New Christians tend to be fascinated by the fact that God is referred to by several different names in the bible. There’s God, the Lord (in capital letters or not), the Most High, the Almighty… and that doesn’t even get to the titles, like Mighty God, Ancient of Days, Alpha and Omega, Lord of Hosts. Bust out some Hebrew to go along with it, and some Christians will get sloppy with excitement. I can write about the attributes of God till my fingers go numb, but there’s just nothing like God’s names. Because, as many Christians teach, there’s power in God’s name. (Jr 10.6) Power, power, wonder-working power.
What humans have called God.
First of all, I should point out that these many names of God are not God’s idea. He named himself, which I’ll get to in a bit. But before he did so, humans had to come up with words to describe him. In many ancient cultures, a “god” is simply a more powerful being than yourself; it isn’t necessarily the supreme being, unless you’re a monotheist—you believe there’s only one god, i.e. God, and all the other “gods” aren’t legitimate gods.
God. (El or Eloáh, god; or Elohím, god(s).) The term for a god functions, to both the ancient Hebrews and to us nowadays, as a proper name, “God,” with a capital G. But that’s not actually his name; that’s his species. It would be as if God referred to any of us as “human.” (Or “son of man,” like he did Ezekiel—or as Jesus did of himself.)
The ancient Hebrew word for a god is el; more than one god would be elohím. But in the scriptures, the singular and the plural are sorta used interchangeably—el and elohím are both used to refer to the one true God. Some linguists have all kinds of guesses as to why that is, but frankly, English does the same thing sometimes: Pants, scissors, deer, sheep. If you use a word regularly enough, it develops its own rules. The word for “god” did that too.
Now, if you’re a monotheist, obviously every time you say “God” you mean that god. But sometimes you’ll come into contact with pagans, and have to sort out which god you mean, and so you’ll need to distinguish between their gods and yours. So the Hebrew speakers came up with distinctive names for their particular god.
Lord. (Adona’í, my master.) This is a generic title of respect and nobility, and it’s used of God as well, since he’s particularly deserving of it. The all-capitals version of it, LORD (and sometimes GOD), is customarily used when we’re referring to Yahweh—but, out of respect, we’re not saying the holy name. (Some folks, out of extra respect, won’t even spell “Lord” out, writing “L-rd.”)
The Most High God. (El Elyón, highest god.) The first time this title crops up is when Abram met up with the Canaanite king of Salem, Melchizedek. (Ge 14.18) This was likely his title, not his name; it means “righteous king,” and like many ancient kings he was also a priest—of “God Most High,” whom Abram recognized was the very same god he worshiped. (Ge 14.22) There are no higher gods, after all.
The everlasting God. (El Olam, timeless god.) This title appears twice: First, when Abraham worships God at Beersheba. (Ge 21.33) This is after he interacts with the Philistines, who recognize that God is with him; it’s quite possible that “everlasting God” is what the Philistines recognized God as. Second, Isaiah calls him this to point out God’s infinite power and strength. (Is 40.28)
The living God. (El/Elohím Kha’í/Khayyím, living god, or mighty god.) This is a rarer term for God, but it refers to the obvious fact that God is alive and active and mighty, (Js 3.10) whereas the pagan gods are, as far as the Hebrews reckoned, blocks of stone, wood, or metal, and unworthy of worship, even laughable. (The pagans definitely believed otherwise, but the bible isn’t written from their perspective.)
Sovereign LORD. (Adona’í Yahweh, my master Yahweh.) Sometimes rendered “Lord GOD,” it’s simply combining the title Lord with the name Yahweh. It’s a reminder that God is the boss.
LORD of Hosts. (Yahweh Cheva’ót, Yahweh of warriors.) Sometimes cheva’ót is left untranslated, as “Sabaoth.” The word chavá means “fighting” or “serving,” and used as a noun it either means “war” or “army.” Prophets tended to use this title during wartime, and where the bible reads “LORD of Hosts,” expect God to be in a smiting mood.
Many Christians get uncomfortable with all the war imagery, and either claim that cheva’ót is difficult to translate, or that they’re not really sure whether it refers to an army, or a mass of people, or the heavenly host (even though God clearly has no trouble directing human armies where necessary). Hence the NLT goes with “the LORD of Heaven’s Armies,” and the NIV dodges the issue altogether and goes with “the LORD Almighty.”
What God has called himself.
God Almighty. (El Shadda’í, all-powerful god.) God introduces himself as God Almighty to Abram at the time he changed that man’s name to Abraham. (Ge 17.1) He later explained to Moses that this was the name by which he revealed himself to the patriarchs. (Ex 6.3) Of course, it is an indication of the power that God wields, namely his almightiness, his ability to do whatever he wants.
The translators of the Greek Old Testament defined shadda’í as panto-krátor, “all-powerful,” and this is where we get “almighty” from. In recent times, linguists speculated that shadda’í might mean something else. Maybe since it looks like shaddáyim, “breasts,” maybe that’s where it came from, and it’s an reflection of God’s feminine side. Or since it looks like shadád, “destroyer,” maybe God’s almightiness comes from the fact that he can destroy whatever he wants. Or maybe it’s not a Hebrew word; it comes from the Akkadian shadú, “mountain” or “hill,” and indicates that God is a god of the hills, (1Ki 20.28) or is impressive like the mountains. (Ps 36.6) Me, I figure just because a word looks like another word, it doesn’t automatically mean they’re related. A baseball pitcher is not called that because he drinks a lot of pitchers of beer; the Middle English word for “throw” just happens to resemble the Old French word for “pot.” Same with shadda’í—there’s no reason to assume it’s descended from similar-looking Hebrew words. The ancients believed it meant “almighty,” so let’s assume they’re right, and move on.
I Am (Who I Am). (Ehyéh Ashér Ehyéh, I am being what I am being.) God introduces himself as I Am to Moses when he sent him to free the Israelis from the Egyptians. (Ex 3.14) This, he declared, “is my eternal name, my name to remember for all generations.” (Ex 3.15 NLT)
This name was given in response to Moses’s request, “When I say ‘God of your ancestors,’ and they respond, ‘And which god is that?’ what response will I give?” (Ex 3.13) Interestingly, this was not a name they would have been familiar with. God hadn’t revealed it before this point. His response actually answers them, “I get to define myself. Not you.” God is who he is, not what we decide he is, or even what we think he is. He is not an abstract concept, but a concrete reality, and we have to deal with him as he is.
Yahweh. In English, “Jehovah.” The proper name of Israel’s God comes directly after God reveals himself as I Am. (Ex 3.15) Linguists figure it’s related to ehyéh, “I am being.” Its pronunciation is actually an educated guess; the vowel-marks you find in a Hebrew bible actually don’t indicate how to pronounce Yahweh, but that you ought, out of respect, to say instead adona’í, “my Lord.” (Or, in some cases, elohím, “God.”) Medieval Christians didn’t realize this, and as a result put those vowel marks together with the letters YHWH and came up with Yehowah—or, as the Germans spelled it, Jehovah, which became our English word.
Lots of folks refer to Yahweh as God’s “covenant name,” because he didn’t reveal it until he rescued the Hebrews and made a covenant with them, and throughout that covenant he reiterated time and again, “I am Yahweh (your God).” (Lv 18.5, 6, 21, 30, 19.3, 4, 10, 12, 14, 16, etc.) He did this after certain commands to make it clear that these particular commands reflected his character. But as he said, Yahweh/I Am is his name for all generations; it isn’t just connected with the covenant, or with Israel. Yahweh is likewise the God and Father of Christ Jesus, and the God of the Christians, and the God of the whole earth.
Jealous. (El Qanna, jealous god.) God points out that he is a jealous god, (Ex 20.5) not meaning that he suffers from envy or zeal, but that he doesn’t want to share Israel’s worship with any other gods. “[My] name is Jealous,” God reiterates to Moses elsewhere, (Ex 34.14) as he makes it clear that the Hebrews are not to tolerate any other forms of worship in his land.
Jesus. (Yeshúa, God is salvation.) Since Jesus is God, and God sent his messengers to inform both Mary and Joseph independently that he wanted their baby to be named Jesus, (Mt 1.21, Lk 1.31) he essentially named himself. Jesus is the name he wanted to be known by, for the obvious reason that “he will save his people from their sins.” (Mt 1.21 NLT) He wants the fact that he saves us embedded in his very name.
Lots of Christians like to proclaim, “God is Jehovah-Jireh, our provider,” or “God is Jehovah-Shalom, our peace,” or “God is Jehovah-Rapha, our healer,” and so forth. Basically they’re just “Yahweh” or “Jehovah,” plus a Hebrew adjective.
These are described as names of God. They actually aren’t. They’re descriptions of God. Valid descriptions. But not names. Some of them are taken from scriptures where God makes a statement about himself, or someone describes him (or, in one case, Jesus). About half of them are taken from place names—altars or sites named in memory of something profound God did there.
Hey, there’s nothing wrong with studying those attributes of God and learning about God’s character from them. We definitely should. But let’s not mix them up with God’s name; it’s sloppy bible study. In any case, for your edification here’s a list of some of the more popular adjectives.
- Yahweh-Yiréh (“Jehovah Jireh”): A place meaning “the LORD provides,” after God spared Isaac from sacrifice. (Ge 22.14)
- Yahweh-Rofé (“Jehovah Rapha”) comes from God’s statement that he is the LORD, and he heals the Hebrews of their illnesses. (Ex 15.26)
- Yahweh-Nissí (“Jehovah Nissi”): An altar meaning “the LORD is my banner,” after the Hebrews defeated Amalek. (Ex 17.15)
- Yahweh-M’qaddoshkhém (“Jehovah Mekoddishkem”) comes from God’s statement that he makes Israel holy. (Ex 31.13)
- Yahweh-Shalóm (“Jehovah Shalom”): An altar meaning “the LORD is peace,” after God called Gideon to defeat Midian. (Jg 6.24)
- Yahweh-Ra’í (“Jehovah Raah”) comes from Psalm 23.1, “The LORD is my shepherd.”
- Yahweh-Chidqenú (“Jehovah Tsidkenu”) comes from a prophecy to Isaiah about the Messiah, who will be named “The LORD is our righteousness.” (Jr 23.6)
- Yahweh-Shammá (“Jehovah Shamma”): The name of the New Jerusalem as revealed to Ezekiel, “The LORD is There.” (Ek 48.35)
Likely you’ve heard others.
The metaphors that prophets and poets have used are too numerous to count. (Well, you can count the ones in the bible; but I don’t care to today.)
The more popular ones tend to show up on “Names of God” posters and videos and bible studies. They mix up titles that are specifically given to Jesus with titles that are specifically given to Yahweh—but since Jesus is Yahweh, it doesn’t make much difference.
Of course, there are all the metaphors that Jesus uses to describe himself: The bread of life, (Jn 6.35) the good shepherd, (Jn 10.11) the light of the world, (Jn 8.12) the living water, (Jn 4.10) the resurrection and the life, (Jn 11.25) the true vine, (Jn 15.5) the way, the truth, and the life, (Jn 14.6) —and that’s just from John. The apostles call him a lot more.
And there are descriptors we find throughout the bible: Jesus calls him, and says we can call him, “Father.” (Mt 6.9) He’s the Ancient of Days, (Dn 7.9) the Mighty One of Israel, (Is 60.16) a consuming fire, (Dt 4.24 ESV) a shield. (Ge 15.1 ESV) The prophets call him a lot more too.
But again, these aren’t precisely names of God. They just describe him. There are many profound things we can learn about him from these descriptions, and like the compound “names,” we ought to study them. But don’t confuse them with names. Again, sloppy bible study.
The names of God—the ones we ought to focus on most—naturally should be the ones he’s revealed himself with: God Almighty, I Am, Yahweh, Jealous, and Jesus. In them we see that he is powerful, that he retains his own personality, that he doesn’t want competition, and that he’s saved us. That alone is plenty to meditate upon. But check out the rest too.