Taking the Lord’s Name in Vain – What Does it Really Mean?

The answer to this question might seem self-evident, especially to those of us who grew up in a western Judeo-Christian society.

You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain. Exodus 20:7

Exodus 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.

Please be warned, I’m going to use a phrase that is offensive to many.

For most, the ultimate violation of the third commandment is to say “God damn it.” You can use just about every other word or phrase, no matter how bad, but when your vulgarity includes the utilization of this phrase, many believe you’ve crossed the line. You might even be charged with blasphemy against the Holy Spirit.

In fact, more people would confidently answer this question than could list the Ten Commandments, name the gospels, or explain the difference between the New and Old Testaments.

At Odds with the Third Commandment (As Some Define It)

I’m going to take a stand that’s at odds with the most popular understanding of the third commandment. That’s why I used the word “really” in the title of this article. With all the talk about cursing pastors, the evolution of swearing in the blogosphere, and the general confusion around this issue (even in Christian circles), I thought I’d take a stab at explaining what it really means to take the Lord’s name in vain.

If I’m right about the third-commandment, we have a serious issue of folk theology that’s damaging the character of God by misrepresenting what Christian speech is.

The question that must drive the understanding of any biblical passage is:

What did the author intend for his audience to understand by his writing?

The third commandment was given to a specific people, at a specific time, in a specific place, with a specific purpose. We’ll never know what it means today if we don’t first know what it originally meant.

What About the F-Bomb, S-Word, etc?

The third commandment has nothing to do with what we commonly call cursing. Use of the F-word, S-word, etc. is a separate issue. The Bible certainly has a lot to say about speech:

Proverbs 10:32 – The lips of the righteous know what is acceptable, but the mouth of the wicked, what is perverse.

Colossians 3:8 – But now you must put them all away: anger, wrath, malice, slander, and obscene talk from your mouth.

Ephesians 4:29 – Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear.

Swearing and Cursing Speech Bubble

The third commandment is specifically addressing the use of God’s name. It isn’t meant to address the use of words, phrases, and even gestures that may be socially uncouth or vulgar.

When Calling on God to Damn Someone Is Biblical

We have this wrong. In fact, from a purely objective standpoint, I don’t believe that this phrase causes God to even bat an eye. Why would calling on God to damn something be so bad? What does the verb “damn” mean? The American Heritage Dictionary defines the verb “to damn” as “the act of pronouncing an adverse judgement upon.”

To call upon God to damn something is neither sinful nor unbiblical. In fact, you can find people throughout Scripture, especially in the Psalms, who call upon God to bring judgment on their enemies. In other words, they are asking for God to damn those whom they feel are ripe for His judgment. In this sense, saying “God damn _____” is as biblical as saying “God bless _____.”

Some say 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 damn it!” in our colloquial tongue is not the same as seriously calling upon God to damn something or someone. For those making this claim, if you say it seriously, fine. If however, you say it casually, you’ve used His name in an empty way and broken the third commandment.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not advocating that we should take the Lord’s name in vain, but that our understanding of what this commandment means is mistaken. There are three major critiques I’d offer to our common understanding:

1) “God” is Not the Name of God

“God” is a term used to refer to deities in general. A generic classification can’t be considered a formal name. It would be like you saying that my name is “person”. God gives His name to Moses in the book of Exodus. His name is Yahweh. Would you have the same offense if someone were to stub their toe and say “Yahweh damn it!” I doubt it.

When Christians use words like “God” or “Lord” we’re typically referring to the God of the Bible, Yahweh. And after all, if you’re not calling on the God of the Bible to damn something, whom are you calling on? Therefore, although the word God isn’t a formal name, because we use it as such, saying G-D may test the limits of what many consider taking God’s name in vain.

2) Selective Outrage at the Use of “God”

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

Just about every email I get ends with the phrase, “God bless.”

Just about every email I get ends with the phrase, “God bless.” I seriously doubt that that person actually said a prayer for me before he or she hit send. If this is the case, why is saying, “God bless you” not just as much a violation of the third commandment as saying “God damn you?”

Is it more biblical to ask for God’s kindness or judgment? I don’t think almost anyone who is honest with themselves can say they’re consistent in this regard. Saying “God damn it” and not meaning it should be just as bad as saying “God bless you” and not meaning it.

It true that both uses of “God” could be wrong, or both could be right. But, without modifying our principle (i.e. not using God’s name unless we really mean it) we can’t differentiate between the two.

3) What Does “In Vain” Mean?

I’ve saved this point for last because it’s the most important. In fact, if I’m right, the first two points don’t really make a difference. The question is this:

What does it mean to use God’s name in an empty or vain way?

What does the third commandment really mean? It’s hard to tell from a simple word study on the Hebrew term שָׁוְא (vain). Also, our understanding of a “name” and what it signifies is much different than what it meant in the context in which this commandment was given. First, we must try to understand what it meant when it was written. Second, we can then work out how that applies to us.

It does us no good to anachronistically impose our understanding upon an ancient text. This is eisegesis (reading into the text what we presuppose), not exegesis (letting the text speak on its own terms).

How the Canaanite Nations Invoked Their Deities

Briefly, this is what I believe your studies will show. The nations to which the Israelites were going (in Canaan) had many gods. They were highly superstitious. Their prophets used the name of their god in pronouncements all the time. The usage could be in a curse, hex, or even a blessing. They used the name of their god to give their statements, whatever they may be, authority.

To pronounce something in the name of a god meant that people would listen and fear. They may have said, “In the name of Baal, there will be no rain for 40 days.” Or “In the name of Marduk, I say that you will win this battle.” This gave the prophet much power and authority.

But, as we know, there is no Baal or Marduk. Those gods couldn’t have made such pronouncements. Thus the words of the prophet had no authority and didn’t need to be praised or feared.

Israel’s God Instructed the Proper Use of His Name

God was commanding the Israelites not to do the same thing. God instructed them not to use His name like the nations around them used the names of their gods. He did not want them to use His name falsely to invoke authority. This can be seen even today as the name Jesus means very little because of its constant misuse.

Moses and the Ten Commandments

In essence, God didn’t want the Israelites to say that He’d said something that He, in fact, had not. This makes sense. God has a reputation to protect. He doesn’t want anyone saying, “Thus saith the Lord”, if the Lord has not spoken.

We’ve all experienced this. We’ve had someone say we said something we didn’t. This can be very damaging to our character and destructive to our reputation. Why? Because it makes us out to be something we’re not. How much more important is it for God to protect His character?

Application of the Third Commandment Today

What does this mean for us? Well, for starters we understand that the third commandment is focused on something more foundational than simply saying “God damn it!”

While some people may never think of using that phrase, people all over the Christian religious landscape are breaking the third commandment every day, damaging the Lord’s reputation:

  • “Thus saith the Lord…”
  • “God told me to tell you…”
  • “I have a word from the Lord…”
  • “God says that if you send in this much money, you will be blessed.”

I could go on and on, but you get the point.

If all one needed to do to keep the third commandment was to avoid saying certain socially unacceptable words or phrases, it would be the easiest of the Ten Commandments to keep!

Using the name of the Lord in vain is a serious matter. It damages His reputation and character through false and unsure claims. Before you say “God said…” make sure He really said it.

If you are unsure, make your statement reflect your uncertainty. Saying “I think God is telling you to…” rather than “God is telling you to…” may not be as authoritative, but it will keep God’s reputation safe and keep you from breaking the third commandment.

If I were Satan, I couldn’t think of a better way to trivialize such an important commandment.

As an aside, I think that this misunderstanding of the third commandment is both sad and tragic. If I were Satan, I couldn’t think of a better way to trivialize such an important commandment than to fool people into thinking it’s focus is on the phrase, “God damn it.”

A Final Caution

Does this mean that I believe that we can now say this phrase and not worry about it? No. Using this phrase in a colloquial way is offensive in many (if not most) contexts. It all comes back to being intentional with everything we say. While it is not a violation of the third commandment necessarily, it is offensive speech that must be used with wisdom and discretion.

Objections and Q&A

Shouldn’t Christians Avoid Every Form (Appearance) of Evil?

Because, in our culture, saying certain words is considered offensive, crude, or crass, Christians should avoid using them so as in order not to violate 1 Thessalonians 5:22. Dan Wallace’s article Avoid Every Appearance of Evil, addresses this very topic.

But What If Cursing Violates My Conscience or Someone Else’s?

No one should violate their conscience. Who would deny that we must do what we think is right? While it’s true that we could follow our conscience and be wrong, we can never violate our conscience and be right. Going against what we think is right (even if we’re wrong) is always wrong. We would be a law unto ourselves maybe even antinomian (against the moral law).

That being said, we should beware of professional weaker brethren who use their scruples to dominate others.

So I Should Start Swearing, Right?

No. Not if you mean “swear” in the sense of cursing left and right. Don’t imagine this article is a license to use vulgarities in the name of Christian liberty. The gospel frees us from the bondage to sin so we can live righteous lives not so we can be rude.

You’re Just Looking for Loopholes!

It’s true that scriptures have been used to excuse the pet sins of many people.

Wonderful things in the Bible I see. Most of them put there by you and by me.

However, the conclusions we come to must rest upon textual exegesis. If the Bible calls something sinful, let God be true and every man a liar. But if it doesn’t, we dare not heap upon others a yoke of bondage.

21 Responses to “Taking the Lord’s Name in Vain – What Does it Really Mean?”

  1. Shadow of Earth 2015-08-24 at 3:36 pm

    you forgot the famous:
    “oh my god”
    “oh my f….. god”
    “jesus christ!”
    “jesus f….. christ”
    that everyone is saying these days….so many times per day and for everything…u see it in tv shows, movies and real life………
    everyone is breaking this commandment every day..its sad..

  2. Thank you for this article. It gives me a nice basis of understanding for explaining to my young children as we teach that phrases like these are not to be used in our family, even dang it or heck or O, my god (or gosh), which they hear it’s going on the playground all the time. Am I being to harsh? I explained to them they are slang or “more respectable ” words than using the real thing. I now feel more comfortable telling them the word (the real words) that these slang words replace and represent because I have an understanding of the meaning.

  3. Thank you for the explanation. Do you have any references as to the concept of how “Canaanite Nations Invoked Their Deities?” Other than that, I really appreciate you explaining this. This helps tremendously.

  4. we cannot ask God to damn anyone. We do not have that right. It would be permitting vengeance and that solely belongs to God. It is a very offensive phrase because we are suppose to love our enemies, to forgive them, and to ask for blessings to enrich them. The Bible is not one verse, one law, or one anything else. God is the only one but the Bible is read, is practiced, is lived in the whole of it! Every word, every verse, every page, every book is one, a whole , a guide to live a Life God has given us. None of the phrases mentioned by you or the gentleman who mentioned those you left out should ever be used. They are in vain. When I say God bless you, I mean it. Because when I pray blessings on everyone it’s not phony or fake to me. This world can be a harsh place and if my prayer brings God’s light to me that is something I do not take lightly.

    • I respectfully disagree with you Jill. We can ask God anything we want, but it doesn’t mean He will acknowledge the request. Many biblical figures requested God to smite their enemies. I don’t see how this would be different if you meant it, however as Don pointed out most people say it when frustrated or not thinking clearly. It’s not the belief behind the words, but the offensive nature and stigma of the phrase that endures. Also, the Bible is the Word of God… not a guide so much. Christians use it as a guide, but whether someone uses it as a guide or just light reading doesn’t change the fact it is the Word of God. It is like citing the difference between a sword and a knife. They are both cutting instruments, but we both know the true purpose of each. I personally take offense when someone refers to the Bible as a book or a guide, because it is unequivocally The Book of All Books. The whole reason I brought this up is because as you can see, based on the simple word you used in relation to God offended me, but I’m not judging you based on it. I’m only making you aware of the offense taken. Just as what you’ve said is offensive to you (as well as me), but you cannot judge a person for speaking it. It’s not within your realm to judge a person for their acts. God knows the fate of a man’s heart and will judge each man accordingly. Remember… judge not lest ye be judged.

    • I agree with you, not that we *cannot* ask, but that it is not right to ask God to damn others (because in my mind the meaning is clearly eternal damnation). I feel differently about asking God to rebuke someone who has done evil, but when it is said it should be meant, and hopefully followed with a prayer that God will change their hearts.
      I too mean it every time I say “May God bless you” and consider that a prayer/request to God in itself.

      If we should not ask God to damn those who have hurt/offended us/done evil unto us though – it is because God knows our hearts and this is done with hatred and anger and judgement in our hearts. Therefore if this IS done colloquially, it is not the same sin. God sees inside our hearts and minds, and knows what we mean – so if someone were to say “Gd damn IT”, colloquially, He would know that we were not asking him to condemn anyone to eternal damnation.

      However, as written in the post, there are several scriptures which tell us that we must govern our speech and rid ourselves of obscene talk. Also that not everything is profitable, even if it is “allowed” by the law.

    • Very nice comment I really appreciate it

  5. Wonderful article! I would like to add that God doesn’t damn anyone or (certainly) anything. People can damn themselves. There is no condemnation in God.

  6. I have never believed that the use of “g–d— it” was the meaning behind the Third Commandment. I would suggest that the meaning would cover the taking the identity of Christian while not really living a truly Christian life, just for appearances–vanity–rather than to love God and serve To advance His Kingdom and be an example for others in need of the Grace of salvation. By being a fake Christian, we potentially mislead possible newcomers into incorrect ways of thinking and acting, rather than displaying the fruits of a life led by the Holy Spirit.
    Of course, if I am wrong, I will be the first to admit it. I just feel that when the eternal destiny of human souls is at stake, it is egregiously wrong to pretend to be a child of God when you’re not.

    • Bingo, Don!

      While during the childhood of God’s elect, we were given concrete commands not to become like the Egyptians, Caanites, etc.; as adults we should understand that we can not belong to both God and the world. I expect that my Father will punish me far more harshly for an impulsive blurt of gossip than a mantra of…effn god.

      I search the internet from time to time trying to find out if anyone has a clue about what our creator expects from us, and, sadly, your seemingly no brainer comment is profound wisdom compared to everything I have EVER read on the internet. Though never in a Western country, I have met circles of people in person that understand and proclaim Truth. They do suffer for it, just as our Savior promised, yet they have been my only breathing source of joy and hope until your posted comment.

  7. I agree with Don. Looking up “vain” in the dictionary, all the definitions seem to align but one:
    1. Not yielding the desired outcome; fruitless: a vain attempt.
    2. Lacking substance or worth: vain talk.
    3. Having or showing excessive pride in one’s appearance or accomplishments; conceited.
    4. Archaic Foolish.
    in vain
    1. To no avail; without success: Our labor was in vain.
    2. In an irreverent or disrespectful manner: took the Lord’s name in vain.

    Almost as if the misinterpretation was forced in by Christians.

    I feel dragging yourself out of bed earlier than you would like, whining the whole time you put on your best, crispest uncomfortable clothes, sharing disgruntled awkward smiles and handshakes, spending the whole service thinking of yourself or the game or the lawn, etc. Absently reciting words and prayers on cue, bored out of your mind, is saying the Lord’s make in vain.

    That form of “worship” lacks substance, is fruitless, conceited in thinking you have better things to do and does not successfully rejuvenate your passion for your saviour.

    Without passion in your heart and dedication in your mind you are taking the lord’s name in vain and you are only worshipping the routine, the obligation for certain people to see your face at a certain place at a certain time.

    There is only one who knows why you are there.
    You are only fooling everyone else… And that is probably in vain, too.

    • Jeff, I’d like to use your post to raise the bar — please don’t take it personally.
      You said:
      >>>There is only one who knows why you are there.
      >>>You are only fooling everyone else… And that is probably in vain, too.

      You seem to perceive the emptiness of it all. So why do you bother to go then? Your meetings with others should make you a more fruitful person and visa versa. That is the SOLE purpose other than the power of unified prayer. Whatever reasons/excuses you have for going, I challenge you and everyone to remember that sometimes problems are perpetuated because “When two walk together, one will become like the other.” Which could be construed as a warning for most people to not “go to church.” Or, if you try to influence as the minority, “You will be persecuted.” And that is the wisdom to another question that will probably never be heard on the internet.

    • Very well said Jeff. After reading the daily bread which captioned “mention his name” led me to google, what is meant by taking God’s name in vain….. I first wanted to see if any site would first mention that the word God is a title and not a name and only one broke it down the way you did. It’s not just saying vulgar things from your mouth, but actually acting in such a way as a believer that brings dishonor to our Father in heaven. Which brings me to His name….. YHWH or Yahweh. Why not use His name that is almighty and all powerful rather than His title? This is a subject that people tend to shy away from and mostly Christians. I would lover to hear your take on it Jeff.

  8. I think this is an excellent analysis of the third commandment, and I couldn’t agree more with this. Many christians are condemning people for coarse language and perhaps rightly so, but they are doing so as if it were a violation of the third commandment when it is not. Meanwhile they often claim to have “a word from the Lord” and directly violate the third commandment while thinking that their sin is super spiritual. Kinda messed up. Thanks for writing this I think it provides much needed clarity.

  9. I have read articles leading to the same conclusions in the past, but my (aging) memory was a bit fuzzy on details.
    I heard a minister I respect state that Hebrew, the language, at some point lacked vowels, increasing the difficulty of precise translation. I have not researched this further yet. I am grateful for this article clarifying the spiritual intent of the writers in the texts referring to this commandment.

  10. I would like to ask about something that really offends me. I will be teaching the Ten Commandments and the third one should fall somewhere in November of 2015. I hear preachers, especially emotionally inclined preachers, pray enthusiastically but it seems that every other word or phrase begins and concludes with forms of God’s name, ie: Father God, Lord Jesus, Holy Father, etc. In the model prayer that Jesus taught his Disciples to pray Jesus initiated the prayer with, “Our Father which art in Heaven …” He did not throw in a lot of interjections and fillers with God’s name. It may sound spiritual to pray that way but I believe it is a frivolous use of God’s Holy name. It seems to me that we should so revere and honor God’s Holy Name that we use it only in its proper grammatical place. Even the Bible transcribers would stop and wash, etc. before writing the name of God. What do you think about these types of prayers.
    Thank you very much for your help!!
    Gary Elfner

  11. And we don’t want to cause others to stumble

  12. I feel that if you use God’s name in any form and you are not talking to him or telling someone about him, it is in vain.

  13. When I was in the Navy, I was falling into the bad habit of using foul language. I was given the gift of an almost-out-of-body experience during which I say myself using this language and felt genuine regret and remorse. It was made known to me that this was the language of the low class and uneducated segment of civilization, which I was not. Furthermore, the Third Commandment, I learned later, could better have been translated to “Thou shalt not CARRY God’s name in vain.” The intent in the original context was that no Hebrew should commit any evil act in the name of God, such as a man abusing his wife and children because he was the man of the house because it was God’s will that he be man and lord of his house. This commandment also included swearing an oath, in the name of God, to do something evil. This was a bad habit the Hebrews got into while in Egypt.

  14. Imagine talking to someone who attempts to justify the horrific crimes against humanity committed by Adolf Hitler or Joseph Stalin. What would you think of such a person? Even if they condemned such behavior today, their justification of brutal crimes committed in the past would not be excusable. You would look upon such a person with disgust and contempt and consider them incredibly immoral.

    So let’s take a look at Christianity. Practically every version of Trinitarian Christianity, from fundamentalist to liberal, sees Jesus as the God of the Old Testament. To deny that Jesus is the God of the Old Testament is to deny the Trinity. If Jesus is the God of the Old Testament he is guilty of some of the most barbaric, horrific acts of infanticide and genocide known to man. Yet Christians of all stripes pray and worship this mass murderer of men, women, and little children.

    Any Christian who refuses to condemn and denounce the God of the Old Testament is immoral.

Leave a Reply