Taking God’s Name in Vain

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“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.” (Exod. 20:7, ESV) This is one of the Ten Commandments and we usually interpret it to mean we shouldn’t use God’s name as a profanity or swearword. If we examine two key words, however, we might come to a different conclusion.

The Hebrew word translated “vain” primarily refers to vanity, futility or worthlessness; it also can mean falseness or emptiness. Overall, it describes an absence of intended or expected results.

The Hebrew word translated “take” has various meanings, such as lift up, carry, honor, exalt, desire, and support. There are several Old Testament references to taking oaths in God’s name, revealing a wider use of this word than simply physically lifting or carrying something.

Consider a practice that spans cultures and time: taking an oath and a name in marriage. If a bride pledges herself to her husband and takes his name, the groom expects her to renounce all others. If she then engages in relations with others, she’s not doing what her new husband expected. That is, she made a false pledge and took his name in vain.

In that sense, it’s possible for us to take God’s name in vain by considering ourselves Christians, but not doing what he expects of us. Consider Jesus’ perspective on this:

“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’” (Matt. 7:21-23, NIV).

Notice he said, “I never knew you,” which means he had no intimate relationship with them. It’s possible for us to take God’s name in vain by calling ourselves Christians or God’s children, even doing religious works, but failing to honor our relationship with him.

Taking God’s name in vain isn’t about using it as a profanity or swearword. Instead, it’s calling ourselves Christians but continuing to live like the world.

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