Thou shalt not take the name of the LORD thy God in vain;
for the LORD will not hold him guiltless that taketh his name in vain (Ex. 20:4-6).
You’ve probably heard the question, “What’s in a name?” Remember that it comes from that famous dialogue between Romeo and Juliet? The maiden from the window above says,
O Romeo, Romeo! wherefore art thou Romeo?
Deny thy father and refuse thy name;
Or, if thou wilt not, be but sworn my love,
And I’ll no longer be a Capulet.
…which was her surname. Romeo mumbles to himself, listens on; Juliet continues:
‘Tis but thy name that is my enemy;
Thou art thyself, though not a Montague.
What’s a Montague? it is nor hand, nor foot,
Nor arm, nor face, nor any other part
Belonging to a man. O, be some other name!
What’s in a name? that which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet;
So Romeo would, were he not Romeo call’d,
Retain that dear perfection which he owes
Without that title. Romeo, doff thy name,
And for that name which is no part of thee
Take all myself.
In Juliet’s view, names are, or should be, so meaningless that they can simply be switched whenever convenient. The problem is, society just doesn’t work that way. In fact, her own woe, you may recall, derived from the fact that her and her lover came from feuding families, and those families having detested each other for generations, could not even stand the name of the other for all that it entailed. She argues that the substance of the thing, or of the person, and not the label, should determine why we value them. But when long use establishes a certain character with a certain appellative, then to overturn that relationship will cause a great social shift. Sometimes, perhaps, that shift needs to take place, other times it necessarily should not. And nowhere is that relationship between character and name more important that at the very foundation of society—religion.
The concept of “God’s name” so closely pertains to His Being and Nature that any affront to any of God’s attributes is subsumed under the very mention of His name. Calvin writes of the Third Commandment, “It is silly and childish to restrict this to the name Jehovah, as if God’s majesty were confined to letters or syllables. . . . God’s name is profaned whenever any detraction is made from His supreme wisdom, infinite power, justice, clemency, and rectitude.” The reference to God’s name invokes all that God is and stands for.
We have similar references in the New Testament: of Jesus Paul says, there is none other name under heaven given among men, whereby we must be saved (Acts 4:12). God also hath highly exalted him, and given him a name which is above every name: that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow (Phil. 2:9-10).
So the idea of the majesty of God as represented by God’s name confronts mankind at every turn of life. And so, the commandment against taking God’s name “in vain” fairly warns us against all forms of action, or neglect, concerning the very nature of the God we serve. It means that the Biblical doctrine of God (Who is He?, What is His nature?, What has He done in history?) must inform every act and every decision we make. If the foundations of society rest upon anything less than that God, when we act in the name of God Almighty (for example, the presidential oath including “So help me God”), we have violated the Third Commandment. Conversely, when society begins to denigrate, curse, or swear at the name or mention of God, then we have an even worse situation in which society has attacked God Himself, and has sought to replace Him with something else as the foundation.
Consider for a moment the language of the Commandment. What does it mean to “take” in this passage? We can understand the word in the sense of “carry” or “bear.” Think in this sense of the priests bearing the Ark of the Covenant, or of the Israelites pitching their tents beneath respective standards which bore their identities as children of YHWH. Think of the label “Christian,” first given in Antioch (Acts 11:26), and which we bear today. How do we “carry” that label? How do we present that label to the world, and what justice do we do it? Do we bear it in any degree of vanity or emptiness? Implicit in this Third Commandment is a condemnation of hypocrisy—of wearing a label to which we don’t measure up in substance. And in not measuring up, we prove ourselves hypocrites, and we dishonor—in a way, we can even say blaspheme—the name of the God whose name we bear.
We have such a low view of taking the Lord’s name in vain today. This results from the overall decline of the religion and the influence of the church in society in general. Today the idea of cursing seems to have much less to do with God’s name than with more mundane forms of vulgarity. This always happens when religion wanes in society. The Oxford scholar Christopher Hill, a renowned expert on the Puritan era, notes the phenomenon long after the end of that age of piety. Speaking of the power of swearing and oaths he writes,
They survive in industrialized and protestant countries, but as shadows of their former selves, and often the users are unaware of the original significance of swear-words which they employ every day. Blasphemy is no longer a fine art. The live swear-words in such societies are those which offend against something which has much more social reality than God—respectability. Sex and the lavatory have replaced deity, saints and devil as the source of live expletives to-day, because their use breaks a taboo that is still worth breaking.
This has always been my experience. I personally don’t remember a time when cursing didn’t refer to bodily acts, and I was always taught, of course, that these certain words are the curse words, these words are “bad” words and you don’t say them. And while all of that may be true, there was always this great disconnect between the idea of taking God’s name in vain, and what I understood as cursing. That list of bad words, of course, included instances in which the word “God” or the name “Jesus Christ” served as expletives—as we hear all over the radio and TV today—but this only caused me greater confusion. Were these instances the actual sin of taking God’s name in vain? If so, why were the other words bad? Later in life when I actually thought about these questions, and grew a little more biblically literate, I decided that the distinction didn’t matter, because St. Paul went well beyond merely the Lord’s name and said, “Let no corrupt communication proceed out of your mouth, but that which is good to the use of edifying” (Eph. 4:9). “No corrupt communication,” pretty much covers it all. But this was a sort of happy state of ignorance for me, since I still really didn’t understand what it meant not to take the Lord’s name in vain.
So what was this “original significance” that Hill mentions above? He gives us a hint of it with an introductory quotation from that same chapter. The following appears in an anonymous tract written in 1614:
The safety of the King himself, . . . every man’s estate in particular, and the state of the realm in general, doth depend upon the truth and sincerity of men’s oaths. . . . The law and civil policy of England, being chiefly founded upon religion and the fear of God, doth use the religious ceremony of an oath, not only in legal proceedings but in other transactions and affairs of most importance in the commonwealth; esteeming oaths as not only the best touchstone of trust in matters of controversy, but as the safest knot of civil society, and the firmest band to tie all men to the performance of their several duties.
Proper, honest, godly oath-taking, forms the mortar of healthy society. At the bottom of all is the foundation of allegiance to God; and the commandment does not forbid swearing period, but swearing in vain. Bearing God’s name in truth—not in vain, but in truth—is the bedrock of religion and therefore of social health. In fact, the very word “religion” means “to bind” in the sense of binding allegiance. Such language fills the Bible: the whole concept of being God’s servant relates to this idea. Paul was a servant of Jesus Christ (Rom 1:1). I hear St. Patrick singing his hymn, “I bind unto my self today, the strong name of the Trinity.” With it all I hear a Scripture passage that Christians hardly ever quote:
Thou shalt fear the LORD thy God, and serve him, and shalt swear by his name (Deut. 6:13).
How often do we as believers exhort each other actually to swear? Swearing, we’ve been taught, is a “no-no” across the board. And yet God commanded the Israelites to do so—to swear by His name. The point is that at the bottom of every way of life, of every religion and every society, stands an ultimate oath. You have to serve somebody. Somebody is your god and you have sworn allegiance to him (or her) already whether you know it or not. You cannot escape worship, authority, or oaths. If you zip-your-lips, and lock the door and swallow the key, and refuse to take any oath whatsoever, you just took one. The question is not “oath or no oath.” The question is Whose name did you take it under? Here we must follow the example of God Himself, “For when God made the promise to Abraham, since he could swear by no one greater, He swore by himself” (Heb. 6:13). No wonder He commands us to swear by that name, too.
To refuse to swear allegiance to God is to profane His name and put yours in place of it. The misuse or abuse of God’s name is an act of rebellion. In society, it represents revolt and revolution. “All swearing is religious, and false swearing represents a subversive drive in society.” This fact manifested once in a debate between atheists and Christians at Cape Town University on the subject of blasphemy. The atheist professor who agreed to debate backed out two hours before the event started, leaving Peter Hammond of Frontline Ministries alone to lecture from a Christian viewpoint and then field questions. One atheist young lady expressed the myopia of humanistic reasoning in trying to denigrate religion while exalting man: “To call me stupid would be hate speech and be illegal; however, to call Jesus stupid is not illegal and is a religious issue not a legal one.” Another added that hate speech “should of course be illegal,” yet Blasphemy given free reign “because unlike hate speech against homosexuals, no one is going to get hurt.”
The first argument, of course, begs the question, assuming up front what it intends to conclude: that religious issues don’t count as legal issues, therefore blasphemy is not “hate speech.” Christians, rather, should argue that blasphemy is the most fundamental and most serious and subversive form of hate speech, and should carry requisite legal sanctions when appropriate.
The second argument simply ignores the facts, that
every year over 200,000 Christians are murdered worldwide for their Faith. Over 400 million Christians in 64 countries live under governments which do not allow religious freedom. Every year government sponsored hate speech in these countries leads to mob violence against Christians, the burning of churches, often with the congregation inside it, the beheading of Christians, even of young teenage girls, the stoning to death of Christians, crucifixions, mutilations, enslavements, etc.
Logical and factual blunders aside, both arguments display the implicit attack on religious faith that humanism entails. When man sets a higher legal standard for speech against man than he does for speech against God, He explicitly rejects God as King and sets himself in the place of God. Legalized blasphemy represents treason to God. It also represents treason to any country founded upon that God. George Washington, spying the revolution of atheists, radicals, and deists in France, devoted a portion of his “farewell address” to warn our nation of the consequences of such blasphemy. In this passage—often quoted merely for its positive reference to religion—notice the emphasis on reputation (name) and oath:
Of all the dispositions and habits, which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports. In vain would that man claim the tribute of patriotism, who should labor to subvert these great pillars of human happiness, these firmest props of the duties of men and citizens. The mere politician, equally with the pious man, ought to respect and to cherish them. A volume could not trace all their connexions with private and public felicity. Let it simply be asked, where is the security for property, for reputation, for life, if the sense of religious obligation desert the oaths, which are the instruments of investigation in courts of justice? And let us with caution indulge the supposition, that morality can be maintained without religion. Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education on minds of peculiar structure, reason and experience both forbid us to expect, that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle. It is substantially true, that virtue or morality is a necessary spring of popular government. The rule, indeed, extends with more or less force to every species of free government. Who, that is a sincere friend to it, can look with indifference upon attempts to shake the foundation of the fabric?
Atheists and humanists begin with man and wish to derive “hate speech” from that standard. This devolves into a state where individuals, culture, law, and art can curse and mock all religion, virtue, sexuality, and all transcendent standards, and seek legal protection for such acts. Thus, homosexuality, for example, which incarnates a gross perversion of the sex act—indeed the ultimate mockery of it—seeks legal protection from even criticism. Even to decry homosexuality as a perversion is to practice “hate speech” according to such a worldview, and in some so-called liberal democracies that boast of so-called “free speech,” a preacher who even reads the Bible’s condemnation of homosexual perversion publicly can find himself in jail.
Mankind, you see, cannot escape “blasphemy” laws: the question is of who determines what constitutes blasphemy.
Meanwhile, to highlight a degenerate society’s social hypocrisy, the standard interpersonal curses themselves pertain to sexuality: listen to any rap radio station and you will drown in a deluge of racial slurs interspersed with epithets of maternal incest, while any given foul-mouth on the street finds his readiest curse in willing a forcible sex act upon his annoyer: “f— you.” Humanism wishes legally to protect its perversions while in practice admitting them to be perverse, employing them as curses.
When society displays such characteristics, it reveals the depth of its rebellion against the Creator. The proper way to protect name, reputation, and human rights in general, is not to profane God and exalt man, but just the opposite. Unless men first revere God and honor an ultimate allegiance to the divine origin of mankind, and protect these beliefs by legal consequence, they shall denigrate everything glorious that man can be, and then protect their perversions and obscenity by recourse to legal force (as we have begun to see now).
And so, as with many others of the Ten Commandments, the Third presents us with something that sounds elementary and perhaps even almost trivial on the surface, but in reality reaches to the most profound depths of human experience. Based on something that we take for granted every day—a name—God shakes us to the very core of our identity. “What’s in a name?” If you’re talking about God, the answer is “everything.”
1 Shakespeare, “Romeo and Juliet,” II.ii.33–49.
2 Quoted in R. J. Rushdoony, The Institutes of Biblical Law, 116.
3 Christopher Hill, Society and Puritanism in Pre-Revolutionary England (New York: Schocken Books, 1967 1964]) 419.
4 Hill, 382.
5 R. J. Rushdoony, The Institutes of Biblical Religion, 110.
6 Reported by Peter Hammond, “Blasphemy Debate at University,” rontline Fellowship News, 2009 Ed. 2, 7.
7 Peter Hammond, “Blasphemy Debate at University,” Frontline Fellowship News, 7.
8 Partially quoted in R. J. Rushdoony, The Institutes of Biblical Religion, 112.
[Article originally posted June 5, 2009.]