Most of us have several names or titles to which we respond. In my work, I am called "Dr. Hemphill." In most social settings, I am called "Ken." My wife calls me "Honey." My mother refers to me as "Son." Now that all three of my girls are out of the house, I love to pick up the phone and hear the words, "Hi, Dad, what are you doing?" And when any of my daughters says "Daddy," it still melts my heart.
Names are important. They are a means of self-revelation. They tell people something fundamental about us. What's more, the names people use to address us reveal something about the nature of their connection to us. When we meet someone, one of the first pieces of information we desire is that person's name. The disclosure of the name is the prelude for building a relationship.
Throughout the Old Testament, God reveals himself to his chosen people through various names or titles—both those that he gave to himself and those that his servants were inspired to ascribe to him or to the place where he appeared to them. These names served to identify and describe God, but they also exhorted God's people to holy living, gave them hope, reminded them of their heritage, and challenged them to continue their pilgrimage of faith.
The names of God are one way in which God speaks to us today. Studying them unlocks for us a fuller understanding of God's multifaceted character and offers us insight into his divine expectations. They are an invitation for us to know intimately and fully the God of creation and redemption.
All biblical names of God are built around two core names—"El," a general term for a god, and "Yahweh," a more personal and covenantal moniker. In the Scriptures, the name or title used for God depends on who's using it and the context in which it's used.
El, the common word for "deity" in the ancient Middle East, is used occasionally in the Old Testament to refer to heathen gods but most frequently designates the God of Israel. The name most likely means "first" and indicates that God is the strong and mighty One. The singular name El is rarely used alone in the Old Testament; it is most frequently found in compound constructions such as El Shaddai (God Almighty) or El Elyon (God Most High).
In Genesis 1:1, the Hebrew name for God is Elohim, the plural form of El. Though technically a plural term, Elohim is usually translated in the singular. Some scholars believe that the use of Elohim points to the triune nature of God. In Genesis 1:26, for example, Elohim is used with the plural pronouns us and our: "Then God said, 'Let us make man in our image, according to our likeness"' (NKJV).
Other scholars argue that the plural form simply intensifies the subject, indicating God's supremacy. Thus when Israelites confessed the name Elohim, they were acknowledging that God contained within himself all the divine attributes. In a predominantly polytheistic age, it was no small thing to assert that God alone is the one true God and that he can be known personally. This is not the place to debate the Trinitarian implications of Elohim, but God's triune nature and his supremacy are throughout Scripture. The God of creation is the one true God who, to provide for our salvation, has revealed himself as God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit.
The name Yahweh is not without its own theological controversies, though most biblical scholars agree that it is the closest thing we have to a proper, personal name for God. The name occurs 6,823 times in the Bible. In Hebrew, Yahweh is written with only four consonants—YHWH—and no vowels. (Theologians call this four-letter name "The Tetragrammaton"—the ineffable name of God.) Since about 300 B.C. the Hebrews avoided speaking the name for fear of profaning its holiness. When they came to yhwh in the text, they would substitute Adonai, the common Hebrew word for "Lord." Today, most English Bibles translate YHWH as "Lord."
Sometime before the 10th century, Jewish scholars inserted the vowel signs from the name Adonai between the letters in YHWH—or JHVH, as it was sometimes rendered. Consequently, the name Jehovah came into popular use. It remained in vogue from the 16th century, during the Renaissance period, until about 100 years ago. The name has since fallen out of favor with most scholars, who believe Yahweh is a more accurate transliteration.
Yahweh comes from the Hebrew verb "to be." At its very essence, "to be" is to have life. Some scholars believe this hints at a truth that became clearer later in history: The name Yahweh implies that God is absolutely self-existent. He is the One who in himself possesses life and permanent existence. When God spoke to Moses through the burning bush in Exodus 3, he revealed himself as "Yahweh." Most English translations render it I AM WHO I AM—an attempt to convey the idea that God was, is, and always will be.
Sometimes children surprise their parents with the question, "Who created God?" It's an inquiry that can give pause to even the most erudite mom or dad. Christian parents, however, will usually turn to Genesis 1: "In the beginning was God." Unsatisfied, the children repeat, "But who created God?"
The point of the name Yahweh is this: God is the uncaused cause. He is the first cause and before him there was no other and after him there will be no other. Life is found in him.
Overwhelmed by the Mystery
Many parents remember the agonizing struggle to choose a name for our firstborn. We considered honoring a relative or friend, we purchased books explaining the meaning of names, and we pondered our hopes and aspirations for our child.
My oldest daughter was born while my wife, Paula, and I were living in Cambridge, England, where I was a graduate student at the university. Ecstatic about the impending arrival of our new baby, we obsessed for months over possible names. We narrowed our list of choices for girls' names to two. But we couldn't make our final decision until we held her in our arms and looked into her face. Somehow we then knew that her name was Kristina. No matter how much we prepared for it, in the end, the process was rather mysterious.
Similarly, a certain degree of mystery will always attend our renderings of God's holy name, as it should. Putting the inexpressible into perfect words is finally impossible. Yet because words have some relation to meaning, God invites us to call upon his name and experience its truthfulness.
In the Old Testament, prophets and patriarchs were often inspired to declare a name of God in response to a theophany, a wondrous experience of the presence of God. They were so overwhelmed by God's visitation that they had to frame it with a title. They couldn't help themselves. It was a spontaneous act of worship.
- When Abraham prepared to sacrifice his son Isaac, God provided a ram for the offering in Isaac's stead, prompting Abraham to declare that he now understood God as Yahweh-Yireh, The Lord Will Provide (Gen. 22:14).
- After God empowered Israel's army to defeat the Amalekites, Moses built an altar and named it Yahweh-Nissi, The Lord Is My Banner (Exod. 17:15).
- Upon receiving God's call to be an instrument to deliver Israel, Gideon built an altar and named it Yahweh-Shalom, The Lord Is Peace (Judg. 6:24).
- Reflecting upon God's faithfulness through both exhilarating victories and depressing defeats, David called him Yahweh-Rohi, The Lord Is My Shepherd (Ps. 23:1).
- At the conclusion of the detailed description of the New Jerusalem, speaking for God, Ezekiel prophesied that the place would be called Yahweh-Shammah, The Lord Is There (Ezek. 48:35).
God's people came to realize that his resources were inestimable: Every revelation, every miracle, pointed to a different side of Yahweh.
The various names for God that we find throughout the Old Testament are not the invention of men who were struggling to define a hidden and unknowable God. Rather, they are a sort of gift from God—a personal and intimate self-expression of God and a vehicle for our worshipful response to him.
Power in the Names
When we discover the unique emphasis of each new title of God, it is as if we are turning a diamond in our hands and gazing at it as the light of revelation strikes a new and previously unexplored facet of the stone. God's names were a continual unveiling of his character in response to the unique challenges faced by his people.
As I have preached, prayed, and meditated on these names, my understanding of God's Word has been enhanced and my spiritual walk deepened. There are three particular reasons every believer should study the names of God.
- It enhances our worship and prayer. A number of contemporary musicians have, through their lyrics, introduced certain names into our vocabulary of praise (e.g., "El Shaddai" by Michael Card). These songs have greatly enriched praise and worship in many churches. Note how the Psalmist teaches us to sing praise (7:17), set up banners (20:5), boast in (20:7), ascribe glory to (29:2), trust in (33:21), exalt (34:3), wait on (52:9), fear (61:5), lift up our hands (63:4), and rejoice (89:16) in the name of the Lord.
- It promotes spiritual growth. As I grew to understand the significance of God's names, I better understood God's character as well as his desire for my life. To encourage me in my spiritual growth, the Holy Spirit calls certain names to mind when I pray (and throughout the day). When I face temptation and possible spiritual defeat, I am reminded that he is Yahweh-Nissi, my banner of victory. Yahweh-Mekadesh (The Lord Who Sanctifies You) reminds me that he is constantly transforming me into his likeness (Lev. 20:8). And, of course, all of the names in some way point to the ultimate revelation of God to his people. In the New Testament we find names, such as Immanuel (God With Us) and Abba (Aramaic for Father), that take our relationship with God to a whole new realm. Through Jesus Christ the Son and the Holy Spirit, God now dwells among and within his followers.
- It reminds us of our witness to the world. God wants his people, who are called by his name, to glorify his name through their daily behavior. The prophet Ezekiel (36:20-23) tells the Israelites that God had poured out his wrath on them because they had profaned his name among the nations. The Babylonian captivity was punishment for disobedience, but the peoples of other nations had wrongly concluded that the God of Israel was unable to care for his own. The Lord declared that he would deliver them from captivity in order to vindicate the holiness of his great name. The end result speaks of global evangelization: "Then the nations will know that I am the Lord."
We bear God's name; therefore our speech, attitudes, and actions lead others to make certain conclusions about the credibility of the God we serve. In Psalm 23:3, David says: "He leads me in the paths of righteousness for his name's sake." That phrase does not mean that God is acting to save his reputation. What it means is that God is acting in conformity with his own nature. That is, God leads in paths of righteousness because he is by nature a righteous God. His names are a reflection of his character.
The day I left for college, I was prepared for the son-going-out-into-the-world speech from my dad—you know, the one with the extensive list of do's and don'ts. Instead, he gave me a single piece of advice: "Son, I have only one thing to give you. It's my name. Don't take it anywhere I wouldn't take it. Don't associate it with anything I wouldn't." With that sage counsel he sent me out into the world.
Just as I carry and represent the name Hemphill, I also bear my heavenly Father's name. The question is: What am I going to do with it?
Ken Hemphill is president of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth. His latest book is The Names of God (Broadman & Holman, 2001).
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A ready-to-download Bible Study on this article is available at ChristianBibleStudies.com. These unique Bible studies use articles from current issues of Christianity Today to prompt thought-provoking discussions in adult Sunday school classes or small groups.
Ken Hemphill's The Names of God is available at Christianbook.com.
A Web site by Lambert Dolphin lists the names of God with scripture citations.
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