Popular entertainment can be a good guide to what a particular culture finds acceptable. And as we look at how popular entertainment has changed over the past few decades, we see just how much commonly accepted standards have changed. For example, explicit depictions of sex and violence in movies and television have gone from being hardly tolerated to enjoying a near-universal presence in our entertainment. But these are not the only things that have enjoyed greater approval in the past few years. Watch an hour of television, see certain movies, or listen to popular music for a few minutes and you will hear God’s name being taken in vain.
This is a marked change, and it reflects how our culture no longer takes the third commandment seriously. Yet, of all the Ten Commandments, only the third commandment adds the grave warning that God will not “hold guiltless” those who misuse His name (Ex. 20:7). Obviously, God does not hold anyone guiltless who does not repent and trust in Christ, but the attachment of this warning shows that the Lord pays special attention to how His name is used.
Why does our Creator put such a special focus on our use of His name? Because our speech reveals in a unique way the true state of our hearts. Jesus says, “Out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks” (Matt. 12:34). Our speech can demonstrate the true state of our hearts in a special way, and people who are given to blasphemy frequently, thoughtlessly, and impenitently manifest hearts that have not been given over to the Lord. And those who do not trust in Christ and submit to Him have not been justified, and those who have not been justified still bear the punishment for their guilt (Rom. 3:21–4:25).
We can misuse the Lord’s name by cursing but also by using it frivolously, for to do something in vain is to do what is empty or useless. This can happen when we swear oaths and vows. Jesus warned people about taking oaths and vows not because oaths and vows are inherently wrong but because many first-century Jews used God’s name frivolously in their vows. They treated His ability to hold them accountable for their lawful promises as an empty thing because they believed swearing by something other than His name made their vows negotiable. They thought, falsely, that He had no right to hold them accountable as long as they did not use His name (Matt. 5:33–37).
Even Christians are tempted to take the Lord’s name in vain. Often we do this by carelessly making promises or saying something like “I swear I am telling the truth” when we are having an ordinary conversation and not having to affirm the truthfulness of legal testimony or witness to our veracity in a solemn setting. Let us take care not to use the name of God frivolously, and may we repent if we ever take God’s name in vain.