What Does it Mean to Take God’s Name in Vain?

Yahweh

I received the following question from my cousin Matt:

I’ve got a question for you. I’ve always heard churches and pastors making a big deal about not saying “Oh my God” as it is taking the Lord’s name in vain which is sin. I’m just wondering if that actually is correct as God’s name isn’t God but Yahweh. So it seems to me that what should not be said is “Oh my Yahweh.” Just wondering what you think about the matter.

This is a great question! God’s name is indeed Yahweh. (If you have not seen it yet, please read “The Curious Case of God’s Missing Name” before continuing.) The word god is actually more of a title and description than it is a name.

So what is this command getting at?

Speaking of God

The World English Bible renders the command in question as follows:

“You shall not take the name of Yahweh your God in vain, for Yahweh will not hold him guiltless who takes his name in vain.” (Exodus 20:7, WEB)

This translation helps quite a bit. The command here specifically relates to the name of Yahweh, not to any one of his titles.

However, that does not mean that we are free to say, “Oh my God,” or to make flippant references to God as we please. Ours is a holy God who deserves our reverence and respect. The Bible has not instituted a taboo here, but we should still take great care whenever we speak of God, simply because he is holy and because we love him and desire to please him.

That aside, I don’t believe that this command actually involves the careless speaking of Yahweh’s name any more than it does his titles.

Taking an Oath

A more likely possibility is that it referred to the use of Yahweh’s name when taking an oath. For example, the Old Testament contains about 50 instances of the phrase “as Yahweh lives” followed by some vow.

Since a man cannot swear by anything greater than Yahweh, such an oath was utterly binding. Yahweh even swore by himself because he could not swear by anything greater (Genesis 22:16; Hebrews 6:13).

Men should therefore be exceedingly careful when taking the name of Yahweh—as an oath. If a man took an oath by the name of Yahweh, he had better not make it an empty (vain) promise. If such a man forfeited on the vow that he swore by Yahweh to uphold, then God would surely hold him guilty for breaking his oath.

This idea finds further support in what seems to be a parallel command from Leviticus.

“‘You shall not swear by my name falsely, and profane the name of your God. I am Yahweh.’” (Leviticus 19:12, WEB)

Of course, for the New Testament believer, this command has been superseded by another—first stated by Jesus and later echoed by James.

“Again 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.” (Matthew 5:33–37, ESV)

But above all, my brothers, do not swear, either by heaven or by earth or by any other oath, but let your “yes” be yes and your “no” be no, so that you may not fall under condemnation. (James 5:12, ESV)

As Christians, we have no business taking oaths at all. We ought rather to be marked by unequivocal honesty, so that no oaths are needed.

Returning to the command in Exodus 20:7, we must also consider the Hebrew word nasa, translated “take” in this verse. The word has a wide variety of meanings depending on context. In a handful of instances, it actually is translated as “swear” or “take an oath” (e.g., Nehemiah 13:25), providing further support for the idea already proposed.

But there is another possibility.

Bearing God’s Name

By far the most common meaning of nasa is to “carry” or “bear.” So the command might be best rendered as follows:

“You shall not bear the name of Yahweh your God in vain, for Yahweh will not hold him guiltless who bears his name in vain.” (Exodus 20:7)

If this is the better meaning, then the tone of the command changes entirely. The Israelites were a special people—set apart by Yahweh and called by his name. They bore God’s name before all the nations.

This command then becomes an all-encompassing one. Since God’s chosen people bore his name, they had better not take that responsibility lightly. They were supposed to be a shining beacon, bearing the name of Yahweh with obedience and distinctive holy living.

Unfortunately, for the most part, the Israelites failed. They did bear God’s name in vain.

But that responsibility has now passed to us. We, the followers of Christ Jesus, bear his glorious name before all the nations.

Will we bear that name with obedience and holy lives?

Or will we too bear his name in vain?