Somehow, somewhere along the way, I fear we’ve gotten into our heads that the Third Commandment is a third-rate commandment. And I’m not talking culture at large. I’m talking about Christians. I’m talking about me. Murder and adultery and lying—sure, they’re bad and we frown on them. But read some Christian blogs, listen to Christian conversations, read Christian social media posts. Do we live out “hallowed be your name” in how we talk? Are our words half as holy as the cows, cats, certain species of fish, and northern Ohio cities to which we ascribe sacredness? Now, I’m sure some of you are rolling your eyes and asking what’s next, prohibitions against playing cards and going to the movies? Maybe I’ll growl for you to get off my lawn? And I get it, nobody wants a visit from the language police. My intention is not to go around with a little notecard marking up demerits when I hear you utter a “darn” or “dang.” Rather, I want to remind us all of the holiness of God’s name. We dare not profane it. And I use the plural “we” intentionally, because I am talking to myself as much as anyone.
As we look at the Third Commandment, I want to focus primarily on two words, “take” and “vain,” as we seek to understand what exactly this commandment is outlawing. What constitutes taking God’s name in vain?
A check of multiple versions repeatedly shows the original Hebrew translated simply as “take,” or else as the NIV puts it, “You shall not misuse the name of the Lord your God” (emphasis added). It’s pretty straightforward. So how do we take God’s name that we could take it vainly—how do we use it that we could misuse it? Scripture gives us the answer with several examples. First, look at Joshua, who instructed Achan (who had broken God’s commands by taking the devoted things from Jericho) by saying, “My son, give glory to the Lord, the God of Israel, and honor him. Tell me what you have done; do not hide it from me.” Similarly, the Pharisees, when questioning the blind man whom Jesus had healed, put him under oath by saying, “Give glory to God by telling the truth.” And when questioning Jesus at His “trial,” the high priest said, “I charge you under oath by the living God: Tell us if you are the Messiah, the Son of God.” We do something not all that different in our modern courts of law, where a witness places their hand on a Bible and swears “to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help me God.” The author of Hebrews sheds a little more light on this practice: People swear by someone greater than themselves, and the oath confirms what is said and puts an end to all argument. Sort of like swearing on your mother’s grave or crossing your heart and hoping to die. All of these have in common the idea that you would never dare tread upon that by which you take the oath. Your life, your mother’s grave, the Bible on which you place your hand, and God’s name and glory are all sacred. This then, I believe, is what is meant by the phrase “take the name of the Lord your God.”
Put a pin in that thought for a moment and consider the meaning of our second word, “vain.” It is the same Hebrew word used in other passages warning against taking God’s name in vain, as well as in admonitions against bearing a false report or false witness and in regard to seeing false visions. It is also the same word we find in Psalm 127:1: Unless the Lord builds the house, the builders labor in vain. We don’t need to overthink this one—“in vain” means just what it sounds like it means. The point of the Third Commandment, then, is that we should not invoke the name of God—we should not swear—lightly.
But let’s flesh out this idea a little more. Where did the taking of oaths originate? Didn’t Jesus say in the Sermon on the Mount, “All you need to say is simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything beyond this comes from the evil one”? We’ll come back to this passage in a moment, because I think it needs some clarification. And the reason for that is because oaths actually originate with God. Do a word search of “oath” in the Old Testament and you will see repeated mention of God’s oath to Abraham and to the Israelites, as well as instructions for the administration of oaths in legal matters. You’ll even find the command, “Fear the Lord your God, serve him only and take your oaths in his name.” Referencing God’s oath to Abraham, the author of Hebrews writes, “Because God wanted to make the unchanging nature of his purpose very clear to the heirs of what was promised, he confirmed it with an oath. God did this so that, by two unchangeable things in which it is impossible for God to lie, we who have fled to take hold of the hope set before us may be greatly encouraged.” The text goes on to give us assurance in our “anchor,” Christ Jesus—assurance based on God’s promise and the impossibility of God lying. He cannot break a promise. And He is our model when we make an oath, when we make a promise. Our word should be our bond. This is why James echoes Jesus when he writes “let your ‘yes’ be yes and your ‘no’ be no.”
This brings us back to the Sermon on the Mount:
“Again, you have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not break your oath, but fulfill to the Lord the vows you have made.’ But I tell you, do not swear an oath at all: either by heaven, for it is God’s throne; or by the earth, for it is his footstool; or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the Great King. And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make even one hair white or black. All you need to say is simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything beyond this comes from the evil one.”
Is Jesus revoking the Old Testament instructions about oaths and, in fact, condemning Himself for taking them? I’ll answer that by quoting from two well-respected commentaries that I think resolve the apparent tension between God’s words in the Old Testament and Jesus’ words (and actions, as seen in Matthew 26:63-64) in the New Testament:
There is no reason to consider that solemn oaths in a court of justice, or on other proper occasions, are wrong, provided they are taken with due reverence. But all oaths taken without necessity, or in common conversation, must be sinful, as well as all those expressions which are appeals to God, though persons think thereby to evade the guilt of swearing. The worse men are, the less they are bound by oaths; the better they are, the less there is need for them. Our Lord does not enjoin the precise terms wherein we are to affirm or deny, but such a constant regard to truth as would render oaths unnecessary.
Our Saviour here evidently had no reference to judicial oaths, or oaths taken in a court of justice. It was merely the foolish and wicked habit of swearing in private conversation; of swearing on every occasion and by everything that he condemned.
Once again, the idea expressed in the Third Commandment and supported by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount is that of falsely or loosely invoking God’s name. As He said elsewhere, “Do not swear falsely by my name and so profane the name of your God. I am the Lord.” This can have several meanings. We can swear an oath we have no intention of keeping. But we can also swear an oath (i.e., wedding vows) that we have every intention of keeping, but then break. And if we take that oath in God’s name, we have just profaned God’s name—we have by our actions taken it in vain. And if we somehow can read the second half of the Third Commandment and still think this is not a grave offense, consider some other biblical instances of profaning God’s name: sacrificing children to the false Ammonite god Molek, stealing, disobedience and idolatry leading to being exiled from Israel, sexual perversity, and marital unfaithfulness. Friends, this is not a list we want to be part of.
We live in a pretty informal culture. Short of swearing in court or some legal proceeding, we don’t take oaths very often. But that does not mean we don’t take God’s name in vain every day. Have you broken the wedding vows (and I’m not just talking about adultery) you made “in the sight of God and these people”? Have you, as a Christian, who professes to follow God, not let your “yes” be yes or your “no” no? Have you tossed out a casual “Lord willin’” or “God forbid” or “for God’s sake” without truly meaning those words? Do you say “God bless you” when someone sneezes without the slightest intent of actually pronouncing a spiritual blessing upon that person? Have you texted “OMG” without considering what the “G” stands for? I would suggest these are all instances of invoking God’s name lightly or loosely, of taking it in vain.
I know some who read this will be likely to say I’m nitpicking or am being overly legalistic. Once again, my intent with this post is not to point out everyone’s flaws (mine included). Instead, it is to remind us all of the holiness of God’s name. It is not something we should use casually or dismissively, but rather reverently and soberly.
 Exodus 20:7, ESV
 Matthew 6:9
 Joshua 7:19
 John 9:24
 Matthew 26:63
 Hebrews 6:16
 See Exodus 23:1
 See Deuteronomy 5:20
 See Ezekiel 13:7-9
 Matthew 5:37
 Deuteronomy 6:13
 Hebrews 6:17-18, emphasis added
 James 5:12, ESV
 Matthew 5:33-37
 Complete Commentary by Matthew Henry, Public Domain
 Notes on the Bible by Albert Barnes, Public Domain
 Leviticus 19:12
 See Leviticus 18:21, 20:3
 See Proverbs 30:9, ESV
 See Ezekiel 36:18-20
 See Amos 2:7
 See Malachi 2:10