What Does it Mean to Take the Lord’s Name in Vain?
The ethic of Jesus is the ethic of the Ten Commandments. He taught His people to live by that rule, and He did so Himself. He is the very embodiment of obedience to God; nowhere are the Ten Commandments personified and manifested in their fullness as they are in the life of Jesus.
As the law of God requires of us not to take His name in vain, so Jesus teaches us to pray, “Hallowed be your name” (Matt. 6:9). Prayer expresses our desire to keep the third commandment. It also expresses our need for the grace of God to that end. Prayer is a recognition that what God requires of us, He also provides for us.
In Scripture, God’s name is a means of His self-revelation. As early as Genesis 4:26, there is a reference to people’s calling on the name of the Lord—not because God had told them His covenant name, but because He had spoken and revealed Himself. Later, however, God did make His name known. He revealed Himself to Moses as the great “I AM” (Ex. 3:14) and declared that He had raised up Pharaoh so that His name—the revelation of His justice and power—would be proclaimed throughout the earth (Ex. 9:16). Later, the temple was built “for the name of the LORD” (1 Kings 3:2; 8:17), and that name became the object of Israel’s worship as they praised the name of God in song (Pss. 69:30; 122:4).
So important is the name of God that it is guarded solemnly in the Ten Commandments by a prohibition on taking His name in vain (Ex. 20:7). Violation of this law is a capital offense: “Whoever blasphemes the name of the LORD shall surely be put to death” (Lev. 24:16). Leviticus cites a variety of examples of what such misuse of God’s name includes: offering children to Molech (18:21), swearing falsely (19:12), and priests’ shaving the edge of their beards (21:5–6). The sheer variety of infringements of the command shows that taking the Lord’s name in vain involves not merely speaking it badly, but includes living it wrongly.
It was the name of the Lord that was to be put “upon” the people of Israel, through the Aaronic blessing (Num. 6:24–27). The name was not merely a title or an epithet, but it included the character and eminence of God revealed for the salvation and sanctification of His people. By the name of God they are saved, and by the name of God they are set apart.
These themes are evident in the life and work of Jesus. He had come to earth for us and for our salvation in the name of the Father (John 5:43; 10:25). He lived to glorify the name of God (12:28; 17:4) and to reveal it (17:6). In the name of God He had preserved His people, and in that same name they would be kept forever (17:11–12). The name of God, upon His people through baptism (Matt. 28:19), would be the name by which the Holy Spirit would come to comfort them and hear their prayers (John 14:26; 16:23). It is the name of God that guarantees eternal life to all who believe (20:31).
John Calvin is correct, therefore, when he comments on the third commandment that “it becomes us to regulate our minds and our tongues, so as never to think or speak of God and his mysteries without reverence and great soberness, and never, in estimating his works, to have any feeling toward him but one of deep veneration” (Institutes 2.8.22). That sense of veneration in connection with God’s name is what characterizes a life of holiness and a worship that is genuine. Both in our service and in our worship, we are to think on the things of God with adoration and reverence, knowing that the fact that God has revealed Himself to us by name is itself a great act of grace.
In his study of the Ten Commandments, the famous Puritan Thomas Watson cites twelve ways in which we take God’s name in vain. Among them are using God’s name irreverently, professing His name but not living according to our profession, worshiping Him externally but not in heart, misusing His Word, falsifying our promises, and speaking without care for the honor of God. It is a sobering analysis, intended not to micromanage our behavior but to show us how the third commandment permeates the whole of life.
By naming Himself, God not only discloses who He is, but He does so in such a way that we might know Him personally. To live by the terms of the third commandment is to recognize and confess that God deserves the highest honor; that He has singled us out by putting His name on us; that we would be entirely lost were it not that for the sake of His name He keeps and protects us; and that He calls us to live after the example of Jesus, glorifying God on earth. We are the bearers of the name of God; may all our conduct show it.
This post was originally published in Tabletalk magazine.