What Does “Taking the Lord’s Name in Vain” Really Mean?

angry-151332_640Exodus 20:7, Deuteronomy 5:11 – 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.

For many people, the ultimate violation of the third commandment is to say “God d@mn it.” But is this what God really intended? The third commandment was given to a specific people, at a specific time, in a specific place, with a specific purpose. We will never know what it means for us today if we do not first understand what it originally meant.

The third commandment is specifically addressing the use of God’s name. It isn’t meant to address the use of words or phrases that may be considered vulgar.  Why would calling on God to d@mn something be so bad? What does the verb “d@mn” really mean? The American Heritage Dictionary defines the verb “to d@mn” as “the act of pronouncing an adverse judgement upon.”

Calling upon God to d@mn something is neither sinful nor unbiblical. In fact, you can find lots of people throughout the Bible, especially in Psalms, who call upon God to pass judgment on their enemies. In other words, they are asking for God to d@mn those whom they feel are deserving of His judgment. In this sense, saying “God d@mn so-and-so” is just as biblical as saying “God bless so-and-so.”

Some people, however, believe that the reason this is a violation of the third commandment is because people are using God’s name in a “vain”, “worthless”, or “empty” way. In this case, to say, “God d@mn it!” in common usage is not seriously calling upon God to d@mn something or someone. In other words, if you really mean it, it’s alright to say it. But if you say it casually, you have just used His name in an empty way and broken the third commandment.

Here are a few problems with our common understanding of the third commandment:

1) “God” is Not Actually the Name of God

“God” is a generic term used to refer to all deities in general. A general classification can not be considered a proper name. That would be me saying that your name is “Person”. God gave His true name to Moses in the book of Exodus. His name is actually YHWH or Yahweh. And so, unless someone says “Yahweh d@mn it!” They probably could not have violated the third commandment.

2) Arbitrary Offense at the Usage of the Word, “God”

If the principle in question is that we are not to use God’s name unless we really mean it, then we are pretty inconsistent in our outrage. Why don’t people get offended when others say “God bless you” when they sneeze. Do you think that every time someone says this that they really mean it? Do you think that in their mind they are really beseeching God on another’s behalf? Or are they just being polite?

Is it less biblical to ask for God’s judgment than His kindness? Saying “God bless you” and not meaning it should be as much of a violation of the third commandment as saying “God d@mn it” and not meaning it. It is true that both uses of “God” could be wrong.  But without being hypocritical we can not really differentiate between the two.

3) What Does the Term “In Vain” Really Mean?

It does us no good to impose our modern understanding upon an ancient text. We need to know a little about the time, place and people for which the third commandment was intended.

The Israelites were travelling through Canaan, a land of many gods. The people in these lands were highly superstitious. Their prophets used the names of their gods in pronouncements all the time to give their statements a sense of authority.

God (Yahweh) was commanding the Israelites not to do the same thing. God instructed them not to throw His name around like the other nations did with the names of their gods. He did not want them to use His name merely to invoke authority. In essence, God did not want the Israelites to say that He had said something that He, in fact, had not.

What does this mean for modern Christians? To begin with, we should understand that the third commandment is about something much more substantial than saying the phrase “God d@mn it!” While some people may never think of using that phrase, Christians all over are breaking the third commandment every day by saying things like:

“Thus saith the Lord…”
“God told me to tell you…”
“I have a word from the Lord…”
“God says that if you donate to my ministry, you will be greatly blessed.”

Naughty. Naughty.

So does this mean that it is alright to say the phrase “God d@mn it”? Of course not, using this phrase in a common way is still considered quite rude in many contexts. While it is not necessarily a violation of the third commandment, it is offensive speech that must be used with discretion. (Furthermore, it might actually be considered blasphemous in some circles. But that is a completely different topic altogether.)

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