The Name

A reader named Ken Murphy asks:

In Ps. 110:4 the word LORD is spelled in all capitals. Why?

It stands for YHWH, the proper name of God which was revealed to Moses at the Burning Bush (Exodus 3:14-15), which is in turn short for the divine proclamation I AM WHO I AM.  This title declares God's eternal self-existence.

Thus, the words "the Lord" are not actually a translation, rather it is a substitution performed throughout translations of the Old Testament in order to avoid writing the Sacred Name.  In some of these translations, the word LORD is placed in all capital letters so that you know when this was done.  (In some Jewish versions of the Bible, they instead substitute HaShem (which means "the Name").  There is another Hebrew word "Adoni" which actually means a lord (this word could be used of a human ruler as well as of God), so that way you can tell which word is being used.  (These types of things can be learned by reading the "translator's preface" in the uninspired pages of your Bible located before Genesis 1:1.)

In the first verse of Psalm 110, we actually have both types of "Lord" appearing together.  King David prophesies of a greater king than himself when he says:

YHWH said to my Lord, sit at my right hand until I make your enemies a footstool for your feet. (Psalm 110:1)

Since Hebrew was written at the time written with consonants only, the vowels in between these four letters are unknown, but modern Hebrew scholars tend to think it was pronounced something like "Yahweh".  The old-fashioned pronunciation "Jehovah" was based on inserting the vowels in "Adonai".

The Third Commandment says "You shall not misuse the name of YHWH your God, for YHWH will not hold anyone guiltless who misuses his name." (Ex. 20:7).  God made himself more tangibly present to the Israelites by giving them his Name, but in doing so he opened up the possibility that his Name could be abused and used flippantly or as a curse, instead of as a blessing.  For this reason, God commanded that his Name, which made the Israelites holy, must be held with respect.  Vulnerability is the flip side of intimacy.  As it is written:

I will walk among you; I will be your God, and you will be my people. (Lev 26:12)

Some people might think that misuse of God's name can't really matter very much, but that would mean that using it doesn't matter either.  If reverent use of the Name sanctifies God's people, then irreverent use will, conversely, coarsen and corrupt the sense of being dedicated to God.  For this reason Jesus taught us to pray, "Hallowed be your Name" (Matt. 6:9).

This is one of several ways in which the Torah says that placed aspects of himself among the Israelites, others being the Holy Spirit, the Shekhinah [Glory Cloud], and the Temple.  Somewhat surprisingly, the Temple is often referred to as the place where God's Name dwells.  For example, when God promises King David that he will have a descendent who will reign forever, he says:

He is the one who will build a house for my Name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever.  (2 Samuel 7:13)

Here "my Name" is a metonymy: it stands for the presence of the God whose Name it is.  As it is written:

Then I will dwell among the Israelites and be their God.  They will know that I am YHWH their God, who brought them out of Egypt so that I might dwell among them.  I am YHWH their God.  (Ex 29:43)

It was always part of God's plan to find a place to rest on the Earth.  Not that he can really be confined to a Temple built with human hands, for as Solomon says:

But will God really dwell on earth?  The heavens, even the highest heaven, cannot contain you. How much less this temple I have built!  Yet give attention to your servant’s prayer and his plea for mercy, Lord my God.  Hear the cry and the prayer that your servant is praying in your presence this day.  May your eyes be open toward this temple night and day, this place of which you said, ‘My Name shall be there,’ so that you will hear the prayer your servant prays toward this place.  Hear the supplication of your servant and of your people Israel when they pray toward this place.  Hear from heaven, your dwelling place, and when you hear, forgive.  (1 Kings 8:27-30)

Nevertheless, his Name can be spoken, and in this way he can be honored or dishonored.

At first, the Jews freely used the name YHWH to refer to God, even in ordinary conversation, as can be seen from the Old Testament.  However, as time went on, this came to be regarded as unsafe and presumptuous.  Eventually, the rabbis decided that the best way to satisfy the Third Commandment was never to say the Name at all.  That way there would be no chance of accidental blasphemy.  The High Priest could use the Name on Yom Kippur [The Day of Atonement], but that was it.  After the Temple was destroyed, the Name was never spoken again by halakha-compliant Jews.

This was the opposite mistake from careless or flippant use of the Name.  Instead they played it so safe that God may as well not have revealed the Name in the first place.  God had put himself on a first name basis with Israel, so to speak, and they declined to exercise the privilege.

So what did God do?  Did he rectify this situation by telling people they were missing out?  Did he put things back the way they were before?  No, instead, in his divine wisdom he had a completely different plan.  As it is written:

Shout and be glad, Daughter Zion. For I am coming, and I will live among you,” declares YHWH. “Many nations will be joined with YHWH in that day and will become my people.  I will live among you and you will know that YHWH Sabaoth has sent me to you.  YHWH will inherit Judah as his portion in the holy land and will again choose Jerusalem.  Be still before the Lord, all mankind, because he has roused himself from his holy dwelling.” (Zech. 2:10-13)

Rather than restore the old intimacies, God gave new ones.  He himself came and lived among us.  Greater intimacy implies greater vulnerability.  The new name he has given us to speak aloud is the name of "Jesus",

Who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
rather, he made himself nothing
by taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
by becoming obedient to death—
even death on a cross!
Therefore God exalted him to the highest place
and gave him the name that is above every name,
that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.  (Phil. 2:6-11)

When Paul says that God gave to Jesus "the name that is above every name", there is only one Name which a first century rabbinically educated Jew could have in mind.  The first century Christians might not have ever spoken the name YHWH, but in passages like this there is an implicit allusion to the Name of God.

When you see the name Lord in the New Testament, this is the Greek word kyrios.  In principle, this word, like Adoni, could itself refer to an ordinary human being.  However, the New Testament writers continually quote from the Greek Septuagint, which uses kyrios as its substitution for YHWH.  This puts an important overtone into the word.

People argue about whether the New Testament really refers to Jesus as God.  What they don't realize is that in the Greek linguistic context, calling Jesus theos is actually a surprisingly ambiguous statement of Jesus' divinity (and many of the passages calling Jesus theos can be explained away).  What is quite unambiguous is calling Jesus kyrios and then applying to him Old Testament passages in which kyrios is a substitution for YHWH.  For example "Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved (Rom 10:13)"

To those of my readers who are baptized, remember that you have been dedicated into "the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit"!   What name is this?  It is a singular name.  "The Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit" is grammatically plural, not a single name.  So the "name" must instead refer to some unmentioned title which belongs to all three persons equally.  The mystery of our faith is that all three persons are one YHWH, the eternal existence.  This passage is another example of an implicit reference to that Name which no first century Jew would ever say.

This is the Name into which you were baptized, making you into God's Temple.  If you defile this Temple, you also dishonor the Name which God placed in you.   But if you honor him, he will honor you, by coming to live with you.

About Aron Wall

I am a Lecturer in Theoretical Physics at the University of Cambridge. Before that, I read Great Books at St. John's College (Santa Fe), got my physics Ph.D. from U Maryland, and did my postdocs at UC Santa Barbara, the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, and Stanford. The views expressed on this blog are my own, and should not be attributed to any of these fine institutions.
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10 Responses to The Name

  1. TY says:

    This is quite an interesting and fresh way of understanding the "plural" nature of God and the rigid monotheism explicit in the singular Name. Your last paragraph is beautiful and I urge fellow Christians to read it again.
    Can you write a longer piece on the Trinity in a future blog? I think readers will appreciate it as there are a lot of misunderstandings on this subject.
    Thank you.

  2. Ken Murphy says:

    You write that the explanation for LORD being all capitals is in the uninspired pages of the Bible. So God put His name in the Bible(how many times?). And then the people who wrote the uninspired pages of the Bible took it out. Then they explained that their way of writing the Bible was more understandable(better) than God's way. Is that correct?

  3. Aron Wall says:

    Yes, that's more or less right. Although, I think the motivation was reverence rather than making it more understandable. If it makes you feel any better, people have been making this type of substitution for more than 2,200 years, ever since the very first translation into Greek. And, in the New Testament, Jesus and the Apostles went along with it when quoting the Old Testament.

    But if you'd rather read a translation which keeps God's name, you could try the Jerusalem Bible.

    As you can see, I've already got my hands full with a long series explaining the Deep Magic from the Dawn of Time. But perhaps, at some later time I may get around saying something about the Deeper Magic from before the Dawn of Time.

  4. TY says:

    Thank you Aron:
    Remember: "But the one who does not know and does things deserving punishment will be beaten with few blows. From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked.Luke 12: 48"

  5. Ken Murphy says:

    I agree completely that a cosmological hypothesis should be translated into equations so that it could be tested against observable phenomena. That's the scientific method. The way scientists establish current scientific truth.
    I've read some of your entries on the Bible and I'm interested in the differences in arriving at the truth in the Bible. It seems that the inspired pages of the Bible are the truth and our job is if we are convinced that the Bible is the true story of how we personally got here and we as a people got into the mess we find ourselves in then we need to understand the message God is sending us in the Bible and then, to the best of our ability, carry out the commands He gives us. We would do this because of love for Him and gratitude for our life, our belief that His way for us will lead to our happiness, and self preservation because He promises to do away any who are not moved by any of the above. I would like to take a single example and see if I am getting the point.
    I read Chapter 24 of Matthew and see it as a twofold warning. First to the Christians in Jesus' day that when they see certain events happening they should leave Jerusalem. I understand they left and because they did they survived. They acted on the truth of Jesus warning. Those who stayed in Jerusalem were killed. The second warning seems to be of a far greater catastrophe. The total destruction of the world as we know it. Now here's the point. In verse 14 it mentions "the gospel of the kingdom" being preached throughout the world and then this disaster happening. Is this a parallel case? Do the people who preach this "gospel of the kingdom" survive this disaster because they act on the truth of Jesus warning? And do the people who ignore this warning and refuse to preach the "gospel of the kingdom" perish?

  6. Aron Wall says:

    Are you suggesting I only deserve to be beaten with only a few blows for this blog post, or what? ;-)

    Most of your interpretation of Matthew 24 seems excellent. I agree with you that---like all of the Scriptures---the chapter was meaningful to the original generation of listeners, and is also meaningful to us today, although we don't want to read into it things which are not there.

    The one thing about your otherwise good exposition which bothers me a bit, is your statement that those who "refuse to preach" the gospel of the kingdom will perish. I would have assumed that it is those who accept the gospel of the kingdom who are saved, not that there is an additional requirement to preach it. 24:10-13 says that "At that time many will turn away from the faith and will betray and hate each other, and many false prophets will appear and deceive many people. Because of the increase of wickedness, the love of most will grow cold, but he who stands firm to the end will be saved." The requirement stated here is standing firm in faith and love. Then in 24:24 he says that the gospel of the kingdom will be preached in the whole world, but he does not say that preaching it is a requirement of salvation. We are indeed required to acknowledge Christ before men, and not to disown him (10:32-33), but I am not sure that is exactly the same as preaching. Some (including the apostles whom Christ was addressing) are gifted by the Holy Spirit with the ability to preach; other Christians have other gifts, each gift being useful in its own place.

  7. TY says:

    The good Lord has blessed you with a superb mind for Physics (and of course Maths), and, given your age and the many productive years ahead of you, you could well be the next Nobel Laureate. Commensurate with this giftidness and your Christianity, much is expected of you to speak truth to (a) intellectual arrogance and (b) intellectual deception. Regarding these two, there is an excess on both sides of the philosophical fence. What do I mean specifically by this? The average person will never be able to read the fine print of the papers authored by physicists, or identify their convenient assumptions, let alone read a typical paper. crammed with integrals and differential equations. But in your previous Blogs on the Carroll-Craig debate, you laid bare many of the nuances or the hidden caveats in Carroll's presentation that serve to weaken any claim of the form "Here; my model proves this and that!". My reference to this debate is not meant to single out Sean Carroll but to make the general point that your Physics blogs enable thoughtful assessment on which side has a more plausible case to offer regarding the beginning of time and the universe: the theist or the naturalist or scientific materialist?

    So Aron, on the contrary, you can expect to be beaten by many blows, and, from what I see, you're up to the task.


  8. Ken Murphy says:

    I agree that Jesus did not explicitly say that everyone should preach. But I think he implied it for several reasons. First, this is a parallel warning. The folks in Jerusalem could not just "stand firm in faith and love". They had to act on these qualities and leave Jerusalem or perish. Even if it was difficult, dangerous, or unpopular to get up and leave. In verses 10-13 Jesus could be saying that preaching "the gospel of the kingdom" in the last days could be difficult, dangerous, or unpopular and that there might be rancor and disagreements about what the right course for a disciple might be. But everyone would have to decide because verses 37-39 comparing the last days to Noe's day say that to pretend that nothing needed to be done would lead to disaster. Second, the nature of the message makes talking about it relatively easy. There is a terrible storm coming but if we trust in God and act accordingly the future looks pretty bright. If we ignore the warning it will cost our lives. Third, the scope of the message is so great that everyone can have a small share in saving people. Forth, it just seems like something God would do-saving someone and then using him to save someone else.
    It also seems like Jesus anticipated the rancor and disagreements because in verses 45-47 he mentioned a "faithful and wise servant" who might be able help disciples to find the right course. Again there is a parallel here. Jesus said "who is" this "faithful and wise servant". In the days of the apostles there would have been no question where to go for help. But in our day that "who is" sure is relevant. I know how I'd go about looking for this servant. Have you looked for him?

  9. Ken Murphy says:

    In "the name" I was concerned with the search for truth in the Bible. I used the example of Matthew 24. In science there is a method for determining if a theory fits with observable reality. But in the search for the truth in the Bible what is the comparable mechanism to determine the truth of our appreciation of what we read?
    Ken Murphy

  10. Aron Wall says:

    Dear Ken,
    Lots of passages in the Bible are fairly clear, let's not forget that, but there are some which are quite controversial.

    I suppose the "theological method" for deciding which interpetation is correct would be some combination of literary analysis ("what did this text mean to its original hearers"), philosophy ("which intepretation makes the most sense"), sometimes history/science ("what does our other data about the universe say"), and occassionally our own personal religious experiences (or those of others). We can also check how other intelligent and holy Christians have interpeted the passage, especially those who lived in other time periods where the presuppositions were different from our own. If we do this prayerfully, the Spirit will also be helping to guide us to the correct decision, at least where it actually matters and isn't just to satisfy our own curiosity.

    Some Christians (e.g. Roman Catholics) believe that there is a special institution chosen by God whose interpetations are authoritative, but I am a Protestant meaning that I think that all human institutions can and do err (which doesn't of course mean that the Church isn't guided by the Holy Spirit, or that it plays no role in helping people to understand the truth). If, after making due use of all the means given to us, reasonable and sincere people still disagree about important matters---well that often happens in life, and we just have to cope with it!

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