“Neither shalt thou profane the name of thy God.” – Leviticus 18.21
One of the first cultural cues I picked up from my Baptist heritage (and believe me, it was picked up early) was the phrase, “I don’t smoke, cuss, drink or chew, and I don’t hang out with folks who do.” Saying this was supposed to represent a kind of pledge for personal holiness (which is really rather odd, seeing as the One who epitomized personal holiness did, in fact, hang out with folks who did those things). But focusing the “cussing” part for a moment – why the emphasis on that? Is it possible it’s been misinterpreted, or rather, misdirected?
For a very long time, and in many parts of the world still today, your name wasn’t simply the sound people made to get your attention; it referred to your reputation (“He made a name for himself”) or your authority (comical though it may sound to post-modern ears, “Stop in the name of the law!” was a declaration that police were not to be obeyed in and of themselves, but only insofar as the acted as enforcers of law). So we’re to guard against profaning God’s reputation or authority. But how? And, in an intimately related question, what does it mean to take the Lord’s name in vain?
That last phrase is from the stone tablets God gave Moses (its number on the list differs depending on who’s counting; Catholics, Protestants, Jews and Muslims number them differently):
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.
Vain, as it was originally given, meant “emptily,” “falsely,” “in a worthless manner” or “without authority.” It derives from a much older word for “to make desolate.” The word in the Bible translated as profane meant “to defile, pollute, desecrate.” Whatever the ancient Israelites understood them to mean, these prohibitions clearly do not refer to “cussing,” “salty language,” having a “potty mouth,” or whatever other euphemism you prefer when referring to expletives. Nor, as C.S. Lewis pointed out in his Reflections on the Psalms, does anything here proscribe, say, a man blurting out “God damn the chair!” upon which he’s just stubbed his toe; that man is annoyed and in pain, but he is not praying the Holy One would imbue the inanimate object with an immortal soul and subsequently condemn it to everlasting torment.
Now, none of this is to say that “s—t,” ”f—k,” ad nauseam are acceptable simply because they’re not forbidden by the 10 Commandments. Our speech, like our conduct and thoughts and attitudes, matters to God. The Apostle Paul was pretty firm on that point. So was Christ.
Hundreds of years before Christ was born the Hebrew Scriptures were translated into Greek, and it so happens the word vain in the Greek version of Exodus 20.7 above is the very one Christ used to savage religious pretenders, and it wasn’t because they were using four-letter words:
Ye hypocrites, well did Esaias prophesy of you, saying, This people draweth nigh unto me with their mouth, and honoureth me with their lips; but their heart is far from me. But in vain they do worship me, teaching for doctrines the commandments of men.
Worship is vain if it’s mere words, not backed up by appropriate action. But it’s far more serious than simply that.
In the 6th century BC the Babylonian Empire attacked the Southern Kingdom of Judah. The Prophet Jeremiah told the residents of Jerusalem this was due to their disobedience to God, and some, seemingly penitent, began to change their ways. Scripture focuses on a single reform, voluntarily instituted: all their slaves were set free as the Mosaic Law demanded. But when the Egyptian army rallied and began marching northeast, the Babylonians broke off the assault on the Jews to face this threat to their southwestern flank. Seeing the invaders withdraw brought tremendous relief to Jerusalem; the Jews assumed they were saved, whereupon most former slave owners seized their newly-freed slaves and subjected them once again into bondage. God’s response? He said doing that profaned his name.
The pressure was off, token obedience to God appeared to have worked, so back to business as usual – and the Lord hated it. That kind of religious hypocrisy is still hateful to him. Elsewhere in the Bible other things – child sacrifice, disobedience to the covenant, theft, and gross sexual immorality, for example – are also described as profaning God’s name.
Looking at these passages in their full contexts, it would appear that profaning God or taking his name in vain meant precisely this: blatantly ignoring Scripture, pretending to obey Scripture, or worst of all, twisting the Scriptures to make them appear to fit your selfish personal agenda. The late Quaker scholar Elton Trueblood thought so, too; he wrote (paraphrasing slightly):
Vulgar language is not as bad as giving God lip service.
We who claim to belong to the Lord defame him and slander his reputation when we don’t obey him. For his followers, profanity doesn’t simply mean using “bad” words; it means being dishonest, unloving, selfish, petty, greedy, cruel, arrogant, unjust, or immoral. Don’t put yourself in that position. He will not hold you guiltless.