“Thou shalt not take the name of the
Lord thy God in vain.” —Exodus 20:7
This Second of the Ten Commandments (as we traditionally number them — since the numbers were not assigned to them by God Himself), belongs to the First Table of God’s Law (cf. Exodus 31:18),”the first and great commandment” (Matthew 22:36-38), which treats of our duty to God. The Second Table “is like unto it,” Jesus says (v. 39a) in that it requires “love [as] the fulfilling of the Law” (Romans 13:10b), love of one’s neighbor as one loves himself (Matthew 22:39b), our duty to our fellow man here in this world.
The Second Commandment treats specifically of God’s name, what God prohibits regarding its use, and what God requires regarding it. In his Enchiridion or Small Catechism, Luther briefly summarizes both the improper and proper uses of God’s name as follows: “We should fear and love God that we may not curse, swear, use witchcraft, lie or deceive by His name, but call upon it in every trouble, pray, praise and give thanks.”
Note that Luther ties the fulfillment of all the commandments to the substance of the First Commandment, namely, that “we should fear, love and trust in God above all things.” Indeed, if we do not fear God above all things — revering Him as the highest being, honoring Him with our lives, and avoiding what we know from His Word displeases Him — and if we do not love God above all things — clinging to Him as to our God and gladly devoting our lives to His service as the evidence of our God-wrought confidence in His mercy and grace to all men in Christ Jesus (Cf. Exposition of Luther’s Small Catechism, CPH, 1943, Q/A 31 and 32) — then we will care little or nothing about keeping the rest of His commandments (John 14:24a).
Now, as to God’s name specifically referenced in the Second Commandment, we recognize according to His Word every name by which He has made Himself known to us in the Holy Scriptures, as well as every statement in which He tells us about Himself (Cf. Exposition of Luther’s Small Catechism, CPH, 1943, Q/A 35). And so, we can list (among others) the names: “God,” “the Lord,” “heavenly Father,” “Jesus,” “the Christ,” “the Messiah” (“The Anointed One”),“Son of God,” “Son of Man,” “Savior,” “Redeemer,” “The Lord our Righteousness,” “Holy Ghost,” “the Comforter,” etc., as we easily recognize these from well-known passages of Holy Writ. In addition we have divine attributes according to which He has described Himself in the Bible: “The Holy One of Israel,” “the Almighty,” the First and the Last,” “the Alpha and Omega,” “the Holy One and the Just,” “a God of truth and without iniquity, just and right is He” “the Spirit of Truth,” “merciful and gracious, longsuffering and abundant in goodness and truth,” and so on.
God has NOT revealed Himself by such names as: “The Force,” “the Man Upstairs,” “the Grand Architect of the Universe” [the Masons], “the Big Guy,” “the Supreme Being,” “the Grim Reaper,” “the Great Spirit” and “Superstar.” And He certainly has not revealed Himself according to the names of false gods (as if they were all one and the same): Allah, Buddha, Krishna, Ahura, Mazda, and numerous others. Neither has God made Himself known in the Scriptures by such expletives as “Gosh!” “Golly!” “Gee!” “Gee-wizz!” and “Geez!” The fact that some regard them as “sound-alikes” does not make them names of God, anymore than the German word for “yes,” “Ja,” is the same as God’s name in Psalm 68:4. If they are truly “substitutes” for God’s name, as some claim, and have the same value as God’s name in the context of the Second Commandment, they should be able to be used equally in the worship, praise and invocation of God, “praying, praising and giving thanks,” which they clearly are not. A person may, however, claim to be using such expletives as “substitutes” for God’s name — for the specific reason that he does NOT want to use God’s name in vain. “God’s name is indeed holy in itself,” writes Luther, “but we pray in [the First Petition of the Lord’s Prayer] that it may be holy among us also.” (Small Catechism, Third Chief Part, First Petition).
The simplest form of God’s name, as He used it of Himself in Exodus chapter three, is “I AM” (vv. 6, 13-15). That form of the verb “to be” in Hebrew is used by the person speaking (the so-called “first person”), as God did in naming Himself; but when we refer to Him (in the so-called “third person,” the person spoken about) we say “HE IS.” The word (and name) in Hebrew consists simply of four consonants, hwhy, from right to left (as the Hebrew reads) or from left to right (as we read them), jhvh, and is referred to as the “tetragrammaton,” the four-letter word, pronounced Yah-VEH or Yeh-ho-VAH — the Anglicized word and pronunciation being Jehovah. To Moses in the wilderness of Sinai God said: “Thus shalt thou say unto the children of Israel: ‘I AM hath sent me unto you;’” and in Exodus 6:3, God said to him: “And I appeared unto Abraham, unto Isaac, and unto Jacob by the name of God Almighty [cf. Genesis 17:1], but by My name Jehovah was I not known unto them.” (When reading the text of Scripture in Hebrew, the Jews systematically avoid reading aloud that name as written, ostensibly not wanting to use it “in vain,” and substitute for it either “Adonai” [ah-doh-NIGH] meaning “the Lord,” or “Ha-shem” [hah-SHAME] meaning “the name;” and in the English translation of the Old Testament, the translators did basically the same; they consistently translated the tetragrammaton as “the Lord” rather than “Jehovah.” Interestingly, when the Lord Jesus was accosted in the Garden of Gethsemane by the servants of the High Priest who told Him, “[We seek] Jesus of Nazareth,” He answered simply with the words, “I AM” according to the Greek text. And that name was so powerful that “they went backward and fell to the ground” (John 18:6).
“The Lord will not hold him guiltless that taketh His name in vain,” God said to Moses immediately after stating the commandment (Exodus 20:7; cf. also Deuteronomy 5:11) to show that He does not regard the misuse of His name as a small thing, a moral misdemeanor, which He merely overlooks. The expression “in vain” simply means for no good purpose, uselessly, carelessly, lightly or without even meaning to. In this sense, God’s name becomes a mere epithet; and it is used so commonly in everyday speech that it is scarcely recognized as “God’s name” in such contexts: “God, it’s hot today!” “Jesus Christ, did you see that??” “O my God, I didn’t know that!” “Christ almighty! The kid almost got killed!” In the so-called “social media,” where common expressions are often abbreviated, we read “OMG!” as a stand-alone expression of surprise or dismay. And the same indiscriminate and “vain” use of God’s name is just as common in other languages as in our own. Moreover, those who use God’s name in this way, if they are challenged for it, generally answer rather flippantly, “Oh, I didn’t mean anything by it” — exactly the point!
But the Lord’s name is used in vain also, as Luther points out, when people “curse, swear, use witchcraft, lie and deceive by [God’s] name.” Each of those, as to its details, can be a topic of discussion in and of itself; and so in this article we shall address them separately but very briefly as follows:
● Cursing by God’s name is, first of all, blaspheming God, that is, making fun of God and of sacred things and speaking evil of Him — a very grievous sin punishable by death in the Old Testament: “He that blasphemeth the name of the Lord, he shall surely be put to death” (Leviticus 24:16a). The Jews accused Jesus of blasphemy because “that Thou, being a man, makest Thyself God” (John 10:33), and they “convicted” Him of blasphemy for the same reason (Matthew 26:65; John 19:7) — a false charge and a bogus conviction because He IS the Son of God! But true blasphemy is extremely common in “comedy sketches” and in “God jokes” where God is made fun of and ridiculed, His “dry sense of humor” is referred to, and He is said to play “practical jokes” on people here in this world and when God is blamed for evil in the world and for driving people to despair by the trials He lays before them: “If God hadn’t put that tree in the middle of the garden, …” “Why does God let bad things happen to good people?” “God must be dead,” “How could a loving God send anyone to hell?” etc. (Cf. James 1:13–14; I Corinthians 10:13).
Cursing by God’s name also includes calling down His anger and punishment upon any person or thing, as in such expressions as “God damn you!” “Go to hell!” “Drop dead!” “Damn it!” “I hope you rot in hell!” etc. We should want the very opposite, even for our “enemies,” Jesus tells us (Matthew 5:44). And such cursing is especially unseemly for Christians who use their “tongue” and “mouth” BOTH in the praise of God and in the cursing of God’s foremost visible creature, made originally after the image of God. “My brethren, these things ought not so to be,” writes the Apostle James (James 3:9–10).
● Swearing by God’s name is “taking an oath in which we call upon God to witness the truth of what we say or promise (II Corinthians 1:23), and to punish us if we lie or break our promise” (Exposition of Luther’s Small Catechism, CPH, 1943, Q/A 39). The Bible teaches, however, that not all swearing is sinful. The government may legitimately call upon us to swear in order to establish facts in court proceedings, in depositions, in affidavits, and in other sworn statements, written and oral; and we are required by God Himself to comply (Romans 13:1; I Peter 2:13–15), as Jesus Himself complied with the order of Caiaphas to swear as to whether He was in fact “the Son of the Blessed” (Mark14:61; Matthew 26:63–64). And an oath may be necessary for the glory of God, as, for example, the Confirmation oath, the Ordination oath, the oath of auxiliary church officers at their installation, and that of sponsors at the Baptism of a little child, all of which are answered (in effect): “So help me God” (Deuteronomy 6:13). And an oath, not only on the part of one individual but “in the mouth of two or three witnesses” (Matthew 18:16; II Corinthians 13:1), may be necessary in urgent cases to establish the truth or confirm the facts in a matter that concerns the welfare of our neighbor (Hebrews 6:16).
The question is sometimes asked whether a doctor or nurse may take the so-called “Hippocratic Oath” that he or she will never use the power of medical intervention to harm or kill a patient. (The ancient Greek physician, Hippocrates, initiated that oath in 460 B. C.) If indeed it is required of a medical professional “for the welfare of our neighbor,” it should be taken in the name of the true God, not “by Apollo, Aesculapius, Hygeia, Panacea, and all the gods and goddesses” that Hippocrates invoked (Matthew 4:10; Deuteronomy 6:13). The Hippocratic Oath is not universally required today. Interestingly, the original Hippocratic Oath included the promise that a physician would not do anything that resulted in an abortion.
Swearing that is sinful includes false swearing known as perjury (Leviticus 19:12), which is a crime even under civil law; thoughtless or frivolous swearing (“I lie, I fry!” “Cross my heart and hope to die!” “On my mother’s grave,” etc.); swearing in sinful matters —“I swear I’ll kill him, as God is my witness!” (Genesis 9:6), “I swear I’ll never forgive him as long as I live!” (Matthew 6:15), “I swear I’ll get even with her no matter how long it takes!” (Romans 12:19) etc.; swearing in uncertain matters (as in James 4:13–15), and swearing in unimportant matters — “I swear I’ll pick up a gallon of milk on the way home.” “By God, that’s the sharpest car I’ve ever seen!” (cf. Matthew 5:37).
● Using witchcraft by God’s name is “using God’s name to perform supernatural things with the help of the devil” (Exposition of Luther’s Small Catechism, CPH, 1943, Q/A 42). It is extremely common, even in their advertising, that “divines” or fortunetellers use the name of God, claim His power, and use the sign of the cross to dupe their clients into believing that their work is validated and empowered by God and has His blessing. Jesus warned that, “Many will say to Me in that day, ‘Lord, Lord, have we not…in Thy name cast out devils and in Thy name done many wonderful [miraculous, supernatural] works?’ And then will I profess unto them, ‘I never knew you; depart from Me, ye that work iniquity!’” (Matthew 7:22–23). Such workers of iniquity use the name of God in vain; they do not work according to His power. “False prophets” in particular (v. 15) will make claims of healing and other “power and signs and lying wonders” (e.g. II Thessalonians 2:9) to “deceive the hearts of the simple” (Romans 16:18; cf. II Thessalonians 2:10).
The Bible says of such “practitioners” of the occult, of Satanic arts: “There shall not be found among you anyone…that useth divination [fortune telling], or an observer of times [an astrologer], or an enchanter [one who casts an evil spell (cf. voodoo)], or a witch, or a charmer [one who puts a good-luck charm on someone to ward off evil], or a consulter with familiar spirits [one who claims to be able to communicate with the underworld to gain the help of spiritual powers], or a wizard [a male witch], or a necromancer [one who claims to be able to conjure up and communicate with the dead]. For all that do these things are an abomination unto the Lord…” (Deuteronomy 18:10-12a).
Not only are we forbidden to engage in such Satanic activities ourselves; we are also forbidden to seek their help and thus to go and call upon such abominations “in the day of trouble” instead of to the Lord (cf. Psalm 50:15). He says to His people: “Regard not them that have familiar spirits, neither seek after wizards to be defiled by them. I AM the Lord your God” (Leviticus 19:31). Even such fairly modern and seemingly harmless devices (sold as “games”) as ouija boards, should be avoided as tools of divination. They have no moving parts and no electronic “intelligence,” and yet they purport to “divine” and provide answers to questions [“Oui” (French) and “Ja” (German)] by means of a pointer (planchette) that moves without (and often contrary to) the owner’s direction and even spells out answers letter-by-letter. There is no sure natural or scientific explanation as to how they work. Many have not only been deceived, but have actually been harmed by them!
When we Christians desire to know anything about our lives in this world and seek wisdom and understanding about the way we should go, the Scriptures direct us very specifically to the Lord and His Word for any answers that He would provide us: “Call upon Me in the day of trouble; I will deliver thee, and thou shalt glorify Me” (Psalm 50:15); “Trust in the Lord with all Thine heart, and lean not unto thine own understanding. In all thy ways acknowledge Him, and He shall direct thy paths” (Proverbs 3:5–6). “It is better to trust in the Lord than to put confidence in man” (Psalm 118:8). “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” (Psalm 111:10a). “Thy testimonies also are my delight and my counselors” (Psalm 119:24). “Whom have I in heaven but Thee? And there is none upon earth that I desire beside Thee. My flesh and my heart faileth, but God is the Strength of my heart and my Portion forever” (Psalm 73:25–26).
● Also Lying and deceiving by God’s name is taking His name in vain. Lying and deceiving are, of course, intimate bedfellows. A liar deceives by what he says contrary to the truth, and a deceiver lies by representing falsely and thus hiding what he knows to be the truth. While the sin of lying violates particularly the Eighth Commandment, lying and deceiving by God’s name adds a component that does not specifically exist in ALL lies and deceit. It is the use of God’s name that links the sins of false prophets and hypocrites to the Second Commandment.
False prophets lie by God’s name, for the Lord Himself says of them:“‘Behold, I am against the prophets,’ saith the Lord, ‘that use their tongues and say, He saith.’” (Jeremiah 23:31). “In vain they do worship Me, teaching for doctrines the commandments of men” (Matthew 15:9). “Beware of false prophets which come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves” (Matthew 7:15). “Now I beseech you, brethren: Mark them which cause divisions and offenses contrary to the doctrine which ye have learned, and avoid them! For they that are such serve not our Lord Jesus Christ but their own belly, and by good words and fair speeches deceive the hearts of the simple” (Romans 16:17–18). “Many will say to Me in that day, ‘Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in Thy name…?’ And then will I profess unto them, ‘I never knew you; depart from Me, ye that work iniquity!’” (Matthew 7:22–23).
False prophets not only lie when they teach and practice contrary to Scripture (Romans 16:17); but, when they represent false doctrine as God’s Word and revelation, they deceive their hearers. Jesus points out in Matthew 7:15 that they disguise themselves in “sheep’s clothing” when they use the Bible as a prop, when they speak “in the name of Jesus” as their authority, and when they teach some things that are true to “deceive the hearts of the simple” (Romans 16:18), to “toss to and fro” God’s children and “carry them about” or manipulate them with their “sleight” and “cunning craftiness, whereby they lie in wait to deceive” (Ephesians 4:14). Thus Luther points out in his explanation of the First Petition of the Lord’s Prayer: “He that teaches and lives otherwise than God’s Word teaches profanes the name of God among us. From this preserve us, Heavenly Father!”
Hypocrites also lie and deceive by God’s name. They lie when they profess with their mouths the Lord Jesus and confess faith in Him and in the teachings of His Word, saying, for example: “I believe in God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, and in Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord…” (The Apostles’ Creed). “Talk is cheap” if it consists merely in hypocritical “good words and fair speeches” (Romans 16:18). Those who teach that “where there is confession there is faith” deny the Savior’s own evaluation of such “cheap talk;” for He says: “Not everyone that saith unto Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter into the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 7:21). Ananias and Sapphira in Acts chapter five “lie[d] to the Holy Ghost” when they attempted to deceive the Apostle Peter and their brethren in Jerusalem in falsely declaring the extent of their special offering. And in that deliberate, willful sin (vv. 2, 4 and 9), in that manifestation of unbelief (cf. Matthew 15:8), they were struck dead by God Himself! (Cf. Hebrews 10:26ff.).
Now as to what God requires of us in the Second Commandment, we declare with Luther: “We should fear and love God that we may…call upon [His name] in every trouble, pray, praise and give thanks.” This is using or employing God’s name properly, purposefully and confidently according to His will.
While many Christians erroneously think that just because they do not “curse, swear, use witchcraft, lie or deceive by His name” in sins of commission, they do not sin against the Second Commandment, they first need to realize that God’s Law requires perfection in thoughts, desires, words and deeds. “Ye shall be holy, for I, the Lord, your God, am holy” (Leviticus 19:2); “Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect” (Matthew 5:48); “Therefore by the deeds of the Law there shall no flesh be justified in His sight” (Romans 3:20), “for all have sinned and come short of the glory of God” (v. 24).
Even we Christians, because of our miserably weak and perverse flesh (Romans 7:18), fail to keep the positive demands of the Law, namely, those things which God requires in His Commandments. Thus, by our inability to “keep the whole Law” without “offend[ing] in one point,” we become “guilty of all” (James 2:10), even of the Second Commandment, by our sins of omission, by our failure to do what He requires. “There is not a just man upon earth that doth good and sinneth not” (Ecclesiastes 7:20).
● God requires that we call upon His name in every trouble and praise Him for our deliverance when He answers our prayer: “Call upon Me in the day of trouble. I will deliver thee, and thou shalt glorify Me” (Psalm 50:15). When we neglect prayer in our lives, even when we are in trouble, and when we fail to thank Him after He helps us (cf. Luke 17:17–18), we sin against His holy Second Commandment by omission (James 4:17).
● God requires that we pray to Him “without ceasing” (I Thessalonians 5:17) and enjoins us in many passages of Scripture to do so everywhere (I Timothy 2:8), in private (Matthew 6:6), in public worship (Psalm 26:12), in Christ’s name, trusting in Him as our Redeemer, for whose sake God hears and answers our prayers (John 16:23), fervently (James 5:16b), and in confidence (Matthew 21:22; James 1:6–7) that “if we ask anything according to His will, He heareth us” (I John 5:14). [An exhaustive study of the doctrine of prayer in not intended by this brief summary.]
● God requires that we praise Him, that is, sing songs of joy to His holy name, both in public worship and also privately (Psalm 103:1; Matthew 4:10; Psalm 7:17; 9:1; 22:25; 35:18; 43:4; 51:15; Ephesians 5:19, etc.), recognizing His wondrous works and ways (Exodus 15:6ff.; I Chronicles 16:12; Psalm 21:13; 66:1–9; 77:11–12, 14; etc.) and in particular the magnitude of His goodness, mercy and grace to the children of men (Exodus 34:6–7a; Psalm 98:1–9; 116:5; 118:1; 145:9; Joel 2:13; etc.).
● God also requires that we thank Him, that is, render Him expressions of gratitude for all of His blessings both temporal and spiritual. “In everything give thanks, for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus concerning you,” writes the Apostle Paul in I Thessalonians 5:18, “giving thanks always for all things unto God and the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Ephesians 5:20; cf. also Colossians 3:17, as well Psalm 118:1 and many other passages throughout both the Old and New Testaments too numerous to mention).
As noted above, all of these and many other positive injunctions as to how we should respectfully, properly, appropriately and frequently use the name of our God and Lord can individually be the subjects of instruction in righteousness, as they are regularly preached from the pulpits of our congregations and taught in Bible study classes. May the Lord continue to work in us “both to will and to do of His good pleasure” in the use of His name, motivated by His precious Gospel (II Corinthians 5:14–15)!
— D. T. M.