Over the past few months, I have noticed a growing sensitivity on my part to the frequency with which people – including otherwise devout Christians – will take the Lord’s Name in vain. I think it started when I caught myself doing it once or twice- something I was raised never to do. This showed me that there was something terribly wrong with my inner spiritual life that I would break that commandment. I began to take note of how I spoke, and began to see that in fact my violation of the second commandment was far more frequent than I had thought, because I had developed over the years the habit of saying “My Lord” or “Dear Lord” where other people would say “My God” as it seemed less crass. However, anyone familiar with Hebrew language and Jewish custom, as well at the conventions for translating the Old Testament into English, know that in most instances the translation “Lord” is in fact following the Jewish tradition of saying “Adonai” (Lord) or “HaShem” (The Name) whenever one encounters the proper Divine Name יהוה( which is often speculated to be pronounced “Yahweh”). So in fact, I was more directly taking the Lord’s Name in vain than if I were saying “Oh my God.”
The funny thing is, I have noticed that people over the years who know I am a devout Christian tend to apologize if they accidently use a profanity in front of me. I tend to shrug and say that it’s nothing I haven’t heard – or on occasion used myself – before, and there’s no real need to apologize. However, people will frequently throw out sayings such as “God!” or “Jesus Christ!” as expletives without giving it a second thought. Moreover, I have noticed the tendency to use “God” or “Jesus” or “Lord” in sentences as filler words like they would “Ummm” or “like” or “yeah.” In reality, I have come to see that these are far more troubling than the use of profanity, because these are blasphemy. That may be at first glance hard to grasp, but I have been giving it some thought which I will present here, now.
In Exodus chapter 20, God gives His Ten Commandments to Moses on Mt. Sinai. The first two (in Protestant tradition, first three) of which are:
1) I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. You shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for youself a graven image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth; you shall not bow down to them or serve them; for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing mercy to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments.
2) 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.
The very first commandment prohibits idolatry and demands worship of the LORD alone, for He is the one who brought Israel out of Egypt. I think it is very significant that after prohibiting idolatry, the LORD goes on to prohibit taking His Name “in vain.”
But what does this mean? The Hebrew might also be translated “You shall not take up the Name of the Lord your God for vanity.” The word “vain, vanity” is the Hebrew word “שוא” – pronounced “shav.” Shav means “emptiness, worthlessness, nothingness” in addition to “vain”, which clarifies the meaning. It means to take up His Name worthlessly, with an empty purpose. But why so?
As we have noted above with the first commandment, He is the Lord who brought them out of Egypt with a powerful hand. The people of Israel received these commandments at the foot of Mt. Sinai, which was rumbling and trembling at the Presence of God. Scripture tells us elsewhere that the cherubim and seraphim of heaven worship this great God constantly, with veiled faces and downcast eyes at the radiance of His glory. (Isaiah 6) Indeed, when Moses asks God later in Exodus to see His Face, God tells Him that none can see His Face and live. (Exodus 33) Psalm 91 tells us of the Lord’s faithfulness and protection for the one who knows Him and loves His Name: “Because he clings to me in love, I will deliver Him; I will protect him, because He knows my Name. When He calls to me, I will answer Him; I will be with him in trouble, I will rescue him and honor him. With long life I will satisfy him, and show him my salvation.” In the New Testament, we are shown that the Name of Jesus holds the same weight, because “there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.” (Acts 4:12) He is a powerful and mighty God, whom we must reverence. And also, as we begin to see with Psalm 91 – and above all in the person of Jesus Christ – He is a loving and faithful God who loves us with a love beyond all understanding, and will deliver us from every distress if we turn to Him. In this light, why would one wish to use the Name of so great a Love as an expletive or filler in a sentence?
In the Old Testament we see the consequences of sinning against so great a Love. The prophets’ writings are full of God’s grief against a people who sinned against so great a love. Particularly poignant is the book of Hosea, where God shows himself as a faithful and loving husband to a people who are like an adulteress and prostitute, rejecting His love and cheating on Him. Jeremiah ties all of this in closely with taking the Name of the Lord in vain:
“Behold, you who trust in deceptive words to no avail. Will you steal, murder, commit adultery, swear falsely, burn incense to Ba’al and go after other gods that you have not known, and then come and stand before Me in this house, which is called by My Name, and say “We are delivered!” – only to go on doing all these abominations? Has this house, which is called by My Name, become a den of robbers in your eyes? Behold, I Myself have seen it, says the Lord.” (Jeremiah 7:8-11)
In response to God’s punishment for these actions, the Jews who returned from the Exile to Babylon made staunch efforts not to commit these sins again. In Maccabees and the New Testament we read of zealous Jews who defied the pagan overlords who would attempt to have them worship false gods again. The Pharisaic movement began as a lay movement to bring the precepts of God’s Law into the every day life of God’s people. The practice of not even daring to pronounce the Divine Name developed, substituting it for Adonai or HaShem. We see evidence of this practice in Jesus’ trial in the Gospel of Mark where God is referred to as “the Blessed One” and “the Power”. Indeed, the Name was pronounced only by the High Priest once a year on the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur). One has to admit, this reverence for all things pertaining to God, especially His Name, in light of a society today where there is nothing sacred and the Name of God is treated as an expletive or filler, has something that rings profoundly true. Indeed, I picked up the practice of substituting the Divine Name with HaShem from an Orthodox Jewish friend a few years ago.
However, we should be cautious with this extreme as well. I noticed within myself about a year ago that this point of Jewish piety had become so ingrained into me that when I was at Mass and the priest who was preaching pronounced the Name “Yahweh,” I flinched and initially found myself shocked that he had pronounced the Divine Name. This caused me to reflect, because he had done nothing wrong – he was clearly a man of great love and reverence for the Lord and his speaking the Name was born out of that. This was in fact part of the error of the Pharisees, that they became locked into their piety and ended up missing the whole Point of the Law to which they were devoted when He came among them. As our Lord cautioned: “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat; so practice and observe whatever they tell you, but not what they do; for they preach but they do not practice. They bind heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on men’s shoulders; but they themselves will not move them with their finger.” (Matthew 23: 2-4) This can itself become a way of taking God’s Name in vain, just as much as when we thoughtlessly use it as filler in a sentence.
Reverence for the Divine Name requires reverence for all things pertaining to God, including all those made in His Image. So often in our society, we Christians lament the lack of reverence for the things of God. And yet, how much do we consider how we show reverence for Him ourselves? Do we take His Name in vain? Has “O my God” or some other verbal blasphemy made its way into our speech without our realizing it? But at the same time, are we showing reverence for God and His Name by how we conduct ourselves and treat one another? As with all things in the Christian life, I think there needs to be prayerful reflection and seeking to find the narrow way of which our blessed Lord spoke. We must really look at ourselves. Thoughtlessly and irreverently invoking the Name of God is quite seriously blasphemy and we need to examine the way we speak as Christians. St. Paul tells us in Colossians 4:6 “Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer everyone.” At the same time, one who is innocent in regards the literal meaning of the second commandment, while blissfully unaware of his own hardness of heart and his irreverence for God in how he loves his neighbor – unto the least of whom he did it he did it unto Christ – is equally blasphemous. The sin of the self-righteous Pharisee, ignorant of his own sins but vigilant concerning the sins of others is a temptation to which we are all subject.
I think that if we are to truly turn around the irreverence for God and all that pertains to Him that we see everywhere, we need to start with ourselves- how we speak, how we use His Name, and how we show reverence for that Name which is our Salvation by our actions in loving our neighbor. It is not an either-or situation. However, the main point with which I have concerned myself here in this writing is more the underscoring of the literal reverence for the Name of God and of Jesus Christ which the second commandment requires and how that is essential and inseparable from the deeper meanings of that commandment. Blasphemy against the Name of God and of Jesus Christ is a serious matter, and not to be treated as a non-issue. We must show reverence for God by how we speak of Him and use His Name. If His people won’t, who will?
*All Biblical texts quoted come from the Revised Standard Version: Second Catholic Edition*