I Do Not Think It Means What You Think It Means

Deuteronomy 5:1-11; Isaiah 1:1, 10-20


Good morning! And, wow! That sounds like a lot of condemnation coming from Isaiah. Last week I said I rarely preach about God’s judgment, but when you hear that passage from Isaiah after a reading from the Ten Commandments, maybe you’re wondering if this is the week that I’m going to call down the wrath of God on someone or something.

Nope. Not this week. Maybe I’ll preach some judgment next Sunday.

The title of my sermon comes from one of my all-time favorite movies, The Princess Bride. There’s a character in the movie, an outlaw named Vizzini, and he is fond of saying, “Inconceivable!” when something doesn’t go his way. Finally, another outlaw, named Inigo Montoya, gets frustrated and says, “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.” This has become a popular meme on the Internet.

I mention this because I think that a lot of us misunderstand the Third Commandment. Even though we no longer use the King James Version of the Bible in worship, many of us still hear that old translation: “thou shalt not take the name of the Lord in vain;” yet we don’t fully understand what it means to take the Lord’s name in vain. I don’t know about you folks, but the lesson I kinda learned from Sunday school was that I wasn’t supposed to swear, gosh darn it!

Specifically, I thought it meant that I wasn’t supposed to call for God’s judgment or damnation upon anyone. Which is why we use work-arounds, like gosh darn it. You know, I don’t think I ever said, “gosh darn it,” “golly,” or, “oh, my goodness” until I went into ministry.

Fortunately for me—and maybe one or two of you, too—the Third Commandment isn’t about swearing or cursing, per se. Which is good, because I’d probably have to spend the rest of my life in prayer and penitence for all the cursing and swearing of my youth. And my twenties. And my thirties. And, well, maybe this isn’t what you want to hear from your pastor, but the truth will set you free, right?

First and foremost, the Third Commandment is about maintaining an exclusive relationship with God. In ancient times, when people swore an oath, they would swear by the name of whatever pagan deity seemed most appropriate to the situation, whether it be a storm god, a fertility goddess, or whichever supernatural being might be offended if the oath were broken.

What God is saying to the Israelites is, “you can’t swear by the name of any other god; you can’t swear by my name when it suits you, and then swear by the name of some other god.” That’s what it means to take the Lord’s name in vain, or in vanity. It is sheer vanity to think that the Lord would listen to our pleas for help, if we also swear oaths on or say prayers to other gods. This is consistent with the First and Second Commandments.

In the Third Commandment, God reminds the Israelites that it was God who brought them out of Egypt, and thus it is to God alone that the Israelites owe their loyalty. The way to remain in covenant with the Lord is to remain in and exclusive relationship with God. Swearing oaths by God alone is a sign that the Israelites are holding up their end of the contract.

This is probably one of the reasons why this verse is translated in the NRSV as, “You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God.” That’s very different from a commandment that says, “don’t swear,” but it’s still vague; it doesn’t define wrongful use.

In the Jewish tradition, the personal name of God was thought to have tremendous power. According to the scholar, Patrick Miller:

It is by this name that God is revealed. It is by all the words and deeds associated with this name YHWH that one shall know who and what God is, what God is like, and what God does. Through this name, human beings have access to the knowledge of God. By this name God is present and through this name God is worshiped.[1]