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How Do We Take the Lord’s Name in Vain?

How do we take the Lord’s name in vain? A common way to see this third of the Ten Commandments as prohibiting speech about God which misuses his name (e.g., using his name in an oath that you break). It is also possible to “take up” God’s name in a way that represents him poorly.

You’ve seen them printed, painted, and carved in stone. They can be found in churches of all types, and even prominently displayed in some government buildings (for now). You might even have a framed copy of them in your house.

Of course, I’m referring to the Ten Commandments.

For most Christians, the Decalogue (“Ten Words”) is one of the first things taught in Sunday School. It has long been the foundation of basic morality in Western Civilization. It was the starting point in defining the identity of this rag-tag bunch of ex-slaves turned desert wanderers called the Israelite nation, led by Moses out of Egypt. They are the diving board into the rest of the law code by which Israel was commanded to live as a separate people, holy unto Yahweh, and distinct from the people around them.


The Ten Commandments are the diving board into the rest of the law code by which Israel was commanded to live as a separate people.


1500 years later, Jesus entered the scene. He taught with a great love for the Law, claiming that he was the fulfillment of it. He upheld the Law.

But then he said things like,

“You have heard that it was said to our ancestors, ‘Do not murder, and whoever murders will be subject to judgment.’ But I tell you, everyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment. And whoever says to his brother, ‘Fool!’ will be subject to the Sanhedrin. But whoever says, ‘You moron!’ will be subject to hellfire.” (Matt. 5:21-22 HCSB)

So unchecked anger is murder of the heart.

He upped the ante on adultery when he said,

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Do not commit adultery.’ But I tell you, everyone who looks at a woman to lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” (Matt. 5:27-28 HCSB)

So, lust is adultery of the heart.

He didn’t do this with all of the commandments, but he was making a point that applies to them. A person can follow the letter of the Law externally and yet totally break the Law by the thoughts and attitudes of the heart and mind. Which leads me to a story I’d like to share.


“A person can follow the letter of the Law externally and yet totally break the Law by the thoughts and attitudes of the heart and mind.”


When I was ministering in Galesburg, Kansas, maybe once a week I would go to the Taco Mayo in Parsons. I’d order a large bag of potato locos, a bowl of salsa, and a large Dr. Pepper, then settle in for some sermon work. One afternoon, a couple little girls (maybe 5 or 6 years old) sat not far from me giggling and talking. It was really cute…until I heard one of them loudly say, “Oh my God!” Repeatedly.

As I paid more attention (yes, I was listening), this cute little cherub must have dropped an OMG about every 20 seconds or so. It wasn’t fun anymore. I began sneaking sideways glances at the two moms who were sitting with them having a conversation of their own—totally unfazed and oblivious. It was downright sad. She has no idea what she was doing, the Name she was calling on, or how our culture has so cheapened the Name.

If you’re following where I’m going, you might be thinking of commandment #3, “You shall not take the Name of the Lord your God in vain.” Other versions say, “You shall not misuse the Name of the Lord your God.” And it adds, “…the Lord will not leave anyone unpunished who misuses His name” (Ex. 20:7 HCSB).

In light of Jesus’ teachings, I’m wondering if this command deals only with the way we say the Name of God and/or Jesus, or if there’s another layer that we’re missing.


How do we take the Lord’s name in vain? “I’m wondering if this command deals only with the way we say the Name of God and/or Jesus, or if there’s another layer that we’re missing.”


Please understand: I’m not saying I’m better than others, nor have I always been innocent in this area of my life. But I can honestly say I haven’t said the Name of God in a flippant way since high school. I haven’t spoken the Name of Jesus in a way that resembles a curse or mix it with swear words—ever. I wince when I hear people invoke the Name of Jesus Christ and add profanity as if it’s his middle name. If the third command is merely a prohibition of certain kinds of speech, then this is a command that I can say, with a fair amount of confidence, I’ve got down pat.

Then again, I’ve never murdered anyone, nor have I committed adultery. But according to Jesus, I’ve broken both of those laws by the anger and lustful thoughts I’ve had inside me.

So, have I misused the Name of the Lord my God? It hinges on the translation of a key Hebrew word.

Exodus 20:7 literally reads, “You shall not take up the name of Yahweh, God of you, in futility…”


How do we take the Lord’s name in vain? “You shall not take up the name of Yahweh, God of you, in futility…”


How do you “take up” or “carry” a name? Although it is common to see this as referring to irreverent speech using God’s Name (especially invoking God’s Name in an oath that you end up breaking), it should at least give us pause that the word “take up” typically refers to just that: taking up and carrying something.

God has a Name. At the burning bush, Moses asked God what to call him. So, God proclaimed to him the divine Name. We commonly spell it out Yahweh. I have a name. When I was born, my parents wrote, “James William Frech” as my given name. But God’s Name is more than just a word given to distinguish him from other gods of the nations. God’s Name has weight. God places his Name on people. It takes up residence in places.

Remember Woody from the Toy Story movies? He looked on the bottom of his boot and saw the name “Andy.” Woody belonged to Andy because Andy had written his name on him. When God places His Name on something or someone, he is saying, “This is Mine.”


How do we not take the Lord’s name in vain? “When God places His Name on something or someone, he is saying, ‘This is Mine.'”


Without getting too deep in the weeds and creating a TL:DR kind of thing, one example of this is in Exodus:

“You are to make a pure gold medallion and engrave it, like the engraving of a seal: HOLY TO THE LORD. Fasten it to a cord of blue yarn so it can be placed on the turban; the medallion is to be on the front of the turban. It will be on Aaron’s forehead….It is always to be on his forehead, so that they may find acceptance with the Lord.” (Ex. 28:36-38 HCSB)

Another way of reading “Holy to the LORD” is “Belonging to Yahweh.” God’s instruction was to place a plate of gold on the head piece of the high priest saying that he belonged to Yahweh.

But that wasn’t the only name that the priest was carrying. There was also a breastplate made of precious stones on which was engraved all the names of the tribes of Israel. When he wore that, he carried the names of his people into the presence of God and carrying the Name of Yahweh on His headpiece. Are you picturing this?

We Take the Lord’s Name in Vain with More Than Words

A Bible scholar and professor named Carmen Imes wrote a book called Bearing God’s Name: Why Sinai Still Matters, and she makes the case that the third commandment has less to do with how we say the Name of God, and much more to do with how we carry God’s Name in our everyday lives. Just as the priests and people of the Old Testament bore God’s Name—both literally and figuratively—so we Christ-followers in this New Testament age carry the Name of Jesus. We have identified with him so closely that he has covered us and placed his seal of ownership on us by the Holy Spirit.

We may never use the Name of God in an oath we end up breaking. But are we carrying the Name well? Are we representing his character, his generosity, his love and grace, and his love for justice? Do our actions display for others to see that we are a people holy unto the Lord? A people separate, on purpose, and distinct from the world?


How do we not take the Lord’s name in vain? “Are we carrying the Name well? Are we representing his character, his generosity, his love and grace, and his love for justice?”


As Peter writes in His letter…

“You are a chosen people. You are royal priests, a holy nation, God’s very own possession. As a result, you can show others the goodness of God, for he called you out of the darkness into his wonderful light.” (1 Peter 2:9 NLT)

So, when you hear the commandment, “You shall not take the Lord’s Name in vain,” I hope you see this expanded purpose. And maybe even hum that old tune that churches sometimes sing at the end of a church service, “Take the Name of Jesus with you…”

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