What does it mean to use the Lord’s name in vain? This is a question that might seem self-evident to most people in western society. Whether you are religious or not, you would not even hesitate with your answer, “It means to say ‘G D’.” I am sure that there are more people that can answer this than there are who can list the ten commandments, name the Gospels, or tell you the difference between the New Testament and the Old Testament. For this reason, I thought that I would try to contribute to this discussion by asking the question “What does it really mean to take the Lord’s name in vain?”
Obviously, I am going to say something that is at odds with the common conception among those of us who grew up in the context of our western Judeo-Christian culture, otherwise I would not have included the word “really,” and put it in italics! The reader must also be warned that I am going to use a phrase that is very offensive to many. I am assuming that I am dealing with a mature audience who understands the intentionality that I bring to this blog. If what I am proposing here is correct, we all need to hear this in order to overcome a serious issue of folk theology that damages the character of God and misrepresents what it means to talk in a “Christian” manner.
For most, the ultimate violation of the third commandment, “You shall not take the Lord your God’s name in vain,” 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 would believe that you have crossed the line. You might even be charged with blasphemy. Some people will stand before God and when asked “Why should I let you in to heaven?” will proudly say, “Because I did not murder, commit adultery, and I never said the ‘G D’ word.” (Please note, I don’t think God is going to ask that question. Don’t go there.)
I believe we have this wrong. In fact, from a purely objective standpoint, I don’t believe that this phrase causes God to bat an eye whatsoever. Think about it this way for a moment. 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 imprecatory Psalms, who call upon God to bring judgement on their enemies. In other words, they are asking for God to damn those who they feel are ripe for His judgement. In this sense, saying “God damn you” can be as biblical as saying “God bless you.”
Some may say to me the reason why 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 in a biblical sense. For these people, if you say it with the biblical meaning, fine, but if you say it casually, then you have used His name in an “empty” way and thereby have broken the third commandment.
But there are three major problems with this line of reasoning:
1) “God” is not the name of God, but a common phrase used to refer to deities in general. How can a generic classification 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. This demonstrates that it is a cultural thing taboo more than anything else.
2) If the principle that we are going by is that we are not to use God’s name and not really mean it, then I believe that we are very inconsistent in what we take offense to as a culture. 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 really talking to God, beseeching on your behalf for a blessing? 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, then 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 anyone who is honest with themselves can say that they are consistent in this regard. Saying “God bless you” and not meaning it should be just as bad as saying “God damn you” and not meaning it.
3) This is the most important so I have saved it for last. In fact, if what I am about to say is true, then the first two 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 is hard to tell from a simple word study on the Hebrew term naqa (vain). As well, 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. What we have to do is to try to understand what it meant then, so that we can understand how it applies now. 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).
Briefly, here is what I believe your studies will show. The nations to which the Israelites were going had many gods. They were highly superstitious. Their prophets would often use the name of their god in pronouncements. The usage could be in a curse, hex, or even a blessing. They would use the name of their god to give their statements, whatever they may be, authority. To pronounce something in their own name would not have given their words much weight, but 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. Since this is the case, they did not really make such pronouncement and therefore the words of the prophet had no authority and should neither have been praised or feared.
God, I believe, was attempting to prevent the Israelites from doing the same thing. God was saying for them not to use His name like the nations used the names of their gods. He did not want them to use His name to invoke false authority behind pronouncements. In essence, God did not want the Israelites to say that He said something that He had not said. This makes sense. God has a reputation to protect. He does not want anyone saying “Thus sayeth the Lord” if the Lord had not spoken. All of you have experienced this. You have had people say you said something you did not say. This can be very damaging to your character. It is very destructive to your name. Why? Because it makes you out to be something that you are not. How much more important is it for God to protect His character? It is fitting that God would have put this as one of the ten most important commandments as the nation of Israel moved towards Canaan. It is his name (i.e. reputation) that is at stake.
What does this mean for us? Well, for starters we understand that the third commandment is not focused on something so trivial as saying “God damn it!” The funny thing is that 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 sayeth the Lord . . .” “God told me to tell you . . .” “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. Using the name of the Lord in vain, I believe, means that you do damage to His reputation and character through false and unsure claims.
Therefore, think deeply before you say “God said . . .” Make sure that He has really said it. Don’t be flippent by trying to encourage a friend and say, “God is telling you . . .” If you are unsure, make your statement reflect your uncertianty. 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.
I think that this misunderstanding of the third commandment is not only sad, but tragic. If I were Satan, I can’t think of a better way to trivialize such an important commandment and misrepresent the character of God than to make people focus its essence on the phrase “God damn it.”
Does this mean that I believe that we can now say the phrase “God damn it” and not worry about it? Not exactly. I think that using this phrase in a colloquial way is offensive in many (if not most) contexts. We don’t want to be offensive. It all comes back to being intentional with everything we say (Eph. 4:29). While it is not necessarily a violation of the third commandment, it is offensive speech that must be used with wisdom and discretion.