Saying (and Writing) the Name of God

Is God’s name God? Are we allowed to say his name?

You’ve probably seen people who, when typing messages, avoid typing either the word “God” or the actual name of the Christian God.

Instead of typing “God” they will type “G*d” or “G-d”.  Have you ever wondered why people choose to do this?  Maybe you even do this yourself – if so, may we ask why (feel free to respond in comments).

The practice flows from two originating concepts.  The first follows on from the belief observed by many Jews who believe they should not actually say God’s name.

Important note – we mean no disrespect to the Jewish faith in this or any other article.  Just because this article concludes that we Christians can and should use the name of God does not mean that Jews are wrong not to do so.  Their faith, while very similar, has some key differences, and so it is entirely possible that the Jewish reticence to write or say God’s actual name is correct within their faith, while our ability to do so, within the terms of the Christian faith, is equally correct for us.

Some Christians, in what they may feel to be a generous abundance of reverence, and on the basis of ‘better safe than sorry’, choose to follow suit.

This concern is probably based on verses such as Exodus 20:7, Leviticus 19:12 and Deuteronomy 5:11 and their admonition not to blaspheme or take the Lord’s name in vain.

A slightly altered second concern is that, whether banned or not, it is simply impolite and disrespectful to call our Lord directly by his personal name.  One could compare that to a situation where, let’s say, your name is Peter Smith, and you are a physician.  Do you wish to be referred to as “the doctor”, or as “Doc”, or perhaps Dr Smith, or as Doctor Peter, or as Peter, or Peter Smith, or Petey, or Pete?

Whatever your preferred form of address, it may offend you if a stranger, or a salesman, or someone seeking your help, approached you and said “Hi, there, Petey, I wonder if you can help me”.

We understand and have no desire to ever take the name of the Lord in vain.  And we wish to be respectful, both when directly talking with our God, and when talking about him to other people.

But before we evaluate proper naming protocol, perhaps we should first start by understanding an important point.

What is God’s Name?

God’s name is not “God”.  The noun “god” is a generic name, and can refer to many different beings viewed as having super-powers in various cultures and histories.  By convention, in the Christian west, when capitalized as “God” rather than “god”, it is assumed to refer to our Christian Lord, but even that is not always unambiguous and universally followed.

The word “god” can be thought of as a title of office, a bit like “President” or “Queen”.  We can talk about “Queen Elizabeth”, or we can talk about “the Queen”.  But whereas there have been a series of queens and presidents, there is only one Christian God, and so we don’t need to add any further modifier to the word.

This is a bit like, to extend our earlier example of Dr Peter Smith, if Dr Smith practiced in a hospital with many other physicians, he would be referred to as Dr Smith, but if he was in his own sole/private practice, it would be possible to talk about “the Doctor”, because it would be obvious who is being referred to.

In the Bible, we are told that God’s name, in the original Hebrew of the Old Testament, is YHWH (sometimes transliterated as JHWH), and written as יהוה in the original texts.

In case this doesn’t appear in your browser correctly, here is a graphic image of the four letters

Note also that you read this from right to left, not left to right.

It is always difficult to translate a foreign word into English, and even more difficult when it isn’t spelled using the same alphabet.  These difficulties are made greater when it comes to the name of God, however, due to the thousands of years that have passed, and the desire on the part of many Jewish scholars to obfuscate God’s name in the texts they have written and copied.

There’s still another challenge which is seldom encountered when transliterating and translating.  In this case, the written Ancient Hebrew language – “unpointed Biblical Hebrew” – generally omitted syllables, so there is an element of ambiguity as to the best pronunciation for these four consonants (called the Tetragrammaton) – are there two syllables (YH-WH) or three (YH-HW-WH)?

Here’s a very detailed discussion which is interesting in the sense that it sheds a light on some of the difficulty that is present in taking written forms of languages that are many thousands of years old and attempting to now reconstruct them into modern-day form.

In English, the preferred pronunciation of the name, as shown in the KJV, is (was) the tri-syllabic Jehovah, although this word appears only four times (Exodus 6:3, Psalms 83:18, Isaiah 12:2 and 26:4).  (Yes, we do appreciate the irony that in these automatic pop-up citations, the word Jehovah is not used in the ESV versions!)  More commonly, the Tetragrammaton is translated as Lord in the KJV, and never as Yahweh.

Other translations use Jehovah more liberally.  The American Standard Version uses it 6,823 times in the Old Testament, and the Darby Bible uses it 6,810 times.

The two-syllable form, usually written as Yahweh and sometimes as Jahweh, does not appear at all in the KJV, but subsequent to the publication of The Jerusalem Bible in 1966, where it may have first started to be used, some ‘trend-setters’ adopted this form.  More recently, the World English Bible (a generally high quality translation, published in 2000, and based on the 1901 ASV) uses it 6,837 times.

If of interest, you can see the four verses cited previously, as they each appear in 25 different Bible translations at these links :   Exodus 6:3, Psalms 83:18, Isaiah 12:2 and 26:4.

Beware of Political Correctness in Your Faith

Whether it is based on increasing “political correctness” or underlying better scholarship, there seems to be a general avoidance of now directly stating either Jehovah or Yahweh.

Here is an interesting article dating from 2008 which reports that the Roman Catholic church was removing use of the term Yahweh and replacing it with the word Adonai instead, in both prayers and songs.  A Protestant theologian was quoted in the article as endorsing the elimination of the word, referring in part to a concern that using that word might offend any nearby Jews in earshot.

Excuse us for being unsympathetic, but how many times do you see Jews in a Christian church service?  If we’re to start redefining our worship to avoid offending Jews, shouldn’t we actually go silent on the topic of Jesus Christ entirely?

And, while voluntarily self-crippling our ability to observe the key elements of our faith so as to avoid offending people of other faiths, do we expect or see a similar sensitivity to Christianity in their faiths and worship practices?

While we see how Paul, in the New Testament, sometimes expressed Christian concepts in terms familiar to the Jews he was talking to, we also see countless examples where Christians are so proud of their faith and so willing to express it and “give offense” that they risk and sometimes suffer death rather than go silent or become neutral and inoffensive.  Anyone that advocates we should avoid giving offense fails to understand that we must be willing to do exactly that as part of fully and fairly sharing God’s word.

God has Many Titles

Just like how some heads of state have multiple titles, so too does Jehovah.  To look at a Christian example, the Pope’s formal title, throwing away any claims to humbleness or humility, is

Bishop of RomeVicar of Jesus Christ, Successor of the Prince of the ApostlesSupreme Pontiff of the Universal Church, Primate of Italy, Archbishop and Metropolitan of the Roman Province, Sovereign of the Vatican City State, Servant of the servants of God.

And Queen Elizabeth II is

Queen Elizabeth the Second, by the Grace of God Queen of this Realm and of Her other Realms and Territories, Head of the Commonwealth, Defender of the Faith.

Unlike the US which asserts freedom of religion, in the UK there is a national official religion – that represented by the Church of England (the Anglican or Episcopal church), although other religions are totally at liberty to co-exist alongside the Church of England.  We note that the Queen’s successor, Prince Charles, has stated that he would prefer to be known as “Defender of Faith” – a more general and vague term, rather than the specific “the Faith” which clearly means one and only one faith – Christianity in the form of the Church of England, for which the reigning King or Queen is the formal head.  He says this because he doesn’t feel it would be fair to make other religions feel left out….  He has since slightly backpedaled on this preference, while still expressing opinions that probably make Christians uncomfortable and which may see a still greater weakening of the ties between Church and State in the UK.

And, for those lovers of trivia, one of the most impressive titles we have yet seen was that adopted by Tsar Nicholas II in 1906

By the Grace of God, Nicholas, Emperor and Autocrat of All the Russias, of Moscow, Kiev, Vladimir, Novgorod; Tsar of Kazan, Tsar of Astrakhan, Tsar of Poland, Tsar of Siberia, Tsar of Tauric Chersonesus, Lord of Pskov, and Grand Prince of Smolensk, Lithuania, Volhynia, Podolia, and Finland; Prince of Estonia, Livonia, Courland and Semigalia, Samogitia, Bielostok, Karelia, Tver, Yugor, Perm, Vyatka, Bogar and others; Sovereign and Grand Prince of Nizhni Novgorod, Chernigov, Ryazan, Polotsk, Rostov, Jaroslavl, Beloozero, Udoria, Obdoria, Kondia, Vitebsk, Mstislav, and Ruler of all the Severian country; Sovereign and Lord of Iveria, Kartalinia, the Kabardian lands and Armenian province: hereditary Sovereign and Possessor of the Circassian and Mountain Princes and of others; Sovereign of Turkestan, Heir of Norway, Duke of Schleswig-Holstein, Stormarn, Dithmarschen, and Oldenburg.

So, in the Bible, we see our Lord Jehovah being referred to in many different forms.  Some of these are simply very slightly altered versions of the Tetragrammaton, even though in English they might end up sounding very different indeed (for example, Adonai), and other versions are compound words adding further to the base word (for example, Everlasting God and The Lord of Hosts).  This article has more on that topic.

Which Forms of Name and Title are Appropriate?

If used respectfully and in the appropriate context, we see no reason not to happily type the name of God and his Titles of Glory in all their many versions and variations.

In particular, we cringe when we see people affecting compliance with “not taking God’s name in vain” by typing G*d or G-d, for two reasons.  First, blasphemy and inappropriate uses of the Lord’s name aren’t avoided by substituting an asterisk for the letter “o”; indeed, we imagine God rolling his eyes when seeing this and wondering as to the thought processes that encourage people to do this!

Secondly, the name of our god is not God.  Just like the name of our doctor is not Doctor, neither is the name of our god God.  So any prohibition on using the name of the Lord in vain only weakly applies to using the more generic descriptive noun, god/God.

Rather than being banned from appropriately saying the Lord’s name, it seems we are even encouraged to say it, in praise (Psalm 61:8 and 97:12), and prayerfully (Romans 10:9-13, Acts 2:21).

An Alternative Perspective

We certainly agree that words are very important.  That is even reflected in the chosen name of our church, The Holy Word Church of God.  Choosing the correct words, and using them appropriately, are essential in every part of our lives.

James 3:1-12 is very clear about the importance of words :

1  Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness.
2  For we all stumble in many ways. And if anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man, able also to bridle his whole body.
3  If we put bits into the mouths of horses so that they obey us, we guide their whole bodies as well.
4  Look at the ships also: though they are so large and are driven by strong winds, they are guided by a very small rudder wherever the will of the pilot directs.
5  So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great things.  How great a forest is set ablaze by such a small fire!
6  And the tongue is a fire, a world of unrighteousness.  The tongue is set among our members, staining the whole body, setting on fire the entire course of life, and set on fire by hell.
7  For every kind of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by mankind,
8  but no human being can tame the tongue.  It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison.
9  With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God.
10  From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers, these things ought not to be so.
11  Does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and salt water?
12  Can a fig tree, my brothers, bear olives, or a grapevine produce figs? Neither can a salt pond yield fresh water.

Our Lord Jehovah is proud of his name, and states, in Isaiah 42:8 (in ASV form below)

I am Jehovah, that is my name; and my glory will I not give to another, neither my praise unto graven images.

It is a mighty name, and is great in power (Jeremiah 10:6).  People who try to discourage us from saying his name seek to deprive us – and him – of its power.

We encourage you to proudly say his name, and correctly.  Invoke its power.  God’s name is not something to be embarrassed about.  He is not ashamed of his name, and neither should we.

What Not to Do/Say

How many times have you heard people say “Oh, My God!”.  Or other phrases of expostulation which include the word “God” in them, including even, “God Damn!”.  There’s even a text abbreviation these days, beloved of the young, OMG.

These are inappropriate ways to use the word “god”, whether you mean the word to refer to our Christian God, Jehovah, or any other god at all.  It also sets a bad example – when good Christian people utter expressions like that, it validates and endorses the expression as one suitable for use by everyone.

Even worse, to our gentle ears, would be when people substitute the word “Jesus”, “Christ”, or “Jesus Christ” in their expostulations.  While one can struggle to perhaps hope that when someone says “god” in an exclamation, they are not specifically addressing our Christian God, there is no ambiguity at all when a person uses these names.

It is strange that in a culture that evolved in a Christian environment, the habit of misusing God’s name – something so clearly prohibited in both the Old and New Testaments – has become so prevalent.  On the face of it, you’d think that we would have chosen to use the name of a false god in such cases.

If you find yourself gently protesting such phrases, you could even ask the people who use them “So why don’t you say ‘Oh Buddha!’ or ‘Allah!’ instead?”

Why do people go to great lengths to avoid offending other religions, while delighting in offending western society’s Christianity?  Is this a manifestation of the Devil at work?  Quite possibly so.

Summary

God’s name was originally stated in the ancient Hebrew texts as YHWH, and has been transliterated and Anglicised into English as Jehovah or Yahweh.

We are commanded to use his name respectfully and not to take it in vain.  But we are not prohibited from using his name appropriately.  Indeed, it is a mighty name full of great power.

We should use it, proudly and prayerfully, and resist the efforts of people who seek to deprive us and God of his name and its power.


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Bible verse of the day

As for the rich in this present age, charge them not to be haughty, nor to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but on God, who richly provides us with everything to enjoy.