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Commandment #3: Taking the LORD’s Name in Vain

Exodus 20:7

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.

This commandment may be the most misunderstood commandment of the ten. We usually think of it as a prohibition against cussing or using God’s name in oaths or simply using it flippantly. That’s likely not what it means. The verb “take” (nasa) is most often translated “to lift up” or “carry”, which has little to do with speaking.

The misunderstanding is usually based in the different concepts of “name” in the ancient Hebrew world as opposed to today. In ancient Hebrew culture one’s name represented more than just their identification. It represented their character or their reputation. A name is a reflection of one’s self. So when the people of Israel took God’s name they were now representatives of God’s character and identity. They now represent God. Their actions reflect on him. Their character should now align with his. Holiness, justice, unfailing love, and mercy need to characterize the people of Israel just as they make up the character of God. As covenant partners with God and taking his name the people of Israel are now called to do nothing that will portray God as less than perfectly holy. Now that they have taken his name upon themselves they ought not bring shame onto him.

A good example is praying in the name of Jesus. When we pray in his name we are not saying the name of Jesus as if it is a magic formula that now demands God’s attention. When we pray in Jesus’ name we are recognizing that we only have access to the Father through him. We are recognizing that what we pray for needs to be in alignment with the character of Jesus, who he is and what he taught us. Praying in his name and asking for something that doesn’t reflect his character would be nonsensical.

Ezekiel 36:19-23 represent this idea as well. in that text God says

It is not for your sake, people of Israel, that I am going to do these things, but for the sake of my holy name, which you have profaned among the nations where you have gone. 23 I will show the holiness of my great name, which has been profaned among the nations, the name you have profaned among them. Then the nations will know that I am the LORD, declares the Sovereign LORD, when I am proved holy through you before their eyes.

The Israelites as bearers of God’s name had not represented him well among the nations and profaned his name in the process. So God must act to vindicate his holy name.

So to take his name in vain is to take his name and not live up to his character. It is to misrepresent him. Through the Law God tells the people of Israel how to live and worship in ways that represent him well and model his character to the world. If they fail to live in that way they will be taking his name in vain and therefore incur his judgment.

Additional Content

(ff to 3:55 for the portion of the Bible Project conversation on this topic) 

Check out the full Bible project podcast on this topic.


Today, reflect on the fact that you bear God’s name. what you do reflects not only on yourself but on God. It’s our responsibility to represent him well to the world around us. When we don’t live God’s way, it’s not just our good name we drag through the mud; It’s his as well. This should add a whole level of accountability. pray this prayer today: Lord, may I do nothing today that brings dishonor to your name.