In 1968, a Maryland man by the name of Irving West attended a high school carnival and got into a fight. A police officer working security broke it up and seized Mr. West, who proceeded to curse the officer with various profanities, including a particular expletive invoking God’s condemnation.
The next day, Mr. West appeared before the magistrate, who sentenced him to thirty days in jail and a twenty-five-dollar fine—the maximum for disorderly conduct. That wasn’t a surprise. But what came next caught Mr. West off guard. The magistrate also sentenced him to an additional thirty days in jail and an additional fine for violating Maryland’s blasphemy law from 1723, saying that Mr. West “did unlawfully use profanity by taking the Lord’s name in vain in a public place.”
Mr. West got off easy because the Maryland statute said anyone who “shall write or utter any profane words of and concerning our Savior, Jesus Christ . . . the Trinity . . . shall, on conviction, be fined not more than $100, or imprisoned not more than six months, or both . . . at the discretion of the court.”
Mr. West was fortunate he didn’t live during the Old Testament days. God had a zero-tolerance policy when it came to blaspheming His name. One strike and you’re out—or, more precisely, you’re dead. Although God doesn’t deal with us like that today, He still takes the third commandment seriously: “You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain, for the Lord will not leave him unpunished who takes His name in vain” (Exodus 20:7).
Bible commentator Dr. Eugene Merrill paraphrased the third commandment this way: “You shall not lift up the name of Yahweh your God without reason.” That’s what this commandment is talking about. It prohibits not just using the name of God in profanity but also needlessly invoking the name of God, whether it be in jest or in anger. God’s name is sacred, and it’s to be treated that way.
1. The Significance of a Name
Shakespeare made famous the statement, “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” It’s a good question. What’s in a name that makes it so important?
Whenever we encounter a name in the Bible, it tells us something about the character of the individual. This is also true of God’s names. When we read “the name of the LORD,” as we do in Exodus 20:7, we can substitute it with “the character of the LORD” because God’s name represents the totality of His character.
2. The Importance of God’s Most Personal Name (Exodus 20:7)
The third commandment’s prohibition against using God’s name in vain can be applied to all His names and titles, but it specifically addresses God’s personal name. You might be thinking, I don’t see God’s name in Exodus 20:7. I see the title “LORD,” but I don’t see a personal name. The title is the name. The translators of our English Bibles depict God’s personal name as the title “Lord” written in small caps: LORD. This follows the Hebrew tradition of not writing God’s name because of its holiness.
So what is God’s personal name, the one represented as “LORD” in Exodus 20:7? The name that is used here is the holiest, sacred name of God: Yahweh. It’s a Hebrew word translated as “to be.” It’s the name God used when He identified himself to Moses in the burning bush: “I AM WHO I AM” (Exodus 3:14).
3. The Severity of the Third Commandment
So holy was God’s personal name, Yahweh, that it was not to be spoken in Israel. It was simply referred to as “the Name.” In fact, if you look at the name Yahweh in the Hebrew Old Testament, there are no vowels, only consonants. In the English alphabet, it looks like this: YHWH. There was no way to pronounce it. It was not to be uttered, so sacred was God’s name.
Jewish scribes refused to commit God’s name to paper, believing that writing God’s sacred name with human hands would diminish its holiness. They knew God took the holiness of His name seriously.
4. The Reason for the Third Commandment
When you say someone’s name, there’s an image that comes to mind, positive or negative. The name represents the essence of that person. The same is true when we speak the name of God. It should always lead to the conclusion that the Lord is holy, loving, good, merciful, gracious, and the other attributes that make up His divine character.
Whenever we use the name of God in an irreverent way, we’re, in a sense, reducing the glory of God. The third commandment flows out of the second commandment. The second commandment says, “Don’t reduce God to an image. Don’t diminish your thoughts about God.” The third commandment says, “Don’t dishonor God through your speech. Don’t trivialize Him by the way you talk.” And that’s what happens when we use God’s name needlessly, without reason. We reduce the majesty of God not only in our own minds but in the minds and the hearts of those around us.
5. Common Violations of the Third Commandment
The first three commandments warn against something lowly or careless in relation to God. The first commandment deals with our beliefs about God; the second commandment concerns our thoughts about God; the third commandment involves our words about God. Beliefs determine thoughts, and thoughts determine words. And words determine whether we’re taking God’s name in vain.
On the surface, it seems we could avoid breaking the third commandment simply by not using profanity. But this isn’t what the third commandment prohibits. It’s a warning against taking God’s name in vain, not a warning against profanity in general.
The phrase translated “take in vain” literally means “to lift up or attach to emptiness.” The implication, as the New International Version translates the verse, is we are not to “misuse the name of the LORD [our] God.” How might we misuse God’s name by stripping it of honor, glory, and holiness? Let me suggest four broad categories.
Misuse of God’s Name
- Through Profanity
- Through Falsehoods
- Through Frivolity
- Through Phoniness
6. Reasons We Violate the Third Commandment
We’ve seen that God takes the holiness of His name seriously. Why would anyone violate a commandment that God takes so seriously? The author of LAWS THAT LIBERATE offers three reasons I have adapted.
- A Lack of Knowledge
- A Lack of Self-Control
- Lack of a Genuine Salvation Experience
Three Ways For Guarding Your Speech
- Admit to God your need to control your speech (Galatians 5:22-23).
- Disassociate yourself from people who take God’s name in vain on a regular basis (Proverbs 22:24-25).
- Fill your mind with edifying thoughts about God (Ephesians 4:29).
Full Passage: Exodus 20:7