Exodus 20:7

what-are-ten-commandments_472_314_80Exodus 20

7 “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.


Fred Craddock tells an interesting story from his childhood about the reverence for the name of God that his mother instilled in him at an early age.

            When I was a child, my mother would play word games with us in the evening by the fire. She taught us phonic spelling. If you can say it, you can spell it. And she led us into the deep waters of oviparous, ovoviviparous, and hypotenuse. I once knew how to pronounce and spell asafetida. But one word she never put on the list because she knew we were just children. She never put on the list God.[1]

There is something charming about this, and also something very important. We should instill within our children and within ourselves a deep reverence and love for the name of God. Unfortunately, we live in a church age in which reverence for the name of God seems to be lacking.

In his compelling book Requiem: A Lament in Three Movements, theologian Thomas Oden chronicles and bemoans the drift in modern theology away from serious reflection on the nature of God and into faddishness, silliness, and blasphemy. In particular, Oden complained about the lack of respect that many modern theologians show for the name of God and the ways in which theologians now use God’s name to justify their own interests in lesser pursuits. Oden writes:

When God’s name has been so dishonored and misplaced as to mean little more than weight loss, dream analysis, exotic vitamins, salesmanship, yoga, LSD, and psychodrama, then someone has been asleep at the wheel.[2]

That is well said. Our day is in desperate need of a serious reflection on the third commandment, to which we now turn.

God’s name is an expression of His character and His character is perfect holiness.

The third commandment prohibits taking God’s name in vain.

7 “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.

One of the problems that we modern people face in trying to understand this is the way in which we view names. For us, a name is simply a word that was put on you when you were born. But the name of God is very different, of course, as was, it should be said, the children of Israel’s approach to names in general.

Nobody gave God His name. He has been God from eternity past. And His name, YHWH, the Tetragrammaton, is a reflection of His person and His character. Thus, God’s name is an expression of His character and His character is perfect holiness. As a result, it should only be used reverently and with a sense of awe.

Origen referred to “the name of God” as “the stamp of the personal character of God.”[3] That is a good way of thinking about it. God’s name must not be mouthed casually, cheaply, or frivolously, for there is a powerful connection between His name and His character. This is evident in Exodus 3, when Moses asked God for His name after God commissioned him to go to Egypt and liberate the children of Israel.

13 Then Moses said to God, “If I come to the people of Israel and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?” 14 God said to Moses, “I am who I am.” And he said, “Say this to the people of Israel, ‘I am has sent me to you.’”

God’s name reflects God’s character. Thus, He could call Himself “I AM.” As a result, we must esteem highly and handle carefully the holy name of our great God. This is no less true for the Church than it was for Israel. In Matthew 6:9, Jesus said, “Pray then like this: ‘Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name.’”

To hallow God’s name is to reverence God’s name and to refuse to use the name in vain is one step toward hallowing it. The Puritan, Thomas Watson, made the interesting and compelling point that while some of the petitions of the Lord’s Prayer will one day cease, the need to hallow God’s name never will.

When some of the other petitions shall be useless and out of date, as we shall not need to pray in heaven, “Give us our daily bread,” because there shall be no sin; nor, “Lead us not into temptation,” because the old serpent is not there to tempt: yet the hallowing of God’s name will be of great use and request in heaven; we shall be ever singing hallelujahs, which is nothing else but the hallowing of God’s name.[4]

We will be hallowing God’s name, reverencing God’s name, and refusing to use God’s name in vain for all eternity. We must begin now!

Taking God’s name in vain means using God’s name in any way that does not seek to magnify and celebrate His glory.

But what precisely does it mean to use God’s name “in vain”? Roy Honeycutt points out that the word “vain” (shawe’) “means emptiness, nothingness, or vanity, in the sense of being ineffective or lacking in purpose; emptiness of speech, and hence that which is false, whether of prophecy (Ezek. 12:24), or speech (Isa. 59:4); and worthlessness of conduct.” Honeycutt goes on to argue that the third commandment’s obvious proximity to the first two commandments suggests that it is saying something about the way we use God’s name in worship.

            The fact that the command appears at the center of those exhortations which sought to guarantee the proper worship of the Lord gives added weight to an interpretation of the commandment which stresses the negative use of the name in worship. The strong probability is that the writer sought to prohibit a semimagical or magical use of the Lord’s name…Members of the covenant community are warned against paganizing their faith by perverting it into no more than a restructured magic by which God may be coerced into fulfilling the worshiper’s will.[5]

The IVP Bible Background Commentary agrees and proposes a similar idea.

This commandment does not refer to blasphemy or foul language. Rather it is intended to prevent the exploitation of the name of Yahweh for magical purposes or hexing. It also continues the concerns of the second commandment in that someone’s name was believed to be intimately connected to that person’s being and essence. The giving of one’s name was an act of favor, trust and, in human terms, vulnerability. Israel was not to attempt to use Yahweh’s name in magical ways to manipulate him. The commandment was also intended to insure that the use of Yahweh’s name in oaths, vows and treaties was taken seriously.[6]

Undoubtedly there is something to these claims, though The IVP Bible Background Commentary almost certainly overstates the case when it says that “this commandment does not refer to blasphemy or foul language.” Victor Hamilton argues that the third commandment certainly applies to blasphemous and profane language that invokes God’s name.

In sum, the third commandment cautions against using the Lord’s name falsely to buttress a truth claim that is fabricated. By extension, it prohibits any use of the holy name that is without any real significance, any trivializing of the Tetragrammaton. I am not sure whether biblical Israel has any concept of “cussing” or using a collection of “four-letter words,” but it is not a misunderstanding of this commandment to bring it to bear on the pervasive use today of “O my God” in every imaginable situation.[7]

What is more, J.I. Packer sees three applications of the third commandment.

  1. irreverence
  2. bad language
  3. promise keeping[8]

Each of these commentators make a significant contribution to our understanding of this commandment, but I believe that Hamilton and Packer are correct in applying it to the way we talk outside of worship as well. Giving the third commandment a limited technical application restricted only to worship does not do justice to the full implications of this prohibition.

I very much include myself in what I am about to say and I say it to my own conviction: we truly need to return to a higher view of the name of God. Using the name of God for, say, comedic effect, or for the sake of emphasis, or as a vehicle to express our own anger is certainly included in the prohibition against taking God’s name “in vain.” Furthermore, we should stop using God’s name as an exclamation.

A good rule of thumb might be something like this: is my use of God’s name in this instance reverent, honoring, and worshipful? Is my use of God’s name in this instance going to make Him look glorious? Is it going to cause others to want to worship Him? Is it going to help draw people to serious consideration of the grandeur of God?

There is power in the name of God when rightly and worshipfully voiced because it is in and through hearts yielded to Him that God most powerfully works.

We would do well to remember that whereas a frivolous use of God’s name is a great sin, the worshipful and proper expression of God’s has great power. Please let me explain what I do not mean: I do mean that God’s name can be used as a talisman. The very thought is blasphemous! In truth, we should not speak at all of using God’s name. We may speak it, honor it, and proclaim it, but never use it as if we are seeking to manipulate the Lord God.

No, what I mean is there is power in the name of God when rightly and worshipfully voiced because it is in and through hearts yielded to Him that God most powerfully works. God’s name is bound to God’s character and, in His name, there is power! This helps us explain what we see throughout scripture. Let us focus particularly on the New Testament uses of Christ’s name to explore this point.

In Mark 9, Jesus acknowledged that mighty displays of kingdom power can only be done “in my name” and truly bring honor to Jesus.

38 John said to him, “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.” 39 But Jesus said, “Do not stop him, for no one who does a mighty work in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me. 40 For the one who is not against us is for us.”

In Acts 3:6, Peter demonstrated God’s healing power in the name of Jesus

But Peter said, “I have no silver and gold, but what I do have I give to you. In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, rise up and walk!”

Furthermore, in 1 Corinthians 1:10, Paul called for unity in the divided church of Corinth in the name of Jesus.

I appeal to you, brothers, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment.

Bringing a divided church together in unity is one of the greatest displays of power we can ever see! The name of Jesus should bind the Church together in harmony and unity. Later in the same book, in 1 Corinthians 5:4, Paul appealed to the church of Corinth to speak a word of church discipline against an erring brother “in the name of the Lord Jesus.”

When you are assembled in the name of the Lord Jesus and my spirit is present, with the power of our Lord Jesus…

To gather in His name is to gather in His power. In Colossians 3:17, Paul called upon believers to live in the light of the name of Christ!

And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.

Most powerfully of all, we are saved in the name of Christ. In Acts 2:38, Peter responded to the question of how we are to be saved by saying, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.”

It is undeniable that God’s name is used too flippantly in our day. Even so, the scriptures tell us that the day will come when everybody, at least once, will say the name of Christ rightly. In Philippians 2 we read:

9 Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, 10 so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11 and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

Every knee will bow “at the name of Jesus” and every tongue will confess the name as well. If this will happen at the gate of eternity, should it not happen now? Yes, it should. We should say now what we will say then: Jesus Christ is Lord. And we should honor the name now that we will honor then.

Do not take the name of the Lord in vain.


[1] Fred Craddock, Craddock Stories. (St. Louis, MO: Chalice Press, 2001), p.21-22.

[2] Thomas C. Oden, Requiem: A Lament in Three Movements (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1995), p.46.

[3] Joseph T. Lienhard, ed., Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy. Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture. Old Testament, vol.III. Thomas C. Oden, ed. (Downer’s Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2001), p.103.

[4] Quoted in Hank Hanegraaff. The Prayer of Jesus. (Nashville: Word Publishing, 2001), p.40.

[5] Roy L. Honeycutt, Jr. “Exodus.” The Broadman Bible Commentary. Vol.1, Revised (Nashville, TN: Broadman Press, 1969), p.396-397.

[6] John H. Walton, Victor H. Matthews, Mark W. Chavalas, The IVP Bible Background Commentary: Old Testament.(Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2000), p.95.

[7] Hamilton, Victor P. (2011-11-01). Exodus: An Exegetical Commentary (Kindle Locations 11053-11056). Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

[8] Packer, J. I. (2008-01-07). Keeping the Ten Commandments (Kindle Location 517-526). Crossway. Kindle Edition.


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