Anyone who has grown up in the Church will have probably heard some variations of God’s names at some time or another. I remember many times when I was sitting in service as a kid and someone got up to pray and used all sorts of foreign-sounding names to emphasize whatever they were praying for. For some reason it never really sat well with me. Probably because whoever was praying never bothered to explain any of the words to the congregation. In my mind it just sounded like someone trying to show off using some special words or something. Whatever their intentions, when I went to seminary I learned all those neat names too. I also learned that most of the time those super-awesome-prayer people were saying them wrong or using the wrong names altogether.
A couple of things to know off the bat. Remember that scene in Indian Jones & the Last Crusade when Indy has to walk over the letters that spell out the name of God? He messes up because Jehovah starts with an I in Latin. Well, the same goes for Hebrew. There is no J and when you see a Hebrew word or name with a J it’s usually pronounced with a Y (Joshua = Yeshua. Which is also Jesus, FYI). Hebrew is also a language based primarily on root letters and the little dots and tittles that represent vowels weren’t invented until the Middle Ages.
Let’s start with the most familiar name of God. It also happens to be the one most people get wrong.
The most important name of God in the Old Testament is explained when Moses stands before the burning bush (Exodus 3) and asks God straight out what his name is. God responds by saying, “I am that I am.” This phrase can also mean “I was what I was” and “I will be who I will be.” Simply put, he is the God Who Is. For this reason he tells Moses to say “I AM has sent me.” The Hebrew root letters for this name are YHWH and it’s usually just called the Tetragrammaton (Four Letters).
In most English Bibles this name is translated as LORD in all capital letters. This is because the name was thought to be so holy that, by Jesus’ day, it was considered blasphemy to even speak it out loud. Ever wonder why the Jews tried to kill Jesus because he said “I AM”? (e.g., John 8:58-59) This is the reason. Not only did Jesus speak the holy name out loud, but he claimed it as well.
Because the name is holy, Jews both ancient and modern say the word Adonai (which means “the Lord”) when they read a passage of scripture that uses the name. To remember to do this, the medieval scribes who first copied the Hebrew Scriptures using the new vowel points stuck the vowels for Adonai onto YHWH.
The Greek and Latin translations of the OT followed the Jewish example and used the words for Lord, Kurios and Dominus. By the time of the Reformation (circa 1530) Christian translators weren’t too keen on going to Jewish Rabbis for religious advice, so when they made their own translations from the Hebrew they ended up with various forms of Yahovah. When the King James Version of the Bible was published and circulated across the English-speaking world, the name Jehovah became cemented in the minds of Christians everywhere.
Modern scholars who study these sorts of things determined that the most likely ancient pronunciation of the name is Yahweh (YAH-WAYH). This is the name most scholars and theologians use today (myself included) but many will just write out YHWH.
Many of the names people use when “praying the names” are compounded with YHWH. These include:
YHWH Yireh (“YEE-REH”) — The Lord, the Provider (Genesis 22:14)
YHWH Nissi (“NEE-SEE”) — The Lord, My Banner (Exodus 17:15)
YHWH Shalom (“SHA-LOAM”) – The Lord of Peace (Judges 6:24)
YHWH Ra’i – (“RA-EE”) — The Lord, My Shepherd (Psalm 23:1)
YHWH Sabaoth (“SA-BA-OAT”) — The Lord of Hosts (This name is used quite often in the OT. “Hosts” is another word for armies. In this case, “armies of heaven.” First used in 1 Samuel 1:3. The name Sabaoth became so synonymous with the power of God that by the Roman Period, Jews and Pagans were both using it on magical amulets all over the Empire, even as far north as Britain.)
Pronounced “EL-OH-HEEM,” this name literally means “gods.” While it is a plural word, when used as God (big G) it takes singular nouns and adjectives. This is mainly because the word for “god” (El) is the name of a well-known Canaanite god and the Israelite scribes wanted to differentiate between the two. When we do see El used for the God of Israel, it’s typically used in compound names because Elohim doesn’t make compounds. These include
El Shaddai (“El-SHA-DYE”) — God Almighty (According to Exodus 6:3, this is the name the Patriarchs knew YHWH by. It’s used a lot in the Job story, which is thought to take place at that time as well.)
El Elyon (“El-El-YOAN”) — God Most High (First used in Genesis 14 with regards to Melchizedek, the King of Salem who was a priest of El Elyon. It’s used in several Psalms, Daniel, and a few places in the NT as well)
El Olam (“EL-OH-LAHM”) — The Everlasting God (Genesis 21:33)
Lord or Master. Pronounced “A-DOH-NYE,” this name literally means “my lords” (plural), but like Elohim, it was used as a singular when talking about God. As I said above, it is the name most commonly used by both ancient and modern Jews. Like the English word, it was used for both God and human lords. When talking about God, the Scriptures usually compounded the name with YHWH.
Knowing the names of God, and the meanings behind them, gives us a valuable perspective, not only for studying the Scriptures, but also in how we approach him in our prayer life. With that said, we should never forget that God is holy and deserves our honor and respect. For this reason, perhaps we should follow the example of the Jews and not be so quick to utter his names, especially his personal name, just so we can sound smart. Or do we think that by using Hebrew names our prayers somehow become more powerful? God answers prayers powered by faith, not magic words.