“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.” (Exodus 20:7)
The primary prohibition of this commandment is the prohibition of breaking contract. It is wrong to invoke the name of God to validate the truthfulness of one’s statement when it is actually untrue. It is wrong to call God as witness to a contract, to make a vow before him, and then to break contract or vow. This is the way the third commandment is used in Scripture (Lev. 19:12; Matt. 5:33-34, 37; 23:16 ff.; 26:63). James 5:12 prohibits the using of an oath in any event. It seems that the Christian, by the very name he bears, has validation enough for every statement he makes. His word should be his bond. His yes or no are complete in themselves. For a Christian to break contract or to tell a lie is to break the third commandment, for it is to use profanely the name of God which he bears, whether or not he invokes the name. Though breaking a contract given in God’s name is the primary focus of the third commandment, there are other implications.
Did Jesus and James forbid all oath taking? Some have held that it is wrong to take an oath in court or to swear allegiance to one’s nation. The first problem with this view is that the Israelites were commanded to swear by the name of their God (Deut. 6:13; 10:20), and it was considered praiseworthy (Ps. 63:11). In line with this, Paul often said, “For God is my witness” and at least once took an oath (Rom. 1:9; 1 Thess. 2:5, 10). God himself takes oaths and swears by his own name (e.g., Heb. 6:16 ff.). Christ spoke under oath in court (Matt. 26:63). How is this apparent conflict to be resolved? Most branches of the church have held that Christ and James are reinforcing the teaching originally intended to prohibit oath breaking, not oath taking.
Of course the scope of prohibition was broader than just the breaking of a formal oath. In the first place, a covenant people (Exod. 19:5-6; 1 Pet. 2:5, 9) are name-bearers of God, and, by virtue of that, every word they speak must be trustworthy, every act in conformity with the covenant or oath of allegiance they have sworn to God. Who has broken the solemn vow of marriage in getting a divorce? The Lord will not hold him guiltless who takes his name in vain. Who has broken the solemn pledge given at baptism? The Lord will not hold him guiltless who takes his name in vain.
Sometimes it seems impossible to live up to the promises made, for every promise, even every yes and no of a Christian, is given in God’s presence. He is the witness. Difficult to be sure, but God loves the kind of person who sticks to his word no matter how costly (Ps. 15:4). God loves the bankrupt businessman who spends his life attempting to repay his creditors. Integrity, rock-ribbed integrity, is the key idea in the third commandment and in the reinforcement given by Christ and James.
In the second place, the custom of invoking God’s name to induce confidence in what one says had become so commonplace as to empty it of meaning. They were literally “taking God’s name in vain.” Today people use God’s name without meaning it—mindlessly profaning God’s holy name, often just a habit revealing an impoverished vocabulary. Even preachers use God’s name flippantly, in a casual way, or in quoting a profane person. Against this both Jesus Christ and his brother James spoke stern words of warning.
Is this the only prohibition of the third commandment? Literally, to “take in vain” means to use in an empty way. Therefore, to use God’s name without meaning it is to use it profanely. In a sense, to pray or to sing without meaning it is to use God’s name in vain. The great temptation of those in full-time Christian work is to do religious activity professionally, simply to go through the routine of “performing” a church service. This is another way to profane the name of God.
Certainly any sort of irreverence violates the third commandment. To joke about sacred things or to joke with sacred things in such a way as to debase them is to act profanely. To use sacred things or words emptied of sacred meaning is wrong. For this reason, jokes about the Bible or sacred Bible truths, such as baptism, are not fitting for the Christian who holds God’s name and God’s things in high reverence.
Some people seem to use God’s name in vain by repeating it often in prayer without thought. Others invoke God’s name on almost every decision or plan they make. “God said . . .” “God told me to . . .” God’s name is invoked to validate almost every activity. This may be genuine so far as a person’s heart condition is concerned, but there is the danger that this may become profane, invoking God’s name when it is not altogether certain that God himself stands behind that particular choice or activity.
What of minced oaths? Do these violate the third commandment? The sensitive Christian needs to be especially careful that he does not judge others too severely in these matters. Nevertheless, a good rule might be for the Christian to refrain from using any term that a standard dictionary identifies as being a substitute for true profanity. Certainly the Christian desires to give no appearance of evil.
What of humorous language? Christ says that we must give account for every idle word that we speak (Matt. 12:36). Ephesians 5:4 seems to prohibit levity of any kind. My understanding of the passage in Ephesians is that Paul is actually speaking of what we might call dirty jokes or impure speech (Eph. 4:29). It can hardly be held a sin to speak with a humorous touch since Christ himself did so on more than one occasion. When he nicknamed James and John the “Sons of Thunder,” it can hardly be understood as a dead-serious speech. A log in one’s eye or a camel crawling through a needle’s eye are not solemn illustrations. Actually, humor can be anything but idle. It can be very productive of good.
Yet there are other standards that must be maintained. For example, humor should not hurt another person. However, humor to relieve tension, to counteract a heavy-handed approach is certainly productive of good. Sometimes a humorous touch will get across a message where the direct approach would be unacceptable. Humor is not necessarily a sin. Does it produce good, or is it idle, nonproductive foolishness? Does it violate the law of reverence or the law of love, or does it spring from love in a spirit of reverence for God?
For the people of God, words have a sacramental character. Jesus is the living Word of God. The Scriptures are the written Word of God. Our mandate is to speak and live the Word of God in the world reverently and consistently. The third commandment charges believers, avowed name-bearers of God (James 2:7), never to profane the name in word or behavior.