THE SECOND COMMANDMENT: "Thou shalt not take the name of the lord thy god in vain"

Why This Commandment Is Distinct From The First

The second Commandment of the divine law is necessarily comprised in the first, which commands us to worship God in piety and holiness For he who requires that honour be paid him, also requires that he be spoken of with reverence, and must forbid the contrary, as is clearly shown by these words of the Lord in Malachy: The son honoureth the father and the servant his master if then I be a father, where is my honour?

However, on account of the importance of the obligation, God wished to make the law, which commands His own divine and most holy name to be honoured, a distinct Commandment, expressed in the clearest and simplest terms.

Importance Of Instruction On This Commandment

The above observation should strongly convince the pastor that on this point it is not enough to speak in general terms; that the importance of the subject is such as to require it to be dwelt upon at considerable length, and to be explained to the faithful in all its bearings with distinctness, clearness and accuracy.

This diligence cannot be deemed superfluous, since there are not wanting those who are so blinded by the darkness of error as not to dread to blaspheme His name, whom the Angels glorify Men are not deterred by the Commandment laid down from shamelessly and daringly outraging Him divine Majesty every day, or rather every hour and moment of the day Who is ignorant that every assertion is accompanied with an oath and teems with curses and imprecations? To such lengths has this impiety been carried, that there is scarcely anyone who buys, or sells, or transacts business of any sort, without having recourse to swearing, and who, even in matters the most unimportant and trivial, does not profane the most holy name of God thousands of times.

It therefore becomes more imperative on the pastor not to neglect, carefully and frequently, to admonish the faithful how grievous and detestable is this crime.

Positive Part of this Commandment

But in the exposition of this Commandment it should first be shown that besides a negative, it also contains a positive precept, commanding the performance of a duty To each of these a separate explanation should be given; and for the sake of easier exposition what the Commandment requires should be first set forth, and then what it forbids It commands us to honour the name of God, and to swear by it with reverence It prohibits us to contemn the divine name, to take it in vain, or swear by it falsely, unnecessarily or rashly.

In the part which commands us to honour the name of God, the command, as the pastor should show the faithful, is not directed to the letters or syllables of which that name is composed, or in any respect to the mere name; but to the meaning of a word used to express the Omnipotent and Eternal Majesty of the Godhead, Trinity in Unity Hence we easily infer the superstition of those among the Jews who, while they hesitated not to write, dared not to pronounce the name of God, as if the divine power consisted in the four letters, and not in the signification.

Although this Commandment uses the singular number, Thou shalt not take the name of God, this is not to be understood to refer to any one name, but to every name by which God is generally designated For He is called by many names, such as the Lord, the Almighty, the Lord of hosts, the King of kings, the Strong, and by others of similar nature, which we meet in Scripture and which are all entitled to the same and equal veneration

Various Ways Of Honouring God's Name

It should next be taught how due honour is to be given to the name of God Christians, whose tongues should constantly celebrate the divine praises, are not to be ignorant of a matter so important, indeed, most necessary to salvation The name of God may be honoured in a variety of ways; but all may be reduced to those that follow.

Public Profession Of Faith

In the first place, God's name is honoured when we publicly and confidently confess Him to be our Lord and our God; and when we acknowledge and also proclaim Christ to be the author of our salvation.

Respect For The Word Of God

(It is also honoured) when we pay a religious attention to the word of God, which announces to us His will; make it the subject of our constant meditation; and strive by reading or hearing it, according to our respective capacities and conditions of life, to become acquainted with it.

Praise And Thanksgiving

Again, we honour and venerate the name of God, when, from a sense of religious duty, we celebrate His praises, and under all circumstances, whether prosperous or adverse, return Him unbounded thanks Thus spoke the Prophet Bless the Lord, O my soul, and never forget all he hath done for thee. Among the Psalms of David there are many, in which, animated with singular piety towards God, he chants in sweetest strains the divine praises There is also the example of the admirable patience of Job, who, when visited with the heaviest and most appalling calamities, never ceased, with lofty and unconquered soul, to give praise to God When, therefore, we labour under affliction of mind or body, when oppressed by misery and misfortune, let us instantly direct all our thoughts, and all the powers of our souls, to the praises of God, saying with Job Blessed be the name of the Lord.


The name of God is not less honoured when we confidently invoke His assistance, either to relieve us from our afflictions, or to give us constancy and strength to endure them with fortitude This is in accordance with the Lord's own wishes Call upon me, He says, in the day of trouble: I will deliver thee, and thou shalt glorify me. We have illustrious examples of such supplications in many passages of Scripture, and especially in the sixteenth, forty­third, and one hundred and eighteenth Psalms.


Finally, we honour the name of God when we solemnly call upon Him to witness the truth of what we assert This mode of honouring God's name differs much from those already­ enumerated Those means are in their own nature so good, so desirable, that our days and nights could not be more happily or more holily spent than in such practices of piety I will bless the Lord at all times, says David, his praise shall be always in my mouth. On the other hand, although oaths are in themselves good, their frequent use is by no means praiseworthy.

The reason of this difference is that oaths have been instituted only as remedies to human frailty, and a necessary means of establishing the truth of what we assert As it is inexpedient to have recourse to medicine unless, when it becomes necessary, and as its frequent use is harmful; so with regard to oaths, it is not profitable to have recourse to them, unless there is a weighty and just cause; and frequent recurrence to them, far from being advantageous, is on the contrary highly prejudicial Hence the excellent observation of St Chrysostom Oaths were introduced among men, not at the beginning of the world, but long after; when vice had spread far and wide over the earth; when all things were disturbed and universal confusion reigned out; when, to complete human depravity, almost all mankind debased the dignity of their nature by the degrading service of idols. Then at length it was that the custom of oaths was introduced. For the perfidy and wickedness of men was so great that it was with difficulty that anyone could be induced to credit the assertion of another, and they began to call on God as a witness.

Meaning Of An Oath

Since in explaining this part of the Commandment the chief object is to teach the faithful how to render an oath reverential and holy, it is first to be observed, that to swear, whatever the form of words may be, is nothing else than to call God to witness; thus to say, God is witness, and By God, mean one and the same thing.

To swear by creatures, such as the holy Gospels, the cross, the names or relics of the Saints, and so on, in order to prove our statements, is also to take an oath Of themselves, it is true, such objects give no weight or authority to an oath; it is God Himself who does this, whose divine majesty shines forth in them Hence to swear by the Gospel is to swear by God Himself, whose truth is contained and revealed in the Gospel (This holds equally true with regard to those who swear) by the Saints, who are the temples of God, who believed the truth of His Gospel, were faithful in its observance, and spread it far and wide among the nations and peoples.

This is also true of oaths uttered by way of execration, such as that of St Paul I call God to witness upon my soul. By this form of oath one submits himself to God's judgment, who is the avenger of falsehood We do not, however, deny that some of these forms may be used without constituting an oath; but even in such cases it will be found useful to observe what has been said with regard to an oath, and to conform exactly to the same rule and standard.

Oaths Are Affirmatory And Promissory

Oaths are of two kinds The first is an affirmatory oath, and is taken when we religiously affirm anything, past or present. Such was the affirmation of the Apostle in his Epistle to the Galatians: Behold, before God, I lie not. The second kind, to which comminations may be reduced, is called promissory It looks to the future, and is taken when we promise and affirm for certain that such or such a thing will be done Such was the oath of David, who, swearing by the Lord his God, promised to Bethsabee his wife that her son Solomon should be heir to his kingdom and successor to his throne.

Conditions Of A Lawful Oath

Although to constitute an oath it is sufficient to call God to witness, yet to constitute a holy and just oath many other conditions are required, which should be carefully explained These, as St Jerome observes, are briefly enumerated in the words of Jeremias Thou shalt swear: as the Lord liveth, in truth and in judgment and in justice, words which briefly sum up all the conditions that constitute the perfection of an oath, namely, truth, judgment, justice.

First Condition: Truth

Truth, then, holds the first place in an oath What is asserted must be true and he who swears must believe what he swears to be true, being influenced not by rash judgment or mere conjecture, but by solid reasons.

Truth is a condition not less necessary in a promissory than in an affirmatory oath He who promises must be disposed to perform and fulfil his promise at the appointed time As no conscientious man will promise to do what he considers opposed to the most holy Commandments and will of God; so, having promised and sworn to do what is lawful, he will never fail to adhere to his engagement, unless, perhaps by a change of circumstances it should happen that, if he wished to keep faith and observe his promises, he must incur the displeasure and enmity of God That truth is necessary to an oath David also declares in these words: He that sweareth to his neighbour, and deceiveth not.

Second Condition: Judgment

The second condition of an oath is judgment. An oath is not to be taken rashly and inconsiderately, but after deliberation and reflection. When about to take an oath, therefore, one should first consider whether he is obliged to take it, and should weigh well the whole case, reflecting whether it seems to call for an oath. Many other circumstances of time, place, etc., are also to be taken into consideration; and one should not be influenced by love or hatred, or any other passion, but by the nature and necessity of the case.

Unless this careful consideration and reflection precede, an oath must be rash and hasty; and of this character are the irreligious affirmations of those, who, on the most unimportant and trifling occasions, swear without thought or reason from the influence of bad habit alone. This we see practiced daily everywhere among buyers and sellers. The latter, to sell at the highest price, the former to purchase at the cheapest rate, make no scruple to strengthen with an oath their praise or dispraise of the goods on sale.

Since, therefore, judgment and prudence are necessary, and since children are not able, on account of their tender years, to understand and judge accurately, Pope St. Cornelius decreed that an oath should not be administered to children before puberty, that is, before their fourteenth year.

Third Condition: Justice

The last condition (of an oath) is justice, which is especially requisite in promissory oaths. Hence, if a person swear to do what is unjust or unlawful, he sins by taking the oath, and adds sin to sin by executing his promise. Of this the Gospel supplies an example. King Herod, bound by a rash oath, gave to a dancing girl the head of John the Baptist as a reward for her dancing. Such was also the oath taken by the Jews, who, as we read in the Acts of the Apostles, bound themselves by oath not to eat, until they had killed Paul.

Lawfulness Of Oaths

These explanations having been given, there can be no doubt that they who observe the above conditions and who guard their oaths with these qualities as with bulwarks, may swear with a safe conscience.

This is easily established by many proofs. For the law of God, which is pure and holy, commands: Thou shalt fear the Lord thy God, and shalt serve him only, and thou shalt swear by his name. All they, writes David, shall be praised that swear by him.

The Scriptures also inform us that the most holy Apostles, the lights of the Church, sometimes made use of oaths, as appears from the Epistles of the Apostle.

Even the Angels sometimes swear. The angel, writes St. John in the Apocalypse, swore by him who lives for ever.

Nay, God Himself, the Lord of Angels, swears, and, as we read in many passages of the Old Testament, has confirmed His. promises with an oath. This He did to Abraham and to David. Of the oath sworn by God David says: The Lord hath sworn, and he will not repent: thou art a priest for ever according to the order of Melchisedech.

In fact, if we consider the whole matter attentively, and examine the origin and purpose of an oath, it can be no difficult matter to explain the reasons why it is a laudable act.

An oath has its origin in faith, by which men believe God to be the author of all truth, who can never deceive others nor be deceived, to whose eyes all things are naked and open, who, in fine, superintends all human affairs with an admirable providence, and governs the world. Filled with this faith we appeal to God as a witness of the truth, as a witness whom it would be wicked and impious to distrust.

With regard to the end of an oath, its scope and intent is to establish the justice and innocence of man, and to terminate disputes and contests. This is the doctrine of the Apostle in his Epistle to the Hebrews.

An Objection Against Oaths

Nor does this doctrine at all clash with these words of the Redeemer, recorded in St. Matthew: You have heard that it was said to them of old: "Thou shalt not foreswear thyself, but thou shalt perform thy oaths to the Lord"; but I say to you not to swear at all; neither by heaven, for it is the throne of God; neither by the earth, for it is his footstool; nor by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great king; neither shalt thou swear by thy head, because thou canst not make one hair white or black. But let your speech be "yea, yea"; "no, no"; and that which is over and above these is of evil.

It cannot be asserted that these words condemn oaths universally and under all circumstances, since we have already seen that the Apostles and our Lord Himself made frequent use of them. The object of our Lord was rather to reprove the perverse opinion of the Jews, who had persuaded themselves that the only thing to be avoided in an oath was a lie. Hence in matters the most trivial and unimportant they did not hesitate to make frequent use of oaths, and to exact them from others. This practice the Redeemer condemns and reprobates, and teaches that an oath is never to be taken unless necessity require it. For oaths have been instituted on account of human frailty. They are really the outcome of evil, being a sign either of the inconstancy of him who takes them, or of the obstinacy of him who refuses to believe without them. However, an oath can be justified by necessity.

When our Lord says: Let your speech be "yea, yea"; "no, no," He evidently forbids the habit of swearing in familiar conversation and on trivial matters. He therefore admonishes us particularly against being too ready and willing to swear; and this should be carefully explained and impressed on the minds of the faithful. That countless evils grow out of the unrestrained habit of swearing is proved by the evidence of Scripture, and the testimony of the most holy Fathers. Thus we read in Ecclesiasticus: Let not thy mouth be accustomed to swearing, for in it there are many falls; and again: A man that sweareth much shall be filled with iniquity, and a scourge shall not depart from his house. In the works of St. Basil and St. Augustine against lying, much more can be found on this subject.

Negative Part of this Commandment

So far we have considered what this Commandment requires. It now remains to speak of what it prohibits; namely, to take the name of God in vain. It is clear that he who swears rashly and without deliberation commits a grave sin. That this is a most serious sin is declared by the words: Thou shalt not take the name of thy God in vain, which seem to assign the reason why this crime is so wicked and heinous; namely, that it derogates from the majesty of Him whom we profess to recognise as our Lord and our God. This Commandment, therefore, forbids to swear falsely, because he who does not shrink from so great a crime as to appeal to God to witness falsehood, offers a grievous Injury to God, charging Him either with ignorance, as though the truth of any matter could be unknown to Him, or with malice and dishonesty, as though God could bear testimony to falsehood.

Various Ways In Which Cod's Name Is Dishonoured: False Oaths

Among false swearers are to be numbered not only those who affirm as true what they know to be false, but also those who swear to what is really true, believing it to be false. For since the essence of a lie consists in speaking contrary to one's belief and conviction, these persons are evidently guilty of a lie, and of perjury.

On the same principle, he who swears to that which he thinks to be true, but which is really false, also incurs the guilt of perjury, unless he has used proper care and diligence to arrive at a full knowledge of the matter. Although he­swears according to his belief, he nevertheless sins against this Commandment.

Again, he who binds himself by oath to the performance of anything, not intending to fulfil his promise, or, having had the intention, neglect its performance, guilty of the same sin. This equally applies to those who, having bound themselves to God by vow, neglect its fulfilment.

Unjust Oaths

This Commandment is also violated, if justice, which is one of the three conditions of an oath, be wanting. Hence he who swears to commit a mortal sin, for example, to perpetrate murder, violates this Commandment, even though he speak seriously and from his heart, and his oath possess what we before pointed out as the first condition of every oath, that is, truth.

To these are to be added oaths sworn through a sort of contempt, such as an oath not to observe the Evangelical counsels, such as celibacy and poverty. None, it is true, are obliged to embrace these divine counsels, but by swearing not to observe them, one contemns and despises them.

Rash Oaths

This Commandment is also sinned against, and judgment is violated when one swears to what is true and what he believes to be true if his motives are light conjectures and far­fetched reasons. For, notwithstanding its truth, such an oath is not unmixed with a sort of falsehood, seeing that he who swears with such indifference exposes himself to extreme danger of perjury.

Oaths By False Gods

To swear by false gods is likewise to swear falsely. What more opposed to truth than to appeal to lying and false deities as to the true God?

Irreverent Speech

Scripture when it prohibits perjury, says: Thou shalt not profane the name of thy God, thereby forbidding all irreverence towards all other things to which, in accordance with this Commandment, reverence is due. Of this nature is the Word of God, the majesty of which has been revered not only by the pious, but also sometimes by the impious, as is narrated in Judges of Eglon, King of the Moabites.

But he who, to support heresy and the teaching of the wicked. distorts the Sacred Scriptures from their genuine and true meaning, is guilty of the greatest injury to the Word of God; and against this crime we are warned by these words of the Prince of the Apostles: There are certain things hard to be understood. which the unlearned and unstable wrest, as they do also the other Scriptures, to their own destruction.

It is also a foul and shameful contamination of the Scripture, that wicked men pervert the words and sentences which it contains, and which should be honoured with all reverence, turning them to profane purposes, such as scurrility, fable, vanity, flattery, detraction, divination, satire and the like ­­ crimes which the Council of Trent commands to be severely punished.

Neglect Of Prayer

In the next place, as they honour God who, in their affliction implore His help, so they, who do not invoke His aid, deny Him due honour; and these David rebukes when he says: They have not called upon the Lord, they trembled for fear where there was no fear.


Still more enormous is the guilt of those who, with impure and defiled lips, dare to curse or blaspheme the holy name of God­that name which is to be blessed and praised above measure by all creatures, or even the names of the Saints who reign with Him in glory.' So atrocious and horrible is this crime that the Sacred Scriptures, sometimes when speaking of blasphemy use the word blessing.

Sanction of this Commandment

As, however, the dread of punishment has often a powerful effect in checking the tendency to sin, the pastor, in order the more effectively to move the minds of men and the more easily to induce to an observance of this Commandment, should diligently explain the remaining words, which are, as it were, its appendix: For the Lord will not hold him guiltless that shall take the name of the Lord his God in vain.

In the first place (the pastor) should teach that with very good reason has God joined threats to this Commandment. From this is understood both the grievousness of sin and the goodness of God toward us, since far from rejoicing in man's destruction, He deters us by these salutary threats from incurring His anger, doubtless in order that we may experience His kindness rather than His wrath. The pastor should urge and insist on this consideration with greatest earnestness. in order that the faithful may be made sensible of the grievousness of the crime, may detest it still more, and may employ increased care and caution to avoid its commission.

He should also observe how prone men are to this sin, since it was not sufficient to give the command, but also necessary to accompany it with threats. The advantages to be derived from this thought are indeed incredible; for as nothing is more injurious than a listless security, so the knowledge of our own weakness is most profitable.

He should next show that God has appointed no particular punishment. The threat is general; it declares that whoever is guilty of this crime shall not escape unpunished. The various chastisements, therefore, with which we are every day visited, should warn us against this sin. It is easy to conjecture that men are afflicted with heavy calamities because they violate this Commandment; and if these things are called to their attention, it is likely that they will be more careful for the future.

Deterred, therefore, by a holy dread, the faithful should use every exertion to avoid this sin. If for every idle word that men shall speak, they shall render an account on the day of judgment, what shall we say of those heinous crimes which involve great contempt of the divine name?