God’s Covenant Name: Should We Use it?

by | Oct 19, 2016 | Kenny Hilliard, III

The name Jehovah is a purposeful mispronunciation of the covenant name of God, and its creation was intended to prevent the reader from saying God’s covenant name properly.

 

Those of us who are familiar with the reformers and puritans often come across the name “Jehovah” when speaking of God. This was a name that the great Charles Spurgeon was fond of using years after the reformation and puritan era. In fact, the Westminster Shorter Catechism uses the name as well:

Q. 3. Can the Trinity of persons be proved from the Old Testament?

  1. Yes; not only from the history of man’s creation, where God speaks of himself in the plural number, “Let us make man,”Gen. 1:26; but likewise from such passages, as expressly restrict this plurality to three persons, such as, Psalm 33:6, — “By the word of the Lord, or JEHOVAH, were the heavens made; and all the host of them by the breath, or spirit, of his mouth;” where there is mention made of JEHOVAH, the Word, and the Spirit, as concurring in the creation of all things: accordingly, we are told that all things were made by the Word, John 1:3, and that the Spirit garnished the heavens, Job 26:13. The same truth is also evident from Isa 63:7910; where we read of the loving-kindness of JEHOVAH; Of the Angel of his presence saving them; and of their vexing his Holy Spirit. A plain discovery of a Trinity of persons.

Yet, this divine name is rarely used in our day apart from those who primarily read the reformers, puritans, et al., or those associated with cults (not that these two are equal in value, belief, or reason). There are two questions that this articles seeks to answer. First, what is God’s personal covenant name? Second, should we use it in our regular worship?

So, from whence comes Jehovah, and is this the proper understanding of the covenant name of God? The short answer here is no. Interestingly; an explanation of the divine name has, throughout the past, been included in the often ignored preface to many versions of the English Bible. On a side note, for those who are against Critical Texts, I found that many Authorized Versions have now been printed with the Preface removed (not the original translator’s preface, but the preface from the publisher).

This is somewhat tragic because the preface gives the reader a sense of the translating team’s philosophy and works as a key to understanding various features of the translation you are using. If you open your AV and find that the things that I include in this article are not in your Bible, it is likely that the printer that produced the text you have was not interested in printing it, likely in order to save space and cut costs.

God’s Covenant Name

“But although He declares what benefits He conferred upon them, He says that He was not known to them by His name “Jehovah;” signifying thus that He now more brightly manifested the glory of His divinity to their descendants. It would be tedious to recount the various opinions as to the name “Jehovah.” It is certainly a foul superstition of the Jews that they dare not speak, or write it, but substitute the name “Adonai;” nor do I any more approve of their teaching, who say that it is ineffable, because it is not written according to grammatical rule.”

 John Calvin (Commentary on Exodus 6)

So, initially we must ask, whence came “Jehovah” and is that the name that we should use? As many of you likely know, the Hebrew language initially had no vowels in its written form. Throughout Hebrew texts, God’s covenant name would read something like YHWH, or more likely YHVH, this is called the tetragrammaton (or four letters).

You must understand that there is variation in the third letter’s pronunciation because the Hebrew “vav” can be pronounced in various situations both ways. It must also be noted that Hebrew has no J. The “yodh” in Hebrew is strictly pronounced like the English “Y”. So, here initially we run into some issues if we consider the name “Jehovah”. The J was a latinization of the Hebrew “yodh”, and not original to the language, and the “vav” can be understood to be pronounced as either a “w” or a “v”.

Yet, there are other issues involved in the proper pronunciation of the covenant name of God. Initially and throughout Israel’s history, we can see in various texts that God’s name was revered and held as special. In the Dead Sea Scrolls, we see several manuscripts where the sect decided not to update the covenant name of God with the more modern square Hebrew script; so, they wrote the name in paleo Hebrew to mark it as special.

In the LXX (Septuagint) we see the covenant name translated as Adonai (Lord), so we can see that this practice started early. There are also many medieval Hebrew manuscripts where the name was written in a different size so that it could not be missed or accidentally pronounced.

Accidental pronunciation, in this regard, is actually key to the issue. You see, if you open a BHS (Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia) today, you will see the divine name written as “Yahovah”. The issue that the early scholars had run into was the question of taking God’s name in vain. (Actually, a better translation is “making God’s name a vanity or useless”)

The fear was that a child or someone not reading carefully enough, if they were reading out loud, might accidentally pronounce the covenant name of God, and in effect blaspheme Him. To protect against this, the scribes placed the vowels from “Adonnai” under the consonants for the covenant name so that it would be pronounced wrongly, and save a reader from blasphemy.

Yet, another item of importance here is the fact that the vowels would make no sense to the natural reader and would feel awkward as they were trying to pronounce the name. The point of the name is the fact that the vowels would feel wrong. It was intended to be somewhat of a natural warning signal to the reader. It would make them stop and consider for a second the thing that they were saying. That being said, the most natural reading, though there is a little debate is either Yahweh or Yahveh.

The change in the third consonant does not change the meaning of the name and thus is not crucial to the issue of knowing and using God’s covenant name.  The point is, that the name Jehovah is a purposeful mispronunciation of the covenant name of God, and its creation was intended to prevent the reader from saying God’s covenant name properly.

Should We Use It?

So, the question to be asked is, if Jehovah is purposeful mispronunciation should we use the name? I think that this is an issue that must rest within the conscience of the believer. My desire here is to be fair to both sides of the issue so as to try and avoid binding the conscience of my reader.

An argument for using the name Jehovah, would go something like this. It is obvious that believers within the Old Testament church were concerned about abusing the covenant name of God. This apparently started early and is represented in various translations and Hebrew manuscripts.

It could be argued that just like one may argue for an Ecclesial Text, it has, in some sense, been the Ecclesial practice to allow for mispronunciation so as to protect the believer from blasphemy. So, in this sense, it is permissible to use the name Jehovah and to avoid the name Yahveh.

An argument against using the name Jehovah, would go something like this. We know that God revealed His name to His covenant people in the desert. He plainly did so, so that His people might be able to call on His name without using vague phraseology. In fact, it is clear by the time of the prophets that the people seem to have lost the covenant name of God and allowed Him to even be called Baal in the temple because of the vaguery (Baal = master, husband).

While LORD is helpful it is also vague, and in using it in translation we lose some of the personal nature of being in covenant with this God. It would appear from this position that purposefully avoiding the covenant name of God is akin to squandering a great gift that He has given us in revealing His name to us His people.

I would suggest that both arguments have their value, and I leave it to the reader to decide how the name should be used. Though it must be noted that Calvin has some interesting things to say in his commentary on Exodus 6. He certainly thought the name should be used, though he believed the proper pronunciation to be Jehovah, there are likely issues with his understanding of the grammar here, but his arguments are quite helpful regardless.

Recommended Resources

Commentary on Exodus 6 by John Calvin
Preface from the English Standard Version
“I am who I am” by John Piper

Kenny is formerly the senior pastor at New Horizon Baptist Fellowship in Marion, Nc. He has a BA in Christian studies from NGU, M.Div from SEBTS, and is a PHD candidate in Old Testament at SEBTS. He was Old Testament editor for the first edition of the journal Inservimus, and contributor to the Lexham Bible Dictionary. Father of three, and the husband to a woman he does not deserve.

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