That acronym is as common nowadays as ETA or ASAP.
“Oh my God.”
These phrases are a regular part of most people’s vernacular, including many Christians.
Smack in the middle of the 10 Commandments, Exodus 20:7 tells us, 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. (KJV) (You shall not misuse the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not hold anyone guiltless who misuses his name. (NIV))
It’s easy to stop here with a black & white legalistic reprimand that people need to stop “taking God’s name in vain,” as if everyone even knows what that means or why it’s important. Rather than another “thou shalt” just for the sake of it, let’s break this down a little:
First and foremost, the reason we are not to take God’s name in vain is because God’s name is HOLY. It should be treated with awe and reverence, not as common or crass.
Check this out: Holy means to be “set apart.” The Jews would not even say God’s name out loud because it was so holy. When they wrote God’s name in the original Old Testament manuscripts (written in Hebrew), they would write the letters YHWH. Nobody knows how to pronounce this because the Jews didn’t say it aloud! In addition, when scribes were creating a new copy of Scripture, if an error was made in writing God’s name, there was no crossing it out or using white out. The entire piece of parchment and all the tedious work that went into it would be sacredly thrown away and they’d start over! This is a faaaaar cry from the casual way many throw God’s name around (in vain) today.
What’s sad is we often go further than just treating God’s name as casual and common, we’ll actually use it as a curse word! When someone is angry it’s coming to hear them say, “Jesus Christ!” or “God damn it!” We’ve taken the most holy word in existence and use it in the most linguistically degrading ways possible.
But this will really get you thinking: taking God’s name in vain isn’t only something done by using it as a swear word or as a common cultural phrase. It’s possible to take God’s name in vain when you sing worship songs. Any time you sing a worship song, most all of which contain God’s name, but you don’t mean the words you are singing, you are taking God’s name in vain.
It’s possible to take God’s name in vain when you pray. If you are using God’s name in your public prayers to make yourself sound more spiritual to those listening, you are taking God’s name in vain. And like the worship songs, if you are ever praying but aren’t holding God in awe and reverence while you do, you are taking God’s name in vain.
It was obvious to the Jews that God’s name should be treated with utmost sacredness. God made Mount Sinai shake, billow smoke and flash with lighting when his presence appeared (Exodus 19). People died if they touched the Ark of the Covenant out of order (2 Samuel 6:7). The earth opened to swallow those who opposed God and Moses (Numbers 16:32). Only the high priest could enter the Holy of Holies (the central room of the Temple) and only once per year on the Day of Atonement (Leviticus 16). He had have repented of all sin and be walking righteously, if he wasn’t, he’d be struck dead! Hebrew tradition tells us they would tie a rope around his ankle and put bells on his robe so if he was struck dead, they’d hear the bells stop and they could pull him out with the rope. The Jews knew not to mess with God’s holiness.
When God first revealed his name to Moses in Exodus 3:5, God tells Moses, “Do not come near; take your sandals off your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.”
The idea of holding God’s name in reverence is not negated because we find the command for it in the old covenant / Old Testament. The divine principle behind the command is obvious and is something that will never change: God is holy, He and his name need to be treated as such.
Pockets of culture make a big deal of dropping F-bombs or saying “Sh*t” — and while I’m not advocating for this language at all, you won’t find a direct command in the Bible against those specific words, but you do for God’s name. So yes, biblically speaking, you’re much more in the clear with your four letter words than you are with your OMG or your “Good Lord.” If you’re one who doesn’t swear, but you do take God’s name in vain, you’ve got it backwards. Taking God’s name in vain is worse than swearing. All that to say, for Christians, stop taking God’s name in vain, in all the ways we do it. But abstain out of reverence, awe and worship, not legalism or rule following.
The meaning of YHWH comes from Exodus 3:14 where God says, “I Am that I Am.” So God’s name essentially is “He is who He is” or “He is.” This is why you’ll hear God called “The I Am” in worship songs or in passages of Scripture.
Since the Jews didn’t say God’s name (YHWH) out loud, they had to say something when reading the Scriptures right? Indeed they did. A common word they would use instead was Adonai. This is the Hebrew word for (lower case) “my lord,” like the lord of a manor or a landlord. So Adonai is not actually God’s name.
But it gets more interesting than this: Jehovah is not God’s name either and it’s not actually found anywhere in the Bible. What’s missing from YHWH are vowels. Kind of hard to pronounce a word that doesn’t have vowels, right? So between the 6th and 10th century, a group of Jewish scribes called the Masorites took the Hebrews vowels from Adonai and added them to YHWH. This is pretty exciting right? (See nerd photo at right) And what word did they create: Yehowah. The word first appeared in a Bible in a 13th century copy of the Latin Vulgate (the Bible was put into Latin in the late 4th century), it was spelled with an I in the Latin, which Indiana Jones found out the hard way:
The “J” version, Jehovah, that we are familiar with today became popular in the 1600’s when William Tyndale, the Geneva Bible, and the King James Version used it as the name for God wherever YHWH appeared in the original Hebrew text.
So Jehovah is not actually God’s name. Adonai and Jehovah could be seen as nicknames for God, I suppose, but are not biblical words. Jehovah is the word more commonly used today in Christian circles. This is predominantly due to how long the King James Version was used as the go-to text in the Western Protestant world. Contemporary translations use all caps LORD rather than Jehovah for YHWH. You’ll hear God’s name pronounced as Yahweh today, as it’s our best effort to pronounce the four letters of YHWH.