Roman Pawlak, PhD, is an associate professor at East Carolina University, Greenville, North Carolina, United States.

Because the Ten Commandments are so central to Christian faith, it is essential to understand exactly what they command. Among the Ten Commandments, spoken directly by God Himself, is the third commandment, which reads: “ ‘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’ ” (Exod. 20:7, NKJV). Unlike the other commandments, this one, when read in common English, seems to contain a vague phrase, “takes His name in vain,” which may mean something different to different people.

What does this commandment really mean?

What’s in vain?

Many Christians today interpret commonly used phrases, such as “Oh God,” “Oh my God,” or “Oh Jesus,” as taking God’s name in vain. This interpretation is based on the assumption that the commandment deals with the uttering of God’s name. While the use of these phrases is unfortunate because more reverence should be given to the Father and the Savior, there is more to the text than just using God’s name lightly. The third commandment mentions only one name: “LORD,” Hebrew: Yehovah.

“ ‘You shall not take the name of the LORD [Yehovah] your God in vain’ ” (Exodus 20:7, NKJV; emphasis added). In Exodus 20:7, the Hebrew word shem is written in its singular form, שֵׁם. A plural of שֵׁם is שְׁמֹות, which does not occur in the commandment. In the Masoretic text, the words shem and Yehovah are written as follows: יְהוָה אֶת־שֵֽׁם־
(the-name-Yehovah). If the meaning of the third commandment has to do with the misuse of a name, it is referring to only one name: Yehovah.

As consistent with the information above, if the meaning of the third commandment has to do with misuse of God’s name, many Christians can pat themselves on the back because they do not have a custom of misusing it. In fact, it seems that the same goes for the vast majority of people, regardless of whether or not they are Christians. Today, many non-Christians do not even know the name Yehovah, and it is safe to assume that some of those who may have heard it do not even realize that it is God’s name. However, understanding the third commandment as referring to God’s people rightly versus falsely representing God has profound implications.

So, what’s “in vain”? Understanding another Hebrew word, shav, translated in the third commandment as “vain,” may be helpful in answering this question. This Hebrew word signifies vanity, falsehood, emptiness, lying, or worthlessness of conduct. In fact, Bible translators used different English words to translate the Hebrew shav’ in another commandment of the Decalogue. In Deuteronomy 5:20, we read, “ ‘ “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor” ’ ” (NKJV). The Hebrew shav’ is translated here as “false.” The same English word has been used to translate shav’ in other passages, such as Exodus 23:1, “ ‘You shall not circulate a false [shav] report’ ” (NKJV), and in Hosea 10:4, “They have spoken words, swearing falsely [shav] in making a covenant” (NKJV).

To a Hebrew

The Hebrew word translated in modern English Bibles as “name” is shem (H8034). This word is found in another passage in the book of Exodus: “Then Moses said to the LORD, ‘See, You say to me, “Bring up this people.” But You have not let me know whom You will send with me. Yet You have said, “I know you by name, and you have also found grace in My sight” ’ ” (Exod. 33:12, NKJV). Considering God knows every person’s name, the phrase “I know you by name” must have meant something different to a Hebrew than just an identifier or a tag. Consistent with the meaning of other biblical passages described above, it seems that the phrase “I know you by name,” in this context, really means “I know who you are” or “I know what you are like.”

An interesting example of the use of “name” is found in Acts 2:21: “ ‘ “And it shall come to pass that whoever calls on the name of the LORD shall be saved” ’ ” (NKJV). Are we saved by the name or by the Person whose name is Jesus? Also, let us consider Acts 21:13: “ ‘What do you mean by weeping and breaking my heart? For I am ready not only to be bound, but also to die at Jerusalem for the name of the Lord Jesus’ ” (NKJV). Was Paul ready to die for a name or for the Person Jesus?

Clearly, as expressed in the Scriptures, names have a much different meaning in the Hebrew culture than they do in many modern, especially Western, cultures. Is it possible that the third commandment is not really referring to the way we are to use the name(s) of God but to Him as a Person and who He is? But what would it mean to refer to God, as a Person, in vain?

What’s in a name?

In the Bible, names had significance. A name may have reflected a character, personality, reputation, or authority. Biblical names may have also commemorated events and feelings.

For example, “And Adam called his wife’s name Eve, because she was the mother of all living” (Gen. 3:20, NKJV). “ ‘But your name shall be Abraham; for I have made you a father of many nations’ ” (Gen. 17:5, NKJV). “ ‘Your name shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel; for you have struggled with God and with men, and have prevailed’ ” (Gen. 32:28, NKJV). In each case, the name carried a specific meaning.

Two other passages shed additional light on the issue. “Now the LORD descended in the cloud and stood with him there, and proclaimed the name of the LORD. And the LORD passed before him and proclaimed, ‘The LORD, the LORD God, merciful and gracious, longsuffering, and abounding in goodness and truth, keeping mercy for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, by no means clearing the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children and the children’s children to the third and the fourth generation’ ” (Exod. 34:5–7, NKJV). The passage begins by saying that the Lord proclaimed His own name. How did He proclaim His name? He did not say “My name is Jehovah” or “My name is Hayah” or “My name is El Shaddai.” No, instead, He proclaimed His own attributes. That is, He described who He is.

A similar idea is expressed in several New Testament passages. “ ‘Behold, the virgin shall be with child, and bear a Son, and they shall call His name Immanuel,’ which is translated, ‘God with us’ ” (Matt. 1:23, NKJV). At times, no name is provided, rather just attributes that describe the character of the One being discussed. At other times, a personal name is given that has a specific meaning. It can be translated into something that represents the character or attributes of the one being discussed. In some circumstances, an event in someone’s life would bring about a new name, as in Jacob’s situation. Another example is in the book of Daniel, where the four young people, after being taken captive, each received a new name. Revelation mentions that we will receive new names in heaven.

Only one name

We have many biblical examples of God’s people misrepresenting God. One can argue that more than half of the written history of the Jewish people during the Old Testament era constitutes violations of the third commandment. In fact, there is a biblical confirmation of this statement found in Ezekiel 36:22, 23: “ ‘Therefore say to the house of Israel, “Thus says the Lord GOD: ‘I do not do this for your sake, O house of Israel, but for My holy name’s sake, which you have profaned among the nations wherever you went. And I will sanctify My great name, which has been profaned among the nations, which you have profaned in their midst; and the nations shall know that I am the LORD,’ says the Lord GOD, ‘when I am hallowed in you before their eyes’ ” ’ ” (NKJV). Since the Jewish people of that time had a profound respect for the name Yehovah, it seems that the profaning of God’s name referred to in Ezekiel had to do with the way they lived.

The interpretation of the text found in Ezekiel is confirmed in a statement made by Paul: “You who preach that a man should not steal, do you steal? You who say, ‘Do not commit adultery,’ do you commit adultery? You who abhor idols, do you rob temples? You who make your boast in the law, do you dishonor God through breaking the law? For ‘the name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you,’ as it is written” (Romans 2:21–24, NKJV; emphasis added). Clearly, those Paul was speaking about were not proclaiming “Yehovah, Yehovah,” as they were stealing or committing adultery. The nature of blaspheming God’s name in this passage has to do with the hypocritical life of God’s followers.

The challenge

Thus, when the Hebrews who gathered by Mount Sinai heard God speaking the third commandment, they understood it as, “You shall not falsely represent the LORD your God.” Such understanding seems consistent with the usage of the Hebrew shem and shav’. It carries much deeper meaning than a merely careless use of words. It challenges God’s people to carry out the requirements of His Word in their lives.


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Roman Pawlak, PhD, is an associate professor at East Carolina University, Greenville, North Carolina, United States.

March 2022

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