Monday, July 25, 2022

Anonymous Asks (207)

“What does it mean to ‘take the name of the Lord in vain’?”

Good question. Does it mean to use the words “God” or “Jesus” casually in conversation? For example, is the oft-heard epithet “Oh my god” a case of taking the Lord’s name in vain?

The phrase comes from the third of the original Ten Commandments given to Israel in Exodus 20 and restated in Deuteronomy: “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.”

The context (a list of important but diverse God-given commands) doesn’t leave us much else to parse for meaning. We are pretty much stuck with the words themselves. All the same, the words give us plenty to think about.

1/ Lifting Up the Name

First, in Hebrew the word translated “take” really means to “raise”, “lift up” or “bear”. In the Old Testament, that verb is rarely used of speech at all, and when it is, there is nothing casual or indifferent about it, as there is today when some random teen on the bus uses “Oh my god” as punctuation in the middle of a tidal wave of otherwise-meaningless drivel. When this verb does occur in connection with speech, the person in question is always making a declaration of some sort, as Hagar did when she lifted up her voice and wept before God, or as an Israelite might “raise” a false report in the camp that might result in legal charges.

Therefore, I take it that to “lift up” the name of the Lord means to associate yourself with him verbally, or to take an oath in his name (compare this with the language of Leviticus 19:12). It may even imply that you are purporting to act as the Lord’s representative. We can see the importance of approaching such an undertaking in reverence and awe. But it should be clear that when your unsaved neighbor uses the word “God” or “Jesus” casually, he is not making any sort of claim to relationship at all. This leads into the second point …

2/ Specific Name, Specific God

Secondly, the prohibition concerns a specific name of a specific God. It is not general in nature. The name is YHWH, the personal name by which God has made himself known to his people. The command is literally “You shall not take the name of Yᵊhōvâ 'ĕlōhîm in vain.” The word “your” is implicit (it does not actually exist in the Hebrew text), but it reflects an important reality, which was that this was a command given to a covenant people as part of an ongoing legal arrangement which was accepted voluntarily, as it was very much to their benefit. YHWH was Israel’s God in a way he was no one else’s.

Short version: the command did not apply to the nations, Israel was not required to enforce it on them, and it was impossible for pagans to violate it in the way an Israelite could.

When you hear someone on the street say, “Oh my god”, it is hardly unreasonable to wonder “Which one?” After all, if your god is Muhammed, Odin, Zeus, Baal, Astarte or even Satan, you are welcome refer to him as you please. You are definitely not my problem. Furthermore, if you are not claiming to know and serve this God whose name you are using, I have nothing to say to you. This is a command for people who have entered into a relationship. In the Old Testament, that would have been with YHWH. Today, it is with the Lord Jesus Christ. It’s the taking of his name unworthily by professing Christians that should most concern us, since he is the means by which God has now revealed himself in the world.

3/ Futile or Inaccurate?

Third, the word “vain” is the same word translated “false” in “You shall not bear false witness.” In fact, if we were to substitute the words “false” or “falsehood” for “vain” and “vanity” wherever this Hebrew word occurs in the rest of the Old Testament, we would probably be closer to the intended meaning than if we think of “vain” as meaning futile or ephemeral, or “vanity” as meaning pointlessness.

So then, the prohibition is not against taking the name of YHWH casually or meaninglessly, though it is both respectful and prudent to avoid doing that. Rather, it is against taking the name of YHWH (and now Christ) dishonestly, disingenuously, or hypocritically. Doing so makes the name of God appear a common thing to the world, when that name is holy. That point is made in Leviticus, which is almost a restatement of the third commandment: “You shall not swear by my name falsely, and so profane the name of your God: I am the Lord.”

Blasphemy and Taking the Lord’s Name in Vain

One final thought. I make the case for a distinction between taking the Lord’s name in vain and blasphemy. I do think there is a difference, though we often hear them used as synonyms. In Judea, the definition of blasphemy had become exceedingly broad by the first century. Some attempts to apply the Mosaic blasphemy laws overreached wildly. We are better to stick with the way the word is originally used in the Pentateuch and throughout the Old Testament, which was a direct attack on the person or character of Israel’s God. Blasphemy was verbal; for example, the Rabshakeh blasphemed when he unfavorably compared the God of Israel to the gods of the nations.

There is probably some overlap between taking the name of the Lord in vain and blaspheming, but it does not appear they were identical. The penalty for blasphemy was death, administered by God’s people. Concerning taking the Lord’s name in vain, all that is said is “The Lord will not hold him guiltless.” In any case, the Lord taught that “Every sin and blasphemy will be forgiven people.” Surely that is especially true of words uttered in ignorance.

Cruel, Corrupt and Exploitive

So can believers really take the name of God in vain by “living corrupt or exploitive or cruel lives”, as Barney Zwartz suggests in this post? I think they can. Having publicly associated themselves with the Lord Jesus or made themselves out to represent him, professing Christians can do great damage to the Lord’s reputation by living in a way that doesn’t accurately reflect his character and will at all. In such a case, they may be genuine, backslidden believers, but they are presenting a false picture of the God they purport to worship. It is not going too far to say they are taking his name in vain by falsely representing him to the world.

But then Zwartz goes on to say, “The blasphemer is … the slave owner, the abuser, the exploiter, the murderer. And the ultimate blasphemer is the terrorist who murders in the name of God.” I think this is probably going too far. Godly men have owned slaves (see Philemon). And there is no indication in scripture that one can blaspheme God without speaking at all.

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