Make sure to read my newest essay on this topic, a sort of addendum to the essay below: Taking God's Name in Vain.
Growing up as I did in the Southern Baptist tradition, perhaps one of my earliest exposures to Biblical content as a child was the instruction from the Ten Commandments not to “take the Lord’s name in vain.”
I understood from a very young age that this was extremely important, and that “taking the Lord’s name in vain” involved using any name of God as a swear word – what a grammar teacher might call an “exclamatory interjection.” This, of course, included not only “God,” but also “Jesus,” “Christ,” and even “Lord.” Among true swear words, “goddamn” was without question the most blasphemous and evil, because it not only included a dirty word, but also tied the name of God into its nastiness. Even into adulthood, long after I gave up the belief that I was in danger of hell fire for saying a swear word, “GD” still remained taboo for me. This is certainly still true for many people who might otherwise say a swear word now and then.
But what does it really mean to take the Lord’s name in vain? Does it refer to using God’s name as a swear word – an exclamation – or does it mean something entirely different? What were the intentions of those Biblical authors who included that command in the Ten Commandments, or, if you prefer a more traditional approach, what did God mean when he instructed his followers not to take his name in vain?
THE TEN COMMANDMENTS
Few Christians realize that there are actually several incarnations of the Ten Commandments in the Jewish scriptures – Christianity’s Old Testament. In fact, we are given no less than three “Ten Commandments” lists. The lists in Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5 are fairly similar, but the one in Exodus 34 – the “new” list that God gave Moses after the first set of tablets were destroyed – varies quite dramatically from the old list. This new list, interestingly enough, has nothing about taking God’s name in vain.
Why, then, do we tend to go by the “old” list in modern Christian circles, instead of the “new” list, given to Moses after the first chiseled list got broken? If we did, the issue of taking the Lord’s name in vain might not be an issue at all. It’s an interesting question, and it probably has something to do with the fact that this new list is way too “Jewish” for most Christian sensibilities. Among its ten commandments is a command to celebrate certain Jewish festivals; it instructs Jews to sacrifice all their first-born animals to God; it insists that the faithful may not cook a young goat in its mother’s milk.
Be that as it may, what has come down to us as the “Ten Commandments” are those lists found in Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5, both of which include the instruction not to take the Lord’s name in vain. The wording of both instructions is identical.
Exodus 20:7a/Deuteronomy 5:11a (KJV) – Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain.
The more modern NIV uses a slightly different translation to get across the idea that this verse is dealing with petty things like using God’s name as a swear word: “You shall not misuse the name of the Lord your God.”
With theologically-tinged translations like the NIV, and with centuries of Christian ideology that says this verse bans us from saying “God” as an exclamatory interjection, most Christians read this verse and probably can’t imagine how it can be saying anything else.
THE VERSE IN HEBREW
A number of discoveries about the meaning of this instruction can be found by looking at the verse in its original language. I don’t speak Hebrew, and I’m certain than few if any of my readers do, so I’ll take it one keyword at a time. I realize that this sort of linguistic exercise is cumbersome for most people, but I hope my readers will stick with me, because understanding what the original words are actually saying is vital to the point I will make shortly.
The first primary word in the passage is nasa’. This word is used some 600+ times in the Old Testament, and generally means to “take up,” or “lift up,” or “accept.”
This word means “name,” or “reputation.” It is the word used any time that an Old Testament writer referred to the name of someone or something.
The word “Lord” in the NIV and KJV translations is the Hebrew word Yehovah, which would actually have been written as YHWH, the tetragrammaton that was believed to be the literal name of God. It comes down to us in English as “Jehovah” or “Yaweh.” Just as Egypt had Horus, and Rome had Jupiter, the Hebrews had Yaweh.
This is the word in the passage that is translated as “God.” In ancient Hebrew, it was a catch-all word that generally referred to “the gods” or the “heavenly host.” When used together with YHWH, it was the official way of referring to the God of the Jews – Yehovah ‘Elohiym – much as Christians might say “Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.” In English Old Testament translations, it is usually written as “The Lord your God.”
This is the word that is translated as “vain” in the King James Version. In ancient Hebrew, it meant “falsehood,” or “emptiness,” or “nothingness.”
Now that we have looked at the Hebrew words making up the first part of the verse, it is instructive to take a look at what they are actually saying: “Don’t take up or accept the name of God with falsehood or emptiness.”
“DON’T TAKE THE LORD’S NAME IN VAIN”
As the last phrase of the previous paragraph implies, I find that the original meaning of this familiar commandment is something entirely different than what most people suppose. But before making my argument, it is important to look at just what the logical consequences are of assuming that this commandment has anything to do with how someone physically utters the name of God.
In ancient Judea, Jews believed that God’s name – the aforementioned “Yaweh” – was so sacred and immortal that it literally should not be spoken, ever. It wasn’t used in everyday speech; it wasn’t used in the synagogue. It wasn’t even written out; as I have already illustrated, a tetragrammaton, or 4-letter code, was used instead – YHWH. Gentiles and pagans – like the Egyptians, the Assyrians, the Babylonians, the Romans, etc. – routinely referred to their gods by name. Since anything that stunk of paganism to the Jews was summarily rejected, it is not surprising that they developed a theology that said even the very name of God was untouchable and unworthy of being spoken by a human being. “God” (or, in Hebrew, “'Elohiym”), of course, was perfectly permissible, and would have been how God was referred to in everyday language. “Yaweh,” however, was not to be uttered.
So to suggest that this verse has something to do with not using God’s name as a swear word (i.e., an exclamatory interjection) is simply not supportable in the context of the ancient Hebrew kingdom. They wouldn’t have ever said the name, as a swear word or otherwise.
There are other issues, of course, with assuming such a meaning. First, if the commandment is talking about not misusing the physical name of God, then it is instructing us not to say “Aw, Yaweh!” when we stub our toe. It says nothing of “God,” “Jesus,” or “Christ.” “God” is not the name of God – “Yaweh” is – and Jesus, after all, was merely the human incarnation of God, and his name – Jesus – is not the name of God either.
One might argue, however, that as the human incarnation of God, Jesus’ name has the same sacredness as God’s name. Even if we take that as fact, “Jesus” was not Jesus’ name! “Jesus” is simply the English transliteration of a Greek transliteration of Jesus’ real Aramaic name. Jesus’ real earthly name was “Yeshua,” which is the same name that the successor of Moses in the Old Testament had – Joshua. In the Old Testament, our English Bibles translate “Yeshua” directly into English – thus “Joshua.” The New Testament, however, was originally written in Greek, so “Yeshua” first goes into Greek and becomes “Iesus,” and then into English as “Jesus.”
So, again, if we want to simplify the commandment in question, then we shouldn’t say “Yeshua!” when we burn our finger. “Jesus,” however, is apparently perfectly permissible.
Finally, “Christ” is at issue as well. “Christ” is – again – an English transliteration of a Greek translation of the Hebrew word Mosiah. That word meant “anointed one,” in Hebrew. In Greek, “anointed one” is translated as Khristos. From there, we get the transliterated word “Christ.” This word, of course, was not Jesus’ last name. “Jesus Christ” means “Jesus the anointed one,” or “Jesus the Messiah.” It was a way of differentiating who he was versus other people with his name. Jesus the Anointed One versus Jesus the Newspaper Man, as it were. A good comparison is to consider the name “John the Baptist.” No one supposes his last name was “the Baptist.”
Thus, yet again, there can be no reason why “Christ” is impermissible as a swear word.
I hope that my tone here has been clear: the point I am trying to make is not to downplay the sacredness of the names “God,” and “Jesus,” and “Christ” to modern Christians. What I am attempting to do is show how silly it is to make an argument that this instruction from the Ten Commandments has anything to do with the physical utterance of a sacred name for swearing or other unsacred purposes. Yet this is what the argument must boil down to if one wants to insist on understanding this Old Testament commandment in this manner.
A MEANING THAT MATTERS
We return once again to the meaning of the commandment in question, when understood in the original language: “Don’t take up or accept the name of God with falsehood or emptiness.”
It is noteworthy to point out that at least one other verse in the Old Testament uses similar language. Both nasa’ (to “take up” or “accept”) and shav’ (“emptiness” or “nothingness”) appear in the book of Psalms.
Psalm 24:4 (KJV) – He that hath clean hands, and a pure heart; who hath not lifted up his soul unto vanity, nor sworn deceitfully.
The key phrase there is “lifted up his soul unto vanity.” This phrase, in Hebrew, is identical to the phrase from the Ten Commandments, replacing only the noun “his soul” with the compound noun “the name of the Lord your God.” Clearly the meaning of this verse from the Psalms is that one should not give his soul over to emptiness or meaninglessness.
In the same way, I argue that “Don’t take the Lord’s name in vain” has a similar meaning. Do not meaninglessly take the name of God upon yourself. In other words: You can profess your faith all you want, but without living the lifestyle that comes with the acceptance of God’s name, your faith is meaningless and in vain.
This idea, of course, has numerous corollaries in the New Testament. In Matthew, Jesus assures us that not all those who say “Lord, Lord” will enter the kingdom of God. James reminds us that faith without works is not just unpleasing to God – but actually dead. There is no such thing, James tells us, as faith without a changed nature accompanying it. Paul asserts in Romans that God will judge us by whether we do good or evil.
From where I stand, I see many Christians navigating this way through life. Christianity is just a “get out of death free card.” They’ve made their profession of faith, they “believe in Jesus,” and now they can get on with their life and have a little comfort about what happens when they and their loved ones die. Evangelical theology frequently supports this, with their plans of salvation and their promise that all God requires is that you “believe in him.” In fact, God requires a lot more. And God warns us against taking his name upon ourselves in vain.
I firmly believe that the “profession of faith” that is so common and so primary in many evangelical churches is meaningless and even unbiblical. Yes, the Bible stresses the importance of faith, but it stresses even more the importance of “faith in action.” I said it above, but it bears repeating: James even goes so far as to say that faith without action is dead. It’s non-faith. It’s meaningless. The profession of faith isn’t what matters; it’s how you act that counts.
Jesus called us to have life and have it more abundantly. He called us to new birth. He called us to a celebration of life and an experience of life at its deepest and most human levels. He never called us to get out of death free. The message of Jesus was imminently and forever about living, about breaking down the boundaries that divide us and reduce life, not about what happens when we die.
So a profession of faith – claiming God for yourself so you can have a little comfort – without actually living the life Jesus taught us to live…well, it’s taking the Lord’s name in vain.