I'm not really in a mood to be blogging today on Sunday, but this topic came up in Sunday school and once again I'm dismayed how little people understand both the Bible (the scriptures itself) and the human context/human history and actual usage that God is talking about (directly, through his prophets, or though Jesus Christ).
The discussion starts with the problem of taking the Lord's name in vain, and how that is prohibited. Yes, it is a sin to do so, and a breaking of one of the Commandments.
Here is the problem: thousands of years later, people have come to think that either cussing or potty mouth is what God meant. Now, this is a very recent misunderstanding because as recently as our great grandparents they certainly understood the original meaning of God's word on this matter.
When I was in school, and believe you me, I did not attend some fancy expensive highly accredited school system, they taught a great deal about what life was like through human history, including patterns of speech. Further, Christians used to understand quite a bit about Jewish thought and times (when the Bible took place, duh), but lately even the basics are lacking. So I'm going to share with you a high level gloss of the line of faith and reasoning that is missing today. It all hinges on trusting the Bible as it is and as it was intended by God, including understanding what people actually were doing "back then" when God was addressing them and admonishing them.
Let's start with what they did not do. Neither Jews nor most of the ancient world used "potty mouth." It would not even occur to them to do so. Thus God is not talking about things like scatological or sexual "cussing." (Let's use the word "cussing" to cover the whole gamut of coarse language, including both potty mouth and those that use God's name casually in exclamations). People did not "cuss" the way they do in the last century for a number of reasons, and they most certainly did not do so during the time of Moses (Commandments) up through the time of Jesus Christ, and also into medieval times. We know that because there is extensive documentation, both religious and secular to study.
The basic two reasons that people did not cuss is 1) it would not even occur to them, since poo, pee, and sex acts did not even have that taint by which someone would utter an exclamation and 2) people of all level of society were much less coarse in their speech than they have been in the past fifty years or so of human history. So God did not have to "worry about" telling people not to drop the "f-bomb" or to exclaim "sh**" since it would not even cross someone's mind to do so!
It's like today, would it occur to anyone to potty mouth someone by yelling "flour, flour, flour" at them? I mean, think about it. Back then people had no hang ups about either pooping or peeing and certainly not about sex. They wanted modesty, yes, but it never occurred to them that they could insult or vent by shouting potty mouth cuss words on that subject to each other.
So you cannot claim that scripture refers to either the "f-bomb" or sexual acts, or scatological acts, when the Lord's name being used in vain is prohibited.
OK, got that? Now, the second thing most people retreat to is then thinking, well, if it is not the f-bomb or poo/pee/sex cussing that God is referring to in his Law, well, then using his name in vain must mean any mention of God's name in a casual way, or exclamation, or in any way except to praise him or to discuss his teachings. You are getting closer, but that is still an error. How do we know that? Again, you must look at linguistics and what people were actually saying then. People did not do, for the same reasons I mentioned (both it would not occur to them plus societal decorum) to exclaim in surprise or anger using God's name. What people do today, such as exclaiming using the name of God or Jesus Christ, and which is such concern to many of the devout was simply not what folks were doing in Biblical times at all.
Thus, when someone dropped something, or balled out someone else, they neither shouted "sh**" nor did they exclaim "G-d, you are clumsy!" People's minds and speech simply did not work that way. So yes, while casual usage of God's name is in poor taste, it is also not the sin that God is referring to.
Doubters and haters, ha, I know you are out there so let me demonstrate what I mean so you understand I am not saying this, but simply helping you to recall what your ancestors knew.
Look at the case study of someone who shouts at a co-worker who drops something valuable on the floor, and it breaks, and yells, "God, you are clumsy!" The devout might think that is an example of taking the Lord's name in vain. It is not. Why? Because it is shorthand for what people used to say, which is "As God is my witness, you are clumsy!" Read any literature of previous devout times and you will understand that. When people exclaim using the name God, they are calling upon God as a witness. That is not using God's name in vain. What is it? A lack of charity, ha. The presumably clumsy co-worker does not need you implying that God is also noticing how clumsy he or she was in that instance! It is not "cussing," "cursing," or "using God's name in vain" to mention God, as people most commonly do, in such types of exclamations. It is a shorthand for thousands of years of speech where people frequently exclaimed "As God is my witness....[fill in the blank]...." and now they just yell (or sigh) "God.....[fill in the blank]." It may be tacky and it may be offensive and it may demonstrate a real lack in charity, but it is not using God's name in vain, as it is acknowledging, even casually, God's reality as being constantly in witness of all that is done and said, or thought in one's mind or one's heart.
So how do we know what God really meant by the prohibition of using his name in vain? Whenever one is in doubt, do two things. One is observe what people were actually saying and doing throughout history and then secondly, trust Jesus (the red letters in the Bible) to explain it to you.
What were people doing in the Biblical times when God spoke? How were they either doing so or tempted to take the Lord's name in vain?
1. They were tempted to be false prophets, claiming to speak the word of God when they were not his authorized agents, so to speak, to use a modern term. For thousands of years people who claimed that God spoke or managed actions and deeds through them, but were not genuine prophets or Holy Spirit "guided" were, indeed, "taking the name of the Lord in vain." They were claiming authority in his name that they did not have. This, by the way, is the using the name of the Lord in vain format that the disciples thought the man who was not "one of us" but who was casting out demons' in Jesus' name was guilty of. Jesus then told them that this person was not doing a wrong thing because all he is doing is bearing witness to the authority of the name of Jesus, and thus cannot be against him.
2. They were tempted to combine God's name with other pagan and occult beliefs. That was a tremendous problem then and now. That is taking God's name in vain. (Humorous but serious example for today's times so you understand: "God would not have invented astrology if it wasn't meant to be used.") That, my friends, which I have heard people say, is taking the name of the Lord in vain big time.
3. They were tempted to make solemn promises (also called oaths), for either "good" reasons or bad reasons, using God's name. This is the form of using God's name in vain that Jesus Christ put the serious smack down on, exhorting people to never make such oaths or promises, ever, ever, EVER.
OK, now that you understand the three forms of speech that one might query regarding if they are or are not what God meant by using the name of God in vain, let's look at an actual example of Christian use of God's name in vain through history and how they wiggled around it.
After the death of Jesus Christ there was no more solemn vow that a Christian could make than on the wounds of Jesus (the wounds he suffered in the Passion and Crucifixion). Very unwise to do so, but I am now just teaching history. Prior to Jesus the most solemn vow or oath a person could make was with the most Holy Name of God (exactly what God prohibits). After Jesus died and resurrected, Christians realized that the wounds of Jesus were the most visible manifestation of God's power on earth. Those who are tempted to either vow or "cuss" therefore transferred the object of their temptation from the Holy Name of God to the Wounds of Jesus.
Example (easily found in early English literature): "By the wounds of Jesus I will....[fill in the blank]" and/or "By God's wounds I will.... [fill in the blank]."
You see the difference? These are hair raisingly presumptuous and directly against what both God and Jesus said to do. "God, you are clumsy" is mild (God as witness) compared to "By God's wounds you are clumsy" or "By God's wounds I am going to slay you for being insolent to my sister."
So Christians are demonstrated in English literature and actual documentation as taking the name of God in vain by using reference to the wounds of Jesus Christ.
Realizing that, people started shortening the offensive and sinful reference to "God's wounds" to the expression "'swounds.'" They figured by not actually saying the name of God they are cool. They aren't, but that's what they figured. Again, if you look in someone's heart (which God most certainly can do), saying "God, you are clumsy" today is much less offensive and not a sin of using the name of the Lord in vain than someone in the medieval times saying "'swounds," even though God's name is not actually used in that version! This is because in one's heart and mind one is still profaning the sacred nature of the wounds of Jesus by linking them to one's everyday deeds or speech, even without saying either the words "Jesus" or "God."
Further trying to keep the right to use God's name in vain, but not actually use the word God, "'swounds" became "zounds." You see that a lot, too, in even recent English literature, up to modern times. Do a google search on 'swounds and zounds and you will observe these facts and can read more. You can also find similar origins in archaic expressions such as "egads."
Shakespeare, in Hamlet, I guess, uses the "'swounds" expression.
That, my friends, is taking the Lord's name in vain.
I hope that you have found this helpful.