Reverence for God’s Name

I have been aware for some time of the Jewish practice to omit the name of God in oral speech. This tradition stems from the third word in the Decalogue, which states,

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 (Ex. 20:7).

In Hebrew, the name of God consists of the four letters YHWH, sometimes called the tetragrammaton (Greek word for ‘four letters’). To safeguard against saying God’s name in vain, the Jews refused to speak the name at all. When the Jews came across the divine name in Scripture, they substituted the word adonai, the general word for Lord. Personally, I have respected this practice as I have learned Hebrew at school and continued on my own in Hebrew readings. Most English translations of the OT also continued this trend by translating YHWH as LORD (with all caps). The one notable exception in English would be the American Standard Version, which transliterated the divine name as Jehovah (four consonants of YHWH with vowels for adonai). In fact, if you read an English speaking Jew today, they may write “G-d” instead of spelling out the whole word. But I digress.

Recently, I stumbled upon another effort to display respect for God. We are beginning a study of Job in our Bible class at church. In Job 1-2, there are several references to cursing God.

  • Job sacrifices in case his children curse God (1:5)
  • Satan challenges God to allow his “hedge” to be removed and then he would curse God (1:11)
  • Satan challenges God again to allow Job’s health to be removed, arguing that Job will then curse God (2:5).
  • Job’s wife tells him to “curse God and die” (2:9).

In each of these cases, though, the author (or a later scribe) substitutes the word “bless” for “curse.” It is as if the idea of putting the words “curse” and “God” together was so reprehensible that “bless” was used as a euphemism for “curse.” An example outside of Job can be found in the false accusations made against Naboth that he cursed God (1 Kings 21:10, 13).

These Jewish safeguards may seem a little extreme. They may seem to be taking this a little too far. Yet, I appreciate the effort. We need a healthy respect for God, and our speech is a natural indication of our attitude about him. Conversation about God and spiritual matters should be a regular topic of conversation (Deut. 6:4:9), but it must never denigrate to where God is treated as common, average or normal. He is amazing, awesome, and incomprehensible. Our language in worship, Bible study, and daily conversation should always reflect this reverence. This is needed even more in a world where OMG is heedlessly tossed around cyberspace and God’s name is reduced to an interjection. If we are going to use God’s name today, we had better make sure we reverence it!

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2 Responses to Reverence for God’s Name

  1. Joel Ellis says:

    It’s an excellent point, and the euphemistic use of “bless” elsewhere in the OT is, indeed, interesting. I have heard, and concur with, the suggestion to limit certain words like “awesome” to references to God. We need more reverence when speaking about Him.

    That said, I still think this Jewish tradition smacks of mystical superstition. I respect the person who chooses to say “Adonai/Lord” instead of “Yahweh/Jehovah/LORD” as a matter of respect, but I see no reason to do so. In fact, I think there are compelling reasons not to do so. The interpretation of quite a few OT passages depends on recognizing the personal name of God (Ex. 6:2-3; 20:1-3; Ps. 110:1), and I have found many in local churches who never realized the significance of LORD (or GOD) in the text. Granted, they could have learned the significance by reading the translator’s notes at the front of their Bible, but how many people do so? When teachers and preachers fail to highlight the distinctiveness of the names used for God in scripture, something is lost in translation (pardon the pun).

    Ironically, the casual irreverence so prevalent in our society has caused some believers to avoid referring to God in their everyday language, yet the name of God is constantly on the lips of OT saints and in the NT writings. Not many of us seem to speak as though constantly aware of God’s presence, power, and purpose in our lives, but you cannot avoid seeing this awareness in the lives of scriptures’ heroes. We need to encourage people to use the name of God, often and with great reverence, as a memorial to His presence and sovereignty over our lives. But we need to remind them not to use His name unless speaking to Him or about Him. Anything other reference would, indeed, be profane.

    • Jeremy says:

      Great thoughts, Joel. My focus was on the concept of reverence for God, but you are certainly right to bring up other factors that are at play in rationing God’s name. For most every change or practice we implement, we have to realize there are both positive and negative consequences. Thanks for bringing up some ways that this practice can harm rather than help.

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