The Names of God: An Introduction

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If you have been attending the church for any amount of time, you will be familiar with our weekly prayer focus. Under ordinary circumstances, our Sunday evening service takes the form of a prayer meeting. It includes a brief devotional sermon, but the focus is an extended time of corporate prayer, whereby we pray together for various needs and burdens of and related to the church.

Several months ago, a church member suggested that we include a prayer of adoration in the prayer guide so that we do not fall into the trap of automatically coming to God with our needs without having given thought to the God to whom we are praying. It was suggested that we pray through the attributes of God as a means to this end. Praying through a different attribute of God each week affords us opportunity to reflect on the character of the God to whom we pray before we bring our petitions to him.

This proved to be a helpful exercise. As of last Sunday, when we focused our adoration on divine wrath, we have prayed through 28 attributes of God and, while it is impossible for us to completely exhaust our knowledge of God (divine incomprehensibility!), we have made our way fully through a somewhat standardised list of divine attributes. We could return to the beginning of that list and begin again, which would no doubt prove beneficial, but we have opted, instead, to change gears slightly and, for the next little while, to pray through various names of God.

In biblical thought, a name is more than a moniker by which a person is identified. A person’s name speaks to that person’s character or a significant aspect of their life. This can be seen, for example, when a biblical character is renamed (or nicknamed). For example, the name Abram means “exalted father” while his new name, Abraham, means “father of a multitude.” God changed Abram’s name to Abraham as a promise that he would become the ancestor of a great multitude of people. Jesus nicknamed Simon “Peter,” which means “rock,” as a means of identifying Peter as the rock on which the church would be built.

This understanding of name highlighting character is particularly important when it comes to the names of God. God reveals himself by many names in the Bible and each of his many names is intended to highlight a particular aspect of his character. As we focus on, and pray through, his names, therefore, it helps us to focus on the character of the God to whom we are praying. As we make our way through the various names of God, we will include a brief paragraph in the prayer guide with some highlights but will also include a weekly article speaking more fully to the divine name under consideration. In this article, I want to introduce the names of God by briefly highlighting the three primary words in the Old Testament that are used of God: “God” (Elohim), “Lord” (Adonai), and “LORD” (Yahweh).

Elohim: The name of power

The Bible begins with God: “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth” (Genesis 1:1). “God” here translates the Hebrew word Elohim, which is used variously of the true God, of false gods, of human judges, and even of angels. While it is a somewhat generic word, when it is applied to the true God it highlights his strength, sovereignty, and pre-eminence.

For example, the name is used throughout Genesis 1. In the account of the seven-day creation (Genesis 1:1–2:3), Elohim is used 35 times, and no other word is applied to God in the text. Moses highlights the strength and pre-eminence of the creator God, who stands above and apart from his creation. He is the sovereign creator and is not a part of his creation. This section highlights the transcendence of God—that he sits over and above all—portraying him almost as if he is distant and not interacting with his creation. The word that Moses chooses to emphasise God’s sovereign transcendence is Elohim.

English readers of the Old Testament can easily identify when the Hebrew word Elohim is used to describe God because, when it is used of God, it is always translated in our English Bible as “God.”

Adonai: The name of authority

A second Hebrew word used to describe God is Adonai, which refers to God as master over all. As with Elohim, the word can be used of God or of human lords (e.g. Ezra 10:3). It is first used in Genesis 15:2, where Abram appealed to God to give him a sign of his covenant. The ESV once translates the name as “GOD” (Isaiah 10:16), though other Hebrew texts actually have the name Yahweh at this point. Otherwise, it appears in English Bibles as “Lord” (notice the upper case “L” and the lowercase “ord”).

When the Bible refers to God as Adonai, it highlights his lordship or authority over all. Other gods and lords are recognised in the Bible, but he is “God of gods and Lord of lords” (Deuteronomy 10:17). Others have legitimate, God-given authority, but his authority exceeds theirs and he rules over them.

Yahweh: The name of covenant

Finally, the Old Testament uses the name Yahweh as God’s personal, covenant name. The name means “the existing one” and describes God’s self-existence, but it most appropriately highlights the covenant-making nature of God. When it uses Yahweh, the Old Testament highlights God’s intimate, covenant dealings with his people. In the second part of the creation account (Genesis 2:4–25), Moses uses the name Yahweh eleven times. This part of the creation account highlights God’s immanence: his intimate dealing with humanity. Whereas 1:1–2:3 highlights Elohim as the sovereign, powerful creator, 2:4–24 highlights Yahweh as the sovereign, intimate covenant-maker, who invites humanity into relationship with him.

God revealed himself as “I AM” (Yahweh) in Exodus 3:14 when he called Moses to deliver his people from Egypt. This was a name apparently known to the patriarchs but which seems to have been forgotten or neglected by the Israelites in Egypt. God was now reminding them, through Moses, that the covenant-making God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob was going to deliver them.

In the English Bible, Yahweh is typically translated as “LORD” (all caps) or “GOD” (all caps). Ancient Israelites who wanted to honour the sacred nature of the divine name typically spoke of God as Adonai rather than Yahweh. Scribes went a step further by removing the vowels in Yahweh and writing the name using only consonants: YHWH. Later scribes, wanting to guard devout Israelites from accidentally saying the name while reading it, took it a step further. They took the vowels from Adonai and inserted them between the consonants of YHWH to create the word Yahowah, which was not an actual Hebrew word. Readers were reminded when reading the hybrid name not to say Yahweh out loud. Some early English translations, perhaps not realising that it is a hybrid name, transliterate Yahowah as Jehovah (see Exodus 6:3; Psalm 83:18; Isaiah 12:2; 26:4 in KJV).

Here, then, are the three primary Hebrew names referring to God: Elohim (“God”), Adonai (“Lord”), and Yahweh (“LORD” or “GOD”). We will see in coming weeks how God uses these base names to reveal much about his person and work to his people, which will lead us into adoration. For now, marvel at the fact that Elohim, the powerful creator of all, who is Adonai—lord of all—extends a covenant to humanity (Yahweh). When Christians pray, we pray to an absolute, all-powerful sovereign who, through Jesus Christ, has made a way to enter into intimate, covenant relationship with him.