Taking God's Name in Vain
Exodus 20:7 Thou shalt not take the name of the LORD thy God in vain; for the LORD will not hold him guiltless that taketh his name in vain.
“Thou shalt not take the name of the LORD thy God in vain” is the 3rd of the 10 commandments given to Moses by God. This is universally agreed as one of the most important commandments in Christianity, but its exact meaning is often unknown by believers. Many simply use it as a warning against using God's name as a curse word. Others limit it to using God's name in a false oath. Still others believe it prohibits claiming to be a Christian while living a sinful life. While all of these are true, they are not the full meaning of the commandment. Which of these is right? Is it a prohibition against using God's name flippantly, as a false oath, or hypocritically? The answer is yes. It is all of these and more.
The Hebrew word translated as “vain” is “שָׁוְא” (shav). This means empty, false, or worthless. God's name is holy. Psalm 99:3 It is set apart. It is to be treated with reverence, not like just another word. One should have a productive, godly purpose in using His name. It certainly should not be used for no reason or in deception.
The Jews had such reverence for God's name that they would not even say it. Instead, they would typically use the word “Adonai” (Lord). This is why the name of God is not known for certain. It is believed to be pronounced “Yahweh”, but this is not certain. Instead of using such, Jews would often switch out the Hebrew vowels for other vowels to form almost minced oaths like “Yehovah”. Some today abstain from even writing the English word “God” and instead write “G-d”. These practices show reverence for God's name, yet the commandment says to not take His name in vain, not to never use His name. Nothing prohibits using God's name in a reverent way.
Probably the most-applied meaning of this commandment is to not use God's name as a curse word. Although modern Christianity is moving against this meaning and focusing on others, the applicability of this commandment to other scenarios does not lessen its relevancy here. God's name is holy. It is not to be used as a curse word. Even if one does not mean it as a “curse”, the thoughtless use of God's name is still about as clear-cut case of an empty use as you can get. The Bible is clear that we are not to use His name in this way.
The Other Type of Swearing
Some try to say that this commandment only prohibits using God's name in a false oath, e.g., saying, “I swear to God this happened,” when you know it didn't. This is a very narrow interpretation of the commandment. It is a prohibition against using God's name in any empty way. Certainly this includes oaths. Other verses like Leviticus 19:12 even specifically say such. However, nothing in the text indicates this commandment is only about oaths. In fact, the existence of the Ninth Commandment as prohibiting perjury immediately afterwards implies that this commandment is talking about something else.
A more distinct, yet sadly also common, violation is claiming something is from God when it is not. There are numerous verses in the Bible warning against false prophets. Deuteronomy 18:20; 2 Peter 2:1; Revelation 22:18; etc. These are people who claim to speak for God, but do not. By invoking God's name and saying He says something when He does not, they are taking His name in vain. Whenever we claim to speak for God, we must be very careful to ensure we are actually saying what He said, not speaking our own opinions, what we want to be true, or what we think someone wants to hear.
The other major scenario this applies to is hypocrisy. The main passage addressing such is a quote from Christ himself:
Matthew 15:8–9 This people draweth nigh unto me with their mouth, and honoureth me with their lips; but their heart is far from me. But in vain they do worship me, teaching for doctrines the commandments of men.
Again Jesus rebukes teaching what man says as doctrine. However, He also says such people's worship in general becomes vain. When they outwardly praise the name of God, they are using it in vain because their hearts are not near God. Our walk and our talk have to line up. We cannot claim to be Christians and then live like the world. No Christian will be without sin in this life, but we should seek Him and keep a short account with Him. When we sin, we repent and turn away from it. If a person claims to be a Christian, but is living in sin and has no desire to change, it is makes one wonder if he is truly saved. Jesus further says of such people:
Matthew 7:21–23 Not every one Not every one that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven. Many will say to me in that day, Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in thy name? and in thy name have cast out devils? and in thy name done many wonderful works? And then will I profess unto them, I never knew you: depart from me, ye that work iniquity.
For those who truly are Christians, we must live like it. Verses describe how those who claim to be followers of God but live in sin like the world profane God's holy name. Leviticus 18:21; Amos 2:7 When we know the law of God and say it's good, but then do not follow it, we are giving the world cause to blaspheme the name of God. Romans 2:24 When we claim the name of Christ, it is a serious thing. If He does not change and control how we live, then our claim of His name is empty, or vain. We should be an example of Christ in our lives. 1 Corinthians 11:1