeping or breaking this precept.  As mentioned above, we’ll be examining many of these issues in much greater detail in future articles.  In addition, we’ll also present other related articles such as the Biblical Names of God among others.  We’ll also add links within this article and on the Facebook page as further writings are added.  We also invite our readers to post any comments or questions.

Throughout this article, we often referred separately to Christians and non-Christians, or to believers and non-believers.  If you are not a Christian, or are not sure if you possess salvation and eternal life, we hope you will visit our How to Be Sure You’re Going to Heaven page.

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