The Third Commandment

I’ve been percolating on the third of the ten commandments [or second, depending on how you count] (Exodus 20:7) for a few weeks now.  Here it is in the King James Version, with which many of us are most familiar…

“Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain…”

And here is the same passage in the New Revised Standard Version, which I think evokes a broader and deeper understanding of the intent of the original text…

“You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the LORD your God…”

What I find interesting about this passage is how we look at it.  Many of us (thanks to how King James presents it) see it as a prohibition against swearing with the name of God.  But really, that’s only a tiny part of it, as the Jews demonstrate with their avoidance of using the name of God at all.  (To the point where, for millennia now, no one has known how to say the Lord’s name in the original ancient Hebrew!)

The NRSV version helps us see some of the reason behind this Jewish interpretation of the third commandment: it’s not just about swearing, but that we are not to make wrongful use of it in any form or context.

Some of the examples that come to mind include…

Claiming the Lord’s favor or support for any reason, but especially in support of some cause or goal that we already hold.

Blaming God for our own faults, even if we are oblivious to the fact (or don’t want to admit) that we have such faults.

Declaring that the Lord rejects or condemns another person (or group) for who or what they are, or what they believe.

Blaming God for the disasters and troubles that befall us.

James, in his Epistle, gets at this same idea (of the danger of taking the Lord’s name in vain) when he writes…

“Let no man say when he is tempted, I am tempted of God: for God cannot be tempted with evil, neither tempteth he any man…” (James 1:13 KJV)

Now, all of this seems really legalistic to me.  The god I love and worship is a god of grace and love, not a god of judgment and condemnation.  So, how do we reconcile the idea of this absolute statement (“Thou shalt not…“) and the Loving God that I know?  Further, if God really was determined to enforce this commandment, then (as has happened with almost every war in History) when both sides in a conflict claim that “God is on our side” – how come only one side loses?

For one thing, I am certain that the rantings of any sentient being in this remote corner of God’s Creation are unlikely to wound God’s pride, The Almighty is a bit bigger than that.  So, as with so many of the commandments and “laws” in the Bible, I believe this prohibition is more out of concern for the impact of such behavior on us.  It is being said out of God’s love for us, not a warning of the dire consequences of offending the Creator of All.

And you can see why this is true.  In claiming God’s favor over some thing, or some cause (that we already claim as our own), we are putting our own will, our own desires, ahead of God’s will for our life.  We saying that there is no reason to discern whether this is really God’s will or not, nor any justification for revisiting the issue, because God has already made the decision in our favor.  And, how can anyone question or challenge a decision made by God?  So, our claims to God’s favor classifies what we’ve said as  sacred and therefore above reproach.

Such claims distance us from God.  We are shutting ourselves off from that “still small voice” that constantly seeks to bring us into a deeper, more meaningful, more beneficial relationship with God.  We are diminishing God in the eyes of others, the Almighty’s love for us is being portrayed (by us) as a trivial thing that can be claimed at any time, and therefore has little value.  We turn the God we love, and who loves us, into a caricature.

In making such claims, we are not only seeking to put our own position above reproach, but we are demonizing those who oppose us, in effect claiming that they are servants of evil for opposing us.  We are claiming that we represent God and that they must therefore bow down to us.  We are claiming that nothing they say or do matters to God, at least until they bow down to our overinflated egos.  We set ourselves up as God.  Not even Jesus made such claims, why do we dare to do so?

Finally, we should talk about blaming God, as I did list it as the last of the ways we “take the Lord’s name in vain.”  Like all of the others, by blaming God, we are once again putting the issue beyond the reach of human agency: it is God’s fault, not ours.  Yes, certainly there are “acts of God” for which no one is at fault, such as that meteor that recently exploded over Russia, damaging thousands of buildings and injuring over a thousand people.  However, I would argue that in such cases, we must remember that God gave us freedom of choice, the freedom to choose to love God, or not.  The freedom to choose how to live, where to live, and even why to live.  If we are truly free, then there must be consequences to our choices.  Those consequences may not make any sense to us, such as that meteor, but they will happen.  God takes a huge risk in giving us the freedom to chose relationship with the Holy Spirit – or not, a risk that we shall be lost, despite God’s love and concern for us.  Likewise, all of life is imbued with risk, every choice, every minute carries risk of some sort.  Freedom requires it, and freedom requires that we constantly make choices and then deal with the consequences.

However, we all blame God from time to time.  We all experience disasters where we can see no reason for what has happened.  And, ultimately, since God is the Creator of All, then God must have some sort of blame for what has happened (or is happening) to us.  When Job (in the Hebrew Scriptures) challenges God to explain why Job is experiencing all the losses afflicting him, God never denies responsibility for Job’s pain.  Instead, he asks Job to look at the bigger picture, how all of Creation relies on God’s grace.  God cannot set aside what is good for so much else just to satisfy our own sense of what is right for us.  And yes, God loves Job deeply, and us too; otherwise, God would not have come down and responded to Job’s call at all.  God would not have come to us as a man in the form of Jesus Christ either, for that matter: In Christ, God demonstrates an intimate first person knowledge of the cost and consequences of living in a world where risk and loss are an inescapable part of the equation.  God has shown, through Jesus of Nazareth, that he does not take our pain lightly, and acknowledged and embraced the depth of that pain, walking through the same dark valleys we all face.  Being human, being aware of our own flaws and mortality, is no picnic, and God shares the pain and grief and sorrow and guilt and joy and love and pleasure that we all experience.  God values us, values our journey through life, values all that we are, and values all that we have yet to become; I know of no deeper love than this.

So, in conclusion, we have seen that “taking the Lord’s name in vain” does not hurt or diminish God; but hurts and diminishes us, and others.  This is why we should not take the name of the Lord in vain, because in doing so, we become vain ourselves.

Copyright (c) 2013, Allen Vander Meulen III, all rights reserved.  I’m happy to share my writings with you, as long as you are not seeking (or getting) financial benefit for doing so, and as long as proper credit for my authorship is given (via a credit that gives my full name and provides a link back to this site). 

Author: Allen

A would-be historian turned IT Professional who responded to the call to the Ministry, and is now focused on social justice and community service. He is the proud father of a daughter and son, and enjoys life with his wife near Boston. You can follow Pastor Allen on Facebook at

3 thoughts on “The Third Commandment”

  1. Dear Son,

    I have long lived with the idea that taking God’s name in vain related to using his name frivolously or in a non respectful manner. It really does bother me to hear people doing this, but I suppose that in today’s secular world, it is to be expected. When I have spoken to someone about my feelings, I tell them that whether or not they believe in God is moot. The fact is the lessons we have learned from the Bible, church, etc. points to something tremendously powerful and awesome. The story of Christianity, Judaism, and others, have shown us how to live, to love, to serve each other, to treasure the gift of life and the gift of death. The fact that people for millennia have struggled to live this way, to perpetuate this message and to die for their beliefs, should inspire all of us to honor the message whether we believe in Jesus, God, Yahweh, Allah, or not. The awesomeness of the message is reason enough to honor God and be respectful. Cursing and using his name so disrespectfully dishonors us and this marvelous vision. If we were true to the vision, to the message, think of how different the world would be.

    I have read this posting with great interest and it has opened my eyes for a larger picture, which in no way negates what I have just said. But, it does expand the idea and I appreciate what you have written. Most of what you say, I have also thought about from time to time, but in a more general way, not tying these things together. Thank you, dear.



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