© Judson Press, Valley Forge, Pa 1983. Revised by the author 2001



I heard someone say: "You never really learn to swear until you learn to drive." The corollary is: You never learn to pray until your kids learn to drive! Swearing and praying are the two most common ways to use God's name.

TommyTurning to her daddy, seven-year-old Susie asked, "Why doesn't Tommy talk?"

"He can't," replied her father. "Babies as small as he is never talk."

"Oh yes, they do," Susie reassured him. " At Sunday church last week our teacher told us that Job cursed the day he was born!"

Although Susie misunderstood the Scripture, she was not far from the truth. People learn bad language habits very early in life. Although some people think nothing of bad language, God takes what people say far more seriously than do the fading media censors. In fact, he devoted one of the ten commandments to this subject: "Do not use my name for evil purposes, because I, the LORD your God, will punish anyone who misuses my name."

Before considering the meaning of this commandment, let's consider what it doesn't mean.


As much as I dislike obscenity, that is not the target of the third commandment. I object to verbal sewage on the basis of esthetics and social manners and not on the basis of holy Scripture. I abstain from using "dirty" words for the same reason I abstain from picking my nose in public and belching loudly at dinner. Social custom, not the Bible, says that four-letter Anglo-Saxon words are obscene and polysyllable Latin words are acceptable despite the fact that both may mean the same thing. I find some words personally offensive, but because they offend me I don't conclude they offend God. A violation of the cultural standards of good taste is not necessarily a violation of divine law. Decency is not one of the attributes of God.

The evil referred to in the third commandment lies not in a word itself but in the idea and intent behind it.
"That's what I like about you," the deacon said to the preacher.
"When your golf ball goes into the rough, you don't swear like other people."
"That may be," the preacher confessed, "but where I spit, grass dies!"

Humorist Grady Nutt suggested that somebody ought to invent cuss words for preachers. When preachers hit their thumb with a hammer, they can say, "Verily, verily!" but that just doesn't get the pain out.

Joking aside, people under great stress express themselves in strong language. The words themselves, however, may not make any literal sense. Job complained, "Do you think you can reprove words, when the speech of a despairing man is wind?" (Job 6:26 RSV). Most profanity is as empty of meaning as the wind. Consider the absurdity of people who, on the one hand, loudly protest nuclear war but, on the other hand, daily consign others to the eternal fires of hell! More absurd, though less treacherous, is the fact that people damn traffic lights, lost tools, and broken finger nails. God's last name is not "Damn."

The evil lies not in the words themselves but in the thought and intent behind them. Mark Twain was right when he said, "The spirit of wrath — not the words — is the sin; and the spirit of wrath is cursing. We begin to swear before we can talk." (Pudd'nhead Wilson's Calendar) People deceive themselves if they think that saying heck, gosh, gee whiz, darn, and dang keeps them from sinning when the thought and intent of their hearts may be the same as what lies behind the words' coarser counterparts. Can you imagine General Sherman saying "War is heck"?

The third commandment is not just a prudish caveat against offensive language but more like the warning posted on power plants: "Danger — High Voltage." When Uzzah accidentally touched the Ark of the Covenant, he was struck dead (2 Samuel 6:7). The word got around quickly: "Be careful how you touch God. You can get hurt!" Those ancient Jews understood what so many moderns miss: God is a real live wire. Take him seriously.

The Jews took the name of God so seriously that they refrained from speaking it at all. Even when reading the holy Scriptures, they substituted the word "Adonai," meaning "Lord," for the name written in the text. So universal was the practice that when vowels were added to the text, the vowels of "Adonai" were inserted in the consonants of the unspoken name of God. Thus, the word "Jehovah" is a hybrid word. It has the consonants of "Yahweh" (the unspoken name of God) and the vowels of "Adonai." If you think that's confusing, keep in mind that the ancient Jews reverenced God's name so much that they forgot how to pronounce it: the name "Yahweh" is a recent linguistic discovery.

Having considered what the third commandment does not mean, let us now give careful attention to what it does mean. Misusing God's name means…


People fail to take God seriously by negligent swearing. They break promises made in his name neglecting to do what they vowed to do. One mark of moral maturity is the fidelity with which people keep their commitments. Some commitments are more important than others. If people can't do what they said they would do, then they have to make a choice. That requires a scale of priorities.

A Christian's commitment to Jesus Christ, obviously, ranks first in life. Coming next in order of importance are vows people make in marriage. When they have pledged to "love, honor and cherish, till death do us part," divorce is, at least, a violation of the third commandment. It is not the unforgivable sin, but let there be no mistake: divorce is a sin. Having given their word of honor, Christians must not neglect to keep their promise.

Negligent swearing primarily concerns future affairs, but deceptive swearing concerns matters of past record. There may be some excuse for breaking a promise, but there is no excuse for lying about something that is already a known fact. People under oath who deliberately deceive others face a far more serious judgment in the hands of God than in the hands of any human court system.

Some people try to avoid negligent and deceptive swearing through evasive swearing. Jesus rebuked those in his day who believed that if God's name was not specifically invoked, God would not be a partner in the transaction. Jesus warned, "Woe to you, blind guides, who say, 'Whoever swears by the sanctuary is bound by nothing, but whoever swears by the gold of the sanctuary is bound by the oath.'… Whoever swears by the altar, swears by it and by everything on it; and whoever swears by the sanctuary, swears by it and by the one who dwells in it; and whoever swears by heaven, swears by the throne of God and by the one who is seated upon it" (Matthew 23:16-22 NRSV).

Jesus' point is clear: You can't keep God out of anything. Every statement and promise and every human transaction is made in his presence and subject to his approval. Because Christians are never released from their solemn commitment to honesty, their simple yes or no should require nothing more to verify it. Oaths are superfluous. Jesus put it this way: "You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, 'You shall not swear falsely, but carry out the vows you have made to the Lord.' But I say to you, Do not swear at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. Let your word be 'Yes, Yes' or 'No, No'; anything more than this comes from the evil one" (Matthew 5:33-37 NRSV).

Oaths are a temporary concession to evil conditions and Jesus says that they are completely unnecessary among Christians. But since Christians do not live in an ideal world, oaths are necessary in certain legal situations. Jesus himself testified under oath at his trial (Matthew 26:63). And even God took an oath. The author of Hebrews says, "When a person makes a vow he uses the name of someone greater than himself, and the vow settles all arguments. To those who were to receive what he promised God wanted to make it clear that he would never change hi purpose; so he added his vow to the promise" (Hebrews 6:16-17, author's italics).

Because not everyone has a conscious awareness of God's involvement with every word and deed, vows are commonly added to promises. This is especially the case in the court system. "Do you swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help you God?" the witness is asked. One witness who took the question seriously responded, "If I knew the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, I'd be God!"

With limited knowledge and weak resolution Christians, nevertheless, know that their entire life is a living oath subject to God's judgment and mercy. To take an oath adds nothing to our firm intention to tell the truth because we know that God will hold us accountable for every word and deed. Far from misusing God's name we hallow it, not only in prayer but in all conversation and behavior.

Peter said, "There is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved" (Acts 4:12). John said, "These are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name" (John 20:31). Paul said, "God highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father" (Philippians 2:9-11). What do you say?

Perhaps, like the prophet Isaiah, you say, "Woe is me! for… I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips" (Isaiah 6:5). Do you talk dirty? Have you caught the habit from those you associate with? Perhaps like Isaiah you need an angel to touch your lips with fire that you might speak the truth in love.


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