The most common and the most important name for God in the Old Testament is a name that in our English versions never even gets translated. Whenever you see the word LORD in all capital letters, you know that this name is behind it. In Hebrew the name had four letters—YHWH—and may have been pronounced something like Yahweh. The Jews came to regard this word with such reverence that they would never take it upon their lips, lest they inadvertently take the name in vain. So whenever they came to this name in their reading, they pronounced the word “adonai” which means “my lord.” The English versions have basically followed the same pattern. They translate the proper name Yahweh with the word LORD in all caps.
This is not a very satisfactory thing to do, because the English word LORD does not communicate to our ears a proper name like John or Michael or Noël. But Yahweh is God’s proper name in Hebrew. The importance of it can be seen in the sheer frequency of its use. It occurs 6,828 times in the Old Testament. That’s more than three times as often as the simple word for “God” (Elohim—2,600; El—238). What this shows is that God aims to be known not as a generic deity, but as a specific Person with a name that carries his unique character and mission.
(Note: The word Jehovah originated from an attempt to pronounce the consonants YHWH with the vowels from the word adonai. In the oldest Hebrew texts there are no vowels. So it is easy to see how this would happen since whenever YHWH occurred in the text, the wordadonai was pronounced by the reverent Jew.)
The Meaning of Yahweh from Exodus 3
The most important text in all the Bible for understanding the meaning of the name Yahweh is Exodus 3:13–15. God has just commanded Moses to go to Egypt and to bring his people Israel out of captivity. Moses says to God in verse 13, “If I come to the people of Israel and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?” God said to Moses, “I AM WHO I AM.” And he said, “Say this to the people of Israel, ‘I AM has sent me to you.'” God also said to Moses, “Say this to the people of Israel, “The LORD (that is, Yahweh!), the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, the God of Jacob, has sent me to you’: this is my name for ever, and thus I am to be remembered throughout all generations.”
Now notice that God gives three answers to the question, “What shall I tell them your name is?”
- First, in verse 14 God says, “I AM WHO I AM.”
- Second, in verse 14 God says, “I AM has sent me to you.”
- Third, in verse 15 God says, “Yahweh . . . has sent me to you . . . this is my name for ever.”
So two facts persuade me that this text provides an interpretation of the name Yahweh. One is that the name Yahweh and the name I AM are built out of the same Hebrew word (hayah). The other is that Yahweh seems to be used here interchangeably with I AM. “I AM has sent me to you” (v. 14). “Yahweh . . . has sent me to you” (v. 15). I think it would be safe to say that God’s purpose in this meeting with Moses is to reveal, as he never had before (Exodus 6:2), the meaning of his personal name Yahweh. The key is in the phrase I AM and especially in the phrase, I AM WHO I AM.
So here is where we ought to spend a lot of time meditating. What does it mean when you ask your God, Who are you? and he answers, I AM WHO I AM? I hope you can begin to feel this morning how important these words are. There aren’t any words more important than these. Any words that you think might be are important only because these words are true. The more you ponder them, the more awesome they become. I know I can’t do them justice. But perhaps the Holy Spirit might take my stammering attempt and open some vista for you.