The Third Commandment: Taking God’s Name in Vain
Excerpted from Ajith Fernando’s forthcoming book: “Deuteronomy: Loving Obedience to a Loving God” in the Preaching the Word series of Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2012.
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. Deuteronomy 5:11
Note: In the book have described three areas in which we can take God’s name in vain. The first is Dishonouring God in Worship, and that is not reproduced here. The other two are given below.
Dishonouring God in CONVERSATION
The first thought that comes to people when they hear this command is about how we can dishonour God through the literal use of the name of God in conversation.
When Taking Vows. If we use God’s name when taking a vow or giving evidence at a court or inquiry and we tell lies, it is very serious. Our legal systems usually consider lying under oath or perjury to be a very serious crime. It threatens the stability of a nation when the legal system is not able to act properly. And perjury buckles the system. Imagine the seriousness when the oath is taken in God’s name! A proclamation has been made that the person is a follower of God and that God is witness and attester of the statements to be made. It is an open defiance of the authority and importance of God. It is a public proclamation that the person has no fear of dishonouring God. Christian must be very careful even when saying things like, “God is my witness.” Sometimes to assure people we are saying the truth we say, “I swear to God.” That is too serious a statement to make in casual conversation.
Our commitment to truthfulness of course is bound up with our belief in the absolute faithfulness of God. He means what he says. With him “there is no variation or shadow due to change” (Jas. 1:17). Hebrews 6:18 says “…it is impossible for God to lie”; and Paul says, God “never lies” (Tit. 1:2). God means what he says; and so must we. Jesus said that it was unnecessary for us to take oaths. Instead, he said, “Simply let your ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No,’ ‘No’” (Matt. 5:37, NIV). So God’s follower “swears to his own hurt and does not change” (Psa. 15:4). They keep their promises even though they find after making the promise that it will hurt them to keep it.
When Using God’s Name Trivially. Michael Moriarty has given three ways in which God’s name can be misused trivially. He says it is “misused when it’s used as a filler for absent syntax,” such as when people say, “O God.” It is “profaned when irreverently used as a divine exclamation” such as when people say, “Jesus” or “Christ.” It is “debased when used as a curse word (damning something or someone)” such as when people say, “God damn it.” I hope we cringe when we hear things like this. They are so common that we may simply hear and not feel pain over the dishonour that such statements bring to God.
I think we Christians sometimes dishonour God when we glibly say things like, “Praise the Lord,” without really thinking about what we are saying. Sometimes we have heard of situations where people said, “Praise the Lord” in most inappropriate times; like when someone announces that his mother has got sick!
Empty words while praying also comes under this category. We should not mouth words which are considered appropriate for prayer if we do not mean them. Hamlet in Shakespeare’s play said, “My words fly up, my thoughts remain below; words without thoughts never to heaven go.”
The Israelites took the idea of profaning God’s name very seriously; so they did not pronounce the name of God—probably spelled “Yahweh”—in conversation. They usually substituted Yahweh with adonay, which is the word for lord. So in most of our modern English Bibles, when Yahweh appears in the Hebrew, we find LORD in capitals. When adonay appears it is renders as Lord with the letters after the first letter in lower case. Perhaps they went too far. But I think we have gone too far too in the other way!
Dishonouring God IN BEHAVIOR.
Christians, especially Leaders, can dishonour God through bad behavior. Here are some examples.
- Sincere Christians often associate the projects and ideas of a Christian leader with God’s will. They participate in a project with the attitude that they are doing it for God. Later people find out that this does not seem to have been God’s will. God’s name is dishonoured because he was associated with a project which was not his will and proved to be a failure or a disaster.
- Some leaders urge giving to God work and use some of the funds given to support lifestyles way above that of those who sacrificially gave to the work. Some projects are aimed more at enhancing the leader’s reputation than God’s name.
- Sometimes leaders push people to accept an idea saying it was God’s will even though they were not sure about it. Examples are encouraging one to marry or not to marry a given person, and urging someone to leave his job to join the church because he seems to have gifts which can be of great benefit to the church. Often I qualify the advice I give with something like, “This is what I think; I am not sure whether this is God’s will.” Even Paul did that in 1 Corinthians 7:2 when he said, “To the rest I say (I, not the Lord)….”
- False prophecy is very common today. Later Moses will speak of severe punishment for prophets whose prophecies are not fulfilled (18:20-22). This happens all the time today and we seem to ignore it. It is a very serious thing to make prophecies as direct messages from God.
- We all know of wars between nations and conflicts between Christians within the church that are fought in the name of God. Sometimes both sides claim to have God on their side. We should be very careful about bringing God’s name into our battles. It could help rouse support for the cause, but it could really hurt the much more important cause of Christ. This is especially true of political causes. Sometimes sincere Christians are on opposite sides and both claim to be fighting for God’s cause. If we do this indiscriminately, the next generation could reject God because, in the minds of these people, God was sometimes on the wrong side!
The Consequences of Misusing God’s Name (5:11b)
Our command ends with a rather strange statement: “…for the Lord will not hold him guiltless who takes his name in vain” (Deut. 5:11b). This is a curious use of the double negative. It would have been much smoother to say, “…will hold him guilty.” Perhaps the reason why this double negative expression is given is that people could invoke God’s name very piously and look innocent and godly while they are taking the name of God in vain. People listen to them and think they are guiltless. But they are guilty. This command says that they won’t get away with it; even though they can fool a lot of people into thinking that they are innocent. The doctrine of judgment brings a certain sobriety to our lives. Because we stand liable to judgment for dishonoring God’s name we will be careful of the way we behave.
I once went to the courts because one of our volunteers had been arrested on suspicion of being a terrorist. He was at a bus stop after an early morning YFC prayer meeting, and there was a terrorist suspect at the same bus stop. So he was taken in too. We were trying to get him out on bail, but we failed to do so. He had to spend over two weeks in prison. I felt the lawyer whom we had retained was not presenting our case well, and I wanted to intervene. But I realized I could not tamper with the form of the court procedures. If I did that, I would be guilty of contempt of court—a serious offense under the law. On that occasion, I was reprimanded by a policeman because I walked into an area that was out of bounds to the public. I was impressed by how careful the people there were to follow the proper procedure.
In the same way we, who bear the name of a majestic and holy God on earth, should be careful about profaning his name by our behavior.