Should Christians pray to YHWH?
Exodus 3:15 (ESV)
God also said to Moses, “Say this to the people of Israel: ‘The Lord (YHWH), the 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 thus I am to be remembered throughout all generations.
The word Lord in small caps translates the Hebrew letters YHWH (the tetragrammaton). The name is probably connected to the verb to be, the unchanging I AM who was and is and is to come. It’s the name by which God revealed himself to Moses at Mount Sinai. In ancient Hebrew there were no vowels: cn y rd txt wtht vwls? Vowels were added later, but no vowels were added to the divine name. They did not want others pronouncing it. The name was so holy that even today when Rabbis read the text aloud they substitute ha shem (literally, “the name”). Israel was warned not to take the name of YHWH in vain (Exodus 20:7).
So should Christians use this name?
Jehovah’s Witnesses (JWs) use JHVH for God’s name. Their religion is named from Isaiah 43:10: “‘You are my witnesses,’ declares YHWH.” They don’t believe Jesus is divine, so for them it’s important to pray to YHWH, not Jesus.
JWs might cringe if they grasped the point of Isaiah’s metaphor. God created Israel to show the nations what divine rule was like, but Israel had proved faithless and had fallen to the nations (Assyria and Babylon). In the justice case of God versus the nations that resist his reign, Israel had been as useful as a blind and deaf witness (Isaiah 42:19; 43:8). A witness who sees and hears nothing contributes nothing to YHWH’s case.
Praying to Jesus is valid if he is the Son who shares God’s throne (Acts 7:59). But should we also use the divine name YHWH? To answer that question, we need to understand how that revealed name fits into the Bible’s narrative. It’s not God’s only name.
YHWH is the covenant name, the name God revealed at Sinai to his covenant people. Moses led the people to Sinai where God had revealed his name. There, God founded Israel as a nation, his kingdom representatives among the nations (Exodus 19:3-6). He revealed himself to them as YHWH, the covenant God of Israel:
- Ex 20:2 I am YHWH your God
- Ex 20:5 I, YHWH your God
- Ex 20:7 the name of YHWH your God
In giving them his name, God gave permission for his covenant people to call upon him. God was committed to respond because of his covenant with them.
Previously, God had made a covenant with Abraham. The revealed name in that covenant was El Shaddai, usually translated God Almighty (see post on Genesis 17:1). The covenant descendants (Isaac, Jacob, the twelve, …) called upon that name. The new covenant at Sinai forms a new covenant people, so God reveals a new name for this covenant people to call on him. That’s how God explained it to Moses:
I appeared to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, as El Shaddai, but by my name YHWH I did not make myself known to them.
Now, the Sinai covenant name YHWH is found in the Book of Genesis, but that just reflects the reality that Genesis was Israel’s story, recorded and adapted after the exodus events. It would be unrealistic to expect Israel not to use their name for God as they recorded the earlier stories. Don’t miss the point that YHWH is the revealed name for the people established by the Sinai covenant.
A couple of centuries before Christ, the Jewish people were under Greek rule. They translated their important texts into Greek in the hope that the Greek rulers could learn how the world should operate by reading the astounding revelation of God’s Law (Torah). This translation is known as the Septuagint (LXX), and its story is told in The Letter of Aristeas.
But what would they do with the tetragrammaton? Greeks were not part of the Sinai covenant, so they had no right to know or to call on the divine name. The LXX translators used kyrios, a common Greek word meaning Lord or Master. Non-Jews should understand God as the one who rules over them, their Lord, but they had no right to call on his name for they were not part of the covenant people.
The New Testament was written in Greek. When NT writers referred to the OT, they followed the LXX tradition and used kyrios for YHWH. Consequently, the divine name revealed at Sinai does not appear in the New Testament at all.
That makes sense if you think about it. A “new testament” is literally a new covenant (Hebrews 8–9). The people of this new covenant are not limited to ethnic Jews, so it would not make sense to use the name God revealed to Israel in the previous covenant. The new covenant revelation of God is found in the name of Jesus (compare Hebrews 1:1-3).
God was meant to be revealed in Israel, but he is finally revealed in Jesus. The NT therefore takes OT passages about Israel and applies them to Jesus. One of those is the Isaiah passage about Israel being YHWH’s ineffective witnesses:
Isaiah 45:21–23 (ESV)
21 Was it not I, the Lord (YHWH)? And there is no other god besides me,
a righteous God and a Saviour; there is none besides me.
22 “Turn to me and be saved, all the ends of the earth!
For I am God, and there is no other.
23 By myself I have sworn; from my mouth has gone out in righteousness a word that shall not return:
‘To me every knee shall bow, every tongue shall swear allegiance.’
The name above all names is YHWH in Hebrew, kyrios in Greek. When the world is set right, every knee bows and every tongue swears allegiance to the one who rules all.
But in the midst of the human rebellion against his authority and Israel’s inability to represent this God, YHWH himself stepped in to act, to save his people and restore justice among the nations. He entered into their suffering and failure, dying with them. The name — the unspeakable name, the ultimate sovereign to whom everyone submits — is revealed in Jesus:
Philippians 2:9–11 (ESV)
9 Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, 10 so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11 and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord (kyrios), to the glory of God the Father.
In the new covenant, the revealed name of God is Jesus.
So is it wrong to use YHWH? Certainly not. Just as Israel sometimes used the name revealed to the patriarchs in the previous covenant (Shaddai), Christians can use the name God revealed to Israel in the Sinai covenant. But doing so requires sensitivity to our Jewish friends who do not see us as members of God’s covenant people. When discussing shared texts (the Old Testament), we might vocalize the tetragrammaton as ha shem so as not to cause offence.
The divine name YHWH is important in our studies of the Old Testament where it occurs 6828 times (give or take a few textual variations). But it is not the name of God in the new covenant. If it was important for gentiles to use this name (as JWs believe), the New Testament writers really missed the mark.
The first covenant in the Bible precedes Sinai and the patriarchs. The first covenant was with Noah, Noah’s descendants (the nations), all creatures, and the earth itself. Our divine sovereign committed himself to never give up ruling us, no matter how difficult we are to manage (Genesis 9:8-17). In the Noahic covenant, God revealed no private name, for he gave himself unilaterally to everyone and everything. The new covenant in Jesus fulfils not only the Sinai covenant (God’s promises to Israel) and the patriarchal covenant (God’s promises to Abraham), but also the Noahic covenant (God’s promises to the whole earth).
The new covenant needs no private covenantal name. Everyone must bow the knee to King Jesus and recognize him as kyrios. He is the revelation of God’s majesty.
But there is a word Jesus taught us to use when addressing God. More on that in our next post.
What others are saying
Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics: The Doctrine of the Word of God, Part 1, vol. 1 translated by G. W. Bromiley and T. F. Torrance (London; New York: T&T Clark, 2004), 400 [KD I.1 p. 419]:
The name of Yahweh has precisely the same comprehensive and pervasive meaning in the Old Testament; the name of Yahweh is simply Yahweh revealed to men. Who, then, is Jesus if His name has this significance? Is there really any need of the express declaration of Paul (Phil. 2:9) that God has given Him the name that is above every name?
Gordon D. Fee, Philippians, IVP New Testament Commentary Series (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1999), 100:
In this stirring oracle (Isa 45:18–24) Yahweh, Israel’s Savior, is declared to be God alone, over all that he has created and thus over all other gods and nations. In verses 22–24 Yahweh, while offering salvation to all but receiving obeisance in any case, declares that “before me every knee will bow.” Paul now asserts that at Christ’s exaltation God has transferred this right to obeisance to the Son; he is the Lord to whom every knee shall eventually bow.
Michael F. Bird, Evangelical Theology: A Biblical and Systematic Introduction (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2013), 469:
Jesus and the apostles were devout monotheists. They believed in one God alone. Jesus never claimed to be a second god and never said, “Behold, I am the Father.” The best category to explain how Jesus relates to God is through what Richard Bauckham calls “divine identity.” That is, the one God of Israel is understood and defined in relation to the person and work of Jesus Christ. The very meaning of “God” is redrawn around the life, death, resurrection, exaltation, and subsequent worship of Jesus Christ. This can be demonstrated from how several Yahweh texts from the Old Testament are applied to Jesus.
Mal 3:1 => Luke 1:76
Isa 30:3 => John 1:23
Deut 6:4 => 1 Cor 8:5-6
Isa 45:23 => Phil 2:9-11
Psa 102:25-27 => Heb 1:10-12
Update 2017-12-29: One of the Dead Sea Scrolls in Greek (4Q120 Septuagint Leviticus b) translates the divine name at Leviticus 4:27 as Ιαω. The same name is found for the Jewish God among pagan texts.
Update 2021-11-06: Mark Ward posted: 2 Reasons Why ‘Jehovah’ Should Not Appear in English Bibles (Logos, 2021)
[previous: Righteous people?]
[next: Why call God ‘Father’?]