What Does The Bible Say About Profanity?

A good number of people are offended by swearing, but is there actually anything in the Bible that prohibits profanity? Even someone with the most rudimentary knowledge of the Bible is probably familiar with the exhortation to not take the Lord's name in vain, and sure enough, there are several Biblical passages that instruct not to do this. Per Open Bible, just a few of many examples include Exodus 20:7 ("You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain, for the Lord will not hold him guiltless who takes his name in vain.") and Leviticus 19:12 ("You shall not swear by my name falsely, and so profane the name of your God: I am the Lord.") Open Bible also lists several excerpts that seem to prohibit swearing in the sense of using profanity in general, in addition to specifically misusing or profaning God's name. For example, James 3:10 ("From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers, these things ought not to be so.") and Ephesians 5:4 ("Let there be no filthiness nor foolish talk nor crude joking, which are out of place, but instead let there be thanksgiving.") are two of many instances. 

In 2020, The Gospel Coalition, a fellowship of Reformed evangelical churches, published an article cautioning against swearing, noting that profanity isn't just about using four-letter words. Specifically, it's about being irreverent or trivializing and disrespecting God, people, and both that which is holy and that which is terrifying, including the concepts of hell and damnation.

What actually makes a word profane?

The Gospel Coalition goes on to explain that profanity is bad not because it describes bad things but because its use insults and sullies good things, which includes all of God's creations. Another Christian publication, Relevant Magazine, has a slightly different take on profanity. The publication calls itself "the leading platform reaching Christian twenty- and thirtysomethings" and proclaims its intention "to address the gritty stuff of life — even when it makes us uncomfortable." Indeed, Relevant points out that the Bible itself is full of profanity, quoting Biblical scholar Tremper Longman, who pointed out a verse in Song of Songs in which a woman admires her "well-hung husband" and noted that when it comes to the Bible, "[t]ranslations are filtered through a bit of political correctness." 

Another example is a message from God delivered through the prophet Zechariah that originally included the Hebrew word "shagel," which is an obscene word for sexual intercourse that was "corrected" early on to "shakev," or the much tamer "to lie with." The article also points out that the Book of Ezekial, in particular, is full of obscene words and imagery that has been edited over time so the passages can be comfortably read in church. Like The Gospel Coalition, Relevant notes the importance and sacredness of words when it comes to worship but takes a different tack. It claims that the Bible didn't contain profanity just to be edgy but to shock audiences out of complacency. The publication notes that the goodness of God can be lost in rhetoric and routine, and rough or harsh language might actually make people pay better attention and worship more mindfully.