Pulpit Notes: The Divine Name

Michael G. McKelvey
Associate Professor of Old Testament
Reformed Theological Seminary, Jackson

In the Bible, “the name” of God stands for the whole of God, and each name employed for him reveals something about him. One of the central names used is the Divine Name, יהוה. This name, transliterated YHWH, is referred to as the tetragrammaton (“four letters”) and is typically translated in English Bibles using smaller capital letters as “The Lord.” It was this name that God gave to Moses at the burning bush as the special covenant name by which Israel would know him (Exodus 3-4). While the Divine Name occurs in the book of Genesis to show the reader that the creator and the covenant God of the patriarchs is the same God of Sinai, it was not revealed to the descendants of Abraham until the calling of Moses.

The statistics on the Divine Name reveal its importance. It occurs 6,828 times in the Hebrew Bible, and is the most frequent proper name in all of the Hebrew Bible—almost 20% of all proper names found in the Hebrew text. It mostly appears with the vowels for אֲדֹנָי (adonai, “lord”), rendered as יְהוָה (and other similar forms). The use of this vowel pattern occurs 6,522 times, which is 95.5% of the time! Notably, the o-class vowel after the second root letter in the Qere (“what is to be read”) is normally left out of the Kethib (“what is written”) in the Masoretic Text. Only in 50 total instances does this o-class vowel appear over the waw (יְהוָֹה), and it is unclear as to why this happens. Hebrew students just need to be aware that it does!

Also, the Divine Name appears less frequently (306 times or 4.5%) with the vowels for אֱלֹהִים (Elohim, “God”) as in יְהוִה or יְהוִֹה (with the extra o-class vowel over the waw). This spelling is used when the title אֲדֹנָי (adonai, “lord”) appears together with the divine name, as in אֲדֹנָי יְהוִה. This pattern is intended to prevent the reader from saying the repetitive, “Adonai, Adonai,” and also to distinguish the two distinct words being used to refer to God. Audibly, it the reader would say, “Adonai Elohim.

Why the different pronunciations? Over time, in Hebrew and Rabbinic traditions, there was concern to not misuse the Divine Name of God or “take the name of the Lord your God in vain” (Exod. 20:7; Deut. 5:11). So the practice arose of saying אֲדֹנָי (Adonai) whenever the tetragrammaton יהוה occurred in the text. In desiring to show reverence for the Divine Name because of its holy nature, avoiding its pronunciation became the standard practice, and is still the tradition of the Jewish community to this present day. The archaic word “Jehovah” is the German transliteration of the tetragrammaton with the vowels of אֲדֹנָי (Adonai). Contemporary scholarship is in general agreement that, based on how the Hebrew vowel system operates, the original pronunciation was likely “Yahweh.” This form of the Divine Name is typically employed in biblical studies and the Christian church today.

So how should these things about the Divine Name affect us practically? First, using the name of God in reverence is a great lesson to take away from this. God gave his people his covenant name יהוה so that they would know him by name. This implies that God’s intent was for us to use his name, speak his name, and proclaim his name. So it does not seem that avoiding the pronunciation of the Divine Name was what God originally intended. We should feel at liberty and very privileged to say the name “Yahweh” for he has made us his covenant people. However, God’s name is hallowed (Matt. 6:9), and using his name in an honorable manner should always be our goal. If we love him, we will love his name and will want to say it with reverence.

Second, when it comes to preaching, perhaps the names “God” and “Lord” are the most frequently employed references to God, at least in the English-speaking world. And since most people refer to God in these ways, it seems wise to use the terms most common to the general population. However, the Divine Name needs to be taught and explained to congregations. They need to see the richness of this epithet and the context in which it was given to Israel. They need to glory in what it means and what it promises (i.e. that he is and will be with us). They need to be able to recognize this name in their English translations (usually all capital letters), and see how often it is found upon the lips of God’s people as they call out to him as their covenant Lord. So, while it may not be the most frequent name that we use for God, we should teach it to the church and use it in sermons (when fitting) to draw our hearers’ attention to awesome name of our King.

Finally, the use of the Divine Name in worship is evidenced through the Old Testament. We may simply look at the Book of Psalms to see that the name יהוה was sung and prayed. It is found in lament and praise, in misery and excitement, in sorrow and joy. So using this name in public and private worship is warranted God’s word itself. But we need to note something else. Jesus taught us to pray to God as “our Father” (Matt. 6:9). Lest we become one dimensional in our thinking about using God’s name in worship, the New Testament has revealed that our covenant Lord is also our Father in heaven through his Son, Jesus Christ. This familial aspect should always shape our engagement with the holy God who gave his name to Moses at the burning bush. Whenever we sing or pray the name “Yahweh,” we do so as his children crying out, “Abba, Father.”