The Truth About “Sacred” Names
The third of God’s Ten Commandments reads, “You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain, for the Lord will not hold him guiltless who takes His name in vain” (Exodus 20:7). It is as vital to keep the Third Commandment as it is to keep the rest of the ten; the Apostle James reminds us that if we break one point of the law, we have broken the entire law (James 2:10).
The question that we must then ask is, Exactly what does the third commandment tell us to do? Does honoring the name of the Creator mean that we use only certain Hebrew names for Him? This is an issue that has confused a number of people. Many proponents of so-called “sacred names” believe that when we do not pronounce God’s Hebrew name, His name is rendered empty and the third commandment is broken.
The Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament gives a thorough exposition of the wording of this commandment. Demonstrating that the term translated “in vain” comes from the Hebrew shaw’, the authors explain that a literal rendering would be that you shall not “lift up the name” of the Lord your God thoughtlessly. “That the primary meaning of shaw’ is ‘emptiness, vanity’ no one can challenge. It designates anything that is unsubstantial, unreal, worthless, either materially or morally” (1980, vol. 2, p. 908). Let us examine the way the Hebrew term rendered “in vain” is used in the Old Testament and let the Bible interpret itself.
Notice some examples from the book of Jeremiah. Here the word is used in its adverbial form, just as it is used in Exodus 20:7 and Deuteronomy 5:11. In Jeremiah 2:30 God states, “In vain I have chastened your children; they received no correction.” Jeremiah 4:30 states that “in vain you will make yourself fair; your lovers will despise you....” In Jeremiah 46:11 the prophet declares that “in vain you will use many medicines; you shall not be cured.” Clearly, in all of these examples, the term “in vain” means something that is used in an empty and useless way that accomplishes nothing of real value.
The commandment clearly instructs us that we must not use the Creator’s name in a way that is empty or thoughtless. We are not to lift up His name in a way that is useless, but rather we are to show deep reverence and respect at all times.
The Meaning of a Name
Can or should names ever be translated? What is the importance of names? Why is it so important to honor the name of the Creator—and what actually is that name? What, exactly, do names in the Bible encompass?
The Hebrew word for name is shem. “This noun appears 864 times, but less than 90 times in the plural…. The concept of personal names in the OT often included existence, character, and reputation (1 Samuel 25:25)” (Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, vol. 2, p. 934). For instance, Proverbs 22:1 informs us that a good name is to be chosen rather than great riches. Clearly, “name” is used in the sense of reputation.
Notice what God said about “making Himself a name.” Nehemiah 9:9–10 explains that God “saw the affliction of our fathers in Egypt, and heard their cry by the Red Sea. You showed signs and wonders against Pharaoh, against all his servants, and against all the people of his land. For You knew that they acted proudly against them. So You made a name for Yourself, as it is this day.” In Jeremiah 32:20, the prophet writes of God, “You have set signs and wonders in the land of Egypt, to this day, and in Israel and among other men; and You have made Yourself a name, as it is this day.”
How did God make Himself a name during the time when Israel was freed from Egypt? Clearly, He did so by establishing a reputation. The important lesson that the Egyptians and all of the surrounding peoples learned was not the exact phonetic pronunciation of God’s name in Hebrew; rather it was His greatness and His power. They learned that the God of Israel was far above everything and anything else that was worshiped. God said that He made for Himself a name at the time of the Exodus, in that He built a reputation in the eyes of the nations.
Name clearly involves reputation, but there is also another important aspect. We find, for instance, that God changed Abram’s name to Abraham in Genesis 17. Names have meanings; because of God’s promise that he was to be the father of many nations, Abram was now to have a new name that meant “father of a multitude.” Many years later, the Almighty changed the name of Abraham’s grandson from Jacob to Israel, meaning “prevailer” or “overcomer with God.” These names had clear meanings in the language in which they were given. God did not change these names because He wanted to obtain a particular sound, but rather to reflect a different meaning. From the Bible’s perspective, the most important feature of a name is its meaning.
Some contend that names are not translated from one language to another. This is certainly not the case. Notice some examples from the New Testament. Two primary languages were common among the early church. Among most of the Jews in the area of Judea and Galilee, the everyday language was Aramaic. Christ and His disciples—and most of the early Church of God—were native Aramaic speakers, though most probably spoke Greek as a second language. Later converts, outside of Palestine, commonly spoke Greek, but not Aramaic. The New Testament has come down to us in Greek.
Simon Peter was one of Christ’s earliest disciples. Notice the account of his meeting with Jesus: “One of the two who heard John speak, and followed Him, was Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother. He first found his own brother Simon, and said to him, ‘We have found the Messiah’ (which is translated, the Christ). And he brought him to Jesus. Now when Jesus looked at him, He said, ‘You are Simon the son of Jonah. You shall be called Cephas’ (which is translated, A Stone)” (John 1:40–42). Notice two of the names given here: Messiah and Cephas. These were words that would have been unfamiliar to Greek speakers. Therefore, the Apostle John gave the original word as it was spoken and then gave the Greek translation.
The most important aspect of the new name that Jesus gave to Simon was its meaning. Throughout most of the New Testament, this Apostle is commonly referred to as Peter, the Greek equivalent of his Aramaic name Cephas. Peter is our English form of the Greek word for “stone”—petros. John also translates the Hebrew title Messiah, which means the Anointed One, to the Greek term carrying the same meaning—Christ. Additionally, John also translated the Hebrew title Rabbi for his readers by explaining in John 1:38 that it meant “Teacher.”
There are many other examples as well. Acts 9:36 records, “At Joppa there was a certain disciple named Tabitha, which is translated Dorcas. This woman was full of good works and charitable deeds which she did.” She was known by both her Aramaic name and its Greek equivalent. Both names had the same meaning—”gazelle.” Notice another similar example in Acts 13:8: “But Elymas the sorcerer (for so his name is translated) withstood them, seeking to turn the proconsul away from the faith.” Again, it was the meaning of the name that the author wished to stress.
There are still more examples. In Acts 4:36–37 we read, “And Joses, who was also named Barnabas by the apostles (which is translated Son of Encouragement), a Levite of the country of Cyprus, having land, sold it, and brought the money and laid it at the apostles’ feet.” Matthew interprets the Hebrew name Immanuel for his readers in Matthew 1:23 when he explains that it means “God with us.” Mark explains to his readers the meaning of Golgotha, the name of the hill where Christ was crucified, by giving the Greek translation as “Place of a Skull” (Mark 15:22). John translates the name of the Pool of Siloam into Greek by explaining that it means “Sent” (John 9:7). The Apostle Paul translated the Hebrew name Melchizedek in Hebrews 7:2 by explaining that it meant “king of righteousness.” The point is that there is ample illustration of the fact that names were often translated in Scripture to make their meanings evident to readers who did not understand the original language.
What Is the Name of God?
Those who adhere to the “Hebrew names doctrine” argue that the true name of God is the tetragrammaton, Yhvh or Yhwh. Because Hebrew was originally written without vowels, there is sometimes disagreement over how words should be pronounced. Such is the case here. The various factions of believers in sacred names disagree among themselves over the proper pronunciation. While most argue for Yahweh, others favor Yahveh, while still others use slight variations. Scholars disagree as to the proper pronunciation since, after the close of the Old Testament period, the Jews, out of a superstitious “reverence,” ceased to pronounce the name. They became so obsessed with the worry that they might somehow take the name of God in vain that they avoided using it altogether. The result was that, over time, the exact pronunciation became unclear.
The form Yahweh has come down to us today from the early Catholic fathers who reconstructed the pronunciation from the Greek transliteration used by the Samaritans. To rely on what the early Catholics got from the Samaritans is clearly dubious. In fact, Christ made it plain that the Samaritans did not even know what they worshipped (John 4:22). If this were essential knowledge required for salvation, this is clearly not how God would have preserved it.
In fact, based upon the rhythm of certain poetic biblical passages that use Yhvh, as well as upon the musical notation preserved in the Hebrew text, it is most likely that the name was actually pronounced with three syllables—not two, as most believers in sacred names use. Aside from the issue of pronunciation, however, what does the Bible reveal about the Creator’s name?
The first verse in the Bible informs us, “In the beginning God [Elohim] created the heavens and the earth” (Genesis 1:1). This name is descriptive, as are all of God’s names. It references God’s might and power. The word is plural in form—the “im” ending in Hebrew denoting plurality—though normally singular in usage. Genesis 1:26 gives one of the clear indications that more than one Being constitute God (Elohim): “Let Us make man in Our image….” The full implications of this verse are made clear in John 1 and Colossians 1, where we learn that Jesus Christ was the actual Instrument of creation, fulfilling the instructions of the Father. Together, the Ones we know as Christ and the Father constitute God.
In Exodus 3:13–15, we learn that when God spoke to Moses out of the burning bush and told him that he was to go back to Egypt to lead the Hebrews out, Moses asked what God’s name was. “And God said to Moses, ‘I AM WHO I AM.’ And He said, ‘Thus you shall say to the children of Israel, “I AM has sent me to you.”‘ Moreover God said to Moses, ‘Thus you shall say to the children of Israel: “The Lord God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you. This is My name forever, and this is My memorial to all generations.”‘” I AM is translated from haya, the Hebrew verb for “to be.” It is from this root that the name Yhvh is formed. The Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon defines the meaning of Yhvh as “the one who is: i.e. the absolute and unchangeable one… the existing, ever living….”
Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament makes an important point: “God’s name identifies his nature, so that a request for his ‘name’ is equivalent to asking about his character…. Critical speculation about the origin and meaning of ‘Yahweh’ seems endless… but the Bible’s own explanation in Exodus 3:14 is that it represents the simple (Qal) imperfect of hawa ’to be,’ I am [is] what I am. The precise name Yahweh results when others speak of him in the third person, yahweh ‘He is’” (vol. 1, p. 211).
The Creator identified Himself as the One who is ever-living, the Eternal. Notice how He identified Himself to the Apostle John in the book of Revelation. “‘I am the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End,’ says the Lord, ‘who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty’” (Revelation 1:8). Here, writing in the Greek language to Greek-speaking Church of God congregations in Asia Minor, John used the name by which the Creator revealed Himself to Moses—but He did so by translating it, not by reproducing the phonetic sounds of the Hebrew original in the Greek language. The vital significance of God’s name is in what it reveals about Him, not a particular phonetic sound.
God revealed Himself to His people through many combinations of names used in the Old Testament. He was El Shaddai (Almighty God), Yhvh Sabaot (Eternal of Hosts), and Yhvh Ropheka (Eternal our Healer)—and He had many other names as well. The word adonai—which means lord—is also frequently used for God. After all, He is the Lord of all, the Possessor and Owner of everything that exists. The Greek equivalent, kurios, is commonly used in the New Testament and carries exactly the same meaning. When the Messiah returns to this earth, “He has on His robe and on His thigh a name written: KING OF KINGS AND LORD OF LORDS” (Revelation 19:16).
In the New Testament, how did Christ teach His disciples to address the Most High God? Matthew 6:9 and numerous other scriptures show that we are to address Him as Father, not by the tetragrammaton.
Now notice the warnings about false teachers that Christ gave to His disciples. Did He say that some would come using false names? No—He said that “many will come in My name” and deceive many people (Matthew 24:5). The deception would involve a message of lawlessness, which would claim that obedience to God’s commandments is no longer required (cf. Matthew 7:21–23). The problem is in the message, not the name.
Revelation 13 describes the Beast who received a deadly wound that was later healed. This refers historically to the Roman Empire that fell in AD 476 and was revived by Justinian in 554. Revelation 13:5 informs us that the revived empire, now known as the “Holy” Roman Empire, would continue for 42 prophetic months (i.e., 1,260 “days” from the Imperial Restoration in 554 until the fall of Napoleon in 1814), speaking blasphemies. In verse 6 we are told that the Beast proclaims blasphemies against God’s name, and here is clear evidence that God’s name includes much more than the Hebrew word Yhvh alone. The “Holy” Roman Empire and the apostate “Christian” church never used the Hebrew name for the Creator, yet they blasphemed His name. How did they do it?
We despise and blaspheme the name of God not by mispronouncing a Hebrew word or using modern language translations of ancient Hebrew names and titles; rather, Malachi 1:6–14 makes plain that God’s name is despised and profaned by the actions of those who claim to be His people, yet serve Him in a careless and begrudging manner.
In Romans 2:24, Paul states that the name of God was blasphemed among the Gentiles because of the poor example of many of the Jews. Clearly, blaspheming the name of God was not simply a matter of using the tetragrammaton improperly, because the Gentiles would not even have known the Hebrew pronunciation of Yhvh. After all, the Jews of the first century never used the “sacred name,” even among themselves. Rather, what the Gentiles did know was that those who professed to worship the one true Creator, the God of Israel, were not much different from anyone else in their personal lives. The poor example of many Jews led many Gentiles to disrespect the God of Israel.
The Apostles and others of the New Testament period used the language of their listeners to make known to them the Creator and His plan of salvation. From Acts 17:23, we learn that when Paul was in Athens, he saw an altar inscribed Agnosto Theo (the Unknown God). On Mars Hill, he told his Greek listeners about the God that was unknown to them, the sovereign Creator. Paul was addressing Greek speakers in the Greek language—and he used Greek terms to describe the living God. There was nothing inherently pagan in the Greek words that signified God, even though the Greeks used those same words to describe “gods” that are not gods. Jeremiah 31:32 quotes the Creator saying that He had been a husband (ba’al) to Israel. The word ba’al meant “master” and is translated as “husband” (signifying the master of the house) several times in the Old Testament. It was also used by pagans as a name for their false god, but that did not keep the inspired prophet Jeremiah from using the word properly to describe the Creator.
Nowhere in the New Testament do we read of the Apostles instructing their audiences that they must exclusively use Hebrew names in the worship of the true God. Clearly, we see the Apostle Paul using Greek names for God when preaching the Gospel in Athens. The disciples were first called Christians, derived from the Greek equivalent of Messiah—the Anointed One—in Greek-speaking Antioch (Acts 11:26). This can only mean that, among Greek speakers, they used Greek names—just as they would have used Aramaic and Hebrew in Judea. Further, the New Testament has come down to us in Greek—and this is exactly what we should expect, as most of it was written to exclusively Greek-speaking audiences. Those who teach exclusive use of Hebrew names for God must conclude that every single New Testament manuscript has been corrupted; yet Jesus Christ said in Mark 13:31 that though heaven and earth would pass away, His words never would.
Rendering God’s names, which describe His attributes and character, into a language understood by our audience is important. It enables listeners to understand who the true God and Savior of mankind really is. In Matthew 6:9, Christ taught us to pray to our “Father in heaven, hallowed be Your name.” To hallow is to sanctify—to dedicate or set apart. How, then, do we truly set apart the name of our Creator? We do so through our words and our deeds. We are to show love, honor, and reverence in every aspect of our lives for our Maker, who is bringing us into His very Family.
Instead of being superstitious about the Hebrew sound of the Creator’s name, we should truly honor Him and live for Him. We should focus on the meaning of His names and titles and what they reveal about the One we worship. In doing so, we will please and honor our Father and our Elder Brother—and prepare to bear Their name forever (Revelation 3:12)