Law,  Old Testament

What Does it Mean to Take the Name of the Lord in Vain?

taking the name of the Lord in vain will not go unpunished

The first commandment states that God is to be supreme above all of creation, nothing created is to be elevated to His position. The second commandment states that God is not to be brought down to the common level of creation. Together both commandments reflect the rightful position which God is to occupy. They function as two sides of the same coin.

Unsurprisingly, the third commandment, “You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain” (Exod 20:7), can only rightfully be applied when we understand the significance of the first two commandments. Because of who God is as Creator, we have a mandate to act in a certain way.

The Traditional Understanding of Taking the Name of the Lord in Vain

Growing up, I was always taught the primary reference of the third commandment was to our speech (i.e., we should not say “God” or “Jesus” as a vain filler words). However, in the biblical world, the name was representative of the person. It was synonymous with one’s character. Hence, you have Esau being called Edom because he ate red food (Gen 25:30), and you have the Angel of the Lord giving the name Israel to Jacob because of his role in God’s plan (Gen 32:27-28; 35:10). Essentially, one’s name is synonymous for who someone is as a person. In fact, it was a common belief that something did not exist until it had a name.

Further, in the ANE settings, it was common in oath-making situations to take an oath in the name of a god. It was expected that if you took an oath in the name of that god, you were invoking that god as your accountability. If you broke the oath or were deceitful, that god was expected to punish you according to his power.

Today we don’t usually make oaths like that. But, perhaps you have heard people use a similar system. For example, someone may make a serious promise and say, “I swear its true! I swear on the grave of my mother.” The implication is that the value of that special person is what guarantees what is being said. If what you say is not true, you tarnish the reputation of the person you brought into your oath.

It is with this understanding that we can comprehend the full intent of the third commandment. The third commandment prohibits treating God lightly and dishonoring Him. The entirety of life is meant to be a reflection of God’s supremacy, and the God-honoring servant is to live in light of that.

Of course the basis for this command is because God is who He claims to be (i.e., the first two commandments). He is the only real God. He has all the glory and all the power. He displayed that through creation (Gen 1–3). The full thrust of this command plays out in many different scenarios.

Two Examples Which Help Us Understand Taking the Name of the Lord in Vain

Exodus 28 is a helpful example to affirm our understanding of the third commandment. In Exodus 28:12 and 28:29 we read the same Hebrew phrase as Exodus 20:7, and in Exodus 28 it is clearly a reference to Aaron representing the people of Israel. Exodus 28:12 says, “And Aaron shall bear their names before the LORD…” This same phrase, the verb נשׂא (to take/bear) and שׁם (name), are combined in Exodus 20:7 to be translated, “You shall not take the name of the Lord.” One would expect that both contexts would have similar ideas, and the idea of representation fits well in both contexts!

Another example of how the third commandment works out in real time is the story of the covenant with the Gibeonites in Joshua 9. After Israel had been deceived by the Gibeonites and made a unauthorized covenant with them, Israel had a choice to make. They could be faithful to the covenant which they made (albeit under deception), or they could destroy the Gibeonites.

They decided to be faithful to the covenant, and Joshua 9:18 tells us why, “The sons of Israel did not strike them because the leaders of the congregation had sworn to them by the Lord the God of Israel.” Israel recognized that because they had promised the Gibeonites safety by the name of the Lord, they were thus obligated to uphold the oath on the basis of who the Lord was.

The Structure of the Third Commandment

The structure of the third commandment is helpful, because the stress is not on the command itself, but actually the punishment. It is chiastic in its structure, meaning that it has an A-B-A’ pattern:

 A: You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain
     B: for the Lord will not leave him unpunished
 A’: who takes His name in vain 

In chiastic structures, the middle is the most important part. Thus, God stresses the culpability of those who do not obey this third commandment. This is a grave warning for not understanding the true nature of the Lord’s power and accountability. Thus, those who frivolously invoke God’s character in what they do must be wary that there are extreme consequences for doing so.

Present Day Application of the Prohibition Against Taking the Name of the Lord in Vain

It is most interesting to see the full theology of this commandment unfold. By the time Jesus came to earth, the Jewish Rabbis had developed a system of oaths which would allow them to swear by heaven or earth, and if they broke their oath they were not guilty. The Jews would commonly refrain from making an oath in the name of the Lord so as to avoid actually being accountable (cf. Matt 5:33). Yet, Jesus teaches that we are to let our statements be “Yes” and “No” (Matt 5:37). Jesus is correcting the improper understanding of the third commandment and pointing out that those who are associated with the Lord are representing God’s character in all their speech.

As with the rest of Matthew 5, Jesus rebukes those who stop the application short of the intent of the Law. The true application is that everything a believer does is a reflection of the God he associates with. Thus, when you speak falsely, you are tarnishing God’s character; when you speak the truth, you are representing the name of the Lord. Ultimately, although the third commandment is dealing specifically with oaths, the intent goes beyond speech to one’s entire way of living. In everything we do we are to represent the Lord.

I remember a sad story of a well-known individual in a community who was on trial for stealing. At the court hearing, while speaking in his defense he said, “I am a Christian and Christians don’t do that sort of thing.” He later admitted to having stolen the funds and completely defamed Who he claimed to represent. The third commandment of taking the name of the Lord in vain is applicable to us as Christians today, not because it is a part of the Ten Commandments, but because we still represent God. Thus, a Christian’s actions are a direct testimony to the supremacy of God.

Peter serves at Shepherd's Theological Seminary in Cary, NC as the professor of Old Testament and Biblical Languages. He is a husband, father, and sports enthusiast.