The Ten Commandments: The Third

The third of the Ten Commandments seems simple at first read: we are not to take God’s name in vain. But the more we think about it, the deeper our reflections will become on what it means to honor God and cherish His name above all else. The commandment 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.

In the Hebrew the word “vain” means something like worthless, empty, or nothingness. In Jeremiah 18:15 it is used in the phrase “false gods.” In Jeremiah 2:30 it describes the wasted effort as ‘in vain’ is Judah struck. When we see that we are not to treat God’s name in vain, we are not to disregard it as having little value.

God’s name is YHWH. He is the “I AM WHO I AM” (Ex. 3:14). His name is his identity; it describes His character. In the ancient world, names were not merely identifiers or labels. They were descriptive of character. God’s name is good (Ps. 52:9; 54:6). It is not to be taken for granted or invoked lightly. It isn’t to be something that one utters carelessly or with disregard. We are talking about a high holy and mighty person. Just as we would never address a royal figure with slang terms, casually throw around their name, or give them a cutesy nickname, so also we show reverence for the name of God by upholding it and honoring it.

As John Currid writes, “When someone insincerely or thoughtlessly invokes God’s name, that person is proclaiming that God’s being, nature, and essence are worthless. On the positive side, the Third Commandment means that the Hebrews are to revere and honour the name of Yahweh.”[1]

There are lots of ways that we can fulfill and obey the third commandment today:

1. Don’t speak flippantly with the terms God and Lord. While in the English language “God” is technically not a name, YHWH is the name of God, we still honor the being of God when we are careful with how we refer to him. Because we use the English words God and Lord to refer to the highest and supreme of all beings, we should be careful how we use it in our references. Sometimes we might use the word to refer to other things, like when we say ‘the god of Islam’ or ‘the gods of Hinduism,’ nevertheless, in most contexts when we say “O’ God” or “God” plus an expletive, we are taking God’s name in vain. We aren’t honoring who He is. There is no escape on a technicality for us by saying ‘well only YHWH is his name.’

2. Do not speak carelessly about God. This is more than just about how we use the term. We show little respect for God when we refer to him as ‘the big guy upstairs.’ Our speech about God should be careful to reflect who He is and what He is like. Speaking carefully about God can only happen when we think deeply about who God is and how He has revealed Himself.

3. Don’t make hasty oaths or promises. Many of us have at times quickly uttered the phrase “I swear to God” when we wanted to convince people we are telling the truth. Oaths before God are a serious thing. We are testifying before God and calling Him to be a witness. We are not to treat that lightly or frivolously. It is not something you slap on the end of a sentence to assure people this time your real mean it. God’s name is not a magic talisman that brings special power or assurance to those who invoke it. We are to speak carefully and respectfully.

4. Show reverence in words and thought. Obeying the third commandment does not mean we have to go around and avoid saying God’s name. We don’t have to omit vowel in G-d or one say ‘the name’ when we see his name like Hebrews both ancient and modern do. Rather, we are to show respect. Speak in ways that are fitting to refer to a king. Reflect in our speech how much we love him and how gratefully we are to Him. We get the privilege of calling God our Father. Like a child, we can walk into his presence and pray to Him and invoke His name as “our God”. But we still maintain a humble worshipful spirit that remembers who He is and that we are far below Him on bended knee.

As the Westminster Larger Catechism states:

Q. 112. What is required in the third commandment?
A. The third commandment requires, that the name of God, his titles, attributes, ordinances, the word, sacraments, prayer, oaths, vows, lots, his works, and whatsoever else there is whereby he makes himself known, be holily and reverently used in thought, meditation, word, and writing; by an holy profession, and answerable conversation, to the glory of God, and the good of ourselves, and others.

Tim Bertolet is a graduate of Lancaster Bible College and Westminster Theological Seminary.  He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Pretoria, South Africa. He is an ordained pastor in the Bible Fellowship Church. He is a husband and father of four daughters. You can follow him on Twitter @tim_bertolet.


[1] John Currid, Exodus Volume 2: EP Study Commentary (EP Books: Darlington, Eng., 2013) 41.


Tim Bertolet