When I was growing up, we were taught that to exclaim “Oh my God” was wrong, but that saying “Oh my gosh” instead was fine. At the time, this was my only notion of taking the Lord’s name in vain. I think, as a child, I remembered this commandment most easily because it was the one I was most likely to break. But as an adult, I realize that obeying this commandment can’t be as simple as saying a bit of gibberish instead of “God.”
I have come to think that this actually may be one of the most far-reaching of all the commandments. It speaks to every area of life, and also to the sanctity of the people of God in general.
The Holy Name of God
In Exodus 3:14, God introduces himself to Moses as “I am who I am,” often shortened to simply “I AM.” The self-existent, self-sustaining one. His existence and power depend on no one and nothing but himself. He is the God who is.
The third commandment is found in Exodus 20:7:
You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain, for the Lord will not leave him unpunished who takes his name in vain.
The people of Israel took this very seriously, and God’s name was only spoken by the High Priest when he entered the Holy of Holies to offer the blood of the sacrifice for the atonement of the nation. He would invoke the name only in his prayer before the Ark of the Covenant, in remembrance of the God who called his people out of bondage and pledged to preserve them according to his promise to their forefathers. It was never to be spoken by anyone else, nor even by the High Priest at any other time. In this way, the Israelites sought to be certain that no improper use of the name could occur.
Two Common Misuses of God’s Name
Casual or irreverent use of the name of God is the most obvious, but not the only violation of the third commandment.
If someone claims that God has spoken to them, but they really only speak their own words, then they are taking God’s name in vain.
But the prophet who shall speak a word presumptuously in my name which I have not commanded him to speak, or which he shall speak in the name of other gods, that prophet shall die….When a prophet speaks in the name of the Lord, if the thing does not come true, that is the thing which the Lord has not spoken… (Deuteronomy 18:20, 22)
You will find many of the prophets to be reluctant messengers. This is not due to irreverence or disobedience on their part, but rather an understanding of the gravity of their position. God told the prophets what to say and do, and they said it and did it exactly. Otherwise their lives were forfeit (Exodus 4:24-26; Numbers 22:12, 22, 31:8; 1 Kings 13:1-32; Jonah 1).
Jeremiah 28 tells the story of an interaction between Jeremiah and the prophet Hananiah. Jeremiah had been predicting the destruction of Jerusalem by the king of Babylon, and the subsequent captivity of the people. Hananiah contradicts this, however, and proclaims, “Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, ‘I have broken the yoke of the king of Babylon’…” (Jeremiah 28:2) There is continuing discussion between the two men, but later, God sends Jeremiah to speak to Hananiah in private.
Then Jeremiah the prophet said to Hananiah the prophet, “Listen now, Hananiah, the Lord has not sent you, and you have made this people trust in a lie. Therefore, thus says the Lord, ‘Behold, I am about to remove you from the face of the earth. This year you are going to die, because you have counseled rebellion against the Lord.” So Hananiah the prophet died in the same year in the seventh month. (Jeremiah 28:15-17)
The words “God is telling me…” or “I feel like God wants me to..” are said far too often. We should take extraordinary care with what we say following that kind of phrase.
False teachers also exist who constantly tell people what they want to hear, and make boatloads of money from the misuse of the name of God.
For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but wanting to have their ears tickled, they will accumulate for themselves teachers in accordance to their own desires. (2 Timothy 4:3)
Those who do hear directly from God are under the gravest responsibility to teach no more and no less than what they have heard. Those who do not hear directly from God should not claim to, or they stand under his judgment.
When we, the Church, do not reflect the holiness of God, we take his name in vain, and we cause others to do the same.
Theologian Wayne Grudem has this to say: “(Exodus 20:7) is a command that we not dishonor God’s reputation either by words that speak of him in a foolish or misleading way, or by actions that do not reflect his true character.”
The people of God bear his name to the world. This is true of the people of Israel, and it is likewise true for the Church.
Isaiah 49:6 reads, “It is too small a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the preserved ones of Israel; I will also make you a light to the nations so that my salvation will reach to the end of the earth.”
God promised the land of Canaan to the children of Israel. Exile was the ultimate punishment described in the Law for their disobedience. If they failed to love God and to love their neighbor as themselves, they would be cast out of the land, “…so that the land may not spew you out, should you defile it…” (Leviticus 18:28)
Therefore, when Israel is out of the land, the name of the Lord is reviled among the nations: Couldn’t their God keep them from being taken? Wasn’t he strong enough to protect them?—and so forth.
That is why God has this to say to Israel through the prophet Ezekiel:
…It is not for your sake, O house of Israel, that I am about to act, but for my holy name, which you have profaned among the nations where you went. I will vindicate the holiness of my great name which has been profaned among the nations…Then the nations will know that I am the Lord,…when I prove Myself holy among you in their sight. For I will take you from the nations, gather you from all the lands and bring you into your own land. (Ezekiel 36:22-24)
God has bound the holiness of his name to his chosen people. This is why Moses offers himself on their behalf, in spite of his frustration with them (Exodus 32:30-32; Deuteronomy 9:26-29), and why the apostle Paul could wish himself accursed and separated from Christ for the sake of their salvation (Romans 9:3). They knew that the holiness of the name of God was higher and more important than either of them.
For the Church, the principles are the same, although the application is different. We do not have a “land” on this earth to be cast out of, but we are a people who bear the name of Jesus Christ to the world. And when we do not live in a manner worthy of our calling, the name of the Lord is profaned.
Think of the turmoil of our world. Think of how the love and grace of Jesus could heal those gaping wounds. And think of how much easier it would be to convince people of that if the history of the Church were not so checkered.
The Name of God Glorified in Us
Whether it’s because we have reduced it to simply avoiding certain words, or simply because we have allowed the world to blind us from sin in our lives, the third commandment gets short shrift these days. But it is actually a serious problem in the Church in general, because it is a serious problem in the lives of so many individual Christians. We must each examine our lives and root out these problems, so that the name of God is glorified in us.
For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all men, instructing us to deny ungodliness and worldly desires and to live sensibly, righteously, and godly in the present age. (Titus 2:11-12)
For those whom he foreknew, he also predestined to become conformed to the image of his Son… (Romans 8:29)
But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not carry out the desires of the flesh. (Galatians 5:16)
The Bible says that when we believe in Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord, the Holy Spirit of God comes to live within us. The Holy Spirit’s purpose is to conform us to the image of Christ. If we submit to the leading of the Holy Spirit, we honor the name of God in our lives and in the world.