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Taking the Name of the Lord in Vain

Posted By on January 27, 2016

by Teri Ong

When most people, and I daresay, even most “evangelical” people, consider this one of the Ten Commandments, they think of “swear words” and various forms of God’s name attached to imprecations for damnation. While those abuses of human language are certainly covered by the command, “You shall not take the name of the LORD your God in vain” (Ex. 20:7), I believe being a “cheap swearer,” a description used by the poet George Herbert, is just the tip of the legal iceberg.

The New Oxford American Dictionary defines “vain” as “producing no result, useless, having no meaning or likelihood of fulfillment.” Another useful synonym is the word “empty.” Certainly, the flow of curse words and epithets that flow from the average American mouth in the course of a day fit this definition to a tee. Some words are used as noisy and uncouth “filler” words, with no more conscious meaning than guttural “um’s” and “ah’s”. And the practice of using the abbreviation “OMG” in text messages to indicate some minute rise in human emotion is truly vacuous.  But do these things give us a full measure of what God had in His mind when He gave this commandment to Moses?

The rest of the verse in Exodus reads, “for the LORD will not leave him unpunished who takes His name in vain.” If we look at the rest of the commandments in Exodus 20, we find that God attaches a blessing to the command to “honor your father and mother,” and He blessed the Sabbath day. He also attaches a curse to “You shall not make for yourself an idol… (20:4).” But to all of the rest (which are the ones we know best),

You shall not murder

You shall not commit adultery

You shall not steal

You shall not bear false witness…

You shall not covet… (Ex 20:13-17),

there are no addendums of any kind. There are no special blessings added for keeping the command, and there are no special curses for violating it. So how is it that taking the name of the Lord in vain ranks above murder, adultery, stealing etc., in God’s scheme of curses and blessings? If saying curse words thoughtlessly makes a person a “cheap swearer,” I believe there is a way to violate this command that is very costly, and that is why God makes it a matter of such high rank.

Sometime between Thanksgiving and Christmas I heard about a controversy in some city in California. The city was holding its annual “Christmas Parade.” Besides the reality that such parades are for the commercial purpose of drumming up business for local shopping centers, not to honor Christ, the vanity of this particular use of the name of Christ was due to the fact that the planners chose an avowed atheist as the “grand marshal” of the event. The highest honor at the event went a man who denies the existence of God and the deity of Jesus Christ. That is taking the name of the Lord in vain!

I have also been distressed by the way the name “Christian” is thrown around in the public fracas also known as “presidential electioneering.” One of the candidates claims to be a Christian, but says that the most important book for anyone to read is the one he wrote himself. When asked if he had a favorite Bible passage, he said he did. When asked what it was or if he could quote it, he refused on the grounds that it “is too personal.”

“Christian” literally means “little Christ.” Someone who is being a “little Christ” would not refuse to quote Scripture when given the opportunity. Jesus even quoted Scripture to the devil. Regardless of what one thinks of the status of the American press corps, we can answer the “WWJD?” question with some certainty if Jesus were in the place of this candidate. This candidate’s profession of Christ-ianity seems to have “no meaning or likelihood of fulfillment.” It is taking the name of the Lord in vain.Tree_1

The modern aphorism that captures the essence of this command is, “talk is cheap.” It is very easy to say things with our mouths that we have no intention, or even ability, to live out. Taking the name of Christ as an expression of our faith in Him is not something to be done lightly. It is an act even more sacred than a marriage vow, which the Anglican marriage ceremony advises, “is not to be entered into lightly.”

In American culture, it is still usual for a woman to take the name of her husband when they marry. If the married woman commits public indiscretions or crimes, she has not damaged a name that belongs to her alone; she has damaged the name of her husband, which she has taken. If she has taken his name, and is then unfaithful to him in some way, she has taken his name in vain.

Tree_2  As the bride of Christ, it is proper for us to take His name. But if we say we are Christ-ians, our lifestyle should demonstrate that Jesus has produced a result in our life– He has made the dead alive, He has made darkness into light. Our profession should  not be “useless, having no meaning or likelihood of fulfillment.” If we use our mouth to call Him “Lord,” we should follow through and faithfully do the things He tells us. (Luke 6:46)

Sadly, many who use the name “Christ-ian” use it in a meaningless, purposeless, empty way. Some have been duped into thinking all they have to do is use the name like a magic spell to keep them out of hell. Some have misunderstood what the name really means and are at a loss to fill it up with proper meaning. Some others have taken the name for what it will do to make them more acceptable to a Christian audience in the present ag e, but they have no intention of fulfilling its demands. Like the Pharisees and Sadducees of Jesus’ day, God’s name is a white cloak covering dead men’s bones.

A true confession will result in righteous behavior and in eternal salvation, as the Apostle Paul wrote in Romans 10:9-10: “if you confess with your mouth Jesus as Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved; for with the heart a person believes, resulting in righteousness, and with the mouth he confesses, resulting in salvation.”

Notice the importance God puts on His name and on our name in these verses from the book of Revelation.

“I know your deeds. Behold, I have put before you an open door which no one can shut, because you have a little power, and have kept My word, and have not denied My name. (3:8)

“He who overcomes, I will make him a pillar in the temple of My God, and he will not go out from it anymore; and I will write on him the name of My God, and the name of the city of My God, the new Jerusalem, which comes down out of heaven from My God, and My new name. (3:12)

“…I know your deeds, that you have a name that you are alive, but you are dead.” (3:2)

“He who overcomes will thus be clothed in white garments; and I will not erase his name from the book of life, and I will confess his name before My Father and before His angels.  (3:5)

“I know where you dwell, where Satan’s throne is; and you hold fast My name, and did not deny My faith…” (2:13)

“To him who overcomes, to him I will give some of the hidden manna, and I will give him a white stone, and a new name written on the stone which no one knows but he who receives it.” (2:17)

Obeying the command not to take the name of the Lord in vain isn’t just a matter of not being a cheap swearer; it is truly a matter of life or death. The person of empty words will not go unpunished.Tree


Take not His name, who made thy mouth, in vain:

It gets thee nothing, and hath no excuse.

Lust and wine plead a pleasure, avarice gain:

But the cheap swearer through his open sluice

Lets his soul run for nought, as little fearing:

Were I an Epicure, I would [a]bate swearing.


When thou dost tell another’s jest, therein

Omit the oaths, which true wit cannot need:

Pick out of tales the mirth, but not the sin.

He pares his apple that will cleanly feed.

Play not away the virtue of that Name,

Which is thy best stake, when griefs make thee tame.


The cheapest sins most dearly punished are;

Because to shun them also is so cheap:

For we have wit to mark them, and to spare.

O crumble not away thy soul’s fair heap.

If thou wilt die, the gates of hell are broad:

Pride and full sins have made the way a road.


Three stanzas from “The Church Porch” by George Herbert


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