The Lord’s name in vain

Of the ten commandment, the third instructs that a person “shall not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain for the Lord will not hold him guiltless that taketh his name in vain” (Exodus 20:7 KJV). But what, exactly, does this mean?

Some translations (such as NIV, for example) render the prohibition as relating to “misusing” God’s name. While this does make sense, rather than relating to cursing, I want to propose a different reading altogether. When the ten commandments were given, Israel was an emerging population with a new, monotheistic religion in a region of heavy polytheism. Perhaps taking the Lord’s name in vain thus referred to taking on an insincere spiritual identity. In other words, was God cautioning his followers not to proclaim themselves to be his worshiper but then continue comporting oneself in the same manner as the pagan polytheists in the region?

The same premise still holds in the Christian era. Christians should not merely call themselves “Christians” in name only, but demonstrating with their lives that they lack Christ’s redemption work within them? This is not the same thing as being perfect—no one can be perfect—but rather giving mere lip service to one’s identity as a Christian is fundamentally prohibited.

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