The Third Commandment prohibits profanity, swearing and cursing: “You shall not take the name of the LORD your God in vain.” Its positive is to honor His name.
Is it wrong to “swear to God”?
Jesus made it clear that God does not expect or want us to swear by anything, but rather, to be truthful in all our dealings, developing a reputation of trustworthiness. To that end, Christians shouldn’t emphasize the truth of their statements by saying “I swear to God,” but rather by letting their “‘Yes’ be ‘Yes’” and their “‘No,’ ‘No’” (Matthew 5:37).
This Third Commandment is recorded in Exodus 20:7: “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.” This is repeated in Deuteronomy 5:11.
To not take God’s name in vain means to not take it lightly and to never use God’s holy name as a thoughtless, hateful curse! This is perhaps the most common and lightly treated sin today, as profanity is splashed all over our music, television shows and movies. But God tells us to stop using blasphemy and filthy language and to bless rather than curse.
The apostle Paul wrote to the Christians in Colosse, “But now you yourselves are to put off all these: anger, wrath, malice, blasphemy, filthy language out of your mouth” (Colossians 3:8). He also gave this instruction to the church in Rome, “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse” (Romans 12:14).
Another common form of taking God’s name lightly or thoughtlessly is using euphemisms for His name. Read more about this in the accompanying article “Euphemisms: Should Christians Avoid Euphemisms for God?” It includes a chart listing common words used often used casually in place of God’s name.
Reverencing God and representing Him properly
Instead of using His name in vain with profanity, we are to reverence God and represent His name well.
Jesus Christ called on His followers to set the right example so people would glorify God’s name. “You are the light of the world. A city that is set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do they light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a lampstand, and it gives light to all who are in the house. Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven” (Matthew 5:14-16).
Jesus told us that God’s name should be “hallowed” in our prayers.In contrast, Paul warned that our wrong actions could defame God’s name: “You who make your boast in the law, do you dishonor God through breaking the law? For ‘the name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you,’ as it is written” (Romans 2:24, alluding to Old Testament passages such as Isaiah 52:5 and Ezekiel 36:22).
Jesus warned about claiming God’s name but not actually obeying Him:
“Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father in heaven. Many will say to Me in that day, ‘Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in Your name, cast out demons in Your name, and done many wonders in Your name?’ And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness!’” (Matthew 7:21-23).
He also decried the hypocrisy of those whose words were good but whose hearts and actions told a much different story:
“‘These people draw near to Me with their mouth, and honor Me with their lips, but their heart is far from Me. And in vain they worship Me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men’” (Matthew 15:8-9).
So even respectful words can be used in vain by those whose lives show disrespect for God’s ways.
Prayers and praise, not profanity
Jesus told us that God’s name should be “hallowed” in our prayers (Matthew 6:9). This is translated “kept holy” in the New Living Translation and the Modern Language Bible.
The book of Psalms and many other parts of the Bible give examples of the praise and honor that are due God’s name. Here are just a few:
- “O LORD, our Lord, how excellent is Your name in all the earth, who have set Your glory above the heavens” (Psalm 8:1).
- “Give unto the LORD, O you mighty ones, give unto the LORD glory and strength. Give unto the LORD the glory due to His name; worship the LORD in the beauty of holiness” (Psalm 29:1-2).
- “Bless the LORD, O my soul; and all that is within me, bless His holy name! Bless the LORD, O my soul, and forget not all His benefits: who forgives all your iniquities, who heals all your diseases, who redeems your life from destruction, who crowns you with lovingkindness and tender mercies, who satisfies your mouth with good things, so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s” (Psalm 103:1-5).
- “Blessed be the name of God forever and ever, for wisdom and might are His. And He changes the times and the seasons; He removes kings and raises up kings; He gives wisdom to the wise and knowledge to those who have understanding. He reveals deep and secret things; He knows what is in the darkness, and light dwells in Him” (Daniel 2:20-22).
- “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit has rejoiced in God my Savior” (Luke 1:46-47).
- “You are worthy, O Lord, to receive glory and honor and power; for You created all things, and by Your will they exist and were created” (Revelation 4:11).
Magnify God’s name
Psalm 34:3 says, “Oh, magnify the LORD with me, and let us exalt His name together.”
This is just one of six times in the Psalms and seven other places in the Bible we are told to magnify God, or where the words magnified or magnifies are used about God’s name. But what does that really mean? How can we do that?
Have you ever wondered what it means for us, mortal, weak human beings, to magnify God’s name? To glorify Him and to bless His name? We have no glory to give Him, and no blessing to give Him.
So why are we to magnify God? It’s certainly not because we can make God bigger! And it’s not because He needs our praise and magnification.
It’s for us. We humans are the ones who are short-sighted and need the magnification to help us spiritually see and remember what He has done and is doing.
The book of Job helps us see this. Job 36:24-25 is a proclamation by Elihu about God, and it’s setting the stage for God Himself to speak to Job just a couple chapters later.
“Remember to magnify His work, of which men have sung. Everyone has seen it; man looks on it from afar.”
That explains why we need to magnify God and His works—because we are myopic, short-sighted humans, and we are far from Him. It’s like we need a telescope to see what should be plain to us. We need magnification, not because God is small, but because our spiritual eyesight is so bad.
Magnification is helpful for us in appreciating God’s physical creation as well. A 20th-century photographer named Roman Vishniac said:
“Everything made by human hands looks terrible under magnification—crude, rough, and asymmetrical. But in nature [or I would call it, in God’s creation] every bit of life is lovely. And the more magnification we use, the more details are brought out, perfectly formed, like endless sets of boxes within boxes.”
And so on both the physical and spiritual level, it’s for our benefit that God wants us to focus on and magnify His name. We need it.
And He is certainly deserving of all praise and glory and honor and magnification!
Praying in Jesus’ name
It is amazing that Jesus Christ gives His followers the awesome privilege to pray using His name! “If you ask anything in My name, I will do it” (John 14:14).
We must not misuse this privilege; it is not like a genie in a bottle. We are only to ask according to His will, not selfishly.
As the apostle John wrote, “Now this is the confidence that we have in Him, that if we ask anything according to His will, He hears us. And if we know that He hears us, whatever we ask, we know that we have the petitions that we have asked of Him” (1 John 5:14-15).
Instead of using profanity, we are to “do all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through Him” (Colossians 3:17).
Swear not at all
In His magnification of the spiritual intent of God’s law in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus set the standard for Christians. Christians should not swear; their every statement should be as truthful and sure as if they had taken an oath.
“Again you have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but shall perform your oaths to the Lord.’ But I say to you, do not swear at all: neither by heaven, for it is God’s throne; nor by the earth, for it is His footstool; nor by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King.
“Nor shall you swear by your head, because you cannot make one hair white or black. But let your ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No,’ ‘No.’ For whatever is more than these is from the evil one” (Matthew 5:33-37).
James reiterated this teaching in his letter: “But above all, my brethren, do not swear, either by heaven or by earth or with any other oath. But let your ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No,’ ‘No,’ lest you fall into judgment” (James 5:12).
This, of course, overlaps with the Ninth Commandment against lying. See “Ninth Commandment: You Shall Not Bear False Witness.”
The power of God’s name
God’s name represents the Almighty Creator God, and there is power in His holy name.God’s name represents the Almighty Creator God, and there is power in His holy name. After Jesus sent out 70 disciples, they “returned with joy, saying, ‘Lord, even the demons are subject to us in Your name’” (Luke 10:17).
Looking at the downward spiral of this evil world, the prophet Isaiah called out for God to reveal Himself in power:
“Oh, that You would rend the heavens! That You would come down! That the mountains might shake at Your presence—as fire burns brushwood, as fire causes water to boil—to make Your name known to Your adversaries, that the nations may tremble at Your presence!” (Isaiah 64:2).
Daniel also prayed for God to intervene powerfully:
“O Lord, hear! O Lord, forgive! O Lord, listen and act! Do not delay for Your own sake, my God, for Your city and Your people are called by Your name” (Daniel 9:19).
Those called by God’s name have the tremendous responsibility to represent His name properly, but they also have the awesome blessing of God’s care for those who are His.
In the end when God’s power is poured out and He intervenes to save humanity from self-destruction, the angels will sing this prophetic song:
“Great and marvelous are Your works, Lord God Almighty! Just and true are Your ways, O King of the saints! Who shall not fear You, O Lord, and glorify Your name? For You alone are holy. For all nations shall come and worship before You, for Your judgments have been manifested” (Revelation 15:3-4).
Then all people will know and glorify God’s name!
In order to apply the Third Commandment today, we need to not treat it carelessly or with profanity, but with deep respect and honor. For more about the greatness of God’s name, see “Names of God” and “The Power and Greatness of God.”