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How do we need to apply the third commandment about not using the LORD’S name in vain?

The third commandment states the following, “‘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). Like the first two commandments, the third describes the proper relationship that man must have with God. One of the distinguishing attributes about this commandment is that it involves how the name of God is used. The act of speaking or writing His name is so important to Him that it appears prominently in the Ten Commandments. How can the use of a word be so important? Why does it matter to God how we use His name? And most importantly, how are we to understand and apply this commandment in our lives today?

To begin with, we must understand that God’s name is holy. He expressed this fact to the nation of Israel as they were introduced to His commandments and Holy Days, teaching them how He is to be worshipped properly: “‘You shall not profane My holy name, but I will be hallowed among the children of Israel. I am the LORD who sanctifies you, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, to be your God: I am the LORD’” (Leviticus 22:32-33). Clearly, God expects that man offers Him reverence, honor, and respect. Not only does respectful behavior involve obedience to His instruction, but also that we acknowledge the holiness of His name.

Seeing that the name of God is holy and that it must be hallowed, it is important that we clearly understand what it means to use His name and refer to Him in the words that we use. Holiness is the distinguishing quality to consider. Holy things are sanctified, special, and distinguished from that which is common or ungodly (compare Deuteronomy 7:6, Ezekiel 22:26, Ezekiel 36:20, Ezekiel 44:23). Therefore, to use the name of God in a way which does not acknowledge His holiness or treats His name as a common thing is a violation of the third commandment. Likewise, since there is one God (that is, one God Family, consisting of the God the Father and Jesus Christ, the Son), and the only one deserving of the name of God, to exalt another name above the true God is also a violation of the third commandment. The holiness of God requires that we glorify His name and treat it with the reverence that it requires, and do not offer that same reverence to any other man or thing.

Unfortunately, in our contemporary society, God’s holy name is widely used in ways that show disrespect rather than the glory and honor that is commanded. It is exceedingly difficult to go through a day without hearing the name of God the Father or of Jesus Christ used in combination with expletives or as an empty exclamation. The use of God’s name in ways that apply it as a common thing, or often much worse than common, is despicable to God. Such wrong use is what it means to use God’s name in vain. When His name is used for show, rather than for the purpose of respectfully referring to Him and His righteousness, the third commandment is violated. This is the clearest way in which the commandment is broken.

As an example, we can see how an individual of the nation of Israel broke this commandment when he cursed God: “And the Israelite woman’s son blasphemed the name of the LORD and cursed; and so they brought him to Moses. (His mother’s name was Shelomith the daughter of Dibri, of the tribe of Dan.) Then they put him in custody, that the mind of the LORD might be shown to them. And the LORD spoke to Moses, saying, ‘Take outside the camp him who has cursed; then let all who heard him lay their hands on his head, and let all the congregation stone him’” (Leviticus 24:11-14). The punishment sentenced when the name of God was used in the context of a curse was extremely serious. This instance of sin resulted in the penalty of death by stoning. Even though uttering words that show disrespect may seem to be a trivial act, we can see how serious God is about this commandment.

The use of God’s name in the context of a curse is a classic example of using His name in vain. Far from expressing the glorification that is commanded, the use of God’s name in the context of an evil sentiment is only for show. When we apply this principle to the use of our own language, any use of God’s name is in vain when it is used to express anything other than respect and honor to Him. The most obvious example is when God’s name is included in a statement with foul language. However, it is also a vain use of God’s name when used to express surprise or as an exclamation. Such showy use of God’s name diminishes the reverence and honor due to Him and is sinful.

Some may believe that using a substitute for God’s name in vain expressions will prevent one from violating the third commandment. However, such euphemisms must be removed from language as well. In our booklet, “Teach Us to Pray,” we write the following:

“We also defile God’s name, of course, when we use His name in vain (compare Exodus 20:7; Leviticus 19:12). To casually use expressions such as ‘My God,’ ‘O my Lord,’ or ‘Jesus Christ,’ just to utter surprise or emphasis, is therefore clearly prohibited. So is the casual use of a common German welcome greeting (‘Gruess Gott’ or, ‘Gott zum Gruss’—meaning ‘Greet God’ or ‘God as a Greeting’), or the casual use of the French or Spanish farewell expressions, ‘adieu’ or ‘adios’ (both meaning, ‘to God’).

“The same prohibition applies when we use ‘euphemisms.’ A ‘euphemism’ is defined as a substitution of a mild, indirect, or vague expression for another felt to be too blunt or offensive. God instructs us to let ‘no corrupt word proceed out of your mouth’ (Ephesians 4:29). This prohibition applies to careless speaking or using slang expressions or euphemisms, which would profane God’s name, such as ‘gosh’ or ‘gosh almighty’ (a substitute for ‘God’ or ‘almighty God’) or ‘gee’ (a substitute for ‘Jesus’). It also applies to the careless use of words describing characteristics or concepts clearly associated with God, such as ‘my goodness’ instead of ‘my God’ (compare Matthew 19:16-17) or ‘by heaven’ or ‘for heaven’s sake’ (compare Matthew 5:34; Revelation 13:6).”

In addition to the explicit use of God’s name or a substitute of God’s name, another application of the third commandment is the sin of blasphemy. Just as the vain use of God’s holy name is a sin that defiles the glory of God, blasphemous statements or actions do the same thing. Exalting anyone above God is a blasphemous action, showing disrespect. As an example, the “man of sin” mentioned in 2 Thessalonians 2:3-4 exalts himself as God. Daniel 11:36-37 clarifies that this is an act of blasphemy, “Then the king shall do according to his own will: he shall exalt and magnify himself above every god, shall speak blasphemies against the God of gods, and shall prosper till the wrath has been accomplished; for what has been determined shall be done. He shall regard neither the God of his fathers nor the desire of women, nor regard any god; for he shall exalt himself above them all.” Such blatant disrespect towards God is a violation of the third commandment in the way that the name of God is applied directly or indirectly to someone other than God.

The Jews in the time of Jesus Christ believed that Jesus blasphemed the name of God when He referred to Himself in a godly context. Jesus expressed that He was the Son of God, which antagonized the so-called righteous Jews (compare Matthew 26:62-66). While the act of exalting oneself above God is an act of blasphemy, since Jesus Christ was speaking the truth in that He was and is the Son of God, His statements were not blasphemous nor sinful.

In our booklet, “God is a Family,” we explain how Jesus Christ is a member of the God Family:

“Reading in Zechariah 4:8–9: ‘Moreover the word of the LORD [in Hebrew, ‘Yahweh’] came to me, saying: The hands of Zerubbabel Have laid the foundation of this temple; His hands shall also finish it. Then you will know That the LORD [in Hebrew, ‘Yahweh’] of hosts has sent Me [‘Yahweh’] to you.’

“We see in this passage that the LORD [‘Yahweh’] sent the LORD [‘Yahweh’]. The expression, ‘Yahweh,’ then is applied to both God beings. As we will see in more detail, both God the Father and Jesus Christ are referred to in Scripture as ‘Yahweh’—the ‘I AM’ (compare Exodus 3:14)—basically meaning, ‘the Eternal,’ or, ‘the Ever-living One.’ This fact alone proves that both the Father and Jesus Christ have always existed—that they are God beings, and that the Old Testament teaches that there is more than just one God being.”

Since Jesus Christ is a member of the God Family, His name must also be treated with the same honor that befits God the Father. The same rules of the third commandment apply in using the name of Jesus Christ because He too is rightfully called “God.”

The way that we behave is an extension of the way that we revere the name of God as well. When we claim that we are Christians and follow God, our actions become a reflection of God’s name and all of the righteousness that it stands for. But when our behavior violates His commandments, God’s name is profaned: “‘As for you, O house of Israel,’ thus says the Lord God: ‘Go, serve every one of you his idols—and hereafter—if you will not obey Me; but profane My holy name no more with your gifts and your idols’” (Ezekiel 20:39). In this example, the nation of Israel is chastised because their actions were not obedient to God. As a result, His name was not venerated with the holiness required.

As we can see from the examples and instructions of the Bible, the use of God’s name is not to be taken lightly. The way that we use His name expresses our respect for Him, and when we use His name to express anything less than the glory and honor He is due, His name is used in vain. There are other ways in which the name of God may be defiled too. When others are exalted above God, His name is blasphemed. When we use the name of God to identify ourselves, but reject the Way of Life that He commands, His name is profaned as well. The lesson for us is clear. In all of our words and deeds, the name of God is to be glorified. The words of David offer us an excellent perspective on this matter: “I will praise You, O LORD my God, with all my heart, And I will glorify Your name forevermore” (Psalm 86:12).

Lead Writer: Eric Rank