When I was growing up, I was told to use God’s name in church, prayer, or other spiritual contexts, but to say “God” in an irreligious way—after stubbing a toe or losing a game—was to break the commandment: “You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain” (Exod 20:7). While I still refrain from saying “God” outside of religious discourse, this verse doesn’t mean what I was told growing up. When the Bible proscribes taking the Lord’s name in vain, it does not refer to saying “God” as an exclamation or expletive; instead, it prohibits invoking the divine name in an oath, and then failing to fulfill that oath.

In ancient Israel, an oath was a solemn statement that began חי־יהוה (chai Adonai)—“as the Lord lives”—and meant: “If I don’t fulfill the following oath, may the Lord who lives strike me dead!” For example, after Jonathan convinced Saul not to kill David, “Saul swore, ‘As the Lord lives (חי־יהוה; chai Adonai), he shall not be put to death’” (1 Sam 19:6). Saul’s oath means that if David dies at Saul’s hand, then Saul also deserves to die.

The Hebrew word commonly translated “take” in Exod 20:7 is נשא (nasa), meaning to “bear” or “lift up.” Invoking God’s “name” (שׁם; shem) means bearing it, just like Aaron was to “bear” (נשא; nasa) the names (שׁמות; shemot) of the Israelites” on his breastplate (Exod 28:29). As a bearer of God’s name, the oath-taker must accomplish the sworn oath, or else…. Yeshua protected his followers from taking God’s name in vain when he said to “not swear at all” (Matt 5:34) – that way, you’ll never swear an oath that you might not fulfill, so you can rest assured that you’ll never break the commandment!

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101 COMMENTS

  1. I love the idea of Yeshua protecting us like that! I also think of not taking in vain as not carrying His Name as His followers and then misrepresenting who He is by our behaviour and words. Since we are His image carriers.
  2. Indeed we must be careful with oaths or any promise, but the command in Exodus 20:7 certainly includes using God's name reverently. Sometimes we need to look beyond technicalities and look at the bigger picture to see God's intent and the principles He has in mind. In Leviticus 24:10-16 God commanded the death penalty for the improper use of His name. So it seems that those who were warned about using God's name wrongly were given good advice!
    • Thanks, Donald. Yes, Lev 24:10-16 describes the punishment for "blaspheming" (נקב) God and "cursing" (קלל) the divine name. However, Exodus 20:7 is specifically referring to the problem of using God's name in oath-taking, rather than using God's name irreverently. Lev 24 cautions against the irreverent use of God's name, but Exodus 20:7 is saying something different than Lev 24.
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  3. I was told that it meant that you should not profess to love the Lord and then live like a heathen. What you say seems to make sense though.
  4. That’s interesting! I learned to identify as the sinner or liar in 1 John 4:20 (due to replacement theology). I would not say “I Love the Lord” (L_OVE) because sometimes I get angry and anger was translated as hatred. I thought it would be like lying under oath. :) Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar. For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen. And he has given us this command: Anyone who loves God must love ...
  5. Thankful for a more accurate translation. One less religious burden to carry around, worrying about whether we are doing something wrong. I believe the heart of the Father is that we not be so burdened down by religious mindsets that we lose sight of Him. That said, though, ever mindful that we are Christ's heart and hands to all people groups.
    • I agree. God doesn’t want to burden us.
      Look at the cross. Jesus took our punishment and shame. There were two thieves there with him. One mocked him, but the other didn’t. He believed.
      To be forgiven, this thief needed to get off the cross, get a lamb to sacrifice and head to the temple.
      What did Jesus do?
      “Tonight you will sup with me in paradise.”
      Forget churchianity with its many well-meaning rules. Foster a relationship with our living, loving brother Jesus. He’ll take your impossible and make it possible.
      God bless

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  6. Should we not be looking at what God's name is in this commandment? Looking at the phrase, "the name of the LORD thy God in vain" in Hebrew, don't we come up with "shem Yahweh elohiym shav"? There are many "gods" listed in the Bible, but only one God who's name we are not to take in vain. Isn't Lord and God just titles that the English translations have used to water down the commandment? One related question - What is your pronunciation of the Hebrew Tetragrammaton - Yahweh or Jehovah? Thank You for thoughts and answer. Shalom
    • Thanks for your comments and questions, Chris. Your transliteration is very close; it's et-shem Hashem Elohkha lashav. I don't know that the English translations "water down" the commandment, but you're right that, in its original context, the commandment would have been to not take that particular Hebrew name (i.e., the tetragrammaton) in vain--that is, use it in an oath that you don't fulfill. On your final question, I don't speak or write God's personal name, but if I were to, I'd use the first of the two options you've listed. Jehovah is a German approximation of the name based on a misappropriation of the Masoretic vowel pointing.

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  7. Very interesting! I am ever so grateful to know the 'true' meaning of taking GODs Name in vain! Thank you for the TRUTH!!
  8. Doesn’t scripture say not to mention the names of other gods rather than not mention the name of the one true God? Exodus 23:13 To me, although I grew up with the tradition of just saying God, or Father, it would imply that using the revealed name gives Him glory.
    • Thanks for your comments, Lois. You're right that Scripture also prohibits saying the names of other gods. In the biblical period, it was fine to say the God of Israel's name; the Bible just cautions against using that name in an oath, and then failing to fulfill that oath (i.e., taking God's name it vain).

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  9. An alternative opinion may be : to take God's name in vain may mean to not attribute His name to the things that He has done and conversely to attribute His name to the things that He has not done.
  10. Dennis Prager states, "The Hebrew verb in the commandment, tisa, means 'carry.'... And who carries God's name in vain? Any person who claims to be acting in God's name while doing the opposite of what God wants-evil. ...When any person commits evil, it reflects badly on the person. But when a person commits evil in God's name, it reflects badly on God as well. ...examples include Islamist terrorist who shout, Allahu Akbar when they murder innocent people; or a priest or any other clergy who, utilizing the respect engendered by his clerical status, molests a child. ...y'nakeh- 'cleanse.' "
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