The Bible’s Viewpoint
Is It Wrong to Pronounce God’s Name?
FOR centuries Judaism has taught that the divine name, Jehovah, is too holy to pronounce.a (Psalm 83:18) Many theologians have reasoned that it is disrespectful to address the glorious Creator in such a familiar fashion or even that it constitutes a breaking of the third of the Ten Commandments, which prohibits ‘taking the Lord’s name in vain.’ (Exodus 20:7, King James Version) In the third century C.E., the Mishnah declared that “he who pronounces the divine Name as it is spelled out” has “no portion in the world to come.”—Sanhedrin 10:1.
Interestingly, many scholars in Christendom follow the spirit of this Jewish tradition when translating the Bible. For example, The New Oxford Annotated Bible comments in its preface: “The use of any proper name for the one and only God, as though there were other gods from whom the true God had to be distinguished, began to be discontinued in Judaism before the Christian era and is inappropriate for the universal faith of the Christian Church.” Therefore, in that translation the word “LORD” is substituted for the divine name.
What Is God’s View?
But do the views of such translators and theologians reflect God’s thinking? After all, God did not choose to hide his name from mankind; rather, he revealed it to them. In the Hebrew portion of the Bible, commonly called the Old Testament, God’s name, Jehovah, appears more than 6,800 times. The Bible record shows that the first human pair, Adam and Eve, were among those who knew and used God’s name. On giving birth to her first son, Eve proclaimed: “I have produced a man with the aid of Jehovah.”—Genesis 4:1.
Centuries later, when God called Moses to lead the nation of Israel out of slavery in Egypt, Moses asked God: “Suppose I am now come to the sons of Israel and I do say to them, ‘The God of your forefathers has sent me to you,’ and they do say to me, ‘What is his name?’ What shall I say to them?” Moses may well have wondered whether God would reveal himself by some new name. God said to Moses: “This is what you are to say to the sons of Israel, ‘Jehovah the God of your forefathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you.’ This is my name to time indefinite, and this is the memorial of me to generation after generation.” (Exodus 3:13, 15) Clearly, the true God did not feel that his name was too holy for his people to pronounce.
In fact, God’s faithful servants of every generation have freely and respectfully pronounced God’s name. Boaz, a loyal servant of God, regularly greeted his workers in the field with the words, “Jehovah be with you.” Did the workers express shock at such a greeting? No. The account relates: “In turn they would say to him: ‘Jehovah bless you.’” (Ruth 2:4) Instead of viewing this greeting as an affront to God, they viewed it as a way of giving him glory and honor in their daily affairs. In this same spirit, Jesus taught his disciples to pray: “Our Father in the heavens, let your name be sanctified.”—Matthew 6:9.
The Third Commandment
But what about the prohibition mentioned in the third of the Ten Commandments? Exodus 20:7 forcefully states: “You must not take up the name of Jehovah your God in a worthless way, for Jehovah will not leave the one unpunished who takes up his name in a worthless way.”
What exactly does it mean to take up God’s name “in a worthless way”? The JPS Torah Commentary, published by the Jewish Publication Society, explains that the Hebrew term rendered above as “in a worthless way” (lash·shaw’ʹ) can mean “falsely” or “for nothing, in vain.” The same reference work continues: “The ambiguities [of this Hebrew term] allow for the proscription [prohibition] of perjury by the principals in a lawsuit, swearing falsely, and the unnecessary or frivolous use of the divine Name.”
This Jewish commentary correctly highlights that ‘taking up God’s name in a worthless way’ involves using the name in an improper way. But could pronouncing God’s name when teaching others about him or when turning to our heavenly Father in prayer be rightly termed “unnecessary or frivolous”? Jehovah expresses his view through the words of Psalm 91:14: “Because on me he has set his affection, I shall also provide him with escape. I shall protect him because he has come to know my name.”
Does It Matter?
The modern-English translation entitled The Five Books of Moses, by Everett Fox, breaks away from tradition. This translation uses, not the traditional “LORD,” but “YHWH” to represent God’s name “out of a desire to reflect the experience of the Hebrew reader.” Fox emphasizes: “The reader will immediately notice that the personal name of the Biblical God appears in this volume as ‘YHWH.’” He admits that the sight of God’s name may be “jarring” to the reader. But after taking the commendable step of not covering over God’s name in translation, he adds: “I would recommend the use of traditional ‘the LORD’ in reading aloud, but others may wish to follow their own custom.” However, is it just a matter of personal choice, tradition, or following one’s own custom?
No. The Bible not only encourages the proper use of God’s name but commands it! At Isaiah 12:4a, God’s people are pictured as crying out in no uncertain terms: “Give thanks to Jehovah, you people! Call upon his name.” In addition, the psalmist speaks of those deserving God’s adverse judgment: “Pour out your rage upon the nations that have not known you, and upon the kingdoms that have not called upon your own name.”—Psalm 79:6; see also Proverbs 18:10; Zephaniah 3:9.
So although some refrain from pronouncing Jehovah’s glorious name out of a misunderstanding of the third commandment, those who truly love God seek to call upon his name. Yes, at every appropriate opportunity, they ‘make known among the peoples his dealings, making mention that his name is put on high’!—Isaiah 12:4b.
a In the Hebrew portion of the Bible (Old Testament), God’s name is represented by four letters that can be transliterated as YHWH. While the exact pronunciation of God’s name is unknown, in English it is commonly pronounced “Jehovah.”
[Pictures on page 26]
A portion of the book of Psalms from the Dead Sea Scrolls. God’s name, Jehovah (YHWH), appears in a more ancient form of Hebrew script than the rest of the scroll
Courtesy of the Shrine of the Book, Israel Museum, Jerusalem