The Ten Commandments
by Thomas Watson
The THIRD Commandment
"You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in
vain, for the Lord will not hold him guiltless, who takes his name in vain."
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 dishonor on his name.
2. An affirmative implied. That we should take care to
reverence and honor his name. Of this latter I shall speak more
fully, under the first petition in the Lord's Prayer, "Hallowed be your
I shall now speak of the negative expressed in
this commandment, or the prohibition, "You shall not take the name of the
Lord your 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, which breaks forth more in God's
dishonor, than the tongue. We have this commandment, therefore, as a bridle
for the tongue, to bind it to good behavior.
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, who takes 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 is 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 you may fear this
glorious and fearful name, The Lord your God." Deut 28:58. David speaks of
God with reverence. "The mighty God, even the Lord." Psalm 50:1. "That men
may know, that you, whose name alone is Jehovah, are the Most High over all
the earth. Psalm 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 honor, 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.
 We take God's 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 1:16. When
men's tongues and lives are contrary to one another, when, under a mask of
profession, they lie and deceive, and are unclean, they make use of God's
name to abuse him, and take it in vain. "Pretended holiness is merely double
wickedness." "The name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of
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.
 We take God's name in vain, 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 Jesus!"—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.
 We take God's name in vain, when we worship him with
our lips—but not with our hearts. God calls for the
heart, "My son, give me your 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
which perfumes our holy things. The heart is the altar which sanctifies the
offering. When we seem to worship God—but withdraw our heart from him, we
take his name in vain. "These people honor me with their lips, but their
hearts are far from me. They worship me in vain." Matthew 15:8-9
(1) Hypocrites take God's name in vain: their
religion is a lie; they seem to honor 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 people 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.
 We take God's name in vain, when we pray to him—but
do not believe in him. Faith is a grace which greatly honors 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 one, "but I shall be never the better." I question
whether God ever hears or answers such prayers. It is to dishonor God and
take his name in vain; it makes him either an idol—which has ears and hears
not; or a liar—who promises mercy to the penitent—but will not make good his
word. "He who believes 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 dishonors God, as if he were not such a God as the Word represents
him. "Plenteous in mercy unto all those who call upon him." Psalm 86:5.
 We take God's name in vain, 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 unfitting 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 very offensive to God; it is taking his 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) Who 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 judgment, 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 is not speedily executed, men scorn and deride; but,
"Judgments are prepared for scorners." Prov 19:29.
(2) Who speak jestingly. Such are those 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) Who bring Scripture to countenance any sin.
The Word, which was written for the suppression of sin, is brought by some
for the defense 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 shall you labor;" and "he who provides
not for his family is worse than an infidel." Thus he endeavors 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 neighbor; he has bid us provide for
a family—but not by oppression. "You 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 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) Who adulterate the Word, and twist it in a
wrong sense. Such are heretics, who put their own gloss upon Scripture, and
make it speak that which the Holy Spirit never meant. As, for instance, when
they expound those texts literally, which were meant figuratively.
Thus the Pharisees, because God said in the law,
"You shall bind them (the commandments) for a sign upon your hand, and they
shall be as frontlets between your 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
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 Spirit 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." 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.
 We take God's 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 5:34. Not but in some cases
it is lawful to take an oath before a magistrate. "You shall fear the Lord
your 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, which will take no dye. It is a bad sin indeed, which has no
Excuse 1. "I swear only little trifling oaths."
The devil has two false mirrors, which he sets before men's eyes. The
one is a little mirror, 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
after they have sinned. You who say that your sin is small—when God
shall open the eye of your conscience, you will see it to be great, and
worthy of damnation. You say 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 is true
oath—yet, if it is a rash oath, it is sinful. Besides, he who swears
commonly, must sometimes swear to more than is true. Where much water
runs greatly, 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 who 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.
You become known as 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.
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. You have got a habit of swearing, and can not leave it off; is this
an excuse? Is a thing well done, because it is only frequently 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 God! 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 donkeys 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 dying husband, that of her three sons,
only one of them 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 each 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 those 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) PERJURY, which is a heaven-daring sin.
"You shall not swear by my name falsely, neither shall you 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. "You shall swear—in truth, in judgment, and in righteousness." Jer
4:2. In righteousness, therefore, it must not be an unlawful oath. In
judgment therefore it must not be a rash oath. In truth,
therefore, it must not be a false oath. Among the Scythians, if a man
perjured 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 trust 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 taking a false oath in a court, there are many sins
linked together—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 judgments will find him out! When God's
flying-sroll, or curse, goes over the face of the earth, into whose house
does it enter? "I will send it out, and it will enter the house of the thief
and the house of him who swears falsely by my name. It will remain in his
house and destroy it, both its timbers and its stones." 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 spoke more, and died. Oh, tremble at
such horrid impiety!
 We take God's name in vain, 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 pretense
of paying his vow made to God, was only to cover his treason. "As soon as
you hear the sound of the trumpet you shall say, Absalom reigns!" chapter
15:10. When any wicked action is baptized 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 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!
 We take God's name in vain, when we use our tongues
any way to the dishonor of God's name. As when we use railing, or
curses in anger; especially when we wish a curse upon ourselves if a thing
is 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
began to rot, and he became a loathsome spectacle.
 We take God's name in vain, 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 is sick, he vows if God
restores him, he will live a more holy life. "I will pay you my vows which
my lips have uttered when I was in trouble." Psalm 66:13, 14. But "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 which he met with
next—and it was his own daughter! Judges 11:31. He did bad to make
the vow, and worse to keep it; he became guilty of the breach of the
third and sixth commandments.
 We take God's name in vain, when we speak evil of
God. "The people spoke against God." Numb 21:5.
How do we speak against God?
When we murmur at his providences, as if God had dealt
harshly with us. Murmuring accuses God of injustice. "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 which God cannot bear. "How long shall I bear with this
evil congregation, which murmur against me?" Numb. 14:27.
 We take God's name in vain, when we falsify our
promise. As when we say, if God spares our life we will do a
certain thing, and never intend to do 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 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. 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 dishonor 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. 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 who punishes him? He who robs another of his
goods shall be put to death—but he who 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 Israelite woman's son blasphemed the
name of the Lord, and cursed. And Moses spoke to the children of Israel,
that they should bring forth him who 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 bolts 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 with." Soon after, he
was taken with vomiting of blood from his blasphemous mouth, of which he
(2) If God should not execute judgment 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 gawler, to torment them
forever. If God justifies a man—who shall condemn him? But if God condemns
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.