We should be far more respectful when we invoke the name of God. We should not use God’s name in anger, as an exclamation point, in surprise or pain. We should use the name of God, the creator of all things, in reverence, awe, in joyful adoration, in thanks and gratitude, in prayer and in blessings.
But is avoiding using God’s name out of context really what Exodus 20:7 — “Thou shalt 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” — is all about?
I think there is something far more significant meant by this verse than simply avoiding the use of God’s name as an expletive.
I propose that “Do not take the Lord’s name in vain” can also mean “Do not make a covenant in the name of the Lord without real purpose and real intent.”
Each week, the sacrament prayer is uttered verbatim from revealed scripture. Perhaps we have heard this prayer so often that we forget the words or fail to reflect on their meaning.
“O God, the Eternal Father, we ask thee in the name of thy Son, Jesus Christ, to bless and sanctify this bread to the souls of all those who partake of it, that they may eat in remembrance of the body of thy Son, and witness unto thee, O God, the Eternal Father, that they are willing to take upon them the name of thy Son, and always remember him and keep his commandments which he has given them; that they may always have his Spirit to be with them. Amen” (see Doctrine and Covenants 20:77).
Notice first that this is a petitionary prayer addressed in the name of Jesus Christ. The priests petition God as they represent Jesus Christ. To act on behalf of Jesus Christ is a sacred and solemn duty. Just as Jesus is clean, pure and holy, so too should any priesthood bearer be when acting in his name.
Second, those in the congregation promise to take upon themselves the name of Jesus Christ.
The English “take upon” may be analogous to the underlying Hebrew word found in the phrase “thou shalt not take” of Exodus 20:7. The underlying Hebrew reads, “thou shalt not bear, or carry.”
The word “vain” is one of those words we all recognize but may not know the full meaning of. We hear the word “vain” in other biblical texts. For example, in the wisdom text of Ecclesiastes, the author, in the guise of the king of Jerusalem, proclaims his perspective on life: “Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher, vanity of vanities; all is vanity” (Ecclesiastes 1:2). What exactly does this mean? The underlying Hebrew is “breath or vapor,” something that is entirely transitory, useless, empty and meaningless. Thus, Ecclesiastes 1:2 could be written, “Meaningless emptiness! saith the Preacher, meaningless emptiness; everything is meaningless!” Not a very cheerful thought, but definitely a worldview espoused by many who do not find meaning in life, or who see human striving (without God) as ultimately meaningless and empty.
Taking these ideas together, Exodus 20:7 could mean something like, “thou shalt not take upon thyself the name of God with meaningless intent.”
Such an understanding could enhance the meaning of Exodus 20:7, of the sacramental covenants, of baptismal covenants and of temple covenants.
This commandment may mean more than avoiding saying God’s name flippantly. God expects us to be fully intentional when we make covenants in his name. Do we truly intend to keep each covenant? Do we make the covenant in a meaningful way? Or are we just going through the motions without real intent, without purposeful change to leave behind our sins?
Taylor Halverson holds Ph.D.s in biblical studies and instructional technology. He is a BYU teaching and learning consultant. His website is at taylorhalverson.com. His views are his own.