What is God called?

What’s in a name? Different names have different meanings.  My name means “loved.” My wife’s name, Sarah, means “princess.”  Generally speaking, though, we don’t tend to pick names primarily for a specific meaning associated with the child. Names are given based on how they sound or because there is a family tradition. For example, I know of one family where the tradition was to alternate between calling the first-born son “Keith” or “Stanley.” Sometimes a name becomes particularly popular because it is associated with a famous person or character from a film or TV series.

In the Ancient Near East, things were a little different. Names had huge significance and were carefully chosen. “They chose names that expressed their hopes, confidence, fears, observations, understandings, or feelings.”[1]

When it comes to God’s name, we are following Ancient Near Eastern tradition rather than modern western culture.  To call God by name is to recognise something about his character, his promises and his deeds. In other words, the names of God are part of his self-revelation. God tells us what we are to call him and each name discloses something about who he is.  As Bavinck puts it:

“The names by which we call and address God are not arbitrary: they were not conceived by us at our own pleasure. It is God himself who deliberately and freely, both in nature and in grace reveals himself, who gives us the right to name him on the basis of his self-revelation, and who in his word has made his own names known to us on that same basis.”[2]

God’s names, then, are not mere labels. They are not just a means of getting his attention.  God “expounds his name by means of attributes expressed in adjectives … phrases and sentences.”[3]

You will notice that we talk about multiple names for God, not just one name.  God gives his people different names by which to address him through Scripture. Each name reveals something more about him and is directly relevant to the context in which it is used.

Now, because God has revealed his names to us, this means three things. First of all, the plurality of names should prevent us from falling into the trap of building a religion around the legalistic insistence that there is just one special name for God.  Secondly, because these names are not arbitrary, it means that we are not permitted to just call God whatever we feel like.  We show proper reverence and honour to God when we address him in the way that he instructs us. By implication, we should also come to God in worship in the way that he tells us, not merely as we feel.[4] Thirdly, the different names of God help us to learn more about him. Frame argues that the fact God has many names “enables us to learn about him from many finite perspectives.”[5]

It’s because God’s names are rooted in his attributes and actions that we’ve left this part of our investigation until last. As we look at the names of God, there should now be no surprises for us because we’ll see that those names are rooted in all that we have learnt about him so far. Those names will reflect his Trinitarian nature as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. They’ll show us something of his invincible and eternal power, his self-sufficiency and his boundless love. They’ll point to the God who wills and decrees, who creates, makes covenants and keeps his promises.

Let’s have a look at some of the specific names that are revealed and what they tell us about God.

Elohim and El

Frame says that this “is the general term that includes all gods, false as well as true.”[6] In fact, the name is used to describe not just gods, but all beings that are superior to humans and so may be viewed as having god-like or supernatural characteristics relative to humanity. For example, in Psalm 8:5, we are told about humanity that God

“made them only a little lower than [Elohim].”

Now, this could refer to humanity’s position as the pinnacle of creation second only to the Creator himself. However, “Elohim” is often read here as referring to the angels and it is in that sense that the writer to the Hebrews takes it:

“Yet for a little while you made them a little lower than the angels     and crowned them with glory and honour.”[7]

You will recognise from this that “Elohim” is a plural word in Hebrew. “El” is probably the short, singular form. [8]  So what does it mean to call God by a plural form? Is this a hangover from polytheism?  This is unlikely given that the Israelites, as settled monotheists, were comfortable with addressing God in this way and because often, the plural form of the word is used in conjunction with singular verb forms.

Sometimes a plural may be used not so much to suggest increase in number as increase in intensity. So, it is possible that the plural “Elohim” is used to indicate intensity of majesty, glory and greatness in God. Frame is doubtful about this.  He argues that there isn’t grammatical evidence for using the word in this way. His point turns on our understanding of Genesis 1:26-28 where God says, “Let us make man in our own image.”

“Some scholars, e.g. Keil, Dillmann, and Driver have suggested that this is an example of a plural of majesty; cf. the English royal ‘we.’ It refers to ‘the fullness of attributes and powers conceived as united within the Godhead’ (Driver, 14). Juon’s observation (114e) that ‘we’ as a plural of majesty is not used with verbs has led to the rejection of this interpretation.”[9]

The question is “who is God addressing?” Juon says that “The most common meaning is that of the cohortative.”[10] However, this is a creative act; he cannot be speaking with the angelic hosts. Many Christians see the plural reference here as at least implicitly pointing towards God’s Trinitarian nature.[11]

I agree that looking back with the eyes of fuller revelation, we can see in Genesis an embryonic hint of God’s Trinitarian nature. However, I would note two words of caution here. First of all, whilst Juon and Wenham talk about the use of “We” in their discussion, they are not looking at the specific meaning of “Elohim.” Secondly, we have to think about how people would have understood the word prior to the fuller revelation of God’s nature when Christ came and the Spirit was sent. It is likely that they would have read the name “Elohim” as referring to an intensification of God’s glory and majesty.

As “Elohim” is the general term for God, it tends to be used in more generalised contexts. Frame explains:

“As the most general or generic term for God, Elohim tends to be prominent in contexts in which God is dealing with the creation in general or with the nations of the world apart from his covenant with Israel.”[12]

El Shaddai/El Shadday.

God reveals himself to Abram by this name in Genesis 17:2. At this stage, Abram is still waiting for the fulfilment of God’s covenant with him to give him many descendants. His only son is Ishmael, born through a slave concubine. It is clear that Ishmael does not represent the covenant fulfilment.

It is in the context of disclosing this name to Abram that God also changes his name to Abraham[13] and his wife’s name to Sarah.[14] Abraham’s name change symbolises the covenant promise that he will be father to many nations.

So, the name by which God chooses to reveal himself is significant. It tells us something more about God’s ability to make and keep promises with Abraham.

The name “Shadday connotes might and power.”[15] It is similar in meaning to the Greek word “pantokrator” used in the New Testament.[16] This means that “wherever the name appears it highlights the idea of power and invincible strength.”[17]

In other words, the name reminds us of God’s sovereignty and rule. God is omnipotent, omnipresent and omniscient. El Shaddai is the God who knows all things, is ever-present and can do all things. El Shaddai is the God who wills and decrees, the God who predestines. He is the God who is able to bring things into being from nothing with a word. He is the God who judges and destroys evil.

Bavinck tells us that “This name accordingly makes God known to us as the one who possesses all power, and can therefore overcome all resistance and make all things subservient to his will.”[18] However, we must also remember that God’s will reflects his goodness, love and wisdom, so that if all things are subservient to him, then they are “subservient to the work of grace.”[19] This means that:

“In this name, God’s deity and eternal power is no longer an object of dread but a source of well-being and comfort.”[20]

So, this is the name God uses to remind Abraham that he is sovereign over history. He is able to make Abraham’s descendants into a great nation and, most urgently for Abraham and Sarah, he is sovereign over her womb, able to bring new life into their old age.

YHWH, Yahweh or Jehovah

This is the name which the people of Israel knew God by as he brought them out of slavery from the land of Egypt. Bavinck tells us that “the church fathers thought it referred to God’s aseity. God is the one who is eternal, immutable being, over against the factual non-being of idols and the non-absolute being of creatures.”[21] However, he sees this as a completely inadequate understanding. Rather, it means “He is who he is, the same yesterday, today and forever.”[22]

The context for the name being revealed is Exodus 3:12-15 when God meets Moses at the Burning Bush. God promises to deliver Israel from slavery in Egypt.  Moses asks God “Who should I say as sent me?”

God reminds him that he is the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and it is in the context of this reference to his historical presence with and provision for his people as well as the future promise of liberation that he gives the name “YHWH.”

“He will be what he was for the patriarchs, what he is now and will remain: he will be everything to and for his people.”[23]

The point is that this is not a different God showing up; it is the same God. If this God could be trusted to keep his promises in the past, then he will in the future.” [24]

Now, whilst this becomes the primary name by which the people are to call on God, it isn’t actually a new name in Genesis 3 and 6. We find it used in Genesis 15:7 and 28:13. So, these references are not about the revelation of a new name. Rather, at this point, God enables His people to understand what the name means and what it tells them about his character. The name is about trust.

“From this point on the name YHWH is the description and guarantee of the fact that God is and remains the God of his people, unchanging in his grace and faithfulness. And that is something that could not have been disclosed before the time of Moses. A long time has to pass to prove that God is faithful and unchanging. A person’s faithfulness can only be tested in the long run and especially in times of distress.”[25]

YHWH Saboath, Lord of Hosts

This name refers to God as the Lord over the hosts of Heaven or the angels. The angelic hosts in all their beauty reflect something of God’s majesty and glory. We’ve already seen how from a human perspective they may be viewed as “god-like” so that people have even made the mistake of trying to worship them.

“YHWH Saboath characterises him as king in the fullness of his glory who, surrounded by regimented hosts of angels governs throughout the world as the Almighty and in his temple receives the honour and acclamation of all his creatures.”[26]

Father

These are all wonderful names. However, in the New Testament, through the revelation of Jesus as the Son, we learn to call God by a very precious name. We learn to call him Father.

Again, the name isn’t completely new to the New Testament and has already been found in the Old Testament (Deut 32:6; Psalm 103:13; Isaiah 63:16).[27]

However, it is when we see Jesus as the only begotten Son that we learn exactly what it means to call God by this name. “Father” does not simply refer to his ability to create or rule, but shows us even more of his great love.

“The name ‘Father’ is now the common name of God in the New Testament. The name YHWH is inadequately conveyed by Lord (kurios) and is, as it were, supplemented by the name ‘Father.’”[28]”Here we find perfect kingship, for here is a king who is simultaneously a Father who does not subdue his subjects by force but who himself creates and preserves his subjects. As children, they are born of him, they bear his image; they are his family. According to the New Testament this relation has been made possible by Christ who is the true, only-begotten and beloved Son of the Father. And believers obtain adoption as children and also become conscious of it by the agency of the Holy Spirit (John 3:5, 8; Rom. 8:15f.). God has most abundantly revealed himself in the name “Father, Son and Holy Spirit.” The fullness that from the beginning inhered in the name Elohim has gradually unfolded and become most fully and splendidly manifest in the Trinitarian name of God.”[29]

Coming back to the start

You will notice that as we come to the end of our study of Who is God that we come back to the beginning. Who is God? He is the one who is all powerful, eternal and wise. He is the God who is Love and so we know God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

[1] Frame, The Doctrine of God, 344.

[2] Bavinck, God and Creation, 99.

[3] Frame, The Doctrine of God, 345.

[4] Frame, The Doctrine of God, 346-347.

[5] Frame, The Doctrine of God, 347.

[6] Frame, The Doctrine of God, 353.

[7] Hebrews 2:8.

[8] Frame, The Doctrine of God, 356.

[9] Wenham, Genesis 1-15, 28).

[10] Juon and Muraoka, A Grammar of Biblical Hebrew, 114e. 347.

[11] Frame, The Doctrine of God, 355.

[12] Frame, The Doctrine of God, 354.

[13] Genesis 17:5

[14] Genesis 17:16.

[15] Frame, The Doctrine of God, 357.

[16] Frame, The Doctrine of God, 357.

[17] Bavinck, God and Creation, 140.

[18] Bavinck, God and Creation, 140.

[19] Bavinck, God and Creation, 140.

[20] Bavinck, God and Creation, 140.

[21] Bavinck, God and Creation, 143.

[22] Bavinck, God and Creation,143.

[23] Bavinck, God and Creation, 143.

[24] Bavinck, God and Creation, 143.

[25] Bavinck, God and Creation,144.

[26] Bavinck, God and Creation, 146.

[27] Bavinck, God and Creation, 147.

[28] Bavinck, God and Creation, 147.

[29] Bavinck, God and Creation, 147.

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