The language in the Ten Commandments is countercultural, counterintuitive, offensive, and shocking to anyone who has not embraced the God-centeredness of God. We might summarize the first two commandments like this:
Have nothing above me in your thoughts and affections and words and actions. Have no carved substitutes that steal away your thoughts and affections and words and actions. For I am jealous to have all your heart, all your mind, all your soul, and all your strength.
Then comes the third commandment: “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). This command is no less countercultural, counterintuitive, offensive, and shocking. Yet if God were not this jealous for his own name, we would have no salvation and no joy.
The call of the third commandment, then, is this: Turn away from taking the name of the Lord in vain. Repent, receive forgiveness, and then, by the power of God’s Spirit, be done with it. Do not take the name of the Lord your God in vain.
Let’s press into the meaning of name and the meaning of in vain, and then let the flow of thought from commandment one to two to three help us define what it means to take the name of the Lord in vain.
The name — what’s that? What is it that we should not take in vain?
I Am Who I Am
The first focus of God’s meaning is surely God’s proper name that he had revealed as Moses delivered the people from Egypt, Yahweh, which is built on the verb “I am” (Exodus 3:14) and signifies God’s absolute being: “I Am Who I Am” — no beginning, no ending, no becoming, no dependence on anything outside myself. That’s my name. Everywhere you see Lord with small caps, that’s what you should think — over six thousand times in the Old Testament.
We know this is foremost in God’s mind because he has made it so prominent within the Ten Commandments themselves:
- Exodus 20:2: “I am Yahweh your God.”
- Exodus 20:5: “I Yahweh your God am a jealous God.”
- Exodus 20:7: “You shall not take the name of Yahweh your God in vain.”
So, the first and most obvious focus of name in verse 7 is Yahweh. “I Am Who I Am” — don’t take that name in vain.
But the very fact that the name Yahweh has a meaning reminds us that, in the Bible, someone’s name tells decisive things about the person. They are not mere labels that help you distinguish one person from another. They are expressions of a person’s reality.
For example, here in verse 5, it says, “I Yahweh your God am a jealous God.” So, jealousy is part of his reality. And when we get to Exodus 34:14, here is what we read: “You shall worship no other god, for Yahweh, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God.” It was a description of reality in Exodus 20:5. Now in Exodus 34:14, it is his name. And so it is throughout the Bible.
- Isaiah 57:15: “Thus says the One . . . who inhabits eternity, whose name is Holy.” That’s his reality, so that’s his name.
- Isaiah 9:6: “To us a child is born, to us a son is given . . . his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.” That’s his reality, so that’s his name.
- Matthew 1:21: “You shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” His reality is a Savior, so his name is Yeshua — Jesus, one who saves.
- Revelation 19:13, 16: “The name by which he is called is The Word of God. . . . On his robe and on his thigh he has a name written, King of kings and Lord of lords.” That is who he is, his reality — Word of God, King of kings, Lord of lords — so those are his name.
“God’s jealousy for his name — his jealousy to be supreme in our affections — is our salvation and our joy.”
So, “Don’t take the name of Yahweh your God in vain,” means “Don’t take God, or anything that his name expresses about his reality, in vain.” God is I Am, absolute being, Jealous, Holy, Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace, Jesus, Word of God, King of kings, Lord of lords, “the Alpha and the Omega” (Revelation 21:6). That is who he is, his name, his reality, his God-ness. Don’t take him or any aspect of his being, his name, in vain.
Taking in Vain
Take in vain — what does that mean?
What does it mean to take some revelation of the reality of God into our minds and to have thoughts about him in vain? To take some revelation of the way God is into our hearts and have feelings about him in vain? To take some expression of God’s reality into our mouths and speak words about him in vain? To take some revelation of God into our resolves to do actions in this name in vain?
What does that mean — to treat God, his name, in our thoughts or our feelings or our words or our actions in vain?
Futile, Pointless, Empty, Wasted
The meaning of this phrase in vain in Exodus 20:7 is really quite plain when you just look up the uses in the Old Testament and then cap it off with a word from Jesus. Listen to these uses:
- Jeremiah 2:30: “In vain have I struck your children; they took no correction.”
- Jeremiah 4:30: “In vain you beautify yourself. Your lovers despise you.”
- Jeremiah 6:29: “In vain the refining goes on, for the wicked are not removed.”
- Jeremiah 46:11: “In vain you have used many medicines; there is no healing for you.”
- Malachi 3:14: “You have said, ‘It is vain to serve God. What is the profit of our keeping his charge?’”
So, in vain means futile, empty, pointless, wasted: You spank the children, but there’s no correction. You put on makeup, but there are no lovers. You put the wicked through the refiner’s fire, but there’s no repentance. You take the medicine, but there’s no healing. You serve God, but there’s no profit. It all happens in vain.
Hearts Far from God
The question becomes, How do you take the name of God (expressions of his reality) into your thoughts, into your emotions, into your words, and into your actions in such a way that your thoughts and feelings and words and actions are futile, empty, pointless, wasted?
Jesus gives us a double answer in Matthew 15:8–9. He’s quoting Isaiah 29:13:
This people honors me with their lips,
but their heart is far from me;
in vain do they worship me,
teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.
This is about worship. But what it teaches applies to all of life, because, for the Christian, all of life is worship (Romans 12:1–2). “Whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God” (1 Corinthians 10:31). “Whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus” (Colossians 3:17).
Emptied of Affections and Truth
Jesus says two things cause the worship of God — the name of God — to be empty, futile, pointless, wasted.
1. “This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me.” The heart is emptied of affections for God, for his name — love, admiration, reverence, cherishing, treasuring.
2. The second thing that makes the worship “in vain” (Matthew 15:9) is that “they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.” Words, statements about God, have been emptied of God’s truth and replaced with human opinions.
When the heart is emptied of affections for God, and words are emptied of the truth of God, all thoughts, all words, all emotions, and all actions are empty, pointless, futile, in vain. Therefore, to take the name of God in vain is to take up some expression of God’s reality into our thoughts or emotions or words or actions when the truth of God has gone out of them, and true affections for God are missing.
“Fill your words with the weight of God’s truth, and fill your hearts with affections for his name.”
If you thought I was going to address cuss words in this article, like “Goddamn!” and “Jesus Christ!” and “Oh my God!” well, I have — if you have ears to hear. The elimination of that kind of use of the name of God is kindergarten in the school of Christ. If you still have kindergarten behaviors, here’s the remedy: fill your words with the weight of God’s truth, and fill your heart with affections for his name.
Our Life in His Name
Now, back to the first two of the Ten Commandments.
Recall the countercultural, counterintuitive, offensive, shocking language of God: “Have nothing above me in your thoughts and affections and words and actions. Have no carved substitutes that steal away your thoughts and affections and words and actions. For I am jealous to have all your heart, and all your mind, and all your soul, and all your strength.”
And now, therefore,
Don’t treat me — my name — as empty, futile, pointless, trivial, inconsequential, insignificant. Don’t let your words be empty of my truth. Don’t let your hearts be empty of your affections. Revere me. Love me. Trust me. Treasure me. Satisfy your heart with me.
What so many fail to see is that God’s jealousy for his name — his jealousy to be supreme in our affections — is our salvation and our joy.
For your name’s sake, O Lord,
pardon my guilt, for it is great. (Psalm 25:11)
Deliver us, and atone for our sins,
for your name’s sake! (Psalm 79:9)
He saved them for his name’s sake. (Psalm 106:8)
The name of the Lord is a strong tower;
the righteous man runs into it and is safe. (Proverbs 18:10)
Don’t treat this tower like a crumbling shack. It’s not. It is your life.