What about the Names of God?

By Wayne Jackson

In the Old Testament, sometimes one of the titles for God is set in type with all capitals, “LORD.” At other times, there are both the upper and lower case, “Lord.” Why does this difference exist?

This type-setting format is found in most of the English translations that have been produced over the past several centuries. The notable exception is the American Standard Version (1901), which uses the term “Jehovah” rather than “LORD.”

In these common versions, the translators are attempting to provide a clue to the English reader that different Hebrew words were found in the original text. “LORD” reflects the original term yhwh (found 6,823 times), while “Lord” is the English rendition of the Hebrew adonai (used some 300 times).

As suggested above, one of the names for God, as conveyed in Hebrew, was yhwh (four consonants). Because the Jews considered this title to be very sacred, they did not pronounce it. Eventually, the scribes borrowed vowels from the name “Lord” (adonai)—based upon a point system which reflected the way the language was spoken. Vowels were thus inserted into the sacred four-letter name (called the tetragrammaton—“four letters”). This eventually evolved into the hybrid word “Jehovah” about the beginning of the twelfth century A.D.

The Hebrew term yhwh is believed to derive from the root hwy, meaning “to be.” The name suggests that God simply is, i.e., he possesses an underived existence; he is the eternal “I AM” (cf. Exodus 3:14—especially see the footnote in the ASV; cf. also John 8:58).

Also, this name became a special designation which emphasized God’s relationship to the nation of Israel. It dramatically depicts one of the prime attributes of the Creator—his eternal existence. In addition, it stresses his enduring presence with Israel in their redemptive history.

The other term, “Lord” (with the final three letters in lower case), as indicated earlier, is from adonai. This word literally means “my Lord,” and it derives from a root which suggests “sovereign, strength, power.” It is a word particularly emphasizing the authority of the Deity. It expresses the relationship of the Creator to his creatures and the responsibility they have to the one who made them and who owns them (cf. Romans 9:21).

Some object to the use of “Jehovah” because it is an artificially constructed word and thus does not reflect the original precisely. But neither does “LORD” accurately represent the original term. The best approximation of yhwh would be yahweh. But since that term is mostly alien to the vocabulary and understanding of the average person today, some prefer to maintain at least some distinction between yhwh and adonai. They therefore retain the American Standard Version’s “Jehovah.”

Incidentally, the use of varying names for God in the Old Testament does not hint of different authors, as commonly claimed by radical, destructive critics. (See Destructive Criticism and the Old Testament.

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About the Author

Wayne Jackson has written for and edited the Christian Courier since its inception in 1965. He has also written several books on a variety of biblical topics including The Bible and Science, Creation, Evolution, and the Age of the Earth, The Bible on Trial, and a number of commentaries. He lives in Stockton, California with his dear wife, and life-long partner, Betty.