The Place of God’s Name in True Worship
What does it mean to take God’s name in a worthless way? How can we use it properly?
WHEN visited by one of Jehovah’s witnesses at her home in Tel Aviv, Israel, a middle-aged Jewish lady exclaimed: “You must be a part of Christendom, for it is forbidden for Jews to pronounce God’s name.” Jewish ears generally are totally unfamiliar with the personal name of God.
Practically without exception Jews have accepted the view expressed in their Mishnah, which proclaims: “And these are they that have no share in the world to come: he that says there is no resurrection of the dead . . . and that the Law is not from heaven . . . Also he that pronounces the Name in its proper letters.”—Sanhedrin 10:1, translation by Herbert Danby, Oxford University Press, 1933.
But why are Jews strictly forbidden to pronounce God’s name? The Texas Catholic Herald of October 18, 1968, observes: “Although the Jews commonly considered ‘Yahweh’ the personal name of the God of Israel, a kind of superstitious fear prevented them from pronouncing it, and so, when it appeared in their sacred books, it was read as ‘Adonai.’”
INFLUENCE UPON CHRISTENDOM
This superstitious fear, which prevented the Jews from pronouncing the Divine Name, has also had an influence upon Christendom. Seldom, if ever, will one hear the name of God extolled in Christendom’s churches. In fact, many Bible translators in Christendom have even left the Divine Name out of their Bible translations, substituting the titles “Lord” and “God” in its place.
A noteworthy exception, however, is the American Standard Version of 1901, which explains in its preface: “The change first proposed in the Appendix [of the English Revised Version]—that which substitutes ‘Jehovah’ for ‘LORD’ and ‘GOD’ (printed in small capitals)—is one which will be unwelcome to many, because of the frequency and familiarity of the terms displaced. But the American Revisers, after a careful consideration, were brought to the unanimous conviction that a Jewish superstition, which regarded the Divine Name as too sacred to be uttered, ought no longer to dominate in the English or any other version of the Old Testament . . . This personal name, with its wealth of sacred associations, is now restored to the place in the sacred text to which it has an unquestionable claim.”
Thus, the American Standard Version refused to be influenced by the Jewish superstition that regarded the Divine Name as too sacred to be uttered. Other modern translations also now use the Divine Name in the many thousands of occurrences where it appears in the Holy Bible.
WHAT IS THE NAME?
In the Hebrew portion of the Scriptures the name of God is spelled out in four Hebrew letters, called the Tetragrammaton. These four Hebrew letters are the equivalent of our four English letters YHWH (or YHVH or JHVH). Although the exact pronunciation of this Divine Name has been lost, for many centuries the popular English pronunciation has been “Jehovah.” Thus The Catholic Encyclopedia, Volume 8, 1910 edition, page 329, notes: “Jehovah, the proper name of God in the Old Testament.”
Within the last century, however, Bible scholars have preferred the pronunciation “Yahweh,” generally agreeing that this is more nearly the way the Name was pronounced in the original Hebrew. But most people do not speak Hebrew today. They speak other languages. Therefore, when we speak English, for example, it is appropriate to use the English pronunciation of the Divine Name, which is “Jehovah.” This form faithfully preserves the sounds of the four letters of the Tetragrammaton. In other languages the Divine Name is pronounced differently, although quite similarly most of the time.
PLACE IN WORSHIP OF ANCIENT ISRAEL
Among God’s people of ancient Israel the Divine Name indeed held an honored place. The people expressed God’s name in their worship and Scripture readings, in their daily conversations, as well as in their contacts with other nations. Thus they became known far and wide as the people who worshiped Jehovah.
This pleased the true God. He expressed his approval, describing Israel as “my people upon whom my name has been called.” (2 Chron. 7:14) The Israelites were not referred to as the people who worshiped ‘the Lord,’ but were associated always with the name Jehovah. In fact, the Scriptures draw a contrast between Israel and “the kingdoms that have not called upon your own name.”—Ps. 79:6; Jer. 10:25.
Jehovah desired to have his “name declared in all the earth.” (Ex. 9:16) His mighty acts in behalf of his people had this very effect. For instance, when God smashed the proud Egyptians and their military might, the news of it spread far and wide. Years later, the woman Rahab living in distant Jericho said: “We have heard how Jehovah dried up the waters of the Red Sea from before you when you came out of Egypt . . . Jehovah your God is God in the heavens above and on the earth beneath.” Note that Rahab did not merely use a title such as ‘God,’ but also used God’s distinctive name.—Josh. 2:10, 11.
The nation of Israel was to have a prominent part in the proclamation of God’s name. Jehovah said to them: “You are my witnesses . . . and I am God.” (Isa. 43:12) Yes, they were to serve as Jehovah’s witnesses. And God meant that his name Jehovah should always have a prominent place in true worship, saying: “This is my name to time indefinite, and this is the memorial of me to generation after generation.”—Ex. 3:15.
AVOIDING USE OF GOD’S NAME
Why, then, did the Jewish nation later desist from pronouncing this grand name Jehovah, substituting various general expressions and titles? When did this practice originate?
It began at the time of Israel’s exile in Babylon in 607 B.C.E. Also, the later influence of Babylon-inspired Hellenism in the third and second centuries B.C.E. contributed to this practice among the Jews. Avoidance of personal names for deities is certainly a custom that sharply contrasts with the Bible’s exhortations to worshipers of Jehovah to “call upon his name,” to ‘love his name’ and to ‘think upon his name.’—Isa. 12:4; Ps. 69:36; Mal. 3:16.
Especially were the Jewish religious sect of the Sadducees influenced by ‘international thinking’ and ‘progressive attitudes,’ and they pressed for the use of universally accepted general titles. Thus the nation of Israel stopped using the grand name of their God, Jehovah.
Note to what extent the name is avoided. Outside the Scriptures themselves, Hebrew letters are sometimes used as numbers. For example, the fifth letter of the alphabet (heʼ) carries the numerical value 5, the tenth letter (yohdh) represents 10, and so forth. Now, in order to write the number 15, does the Hebrew writer express it as yohdh-heʼ? No, not even in numbering the chapters and verses in the Holy Bible! For this would involve writing down the first two letters of the Divine Name. So instead, the number 15 is always written as tehth-waw or 9 plus 6. Yes, even to this extent the Jew imagines that he must avoid God’s personal name!
USING GOD’S NAME WORTHLESSLY
Efforts have been made to justify the avoidance of God’s name on the ground that it is too holy to pronounce, and that such avoidance would guarantee that God’s name would not be taken “in vain,” that is, “in a worthless way.” (Ex. 20:7, AV, NW) Is this a valid ground for not using God’s name? What does it mean to take God’s name in a worthless way?
A glaring example of taking God’s name in a worthless way is that of the mighty Egyptian Pharaoh. Sneeringly he replied to Moses and Aaron, who appeared before him in God’s name: “Who is Jehovah, so that I should obey his voice . . . ? I do not know Jehovah at all.” His words and actions declared his utter disrespect for Jehovah God and his glorious name.—Ex. 5:2.
Another example is that of Rabshakeh, spokesman for Sennacherib the Assyrian monarch. He took up the name Jehovah in a worthless way by belittling Jehovah in the presence of the Jews in an effort to demoralize them. He said: “Do not listen to Hezekiah [king of the Jews], for he allures you, saying, ‘Jehovah himself will deliver us.’ Who are there among all the gods of the lands that have delivered their land out of my hand, so that Jehovah should deliver Jerusalem out of my hand?”—2 Ki. 18:32, 35.
So, then, any expressing of God’s name in a derogatory or profane way, any blaspheming, cursing or belittling remarks involving God’s name, would be using it in a worthless way. It is the blasphemous use of God’s name that was a punishable offense under Israelite law. The Bible says: “The son of the Israelite woman began to abuse the Name and to call down evil upon it. . . . So the abuser of Jehovah’s name should be put to death without fail.” (Lev. 24:11-16) The sin, ‘taking God’s name in a worthless way,’ was not simply pronouncing the Name, but abusing it.
However, it is possible to take up God’s name in a worthless way other than by uttering verbal abuse upon it. How so?
This can be done if one who is identified with Jehovah’s name participates in acts that dishonor the God whom he represents. The nation of Israel thus took up the name of God in a worthless way, engaging in activity that brought great reproach on Jehovah. For this reason Jehovah said: “I shall have compassion on my holy name, which the house of Israel have profaned among the nations where they have come in.” (Ezek. 36:21) Thus one who bears the great name of Jehovah has a heavy responsibility to behave in a way that does not dishonor or bring reproach on it.
USING GOD’S NAME IN A WORTHY WAY
If “Jehovah will not leave the one unpunished who takes up his name in a worthless way,” it follows that he will bless those who use his name in a worthy way. (Ex. 20:7) How can we use Gods name in a worthy way?
One way to do so would be lovingly to express Jehovah’s name in personal prayer to Him. How much closer becomes the relationship when a worshiper of Jehovah does this! Servants of God in the past have so used God’s name. Read, for example, the prayer of Solomon at the temple dedication. (1 Ki. 8:23-25) Consider the petition of Elijah during the showdown with the Baal worshipers on Mount Carmel. (1 Ki. 18:36, 37) Note the wording of Hezekiah’s call to Jehovah as Jerusalem faced an Assyrian assault. (2 Ki. 19:15-19) Give attention to Jehoshaphat’s similar request for divine aid. (2 Chron. 20:6-12) How fully and frequently these servants of Jehovah expressed His name in their prayers, prayers that were accepted and acted upon by God! It is just as vital that we use God’s name in our prayers today.
We can also use God’s name worthily when reading the Holy Scriptures and related material in which the Divine Name appears. Reading the name of Jehovah aloud in such a context is not ‘taking up God’s name in a worthless way.’ Rather, it dishonors God’s name not to pronounce it.
As has been noted, Bible translators in various tongues have deleted God’s holy name from their versions in favor of the titles “God” and “Lord.” One who loves God’s name will prefer reading from a translation of the Holy Scriptures that faithfully preserves the Divine Name in its text, either as “Jehovah” or “Yahweh,” or another local equivalent of the original four Hebrew letters.
Not only in reading, but also in conversation with others, God’s name can be used in a worthy way. Among fellow believers constant use of Jehovah’s name is natural and proper, for all present respect and love that Name and all that it stands for. However, in addition, the Christian witness for Jehovah takes up God’s name before the world of mankind, explaining Jehovah’s purposes as revealed through his Word. Extolling God’s name and purposes in the ears of others is indeed a most God-honoring way of taking up his name.
In contrast to the punishment meted out to those who despise God’s name, grand assurances are given regarding those who give the name of Jehovah its proper place in their worship. Such ones will receive divine protection through God’s war of Armageddon, which will rid the earth of all blasphemers and profaners of His name. Jehovah declares: “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.”—Ps. 91:14.
What incentive, therefore, for us to laud and serve “Jehovah, . . . the Most High over all the earth”! With the prospects of being ushered soon into God’s new system of righteousness, prospective Armageddon survivors can today affirm their determination: “I will exalt you, O my God the King, and I will bless your name to time indefinite, even forever.”—Ps. 83:18; 145:1, 2.