The Ten Commandments -or the Decalogue as it is sometimes referred- was given to Moses by God at Mount Sinai shortly after the Hebrews left Egypt in the Exodus. The story of the Exodus is familiar to us, as is the corresponding story of the forty-year pilgrimage in the desert. My focus is on one of the commandments in particular and how it has been misinterpreted, resulting in its misapplication. I would like to share what I see as the proper interpretation of the commandment and the implication of this interpretation upon all who call upon the name of God.
The specific commandment is “Thou shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain.” The commandments can be found in the book of Exodus, chapter 20. Depending on one’s religious tradition, the placement of the commandment will vary. If one if Jewish, the commandment is third; if one is Catholic, it is second; if one is Protestant Christian, generally the commandment falls third. The wording of the commandment also differs depending on one’s religious tradition. For religious Jews, the wording of the commandment also includes the remainder of the passage found in Exodus 20: 7 which states, “…for the Lord will not hold him guiltless who takes his name in vain.” I believe this to be an important tool in instructing how important this commandment to be and I will return to it shortly.
The commandments as we understand them are ten laws that were given as precedent as the foundation for changing the character of the recently freed Israelites to reflect the nature and character of God for the benefit of the nations. It is important to remember that these laws were given at a particular time in history for a particular people. With that said, I believe that the Ten Commandments are still relevant to us in our contemporary setting. At the same time, many of the laws that are contained in the Levitical code are not relevant to us in our contemporary setting and I think we as Christians forget this important detail. But the Ten Commandments are as relevant as ever.
As it relates to this particular commandment, we often hear it translated as “You shall not use the Lord’s name in vain” and it has often been translated and understood to mean that we should refrain from using God’s name in conjunction with expletives- be them mild or explicit. Throughout many years of Christian and Catholic schooling, church attendance and seminary education, this is the commandment was taught and how it should be understood.
But as I said earlier, I believe this to be a misinterpretation and misapplication of the commandment. Though I agree that it’s inappropriate to use God’s name in conjunction with swearing, I don’t believe that is how we are to understand the depth, meaning, importance and the application of the commandment. The commandment of not taking the Lord’s name in vain does not expressly mean improperly using the Lord’s name in conjunction with an obscenity. I don’t believe that was God’s intention when he gave the commandment to Moses and the severity of the punishment seems to indicate as much.
The literal translation of the commandment from the Hebrew text is “You shall not carry God’s name in vain.” The word generally translated as “take” is the Hebrew word “tissa” which can mean either “take” or “carry” or “use,” based on the Hebrew lexicons I have used. The word translated as “vain” is the Hebrew word “la-shav,” but this word also means “empty,” “untrue,” or “thoughtless” in manner. As a side note, the word “vain” (la-shav) has also been translated to mean “false” as is found in Deuteronomy 5:20 based upon Strong’s Concordance in conjunction with a Hebrew lexicon. This hints to why the punishment was attached for breaking this commandment.
Understanding the commandment to mean we should not carry or use the Lord’s name in an empty, thoughtless or false manner, what is the thrust of the divine injunction? It means that to carry God’s name in an empty and thoughtless manner impugns his name and character. It also means participating or attributing something that is evil or false in the name of God. But one may ask how this is done.
One way this is done is when Islamic radicals murder innocent people and justify their actions or “religious duty” by invoking the name of God. When an Islamic terrorist yells, “Allahu Akbar” prior to murdering someone, they are claiming that in committing these acts of terror and violence, they are doing God’s will. This is an obvious case of attributing evil to the nature and character of God.
Another clear example is found in the sex scandals involving Catholic priests. When Catholic authorities chose not to promptly remove the predatory priests from their parishes whom they knew to be guilty of pedophilia, and subsequently chose to transfer them to other parishes which enabled them to continue to prey on children, this was an abuse of religious authority and faith that injured God’s name and his credibility. This also injured the body of Christ who are to be the faithful community of believers who bear his name on earth.
Considering the seriousness of attributing evil to God, we see why the latter part of the commandment says that God will not hold anyone guiltless for doing so. Another indicator of the severity of breaking this law is that it is the only one of the Ten Commandments where God clearly states that he will not forgive the commandment’s transgression. The transgression is so serious that it is repeated in the New Testament by Jesus in Matthew 12. In this text, the Pharisees were attributing Jesus’ power and ability to cast out demons to Beelzebub (Satan). In this passage, Jesus is quite clear in his admonishment of those who attribute the power of the Holy Spirit to Satan, labeling it blasphemy and teaching that those guilty of the offense would not be forgiven in this life or the next.
But why is it that God will not forgive the transgression of the commandment in the Old Testament and its corresponding indiscretion in the New Testament? The answer is simple, actually. When God’s name is desecrated, it discredits his reputation and alienates people who may have otherwise come to worship and have a relationship with him. The concept of desecrating God’s name in Judaism is referred to as “Chillul Hashem” which translates “to defame God’s name.” When God’s name is defamed and his character or reputation is ruined, it influences people to have a misconception of who God is and who his followers are. This is why God will not forgive those who are active in placing obstacles in the path of those who would find salvation.
As a result, religious Jews have a concept that they take seriously to thwart “Chillul Hashem” and it is something that I believe Christians should adopt as well and it is the concept of “Kiddush Hashem” meaning, “sanctifying God’s name.” What this means is that Christians have an obligation not to say or do anything that dishonors God’s name (and by extension, Christ) which would prevent others from coming into a relationship with Jesus. When we as Christians interact with non-Christians and they know our religious inclinations, we no longer represent ourselves individually but we also represent the church and the Christian faith. We are ambassadors of the faith and as such we must conduct ourselves in a manner worthy of being called a disciple of Christ. If we fail this task, we risk people making broad, negative generalizations about Christians based on our behavior and they may choose not to accept the free gift of grace in Christ.
Therefore, to use the Lord’s name in vain is to wrongly attribute his name, character or will to things that are empty, thoughtless, false and or evil- in other words conflating God with words and deeds that are not representative of his character. The punishment for this violation is that God will not forgive those who do. Knowing that, we have a duty to righteously reflect the nature of God in Christ by being disciples that serve the purpose of evangelizing through our actions which will result in bringing more souls to Christ and ultimately to God.
 The LXX translates “la shav” as “thoughtless.”
 Deuteronomy 5:20, “Neither shall you bear false witness against your neighbor.”
 “Allah Akbar” or “Allahu Akbar” does not mean “God is great.” In Arabic, the word for “great” is the word “Kabir” whereas “Akbar” means “greatest.” Therefore, when a terrorist yells “Allah/Allahu Akbar!” they are in effect saying God, or in their case Allah, is the greatest (of gods) and thus his will, must be enforced.
 Incidentally, this is why I suspect Moses was able to persuade God to relent from his anger when he sought to kill the Israelites for worshipping the golden calf at Sinai and again in the desert (Numbers 15), when God sought to strike them with pestilence for their ingratitude, both times suggesting that he would start over with Moses and his descendants. Had God done so, he would have belittled his name and would have undermined his character for the nations to see and judge.
 Religious Jews take this seriously and as such have been known to go to extremes to advance this cause. Though I argue Christians should follow this practice in principle, I stop short of advocating it to the extent it is followed in Judaism because it can be misinterpreted as righteousness through works and the focus of Christ can become peripheral in importance.