In 1939 a little known (*ahem*) movie called “Gone With the Wind” came out. It was noteworthy for several reasons not least of which was Rhett Butler’s famous last line, “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a d**n.” This was the first time that profanity was permitted in the movies. Even boundary-pushing Hollywood, however, knew better than to take the Lord’s name in vain. As late as 1956, the MPAA’s censorship codes were updated to ban such use of the name and in 1963 Lenny Bruce was repeatedly arrested for such talk in his stand-up acts. Twenty-four years after basic profanity first entered the movie business. As wicked as Hollywood is, even they knew that taking the Lord’s name in vain was far worse than mere cursing.
Boy, have the times changed! The Lord’s name is thrown around like a common expletive or interjection. Surprise someone and it’s “Oh my God, you scared me!” Someone hits their finger with a hammer and it’s “Jesus, that hurt!” Etc, etc. [I hope the Lord will forgive me for some examples.] Texters and tweeters have abbreviated it OMG. It is around us all the time. Even members of fairly conservative denominations think nothing of peppering their conversations with the frequent use of His name in various empty (“vain”) ways. It is so ubiquitous that it can start to seep into our brains, and if we aren’t careful, even Christians may casually blaspheme in this manner. So, I want to take a few moments to look at the seriousness of the third command.
Ex. 20:7 “Thou shalt not take the name of Jehovah thy God in vain; for Jehovah will not hold him guiltless that taketh his name in vain.”
This is the command from God on Mount Sinai. Forty years later, when Moses re-gave the Law to the second generation of Israelites, we see this repeated almost word for word:
Deut. 5:11 “Thou shalt not take the name of Jehovah thy God in vain: for Jehovah will not hold him guiltless that taketh his name in vain.”
This seems a fairly straightforward command, but first notice the warning attached: “Jehovah will not hold him guiltless that takes his name in vain”. Just what does this mean? How serious is God taking this? Well, check out Lev. 24:15-16 “And thou shalt speak unto the children of Israel, saying, Whosoever curses his God shall bear his sin. And he that blasphemes the name of Jehovah, he shall surely be put to death; all the congregation shall certainly stone him: as well the sojourner, as the home-born, when he blasphemes the name of Jehovah, shall be put to death.” Blaspheming the Name of God was a capital offense. The penalty was the same as the penalty of murder: death. So, apparently God takes this seriously. Maybe we do need to spend some more time trying to understand the issues.
My first question is what does it mean to take His name in vain? There are several different Hebrew words which are translated as vain or vanity. Nabab means to be hollow. Riq means to be empty. These are the meanings we normally think of for vain/vanity. Neither of these is the word used in Exodus 20, however. Shav is the word used for taking His name in vain and it means falsehood. So, literally, we are told not to take His name in falsehood. This seems odd unless until we realize that God instructed the Israelites to swear only in His name. For instance, Deut. 10:20 “Thou shalt fear Jehovah thy God; him shalt thou serve; and to him shalt thou cleave, and by his name shalt thou swear.”
People have a tendency to strengthen their statements by swearing by all manner of things. “By the moon and the stars” and “upon my mother’s grave” are two common modern examples. The various gods were popularly used in Moses’ day and Jehovah didn’t want His people swearing by other gods. If they needed to swear, they were to swear by Him. Such oaths were not to be taken lightly, however: Lev. 19:11-12 “Ye shall not steal; neither shall ye deal falsely, nor lie one to another. And ye shall not swear by my name falsely, and profane the name of thy God: I am Jehovah.” If they swore by His name, they had best do what they said they’d do. In fact, God lists a failure in this regard as one of the reasons Israel had to be punished and wound up in captivity: Jer. 5:2 “And though they say, As Jehovah liveth; surely they swear falsely.” So, when God says “Thou shalt not take the name of Jehovah thy God in vain (or falsely)” this is what is in view. Don’t fraudulently swear by His name. Given what Jesus says in Matt. 5:37, most of us don’t commonly swear anyway. So we are safe on this issue, right? And lesson over.
Hold on, not so fast. There is another commandment regarding the name of God. Lev. 22:32 “And ye shall not profane my holy name; but I will be hallowed among the children of Israel: I am Jehovah who hallows you.” Now this is closer to what we normally mean when we think about taking God’s name in vain, because to profane something means to pollute it or make it common. This doesn’t describe God’s name: Ps. 106:47 “Save us, O Jehovah our God, And gather us from among the nations, To give thanks unto thy holy name, And to triumph in thy praise.” And Ps. 111:9 “He hath sent redemption unto his people; He hath commanded his covenant for ever: Holy and reverend is his name.” His name is holy, which means set apart for special use, rather than common and profane.
And we will discuss this tomorrow.