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2.3 The Third Commandment

‘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.’ Exod 20: 7.

This commandment has two parts: 1. A negative expressed, that we must not take God’s name in vain; that is, cast any reflections and dishonour on his name. 2. An affirmative implied. That we should take care to reverence and honour his name. Of this latter I shall speak more fully, under the first petition in the Lord’s Prayer, ‘Hallowed be thy name.’ I shall now speak of the negative expressed in this commandment, or the prohibition, ‘Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain.’ The tongue is an unruly member. All the parts and organs of the body are defiled with sin, as every branch of wormwood is bitter; ‘but the tongue is full of deadly poison.’ James 3: 8. There is no one member of the body breaks forth more in God’s dishonour than the tongue. We have this commandment, therefore, as a bridle for the tongue, to bind it to its good behaviour. This prohibition is backed with a strong reason, ‘For the Lord will not hold him guiltless;’ that is he will not hold him innocent. Men of place and eminence deem it disgraceful to have their names abused and inflict heavy penalties on the offenders. ‘The Lord will not hold him guiltless that taketh his name in vain;’ but looks upon him as a criminal, and will severely punish him. The thing here insisted on is, that great care must be had, that the holy and reverend name of God be not profaned by us, or taken in vain. We take God’s name in vain:

[1] When we speak slightly and irreverently of his name. ‘That thou mayest fear this glorious and fearful name, The Lord thy God.’ Deut 28: 58. David speaks of God with reverence. ‘The mighty God, even the Lord.’ Psa 50: 1. ‘That men may know, that thou, whose name alone is Jehovah, art the Most High over all the earth. Psa 83: 18. The disciples, when speaking of Jesus, hallowed his name. ‘Jesus of Nazareth, which was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people.’ Luke 24: 19. When we mention the names of kings, we give them some title of honour, as ‘excellent majesty;’ so should we speak of God with the sacred reverence that is due to the infinite majesty of heaven. When we speak slightly of God or his works, he interprets it as a contempt, and taking his name in vain.

[2] When we profess God’s name, but do not live answerably to it, we take it in vain. ‘They profess that they know God, but in works they deny him.’ Titus 1: 16. When men’s tongues and lives are contrary to one another, when, under a mask of profession, they lie and cozen, and are unclean, they make use of God’s name to abuse him, and take it in vain. Simulata sanctitas duplex iniquitas [Pretended holiness is merely double wickedness]. ‘The name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles through you.’ Rom 2: 24. When the heathen saw the Jews, who professed to be God’s people, to be scandalous, it made them speak evil of God, and hate the true religion for their sakes.

[3] When we use God’s name in idle discourse. He is not to be spoken of but with a holy awe upon our hearts. To bring his name in at every turn, when we are not thinking of him, to say, ‘O God!’ or, ‘O Christ!’ or, ‘As God shall save my soul’ — is to take God’s name in vain. How many are guilty here! Though they have God in their mouths, they have the devil in their hearts. It is a wonder that fire does not come out from the Lord to consume them, as it did Nadab and Abihu. Lev 10: 2.

[4] When we worship him with our lips, but not with our hearts. God calls for the heart, ‘My son, give me thy heart.’ Prov 23: 26. The heart is the chief thing in religion; it draws the will and affections after it, as the Primum Mobile draw the other orbs along with it. The heart is the incense that perfumes our holy things; is the altar that sanctifies the offering. When we seem to worship God, but withdraw our heart from him, we take his name in vain. ‘This people draw near me with their mouth, and with their lips do honour me, but have removed their heart far from me.’ Isa 29: 13.

(1) Hypocrites take God’s name in vain: their religion is a lie; they seem to honour God, but they do not love him; their hearts go after their lusts. ‘They set their heart on their iniquity.’ Hos 4: 8. Their eyes are lifted up to heaven, but their hearts are rooted in the earth. Ezek 33: 31. These are devils in Samuel’s mantle. (2) Superstitious persons take God’s name in vain. They bring him a few ceremonies which he never appointed, bow at Christ’s name and cringe to the altar, but hate and persecute God’s image.

[5] When we pray to him, but do not believe in him. Faith is a grace that greatly honours God. Abraham ‘was strong in faith, giving glory to God.’ Rom 4: 20. But when we pray to God, but do not mix faith with our prayer, we take his name in vain. ‘I may pray,’ says a Christian, ‘but I shall be never the better.’ I question whether God ever hears or answers such. It is to dishonour God and take his name in vain; it makes him either an idol, that has ears and hears not; or a liar, who promises mercy to the penitent, but will not make good his word. ‘He that believeth not God has made him a liar.’ 1 John 5: 10. When the apostle says (Rom 10: 14): ‘How shall they call on him in whom they have not believed?’ the meaning is, How shall they call on God aright, and not believe in him? But how many do call on him who do not believe on him! They ask for pardon, but unbelief whispers their sins are too great to be forgiven. Thus to pray and not believe, is to take God’s name in vain, and highly dishonours God, as if he were not such a God as the word represents him. ‘Plenteous in mercy unto all them that call upon him.’ Psa 86: 5.

[6] When in any way we profane and abuse his word. The word of God is profaned, in general, when profane men meddle with it. It is unseemly and unbecoming a wicked man to talk of sacred things, of God’s providence, and the decrees of God and heaven. It was very distasteful to Christ to hear the devil quote Scripture, ‘It is written.’ To hear a wicked man who wallows in sin talk of God and religion is offensive; it is taking God’s name in vain. When the word of God is in a drunkard’s mouth, it is like a pearl hung upon a swine. Under the law, the lips of the leper were to be covered. Lev 13: 45. The lips of a profane, drunken minister ought to be covered; he is unfit to speak God’s word, because he takes his name in vain.

More particularly they profane God’s word, and take his name in vain: (1) That speak scornfully of his word. ‘Where is the promise of his coming? For since the fathers fell asleep, all things continue as they were from the beginning of the creation.’ 2 Pet 3: 4. As if they had said, the preachers make much ado about the day of judgement, when all must be called to account for their works; but where is the appearing of that day? We see things keep their course, and continue as they were since the creation. Thus they speak scornfully of Scripture, and take God’s name in vain. If sentence be not speedily executed, men scorn and deride; but, ‘Judgements are prepared for scorners.’ Prov 19: 29.

(2) That speak jestingly. Such are they who sport and play with Scripture. This is playing with fire. Some cannot be merry unless they make bold with God; they make the Scripture a harp to drive away the spirit of sadness. Eusebius relates of one who made a jest of Scripture, and God struck him with frenzy. To play with Scripture shows a very profane heart. Some will rather lose their souls than lose their jests. These are guilty of taking God’s name in vain. Tremble at it. Such as mock at Scripture, God will mock at their calamity. Prov 1: 26.

(3) That bring Scripture to countenance any sin. The word, which was written for the suppression of sin, is brought by some for the defence of sin. For instance, if we tell a covetous man of his sin that covetousness is idolatry, he will say, ‘Has not God bid me live in a calling? Has he not said, “Six days shalt thou labour;” and “he who provides not for his family is worse than an infidel”?’ Thus he endeavours to support his covetousness by Scripture. Now, it is true that God has bid us take pains in our calling, but not to hurt our neighbour; he has bid us provide for a family, but not by oppression. ‘Ye shall not oppress one another.’ Lev 25: 25. He has bid us look after a livelihood, but not to the neglect of the soul: he has bid us lay up treasure in heaven (Matt 6: 20); but he has commanded us to lay out, as well as lay up; to sow seeds of charity on the backs and bellies of the poor, which is neglected by such. To bring Scripture therefore to uphold us in sin, is a high profanation of Scripture, and taking God’s name in vain. Again, if we tell a man of his inordinate passions — that he may be drunk with rash anger as well as wine — he will bring Scripture to justify it by saying, ‘Does not the word say, “Be ye angry and sin not”?’ Eph 4: 26. True, anger is good when mixed with holy zeal. Anger is without sin when it is against sin: but to sin in anger, to speak unadvisedly with the lips, is to have the tongue set on fire of hell. To bring Scripture to defend any sin is to profane it, and to take God’s name in vain.

(4) That adulterate the word, and wrest it in a wrong sense. Such are heretics, who put their own gloss upon Scripture, and make it speak that which the Holy Ghost never meant. As, for instance, when they expound those texts literally, which were meant figuratively. Thus the Pharisees, because God said in the law, ‘Thou shalt bind them (the commandments) for a sign upon thy hand, and they shall be as frontlets between thine eyes’ (Deut 6: 8), took it in a literal sense, got two scrolls of parchment, wherein they wrote the two tables, putting one on their left arms and binding the other to their eyebrows; and thus wrested that Scripture, and took God’s name in vain. It was intended to be understood spiritually, of meditating on God’s law, and putting it in practice. The Papists expound the words, ‘This is my body,’ literally, of the very body of Christ; as though, when Christ gave the bread, he had two bodies, one in the bread, and the other out of the bread, whereas he meant it figuratively as a sign of his body. Again, when those Scriptures are expounded figuratively and allegorically which the Holy Ghost meant literally. For example, Christ said to Peter, ‘Launch out into the deep, and make a draught,’ Luke 5: 4. This text was spoken in a plain, literal sense of launching out the ship, but the Papists take it in a mystic and allegorical sense. ‘It proves,’ say they, ‘that the Pope, who is Peter’s successor, shall launch forth, and catch the ecclesiastical and political power over the western parts of the world;’ but I think the Papists have launched out too far beyond the meaning of the text. When men strain their wits to wrest the word to such a sense as pleases them, they profane God’s word, and take his name in vain.

[7] When we swear by God’s name. Many seldom mention God’s name but in oaths, for which sin the land mourns. ‘Swear not at all,’ that is, rashly and sinfully, so as to take God’s name in vain. Matt 5: 34. Not but in some cases it is lawful to take an oath before a magistrate. ‘Thou shalt fear the Lord thy God and serve him, and swear by his name.’ Deut 6: 13. ‘An oath for confirmation is the end of all strife.’ Heb 6: 16. When Christ says, ‘Swear not at all;’ he forbids such swearing as takes God’s name in vain. There is a threefold swearing forbidden:

(1) Vain swearing, as when men in their ordinary discourse, let fly oaths. Some excuse their swearing. It is a coarse wool that will take no dye, and a bad sin indeed that has no excuse.

Excuse 1. I swear little trifling oaths; as Faith, or, By the mass. The devil has two false glasses, which he sets before men’s eyes; the one is a little glass, in which the sin appears so small that it can hardly be seen, which the devil sets before men’s eyes when they are going to commit sin; the other is a great magnifying glass, wherein sin appears so big that it cannot be forgiven, which the devil sets before men’s eyes when they have sinned. Thou that sayest, sin is small, when God shall open the eye of thy conscience, thou wilt see it to be great, and be ready to despair. Thou sayest, they are but small oaths; but Christ forbids vain oaths. ‘Swear not at all.’ If God will reckon with us for idle words, will not idle oaths be put in the account?

Excuse 2. I swear to the truth. See how this harlot-sin would paint itself with an excuse. Though it be true, yet, if it be a rash oath, it is sinful. Besides, he that swears commonly, must sometimes swear to more than is true. Where much water runs, some gravel or mud will pass along with it; so, where there is much swearing, some lies will run along with it.

Excuse 3. I shall not be believed unless I seal up my words with an oath. A man that is honest will be believed without an oath; his bare word carries authority with it, and is as good as letters testimonial. Again, the more a man swears, the less others will believe him. Juris credit minus [Less trust is placed in his oaths. Thou art a swearer. Another thinks an oath weighs very light with him, and he cares not what he swears to, so that the more he swears the less others believe him. He will trust thy bond, but not thy oath.

Excuse 4. It is a custom of swearing I have got, and I hope God will forgive me. Though among men custom has influence, and is pleadable in law, yet it is not so in the case of sin; here custom is no plea. Thou hast got a habit of swearing, and canst not leave it off, is this an excuse? Is a thing well done because it is commonly done? This is so far from being an excuse that it is an aggravation of sin. As if one that had been accused of killing a man, should plead with the judge to spare him because it was his custom to murder. Would not this be an aggravation of the offence? So it is here. Therefore, all excuses for this sin of vain-swearing are taken away. Dare not to live in this sin, for it is taking God’s name in vain.

(2) Vile swearing, horrid, prodigious oaths not to be named. Swearers, like mad dogs, fly in the face of heaven; and when they are angered, spue out their blasphemous venom on God’s sacred majesty. Some in gaming, when things go cross and the dice runs against them, run against God in oaths and curses. Tell them of their sin, seek to bring home these asses from going astray, and it is but pouring oil on the flame; they will swear the more. Augustine says, ‘They do no less sin who blaspheme Christ now in heaven, than the Jews did who crucified him on earth.’ Swearers profane Christ’s blood, and tear his name. A woman told her husband, that of her three sons, one of them only was his: the father dying, desired the executors to find out which was the true natural son, and bequeath all his estate to him. The father being dead, the executors set up his corpse against a tree and delivered to every one of these three sons a bow and arrows, telling them, that he who could shoot nearest the father’s heart should have the whole of the estate. Two sons shot as near as they could to his heart, but the third felt nature so to work in him, that he refused to shoot; whereupon the executors judged him to be the true son, and gave him all the estate. Such as are the true children of God, fear to shoot at him; but such as are bastards, and not sons, care not though they shoot at him in heaven with their oaths and curses. That which makes swearing yet more heinous, is, that when men have resolved upon any wicked action, they bind themselves with an oath to do it. Such were they who bound themselves with an oath and curse to kill Paul. Acts 23: 12. To commit sin is bad enough; but to swear to commit sin, is a high profanation of God’s name, and as it were, calls God to approve our sin.

(3) Forswearing, which is a heaven-daring sin. ‘Ye shall not swear by my name falsely, neither shalt thou profane my name.’ Lev 19: 12. Perjury is calling God to witness to a lie. It is said of Philip of Macedon, he would swear and unswear, as might stand best with his interest. ‘Thou shalt swear, The Lord liveth, in truth, in judgement, and in righteousness.’ Jer 4: 2. In righteousness, therefore, it must not be an unlawful oath. In judgement therefore it must not be a rash oath. In truth, therefore, it must not be a false oath. Among the Scythians, if a man did forswear himself, he was to have his head stricken off; because, if perjury were allowed, there would be no living in a commonwealth; it would take away all faith and truth from among men. The perjurer is in as bad a case as the witch; for, by a false oath, he binds his soul fast to the devil. In forswearing, or taking a false oath in a court, there are many sins linked together; plurima peccata in uno [many sins in one]; for, besides taking God’s name in vain, the perjurer is a thief; by his false oath he robs the innocent of his right; he is a perverter of justice; he not only sins himself, but occasions the jury to give a false verdict, and the judge to pass an unrighteous sentence. Surely God’s judgements will find him out. When God’s flying-roll, or curse, goes over the face of the earth, into whose house does it enter? ‘Into the house of him that sweareth falsely by my name; and it shall consume the timber and stones thereof.’ Zech 5: 4. Beza relates of a perjurer, that he had no sooner taken a false oath, than he was immediately struck with apoplexy, never spake more, and died. Oh, tremble at such horrid impiety!

[8] When we prefix God’s name to any wicked action. Mentioning God in connection with a wicked design, is taking his name in vain. ‘I pray,’ said Absalom, ‘let me pay my vow, which I have vowed unto the Lord, in Hebron.’ 2 Sam 15: 7. This pretence of paying his vow made to God, was only to cover his treason. ‘As soon as ye hear the sound of the trumpet ye shall say, Absalom reigneth;’ chap. 15: 10. When any wicked action is baptised with the name of religion, it is taking God’s name in vain. Herein the Pope is highly guilty, when he sends out his bulls of excommunication, or curses against the Christian; he begins with, In nomine Dei ‘in the name of God.’ What a provoking sin is this! It is to do the devil’s work, and put God’s name to it.

[9] When we use our tongues any way to the dishonour of God’s name. As when we use railing, or curse in our passions; especially when we wish a curse upon ourselves if a thing be not so, when we know it to be false. I have read of one who wished his body might rot, if that which he said was not true; and soon after his body rotted, and he became a loathsome spectacle.

[10] When we make rash and unlawful vows. It is a good vow when a man binds himself to do that which the word binds him to; as, if he be sick, he vows if God restore him, he will live a more holy life. ‘I will pay thee my vows which my lips have uttered when I was in trouble.’ Psa 66: 13, 14. But Voveri non debet quod Deo displicet; ‘such a vow should not be made as is displeasing to God;’ as to vow voluntary poverty, as friars; or to vow to live in nunneries. Jephthah’s vow was rash and unlawful; he vowed to the Lord to sacrifice that to him which he met with next, and it was his daughter. Judges 11: 31. He did ill to make the vow, and worse to keep it; he became guilty of the breach of the third and sixth commandments.

[11] When we speak evil of God. ‘The people spake against God.’ Numb 21: 5.

How do we speak against God?

When we murmur at his providences, as if he had dealt hardly with us. Murmuring accuses God’s justice. ‘Shall not the judge of all the earth do right?’ Gen 18: 25. Murmuring springs from a bitter root, it comes from pride and discontent; it reproaches God and thus takes his name in vain. It is a sin that God cannot bear. ‘How long shall I bear with this evil congregation which murmur against me?’ Numb. 14: 27.

[12] When we falsify our promise; as when we say, if God spare our life we will do a certain thing, and never intend it. Our promise should be sacred and inviolable; but, if we make a promise, and mention God’s name in it, but never intend to keep it, it is a double sin; it is telling a lie, and taking God’s name in vain.

Use. Take heed of taking God’s name in vain in any of these ways. Remember the combination and threatening in the text, ‘The Lord will not hold him guiltless.’ Here is a meiosis; less is said, and more intended. ‘He will not hold him guiltless;’ that is, he will be severely avenged on such a one. ‘The Lord will not hold him guiltless.’ Here the Lord speaks after the manner of a judge, who holds the court assize. The judge here, is God himself; the accusers, Satan, and a man’s own conscience; the charge is, ‘Taking God’s name in vain;’ the accused is found guilty, and condemned: ‘The Lord will not hold him guiltless.’ Methinks these words, ‘The Lord will not hold him guiltless,’ should put a lock upon our lips, and make us afraid of speaking anything that may bring dishonour upon God, or may be taking his name in vain. It may be that men may hold such guiltless, when they curse, swear, speak irreverently of God, may let them alone, and not punish them. If one takes away another’s good name, he shall be sure to be punished; but if he takes away God’s good name, where is he that punishes him? He that robs another of his goods shall be put to death, but he that robs God of his glory, by oaths and curses, is spared; but God himself will take the matter into his own hand, and he will punish him who takes his name in vain.

(1) Sometimes God punishes swearing and blasphemy in this life. In the county of Samurtia, when there arose a great tempest of thunder and lightning, a soldier burst forth into swearing; but the tempest tore up a great tree by the root, which fell upon him, and crushed him to pieces. German history tells of a youth, who was given to swearing, and inventing new oaths; the Lord sent a cancer into his mouth, which ate out his tongue and from which he died. If a man blasphemed God, the Lord caused him to be stoned to death. ‘The Israelitish woman’s son blasphemed the name of the Lord, and cursed. And Moses spake to the children of Israel, that they should bring forth him that had cursed, and stone him with stones.’ Lev. 24: 11, 23. Olympias, an Arian bishop, reproached and blasphemed the sacred Trinity; whereupon he was suddenly struck with three flashes of lighting, which burned him to death. Felix, an officer of Julia, seeing the holy vessels which were used in the sacrament, said, in scorn of Christ, ‘See what precious vessels the Son of Mary is served withal.’ Soon after, he was taken with vomiting of blood from his blasphemous mouth, of which he died.

(2) If God should not execute judgement on the profaners of his name in this life, their doom is to come. He will not remit their guilt, but deliver them to Satan the gaoler, to torment them for ever. If God justify a man, who shall condemn him? But if God condemn him, who shall justify him? If God lay a man in prison, where shall he get bail? God will take his full blow at the sinner in hell. ‘It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.’ Heb 10: 31.

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