Taking the Lord’s title in vain

April 19, 2008 | 32 comments
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The Third Commandment tells us not to take the Lord’s name in vain. And for some reason, this practice has become strongly ingrained in Mormon social norms — I can easily name a dozen Mormons who cuss like sailors and drop “F-bombs” regularly, but who would never dream of injecting a “God” or “Lord” into the sentence.

But are we really getting it right? Is “God” really the Lord’s name, or is it just a title? And what exactly does the third commandment proscribe?

First of all, is God/Lord really a title? That is, is God’s name really God, or is it a more specific name — Elohim, Yahweh, Jehovah, Jesus?

Lord seems to be a title. It’s like President, or Sergeant. President Bush’s name isn’t “President” — that’s merely his title. One clue is that it’s typically used after “the” — “the Lord.” We don’t say “the Julie”; we do say “the President.”

God is probably a title too, isn’t it?

We’re supposed to remember that Yahweh/Jehovah is our God, and have no other Gods before him. Is that more like President, or more like a name? Having no Presidents before this President makes sense. It doesn’t make sense to say “I am your Nate, and you shall have no Nates before me.” God seems to clearly be a title, too.

So neither God nor Lord are names; they’re both titles.

And what exactly does the Third Commandment proscribe? I’m not an original-languages guy like Kevin or Julie, but as far as I can tell from the (English) language of Deuteronomy, the proscription seems to be on the use of the actual name. This gets complicated because the KJV translators translated Yahweh/Jehovah as LORD, rather than as the name itself. But look at a translation that kept Yahweh/Jehovah, and you see,

Thou shalt not take the name of Jehovah thy God in vain: for Jehovah will not hold him guiltless that taketh his name in vain.

That doesn’t look like a commandment not to say, “God.” And particularly not the more generic, “Lord.” It looks like a commandment not to say a particular name — the name of the Israelite God, Yahweh/Jehovah.

Does this mean we’re understanding the third commandment wrong? Is it really just a proscription on exclaiming “Yahweh,” and not a more general limit on taking the Lord’s title in vain?

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32 Responses to Taking the Lord’s title in vain

  1. Sarah on April 19, 2008 at 7:53 pm

    You can really name a dozen Mormons who swear like sailors? I can think of one who uses one (mild, the apocryphal aunt born in 1830 would say it without hesitation) swear word and feels so guilty about it that he lets his kids AND his friends demand a dollar from him every time he does it. I’ve gotten a free dinner out of that, but it’s still just one word — and one comparatively worldly California Mormon. No one else says much of anything stronger than “frak.” Maybe it’s that I don’t hang out with many middle-aged adult Mormon males?

    I always sort of thought of the 3rd commandment as a general “what you say matters” warning, kind of like how not bearing false witness also restricts other kinds of lying and not committing adultery is a broader “follow all the usual rules about chastity” instruction. But I’m a heathen, so.

  2. Mark B. on April 19, 2008 at 7:57 pm

    This is sort of like Nate’s paper on specific performance of personal service contracts. Even if you’re right on what the third commandment proscribes, or if Nate’s right that the 13th Amendment should not be read as prohibiting specific performance of such contracts (as to which I express no opinion–I haven’t finished reading the article yet), who’d want to do either of those things?

    Would our discourse really be improved if we suddenly felt liberated to drop a few of those words we now consider taboo into our conversation?

    (And, would we really want to have a court order the disgruntled employee to get back to work and do the job he contracted to do?)

  3. Rob G on April 19, 2008 at 8:06 pm

    I suppose I’ll give the original language comment. The Hebrew word here is ‘nasa’ which doesn’t mean ‘take’ as in ‘to say’, but ‘to take up’ or ‘to bear’ or ‘to carry’. The commandment isn’t a proscription of language usage at all, but of doing evil in God’s name. Thus, breakers of this commandment include priests (or bishops or anyone else) who molest children; people who blow up innocents in God’s name; missionaries who destroy faith; or anyone else claiming to represent the Lord while doing that which is contrary to his will. So, in a nutshell, Yes, we misunderstand this commandment.

  4. Dennis on April 19, 2008 at 8:26 pm

    I think we do misunderstand this commandment, and I like Mark’s (#2) comment.

    May I suggest that our analysis of this commandment is better served by looking at the word “vain,” not the word “name.” My reading is: do not invoke my name (my authority) in vain. This certainly could include cursing, but we are very remiss to see it that narrowly. This is made clear in D&C 63:60-62: “Behold, I am Alpha and Omega, even Jesus Christ. Wherefore, let all men beware how they take my name in their lips–For behold, verily I say, that many there be who use the name of the Lord, and use it in vain, having not authority.”

    This more contemporary use of the commandment should make it clear that (a) quibbling about what is a name and what is a title is fruitless and misses the mark and (b) the issue is referencing God (in any way) in vain, without authority.

  5. Jonathan Jardine on April 19, 2008 at 8:27 pm

    In addition to #3, I’ve understood the commandment to be an injunction to not take lightly any covenant, particularly the covenant of baptism, through which we take upon ourselves (i.e. “take up” or “bear” or “carry”) the name of Christ. We shouldn’t assume any ecclesiastical responsibility lightly, or “in vain.”

  6. Fenevad on April 19, 2008 at 8:52 pm

    Might want to add that there was an example in which Mike Huckabee was addressing a national Republican group (I’ve seen the video on YouTube) and pretended that God called him on his cell phone. He acted out one side of the dialogue in which God supposedly told him that George Bush was doing his will and a bunch of other political things (that all, conveniently, corresponded to the Rev. Huckabee’s positions). I ran into this on a political blog frequented by atheists, a number of whom (correctly, IMHO) pointed out that if Huckabee took that commandment seriously he was violating it by claiming to speak in the name of God without the right to do so and in a way that trivialized God. Interesting that the atheist crowd would pick up on it so readily. While I’m sure Huckabee could find a justification for his silly vignette and explain why it wasn’t really taking the name of God in vain, I actually found it more offensive in some ways than people whose language is rather colorful.

    On another note, I speak Hungarian, and in Hungarian song and speech the phrase “Jaj Istenem” or “O Istenem” (O my God) turns up all the time. Lots of missionaries try to stamp it out as bad, but in the Hungarian context it is (or can be, even if it isn’t always) seen as a marker of closeness to God and an invocation of the presence of the Lord in the moment. When seen that way, I find it hard to object to its use: it isn’t in vain, nothing bad is being done to others by saying the phrase, and it is done reverently. In fact the start of hymn 86 (How Great Thou Art) is rendered as “O Istenem,” showing that the words themselves are not the issue, but rather their particular use in a context. The same words thus, depending on the situation, can be taking the name of the Lord in vain or can be perfectly appropriate. Some times the usage we eschew does become too casual, to thoughtless, but that carelessness is far less serious in my opinion, than many of the things done seriously in the name of God, things that should not be done, but for which God becomes the cover.

  7. R Reeder on April 19, 2008 at 9:04 pm

    Re: #4–Continuing that quote in verse 64: “Remember that that which cometh from above is sacred, and must be spoken with care, and by constraint of the Spirit; and in this there is no condemnation, and ye receive the Spirit through prayer; wherefore, without this there remaineth condemnation.”

    Given that, I think that we ought to be cautious about using any sacred terms flippantly or carelessly. I think that probably connects with the injunctions in D&C 88:121 (and elsewhere): “Therefore, cease from all your light speeches, from all laughter, from all your lustful desires, from all your pride and light-mindedness, and from all your wicked doings.”

    I also like and agree with the points made in #3 and built on in #5, about “nasa” and being careful when we take on ourselves the name of Christ. As far as the terms God/Lord go, although they may simply be titles, I think it’s apparent that we ought to be cautious with the terms when referencing deity, but that these terms don’t always do so. “God” can be used to refer to pagan deities, and “Lord” was roughly the 17th century English equivalent of the Hebrew “Adonai.” At that time, it was commonly used to refer to deity and man alike, as a basic familiarity with anything Shakespeare wrote indicates.

    Finally, I think that Paul’s counsel in 1 Corinthians 8/Romans 14 applies, about not destroying thy brother with thy meat, for whom Christ died. My understanding is that he is basically saying to respect the taboos of others; don’t try to show off your “enlightened” state just because you don’t share those beliefs. If you start removing restrictions, they might start doing so themselves willy-nilly, and commit some serious sins.

  8. Kevin Barney on April 19, 2008 at 9:52 pm

    One might render something like “You shall not make wrongful use of the name of YHWH your God, for YHWH will not acquit anyone who misuses his name.”

    I suspect that in its original, ancient context this had to do with magic, divination and false swearing, reflecting the ancient belief that possession of the name gave one certain powers, and these powers are not to be misused.

    But Kaimi’s right, the “name” is not God or Lord, which are already distancing circumlocutions; the name in question is the divine tetragrammaton, YHWH. Of course, Jews will not pronounce that name at all, using a variety of substitutions (such as Yeya, Adonai, or Ha-Shem ["The Name"].

  9. Ray on April 19, 2008 at 11:35 pm

    Fwiw, the conflation of this command with “swearing” and “cursing” drives me nuts. I posted about it at:

    http://www.mormonmomma.com/index.php/2008/swearing-and-cursing/

    My own rule is to use any name or title of deity sparingly and intentionally. God knows the intent of my heart, but I believe the Lord also expects me to take Him seriously – and using “Jesus” or “Christ” in any way other than in a respectful or merely historical context simply has no purpose or critical reason or power. It is in vain – having no effect.

  10. Kari on April 20, 2008 at 12:25 am

    As a sailor, I take umbrage. The marines certainly swear more.

  11. Jeremy on April 20, 2008 at 12:44 am

    Oh yes, there is many a swearer in Mormondom. I heard hell and damn over the pulpit (and not in the context of hellfire and damntation). My wife was at first surprised at how much my otherwise devout family swore — I think because she was from a Salt Lake suburb and I was from a rural area. As my father, who grew up on a farm, put it, “There’s just a certain way you have to talk to cattle to make them listen.” Similarly, an acquaintance of mine recalled his churchgoing Mormon grandmother’s explanation for her sometimes salty tongue: “I grew up on a dairy farm in Idaho. I didn’t know it was called ‘manure’ until I was in college.”

    As for taking the name of the Lord in vain, I don’t know that the distinction between name and title would alleviate the offhandedness–the vainness–of saying “God” when you don’t really mean it, like the fake prayer uttered by a 14-year-old girl to express astonishment at the cuteness of her friend’s outfit, for example. Maybe that’s just conditioning on my part.

    I also wonder if it connects up with the idea of vain repetition. I’ve been a little bother lately, for example, by how easily and habitually members of the church here in Utah –and perhaps elswhere–seem to have picked up the practice of referring to Jesus, in almost every instance in pulpit-speak, as “Our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.” It seems like it’s beginning to roll off the tongue as thoughtlessly as “LMNOP.” It seems like nobody every just says “Jesus” or “Christ” any more. Anybody else notice this?

  12. Blain on April 20, 2008 at 1:31 am

    11 — I tend to use the name “Jesus” or the title “the Savior.” I don’t use “Christ” as if it were a name. I don’t use any name or title of deity in an expletive very often (once every three years or so I’m guessing). I usually talk about “God” rather than “Heavenly Father,” as I’m a bit ambivalent about some of the theological certainty about the exact nature of the Godhead, and find those distinctions not useful, although I do address all my prayers to “Father in Heaven.”

    As to potty-mouthing, I’m known to do some from time to time — nothing over the pulpit, but occasionally something strongly-worded in EQ. But I’ve talked about this before and don’t want to get into a vain repetition. I see potty-mouthing in some situations as a social sin, but not a moral sin of any kind — being verbally abusive is a sin, whether you use four-legged words or not.

  13. Dennis on April 20, 2008 at 1:44 am

    11: I notice some people say the “Our Lord and … ” phrase, but I must be in a different environment than you (I’m in Utah too) because it seems I only hear it occasionally. The vain repetitive that I’m more worried about is that string of nonsense syllables that I so often hear before the word “Amen.”

  14. meems on April 20, 2008 at 5:52 am

    Yes, I’ve noticed this new phrase of “our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.” I’m an expat and go to small little wards and branches and have for a long time, but a couple of years ago when on a visit back home, this new phrase (sometimes prefaced by the “our beloved Lord…” made itself really obvious, most notably in my mom’s prayers, every single prayer, before the Amen. It was like this phrase came out of nowhere. It was weird.

    As to the Lord’s name in vain thing, I think the idea of looking at it from a viewpoint of not to take upon the name of the Lord unseriously or unworthily is a great idea, but I still don’t think I could ever begin to use the term “God” in an excalmatory way. I’m not a swearer or a curser or a name-in-vainer. It’s just too ingrained in me!

    (Although since I’ve had kids, I find my internal dialogue has really gotten pretty bad….!!!!)

  15. Trish on April 20, 2008 at 11:00 am

    Using the “angel voice” over the pulpit (when trying to demonstrate a spiritual point in a rehearsed speech) is more annoying and insincere than using the phrases like “Our Lord and ..”

    I think the intent of “how” words and names are used is more important than the title. Repeating a joke that takes God lightly could be misunderstood as irreverant or disrespectful. Growing up, my parents made a point that swearing using God’s name (in any form) was off limits and sinful. They were known to drop the sh** word a few times.

    There are many examples in the Old Testament where people swore to take on a task. The New Testament also discusses swearing — example Matthew 23: 16-22.

    Swearing by God means pledging to obey his words and teachings. Taking this lightly or in vain would be “going through the motions” or being disrespectful — like so many people do these days.

  16. Steven B on April 20, 2008 at 1:55 pm

    I was one of the few to see the censored version of “The Queen”, where the word “God” in “God Bless You” was for a short time “mistakenly” removed throughout the airline version of the movie. It was really quite peculiar.

  17. JT on April 20, 2008 at 1:58 pm

    I find this to be a very interesting topic. In adding to the “original language” dialogue, I understand the phrase to mean: Thou shalt not take (or “bear”) the name of the LORD (Yahweh, or the anglicized “Jehovah” that the Lord appears to have found acceptable for us to call him in this dispensation) thy God (“El”) in vain (or “meaninglessness”, “emptiness”). Or, in other words, as I understand it, don’t take lightly the fact that you have taken upon yourselves God’s name, or don’t make it meaningless by acting contrary to his law. So, if I live sinfully or contrary to God’s instructions, or mock the atonement by never repenting, etc., I would feel that I have meaninglessly taken upon myself God’s name.

    Many latter-day prophets have used this phrase to specifically refer to the traditional usage of the phrase, which is to use “God” as an expletive. I have a very intelligent friend (Yale professor at 27, even after serving a mission) who has said, in referring to this passage, that sometimes in the church we teach good doctrine with bad interpretation of scripture. I’m sure this happens on occasion. With this passage, however, sometimes it is difficult to pick up on idioms by doing word-for-word translations. For all I know, ancient Israel really did understand such a phrase to mean to not “bear his name (on one’s lips) lightly,” and thus referring to cursing, or talking lightly of his name, or, as is mentioned in the Doctrine & Covenants, speaking/acting without (priesthood?) authority:

    “Wherefore, let all men beware how they take my name in their lips—For behold, verily I say, that many there be who are under this condemnation, who use the name of the Lord, and use it in vain, having not authority.” (D&C 63:61-62.)

    As for what God’s name actually is, it seems hard to tell. I remember having a discussion with Donald Parry (Dead Seas Scroll scholar who I had for Hebrew and Old Testament), where he mentioned that he didn’t think that the tetragrammation (YHWH) was actually God’s name, but a title (just as God has said in many other places that his name is “Title,” such as “Endless”). While not entirely certain, most scholars believe the name means “He Is” or “He Will Be,” kind of a third person version of “I AM,” or the self-existing one. Dr. Parry’s thought was that his real name, as revealed by Joseph Smith, is actually Ahman (but is this another title in the Adamic language?). Then again, most Hebrew names were titles, in a sense (eg, Adam is Hebrew for “man” or “mankind” – reading it this way can make Genesis 1-3 more interesting, btw – Joshua/Yehoshua/Jesus means “Yahweh is salvation” or “Yahweh rescues,” etc.). I like to think that all of God’s titles are his names, and thus I try to refrain from using any of them “in vain.” :)

  18. StillConfused on April 20, 2008 at 3:12 pm

    As a Southner, I routinely say Good Lord. I don’t mean it as disrespect or in vane… but occassionally I get a few looks now that I live in Salt Lake

  19. Harold Curts on April 20, 2008 at 4:15 pm

    For what it’s worth, I’ve read several rabbis who explain the commandment precisely as paragraph 1 of post 17…
    I don’t read Orthodox rabbis, mostly conservative, but it does seem to be the most common Jewish interpretation.

  20. Jennifer in GA on April 20, 2008 at 7:04 pm

    LOL, stillconfused! I’m a southerner too, and occasionally I’ll let a “Oh, Lordy!” loose, usually when someone has done something so monumentally stupid and they should have known better. But since I promptly “bless their heart”, I figure I’m okay. ;)

  21. StillConfused on April 20, 2008 at 7:53 pm

    Oh yes #20 — “bless their heart” cures all!!!

  22. Alison Moore Smith on April 20, 2008 at 10:24 pm

    I don’t care so much about commandment #3. I want to get out of #4, #9, and #10. Can’t we make a semantic argument to disregard the modern interpretation of some better ones?

  23. bnielson on April 20, 2008 at 11:14 pm

    Why would the original intent of this commandment apply to our day in exactly the same way? And why would we assume that “God,” clearly once a title, would still be only a title in our day?

    And now that I’m on the subject, isn’t “Jehovah” a title too?

  24. Johnna on April 21, 2008 at 5:44 am

    I’m just trying to break my kindergartner from saying “Oh My God.”

  25. Nat Whilk on April 21, 2008 at 8:31 am

    I think title vs. name is a false dichotomy. And I’m surprised that no one appears to have referenced D&C 107:3, 4.

  26. JT on April 21, 2008 at 11:39 am

    #23 – I think you bring up a good point. Regardless of how ancient Israel (or even Moses) understood those words in Exodus, I think the current use of the phrase still underscores good doctrine. It certainly encompasses respect for the divine, not taking sacred things lightly, and, as mentioned in #25, finds past precedent according to Joseph Smith’s revelation on the priesthood in the famous passage on why the Melchizedek Priesthood is called as such.

  27. KyleM on April 21, 2008 at 11:48 am

    Is a title, when only one person has that title (at least to us), any different than a name? Perhaps I’m just trying to justify how silly I sound when I say “Gosh damn it!”

  28. Adam Greenwood on April 21, 2008 at 11:52 am

    Clearly the prophets in modern Israel have commanded us not to cuss using God’s “titles,” and I think at least some of the time they’ve located that commandment in the scriptural third commandment. But if I were a Protestant I wonder if some of the stuff in the New Testament might not be a better scriptural source for not using the Father or the Son as cuss words. There’s the thing about “every word which men shall speak, they shall give an account thereof in the day of judgment,” there’s the thing about not swearing by God, which is the origin of our modern practice.

  29. KurtS on April 21, 2008 at 1:02 pm

    I’m still grappling with matching the title of president with Bush.

  30. Struwelpeter on April 21, 2008 at 1:30 pm

    Not directly on point, but relevant: http://scriptures.lds.org/en/dc/107/4#4

    I’ve heard this same verse invoked as a reason not to listen to modern pop/rock mormon/christian music.

  31. Mark B. on April 21, 2008 at 2:38 pm

    There are better reasons not to listen to that dreck.

    Such as:

    YECCCCHHHH!

  32. Kaimi Wenger on April 21, 2008 at 5:11 pm

    Good question, Alison.

    But do you really want to stop at 4, 9, and 10, only? I have to say, the blogging process occasionally makes me wish I has a good way around #6 . . .