Saturday, March 21, 2009

Taking the Lord's Name in Vain

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?


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.


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.”


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.


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.


Anonymous said...

Ha! Every now and then, I try to Google "taking God's name in vain". Your view is definitely uncommon. Similarly to you, this is how I've come to interpret it. I think it means that you should not falsely profess to be a person of God for personal motives or benefit. An example would be when a politician says that they are a Christian, but they are not truly so in their heart. They go through the motions and keep up appearances in order to gain the support of religious-minded voters. Religious leaders also pull this crap. Like the alleged hypocrisy of Ted Haggard. The list is surely long.

I was raised Southern Baptist as well. The interpretation of this commandment has ALWAYS bothered me. I could never accept that this was supposed to mean "don't use the word 'God' in a cuss word or as an interjection." Too many people tend to mindlessly accept biblical teachings, without looking for something deeper or more meaningful.

I also like what you said about Christianity being a "get out of death free card." Too many times I have seen a younger, newly converted Christian on TV shows (especially shows like SteelRoots) say that, "I used to sin, but now I am saved. I'm not going to Hell anymore. Don't you want to go to Heaven, too?"

Which leads to what initiated today's Google search. I was posting on a forum in a thread about religion/"God". I remembered Kirk Cameron and his buddy and their Way of the Master "witnessing system". I visited their site and started watching one of their presentations, What Happens When You Die. I was soon reminded of how some people use their interpretations of the scriptures to guilt-trip others. To me, this is just might be another way of using the Lord's name in vain. I'm sure their egos are inflated with each new lamb they feel they've added to the fold. I haven't looked at all of their material, but I wonder if all they spout is doom and gloom in order to convert. I'm pretty sure Jesus said some positive things.

Scott said...

Thanks so much for reading, Anonymous. It's the comments like these (few and far between though they be!) that make it worth it.

I recently had a bad experience with an evangelical Christian that I am acquainted with, and although we sort of worked our disagreement out, it reminded me more than ever that the problem isn't Christ, but rather many Christians.

A lot of my very strong, traditionally-leaning Christian friends often wonder why I have a "bone to pick" with Christians. The reason why is because I see so many Christians who are Christians in name only. They aren't actually interested in living the life Jesus taught. It's either too difficult or (and I think this is the most likely answer) too inconvenient to our modern lifestyles of greed, materialism, and selfishness. We're self-centered creatures, and Jesus' message is dangerous because it urges us to be selfless. It's not unlike Buddhism, in that sense.

A lot of times, traditionally-leaning Christians will agree with me that many Christians are Christians "in name only." But I generally get the impression that they are envisioning the kinds of people you noted - athletes who are always getting arrested, getting suspended and fined for fighting, etc., but who are always quick to throw a shout-out to God whenever they win a championship; preachers who are secretly doing drugs and visiting prostitutes and putting hits out on enemies; rich businessmen who go to church every week, but then spend Monday through Friday cheating employees and investors out of money. The list, as you said, goes on and on.

But I go even a step further than this. I'm talking about those kinds of people too, of course, but I'm also talking about many average, everday, decent, law-abiding people. People who go to church, say their prayers, don't commit crimes, are well-adjusted members of society, etc. Many of these people may be "good" people by society's standards, but they are still definitely "conformed" to the world. They want to get rich. They want that big house and those nice cars. They give only sparingly to charity if at all. They don't dirty their hands working in soup kitchens. They're judgemental and selfish and narrow. They spoil their children and teach them to be materialistic just like they are. They don't want the government taxing their hard-earned dollars to be given to some crack-whore as a welfare handout. On and on and on.

I'm not saying these people are bad people. What I'm saying is that they are everyday, average, normal people. But the life of Christ, in my opinion, calls us beyond the everyday, the average, and the normal!

I'm also not trying to be hypocritical, because I freely admit that I am "normal, average, and everyday" in many of the same ways. As I said, Jesus' message is difficult because it's inconvenient to our modern lifestyles. But just because the vast majority of us, myself many times included, frequently fail to meet Jesus' standards doesn't mean that the standards aren't there. If we really have faith in Jesus' standards, then we must face the fact that most of us fall well short of them every day.

Again, many evangelicals would no doubt agree with that. But they would say that this is why God's mercy is so wonderful - he accepts us even though we are sinners.

But I believe this is a self-defeating attitude, because it works in a way to keep us from improving ourselves, to keep us from legitimately striding toward the teachings that we claim to have "faith" in. "I'm not able to meet Jesus' standards, so I'll just keep being well beneath them and count on mercy for my get out of death free card." Focusing too much on belief in God's mercy and a joyous afterlife inhibits us, I believe, from real personal, spiritual growth - the abundant life Jesus promised would result from his message.

I don't know if there's a heaven. I hope there is. I don't know if God is real. I hope God is and live my life as if God is real. I don't know what the real historical Jesus was like or whether he really was something other than a human being. But I find the life of Jesus, and the things he taught, to be powerfully relevant ways to live and grow personally and spiritually, and whether I routinely fail or not, I have great faith that Jesus' path is the best way for me to live. If that gets me to heaven, excellent. If it gets me to hell, well I suppose I'll count on God's mercy for trying my best. If there's no afterlife at all, then I've lived a pretty full, abundant life in the here and now, which is what Jesus encouraged us to do anyway.

And I do say "God" as a cuss word now and then :) (although this comment thread is on the wrong article...this is the prominent women of the Bible article...)

Scott said...

To make one more comment on the statements I made about how so many Christians don't act like's pretty much commonly accepted in most circles that America, as a whole, is greedy, selfish, and materialistic. I think most Christians would agree with this as a general statement about modern America. Why are evangelicals constantly harping about the degenerancy of the modern era, otherwise?

But if a country where 85% of the population claims to be Christian is characterized as greedy, selfish, and materialistic, then it certainly isn't that way because of the 15% who aren't Christians! Clearly a major chunk of that 85% must be greedy and selfish too!

Again, this isn't me attempting to point the finger at everyone else, this is me pointing the finger at all of us, myself included.

Anonymous said...

Sorry for such a delay Scott. I was finishing up school and cut back on my surfing and other distractions. :-)

Now where was I...
LOL. You're preaching to the choir again, Scott.

Regarding the "average, everyday" common-folk and worldly conformation/materialism:
This religion stuff is easy, see? All folks have to do is to attend church services, wear their cross necklaces, throw a few bills in the collection plate, agree with what the preacher says, and get that comfy McMansion in the sky when they pass on.

Which leads to your point on the self-defeating attitude. I think the problem is in the modern-day presentation of Christianity. My experience happens to be with the Southern Baptist Convention. People are just supposed to follow certain rules and they will be rewarded. "Say that you believe this and that, get dunked in a pool. Bam! You're in." I'm simplifying things, but you get the point. I thought the Bible said something like, "Seek and ye shall find", not "attend church and be spoon-fed." It's not an accepted practice to question the literal interpretation of the Bible that you're presented. The laypeople are just "doing what they're told, being good God-fearing Christians." Nothing more, nothing less.

But here's the problem. Modern Christianity is about saving your ass. In the end, it's all about YOU. Whether or not you're chillin' next to Jesus or burning in a pit of fire for all eternity. Jesus wasn't all about himself. He was all about others and selflessness.

I sometimes imagine God and Jesus, sitting on a cloud, greeting folks as they come up to the Gates of Heaven. "Hey, how ya' doing? So, you went along with everything your religious leaders said, huh? Even if some things didn't completely sit right with you, you still proclaimed to believe it? Really? You can't think for yourself, even just a little bit? You're just bought whatever they were selling?"
Anyway, I look for to catching back on your more recent writings. Take care.


Scott said...

Thanks again for posting a comment, Mike.

The disconnect between many modern Christian lifestyles and the actual lifestyle taught by the Jesus of history is one that has become increasingly important to me. The more I study the scholars of Christianity, the more I am amazed at just how *wrong* the church has gotten it for so long.

One thing I've noticed recently is a trend among some churches to "modernize" themselves. There is a church here in my town that hosts a big concert festival every year, and someone told me recently that Bud Light actually sponsored this festival a year or two ago, which is pretty amazing when you think about it.

I certainly appreciate this trend of churches modernizing themselves. Their slogan could be "It ain't your grandma's church."

The problem, however, is that it seems that while many of these churches are modernizing themselves to be more relevant to modern sensibilities, they aren't really modernizing their theology. It may not be grandma's church culture, but it's still grandma's theology.

Anonymous said...

Mike here again.

I don't know if you listen to NPR at all, but I caught an interview on Fresh Air today that will probably interest you. You can download the interview as an MP3.

A former nun, Karen Armstrong left her convent in the late 1960s, and for 13 years she distanced herself from organized religion. She ended up working in television, and on an assignment in Jerusalem she had a kind of epiphany about the similarities among the major world religions. It was the study of those religions that allowed her to revisit her own faith.

Armstrong published her first book, Through the Narrow Gate, in 1982. Twenty-seven years and more than 20 books later — including the best-selling A History of God — Armstrong releases her latest book, The Case for God. In it, she argues that religion is a practical discipline that teaches us to discover new capacities of the mind and heart.

Scott said...

I do listen to NPR, but I missed this one. I'm a big fan of Karen Armstrong and have read a History of God.

Unknown said...

having graduated from a baptist graduate college and being lucky enough to have some quite open-minded and somewhat liberal professors, the way i was taught (in school, not chuch) is "taking the lord's name in vain" is - in its original context - 'attributing to God, that which is not of God.' for example: "We won the game because God was on our side!" or "He is sick because he made God angry." you get the point. The first day this discussion was brought up in class, the professor write in all caps on the board: "GODDAMN" I mind you, it is an extremely conservative college and he asked if someone would read it. i had no problem offering my hand. at any rate, this explanation works best for me, so i stick with it.

Scott said...

Thanks for providing your perspective, McNeese. I think that interpretation is a perfectly valid one.

Anonymous said...

I noticed that most of the comments here are from people that have foul language - and use it in their comments.
Eph 4:29
Don't use foul or abusive language. Let everything you say be good and helpful, so that your words will be an encouragement to those who hear them.

They also seem to almost distance themselves from the word christian.

I guess what i am trying to say is, regardless of what "taking the Lord's name in vain" means, don't somehow justify foul language. There are plenty of other verses in the bible that says we should restrict our speach. Also, using reverence in reference to God rather than throwing it around is quite important. How would you like someone yelling your name in disgust each time someone was angry to the point of sinning? Have a true love relationship with Jesus and you won't be blabbing his name anymore than you would someone you love and respect.

Be wise, walk in love, don't justify what your heart is telling you not to do.. and understand the possible deeper meaning of "don't take name of God in vain"...


Scott said...

Thanks for the commentary, Anon. You sound a bit like my grandmother, especially with the scolding about foul language!

As for throwing around God's name, that's actually one of the ironies about traditional views of this commandment that I pointed out in the essay. God's name isn't "God." It's Yaweh.

Kevin said...

Anonymous mentions politicians that say they are Christian but are not truly so in their heart. Please allow me if you will to share my thoughts with you on this.

The Apostle Paul wrote in Philippians 3:20, "For our conversation is in heaven; from whence we look for the Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ...". The word "conversation" in the above scripture was translated from the same Greek word that we get our word "politics" from so the Apostle Paul is writing here about the Christian's relationship to politics. Paul was being very specific in referring to Christian believers only when he wrote "our", and so what he is saying here is that the Christian's politics is in heaven. This verse of scripture absolutely rules out any possibility that the Christian believer's politics can be anywhere else besides heaven. If any individual's politics is anywhere else but in heaven then that individual is not included among that group that the Apostle was referring to when he wrote "our".

Moreover every Christian is a soldier, "Thou therefore endure hardness, as a good soldier of Jesus Christ. No man that warreth entangleth himself with the affairs of this life; that he may please him who hath chosen him to be a soldier." (II Timothy 2:3-4), so therefore no Christian believer gets involved in the politics of this present evil world. We obey orders and follow the Captain of our salvation.

I'm not discouraged in the least bit by events happening around us because the coming of my Lord draweth nigh. His grace keeps me, sustains me, and guides me through these perilous times. Now that is a real comfort and peace that no politics can provide.

Scott said...

Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Kevin.

I don't know that I agree with your conclusions about the Greek used in Philippians. It's true that it comes from the same root word that gives us the word "politics," but the form used by Paul means something like "citizenship" or "community."

You seem to be arguing that Christians should be indifferent to politics. If only more Christians had your perspective!

I don't agree that politics is "off limits" to Christians, and I don't interpret Paul's language in Philippians or elsewhere to be suggesting that. Paul also says, in Romans 13, to submit to and respect government authorities, and to pay your taxes. This is reiterated by the person who wrote in Paul's name in Titus 3.

I suppose one could submit to government authorities respectfully, and dutifully pay taxes, while remaining indifferent to politics, but I don't think you're going to find very many people who do that, Christian or otherwise.

Susannah said...

thank you

Scott said...

Glad you liked it, Susannah. Thanks for reading.

StarSong119 said...

Wow. I just have to say "thank you" for writing this post. I grew up in the Evangelical church, and never questioned it until recently when I took an English history class and it hit me like a ton of bricks exactly how young that entire church and its ideology actually are!! Since then I wouldn't say I've been doubting my faith in the least bit, but I have had the nagging feeling that something wasn't right, and I've been searching and trying to go back to the roots of exactly what it means to be a Christian. This was very encouraging to me as it confirmed some of the feelings that have been nagging at me for months. I'm definitely going to keep reading your blog.

Thanks again!!

Scott said...

Thanks so much for leaving a comment. Comments like this make the effort all worth it :) I'm glad my thoughts were meaningful to you.

mcneece said...

wow, it's been a long time since i've visited and had anything to say on this subject. however, i was toiling away in the gym this morning and a news snippet caught my eye on one of the tv's.

please scroll up and (re)read my last comment about 'taking the Lord's name in vain' was presented to me as 'attributing to God, that which is not of God'. it hit me like a ton of bricks when the sotry was about zimmerman saying in his interview that killing martin was God's plan. THIS is EXACTLY what my personal opinion of taking the Lord's name in vain is. if you have not seen this, it is on ccn here:

Scott said...

Thanks for commenting again, McNeece. I agree totally with you.