The Ten Commandments: The Third Commandment

“Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain.”

God has many names that are revealed throughout the Scriptures. These express His essential character and they should command our reverence and respect.

The Glory of His Name

Two common Old Testament terms for God are “Elohim” and “Jehovah.” The first of these denotes that God is the self-existing and sovereign Creator; the second, that He is the covenant-keeping Lord in relation to His people (Gen 1:1; 2:7).

There was a progression in the revelation of divine names throughout the Scriptures. After Jacob wrestled with the angel of the Lord at Peniel and had his name changed for the better, from Jacob (supplanter) to Israel (prince with God), he was bold enough to ask the angel His name. A reply was not given, at least on that occasion (Gen 32:29). Later, God explained to Moses, “I appeared unto Abraham, unto Isaac, and unto Jacob, by the name of God Almighty, but by my name Jehovah was I not known to them” (Exo 6:3).[1] They had witnessed His almighty power as El Shaddai, but the text implies that the covenant-keeping aspect of God’s character was not yet fully realized.

Elohim and Jehovah are reflected through the Scriptures in names that end with the letters “-el” and “-ah,” or “-iel” and “-iah” (e.g., Joel, Micah, Daniel and Isaiah). These form the basis of other compound names such as Jehovah-jireh, the Lord will provide; Jehovah-rohi, the Lord is my shepherd; and Jehovah-tsidkenu, the Lord our righteousness. Christians take comfort in the knowledge that God fulfills all of these roles and more. He has not changed in His love and care for His own.

In the Psalms, the songbook of Israel, are found many expressions in praise of God’s name: “O Lord, our Lord, how excellent is thy name in all the earth!” (8:1); “I will be glad and rejoice in thee: I will sing praise to thy name, O thou most High” (9:2); “Holy and reverend is his name” (111:9).

The Misuse of His Name

The misuse of any name of God, or of His Son, is a shameful thing and dishonors Him. The Bible text of this commandment is extended to remind the readers and hearers that God takes note of those who are guilty of using profanity. He will uphold the honor of His name and judge those who flout His laws.

His name may be uttered formally, as when taking a legal oath to tell the truth. The courtroom witness who takes the oath and then proceeds to lie before the judge and jury has broken this commandment. More commonly, God’s name is used casually and offensively in everyday speech. Swearing, in this instance, is done unthinkingly and soon becomes a habit. It is intended, somehow, to add emphasis to what is being said and to express strong emotions such as shock or anger. It is an affront to the God of heaven.

The Christian should never need to speak like this in ordinary conversation to make a point. James writes: “Swear not, neither by heaven, neither by the earth, neither by any other oath: but let your yea be yea; and your nay, nay; lest ye fall into condemnation” (Jas 5:12). Plain, honest speech should be our goal. The Lord Jesus Christ spoke words of grace that caused others to wonder (Luk 4:22). They were also holy words of truth and righteousness, as if seasoned with salt (Col 4:6). When the Lord Jesus was being questioned at His trial, He agreed when He was presented with a truth: “Thou sayest it” (Mar 15:2). On the other hand, when He was confronted by false accusations, He responded with silence. This spoke volumes.

Current Trends

Today, in society in general, casual swearing using divine names is so common that it provokes little reaction. Even believers can become hardened and insensitive with constant exposure to this form of speech; it is frequently heard in the media, places of education, the workplace and in the street. It says much for the testimony of any believer when his or her presence is regarded by others as a dampener on their loose conversation: when the Christian enters the room, knowing looks are exchanged, voices are dropped and the speech is modified. At other times, there can be a different, more challenging response: smiles are exchanged, voices are suddenly raised, and the speech becomes even more offensive in a cruel attempt to embarrass the one who is seeking only to be faithful to God.

Why is it that the names of Confucius, Buddha or Mohammed are rarely repeated in this way? Perhaps one reason is that the devil knows these historical figures offer no resistance to his plans to overthrow God’s order. In the beginning, he failed to usurp God’s place in heaven, but since then he has worked incessantly to oppose those who love God and seek to honor His name.

Another pertinent reason in modern times is that blasphemy against Islamic belief can be met with the threat of assassination. The fiction writer, Salman Rushdie, lived under a constant threat of being murdered after he was accused in 1988 of insulting Mohammed in one of his novels. A fatwa (death order) was issued against him by the Ayatollah Khomeini of Iran. In another incident in 2015, the offices of Charlie Hebdo, a French satirical magazine, were attacked by Islamists and 12 people were slain. This atrocity was echoed recently with the murder of a French schoolteacher who showed children a cartoon of Mohammed from the same publication. The message conveyed is clear: nobody should show disrespect to Islam’s prophet; his followers will strike back.

By contrast, it seems that anyone can freely blaspheme the name of God or Christ and get away with it. Richard Dawkins has written with vitriol against the God of the Bible. He has been lauded in liberal circles as a proponent of free and enlightened speech. Are Christians guilty of keeping quiet and showing no resistance at all? While we cannot live by the sword, we may speak in defense of our Lord. There is a reminder in the writings of King Solomon of how men think: “Because sentence against an evil work is not executed speedily, therefore the heart of the sons of men is fully set in them to do evil” (Ecc 8:11). Oh, that we all would remember: God does not always pay at the end of the day, but at the end, He pays.

[1] All Scripture quotations in this article are from the KJV.