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since June 19, 2001

The Ten Commandments

  1. Have no other gods.

  2. Don't worship images.

  3. Don't mention Gods name in vain.

  4. Remember the Sabbath day.

  5. Honour your father and mother.

  6. Don't kill.

  7. Don't commit adultery.

  8. Don't steal.

  9. Don't lie.

10. Don't desire anything or anyone that belongs to someone else.

The Third Commandment

7 "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." Exodus 20:7


Of all the commandments, the third is probably the most difficult to understand today, because to "take someone's name in vain" is not a familiar idea in everyday use. There are in fact two unfamiliar ideas.

Firstly the use of someone else's "name". This is to use or rely upon someone else's authority. We shall expand on this later, but it is worth noting in passing that insurance policies sometimes include a clause which enables the insurer to undertake litigation "in the name" of the person insured. What this means is that the insurer can take a case to court as if they were the insured.

The second unfamiliar idea is taking that name "in vain". The Hebrew word for "in vain" may equally well be translated "in falsehood".  Hence the text of Exodus 20:7 becomes: "You shall not take the name of the LORD your God in falsehood; for the LORD will not hold him guiltless who takes His name in falsehood". This is clearer in meaning than the words "in vain", and begins to reveal a wide application. [From TAKING GOD'S NAME IN VAIN, by R H Johnston]

R. H. Johnson is quite clear on the consequences of the misinterpretation of this command, specifically the misinterpretation of the term "in vain."  A good example of such a misinterpretation is given in the next quote.

"One of the most heart-rending sights ever witnessed was that of a mother in fervent prayer to save her dying child.  Her prayer went unanswered; her child died; her appeal to God was in vain.

A girl who loved not wisely but too well found herself abandoned by the boy she had trusted.  She appealed to God to save her from what she felt was inevitable disgrace.  Never did a human being plead more strongly for divine assistance in her hour of trial, but the only answer was the "echo of her wailing cry."  She took the name of God in vain, for she found solace not in prayer but in a poison potion.

When crops fail and famine stalks the land, in vain do the starving people appeal to Heaven for a morsel of food to stay the agonizing torture of death by starvation.

The maimed and the crippled, the heavily burdened, the despondent and the depressed have all taken the name of God in vain when they appealed for assistance to help them meet the emergencies of life.

What is more pitiful than the drowning man as he sinks below the water, his prayer to God for help in vain?

[Taking God's Name in Vain, by Joseph Lewis, from his book "The Ten Commandments", Chapter: "The Third Commandment", Index: Historical Writings (Lewis: Atheism and Religion), Home to Positive Atheism]

Considering that source, you would hardly expect any different.  However, returning to the first source, R H Johnston continues in his treatise,

"The Old Covenant: swearing must be true"

The use of God's name in swearing by God's name, implicit in Exodus 20:7, is made explicit in Leviticus 19:12: "And you shall not swear by my name falsely and so profane the name of your God: I am the LORD" - the Living One who sees what is happening and judges. People forget that God sees all, and think it does not really matter if they tell lies. But God will not hold such people guiltless: He will exercise vengeance (Hebrews 10:30). False swearers will come under judgment, and swiftly (Malachi 3:5).


and he adds a little farther down,

"The New Covenant: do not swear at all

The Old Testament permitted His people to use His name in oaths, but God was very jealous about the way His name was used. The situation changes in the New Testament, and the use of God's name in this way is no longer permitted, because we inevitably abuse the privilege. Matthew 5:33-37 states:

     33 "Again you have heard that it was said to the men of old, `You shall not swear falsely, but shall perform to the Lord what you have sworn.' 34 But I say to you, Do not swear at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, 35 or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. 36 And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. 37 Let what you say be simply `Yes' or `No'; anything more than this comes from evil. (Revised Standard Version)

…" [From TAKING GOD'S NAME IN VAIN, by R H Johnston]

These are two opinions at the two extreme ends of the scale, with most Christians leaning at least most of the way toward the opinion by R H Johnson.  Misinterpretations and uncertainties are sure to follow from translations of writings by nomadic people living then in the area of what today is Israel, people who were at the time in the process of settling down to become urban and settlers.  As one missionary who worked in Canada's arctic told me, it isn't too surprising that such misinterpretations are common.  There is little other than their humanity that Northern Canada's Natives have in common with the Israelites who wrote the Bible.  Canada's Northern Natives had no idea (and many still don't) of what a shepherd, a sheep or a lion is.  They don't do any herding and the term lion was in some translations of the scriptures translated into "the most terrible of all beasts.  However, Matthew's explanation makes the meaning of the Third Commandment completely clear to anyone, anywhere in today's world, whether they want to live by the New Covenant or not.

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1999 06 10
2001 01 29 (format changes)