What does it mean to use the Lord’s name in vain? This is a question that might seem self-evident to most people in western society. Whether you are religious or not, you would not even hesitate with your answer...
I often struggled with how to reconcile my faith in God with my occasional under my breath damming of something or other. So I've done some researched on the original words used, naqa (vain), I read several commentaries, researched on-line, and prayed. These are the best explanations I have found.
Some people believe the reason why this is a violation of the third commandment is because people are using God’s name in a “vain,” “worthless,” or “empty” way. In this case, to say “God damn it is not the same as seriously calling upon God to damn something or someone. For these people, if you say it seriously, fine, but if you say it casually, then you have used His name in an empty way and thereby broken the third commandment.
If the principle that we are going by is that we are not to use God’s name and not really mean it, then I believe that we are very inconsistent in what we take offense to as a culture. Why don’t people get offended when others say “God bless you?” Do you think that every time someone says this that they really mean it? Do you think that in their mind they are talking to God, beseeching on your behalf for a blessing? Just about every email I get ends with the phrase, “God bless.” I seriously doubt that that person actually said a prayer for me before he or she hit send. If this is the case, then why is saying ”God bless you” not just as much a violation of the third commandment as saying “God damn you?” Is it more biblical to ask for God’s kindness or judgment? I don’t think anyone who is honest with themselves can say that they are consistent in this regard. Saying “God damn it” and not meaning it should be just as bad as saying “God bless you” and not meaning it.
This is the most important so I have saved it for last. In fact, if what I am about to say is true, then other arguments really make a difference. The question is this: What does it mean to use God’s name in an empty or vain way? What does the third commandment really mean? It is hard to tell from a simple word study on the Hebrew term naqa (vain). As well, our understanding of a “name” and what it signifies is much different than what it meant in the context in which this commandment was given. What we have to do is to try to understand what it meant then, so that we can understand what it means now. It does us no good to anachronistically impose our understanding upon an ancient text. This is eisegesis (reading into the text what we presuppose), not exegesis (letting the text speak on its own terms).
Briefly, here is what I believe your studies will show. The nations to which the Israelites were going had many gods. They were highly superstitious. Their prophets would often use the name of their god in pronouncements. The usage could be in a curse, hex, or even a blessing. They would use the name of their god to give their statements, whatever they may be, authority. To pronounce something in their own name would not have given their words much weight, but to pronounce something in the name of a god meant that people would listen and fear. They may have said, “In the name of Baal, there will be no rain for 40 days.” Or “In the name of Marduk, I say that you will win this battle.” This gave the prophet much power and authority. But, as we know, there is no Baal or Marduk. Since this is the case, they did not really make such pronouncement and therefore the words of the prophet had no authority and should neither have been praised or feared.
God was attempting to prevent the Israelites from doing the same thing. God was saying for them not to use His name like the nations used the names of their gods. He did not want them to use His name to invoke false authority behind pronouncements. In essence, God did not want the Israelites to say that He said something that He had not said. This makes sense. God has a reputation to protect. He does not want anyone saying “Thus sayeth the Lord” if the Lord had not spoken. All of you have experienced this. You have had people say you said something you did not say. This can be very damaging to your character. It is very destructive to your name. Why? Because it makes you out to be something that you are not. How much more important is it for God to protect His character? It is fitting that God would have put this as one of the ten most important commandments as the nation of Israel moved towards Canaan.
What does this mean for us? Well, for starters we understand that the third commandment is certainly not focused on something so trivial as saying “God damn it!” The funny thing is that while some people may never think of using that phrase, people all over the Christian religious landscape are breaking the third commandment every day, damaging the Lord’s reputation. “Thus sayeth the Lord . . .” “God told me to tell you . . .” “God says that if you send in this much money, you will be blessed.” I could go on and on, but you get the point. Using the name of the Lord in vain means that you do damage to His reputation and character through false and unsure claims. Think again before you say “God said . . .” Make sure that He has really said it. If you are unsure, make your statement reflect your uncertianty. Saying “I think God is telling you to . . .” rather than “God is telling you to . . .” may not be as authoritative, but it will keep God’s reputation safe and keep you from breaking the third commandment.