Taking In Vain

Taking In Vain

In an episode of This American Life that focused on the Ten Commandments, a Jewish man named Shalom Auslander shared a story from his childhood. While attending a Jewish school, he had one teacher who was particularly passionate about protecting the commandment against taking the Lord's name in vain. Shalom - whose name is the Hebrew word for peace - was told that his name was one of the names of the Creator, and that he could not write his name on anything without rendering that object holy. He had various possessions with his own name written on them taken away to be stored securely with other holy objects, an experience which he found understandably frustrating.

The third commandment in Exodus 20 tells us not to take the Lord's name in vain. What this exactly means has not always been clear. On the surface, this commandment forbids people from using the name of God in inappropriate ways. However, this commandment has been applied to oath taking, making promises, cursing and using foul language, and other areas.

Certainly, the commandment does have some ambiguities: what counts as misusing God's name or taking it in vain? What would be a use of God's name not in vain? And furthermore, which of God's names is not to be taken in vain?

The name of God in the Hebrew language was represented by four Hebrew Letters - YHWH (יהוה‬)- which are sometimes called the Tetragrammaton, or "four letters." While we are unsure how to properly pronounce it, most people who do attempt to say the name will speak it as "Yahweh". (It was very likely not pronounced "Jehovah," since the Hebrew language did not have a J sound.) The Jewish people in Jesus' day would not say this name out loud for fear of accidentally misusing it and breaking the third commandment. Or perhaps, even more intensely, some of them may not have felt it was appropriate for sinful humans to say such a holy word at all.

They did not, however, apply this standard of not speaking the name at all to other names or titles like Elohim (the generic word for "god" or "gods"), Adonai ("my Lord"), and so on. Today, some Jews and Christians have expanded their rules to include words like "God". They will sometimes spell it "G-d" and avoid even saying that word for fear of taking the Lord's name in vain. Some Jews will actually refer to God as "HaShem" which means "the name" in Hebrew. And of course, in Shalom Auslander's case, some objects could even be rendered "holy" by writing his own name, "Peace" - an attribute of God, on them.

While some of these practices may seem strange or foreign, they are all based on the idea that God's name is special and worthy of great respect.

For Christians, however, there is another dimension to this conversation. In Philippians 2, Paul says this about Jesus:

"Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name,
that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father." Philippians 2:9-11

The name of Jesus is said to be above every name. The name of Jesus is worthy of just as much respect and awe as the name of YHWH, if not more.

This has serious implications for Christians, since this particular group of people has the name of Christ attached right to the front of their name. To claim to be a Christ follower is to claim a connection to the person and identity of Jesus. If such people are mean-spirited, hypocritical, cruel, selfish, deceitful, or any other negative thing, it makes their identification with the name of Jesus pointless. They have taken on the name of Christ in vain.

Jesus himself taught about a different tendency people had - in his day, people would try to prove the truth of their statements or reinforce a promise or oath by appealing to God himself. It's similar to how someone today might say "I swear to God," or "I swear on my mother's life," or perhaps on one's own life. Jesus said that when people do this, they are trying to prove their truthfulness by appealing to things that are completely beyond their control, and that doing so is presumptuous, careless, and really quite pointless.

"Again, you have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not break your oath, but fulfill to the Lord the vows you have made.’ But I tell you, do not swear an oath at all: either by heaven, for it is God’s throne; or by the earth, for it is his footstool; or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the Great King. And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make even one hair white or black. All you need to say is simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything beyond this comes from the evil one." (Matthew 5:33-37 NIV)

This brings a broader perspective into view. Rather than just prohibiting one action, speaking one word, the commandment not to take the Lord's name in vain reminds us that we need to respect holy things, and also recognize the limitations of our own power. We need to see where our will ends and the will of God begins, where we must surrender to the fact that we are not God.

One form of blasphemy is to falsely claim to be God or to attempt to take the place of God. Taking wild oaths in God's name is a way of trying to have God's power - trying to guarantee something that may in fact be beyond our control. Any time we try to play God - whether it be through careless oath making or trying to have godlike control over our own lives - we take the Lord's name in vain, and pointlessly try to be something that we never could be.

There are some Jews and Roman Catholics who will not speak the name YHWH at all. Others may only use in certain circumstances, and others still may use the word quite carelessly. You must decide for yourself about the technicalities on that particular issue. The biggest question is - if you identify yourself with God and with Jesus, will you bring honor to those names, or bring those names down?


  • Read the commandment in Exodus 20:7. What is specifically forbidden by this command? Have you ever broken this commandment?

  • Read Daniel 9:17-19. What is Daniel's concern that motivates his prayer? How does this relate to our theme here?

  • Do you think that the third commandment forbids saying God's proper name (YHWH) at all, or just from misusing it? Why or why not?

  • Compare Jesus' teaching in Matthew 5:33-37 with Ecclesiastes 5:1-7. What do these passages have in common? How do they differ? How do they relate to the third commandment?

  • In Philippians 2:9-11, what do you think it means when Paul says that name of Jesus is above every name?

  • Do you feel comfortable saying YHWH, or would you not say it?

  • Why do you think people use the words "God" and "Jesus" in order to curse? What do you think makes people want to do this?

  • Some people were raised thinking that the third commandment said "Thou shalt not swear" - meaning that we should not say anything that is deemed a "bad word" or "swear word." As in turns out, this is not what it says at all. Ephesians 5:4 is the closest thing we have in the Bible to "Thou shalt not cuss." Do you think there is any legitimate connection between these two ideas?


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