When I first heard the name Yahweh, I found it off-putting. Even a bit distasteful. I heard it from Richard Dawkins, and he was using it as a way to emphasize that Yahweh was just one other bronze age deity no better than all the rest. I didn’t like it. I thought: “That’s not my God he’s talking about. Yahweh isn’t my god.”
But hearing the name put a stone in my shoe. I wanted to at least know where it came from. So I did some research online, and I read the notes in the front of the ESV, and I found that Lord wasn’t just capitalized because God is so important, but because of the tetragrammaton that it stands in place of.
Tetragrammaton: the four-letter name of God in Hebrew, spelled יהוה (yod hey waw hey, YHWH, pronounced “Yahweh”). From the Greek tetragrammaton meaning “of four letters”.
I also discovered that the reason Bibles say Lord instead of Yahweh is because of an ancient Jewish tradition going back about 2300 years, where the name of God was considered too sacred to risk speaking. Instead they would say adonay (“Lord”). The same tradition is why Jews write “G-d” instead of “God” today.
But then I thought, well, hang on…we wouldn’t use G-d because of what amounts to a Jewish superstition…so then why would we use Lord for the same reason?
I was a bit perplexed by it all, but now that I had started shaking the stone out of my shoe, I began to think that misusing the name of God was a pretty serious issue, so I had better figure out whether Lord is right, or Yahweh. As I was investigating this, I decided to try reading a translation that used Yahweh instead of Lord, just to see how it “felt” (I used the WEB).
I’ll be honest; it felt kind of uncomfortable. I felt like I was halfway to becoming a Messianic Jew. I had always found Messianic Jews kind of weird and extreme. But as I read the Old Testament, I also started to notice that a lot of passages began to make more sense; I began to see a very personal God who had never been there before; and I began to relate to that God more personally as a result.
Let me give you just a few examples:
- I started in Genesis. In Genesis 2 the term “Lord GOD” is used 11 times in the ESV. Plus, of course, many, many times as Genesis unfolds. The Lord GOD fashions Adam. The Lord GOD instructs Adam. The Lord GOD walks in the garden. Etc. But the inspired text doesn’t say “the Lord GOD.” There is no definite article (“the”) and there is no word for “Lord” either. It says “Yahweh God.”
This changed the whole text for me; it wasn’t a remote, titular God who made Adam and related to him, but a personal, named God.
- Then in Genesis 4:26, Seth has a son called Enosh, and at that time people began to call upon the name of the Lord. I had never before known what the name of the Lord was. Now I discovered it.
I suddenly realized that this simple little verse wasn’t teaching that people were just claiming God as their deity, but that they were doing it by calling on his personal name…just like I call on Jesus.
- Then in Exodus 3:15, God declares his name to Moses not as “the Lord,” which isn’t a name at all, but as Yahweh; saying, “this is my name forever and thus I am to be remembered throughout all generations.” It was like God was speaking directly to me:
This is my name. It is the name I chose for myself. You are supposed to remember me by it.
- Then in Deuteronomy 32:3, Moses sings, “I will proclaim the name of the Lord; ascribe greatness to our God!” The way I had read it before, he never actually got around to proclaiming the Lord’s name! He said he would, but he never did. What was it?
But of course, in the inspired text he is not saying he will proclaim God’s name; he is proclaiming God’s name! “I will proclaim the name of Yahweh…” By the same token, Joel 2:32 speaks of how everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved. But what is the name of the Lord? How could they call on a name they did not know? The Lord, I thought, is his title…but what is his name? Exodus 15:3 says “the Lord is his name”…but that isn’t a name. I didn’t realize that Joel (and Moses) actually say his name: “everyone who calls on the name of Yahweh will be saved.” It completely changed the text for me. The same was true of Psalm 116:4, 13, 17, which repeatedly instructs the people to call on the name of Yahweh.
Of course, under the new covenant we call on the name of Jesus. But that’s Peter’s whole point in Acts 2:21: the Lord must have a personal name to call on. In the New Testament it is revealed as Jesus. But in the Old Testament it was revealed as Yahweh. Jesus is Yahweh.
Coming to love God’s name
The text of the Old Testament became so much more alive to me when God’s name was put back in. The personal, covenant love between God and his people started to leap out from every page instead of being obscured behind the title “Lord.” I started to love the name Yahweh in the same way I love the name Jesus, because I realized they were used in the same way (even though aesthetically they honestly both leave me cold).
I also started to learn what Yahweh meant; how it spoke of God’s transcendence, and his sovereignty, and his power and prerogative to cause all that happens. And those are doctrines I love, and so I loved his name even more.
But as I started to love the name Yahweh, I also started to get jealous for it. I started to feel indignant that it had been taken out of the Bible. I even felt angry that I should have once found it uncomfortable and off-putting. I thought, you know, the Bible is full of weird, foreign-sounding names. Yet I don’t bat an eye at them. If names like Immanuel or Ebenezer aren’t a problem, why should Yahweh be?
I began to feel strongly like the psalmist in Psalm 113:1-3, who sang:
Praise Yahweh! Praise, O servants of Yahweh, praise the name of Yahweh! Blessed be the name of Yahweh from this time forth and forever more! From the rising of the sun to its setting, the name of Yahweh is to be praised!
And I felt sad that so many of God’s people read that psalm and they don’t even know what God’s name is. They don’t even know that his name is in there! How are they supposed to praise it?
I also noticed that Psalm 102:21-22 says that God’s people will declare in Zion the name of Yahweh and in Jerusalem his praise, when peoples gather together, and kingdoms, to worship Yahweh. I am sure that each would worship in his own language, just as the Greeks called Yeshua “Iesous” and we call him “Jesus.” But the accepted English version of God’s Hebrew name is Yahweh. So why should I find it off-putting? And this in turn got me wondering why I disliked Messianic Jews using the name Yeshua. That was Jesus’ name in Hebrew, after all. And they speak Hebrew. I started to think maybe I was just being a bit racist or insular.
Gradually, I actually started to like the way that the foreignness of “Yahweh” reminded me that Yahweh is a foreign God: the God of a little middle-eastern country; the God who grafted me, a foreigner, into his covenant people purely by his undeserved love. I began to feel that using a concept-word (“God”) as a name has significant downsides compared to using an actual name.
This all sparked another question for me—about translating the text of Scripture. When I am preaching or teaching, my burden is to transmit God’s word as faithfully as I can. But I had become deeply convicted that I would be presenting the text unfaithfully if I were to say “the Lord” instead of “Yahweh,” or “the Lord GOD” instead of “Yahweh God”…because the text that God himself wrote simply does not say those things. I would be mistranslating God’s word; conveying it falsely.
Indeed, my deepest worry is that, now that I know God’s very name is in there, if I say something other than his name, I am effectively making it to be of less value than a tradition (a tradition which, as I say, is based on nothing more than a superstition). But the whole point of the third commandment is to not make God’s name of less value than it actually is. The text of Exodus 20:7 says, “you shall not take up the name of Yahweh your God for a worthless cause;” or we could translate it more dynamically as, “you shall not make the name of Yahweh your God a worthless thing.” I worry that I would, in effect, be making God’s name a worthless thing by replacing it with Lord. I would be saying to God that his name is of no great worth to me, since I am happy to substitute it with something else—something that isn’t even a name at all.
“Lord” in the New Testament
Now, you might say to me that the New Testament translates the tetragrammaton as kurios—“Lord.” This point is well taken. In fact, it is the major reason I haven’t felt convicted to make a fuss about other people using Lord. I have personally been greatly blessed by the name Yahweh, and I want other people to be blessed by it too. So I have taken the opportunities God has given me to use his name publicly, and to advocate for it; but I haven’t felt I should be negative about Lord so much as positive about Yahweh.
That said, we are in a very different situation today than the apostles were. By the time the New Testament was written, the name of God had already been forgotten. Because of the Hebrew tradition of reading adonay (“Lord”) instead of Yahweh, codified as kurios in the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible used in New Testament times, the New Testament authors didn’t actually have much alternative than to say “Lord.” Moreover, this became very providential for connecting Yahweh with Jesus—this is why you so often read about the “Lord Jesus.” It is how the New Testament authors connect Jesus to Yahweh (of course, “Yahweh Jesus” would just sound silly).
But we are not in a situation like that. When it comes to translating the Old Testament into English, we have to ask ourselves what the most faithful way to do that is in a context where God’s name has been recovered, and everyone knows that Jesus is Yahweh. We don’t change any other names into titles when we translate the Bible. We wouldn’t even think of it. So how much more, surely, should we not change the name of God?
It might seem like a minor change, but if we draw some simple analogies it starts to become more obvious how it mangles the text. For example, suppose I wanted to say some things about my pastor, David—but replacing his name with “the Pastor”…
- “I will proclaim the name of David” → “I will proclaim the name of the Pastor”
- “Do not misuse the name of David” → “do not misuse the name of the Pastor”
- “David is his name” → “the Pastor is his name”
- “The Pastor, David” → “the elder Pastor” or something broadly similar
In a modern context, what is the most faithful way to translate God’s name—and to honor his statement that it should be proclaimed and remembered for all generations? I am convinced that it is by restoring “Yahweh” to the 6,828 places in the Bible where God chose to use it—and by sharing this great name in our congregations.