The name of God

IN THE BIBLE names often have meaning— they tell us something about the person. For example Abraham was the ancestor of the Jews and many of the Arabs, and the spiritual ancestor of all God’s people (Galatians 3:29): and his name means ‘Father of a multitude’.

There is one name which occurs far more often than any other name. It appears only in the Old Testament, but it appears nearly 7,000 times. It’s a beautiful and majestic name which is full of meaning. As you would expect, it’s the name of God Himself.

If you’re a Bible reader you may just be wondering how you’ve missed it. The answer is that most Bibles don’t print it—but they indicate where it should be. Wherever you see the words Lord or God in capital letters, that’s where God’s name was in the original Hebrew manuscripts. Some Bible readers insert the name wherever they see that it was originally present. Some Bible versions print it.

He Who Is

It’s clear in the Bible that God’s name was known, revered and loved by His people: it was an expression of His character. For example the Psalms, the Bible’s songbook, abounds with phrases such as “Bless the Lord, O my soul; and all that is within me, bless His holy name!” (Psalm 103:1).

So what is this holy name, and what does it mean? It consists of four Hebrew letters, which are translated into English as YHWH. There are no vowels in the written Hebrew of the Bible, so we can’t be sure how it was pronounced. Some know it as “Jehovah”, most scholars pronounce it “Yahweh”.

The name of God in biblical Hebrew, from a letter dated 6th Century bc. Note that Hebrew is written from right to left.

A translation into English might be “He Who Is”, or (as some linguists prefer) “He Who Will Be”. What more profound name could the Creator of the universe use to declare Himself? It speaks of the absoluteness and eternity of “the One Who is and Who was and Who is to come” (Revelation 11:17). And it shows the basis on which God wants us to come to Him and build our relationship with Him. We don’t have to be heroic or brilliant, we just need to accept that He is, and what He says is true: “Without faith it is impossible to please Him, for he who comes to God must believe that He is, and that He is a rewarder of those who diligently seek Him” (Hebrews 11:6).

The Hidden Name

Why has the name been taken out of our Bible? It was probably around 200– 300 bc, in the time between the end of the Old Testament and the beginning of the New Testament. It’s thought that the Jews decided the name was too sacred to mention, and avoided using it in case it should be treated with disrespect. They replaced it with the word ‘Lord’, which is how it appears in our modern Bibles.

It’s likely that by the time of Jesus and his apostles God’s name was no longer being used. In the New Testament God is not referred to by His name, and when the New Testament quotes Old Testament passages which use the name, it substitutes the word ‘Lord’. However, the Jews certainly still knew, understood and revered God’s name. For example its supreme importance is emphasised in the Lord’s prayer: “Our Father in heaven, hallowed be Your name” (Matthew 6:9); it appears in forms such as “Alleluia” (Revelation 19:1), which means “Praise Yah”; and it appears in the names of people.

The name God chose for His Son was ‘Jesus’ (Matthew 1:21). This was a popular name at the time, it was the First Century form of ‘Joshua’, the name of the Old Testament hero. But it’s also a name with significance: it means “Yah Is Salvation”. It expresses precisely who Jesus is: the man sent by God to be the Saviour of the world (Luke 2:11).

It’s perhaps no coincidence that in the New Testament the most common title by which Jesus Christ is addressed is “Lord”.

The Name of Jesus

In his letter to the Philippians the Apostle Paul urges the disciples to follow the example of humility which was set by Jesus Christ, who laid down his life to save his people from their sins. Because he humbled himself, God has lifted him up: “Therefore God also has highly exalted him and given him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of those in heaven, and of those on earth, and of those under the earth, and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Philippians 2:9–11). These are amazing words. They show how highly God has exalted His Son, and how highly we should regard him!

Paul here is looking forward to the Kingdom of God, when Jesus Christ will reign as King of the world. As a result of his righteous rule, “all the earth shall be filled with the glory of the Lord” (Numbers 14:21).

At last, everyone will know and worship “He Who Is”. That’s the destiny of this world, and we can be part of it if we want to be.