Our study through the ten commandments now brings us to the third commandment, which simply says:
“You shall not take the name of the LORD your God in vain, for the LORD will not hold him guiltless who takes his name in vain.” (Exodus 20:7, ESV)
What does it mean to take the Lord’s name in vain? Many people assume that this commandment is primarily about cussing or swearing. The Bible certainly does tell us not to use foul language. For example, in Ephesians 5:4 the Apostle Paul says,
“Let there be no filthiness nor foolish talk nor crude joking, which are out of place, but instead let there be thanksgiving.” (ESV)
But the third commandment deals particularly with the “name of the LORD.” And so while this commandment certainly forbids some kinds of cussing (i.e. the kind that explicitly uses God’s name in it), foul language in general is not the primary concern here.
In his book, The Ten Commandments, Thomas Watson points out no less than twelve (12) different ways that we take the Lord’s name in vain, including such things as speaking irreverently of God’s name; professing God’s name while not living in a way that is consistent with that profession of faith; using God’s name in idle conversation; worshiping Him “with our lips, but not with our hearts” (p.85); hypocrisy; not praying in faith; profaning or abusing God’s Word; swearing by God’s name; and many other things.
Why is the name of the Lord so important? Have you ever thought about that? In the Lord’s prayer we are taught to pray that the name of our Father in heaven might be “hallowed” (Matthew 6:9). In other words, the very first request in the Lord’s prayer is that God’s name might be revered and treated as holy. (And yet how many of us actually pray that way and give such a high priority to the glory of God’s name in our prayers?)
A person’s name represents the person, doesn’t it. We commonly speak of knowing someone by name or being on a “first name basis” with someone. Conversely we sometimes speak of ‘dragging someone’s name through the mud,’ which, of course, means speaking ill of someone.
Well, in a similar way, God makes himself known by His name, and so to take his name in vain is to in some way show disrespect or dishonor toward his name (or toward anything by which he makes himself known). That is why the Westminster Shorter Catechism says that this commandments forbids “all profaning or abusing of anything whereby God makes himself known” (Q.55).
This commandment, then, is ultimately about showing due reverence for God.
And how serious a matter is this? Notice the reason given in the commandment itself – “for the LORD will not hold him guiltless who takes his name in vain.” The Shorter Catechism goes on to explain the significance of those words:
Q. 56. What is the reason annexed to the third commandment?
A. The reason annexed to the third commandment is that however the breakers of this commandment may escape punishment from men, yet the Lord our God will not suffer them to escape his righteous judgment.
Taking the Lord’s name in vain is a sin, and is wickedness in God’s sight. It is no small thing to show disrespect to God or to his holy name. It is a sin that is worthy of hell.
Thankfully there is “a name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.” (Acts 4:12, ESV), even the Lord Jesus Christ. Acts 10:43 tells us that “everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name” (ESV). No wonder the name of the Lord is so precious to believers in Christ!