Names carry a great deal of significance to the God who knew our names before we were born and long before anyone else said our names out loud (Isaiah 43:1, Psalm 139:13-16). They carry identity.
It is our names that He records in His book of life when we receive Him (Revelation 3:5, 21:27, Philippians 4:3), signaling that we are sealed in Him for eternity. It is the names of the wicked that He talks about wiping from the earth (Psalm 34:16, Revelation 20:15), and it was for fear of their own names being wiped out by the Canaanites that most of the Israelite spies didn’t want to try to enter the promised land when God brought them there (Joshua 7:9).
Throughout Scripture, we see God give people new names when they put their faith in Him and believe His promises are true (there’s a great example with Abraham in Genesis 17, but it’s true in the stories of so many others, as well, from Jacob to Peter to Paul, just to name a few). We also see people trying to take away the identity of another simply by changing their name (1:7).
Above all, we see the importance of God’s name--to be known, to be praised, to be called on, to be lifted up, to be taken.
Taking the Name
In the Ten Commandments, we see an order in which the first five commands deal primarily with our relationship with God and the last five deal primarily with our relationships with others.
As a child, reading these from one to ten, I always thought there was a particular command that stood out like a sore thumb, like it didn’t carry the same gravity as the commands that surrounded it.
Deuteronomy 5:11 says, “Do not take the Lord’s name in vain.”
Never say OMG, right?
I was taught that this verse is saying never to throw around God’s name callously or to use it in our expressions. But this command is sandwiched in between commands about worshipping God above all and worshipping Him alone, and about remembering that we are not God by laying down control and intentionally keeping the Sabbath.
Not only that, but this command in Deuteronomy 5:11 comes with a pretty intense qualifier: “for the Lord will not hold guiltless who misuses his name” (NIV).
It sounds like this one is a pretty big deal. Is it an unforgivable offense to say God’s name in a callous way? I remember being so afraid for my friends who didn’t know God but tossed his name around all the time. Would they ever be able to be forgiven?
Well, if we look at the original Hebrew for the word that we see translated as “take” or “misuse” here, it sheds a lot of light on the heart behind the command.
The word is transliterated “nasah” and it literally means “to lift up, bear up, carry, take, accept” (BibleHub).
This verb shows up 653 times in the Bible. In other places, we see the same word used to describe things such as:
Carrying the Ark of the Covenant (Deuteronomy 31:25),
Receiving God’s words (Deuteronomy 33:3),
A father carrying his child (Deuteronomy 1:31),
Bearing the weight of sin or guilt (Numbers 30:15),
God taking away sin (Joshua 24:19),
Taking a wife and marrying her (Judges 21:23),
Wearing particular identifying clothing (1 Samuel 22:18),
Lifting up a prayer (2 Kings 19:4).
So, what if we insert some of these other translations of nasah into Deuteronomy 5:11 to try to understand it better:
Do not carry the name of the Lord in vain.
Do not bear the weight of the Name of the Lord in vain.
Do not wear the name of the Lord in vain.
Do not take--as in marriage--the name of the Lord in vain.
Do not pray to the name of the Lord in vain.
And why not?
Because “the Lord will not hold him guiltless who takes his name in vain” (Deuteronomy 5:11, ESV).
I don’t think He’s telling us that saying a particular phrase is unforgivable. We can get really caught up in following what looks like the letter of the law but still completely lack the authenticity of a heart that’s all-in. Sin is missing the mark of God’s perfection, and we’re all guilty of it. God is compassionate and He sent His Son to take our sin on Himself so that through Him, we could be counted as guiltless.
The phrase for “in vain” in Hebrew means in emptiness, in deceit.
If we call ourselves Christians, having taken on the name of the Lord, but we don’t actually live according to that identity, then we’re lying to ourselves. It looks to me like this is the kind of “deceit” that so much Scripture talks about (you’ll find a few examples in Psalm 32:2, Psalm 101:7, Isaiah 30, Jeremiah 9:6, Hosea 10:2, John 1:43-51). God can’t hold us as guiltless if we haven’t truly put our faith in Him. He can’t save us from our sin if we take His name in vain. Salvation is in the name of the Lord (Acts 4:12).
“Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved,” (Romans 10:13).
A New Name
When I married my husband and made a forever covenant to be his wife and to love him accordingly, I took his last name and made it my own. I became Becky Bennett when I married Sean Bennett.
If taking God’s name is like taking a new name in marriage, it’s no wonder that we see so many metaphors throughout Scripture about how loving anything more than God is like adultery (Hosea, Proverbs, Jeremiah 3:8-9, 5:7, Ezekiel 23) and about how idolatry is the same thing as adultery.
If authentically taking God’s name is also what secures our salvation and brings us into a relationship with God (Romans 10:9), it’s also no wonder that God spends so much time in the Bible talking about our hearts and mouths needing to be saying the same thing, and about how deceit in our mouths (calling ourselves by His name but not living like it) is such a big deal.
Let’s not miss this, either: in the original context of the Ten Commandments, God was talking to His people Israel. They ALL, with their mouths at least, called themselves by His name already. And if it was enough to simply say they were His people, He wouldn’t have needed to remind them not to take His name in vain.
“Blessed is the one whose sin the Lord does not count against them
and in whose spirit is no deceit,” (Psalm 33:2).
Jeremiah 8:5, 9:6,
God is after our hearts, not just lip-service. He wants us to walk beside Him, not to just live a life of checking off boxes from a do-this and don’t-do-that list. He is eager to show us compassion, to bridge the uncrossable gap that our sin has put between us, to bring us back to Himself—forgiven and free—through Christ. He won’t force us, though. He wants us to turn to Him, to give ourselves to Him, to call ourselves His own, to make His name our identity. He wants us to wholeheartedly take His name.
“To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps. ‘He committed no sin, and no deceit was found in his mouth.’ When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats. Instead, he entrusted himself to him who judges justly. ‘He himself bore our sins’ in his body on the cross, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; ‘by his wounds you have been healed.’ For ‘you were like sheep going astray,’ but now you have returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls.” (1 Peter 2:21-25 NIV)
What about you—does it seem to you like this might be what Deuteronomy 5:11 is saying? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments!
For further study:
Deuteronomy 6:13, 10:20