As rendered in the ESV, the third command of the Decalogue reads as follows:
“You shall not take the name of the LORD your God in vain, for the LORD will not hold him guiltless who takes his name in vain” (Exod 20:7).
Most people view this command as prohibiting one from speaking God’s name in a flippant or disrespectful manner. Taken as such, applications of this command in sermons and blog posts usually exhort people not to curse, particularly by saying things such as “God D***,” “OMG,” “JC,” and so on. God’s name is holy, and therefore we shouldn’t speak it in a frivolous way. This is true enough, but is this what this commandment is really talking about?
Is This Talking About Improper Speech?
It is an interesting phenomenon that this command has become so widely understood as pertaining to improper speech when the verb used is not a verb that describes speech. The verb translated above as “take” is nasa in Hebrew and means “take” in the sense of “lift, carry, or bear.” It does not mean “speak,” “say,” “pronounce,” or any other speech-oriented action.
Therefore, given our inclination to hear “speak” when we read “take,” it is perhaps better to think of this command as saying,
“You shall not bear the name of the LORD your God in vain, for the LORD will not hold him guiltless who bears his name in vain.”
This then raises a further question: What does it mean to bear the name of the LORD?
Bearing God’s Name as His Representative
Clarity comes to this question when we look at the only other occurrence in the Pentateuch of someone “bearing” (nasa) someone else’s “name.” We find this in the instructions for the priestly garments in Exodus 28.
“12 And you shall set the two stones on the shoulder pieces of the ephod, as stones of remembrance for the sons of Israel. And Aaron shall bear their names before the Lord on his two shoulders for remembrance.“
“29 So Aaron shall bear the names of the sons of Israel in the breastpiece of judgment on his heart, when he goes into the Holy Place, to bring them to regular remembrance before the Lord.“
The two stones of v. 12 each had six of the names of the twelve tribes written on them (vv. 9-10), and the breastpiece of v. 29 had twelve stones which also had the twelve names on them (v. 21). By wearing these garments and “bearing the names” of the twelve tribes, Aaron served as their representative when he entered the holy place on their behalf.
Therefore, the act of “bearing the name of the LORD” in the third commandment is best understood to refer to “serving as God’s representative.”
This idea of “bearing the name of the LORD” is present several other places in the Bible. For example, after giving Moses the instructions for how Aaron was to bless the people (well known as the “Aaronic blessing/benediction” [Num 6:24-26]), God said, “So shall they put my name upon the people of Israel, and I will bless them” (v. 27).
In short, God’s people “bear His name” in that they represent Him as His people.
Bearing God’s Name Vainly
According to the third command, the way that we are not to bear God’s name is “in vain.” The word translated “vain” here can mean “futile, false, purposeless, or empty.” Understood this way, the force of the command is clear: we are not to “bear God’s name” (i.e. serve as His representatives) in a way that is false or empty. Basically, by our actions people are not to get the wrong idea about our God.
On the one hand, if we advertise ourselves as Christians (ones who bear the name of Christ!), yet act in ways that Jesus would not approve of, others will see us and draw inaccurate conclusions about the God we claim to serve. We are representing God falsely to the watching world.
On the other hand, if we are Christians but don’t represent God at all to others (i.e., we hide our light under a bushel), it could be said that we are bearing God’s name emptily (i.e., we are representing Him to no purpose). However, the semantic range of “vain” in the third command not only prohibits us from representing God falsely but also from not representing Him at all.
Conclusion: Broader Than Cursing
From this short analysis it is evident that the third commandment is not simply prohibiting people from cursing or using God’s name flippantly. It seems reasonable to conclude that refraining from using God’s name in this way is one small application of this command, since it is hardly representing God well to use His name as an expletive.
However, the implications of “not bearing the LORD’s name vainly” extend far beyond improper speech. They pertain both to our overall behavior (i.e., by our words and actions we are not to misrepresent God to others) and to our propensity toward an apathetic, inward-focused faith (i.e., by our words and actions we are to be representing God to others).
For Further Reading/Viewing
** For a stimulating analysis of this command I highly recommend the essay, “Bearing the Name of the LORD with Honor,” by my doctoral supervisor, Daniel Block, found in his book, How I Love Your Torah, O LORD! It will be evident that the discussion above is greatly indebted to his work. One of Block’s other doctoral students, Carmen Imes, is currently working on a dissertation examining this meaning of the command. If you’d rather watch a video lecture than read, I’d recommend this lecture on the third command provided by the Ivy League ministry Christian Union.