When we use the name of God we are speaking of the Creator and the Prime Mover of the universe. God is holy and perfect. God is high and above everything else. Human beings, by way of contrast, are imperfect and sinful and mere creatures. God deserves reverence and awe and respect. The Psalmist says “holy and reverend is his name.”
The Third of the Ten Commandments says, “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” (Exodus 20:7). We are to reverence God’s name and never to use it in the wrong way. However there is much more included in the Third Commandment than a mere prohibition against profanity.
God has chosen to make himself known to man through the use of a number of names. More than 300 names for God appear in the original languages of the Scriptures. All that God is and all that God does can be comprehended in His many names. He is “The Almighty God,” the “Everlasting God,” the “Lord Jehovah,” the “Most High God,” “Jehovah-shalom,” “Jehovah-nissi,” “Jehovahjireh,” the “Lord God of hosts”—and on and on one could go. Every one of the names for God used in the Bible describes some attribute of His being and demands our reverence toward Him.
God’s name is mentioned often in the Scriptures: In Malachi 3:16, the Bible says, “A book of remembrance was written . . . for them that feared the Lord, and that thought upon his name.” In the Lord’s Prayer, we pray, “Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name” (Matthew 6:9). In Matthew 18:20, we are informed: “For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.” In Matthew 28:19 we are instructed, “Baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost.” The Scriptures do not speak lightly of God’s name. His name is holy and the Third Commandment guards the honor of that Name.
It is possible to abuse the name of God in several different ways. We want to note in this message that the Third Commandment forbids profanity and irreverence and hypocrisy.
1. The Third Commandment is Against Profanity
It is always wrong to swear and curse and use God’s name in a blasphemous way. Ours is a cursing age. A man has a flat tire and he curses the tire. He stumbles over a chair in the dark and he curses the chair. He has an audience of a few people that he wants to entertain, and so he thinks he must swear.
Not only are the names of God used in a profane way, but other biblical terms are also used blasphemously. The word “hell,” for example, has become one of societies’ most common words. Men say, “It’s as cold as hell” or “It’s raining like hell” or some other similar sentence. Another expression that is used with terrible frequency is the habit of asking God to “damn” someone or some thing. That phrase is really a wicked prayer. The one who uses it is really asking God to condemn someone in order to satisfy his own passion for revenge. And this kind of profanity really misrepresents God. God never damned a person. If one passes into outer darkness, it is his own fault—and yet, some express the hope that God will damn another.
Then there are those who avoid the actual use of exact Bible names, but they employ dangerous substitutes. They use substitutes (such as “gosh” and “golly”) to express the profane impulses of the heart.
- “gosh” and “gee” are euphemisms for God and Jesus
- “heck” and “darn” are substitutes for hell and damn
- “for heavens sake” and “my heavens” and “my stars” are forms of swearing by the heavens
Language experts say that over the years “God” became “by gad” and “by golly” and “by gum.” “Jesus” became “gee whiz” and “jeeze” and “gee whillikins.” “Christ” became “cripes” and “jimminy Christmas” and “jeepers creepers.” “Lord” gave way to “lawdy” and “laws sakes.” Kicking these expressions around in one’s everyday conversation can hardly be pleasing to God.
One who takes the Lord’s name in vain flashes a sign before the world which says “I’m at enmity with God.” One of the most simple ways to advertise what is going on deep down in your soul, is to be careless with your speech. And of course, profanity never changes a situation. It never makes things better. It doesn’t do any good; it never gains anything for the individual; it only cheapens one’s character. A person who persistently uses the words “hell” and “damned” and “devil”—is describing his own destination and his own condition and his own master:
- his destination—hell
- his miserable condition—damned
- his master—the devil
And I am being told that on many television programs these words are becoming quite common. The poet William Cowper says:
“Maintain your rank—vulgarity despise;
To swear, is neither brave, polite, nor wise.
You would not swear, upon the bed of death;
Think; the Master now could stop your breath.”
Remember that when we speak, our choice of words is not a trifling thing. Jesus said, “For by thy words thou shalt be justified, and by thy words thou shalt be condemned” (Matthew 12:37). If you occasionally swear, or if you are in the habit of swearing, or if you use substitutes for biblical terms in a light way—because you think these things add sparkle to your conversation, or because you are given to anger and a quick temper—you had better pour out your soul in confession to God. The matter of profanity (whether it is the blood-curdling type or if it is in more polished forms) is serious business. There was a fellow in the Old Testament who got into an argument with a man of Israel. The Bible says that he “blasphemed the name of the Lord and cursed” (Leviticus 24:11). Shortly thereafter he was stoned to death, and the Scripture concludes the account saying, “He that blasphemeth the name of the Lord shall surely be put to death” (Leviticus 24:16).
Some say they don’t mean anything by their swearing, or by using the substitutes—but Jesus condemns even idle words. Those words “which you don’t mean” are the very words which Jesus condemns. If you don’t mean them, then don’t say them!
If you persist in swearing and in speaking lightly with words that describe the attributes of God—the Lord is going to bring severe punishment some day. In a midwest state, a man talking with his neighbor about the dry weather, began an outburst of vile blasphemy. While he was continuing on with his ugly language, his jaws became palsied, his tongue was unable to speak, and he fell to the earth a corpse. Sore punishment shall be the portion of those who take God’s name in vain. It may not always come immediately, but it will come. The Lord will not hold him guiltless, the Third Commandment says.
Swearing is the sign of an empty head. It is the effort of a feeble mind to express itself forcibly. When a wicked man can’t think of anything else to say, he often swears. One little clipping is ironically entitled “Ten Reasons Why I Swear.” Among the reasons are these: “It is a mark of manliness; it proves I have self-control; it makes my conversation pleasing to everybody; it is an unmistakable sign of refinement and culture; etc.” But the fact is that the use of profanity is not humorous. One who swears, mocks God and makes light of holy things, and thus swearing is at the very core of wickedness! Swearing is a crude, discourteous, and vulgar habit. It is a characteristic of the drunkard and the criminal. It should absolutely be shunned by God’s people.
2. The Third Commandment is Against Irreverence
To use God’s name (or other Biblical terms) lightly, flippantly, or thoughtlessly, is irreverent and it is a violation of the Third Commandment. It is irreverent to swear a civil oath, for example. It is irreverent to stand before a court of justice and say, “I do solemnly swear to tell the truth and nothing but the truth, so help me God.” The Christian’s word should be his bond. Our “yes” means yes; our “no” means no. There is no need to appeal to God for a guarantee that we are going to tell the truth. When one is called upon to witness before a court of justice, it is proper to simply affirm that what he is about to say is true—rather than swearing by appealing to God. When you “affirm,” you are simply stating that you will tell the truth as far as you understand it. Your word is your bond.
Even in ordinary conversation, there is no need to verify what we say by using words like “I’ll swear to it,” or “Honest—it’s true.” Jesus says, “Let your yes be a plain yes and your no a plain no.” Anything more than this really has a taint of evil (see Matthew 5:37).
It is irreverent too to make empty promises. Think of the marriage vows (taken in the presence of God and before human witnesses), and then many times the vows are lightly tossed aside. Think of those who have taken a public office (sworn into their office by an oath under God’s name), and then have violated that trust and confidence. Think of the loyalty we pledged as a member of the church, to be faithful and submissive to its doctrines and practices, only later sometimes to disregard those vows. The Lord will not hold him guiltless who makes empty vows. We must never pledge ourselves to take some course of action, and then not do it.
It is irreverent also to pray in such a way that God’s name is used in vain repetition. The Pharisees could pray like nobody’s business. They prayed right out among the public in full view of everybody, and people could hear every profound word they spoke in prayer. The devout Jew had set special times for prayer. He prayed standing, hands stretched out, head bowed (at nine in the morning, twelve noon, and three in the afternoon)—usually on some busy street corner where everybody could see him. The fault was that he prayed to men and not to God. And he often used vain repetition in prayer. Some today (when leading public prayers) use phrases like “Dear Lord” or “Blessed Lord” or “Sweet Jesus” over and over again, in almost every sentence of prayer. Such phrases, used repeatedly, can become an irreverent use of God’s name, and thus violate the Third Commandment.
Thus when we are instructed not to take God’s name in vain—the instruction includes the whole area of irreverence—the use of the civil oath, the making of empty promises, and the practice of prayer which carelessly repeats the names of God.
3. The Third Commandment is Against Hypocrisy
Religious people who talk about biblical terms and speak freely about the Lord Jesus, but at the same time do not obey His word, are guilty of violating the Third Commandment. The hypocrisy of religious profession without an inward transformation is really a form of taking God’s name in vain. Jesus spoke disparagingly of those who “honor me with their lips but their hearts are far from me.” Hypocrisy refers to the attitude which confesses Christ with the lips but denies Him with the life. This kind of blasphemy may be a worse kind of blasphemy than the profanity spoken with the lips.
To engage in worship in a formal way and then in life not to endorse what we say, is to take the name of the Lord in vain. We must guard against making promises to God in the singing of hymns, without thinking of what we are pledging in those words. We must not sing “Sweet Hour of Prayer”—and then be content with less than five minutes of prayer a day. We must not sing “Blest Be The Tie That Binds”—and then let the least little offense sever that bond. We must not sing “Cast Thy Burden On The Lord”—and then worry ourselves into nervous breakdowns. The poet says:
“God is a spirit, just and wise;
He sees our inmost mind;
In vain, to heaven we raise our cries,
And leave our hearts behind.”
That is a dangerous thing. There is a sense in which the profanity of the church is worse than the profanity of the street. One who honors God with the lips, and professes to be a follower of Jesus Christ, and then denies Him in daily life—will do far more to hinder the work of the Lord, than the man on the street who uses profanity day after day, but makes no profession of faith in Christ.
We need to hallow the name of God in our lives—by avoiding the use of profanity; by guarding against using God’s name irreverently; and by serving God sincerely, in meekness and in fear, seeking constantly to live in obedience to His commandments.
A man who loves the Lord, some time ago, became fed up with all the filthy language he had to listen to while on his job at a Utica, New York factory—and so he fixed a patch of cloth material (ten inches wide and a foot long), and fastened it to the back of his jacket. On it he had printed clearly the words of Exodus 20:7, “The Lord will not hold him guiltless that taketh his name in vain.” He received plenty of static from the Company. In fact, they fired the man. They said the sign distracted workers. Of course, the pictures of naked pin-up girls hanging all around the building didn’t distract, but his sign did! And you know, probably those Company officials were right. That sign probably did distract the workers. But a better word than “distraction” would probably be “conviction.” I don’t think it is so much that they were distracted as it was that they were convicted! Violating the Third Commandment is breaking God’s law—and man has an inborn sense of right and wrong—a conscience which torments his peace when the words of Scripture stare him in the face. God’s Word disturbs the peace of a sinner. God’s Word is powerful (Hebrews 4:12).
How can one who is given to the sin of profanity overcome the sinful habit of swearing? Mothers sometimes warn their children that if they don’t stop using bad words, they will have their mouths washed with soap. But washing the mouth with soap is not going to get rid of the cause of swearing. Therefore such a remedy will not cure the use of bad language. The root of the trouble lies deep in the heart. It takes confession and repentance and the regenerating power of Christ to get the victory over profanity. We first need the new birth by receiving Jesus Christ into our hearts. And then we need to cultivate a sense of God’s presence. If we remember that we are always in God’s presence, we will be more careful about our use of His name.
Think often of God. Think of who He is—the omnipotent, omniscient Creator of the universe. Think of what He has done—His watchcare and His providence over our lives day by day. Think of how Christ suffered—the shame and buffeting and pain—all for us. As you think upon His being, there will grow in your heart, a respect and awe for His name.