I sometime get amused by “Christian cussing.” You know, when a Christian who’s trying to watch his language uses a near-miss word instead of profanity: “Gosh darn it” or “son-of-a-gun,” for example. Although this verse doesn’t really address the issue of profanity, believers use this command as a reminder to be careful about our speech. It’s always good to be careful about your speech, but naturally everyone knows what the person is trying to say without saying it.
Traditionally, a lot of Christians have used this verse to outlaw using the Lord’s name (either “God” or “Jesus” or some derivative) as a swear word. This is why you won’t hear orthodox or practicing Jews use the name “Yahweh” which is probably how the name “I am” was pronounced in the original Hebrew. They took this command so seriously that they substituted the name Adonai (a generic term for “lord” or “master”) when his name came up for public reading of Scripture. Even today, if they are writing about him, they will use the word G-d instead of spelling out that simple three-letter word. Their reasoning is that if you never actually use his name, you can’t misuse it.
While it is true that using our beloved Lord’s name as a swear word shows a lack of respect (and so it’s not a good idea), I would submit that by just focusing on this aspect, we miss a large part of the command. I found out about this alternate interpretation of the third Commandment while listening to Dennis Prager (a conservative Jewish pundit) on his national radio program. He’s a political commentator, but he also teaches the Torah from the original Hebrew in weekly Bible classes, and has taken 18 years to complete the course one time with his students. He claims that this verse has a lot more to do with how we live than just with our speech. The verse was rendered “Thou shalt not take the name of the LORD thy God in vain” in the King James, and we’re told not to “misuse” his name according to the NIV.
According to Prager, however, literally the verse orders us not to “carry the name of the Lord your God wrongly.” He interprets this to mean that when we “carry” his name as his ambassadors and we misrepresent him by our conduct, the Lord takes that very seriously. As he points out, this is the only commandment with a special warning that he won’t hold someone guiltless who disobeys him in this matter (notice there’s no such warning attached to murder or adultery), and if this interpretation is correct we can see why.
Please keep in mind that when the Scriptures talk about someone's "name," they're talking about more than a proper noun by which to address someone (like "Steve" or "Maria"). The authors frequently use the term in the sense of "reputation" or "authority," just like we often do in English (e.g. "The company lost its good name when the scandal became public," or "The press secretary is speaking in the name of the President when he speaks to the press"). Dennis's interpretation gains a lot more weight when we consider this.
For example, ask any restaurant server at a restaurant about “hell day.” This is their common slang for Sunday, when tons of Christians come in for lunch after church wearing nice clothes, pray extensively over their meal, and then proceed to treat their server like something you scrape off your shoe (being rude to them, leaving a mess and no tip, etc.). Or think about the times that you cut someone off while sporting a Christian bumper sticker. And what do the people at work think about you, the ones who know that you claim Jesus as your Lord and Savior?
Look, I honestly think that Prager overstates his case when he says that this commandment only has to with our behavior, not our speech. It's disrespectful to speak of God in any flippant way. The Lord Jesus solemnly warns us that "everyone will have to give account on the day of judgment for every empty word they have spoken." But Dennis makes a strong (and very convicting) point: When we misrepresent him by our conduct, when we cause nonbelievers to turn away from the Lord because of how we act, God Almighty takes that extremely seriously, maybe even more seriously than letting a "curse" word slip.
You might never use a swear word in your everyday language, but how are you “carrying” his name to the people you encounter?
Father God, you are perfect, and I’m certainly not. Please let people see more of you and less of me. By how I speak and how I act, may I proclaim whom I belong to. Please please please let me carry your name to them in a way that draws them closer to you, never turning them away.
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