The Ten Commandments by Thomas Watson
2. THE TEN COMMANDMENTS
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 xx 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 iii 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:
 When we speak slightly and irreverently of his name. 'That
thou mayest fear this glorious and fearful name, The Lord thy God.'
Deut xxviii 58. David speaks of God with reverence. 'The mighty God,
even the Lord.' Psa i 1. 'That men may know, that thou, whose name
alone is Jehovah, art the Most High over all the earth. Psa lxxxiii 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 xxiv 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.
 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 i 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 ii 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.
 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 x 2.
 When we worship him with our lips, but not with our hearts.
God calls for the heart, 'My son, give me thy heart.' Prov xxiii 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 xxix 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
iv 8. Their eyes are lifted up to heaven, but their hearts are
rooted in the earth. Ezek xxxiii 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.
 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 iv 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 v 10. When the apostle says (Rom x 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 lxxxvi
 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
xiii 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 iii
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 xix 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 i 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 xxv 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 vi 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 iv 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
(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 vi 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 v 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.
 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
v 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 vi 13. 'An oath for confirmation is the end
of all strife.' Heb vi 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.
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?
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.
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
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 xxiii 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
(3) Forswearing, which is a heaven-daring sin. 'Ye shall not
swear by my name falsely, neither shalt thou profane my name.' Lev
xix 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 iv 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
v 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!
 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 xv 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. xv 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.
 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.
 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 lxvi 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 xi 31. He did ill to make the vow, and worse to
keep it; he became guilty of the breach of the third and sixth
 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 xviii 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. xiv 27.
 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.
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.
xxiv 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 x 31.