God’s Name—Its Meaning and Pronunciation
ONE of the Bible writers asked: “Who has gathered the wind in the hollow of both hands? Who has wrapped up the waters in a mantle? Who has made all the ends of the earth to rise? What is his name and what the name of his son, in case you know?” (Proverbs 30:4) How can we find out what God’s name is? That is an important question. The creation is a powerful proof that God must exist, but it does not tell us his name. (Romans 1:20) In fact, we could never know God’s name unless the Creator himself told us. And he has done that in his own Book, the Holy Bible.
On one celebrated occasion, God pronounced his own name, repeating it in the hearing of Moses. Moses wrote an account of that event that has been preserved in the Bible down to our day. (Exodus 34:5) God even wrote his name with his own “finger.” When he had given Moses what we today call the Ten Commandments, God miraculously wrote them down. The record says: “Now as soon as [God] had finished speaking with him on Mount Sinai he proceeded to give Moses two tablets of the Testimony, tablets of stone written on by God’s finger.” (Exodus 31:18) God’s name appears eight times in the original Ten Commandments. (Exodus 20:1-17) Thus God himself has revealed his name to man both verbally and in writing. So, what is that name?
In the Hebrew language it is written יהוה. These four letters, called the Tetragrammaton, are read from right to left in Hebrew and can be represented in many modern languages as YHWH or JHVH. God’s name, represented by these four consonants, appears almost 7,000 times in the original “Old Testament,” or Hebrew Scriptures.
The name is a form of a Hebrew verb ha·wahʹ (הוה), meaning “to become,” and actually signifies “He Causes to Become.”* Thus, God’s name identifies him as the One who progressively fulfills his promises and unfailingly realizes his purposes. Only the true God could bear such a meaningful name.
Do you remember the different ways that God’s name appeared in Psalm 83:18, as set out in the previous section (page 5)? Two of those translations had mere titles (“the LORD,” the “Eternal”) as substitutes for God’s name. But in two of them, Yahweh and Jehovah, you can see the four letters of God’s name. However, the pronunciation is different. Why?
How Is God’s Name Pronounced?
The truth is, nobody knows for sure how the name of God was originally pronounced. Why not? Well, the first language used in writing the Bible was Hebrew, and when the Hebrew language was written down, the writers wrote only consonants—not vowels. Hence, when the inspired writers wrote God’s name, they naturally did the same thing and wrote only the consonants.
While ancient Hebrew was an everyday spoken language, this presented no problem. The pronunciation of the Name was familiar to the Israelites and when they saw it in writing they supplied the vowels without thinking (just as, for an English reader, the abbreviation “Ltd.” represents “Limited” and “bldg.” represents “building”).
Two things happened to change this situation. First, a superstitious idea arose among the Jews that it was wrong to say the divine name out loud; so when they came to it in their Bible reading they uttered the Hebrew word ’Adho·naiʹ (“Sovereign Lord”). Further, as time went by, the ancient Hebrew language itself ceased to be spoken in everyday conversation, and in this way the original Hebrew pronunciation of God’s name was eventually forgotten.
In order to ensure that the pronunciation of the Hebrew language as a whole would not be lost, Jewish scholars of the second half of the first millennium C.E. invented a system of points to represent the missing vowels, and they placed these around the consonants in the Hebrew Bible. Thus, both vowels and consonants were written down, and the pronunciation as it was at that time was preserved.
When it came to God’s name, instead of putting the proper vowel signs around it, in most cases they put other vowel signs to remind the reader that he should say ’Adho·naiʹ. From this came the spelling Iehouah, and, eventually, Jehovah became the accepted pronunciation of the divine name in English. This retains the essential elements of God’s name from the Hebrew original.
Which Pronunciation Will You Use?
Where, though, did pronunciations like Yahweh come from? These are forms that have been suggested by modern scholars trying to deduce the original pronunciation of God’s name. Some—though not all—feel that the Israelites before the time of Jesus probably pronounced God’s name Yahweh. But no one can be sure. Perhaps they pronounced it that way, perhaps not.
Nevertheless, many prefer the pronunciation Jehovah. Why? Because it has a currency and familiarity that Yahweh does not have. Would it not, though, be better to use the form that might be closer to the original pronunciation? Not really, for that is not the custom with Bible names.
To take the most prominent example, consider the name of Jesus. Do you know how Jesus’ family and friends addressed him in day-to-day conversation while he was growing up in Nazareth? The truth is, no human knows for certain, although it may have been something like Yeshua (or perhaps Yehoshua). It certainly was not Jesus.
However, when the accounts of his life were written in the Greek language, the inspired writers did not try to preserve that original Hebrew pronunciation. Rather, they rendered the name in Greek, I·e·sousʹ. Today, it is rendered differently according to the language of the reader of the Bible. Spanish Bible readers encounter Jesús (pronounced Hes·soosʹ). Italians spell it Gesù (pronounced Djay·zooʹ). And Germans spell it Jesus (pronounced Yayʹsoos).
Must we stop using the name of Jesus because most of us, or even all of us, do not really know its original pronunciation? So far, no translator has suggested this. We like to use the name, for it identifies the beloved Son of God, Jesus Christ, who gave his lifeblood for us. Would it be showing honor to Jesus to remove all mention of his name in the Bible and replace it with a mere title like “Teacher,” or “Mediator”? Of course not! We can relate to Jesus when we use his name the way it is commonly pronounced in our language.
Similar comments could be made regarding all the names we read in the Bible. We pronounce them in our own language and do not try to imitate the original pronunciation. Thus we say “Jeremiah,” not Yir·meyaʹhu. Similarly we say Isaiah, although in his own day this prophet likely was known as Yeshaʽ·yaʹhu. Even scholars who are aware of the original pronunciation of these names use the modern pronunciation, not the ancient, when speaking about them.
And the same is true with the name Jehovah. Even though the modern pronunciation Jehovah might not be exactly the way it was pronounced originally, this in no way detracts from the importance of the name. It identifies the Creator, the living God, the Most High to whom Jesus said: “Our Father in the heavens, let your name be sanctified.”—Matthew 6:9.
‘It Cannot Be Supplanted’
While many translators favor the pronunciation Yahweh, the New World Translation and also a number of other translations continue the use of the form Jehovah because of people’s familiarity with it for centuries. Moreover, it preserves, equally with other forms, the four letters of the Tetragrammaton, YHWH or JHVH.*
Earlier, the German professor Gustav Friedrich Oehler made a similar decision for much the same reason. He discussed various pronunciations and concluded: “From this point onward I use the word Jehovah, because, as a matter of fact, this name has now become more naturalized in our vocabulary, and cannot be supplanted.”—Theologie des Alten Testaments (Theology of the Old Testament), second edition, published in 1882, page 143.
Similarly, in his Grammaire de l’hébreu biblique (Grammar of Biblical Hebrew), 1923 edition, in a footnote on page 49, Jesuit scholar Paul Joüon states: “In our translations, instead of the (hypothetical) form Yahweh, we have used the form Jéhovah . . . which is the conventional literary form used in French.” In many other languages Bible translators use a similar form, as indicated in the box on page 8.
Is it, then, wrong to use a form like Yahweh? Not at all. It is just that the form Jehovah is likely to meet with a quicker response from the reader because it is the form that has been “naturalized” into most languages. The important thing is that we use the name and declare it to others. “Give thanks to Jehovah, you people! Call upon his name. Make known among the peoples his dealings. Make mention that his name is put on high.”—Isaiah 12:4.
Let us see how God’s servants have acted in harmony with that command through the centuries.
See Appendix 1A in the New World Translation of the Holy Scriptures, 1984 edition.
See Appendix 1A in the New World Translation of the Holy Scriptures, 1984 edition.
[Box on page 7]
Different scholars have different ideas about how the name YHWH was originally pronounced.
In The Mysterious Name of Y.H.W.H., page 74, Dr. M. Reisel said that the “vocalisation of the Tetragrammaton must originally have been YeHūàH or YaHūàH.”
Canon D. D. Williams of Cambridge held that the “evidence indicates, nay almost proves, that Jāhwéh was not the true pronunciation of the Tetragrammaton . . . The Name itself was probably JĀHÔH.”—Zeitschrift für die alttestamentliche Wissenschaft (Periodical for Old Testament Knowledge), 1936, Volume 54, page 269.
In the glossary of the French Revised Segond Version, page 9, the following comment is made: “The pronunciation Yahvé used in some recent translations is based on a few ancient witnesses, but they are not conclusive. If one takes into account personal names that include the divine name, such as the Hebrew name of the prophet Elijah (Eliyahou) the pronunciation might just as well be Yaho or Yahou.”
In 1749 the German Bible scholar Teller told of some different pronunciations of God’s name he had read: “Diodorus from Sicily, Macrobius, Clemens Alexandrinus, Saint Jerome and Origenes wrote Jao; the Samaritans, Epiphanius, Theodoretus, Jahe, or Jave; Ludwig Cappel reads Javoh; Drusius, Jahve; Hottinger, Jehva; Mercerus, Jehovah; Castellio, Jovah; and le Clerc, Jawoh, or Javoh.”
Thus it is evident that the original pronunciation of God’s name is no longer known. Nor is it really important. If it were, then God himself would have made sure that it was preserved for us to use. The important thing is to use God’s name according to its conventional pronunciation in our own language.
[Box on page 8]
Forms of the divine name in different languages, indicating international acceptance of the form Jehovah
Awabakal - Yehóa
Bugotu - Jihova
Cantonese - Yehwowah
Danish - Jehova
Dutch - Jehovah
Efik - Jehovah
English - Jehovah
Fijian - Jiova
Finnish - Jehova
French - Jéhovah
Futuna - Ihova
German - Jehova
Hungarian - Jehova
Igbo - Jehova
Italian - Geova
Japanese - Ehoba
Maori - Ihowa
Motu - Iehova
Mwala-Malu - Jihova
Narrinyeri - Jehovah
Nembe - Jihova
Petats - Jihouva
Polish - Jehowa
Portuguese - Jeová
Romanian - Iehova
Samoan - Ieova
Sotho - Jehova
Spanish - Jehová
Swahili - Yehova
Swedish - Jehova
Tahitian - Iehova
Tagalog - Jehova
Tongan - Jihova
Venda - Yehova
Xhosa - uYehova
Yoruba - Jehofah
Zulu - uJehova
[Box on page 11]
“Jehovah” has become widely known as the name of God even in non-Biblical contexts.
Franz Schubert composed the music for the lyric entitled “The Almightiness,” written by Johann Ladislav Pyrker, in which the name Jehovah appears twice. It is also used at the end of the last scene of Verdi’s opera “Nabucco.”
Additionally, French composer Arthur Honegger’s oratorio “King David” gives prominence to the name Jehovah, and renowned French author Victor Hugo used it in over 30 of his works. Both he and Lamartine wrote poems entitled “Jehovah.”
In the book Deutsche Taler (The German Taler), published in 1967 by Germany’s Federal Bank, there is a picture of what is one of the oldest coins bearing the name “Jehovah,” a 1634 Reichstaler from the Duchy of Silesia. Regarding the picture on the coin’s reverse side, it says: “Under the radiant name JEHOVAH, rising up out of the midst of clouds, is a crowned shield with the Silesian coat of arms.”
In a museum in Rudolstadt, East Germany, you can see on the collar of the suit of armor once worn by Gustavus II Adolph, a 17th-century king of Sweden, the name JEHOVAH in capital letters.
Thus, for centuries the form Jehovah has been the internationally recognized way to pronounce God’s name, and people who hear it instantly recognize who is being spoken about. As Professor Oehler said, “This name has now become more naturalized in our vocabulary, and cannot be supplanted.”—Theologie des Alten Testaments (Theology of the Old Testament).
[Picture on page 6]
Detail of an angel with God’s name, found on the tomb of Pope Clement XIII in St. Peter’s Basilica, the Vatican
[Picture on page 7]
Many coins were minted bearing God’s name. This one, dated 1661, is from Nuremberg, Germany. The Latin text reads: “Under the shadow of your wings”
[Pictures on page 9]
In times past, God’s name in the form of the Tetragrammaton was made part of the decoration of many religious buildings
Fourvière Catholic Basilica, Lyons, France
Bourges Cathedral, France
Church in La Celle Dunoise, France
Church in Digne, southern France
Church in São Paulo, Brazil
Strasbourg Cathedral, France
Saint Mark’s Cathedral, Venice, Italy
[Pictures on page 10]
Jehovah’s name as it appears in a monastery in Bordesholm, Germany;
on a German coin dated 1635;
over a church door in Fehmarn, Germany;
and on an 1845 gravestone in Harmannschlag, Lower Austria