Taking God’s Name in Vain
The commandment “You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain” is often misinterpreted as a law targeting our speech. I’ve made the same error myself for years. But as I’ve been studying this commandment in more detail (and in its original language), my mind has been changed as to what it’s all about. And in hindsight, it now makes a lot more sense than the modern Christian understanding that this is a commandment against saying, “Oh my god.”
The Hebrew word in Exodus 20:7 translated into English as “take” comes from נָשָׂא (naw-saw’), which means “to lift, carry, take.” This translation can cause confusion because, in modern English, we have over fifty different ways we use the word “take.” (e.g., take a wife, take the witness stand, take an interest, it takes two, how did you take that statement, she was quite taken by him. See the Merriam-Webster definition.)
So let’s consider the meaning of the original Hebrew word. What does it mean to lift or carry the name of the Lord? We lift the name of the Lord by praising Him and pointing others to His glory. This is lifting in the sense of elevating. And we carry the name of the Lord by bringing His name with us wherever we go. In other words, by identifying ourselves with Him. Sort of like an army hoisting a giant banner bearing God’s name, YHWH (יְהוָ֔ה ). It communicates to the world that He is our God and we are His people. Therefore, this commandment is perhaps better translated into English as, “You shall not bear the name of the Lord your God in vain.”
What, then, does it mean to bear God’s name in vain? The Hebrew word translated into English as “in vain” comes from שָׁוְא (shawv), which means emptiness or vanity. Thus, we are not to claim faith in God in an attempt to feed our vanity or in a way that leads to emptiness. This idea is captured in the words of Isaiah 29:13, as quoted by Jesus:
This people honors me with their lips,Matthew 15:8-9
but their heart is far from me;
in vain do they worship me,
teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.
In other words, bearing God’s name in vain refers to false teachers, hypocrites, and those who do wrong in God’s name. That understanding makes a lot of sense in the context of The Ten. The first three commandments, then, are all about our covenant loyalty to God. We are to have no other Gods before Him, to worship no idols, and to do no evil in His name. He is our God, and we are His people.
Those who claim to be followers of God and oppress or abuse or manipulate others are slandering and bringing shame upon His name. We might think of smarmy televangelists and greedy Christian cult leaders. But closer to home, it also includes the Christian with a “Jesus is my homeboy” bumper sticker flipping off a slow driver on his way to church. Or the church staff member with a “holier than thou” attitude. Or the neighborhood Christian who is also the neighborhood gossip. In other words, this commandment is for all of us. It reminds us that as Christians, we bear the name of Christ. So let’s not bear His name in vain.
For a fascinating scholarly examination of this commandment check out the book Bearing God’s Name: Why Sinai Still Matters by Carmen Joy Imes, Ph.D. The author examines the meaning of this commandment and traces the theme of “bearing God’s name” throughout the rest of Scripture.