Taking The Lord’s Name In Vain

The Third Commandment


I want to talk about one of the ten commandments.  Even though we’re not living under the old law, and even though we’re not subject to the ten commandments, we can still learn about God, from those commandments.   The commandment I want to talk about is the third commandment, found in  Exodus 20, verse 7.  It says;  “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.”   What do you think it means to take the name of the Lord in vain?

I read an article that suggested a different meaning for that verse, than I’ve commonly heard, and so it prompted me to do a little more studying about it.

There’s actually several thoughts on the meaning of that command.  I want to read to you a few of the more common thoughts and beliefs.  I’m going to quote from a few articles on the subject.  Here’s the first one;

The Third Commandment prohibits profanity, swearing and cursing.  (This person sounds like he’s putting profanity, and swearing, and cursing, all into the same category.  But in the old testament, swearing and cursing, do not mean the same thing as profanity)  To NOT take God’s name in vain means to not take it lightly, (in other words, don’t be using the Lord’s name, if you’re not specifically speaking about the Lord)  and to never use God’s holy name as a thoughtless, hateful curse!  This is perhaps the most common and lightly treated sin today, as profanity is splashed all over our television and movies.  But God tells us to stop using blasphemy and filthy language and to bless rather than curse. 

That’s a pretty common explanation of the verse.  Here’s another comment from a different writer;

Vain has to do with what is “empty, frivolous, or insincere,” according to J. I. Packer.  As we all know, this definition applies to using God’s name (or any of his names) as profanity, as an expletive for disgust or surprise. 

Pretty much the same explanation, but listen to this next viewpoint;

Literally, this means to falsify who God is and what He stands for.  Indeed, each person should actively reflect God’s nature in actions, speech, thoughts, plans, etc.— in all of life! Taking God’s name in vain, then, is to reflect His nature in an erroneous way.  

That’s certainly saying it in a little different way.  I don’t think I’ve ever really thought of it quite like that.  Here’s a bit of a lengthy explanation offered by someone;

Most of us probably see the third commandment as a prohibition against curse words.. (now we’ve got to be careful about the word “curse”, because what it means in the bible, is not wat it generally means to us today)  ..So, a prohibition against words, that include the words God, Lord, Jesus, and Christ, as well as a command against coarse speech in general.  All of these things are certainly covered under the third commandment, but they do not exhaust its application.  If we were to translate the Hebrew of this passage most literally, we would see that this law is telling us that we “shall not lift up the name of God to emptiness/worthlessness/vanity.”  Often in Scripture, the same Hebrew term translated as “in vain” means “wickedness” or “evil” (see Job 11:11; 31:5).  

Although it is difficult to capture succinctly the meaning of the third commandment, this statute essentially orders us not to associate our Creator with wickedness or invoke His name in a trivial manner. This rule is tied closely to worship, as we lift up the name of the Lord in our corporate praise when we call upon His presence and grace. Consequently, we must never worship God in a corrupt manner or in a way He has not appointed (Isa. 1:10–17; 29:13; Mal. 1:6–8). Similarly, we take the Lord’s name in vain when we profess His name in public but do not love Him and His law (Matt. 15:1–9).

Now, all the points made in this last set of comments, are good points, and they’re very scriptural points.  But I don’t believe that they’re all being taught just from that one verse about taking the Lord’s name in vain.  For example;  One of the comments was, that this rule is closely tied to our worship.  Do you really think that the worship of the Israelites, is what God had in mind when He gave that commandment?  And was God’s purpose in giving that command, so that they should be careful not to profess His name in public, if they really didn’t love God and His word?  I don’t think those are accurate assessments of God’s original purpose for that command.

The idea of using the Lord’s name in a frivolous, and flippant manner, and also using His name in cursing, seems to be a lot more likely explanation of the verse.


But here’s the viewpoint that I found interesting, and made me want to study this a little more closely.  The article that I read, suggests that the true meaning of the verse, does NOT have to do, with ANY of the things mentioned so far, but rather, it specifically has to do with the fulfilling of an oath.  Let me read to you some of this short article;

When I was growing up, I was told to use God’s name in church, in prayer, or in other spiritual contexts. But that to say “God” in an irreligious way—such as, after stubbing a toe, or after losing a game—was to break the commandment, that says “You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain” (Exod 20:7). While I still refrain from saying “God” outside of religious discourse, this verse does not mean what I was told it does, while growing up. When the Bible prohibits taking the Lord’s name in vain, that does not refer to saying “God” as an exclamation or expletive; instead, it prohibits invoking the divine name in an oath, and then failing to fulfill that oath. 

In ancient Israel, an oath was a solemn statement that began,“as the Lord lives”—and it meant: “If I don’t fulfill the following oath, may the Lord who lives, strike me dead!”  For example, after Jonathan convinced Saul not to kill David, “Saul swore, ‘As the Lord lives, he shall not be put to death” (1 Sam 19:6).  Saul’s oath meant that if David were to die at Saul’s hand, then Saul also deserves to die.

The Hebrew word commonly translated “take” in Exod 20:7,  means;  to “bear” or “lift up.” (I might add that the word also means “to carry”.  So then the word means;  “to lift up, to take, or to carry”) 

Now back to the article;  Invoking God’s “name”, means bearing it, just like Aaron was to “bear the names of the Israelites” on his breastplate  (Exod 28:29).  As a bearer of God’s name, the oath-taker must accomplish the sworn oath, or else he would be guilty of sin.   


That actually makes a lot of sense.  But then, so does the idea of not using the Lord’s name in a frivolous manner, or using it in a cursing manner.  All of those suggested meanings make sense.  So then, what was God’s original intention for the command?  Was it so that the Israelites wouldn’t use God’s “reverend name” in a frivolous manner?  Or was it so that they wouldn’t use it involving a curse?  Or was God’s intent, to establish and stress, the importance of keeping an oath, especially when you invoke the “name” of the Lord, as a guarantee, of you fulfilling that oath?

What’s the correct interpretation?  Actually, there are other verses of scripture that would support all of those interpretations.  Here’s an example;

There’s a story in  Leviticus chapter 24, of a man of Israel, who got into a struggle, with the son of an Israelite woman, and an Egyptian man.  It might have been a physical fight, or maybe just an argument, we’re not really told.  But at any rate,  Leviticus 24:11  says;  “And the son of the Israelite woman blasphemed the name, and cursed, so they brought him unto Moses..”   Now, to blaspheme the name, and to curse, must have been viewed as a pretty bad thing to do, if the people brought the man to Moses because of it.

It’s kind of interesting to see the meaning of the old Hebrew word translated “blasphemed”.  It literally means, “to pierce, or to bore a hole”.   They literally “blasphemed” Jesus when He was on the cross, didn’t they?  They not only insulted Him, but they pierced His side with a spear!

Figuratively, the word “blaspheme means..  “to bore through with accusations, or to curse”.


The Israelite woman’s son “blasphemed the name and cursed”.  What name did he blasphemed?  Did he blasphemed the name of Israel?  Did he blaspheme the name of the God of Israel?  Here’s what the Lord told Moses, in  verses 15 & 16;  “And you shall speak to the sons of Israel saying;  If anyone curses his God, then he shall bear his sin.  Moreover, the one who blasphemes the name of the Lord, shall surely be put to death;  All the congregation shall certainly stone him.  The alien as well as the native, when he blasphemes the name, shall be put to death.”   

We looked at what the word “blaspheme” means, but do you know what the word “curse” means?  We think of it today as meaning to say a “cuss word”.  But what it means here is, “to slight something, or to make it a trifling matter”.  In other words, to make something insignificant, and to show dishonor.  It’s like saying;  This thing is worthless, it’s junk, it’s garbage.  That’s what the word “curse” means in the old testament.

A lot of people have that attitude today don’t they?  They think God and His word are worthless, they’re nothing!  There wouldn’t be so many people that felt that way, if God’s laws hadn’t changed, right?  Leviticus 24, verse 14  says;  “Bring the one who has cursed, outside the camp, and let all who heard him, lay their hands upon his head, then let all the congregation stone him!”  There wouldn’t be so many people cursing God, if they all got stoned to death for it.

So there’s certainly evidence in the old testament, for interpreting “You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain”, to mean that the Israelites were forbidden to blaspheme and curse the name of God.  But what about interpreting it to mean that if you make a vow, using the name of the Lord, then you had better keep that vow, or you “will not be held guiltless”.  In other words, you WILL be guilty of sin.

Here’s the main reason behind that interpretation.  The word “vain” in the old testament, has a couple different meanings, and one meaning is “emptiness, or worthlessness”.   But the other meaning is “to do something falsely”, or in other words, “to lie”.   And this is the meaning that fits so perfectly with the idea of not keeping an oath.  “You shall NOT take the Lord’s name FALSELY!”  If you take the Lord’s name as a guarantee of an oath, and then not keep that oath, it will be regarded as a lie.

And here’s a scripture that supports that interpretation;  Leviticus 19:12  says;  “You shall not swear FALSELY by My name, so as to profane the name of your God;  I am the Lord!”  To “swear falsely” is to not DO, what you swore that you would do.   You could say;  That is exactly what  Exodus 20, verse 7  says;  “You shall not take the Lord’s name falsely”, or “in vain”.  That word is used 52 times in the old testament, and 23 of those times, it’s translated as “falsely, or deceit, or lying”.  

Deuteronomy 6:13  says;  “You shall fear the Lord your God, and you shall swear by His name.”  

Deuteronomy 10:20  says;  “You shall fear the Lord your God, and shall serve Him, and cling to Him, and you shall swear by His name.”  To “swear” means to bind yourself, by taking an oath.

It’s just like the example in  1 Samuel 19:6,  concerning Saul and David;  “And Saul listened to the voice of Jonathan, and Saul vowed;  As the Lord lives, He (David) shall not be put to death.”  

The sons of Israel were instructed to swear by the name of the Lord.  Would that be a good practice to continue in our lives?  No it wouldn’t.  Why not?  Well, because God actually holds us to an even higher standard than He held Israel to.  Now, being instructed by God Himself, to swear by His name, and then to make sure that you keep your oath, sounds like a pretty high standard in itself.  But Christians are held to an even higher standard than that.

Listen to  Mathew 5:33 thru 37;  “Again, you have heard that the ancients were told;  You shall not make false vows, but shall fulfill your vows to the Lord.”  (and that’s a quote of  Leviticus 19:2,  which we read earlier)  But I say to you (Jesus speaking here)  But I says to you;  Make no oath at all!  Either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by earth, for it is His footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King.  Nor shall you make an oath by your head, for you cannot make one hair black or white.  (God can sure make ’em white, can’t He?)  But let your statement be yes, yes, or no, no, and anything beyond these is from evil.”  

The Lord told Israel to swear by His name.  But Jesus tells us to not swear at all.  Do you know why that’s a higher standard?  It’s because without any oath at all, we are obligated to God, to perform everything that we say we will do.  Just by saying yes, I’ll do it, we are obligated to God, to do it.  That’s how trustworthy we need to be, if we’re really a Christian.  Let your yes be yes, and your no be no.

Do we swear to do what we say?  No, we don’t swear to do it, we just do it!  A higher standard.

Hebrews 8:6  says;  “But now He has obtained a more excellent ministry, by as much as He is also the mediator of a better covenant, which has been enacted on better promises.”  And since we have such a better covenant, and such better promises, we need to live up to a higher standard.  And the standard is Christ.  As Christians, we don’t swear by the name of the Lord, we simply speak the truth in love.  (Ephesians 4:15)






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