By Peter Amsterdam
December 11, 2018
In the previous article, we went over the first two commandments regarding our duty to God. The focus on humanity’s duty to God continues with the third commandment, which states: 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.1
There is a difference between what a person’s name represented in Old Testament times and what a name means today. In our time, someone’s name is generally a label that identifies and distinguishes them from other individuals. In the past, people understood a name to be much more than that—a name often described the character or reputation of a person. At times we find that God changed someone’s name when they were given a new role, in order to more accurately describe them in their new position or responsibility.
We find such name changes in the account of the patriarch Abraham and his wife Sarah.
No longer shall your name be called Abram, but your name shall be Abraham, for I have made you the father of a multitude of nations.2
God changed Sarai’s name to Sarah, which means “Princess.”
God said to Abraham, As for Sarai your wife, you shall not call her name Sarai, but Sarah shall be her name.3
The “name” of God does not simply convey the proper name of God. It also decrees what Scripture says about His reputation, character, and being. When we use God’s name, we speak of who He is and what He does. As such, we should not express His name without the reverence and awe due to Him.
There are two Hebrew words which express the phrase to take the name of the Lord in vain. The first means to lift up, to carry, and the second means emptiness, nothingness, vanity. In a literal sense it can be translated as: You shall not lift up the name of the Lord your God to worthlessness (or emptiness, vanity).4 This commandment fundamentally teaches that we are forbidden to use God’s name irreverently.
This means we aren’t to use any name of God, the Lord, Jesus, or Christ in a disrespectful, mocking, or derisive manner—which would include using “Jesus Christ” as an expression of frustration or anger. The same would apply to the phrase “Oh, my God!” or any swear word which includes the name of God. Even worse is to intentionally curse God or blaspheme against Him.
Blaspheming against God is a serious matter, as part of the commandment reads: the LORD will not hold him guiltless who takes his name in vain.5 In Old Testament times, it was a capital offense:
Whoever blasphemes the name of the LORD shall surely be put to death. All the congregation shall stone him. The sojourner as well as the native, when he blasphemes the Name, shall be put to death.6
Scripture describes taking God’s name in vain as reviling God’s name:
How long, O God, is the foe to scoff? Is the enemy to revile7 your name forever? ... Remember this, O LORD, how the enemy scoffs, and a foolish people reviles your name.8
In this third commandment, we see that believers are not to use God’s name in a disparaging way or in any way that is irreverent or dishonors Him. To do so is a sin against Him and calls for us to ask His forgiveness.
Some Christians consider it wrong to use a substitute phrase to replace the use of God’s name—for example, to say “oh, my gosh” or “my goodness” instead of “oh, my God” or “my God.” Some would say that these phrases were originally replacements for using God’s name, and therefore shouldn’t be used, but today most who use them don’t understand them that way. Since these are just phrases used in everyday English that don’t make reference to God, substituting such words seems legitimate and wise and helps avoid using God’s name improperly. (In Orthodox Judaism, people avoid saying the name “God,” except when they read the Torah or prayers, in order to avoid mistakenly taking His name in vain.)
As mentioned earlier in this series, each of the Ten Commandments has broader meaning than just the one or two sentences contained in a specific commandment. In the case of using God’s name in vain, the topic of cursing or expressions of condemnation or God’s judgment on someone fall under the commandment of not taking God’s name in vain. This isn’t in reference to using obscene or unclean language, which I'll address shortly, but is talking about actually cursing someone by using language which calls for someone to be damned or sent to hell.
In the book of Psalms, we read some imprecatory prayers (prayers to invoke evil upon or curse one’s enemies), which were written and prayed by David, asking God to bring judgment on his enemies. While this may have been appropriate in that time, saying such prayers against people today would be in contradiction of Jesus’ instruction to love and pray for our enemies.
Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.9
Within the New Testament, we find statements that clearly express that Christians should not curse people.
Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them.10
No human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers, these things ought not to be so.11
If someone curses a Christian, Scripture teaches that we aren’t to return the curse, but rather give a blessing.
Do not repay evil for evil or reviling for reviling, but on the contrary, bless, for to this you were called, that you may obtain a blessing.12
We’re told that when Jesus was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly.13 If we find ourselves on the receiving end of someone’s curse, we should commit the situation to God’s hands and simply return a blessing to the person.
While taking God’s name in vain and cursing someone are always wrong, obscene language doesn’t fall into exactly the same category. Such language is socially unacceptable in certain situations, but not necessarily sinful. We find some such language in Scripture, though only rarely.
In Philippians 3:8 (KJV), we read:
I count all things but loss for the excellency of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord: for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and do count them but dung, that I may win Christ.14
The Greek word skubalon can mean excrement of animals, and it can also mean rubbish (as some Bible versions translate it). For example, when speaking negatively about his religious enemies in Galatians 2:12, the apostle Paul called them what amounts to “the circumcision guys.” At one point he said:
As for those agitators, I wish they would go the whole way and emasculate themselves!15
In those circumstances, Paul’s use of this language was relevant to the topic of circumcision which he was speaking about.
While in some circumstances it was appropriate for Paul to use language that may have been considered “off color” to make a specific point, he wrote about the type of speech Christians should have the reputation for using.
Let there be no filthiness nor foolish talk nor crude joking, which are out of place, but instead let there be thanksgiving.16
Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear.17
Other Bible versions say: No rotten talk should come from your mouth (CSB); Let no unwholesome word proceed from your mouth (NAS); Let no corrupt word proceed out of your mouth (NKJ); Don't use foul or abusive language (NLT).
In many cases, different words can denote the same thing but have different connotations some of which are fine to say and others which are considered to be offensive. One author gave the following examples:18
pee/take a leak
|engage in sexual intercourse
|sleep with or have sex with
While using the words in the obscene/vulgar/offensive category is not necessary sinful and certainly isn’t in the same category as taking God’s name in vain, it can be damaging to one’s testimony as a Christian. They will give offense to some. Of course, the appropriateness of some words may vary in different situations; perhaps some workplaces have different standards for what is considered acceptable speech. However, using these words is sinful if they are used to denigrate someone or as hate speech. It’s easy to develop the habit of using obscene language, especially if one spends time with others who use it. Generally, as a Christian, it seems best to avoid using vulgar language, as it can reflect negatively on one’s example and testimony.
An oath is when a person solemnly calls upon God to witness to the truth of what one says, or to witness that one sincerely intends to do what they say they will do. It’s an appeal for God’s punishment if one’s statement is untruthful.
Throughout both the Old and New Testaments, we find God’s people taking oaths, swearing to do something. For example:
Abraham said to his servant, the oldest of his household, who had charge of all that he had, “Put your hand under my thigh, that I may make you swear by the LORD, the God of heaven and God of the earth, that you will not take a wife for my son from the daughters of the Canaanites, among whom I dwell.” … So the servant put his hand under the thigh of Abraham his master and swore to him concerning this matter.19
We also read that Jesus was put under oath by the high priest:
The high priest stood up and said, “Have you no answer to make? What is it that these men testify against you?” But Jesus remained silent. And the high priest said to him, “I adjure you by the living God, tell us if you are the Christ, the Son of God.” Jesus said to him, “You have said so.”20
The Greek word translated adjure means “to put one under oath.”
In the book of Hebrews we read that God Himself took an oath when He made a promise to Abraham.
For when God made a promise to Abraham, since he had no one greater by whom to swear, he swore by himself, saying, “Surely I will bless you and multiply you.” And thus Abraham, having patiently waited, obtained the promise. For people swear by something greater than themselves, and in all their disputes an oath is final for confirmation. So when God desired to show more convincingly to the heirs of the promise the unchangeable character of his purpose, he guaranteed it with an oath, so that by two unchangeable things, in which it is impossible for God to lie, we who have fled for refuge might have strong encouragement to hold fast to the hope set before us.21
The apostle Paul used oaths a number of times when he called on God to be his witness:
God is my witness, whom I serve with my spirit in the gospel of his Son, that without ceasing I mention you always in my prayers, asking that somehow by God's will I may now at last succeed in coming to you.22
God is my witness, how I yearn for you all with the affection of Christ Jesus.23
In what I am writing to you, before God, I do not lie!24
While there are many places within Scripture where individuals take oaths and receive no censure for doing so, Christians may wonder if it’s right for them to take oaths because of what Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount.
You have heard that it was said to those of old, “You shall not swear falsely, but shall perform to the Lord what you have sworn.” But I say to you, “Do not take an oath at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. And do not take an oath by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. Let what you say be simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything more than this comes from evil.”25
While some commentators believe that Jesus was prohibiting all oaths, the majority don’t. Rather, it appears that He was prohibiting oaths being made in the context of those who intended to lie and therefore worded their oaths using specific phrases which they felt did not require them to fulfill their oath. Jesus referred to this practice later in the Gospel when He said:
“Woe to you, blind guides, who say, ‘If anyone swears by the temple, it is nothing, but if anyone swears by the gold of the temple, he is bound by his oath.’ … ‘If anyone swears by the altar, it is nothing, but if anyone swears by the gift that is on the altar, he is bound by his oath.’ … ‘You blind men! ... Whoever swears by the altar swears by it and by everything on it. And whoever swears by the temple swears by it and by him who dwells in it. And whoever swears by heaven swears by the throne of God and by him who sits upon it.”26
Jesus wasn’t banning oaths outright, rather He was telling those who misused them, who made them but didn’t intend to keep them, that they shouldn’t have made them in the first place.
It shouldn’t be necessary for Christians to make oaths between one another. When we give our word that we will do something, we should do it. When we say that something is true, it should be true—we shouldn’t have to swear that it is. All that we say to others, all the promises we make, we speak before God, and therefore we should understand our word to be our oath. There are times when we may need to take official oaths, such as when we are giving testimony in a court of law or are being installed as a public official and are being “sworn in,” and it’s perfectly legitimate to do so.
A vow is a promise made to God to perform a certain action or to behave in a certain way. We see an example of such a vow in the promise Jacob made to God:
Then Jacob made a vow, saying, “If God will be with me and will keep me in this way that I go, and will give me bread to eat and clothing to wear, so that I come again to my father's house in peace, then the LORD shall be my God, and this stone, which I have set up for a pillar, shall be God’s house. And of all that you give me I will give a full tenth to you.”27
Years later, God reminded Jacob of his vow:
I am the God of Bethel, where you anointed a pillar and made a vow to me. Now arise, go out from this land and return to the land of your kindred.28
Scripture teaches that it isn’t necessary to make vows to God, but adds that if one does so, they should fulfill the vow:
If you make a vow to the LORD your God, you shall not delay fulfilling it, for the LORD your God will surely require it of you, and you will be guilty of sin. But if you refrain from vowing, you will not be guilty of sin. You shall be careful to do what has passed your lips, for you have voluntarily vowed to the LORD your God what you have promised with your mouth.29
An example of a vow that many of us are familiar with is a marriage vow. In many marriage ceremonies, wedding vows are understood to be promises made between the husband and the wife in the presence of God, and as such they are promises to God as well as to each other. When considering marriage, Christians should recognize that they are making a vow both to their spouse and to God, and asking Him to help them fulfill their promises, as well as hold them accountable for those promises.
(Continued in Part Three.)
Unless otherwise indicated, all scriptures are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
1 Exodus 20:7.
2 Genesis 17:5.
3 Genesis 17:15.
4 Wayne Grudem, Christian Ethics (Wheaton: Crossway, 2018), 298.
5 Exodus 20:7.
6 Leviticus 24:16.
7 Reproach, defy, or blaspheme.
8 Psalm 74:10, 18.
9 Luke 6:27–28.
10 Romans 12:14.
11 James 3:8–10.
12 1 Peter 3:9.
13 1 Peter 2:23.
14 Philippians 3:8 KJV.
15 Galatians 5:12 NIV.
16 Ephesians 5:4.
17 Ephesians 4:29.
18 Grudem, Christian Ethics, 296.
19 Genesis 24:2–3, 9.
20 Matthew 26:62–64.
21 Hebrews 6:13–18.
22 Romans 1:9–10.
23 Philippians 1:8.
24 Galatians 1:20. See also 1 Thessalonians 2:5, 10.
25 Matthew 5:33–37.
26 Matthew 23:16–22.
27 Genesis 28:20–22.
28 Genesis 31:13.
29 Deuteronomy 23:21–23.