What do you think of when you hear the commandment not to take the name of the Lord your God in vain? I think, as I grew up, the only way I ever heard that used was swearing. Do not cuss using the word “God.” And while trying to make the word “God” part of a profanity is wrong, there is something far deeper involved in taking the name of the Lord in vain.
In Psalm 50, the Lord rebukes a people for something they were doing that is a perfect example of what it means to take God’s name in vain.
16 But to the wicked God says:
“What right have you to recite my statutes
or take my covenant on your lips?
17 For you hate discipline,
and you cast my words behind you.
18 If you see a thief, you are pleased with him,
and you keep company with adulterers.
19 “You give your mouth free rein for evil,
and your tongue frames deceit.
20 You sit and speak against your brother;
you slander your own mother’s son.
21 These things you have done, and I have been silent;
you thought that I was one like yourself.
But now I rebuke you and lay the charge before you.
22 “Mark this, then, you who forget God,
lest I tear you apart, and there be none to deliver!
Note, in that passage, the wicked that God speaks of are people who are claiming to be his. Yet, when these people put on the name of God, their lives do not change. They approve of evil. They keep company with the wicked because they enjoy the wickedness. They speak evil of their brothers. They say they belong to God, but they refuse to obey his word.
In an interesting phrasing, God says of the wicked who are taking his name in vain, “you thought that I was one like yourself” (v21). That may be one of the most telling verses I’ve read in a long time. A mark of human wickedness, of not knowing God even though you think you do, is to think that God is just like you. When you think that God sees the world as you do, when you assume that your morality must be the morality of God, you are in great danger of taking the name of the Lord in vain. Because, the Lord has revealed himself and his ways in his word, we must never assume that we can reason out who God is based on our personalities, our likes, our dislikes, or our cultural norms.
Are you taking the name of the Lord in vain? It is not about foul language. It is about saying you are a believer when your life does not match your claim. The Lord, at the end of this psalm, has very hard things to say to those who declare with their mouths only to be his. God wants people whose lives match their claims to be his servants.