by Wayne Geiger
“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” (Exodus 20:7).
Many of us try to watch our language. Even the saltiest sailor will try to curb his or her language around the little ones or in front of the preacher. For most of us, the true test is not what flows from out of our mouths in a controlled environment, but what flies out of our mouth when we step on a Lego. That’s the true test. The issue is not the mouth, of course, but the heart.
The ten commandments are found in the book of Exodus 20:1-17. They are not random “things to do” to rob us of our fun, but structured, rationale instructions that reveal the heart of God. The first four commands give instruction about our vertical relationship with God. These are commands that deal with people and God. The last six commands reveal what God expects of our horizontal relationships or how we deal with other people.
So, when Jesus said, “And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength. The second is this: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these” (Mark 12:30-31) he was basically reminding us that the key to obeying the commandments is vertical and horizontal love. But that’s another article.
For this article, I’d like to call commandment number three to the witness stand and put it under the microscope. Most people do not know what it means to “not take the Lord’s name in vain.” It has little to do with cussing (there are other passages for that). The command literally has to do with God’s name. God’s name is special—or holy.
Most parents spend a great deal of time “naming” their child. Some children are named after a family member or someone that left a significant imprint upon the father or mother. Some children are named after pop culture—like Disney characters or actors or actresses. Some parents won’t even reveal the name of their child until the baby is born. Names are unique and special.
I had a student some time ago whose name was Semaj. I had a hard time remembering it, until he informed me that his mother named him Semaj because it’s James backwards. I’ve never forgotten it.
I was mortified when in second grade I found that my name meant “wagon maker.” Through the chuckles, my teacher informed the class that wagon makers were very important people in the expansion of the old west. I was not convinced. Neither were they.
We like to identify people by name. If your eye catches that special someone for the first time, you want to know, “what’s their name?” We are hurt when people don’t remember our name. There have been people who have made us so angry that we say, “don’t even mention their name in my presence!”
Names mysterious and powerful. In the biblical creation story, God allowed Adam to name all the animals—thus exercising dominion over them. As a child in school, I remember the story of Rumpelstiltskin. In order for the king’s daughter to keep from having to give up her baby to the imp-like-creature, she needed to discover his name. According to research, the tale was one collected by the Brothers Grimm in the 1812 edition of “Children's and Household Tales” and may have been circulating for about 4000 years.
We give personal names to inanimate objects that we value. Maybe you grew up with a favorite doll or bear—and you named it. It was uniquely yours. We also name our pets and by the tone of our voice we can get our dog to come running with excitement or to have their ears go down in shame. When my mom yelled out, “Wayne Richard Geiger!” I knew I was in trouble. Names are powerful and defining. When was the last time you met someone named Judas?
We some times use the phrase, “make a name for yourself” or someone’s “name up in lights.” What we are saying is a person’s name personifies their character and identity.
The same is true with God. When you talk about God’s name, you talk about God. God’s name is to be revered. For example, several passages from the Bible:
“Praise the name of the Lord, for his name alone is exalted; his majesty is above earth and heaven” (Ps 148:13).
“Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name (Matthew 6:9).
“Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Phil 2:9-11).
God has a personal and powerful name and He wants to protect it. This is where the third command comes in. God’s command is that His name be used properly. God is extremely protective of His name and His nature.
That means 2 things. First, obviously, God’s name must not be used as an obscenity or curse word. At this point, my desire to be illustrative and give an example, but that desire is overpowered by my desire to be respectful. But, any time we use the words, God, Lord, Jesus, or any other way to describe God and use it improperly, we have violated the third command.
Second, not only must God’s name not be used as an obscenity, it must also not be used flippantly. This is the main thrust of the command. As the command states, “You shall not take the name of the Lord, thy God, in vain”. The key word is “vain”. The word vain is Shav in Hebrew. It literally means vanity or emptiness.
The command is to not take God’s holy, revered name and associate it with anything that is empty, shallow, or common. God’s name must only be used in connection with praise and adoration. The Old Testament Jews understood this and would never even utter God’s name and would not write it out. Jews today will often write the word “God” with a missing vowel or hyphen out of respect.
Here are some things to think about: The phrase, O-M-G has been floating around for some time. Many people use it as an expression of shock or unbelief. If the “G” stands for God, doesn’t this flippant use of God’s name violate the third command? Also, I’ve heard some people say “Jesus Christ!” but not utter it in a way to bring praise, but to express exasperation, disbelief, or pain. Same idea. One last example, some refer to the mighty God of the universe by calling him, “The Big Man Upstairs”, “The Big Guy”, or “The Man.” None of these phrases captures the essence of God’s holiness and identity.
In short, the third command means that we don’t sacrifice God’s holiness by indiscriminately involving Him in vulgar or vain vocabulary and we don’t make God relevant by bringing Him down to our level.
Our heavenly Father, who is a God of love, mercy, and compassion, wants to be loved by us and deserves to be shown the proper respect and admiration that He alone deserves. So, before you step on that next Lego or catch your toe on chair leg, determine what verbiage should come out of your mouth.
Wayne Geiger is the Pastor of First Baptist Grain Valley, an Adjunct Associate Professor of Speech, and freelance writer.