Taking the Lord’s name in vain.

by K.W. Leslie, 04 December 2015

Deuteronomy 5.11.

Deuteronomy 5.11 KJV
Thou shalt not take the name of the LORD thy God in vain; for the LORD will not hold him guiltless that taketh his name in vain.

Christians often teach, and pagans often assume, “taking the Lord’s name in vain” refers to swearing with God’s name. Might be when we blurt out “God!” in surprise, or “Christ!” in pain, or “Oh Lord!” in exasperation, or “God damn it!” in anger.

Scandalized yet? Most Christians are. “Don’t take the Lord’s name in vain!” There’s a whole commandment against it. It’s one of the top ten. “Thou shalt not take the name of the LORD thy God in vain” forbids us from using “God” as any part, or as the whole, of a swear word.

Well, that’s partly correct. The command is about God’s name and swearing. But it’s not about swearing “God!” It’s not about profanities.

  • It’s about swearing to God, yet we’re totally lying.
  • It’s about promising, “as God is my witness,” but we’re not gonna.
  • It’s about declaring things in Christ’s name, yet we don’t really believe we’re gonna get what we’ve declared.
  • It’s about name-dropping God as our guide, aid, judge, support, and copilot… but we’re hypocrites.

Vain means useless, and taking the Lord’s name in vain means we’re using his name in a useless cause. And yeah, swearing with his name is pretty useless too, but that wasn’t what God was trying to crack down on with his command. He was ordering the Hebrews to stop using his name casually. Y’see, when we invoke God, he takes those statements seriously. He is not a God to be trifled with.

For the LORD won’t hold us guiltless—in today’s English, “won’t let you go unpunished” (NLT) —if we swear by his name, and don’t follow through.

Solemn and casual oaths.

Our Lord instructed us we shouldn’t have to swear to anything.

Matthew 5.33-37 KWL
33 “Again, you’ve all heard it said in the past,
‘Don’t perjure yourself: Follow through with your oaths to the Lord.’
34 I tell you: No swearing, period.
Not by heaven, for it’s God’s throne.
35 Nor by earth, for it’s his feet’s footstool.
Nor by Jerusalem, for it’s the great King’s city.
36 Nor should you swear by your head, for you can’t make one hair white or black.
37 Keep your word: ‘Yes yes, no no.’
Going beyond this is only for evil reasons.”

We Christians shouldn’t lie, period. We should be so well known for truthfulness, nobody has to make us swear to tell the truth—swear on a stack of bibles, swear by the lives of our children, swear on our mother’s grave, or swear to God.

But. When we do swear to God, we’re obligated to do whatever we promised. Period. No exceptions.

If it’s to tell the truth, we tell the truth. If it’s to be faithful to one’s spouse, of course we do that. Whether it’s to defend the Constitution, carry out an office, hold allegiance to the flag, or other government-related things… or whether it’s something mundane, like promising the kids we will go to Disney World this year. Whenever God gets invoked, we gotta do it.

Numbers 30.2 KWL
“A man who vows a vow to the LORD,
who swears an oath to bind his life with a bond,
must not violate his word.
He must do everything which came from his mouth.”

’Cause when we swore to God, we didn’t just promise the other person. We promised God we’ll do as we said. For this reason, sometimes God himself ordered oaths. Ex 22.11, Nu 5.19, 21

Then as now, people swore to God they’d do various things. “By God, I’ll tear you a new one!”—with the God-reference indicating how very serious they were. But this becomes a bit of a problem when we’re not serious. Does anyone literally tear people a new one? (I think you know what “one” refers to. If you don’t, guess.) Only the most depraved individual would literally try it. But nobody ever really does; it’s just something people say when upset. As are many of the other profane things people offer to do to one another, in the heat of fury.

Problem is, they said “by God,” meaning they made an oath to God. And like the command says: God won’t “hold [them] guiltless.” Believe it or not, they’ve obligated themselves to do exactly as they promised. They either have to go tear that person a new one, or they’re guilty of breaking their oath to God.

Incidentally I’d recommend you tear no one a new one. Break the oath, as the lesser of two evils. Beg God’s forgiveness.

But not everybody does that. A number of us consider our words to be our bond, and our oaths to be sacred. And if our oaths are sacred (and our pride is kinda involved), we do whatever sick and twisted thing we promised. No matter the consequences.

Ever hear of Jefta? The KJV spells his name “Jephthah,” so maybe that’s how you know him. Jefta swore to God that if the LORD let him conquer Ammon, he’d burn the first thing that came out of his house when he returned. Jg 11.30-31 Didn’t matter what. And here’s how that turned out.

Judges 11.34-39 KWL
34 Jefta came to Mitzpa, to home.
Look: His daughter went out to meet him with a timbrel and a dance.
Only she; he had no other sons nor daughters.
35 On seeing her, he tore his garment in mourning.
He said, “Ah, my daughter, you brought me down, brought me down.
You are trouble to me.
I opened my mouth to the LORD; I can’t take it back.”
36 She told him, “Dad, you opened your mouth to the LORD.
Do to me what went out of your mouth,
after which the LORD will avenge you upon your enemies, Ammon’s sons.”
37 She told her father, “Do for me this thing: Stay away from me for two months.
I will go up and down the hills; I will weep for my virginity, I and my friends.”
38 He said go, and sent her away two months.
She went, she and her friends, and wept for her virginity on the hills.
39 When it was the end of two months, she returned to her father.
He did to her what he vowed. She knew no man. This was the custom in Israel.

Lots of people, horrified by the idea of human sacrifice, choose to reinterpret this story so Jefta didn’t really kill his daughter. She… um… went into a nunnery, or temple for vestal virgins; something which kept her alive, but forbade her from marrying. Problem is, there was no such thing in ancient Hebrew culture. Nor ancient Canaanite pagan culture: When virgins were sent to those temples, they became temple prostitutes. Nope, Jefta sacrificed his daughter, just like Abraham was gonna sacrifice Isaac. Ge 22.9-10 Like a goat.

So, like I said, pick the lesser of two evils. Don’t do something vile. Break your vow, and accept God’s consequences for speaking hastily. But a lot of people, because of their pride, won’t do that. People will do horrific things for pride.

People still make hasty oaths. The point behind not taking God’s name in vain is such oaths ought never happen. Never swear to do anything in God’s name unless you truly intend to do it. Doesn’t matter how angry you are; doesn’t matter how seriously you want to rip your opponent to shreds. Swear nothing. Make no oaths. Because there must be consequences. Either you do as you swore, or you answer to God.


To damn means to condemn something to hell. And considering how we use that word, it makes us look ridiculous. Most of the time we damn inanimate objects. “The damned car won’t start,” or “my damn computer is frozen.” True, whenever I’m frustrated with my damn computer, I kinda want to to go to hell and burn for all eternity. But that feeling passes. And yeah, I know hell doesn’t work that way.

Getting God involved in this casual swearing, by saying “God damn that car,” or “God damn that computer,” is once again taking a casual oath and making it way more serious than it ever needed to be. No, we don’t literally want God to snatch away our cars and computers and toss them into hell. And since we don’t mean it, it’s literally stupid to say such things.

But unlike oaths where we’ve sworn to do something and evoked God, this isn’t really one where we obligated ourselves. We obligate God. Like “May God strike me down,” or “May God have mercy on your soul,” or “God bless you” when people sneeze, or all those other casual unthinking references to God. We’re mindlessly using sacred language. It’s a form of dead religion. Which isn’t a good habit to practice when we’re trying to develop living religion.

And no, it’s not any better when we say “God bless it” instead of “God damn it.” Same problem: It’s brain-dead religious language, instead of words which indicate a conscious, intentional relationship with God.

Casual exclamations.

When we get rebuked by scandalized fellow Christians for “using God’s name in vain,” it’s usually for the casual “God!” which we exclaim when we’re surprised, annoyed, angry, amused… or having sex. For some people it’s automatic. We say it without realizing it. It’s so widespread, many Christians do it too, also without thinking.

I was raised not to. Instead I was taught euphemisms. “Golly” or “gosh” or “gee” or “gaw” or anything that starts with a hard G. We figure we didn’t actually say “God”—even though that’s totally what we meant—but we’re off the hook, right? Letter of the Law and all that.

Alrighty, if we really wanna look at the letter of the Law, “God” isn’t God’s name anyway. That’s his species. Same with “LORD” and “Christ”: Those are titles. Up to now, God’s name hasn’t appeared at all in this post.

God’s actual name is Jehovah—in Hebrew, Yahwéh. Or, once he became human, Jesus of Nazareth—in Aramaic, Yeshúa ha-Natzáret. Our bibles use “LORD” and “God” throughout because the ancient Hebrews and Christians avoided using God’s actual name: Instead of Jehovah, they said “my Lord” (Hebrew adonái), and used the all-capitals LORD in their bible translations. Christians did the same with Jesus: Notice how often the Apostles called him “our Lord” or “Christ” instead of his given name. Partly they did this from respect; partly to avoid using “Jesus” in vain.

And y’know, it worked. How often do we hear someone shout “Jehovah!” or “Yahweh!” when they bang their shins? True, people will swear “Jesus!”—we Christians haven’t protected Jesus’s name so well as the Jews protected Jehovah’s. As a result, “Jesus” has become a common exclamation.

In the past, people used God’s name for shock value. Same as most profanities. Using the sacred in the wrong context gets people’s attention. People use Jesus’s name to swear, not because they have anything against Jesus, but because it gets attention. The more people object to mixing sacred and profane, the more offensive it gets. But as I explained previously, “using the LORD’s name in vain” has to do with oaths, not swear words. It’s about calling upon God, not just saying “God.” Only legalists make a fuss about that—and as you’ve noticed by now, they’re interpreting the bible wrong.

So are we sinning when we say “God” casually? No. But like the casual use of “God damn it,” this is mindlessly using sacred language, and not a good habit for Christians who are trying to follow God. Break it.

And don’t replace it with a euphemism like “gosh,” or something else just as dumb. Start actually thinking about the words we use. Our knee-jerk reactions and automatic responses are signs we aren’t thinking. They need to be replaced with thoughtful, trained responses—ones which honor God, instead of refer to him for no reason.