Taking the Lord’s Name in Vain – What Does it Really Mean?
C. Michael Patton (here)
The answer to this question might seem self-evident, especially to those of us who grew up in a western Judeo-Christian society.
Exodus 20:7, Deuteronomy 5:11 – 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.
Please be warned, I’m going to use a phrase that is offensive to many.
For most, the ultimate violation of the third commandment is to say “God damn it.” You can use just about every other word or phrase, no matter how bad, but when your vulgarity includes the utilization of this phrase, many believe you’ve crossed the line. You might even be charged with blasphemy against the Holy Spirit.
In fact, more people would confidently answer this question than could list the Ten Commandments, name the gospels, or explain the difference between the New and Old Testaments.
At Odds with the Third Commandment (As Some Define It)
I’m going to take a stand that’s at odds with the most popular understanding of the third commandment. That’s why I used the word “really” in the title of this article. With all the talk about cursing pastors, the evolution of swearing in the blogosphere, and the general confusion around this issue (even in Christian circles), I thought I’d take a stab at explaining what it really means to take the Lord’s name in vain.
If I’m right about the third-commandment, we have a serious issue of folk theology that’s damaging the character of God by misrepresenting what Christian speech is.
The question that must drive the understanding of any biblical passage is:
What did the author intend for his audience to understand by his writing?
The third commandment was given to a specific people, at a specific time, in a specific place, with a specific purpose. We’ll never know what it means today if we don’t first know what it originally meant.
What About the F-Bomb, S-Word, etc?
The third commandment has nothing to do with what we commonly call cursing. Use of the F-word, S-word, etc. is a separate issue. The Bible certainly has a lot to say about speech:
Proverbs 10:32 – The lips of the righteous know what is acceptable, but the mouth of the wicked, what is perverse.
Colossians 3:8 – But now you must put them all away: anger, wrath, malice, slander, and obscene talk from your mouth.
Ephesians 4:29 – Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear.
The third commandment is specifically addressing the use of God’s name. It isn’t meant to address the use of words, phrases, and even gestures that may be socially uncouth or vulgar.
When Calling on God to Damn Someone Is Biblical
We have this wrong. In fact, from a purely objective standpoint, I don’t believe that this phrase causes God to even bat an eye. Why would calling on God to damn something be so bad? What does the verb “damn” mean? The American Heritage Dictionary defines the verb “to damn” as “the act of pronouncing an adverse judgement upon.”
To call upon God to damn something is neither sinful nor unbiblical. In fact, you can find people throughout Scripture, especially in the Psalms, who call upon God to bring judgment on their enemies. In other words, they are asking for God to damn those whom they feel are ripe for His judgment. In this sense, saying “God damn _____” is as biblical as saying “God bless _____.”
Some say the reason this is a violation of the third commandment is because people are using God’s name in a “vain”, “worthless”, or “empty” way. In this case, to say, “God damn it!” in our colloquial tongue is not the same as seriously calling upon God to damn something or someone. For those making this claim, if you say it seriously, fine. If however, you say it casually, you’ve used His name in an empty way and broken the third commandment.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not advocating that we should take the Lord’s name in vain, but that our understanding of what this commandment means is mistaken. There are three major critiques I’d offer to our common understanding:
1) “God” is Not the Name of God
“God” is a term used to refer to deities in general. A generic classification can’t be considered a formal name. It would be like you saying that my name is “person”. God gives His name to Moses in the book of Exodus. His name is Yahweh. Would you have the same offense if someone were to stub their toe and say “Yahweh damn it!” I doubt it.
When Christians use words like “God” or “Lord” we’re typically referring to the God of the Bible, Yahweh. And after all, if you’re not calling on the God of the Bible to damn something, whom are you calling on? Therefore, although the word God isn’t a formal name, because we use it as such, saying G-D may test the limits of what many consider taking God’s name in vain.
2) Selective Outrage at the Use of “God”
If the principle in question is that we’re not to use God’s name unless we really mean it, then we’re pretty inconsistent in our outrage. Why don’t people get offended when others say “God bless you?” Do you think that every time someone says this that they really mean it? Do you think that in their mind they are talking to God, beseeching Him on your behalf?
Just about every email I get ends with the phrase, “God bless.”
Just about every email I get ends with the phrase, “God bless.” I seriously doubt that that person actually said a prayer for me before he or she hit send. If this is the case, why is saying, “God bless you” not just as much a violation of the third commandment as saying “God damn you?”
Is it more biblical to ask for God’s kindness or judgment? I don’t think almost anyone who is honest with themselves can say they’re consistent in this regard. Saying “God damn it” and not meaning it should be just as bad as saying “God bless you” and not meaning it.
It true that both uses of “God” could be wrong, or both could be right. But, without modifying our principle (i.e. not using God’s name unless we really mean it) we can’t differentiate between the two.
3) What Does “In Vain” Mean?
I’ve saved this point for last because it’s the most important. In fact, if I’m right, the first two points don’t really make a difference. The question is this:
What does it mean to use God’s name in an empty or vain way?
What does the third commandment really mean? It’s hard to tell from a simple word study on the Hebrew term שָׁוְא (vain). Also, our understanding of a “name” and what it signifies is much different than what it meant in the context in which this commandment was given. First, we must try to understand what it meant when it was written. Second, we can then work out how that applies to us.
It does us no good to anachronistically impose our understanding upon an ancient text. This is eisegesis (reading into the text what we presuppose), not exegesis (letting the text speak on its own terms).
How the Canaanite Nations Invoked Their Deities
Briefly, this is what I believe your studies will show. The nations to which the Israelites were going (in Canaan) had many gods. They were highly superstitious. Their prophets used the name of their god in pronouncements all the time. The usage could be in a curse, hex, or even a blessing. They used the name of their god to give their statements, whatever they may be, authority.
To pronounce something in the name of a god meant that people would listen and fear. They may have said, “In the name of Baal, there will be no rain for 40 days.” Or “In the name of Marduk, I say that you will win this battle.” This gave the prophet much power and authority.
But, as we know, there is no Baal or Marduk. Those gods couldn’t have made such pronouncements. Thus the words of the prophet had no authority and didn’t need to be praised or feared.
Israel’s God Instructed the Proper Use of His Name
God was commanding the Israelites not to do the same thing. God instructed them not to use His name like the nations around them used the names of their gods. He did not want them to use His name falsely to invoke authority. This can be seen even today as the name Jesus means very little because of its constant misuse.
In essence, God didn’t want the Israelites to say that He’d said something that He, in fact, had not. This makes sense. God has a reputation to protect. He doesn’t want anyone saying, “Thus saith the Lord”, if the Lord has not spoken.
We’ve all experienced this. We’ve had someone say we said something we didn’t. This can be very damaging to our character and destructive to our reputation. Why? Because it makes us out to be something we’re not. How much more important is it for God to protect His character?
Application of the Third Commandment Today
What does this mean for us? Well, for starters we understand that the third commandment is focused on something more foundational than simply saying “God damn it!”
While some people may never think of using that phrase, people all over the Christian religious landscape are breaking the third commandment every day, damaging the Lord’s reputation:
- “Thus saith the Lord…”
- “God told me to tell you…”
- “I have a word from the Lord…”
- “God says that if you send in this much money, you will be blessed.”
I could go on and on, but you get the point.
If all one needed to do to keep the third commandment was to avoid saying certain socially unacceptable words or phrases, it would be the easiest of the Ten Commandments to keep!
Using the name of the Lord in vain is a serious matter. It damages His reputation and character through false and unsure claims. Before you say “God said…” make sure He really said it.
If you are unsure, make your statement reflect your uncertainty. Saying “I think God is telling you to…” rather than “God is telling you to…” may not be as authoritative, but it will keep God’s reputation safe and keep you from breaking the third commandment.
If I were Satan, I couldn’t think of a better way to trivialize such an important commandment.
As an aside, I think that this misunderstanding of the third commandment is both sad and tragic. If I were Satan, I couldn’t think of a better way to trivialize such an important commandment than to fool people into thinking it’s focus is on the phrase, “God damn it.”
A Final Caution
Does this mean that I believe that we can now say this phrase and not worry about it? No. Using this phrase in a colloquial way is offensive in many (if not most) contexts. It all comes back to being intentional with everything we say. While it is not a violation of the third commandment necessarily, it is offensive speech that must be used with wisdom and discretion.
Objections and Q&A
Shouldn’t Christians Avoid Every Form (Appearance) of Evil?
Because, in our culture, saying certain words is considered offensive, crude, or crass, Christians should avoid using them so as in order not to violate 1 Thessalonians 5:22. Dan Wallace’s article Avoid Every Appearance of Evil, addresses this very topic.
But What If Cursing Violates My Conscience or Someone Else’s?
No one should violate their conscience. Who would deny that we must do what we think is right? While it’s true that we could follow our conscience and be wrong, we can never violate our conscience and be right. Going against what we think is right (even if we’re wrong) is always wrong. We would be a law unto ourselves maybe even antinomian (against the moral law).
That being said, we should beware of professional weaker brethren who use their scruples to dominate others.
So I Should Start Swearing, Right?
No. Not if you mean “swear” in the sense of cursing left and right. Don’t imagine this article is a license to use vulgarities in the name of Christian liberty. The gospel frees us from the bondage to sin so we can live righteous lives not so we can be rude.
You’re Just Looking for Loopholes!
It’s true that scriptures have been used to excuse the pet sins of many people.
Wonderful things in the Bible I see. Most of them put there by you and by me.
However, the conclusions we come to must rest upon textual exegesis. If the Bible calls something sinful, let God be true and every man a liar. But if it doesn’t, we dare not heap upon others a yoke of bondage.