One of the Ten Commandments prohibits using God’s name in vain. Since God is holy, his name also deserves reverence. Naturally, many Christians are concerned with misusing God’s name. They are careful to avoid saying the name of God in place of an expletive or in moments of exclamation or shock. They are right to do this. However, using God’s name in vain is not just about speaking his name as a curse word. It’s much deeper than this.
In this article, I would like to introduce the importance of God’s name in the Bible, suggest reasons why Exodus 20:7 is about more than just our language, and explain what the Bible actually means when it says not to take the name of the Lord in vain. If you’re reading this and you feel that this article doesn’t apply to you because you never use God’s name in vain as a curse word, I would encourage you to keep reading anyway.
What is God’s name?
In Exodus 3, Moses encounters God who then commissions him to return to Egypt and tell Pharaoh to let the Israelites go free. After receiving this commission, Moses asks God an important question:
Moses said to God, “Suppose I go to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ Then what shall I tell them?” (Exodus 3:13 NIV)
God responds and tells Moses, “I AM WHO I AM… say to the Israelites: ‘I AM has sent me to you” (Exodus 3:14).
“I AM” comes from the Hebrew verb hayah which means “to be.” This is where we get the name Yahweh that is frequently used in the Bible for God. Yahweh refers to God’s self-existence, or in other words, the fact that God has no beginning or end. An article from the NIV Study Bible explains that the name Yahweh is a “perpetual testimony to [God’s] faithfulness to his promises.” Yahweh is God’s covenantal name and it reminds his people that he is with them.
Similarly, for us today, the name Yahweh is a reminder that God loves us, cares for us, and will never leave us.
A Person’s Name Defines Their Character
I also want to point out that in Ancient Israelite society, one did not give their child a name just because it was pretty or trendy. One’s name was directly connected with their character. This is why we see so many name changes in the Old Testament. The name Jacob means “supplanter,” and describes someone who seized or usurped things from others. When Jacob encountered God, God changed his name to Israel, or, “one who wrestles with God.”
Similarly, God’s name represents God’s character.
We spoke of the name Yahweh as God’s covenantal name, but God is also given many other names:
God is el Roi, “the God who sees.” (Genesis 16:14-15)
God is adonai, “Lord” or “Master.”
God is the Ancient of Days, referring to God’s eternal existence. (Daniel 7)
God is el elyon, “God Most High” (Psalm 57:2)
God’s people have also referred to him as:
Yahweh Shalom, the Lord is Peace (Judges 6:24).
Yahweh Nissi, the Lord is my banner (Exodus 17:15).
Yahweh Tsidkenu, the Lord is our righteousness (Jeremiah 23:6).
Yahweh Ra’ah the Lord is our shepherd (Psalm 23:1).
You probably also know God as Comforter, Friend, Savior, Redeemer, etc.
These names describe God’s character and actions towards his people.
Related: What Does it Mean to Fear God?
Where does God’s name dwell?
This concept may feel foreign because we are not living in the same time period or place as the Biblical writers. However, God’s name did dwell in a specific place, and learning about this can give us more insight into what it means to use God’s name in vain.
In the Pentateuch, particularly in Deuteronomy, we find passages about God’s name dwelling in a place:
But you shall seek the Lord at the place which the Lord your God will choose from all your tribes, to establish His name there for His dwelling, and there you shall come. (Deuteronomy 12:5)
but at the place where the Lord your God chooses to establish His name, you shall sacrifice the Passover in the evening at sunset, at the time that you came out of Egypt. (Deuteronomy 16:6)
that you shall take some of the first of all the produce of the ground which you bring in from your land that the Lord your God gives you, and you shall put it in a basket and go to the place where the Lord your God chooses to establish His name. (Deuteronomy 26:2)
God’s name dwelt among the people of Israel in the land of Israel.
Israel as bearers of God’s name
In an interview with Michael Heiser, Tim Mackie of The Bible Project explained that the Hebrew of Exodus 20:7 actually speaks of carrying the Lord’s name in vain as opposed to taking or using the Lord’s name in vain.
Israel was supposed to be bearers of God’s name. In other words, they represented God.
As representatives of God, they were not permitted to misrepresent God in their lifestyle and actions.
When the surrounding nations looked at Israel, they were supposed to see a group of people who acted like they knew and lived in a relationship with the one true God.
Christians also bear God’s name
As Christians, we now also bear God’s name. We represent Christ in the world. Our friends and neighbors should look to us to learn about what it means to live in a relationship with the one true God.
This is perhaps why, regarding those who speak out against one thing and then do the same thing themselves, Paul boldly states in Romans 2:24:
As it is written: “God’s name is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you.”
Christians are called to show the world who God is through our lives.
If we claim to represent Christ and do the things he hates, we are inviting others to blaspheme, and disrespect God’s name.
What does it mean to take God’s name in vain?
Taking God’s name in vain is not only about speaking God’s name in an inappropriate way. It also involves representing God in an inappropriate way.
What taking God’s name in vain can look like:
- Claiming to love Christ but failing to demonstrate the love of Christ in our actions
- Believing that adultery is a sin, but still practicing it anyway
- Knowing that Christ is Lord but choosing to support false religions
- Practicing any kind of sinful lifestyle even while claiming to be a believer
If our lives do not match the character of the God we represent, then we are taking God’s name in vain.
Similarly, if people see us and do not see Christ in us, then we are taking Christ’s name in vain.
Where do we go from here?
The truth of the matter is that none of us are perfect and we will inevitably do things that misrepresent God.
First, it is important to remember the fact that Christ has set us free from the punishment and stronghold of sin. When we are weak, Christ is strong.
Next, evaluate your life. Ask God to help open your eyes to the ways in which you may be carrying his name in vain. When you find yourself doing this, simply ask for his forgiveness and his power to do the right thing the next time.
Also, while we do make mistakes and have off-days, ask yourself this. Does my life as a whole represent the God I claim to worship?
If you find that your life does not truly represent God, don’t be afraid to repent. God is gracious and kind.
I hope that this article was able to help you see that using God’s name in vain is not just about words. It’s also about how we represent God in the world. May we seek to glorify God with our lives as much as we seek to glorify him with our words.