the 10 commandments

What Is Taking The Lord’s Name In Vain? (It’s Not What You Think)


When I was a kid in Catholic school we were taught all about different types of sins. We learned the big 10 sins that are listed in the 10 commandments; although, technically there are more than 10. We learned the 7 deadly sins, which oddly enough, are not really in the Bible. We also learned various sins listed as either mortal or venial, which was a Catholic classification system for sin severity. Yet, despite my childhood filled with Catholic sin lessons, I went most of my life not really knowing what the sin of the 2nd commandment really meant. It is also quite likely that virtually no one today knows that it means to take the Lord’s name in vain. Even prominent preachers and Christian authors seem to miss the mark on understanding this sin (pun intended). However, before we dive into the meaning of this commandment we must discuss the issue of numbering the commandments.

Note that many refer to the commandment to not take the Lord’s name in vain as the 3rd commandment. This is technically correct. However, traditional Catholic teaching has lumped the first two commandments together. There is no official universal listing of the 10 commandments since more than 10 actually exist in the list. Certain commands are merged depending on the tradition. A breakdown of the commandment listing is blow. I have shamelessly used the list from the 10 commandments wiki page because it is simply one of the best I’ve seen and there is no reason to reinvent the wheel.

TRLXXPLSACMain articleExodus 20:1-17Deuteronomy 5:4-21
1(1)1I am the Lord thy God2[6
21111111Thou shalt have no other gods before me37
22221111Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image4–68–10
33332222Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain711
44443333Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy8–1112–15
55554444Honour thy father and thy mother1216
66675555Thou shalt not murder1317
77766666Thou shalt not commit adultery1418
88887777Thou shalt not steal1519
99998888Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour1620
10101010991010Thou shalt not covet (neighbour’s house)17a21b
1010101010999Thou shalt not covet (neighbour’s wife)17b21a
101010101091010Thou shalt not covet (neighbour’s slaves, animals, or anything else)17c21c
10You shall set up these stones, which I command you today, on Mount Gerizim.14c18c

In researching this issue I found an old article about taking the Lord’s name in vain from DesiringGod.org, by John Piper, that treats the sin as something akin to swearing or cursing in God’s name. This teaching seems to be the most common method of dealing with the 2nd commandment.

So that’s the key: vain is empty. Don’t empty God of his weight and his glory. Fill it up rather than emptying it. (DesiringGod.org)

Our friends over at Gotquestions.org also suggest that it’s a matter of honoring or dishonoring God’s name. Because of the greatness of the name of God, any use of God’s name that brings dishonor on Him or on His character is taking His name in vain. The third of the Ten Commandments forbids taking or using the Lord’s name in an irreverent manner because that would indicate a lack of respect for God Himself. (Gotquestions.org)

A more recent article by Amy R. Buckley, on Relevent.com, gets a little closer to the true definition of taking the Lord’s name in vain. She points out that it is more than flippantly using God’s name or cursing. In her post she mentions a seminary professor that had a particular idea about what it really meant.

Leviticus 19:12 says, “‘Do not swear falsely by my name and so profane the name of your God. I am the Lord.’” A seminary professor once demonstrated that the third command relates to covenant making within legal and personal situations. God opposes perjury. God wants a civil servant to keep his or her vows. God values keeping ordination vows and marriage vows. It is serious business to commit to a vow made in the name of God. (Amy R Buckley)

Sadly, Amy spent the rest of the article talking about the sin as a form of speech, even though one of her seminary professors already instructed her on what the sin really was. Thus, it appears that some people have the idea that the sin is related to oath as well as speech.

It seems as though most of the Christian world believes that the 2nd commandment has something to do with honoring God’s sacred name. I would submit that it does not have much to do with using God’s name in a dishonoring way. Don’t get me wrong here, I am not saying we should be cursing and using God’s name in an irreverent manner. What I am saying, is that taking the Lord’s name in vain is not related to whether or not we are flippant towards God’s name.

Taking the Lord’s name in vain is a reference to oath taking or covenant making. Amy’s seminary professor was right. Using the Lord’s name in vain is about swearing oaths carelessly or even falsely. It is not about showing god reverence.

Below we will examine exegetically why taking God’s name in vain refers to making oaths and covenants. We will also be looking at extra-biblical texts from the ancient world that demonstrate the importance of using God’s name in oath taking.


In Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5, the reader is met with a commandment that usually reads in English like the examples below.

You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain, for the Lord will not leave him unpunished who takes His name in vain.
לֹ֥א תִשָּׂ֛א אֶת־שֵֽׁם־יְהוָ֥ה אֱלֹהֶ֖יךָ לַשָּׁ֑וְא כִּ֣י לֹ֤א יְנַקֶּה֙ יְהוָ֔ה אֵ֛ת אֲשֶׁר־יִשָּׂ֥א אֶת־שְׁמֹ֖ו לַשָּֽׁוְא׃
Exodus 20:7

You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain, for the Lord will not leave him unpunished who takes His name in vain.
לֹ֥א תִשָּׂ֛א אֶת־שֵֽׁם־יְהוָ֥ה אֱלֹהֶ֖יךָ לַשָּׁ֑וְא כִּ֣י לֹ֤א יְנַקֶּה֙ יְהוָ֔ה אֵ֛ת אֲשֶׁר־יִשָּׂ֥א אֶת־שְׁמֹ֖ו לַשָּֽׁוְא׃
Deuteronomy 5:11

I don’t think these translations are necessarily bad, but they could use some clarity. The word for “take” in Hebrew is תִשָּׂ֛א, which is a conjugation of the word נָשָׂא (nsa). נָשָׂא is a very common word in the Hebrew Bible and usually means to lift, carry, or bear. It is often used to mean lifting something upwards or to take something up. In Genesis it often refers to lifting up of the eyes (Gen 13:10, 14, 18:2) or a voice (Gen 21:16). It can also mean to take something ,as in Gen 27:3. There are some idiomatic uses of the word in the Bible, such as Genesis 50:17, when Joseph is asked to “takeup” (forgive) the transgressions of his brothers. The idea is that Joseph would bear those transgressions and not punish them. In the many ways that נָשָׂא is used, it is clear that the word usually refers to a person(s) taking or bearing an object. Thus, the translation into English as “take” is fine; it’s just ambiguous to the English mind.

When a person bears the name of the Lord, they are taking on that name. This usually happened when taking oaths or covenants. Agreements were made invoking the name of each persons deity and allowing themselves to be cursed if they break the oath. It might sound foreign but Americans still do this today. Every time someone is sworn into office with their hand on a Bible, they are taking an oath with God’s name, with the implication that breaking an oath in God’s name would be dangerous to their well-being.

The warning against taking the Lord’s name in vain is described using a another interesting Hebrew word, לַשָּׁ֑וְא, which is usually translated as “empty” or “false”. The English word “vain” is no longer an adequate translation of this word. It is clear from the Hebrew that the problem is taking the Lord’s name falsely or deceitfully. Although, the problem of making oaths carelessly was a major concern for the biblical writers and others in the ancient near east.

Another feature of the commandment is that God will punish the one who takes His name in vain. However, the English phrase is misleading. In some Bible translations they incorrectly translate the word יְנַקֶּה֙ to mean “unpunished”, but it really means “guiltless” or “free” or “acquitted”. The phrase is a legal one, relating to binding obligations. Those who take the Lord’s vain will not be guiltless for doing such a thing. The reason why guilt is preferred over punish, for the translation, is because it’s a more consistent translation of the word as it’s used in the Bible. It also fits the context better. For example, when Abraham’s servant is charged with an oath to find a wife for Isaac, the servant is told that when the stipulations of oath are completed, he shall be “freed/guiltless” from the oath. Thus, those who swear on the Lord’s name in vain will not be left innocent in their actions if the oath is broken.

Notice also that this is the only commandment that is accompanied by a warning that God will hold the person guilty. It would be strange that it is the only commandment followed by a threat of punishment if it was just referring to dishonoring God’s name. How is that worse that worshiping another god or committing murder? On the other hand, if we understand that the commandment is about swearing oaths it makes complete sense. That is because oath swearing always included a punishment or negative result for the party that broke the oath. They would not be held guiltless. They would indeed be held guilty by the Lord. Douglas A. Stewart, who authored the Exodus volume in the New American Commentary series simplifies the meaning of this commandment by simply stating that the commandment is preventing people from committing perjury under oath.

With this in mind, let us look at examples from the Bible.

Leviticus 19:12
Do not swear falsely by my name and so profane the name of your God. I am the Lord.

The best method for interpreting the 2nd commandment is through the lens of the Old Testament (OT). Leviticus brings to light a command from the Lord that echos that of the command to not take the Lord’s name in vain. The command in Leviticus 19:12 is worded differently but is identical to that of the 2nd commandment. It is the swearing of oaths falsely in the name of the Lord that profanes the name.

Genesis 24:2-4
“Please place your hand under my thigh, 3 and I will make you swear by the Lord, the God of heaven and the God of earth, that you shall not take a wife for my son from the daughters of the Canaanites, among whom I live, 4 but you will go to my country and to my relatives, and take a wife for my son Isaac.”

Again, the biblical model of taking an oath is by swearing on the name of the patron deity. However, it is not uncommon for other things to be included, such as touching the thigh or touching the throat.

Genesis 50:24-25
Joseph said to his brothers, “I am about to die, but God will surely take care of you and bring you up from this land to the land which He promised on oath to Abraham, to Isaac and to Jacob.” 25 Then Joseph made the sons of Israel swear, saying, “God will surely take care of you, and you shall carry my bones up from here.”

Even the patriarch Joseph participated in the swearing of oaths. This should come as not surprise as the 10 commandments had not yet been given.

Exodus 22:10-11
“If a man gives his neighbor a donkey, an ox, a sheep, or any animal to keep for him, and it dies or is hurt or is driven away while no one is looking, 11 an oath before the Lord shall be made by the two of them that he has not laid hands on his neighbor’s property; and its owner shall accept it, and he shall not make restitution.

In the event where a crime is committed and no witness is present, the only witness able to help solve the matter is God. The Israelites had multiple occasions where the outcome of a matter was deferred to God because no viable witness was available. This type of judicial practice is common in the ancient world. In Mesopotamia, the outcome of a disagreement could be solved by tossing a person in one of the great rivers to see if the river god would allow them to live or die. In the Bible, sometimes lots were cast to determine an outcome.

Leviticus 5:4
if a person swears thoughtlessly with his lips to do evil or to do good, in whatever matter a man may speak thoughtlessly with an oath, and it is hidden from him, and then he comes to know it, he will be guilty in one of these.

Again, Leviticus deals strongly with the practice of taking the Lord’s name vainly in an oath.

Numbers 5:16-22
‘Then the priest shall bring her near and have her stand before the Lord, 17 and the priest shall take holy water in an earthenware vessel; and he shall take some of the dust that is on the floor of the tabernacle and put it into the water. 18 The priest shall then have the woman stand before the Lord and let the hair of the woman’s head go loose, and place the grain offering of memorial in her hands, which is the grain offering of jealousy, and in the hand of the priest is to be the water of bitterness that brings a curse. 19 The priest shall have her take an oath and shall say to the woman, “If no man has lain with you and if you have not gone astray into uncleanness, being under the authority of your husband, be immune to this water of bitterness that brings a curse; 20 if you, however, have gone astray, being under the authority of your husband, and if you have defiled yourself and a man other than your husband has had intercourse with you”

21 (then the priest shall have the woman swear with the oath of the curse, and the priest shall say to the woman), “the Lord make you a curse and an oath among your people by the Lord’s making your thigh waste away and your abdomen swell; 22 and this water that brings a curse shall go into your stomach, and make your abdomen swell and your thigh waste away.” And the woman shall say, “Amen. Amen.”

The practice of oath swearing was often coupled with a test of sorts to prove if someone was innocent or guilty.

Numbers 30:1-3 (the entire chapter deals with oaths; this is just a snippet)
Then Moses spoke to the heads of the tribes of the sons of Israel, saying, “This is the word which the Lord has commanded. 2 If a man makes a vow to the Lord, or takes an oath to bind himself with a binding obligation, he shall not violate his word; he shall do according to all that proceeds out of his mouth.

For Moses, the problem of oath making was a national one. Should the people take a casual oath or break an oath, the consequences could be catastrophic for the whole nation.

Deuteronomy 29:14-15
“Now not with you alone am I making this covenant and this oath, 15 but both with those who stand here with us today in the presence of the Lord our God and with those who are not with us here today.

Especially in later Jewish law, evoking the name of the Lord while being in His presence is a way to bind an agreement.

Joshua 2:17-20
The men said to her, “We will be guiltless with respect to this oath of yours that you have made us swear. 18 Behold, when we come into the land, you shall tie this scarlet cord in the window through which you let us down, and you shall gather into your house your father and mother, your brothers, and all your father’s household. 19 Then if anyone goes out of the doors of your house into the street, his blood shall be on his own head, and we shall be guiltless. But if a hand is laid on anyone who is with you in the house, his blood shall be on our head. 20 But if you tell this business of ours, then we shall be guiltless with respect to your oath that you have made us swear.”

The oath sworn to Rahab, that she would not be attacked during the invasion, was a great demonstration of the mindset of how oaths worked. Had they broken the oath, God would hold them guilty. The word for guilt here is the same as in the 2nd commandment.

1 Kings 8:31-32
If a man sins against his neighbor and is made to take an oath and comes and swears his oath before your altar in this house, 32 then hear in heaven and act and judge your servants, condemning the guilty by bringing his conduct on his own head, and vindicating the righteous by rewarding him according to his righteousness.

Ezekiel 21:23
But to them it will seem like a false divination. They have sworn solemn oaths, but he brings their guilt to remembrance, that they may be taken.

As we have seen already, oaths were sworn often with the expectation that the Lord would hold someone guilty for breaking it.

Jeremiah 4:1-2
“If you will return, O Israel,” declares the Lord,
Then you should return to Me.
And if you will put away your detested things from My presence,
And will not waver,
2 And you will swear, ‘As the Lord lives,’
In truth, in justice and in righteousness;
Then the nations will bless themselves in Him,
And in Him they will glory.”

The formula “As the Lord lives” is a common formula for swearing an oath while invoking a deity. This practice is seen outside of the Bible as well.

Matthew 5:33-37
Again, you have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not break your oath, but fulfill to the Lord the vows you have made.’ 34 But I tell you, do not swear an oath at all: either by heaven, for it is God’s throne; 35 or by the earth, for it is his footstool; or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the Great King. 36 And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make even one hair white or black. 37 All you need to say is simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything beyond this comes from the evil one.

James 5:12
But above all, my brethren, do not swear, either by heaven or by earth or with any other oath; but your yes is to be yes, and your no, no, so that you may not fall under judgment.

The problem of swearing oaths was not limited to the OT. Both Jesus and James, the brother of Jesus, also addressed the problem of swearing oaths. Why invoke the name of the Lord? Just be a person that tells the truth in all matters and then you won’t need to swear an oath in order to convince someone that you’re telling the truth. Often, it was the less truthful people who swore oaths. We see this even today.

With these verses in mind, it is easy to see how taking the Lord’s name in vain was about making deceptive oaths, breaking oaths, or even making oaths flippantly. If this was not already clear from the Biblical texts, let us now examine oaths from other ancient near eastern texts.


Oaths were sworn in the ANE for all manner of legal and religious reasons. One common oath was that of land marking. Two people would agree to a land boundary, mark it, and swear an oath not to cheat the other by moving the marker or measuring in a deceptive way. This problem also occurs in the Biblical laws, in Deuteronomy 27:17. The cursing of those who broke the land boundary oaths was also attested to in the Bible.

Deuteronomy 27:17
‘Cursed is he who moves his neighbor’s boundary mark.’ And all the people shall say, ‘Amen.’

Hosea 5:10
The princes of Judah have become like those who move a boundary; On them I will pour out My wrath like water.

Instruction of Amenemope, Chapter 6
Do not move the markers on the borders of
fields,
Nor shift the position of the measuring cord.
Do not be greedy for a cubit of land,
Nor encroach on the boundaries of a
widow.
The trodden furrow worn down by time,
He who disguises it in the fields,
When he has snared (it) by false oaths,
He will be caught by the might of the
Moon.

Recognize him who does this on earth:
He is an oppressor of the weak,
A foe bent on destroying your being,
The taking of life is in his eye.
His house is an enemy to the town,
His storage bins will be destroyed
His wealth will be seized from his children’s hands,
His possessions will be given to another.
Beware of destroying the borders of fields,
10 Lest a terror carry you away;
One pleases god with the might of the lord
When one discerns the borders of fields.

The result of breaking and oath or making one in vain could be devastating, with economical and political ramifications. During a particularly bad economic downturn in Hatti, the Egyptians address the matter by sending aid to the Hittites. The aid is in the form of a cleansing ritual to deal with a plague that has fallen on them, because they (the Egyptians) has broken an oath to the storm god of Hatti.

Plague Prayers of Mursili II
Now because Hatti has been very
much beaten down by the plague,
and Hatti continues to experience many deaths, the affair of
Tudhaliya has begun to trouble the land. It was
ascertained for me (through an oracle) by [a god],
and I made (further) oracular inquiries [about it].
They will perform before you, [the gods], my
lords, the ritual of (transgressing of) the oath which
was ascertained for you, [the gods], my lords, and
for your temples in regard to the plague. They will
purify [… before you]. And I will make restitution
to you, the gods, my lords, with reparation and
propitiatory gift on behalf of the land.

…..

I will dispose of
the matter which I thoroughly researched (through
oracular inquiry) [and] of the affairs which were
ascertained concerning the plague. I will make full
restitution for them […] In regard to the matter of
[the oath] which was ascertained concerning the
plague, I have offered the ritual [of] the oath for
the Storm-god of Hatti, [my lord. For the gods, my
lords], I have offered [it]. They have […a ritual] for you, the Storm-god of Hatti, [my lord], and
[they have …] a ritual for you, [the gods, my
lords]. Because [the ritual of the Euphrates] was
ascertained for me [concerning the plague], and
because I am now on my way [to] the Euphrates,
O Storm-god [of Hatti], my lord, and gods, my
lords, leave me alone concerning the ritual of the
Euphrates. I shall perform the ritual of [the
Euphrates], and I shall perform it fully. In regard
to such matter as I will do it, namely the plague —
may the gods, my lords, be well-disposed toward
me. Let the plague abate in Hatti.
(Plague Prayers of Mursili II, COS 1.60)

Breaking an oath which is sworn by the name of a deity was expected to bring a curse. That is why the Bible and other ANE texts warn against even swearing an oath casually; because the result could be a disaster. They must think carefully before making such an oath, or better yet, don’t swear an oath at all.

The curse of casual oath taker makes an appearance in an Akkadian poem which is similar to the biblical story of Job. It’s referred to as the “Poem of the Righteous Sufferer”. In the poem, the victim of god’s wrath likens himself to one who does does not honor the gods. In one specific line, he compares himself to one who has taken an oath carelessly.

Like one possessed(?), who forgot his lord,
Who casually swore a solemn oath by his god:
I, indeed, seemed (such a one)!I, for my part, was mindful of supplication and prayer,
Prayer to me was the natural recourse, sacrifice my rule.
The day for reverencing the gods was a source of satisfaction to me
(Poem of the Righteous Sufferer, COS 1.153)

In virtually every culture oaths were sworn on the name of a patron deity or a deity specific to the context of the oath. However, some older tales, such as the Eridu Genesis, depicts the many oaths of humankind to be a bother to the gods. In the Eridu Genesis, it is the bothersome human population that causes the gods to flood the world. A major concern of the god, Enlil, is the swearing of oaths which is a disturbance.

[As he] stood there regularly day after day
something that was not a dream was appear-ing: conversation.
a swearing (of) oaths by heaven and earth, [a touching of throats ] and the gods [bringing their] thwar[ts] (up) to [K]iur.
(Eridu Genesis, COS 1.158)

The reference in the text to touching of throats is a symbolic reference to the punishment if the oath was broken, which was to have the thought ripped out or be made mute by the deity being sworn on. In some cases multiple deities could be called upon for an oath. These oaths were usually national treaties between two powers. Naturally, the bigger the oath, the higher the stakes. Like the treat in the book of Deuteronomy, the oath is accompanied by a series of blessings and curses.

Behold, I have summoned the Thousand Gods to assembly
for this oath and I have called them to witness.
Let them be witnesses……..
[All the words of the treaty and of the oath which are inscribed] on this tablet, [if Azira does not keep these words of] the treaty and of the oath [and he breaks the oath], let these oath gods destroy Azira [together with his head, his wives, his sons, his grandsons, his house], his town, his land, and all [his possesions]!

But if Azira keeps these words of the treaty and of the oath which are [inscribed on this tablet], let these oath gods protect [Azira together with his head, his wives, his sons, his grandsons], his house, his town, his land, [and his possessions]!
(Treaty Between Suppiluliuma and Aziru, COS 2.17A)


Conclusion


While it can be hard to discern in English, the Hebrew texts are clear on the purpose of the 2nd commandment. It has nothing to do with speaking the name of the Lord or using fowl language. Although, I would submit that other biblical passage would prohibit such use. Rather, the purpose of the 2nd commandment, to not take the Lord’s name in vain, was to prevent people from swearing careless oaths, which the Lord would have to punish them for later. The evidence for this concussion can be easily summed up with the following points.

1. The act of taking the Lord’s name is not related necessarily to a form of speech. Taking God’s name and speaking it are very different verbs. To take the name of God, a person bearing the name of God.

2. Taking God’s name in vain is not about speaking carelessly or irreverently but about making an oath falsely or carelessly.

3. This is the only commandment followed by a threat of guilt because oaths were a legally binding agreement or testimony that is arbitrated by the deity in whom’s name is taken. Breaking an oath was akin to perjury.

There is no reason to chastise your friend the next time they exclaim “oh my God”. For starters, “God” is not the name of God anyways. Secondly, it’s not an oath. However, I would refrain from saying things like “I swear to God” when you don’t intend on being truthful.

Update:

There are a number of people who believe the commandment is about blasphemy. While this view was held by a number of rabbinic scholars over the centuries, blasphemy is different than taking God’s name in vain and the Bible had it’s own prohibitions against blasphemy. One such prohibition is below.

Leviticus 24:13-16

Then the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, “Bring out of the camp the one who cursed, and let all who heard him lay their hands on his head, and let all the congregation stone him. And speak to the people of Israel, saying, Whoever curses his God shall bear his sin. 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.”

The prohibition against blasphemy is altogether a different thing. However, the punishment with stoning has led many to believe that taking the Lord’s name in vain is the same sin. But the sin of blasphemy is not the same sin. Blasphemy is purposefully cursing or committing denouncing the name of the Lord. However, one can see why the two prohibitions are confused by many.


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