What Can We Learn about God from His Name?

Photo by  Lucas Clara  on  Unsplash

Photo by Lucas Clara on Unsplash

When my parents named me, they gave no thought to the meaning of my name. At least I hope they didn’t, for cam béalis Gaelic for “twisted mouth” or metaphorically, “cheating mouth.” For them the name had a pleasing ring, and its significance was irrelevant.  

Bible names are almost never like that. In the Bible a person’s name reflects something important about that person: the circumstances of their birth, their character, or their God-given purpose and destiny.  

The many dozens of names that are attributed to God are all for this reason highly important: they each reveal something of God’s nature, his attributes, or his work.

The preeminent name for God is “the LORD.”

“The LORD” is God’s personal name, and we must understand it if we are to understand God’s nature. Yet, it is also one of the most confusing and difficult of the divine names to comprehend. For although God has, as we will see, given us considerable explanation of its meaning, the explanation itself is more or less enigmatic! In this short article I tackle the difficult meaning of the LORD, in the hope that we might better know and understand God’s glorious personal name, that we might know and love Him more. 

The confusion around God’s personal name is caused by its seven or so iterations of which those who read the Bible in English need to be aware. Let me briefly introduce and explain them.

What does God’s personal name actually mean?

The modern English lord is a simplification of the Middle English loveredlaverd, which is in turn from the Old English hlāford, made up of hlāf, “bread,” and ward, “keeper.” Our English word lord therefore derives ultimately from “bread-keeper” and refers to a feudal superior or titled nobleman. In a broad sense, it came to mean “master,” “ruler,” “owner,” or “dominant person.”  

The LORD, in capital letters in the English Old Testament, represents יהוה(in Hebrew); YHWH (English letters substituted for the Hebrew)[1]; Yahweh (a scholarly “best guess” as to how YHWH should be pronounced); and Jehovah (an early English attempt to represent YHWH).  [2]

What does YHWH actually mean? After many past attempts and failures, it is now commonly agreed that the Hebrew word יהוה, represented by YHWH, does not in itself represent any other noun, adjective, or verb in the Hebrew language. It seems to have been coined to be God’s name, and only to be God’s name.

Having said that, in Exodus 3:12-17 God closely associates YHWH with the Hebrew word אהיה, which we may represent as AHYH. It is the “first person singular imperfect” of the Hebrew verb היה (HYH) and means “I am,” “I will be.”

God’s personal name gives us confidence that he will keep his promises.

Let’s look at this crucial context: where Moses is called by God at the burning bush. I am using the NIV and indicate the relevant Hebrew words in English capitals: 

And God said, “I will be [AHYH] with you. And this will be the sign to you that it is I who have sent you: When you have brought the people out of Egypt, you will worship God on this mountain.” Moses said to God, “Suppose I go to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ Then what shall I tell them?” God said to Moses, “I AM WHO I AM [AHYH ASHR AHYH]. This is what you are to say to the Israelites: ‘I AM [AHYH] has sent me to you.’” God also said to Moses, “Say to the Israelites, ‘The LORD [YHWH], the God of your fathers—the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob—has sent me to you.’ This is my name forever, the name by which I am to be remembered from generation to generation. “Go, assemble the elders of Israel and say to them, ‘The LORD [YHWH], the God of your fathers—the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob—appeared to me and said: I have watched over you and have seen what has been done to you in Egypt. And I have promised to bring you up out of your misery in Egypt into the land of the Canaanites, Hittites, Amorites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites—a land flowing with milk and honey.’” (Exod. 3:12-17)

Note that in Exodus 3:15 the name YHWH is intentionally associated by textual proximity, sound, and meaning to AHYH in Exodus 3:12 and 14. This means that YHWH, although it has no meaning per se in Hebrew, is intended to reflect and invoke the Exodus 3:14 formula, which can be translated “I am who I am,” “I will be who I will be.” 

This hardly solves the mystery of the meaning of YHWH, for is not “I am who I am,” “I will be who I will be” enigmatic in itself? Scholars have proposed many ways of interpreting this phrase, and Michael Grisanti summarizes them into four categories: 

1. Existence: “I am who I am” in that God actually exists, is self-existent, and unchanging.
2. Causation: “I will cause to be whatever I cause to be.”
3. Explanation: “My name is ‘I am’ because ‘I am.’”
4. Assurance: “I will be who I am/I am who I will be” in that “I will be God for you.” “I will be present, I will be faithful, I will keep my covenant.”[3]

We might also add: 

5. Rebuke: “Why do you ask my name? I am who I am!”

God’s name reminds us to trust and obey him always.

While all of these meanings make more or less sense of “I am who I am,” the context demands that we make the fourth sense central. Israel is suffering slavery and genocide. God has heard their cries, has remembered his covenant promises made to the Patriarchs to create a great nation (Exod. 2:23-25), and is about to intervene on the ground of these covenant promises. The predicted question from Israel, “What is the name of this God who promises to help us?” is answered in this way, “I am who I am.” “I will be who I will be.” In context this has a sense of “I am the God who keeps his covenant.” “I am the God you must trust and obey.”  

In short, whenever, we read “the LORD,” we must remember that he is the God who will keep his covenant of mercy, and who must be trusted and obeyed.

It is no accident that the New Testament authors apply kyrios, the Greek translation of YHWH, to Jesus himself. They intend us to identify Jesus and YHWH. And among scores of proofs for this, I finish with one overwhelmingly powerful identification from John 8:56-58. In a particularly fierce confrontation with the Pharisees, Jesus said these astonishing words:

“Your father Abraham rejoiced at the thought of seeing my day; he saw it and was glad.”

“You are not yet fifty years old,” they said to him, “and you have seen Abraham!” [i.e. “How can you know what Abraham felt some 1,800 years ago?!”]

Very truly I tell you,” Jesus answered, “before Abraham was born, I am!" (John 8:56-58)

Jesus Is the Great “I Am

Jesus overtly identifies himself as YHWH, who stood before Moses and said, “I AM WHO I AM.” The Pharisees understood his meaning, for “At this, they picked up stones to stone him” (John 8:59).

The LORD Jesus is our great God and Savior. He will keep his covenant of mercy to save us from our sins. He is worthy of all our trust, obedience, love, and praise.

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Campbell Markham is a Presbyterian pastor in Hobart, Tasmania. He blogs at Campbell Markham: Thoughts and Letters.

[1] The “Tetragrammaton” (meaning “four letters,” a way of referring to YHWH).

[2] Two other words used for YHWH are Adonai, the Hebrew word meaning “master,” which is how YHWH is actually said by Jewish readers who dare not utter God’s personal name traditionally from fear of the third commandment); and kyrios, the ancient Greek translation of YHWH, which pretty much coincides with the broad meaning described above attached to the English word “lord.”

[3] Michael Grisanti, New International Dictionary of Old Testament Theology and Exegesis (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1997), 1024-25.

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