The Names of God

As recognized throughout history, people attuned to the spiritual nature of life have understood that the highest goal for humankind is to know God.  Christians agree that to know God and be known by God is the essence of the life of faith.  After all, the heart of God’s covenant promises to Israel (both the original Israel in the Old Testament and the new Israel born in the New Testament) are that the LORD would be our God and make us his people (Exodus 6:7).

One of the most helpful ways that we might know God is by learning how he has revealed himself in the Bible to us.  God revealed to Moses that his name is YHWH (“Yahweh” or “Jehovah”; cf. Exodus 3:13-14).  But we can only learn so much about who God is by meditating on YHWH.  Fortunately, God has revealed much about himself through other descriptions, nearly always rooted in his reaching down into time and space to interact in an unforgetable way with his people.

One way we remind ourselves as Christians to known God is to sing of his names, titles, attributes, ordinances, word, and works (Westminster Shorter Catechism 54).  In the song “Blessing and Honour” we remember that Jesus is the name of God in the flesh, and that he is described many ways in the Old Testament.

God is “Elohim” meaning that he is the one, true God who created all things–the heavens, the earth, the seas, and all that is in them. (Genesis 1:1)

God is first called “El Olam” in Genesis 21:33.  El Olam describes God as the everlasting one.  He has no beginning and will have no end.

God is described as “El Elyon” in Genesis 14:19, teaching us that YHWH is the most high God, that he is the exalted one.  No other “god” can compare to El Elyon because all other gods are in fact no gods at all, but are deaf and dumb idols.  The God of Israel is high and lifted up.

God is “El Shaddai” in Genesis 17:1.  Abraham learned that God is a “rock”, that God is all-sufficient and meets our every need.  He is like a rock or mountain that cannot be moved.

Later in Genesis 22:14, as Abraham and Isaac learned on Mount Moriah what it means that God provided the lamb for the burnt offering, they described God as “Yahweh Yireh” (Jehovah Jireh)–the LORD will provide.  God provided an adequate substitute sacrifice instead of Isaac, and in that same place millennia later God would again provide  by sacrificing his one and only beloved Son as a once-for-all sacrifice for sin.

Yahweh (T)Sabaoth is a description of God that is understood to mean “LORD of hosts”, “LORD of armies”, or “Sovereign LORD” (1 Samuel 1:3).  God is all powerful and he commands the heavenly angelic armies (and directs the armies of the nations) to accomplish his purposes.  God always wins his battles.

While God is a warrior, we must not forget that God is a shepherd.  This is the idea in the title of “Yahweh Raah”.   God is a shepherd God.  He guides, protects, and provides for his people who are the sheep of his pasture (Psalm 23).

The prophet Ezekiel reminds us that God never completely abandons his people.  While he may withdraw his holy presence for a time in judgment to discipline the people he loves, he will remain faithful to his covenant promises to Abraham, Isaac, Jacob.  God is not absence.  God is the LORD Shammah–he is there, in the midst of his people (Ezekiel 48:35).

Whenever the holy name of God (YHWH) in the Old Testament is read by Jews, it is spoken aloud with the substitute title “Adonai” (meaning “my Lord”) for fear of taking God’s name in vain and thus breaking the third commandment.  The title “Adonai” is a very common title for God.  It occurs first in Genesis 15:2.  It is a title of honor, emphasizing God’s sovereignty and lordship over us.  God is Lord, and we are his servants subject to his command.

When God seems absent or silent in our troubles, we must remember that God is not blind.  He sees all and pays particular attention to us.  In Genesis 16:13 God is described as “El Roi”–the God who sees me.  When Abraham sent Sarah’s handmaid Hagar away with her son Ishmael, Hagar despaired that she had been cut off from blessing and that no one sympathized with her plight.  She went from being the mother of Abraham’s patriarchal heir to unseen.  But God saw her and promised that he would bless her and not forget to watch over her and her descendants.

God is also a God of Peace (“Shalom”).  In Judges 6:24 we read that God is described as Yahweh Shalom.  He is not only a God of peace, but he is so closely identified with peace that he adopts “peace” as a title for himself.

The prophet Isaiah famously concluded his prophecy of the coming Messiah–the Anointed One–as the coming of God himself.  God would visit his people and live among us–as a human being.  This human being would be God incarnate and we would call him “Emmanuel” meaning God with us” (Isaiah 7:14).

All of these names of God in the Old Testament point to the glorious name of Jesus, whose name was not chosen by his human parents, but by God himself because he would be the Savior.  The name “Jesus” means “savior” (Matthew 1:21).  To know God is to know Jesus, and to know Jesus is to know God as he is described in the whole Bible–even in the Old Testament.

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