For thousands of years the Jewish people have prayed the “Shema” (pronounced sheh-mah) – a daily prayer of devotion to God.
Deuteronomy 6:4-5 (NASB) Hear, O Israel! The Lord is our God, the Lord is one! You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.
Even Jesus quotes from it in Matthew 22:37-39 when he is asked to list the greatest commandment from the Law of Moses (“torah”). One important word in this prayer is “LORD” (Hebrew: יהוה). In English, this is often transliterated as YHWH – the English letters that match up with the Hebrew letters. YHWH is the actual name of God, considered so holy by many Jews that they will not even speak it.
The Meaning of God’s Name
We first learn the meaning of LORD in Exodus 3, when God calls Moses through the burning bush to free the Israelites from slavery in Egypt. Here, Moses asks God’s name so he can tell the Israelites what God has sent them. God tells him that “Ehyeh” (“I will be” in Hebrew) has sent him. This means that God is the one who is, was, and will be.
This is a profound statement about God’s nature. He exists because he is God, not because he is worshiped, and not for any other reason. He is. (Jesus picks up on this statement in John 8:58 in proclaiming himself to be God in flesh and is nearly stoned for it.)
YHWH (“Yahweh”) means “he will be” in ancient Hebrew, and this is the name God tells Moses to tell the Israelites.
God’s Name in the Bible
The Ten Commandments prohibit people from misusing God’s name, but not from speaking it. One practice in ancient Judaism was for leaders and teachers to implement additional rules to keep themselves from ever violating the Torah (Jesus criticizes the Pharisees and leaders for some of these rules in the gospel accounts). It was considered “building a fence” around the Torah. So even though the Old Testament (OT) never prohibits speaking God’s personal name, manmade rules came about that made it improper to speak God’s name at all. This resulted in two things.
First, God’s name in the OT is read by Jews as the word for “Lord” (“adonai”) instead of his actual name. That is why many Bibles use the word LORD in the OT. They are following in the tradition of not translating God’s actual name, but the all-capitals show that the actual name is used in the Hebrew.
Second, no one knows for sure how to actually pronounce God’s name because it has not been properly spoken for thousands of years! That is why some suggest the name is pronounced “Yehovah” (improperly translated by some as “Jehovah” because there is no “J” sound in Hebrew) and others pronounce it “Yahweh.”
God’s name finds its way into many human names, such as JosiAH (“healed by YHWH”), IsaiAH (“YHWH is salvation”), and DanIEl (“YHWH is my judge”). Not only is this a hint at his name’s pronunciation, but his ultimate identity. God’s is a judge, a healer, a deliverer, and many other good things. God is sovereign and in control of all creation, shown even in his name. This truth should encourage, strengthen, and inspire us to follow him more and more every day.
Written content for this topic by Daniel Martin.
- Watch the video together or invite someone to summarize the topic.
- What is your initial reaction to this video? Do you disagree with any of it? What jumped out at you?
- Jewish leaders created extra laws to keep themselves from breaking the Law of Moses, and Jesus later criticized some leaders for doing this. What are some examples of how we today can create “extra laws” over and above what the Bible teaches? Are we wise or are we foolish to do this? Explain.
- What does it mean that God “is” according to this topic? Why does this matter for understanding God?
- Is it important to understand who God is to worship him? Why or why not?
- Write a personal action step based on this conversation.