Take a moment to think about your name. Would you say it adequately describes who you are to someone who’s never met you? In the West, we tend to name children after beloved family members or find names that are popular, interesting, or unique. But in many other cultures, naming things is much more significant.
The ancient Israelites attached a lot of meaning to names. They described someone in a significant and meaningful way. Here are a few examples of Old Testament names and what they meant:
- Eve: To breathe, to live
- Abram: High father
- Abraham: Father of many
- Daniel: God is my judge
- Delilah: Delicate, weak
- Elijah: My God is Yahweh
In the same way, the names that were given to God in the Old Testament offer us a glimpse into God’s character and how people saw and experienced Him. This is why Jesus begins the Lord’s prayer with the words, “Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name” (Matthew 6:9). To honor God’s name is to esteem His character.
Let’s look at some of the names biblical writers used for God.
Interestingly, Adonai is a plural use of the word adon which means lord. When adon is used, it usually refers to a human master-but not always. Sometimes Psalms uses adon in reference to God:
“Give thanks to the Lord (adon) of lords: His love endures forever” (Psalm 136:3, New International Version).
The name Adonai conveys a sense of God’s rulership, dominion, and sovereignty. It appears over 400 times in the Old Testament, and 200 of those are in Ezekiel. The first time we discover this title is in Genesis:
“But Abram said, ‘Sovereign Lord, what can you give me since I remain childless and the one who will inherit my estate is Eliezer of Damascus?’” (Genesis 15:2, NIV)
Here are a couple of other places God is addressed as Adonai:
“Then King David went in and sat before the Lord, and he said:
‘Who am I, Sovereign Lord, and what is my family, that you have brought me this far?’” (2 Samuel 7:18, NIV)
“So I will pour out my wrath on them and consume them with my fiery anger, bringing down on their own heads all they have done, declares the Sovereign Lord” (Ezekiel 22:31, NIV)
Ancient of Days
The fact that God isn’t bound by time sets Him apart from the rest of creation. The Hebrew phrase for Ancient of Days literally means “before days were,” and speaks to His timeless nature.
“Yes, and from ancient days I am he.
No one can deliver out of my hand.
When I act, who can reverse it?” (Isaiah 43:13, NIV)
In a prophecy about Jesus, Daniel uses this name to differentiate Jesus from the Father:
“As I looked,
thrones were set in place,
and the Ancient of Days took his seat.
His clothing was as white as snow;
the hair of his head was white like wool.
His throne was flaming with fire,
and its wheels were all ablaze.
A river of fire was flowing,
coming out from before him.
Thousands upon thousands attended him;
ten thousand times ten thousand stood before him.
The court was seated,
and the books were opened.
Then I continued to watch because of the boastful words the horn was speaking. I kept looking until the beast was slain and its body destroyed and thrown into the blazing fire. (The other beasts had been stripped of their authority, but were allowed to live for a period of time.)
In my vision at night I looked, and there before me was one like a son of man, coming with the clouds of heaven. He approached the Ancient of Days and was led into his presence. He was given authority, glory and sovereign power; all nations and peoples of every language worshiped him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away, and his kingdom is one that will never be destroyed” (Daniel 7:9-14, NIV).
The name most commonly associated with God in the Old Testament is Elohim. Although the word is plural, Elohim is always used as a singular designation for God. It’s a uniquely Hebrew word that occurs over 2,000 times. We discover it in the Bible’s very first verse:
“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” (Genesis 1:1, NIV).
It’s sometimes used to reference false gods:
“Do not make any gods to be alongside me; do not make for yourselves gods of silver or gods of gold” (Exodus 20:23, NIV).
Elohim is also used to talk about angelic beings (Psalm 86), but most of the time it is used as a name for God.
When the word elyon is used in Hebrew, it’s talking about the peak or uppermost part of a structure or hill:
“The high places, however, were not removed; the people continued to offer sacrifices and burn incense there. Jotham rebuilt the Upper Gate of the temple of the Lord” (2 Kings 15:35).
Elyon can also be used to reference prominence as well:
“If you fully obey the Lord your God and carefully follow all his commands I give you today, the Lord your God will set you high above all the nations on earth” (Deuteronomy 28:1, NIV).
When it’s attached to the Hebrew word El (God), you get the name God Most High. It stresses God’s strength and supremacy, particularly against the gods worshipped throughout Mesopotamia.
“The Lord thundered from heaven;
the voice of the Most High resounded” (2 Samuel 22:14, NIV).
“Nebuchadnezzar then approached the opening of the blazing furnace and shouted, ‘Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, servants of the Most High God, come out! Come here!’” (Daniel 3:26, NIV)
We can trust God’s promises because they’re rooted in His unchanging, eternal nature. This is the basis of the name El Olam. The root of the word Olam is ‘lm which means eternity. When combined with the Hebrew word El, we get the name Everlasting or Eternal God.
You run into El Olam the first time in Genesis 21:
“Abraham planted a tamarisk tree in Beersheba, and there he called on the name of the Lord, the Eternal God” (Genesis 21:33, NIV).
In the sixteenth chapter of Genesis, we read that Abram and Sarai had still not had the child that God had promised them in their old age. In an attempt to “solve” this problem on God’s behalf, Abram agrees to have a child with Hagar, Sarai’s servant.
When Hagar gets pregnant, Sarai begins to resent and abuse her. Hagar flees, and the angel of the Lord finds her hiding by a spring in the desert. The angel encourages Hagar to go back to Sarai and makes her a promise regarding her future descendants.
In a moment when Hagar felt abandoned, cast off, and alone, God came and ministered to her. She calls Him El Roi, the “God of seeing.” Because in our loneliest moments, God is aware of our needs.
“She gave this name to the Lord who spoke to her: ‘You are the God who sees me,’ for she said, ‘I have now seen the One who sees me’” (Genesis 16:13, NIV).
There are a couple of different thoughts regarding the origin of the name El Shaddai. Translators of the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures) understood the root word of Shaddai to be shadad, meaning “to overpower.” To them, El Shaddai pointed toward God’s omnipotence and might: God Almighty.
Other translators believe that the root of Shaddai is shad meaning “breast” and dai meaning “enough.” This would imply that El Shaddai highlights God’s nourishment and sufficiency.
Ultimately, both are true of our Father.
“When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the Lord appeared to him and said, ‘I am God Almighty
Throughout the Old Testament, we see God identified as a father:
“Is this the way you repay the Lord,
you foolish and unwise people?
Is he not your Father, your Creator,
who made you and formed you?” (Deuteronomy 32:6, NIV)
“But you are our Father,
though Abraham does not know us
or Israel acknowledge us;
you, Lord, are our Father,
our Redeemer from of old is your name” (Isaiah 63:16, NIV).
“Have you not just called to me:
‘My Father, my friend from my youth’” (Jeremiah, 3:4 NIV).
Jesus continues this tradition of describing God as a father, but he takes it to another level. It’s often thought that the word Abba is an intimate word for God like the English word “daddy.” There isn’t a lot of proof to support that, but it does seem to be an intensely personal and reverent term for father.
“‘Abba, Father,’ he said, ‘everything is possible for you. Take this cup from me. Yet: not what I will, but what you will’” (Mark 14:36).
Abraham walked Isaac up Moriah after being instructed by God to sacrifice his son. When Isaac asked Abraham where the sacrificial lamb was, Abraham told him that God would provide the lamb. Just before he sacrificed Isaac, God stopped him. And in the thicket was a ram to sacrifice in Isaac’s stead.
In his pleasure, Abraham names the place Jehovah Jireh which means “God Will Provide.” By naming these places where they had a divine encounter with God, Old Testament figures could remember something important that they learned about God’s character. By naming the place, they were effectively naming God.
“So Abraham called that place The Lord Will Provide. And to this day it is said, ‘On the mountain of the Lord it will be provided’” (Genesis 22:14, NIV).
In Exodus, Moses builds an altar to commemorate the defeat over the Amalekites at Rephidim. He calls this altar Jehovah Nissi, which means “The Lord Is My Banner.” This name communicates how God provides hope and inspiration to His people.
“Moses built an altar and called it The Lord is my Banner. He said, ‘Because hands were lifted up against the throne of the Lord, the Lord will be at war against the Amalekites from generation to generation’” (Exodus 17:15-16).
Jehovah Raah (Rohi)
The word Raah is derived from the Hebrew word for shepherd. Like a caring shepherd, God leads and guides his people. It denotes the special care that God shows for His creatures.
“Then he blessed Joseph and said,
‘May the God before whom my fathers
Abraham and Isaac walked faithfully,
the God who has been my shepherd
all my life to this day’” (Genesis 48:15, NIV).
“The Lord is my shepherd, I lack nothing” (Psalm 23:1).
“Hear us, Shepherd of Israel,
you who lead Joseph like a flock.
You who sit enthroned between the cherubim,
shine forth” (Psalm 80:1).
The name Jehovah Rapha literally means “The God That Heals.” He is the Great Physician who holds all things together.
“He said, ‘If you listen carefully to the Lord your God and do what is right in his eyes, if you pay attention to his commands and keep all his decrees, I will not bring on you any of the diseases I brought on the Egyptians, for I am the Lord, who heals you’” (Exodus 15:26, NIV).
The Hebrew word tsabaoth is translated “hosts” or “armies.” In its most literal sense, it means “horde.” The name Jehovah Sabaoth designates God as the commander of the armies of the earth, the stars in the heaven, and invisible heavenly angels. Ultimately, all things, both seen and unseen, are under His command.
“David said to the Philistine, ‘You come against me with sword and spear and javelin, but I come against you in the name of the Lord Almighty, the God of the armies of Israel, whom you have defied’” (1 Samuel 17:45, NIV)
“Elisha said, ‘As surely as the Lord Almighty lives, whom I serve, if I did not have respect for the presence of Jehoshaphat king of Judah, I would not pay any attention to you’” (2 Kings 3:14, NIV)
“Therefore the Lord, the Lord Almighty,
the Mighty One of Israel, declares:
‘Ah! I will vent my wrath on my foes
and avenge myself on my enemies’” (Isaiah 1:24, NIV).
Shalom is a word used for greeting and parting in Israel. It comes from shalam which means to be “safe in mind, body, and estate.” It’s a picture of completeness, peace, and tranquility. Jehovah Shalom tells us that “God is our peace.”
“But the Lord said to him, ‘Peace! Do not be afraid. You are not going to die.’
So Gideon built an altar to the Lord there and called it The Lord Is Peace. To this day it stands in Ophrah of the Abiezrites” (Judges 6:23-24, NIV).
When Israel was at the height of idolatry, God withdrew His presence from Jerusalem. This removal of God’s presence also signaled a removal of His protective hand, and the Israelites were taken captive by surrounding nations and scattered.
But God promised to restore His beloved nation and re-establish His presence in Jerusalem. God makes this promise through the prophet Ezekiel who predicts a new city where God dwells:
“The distance all around will be 18,000 cubits.
And the name of the city from that time on will be:
the LORD IS THERE” (Ezekiel 48:35, NIV).
The name Jehovah Tsidekenu draws its meaning from the word tsedek. It’s a word that means rigid and straight. To the ancient Hebrew, the word communicated a sense of justice and righteousness. They were called to walk in integrity, and it was a straight, rigid road.
Jehovah Tsidekenu gives us a picture of God as one who only walks in righteousness. He is the actual source of all that is upright and true.
“In those days Judah will be saved
and Jerusalem will live in safety.
This is the name by which it will be called:
The Lord Our Righteous Savior” (Jeremiah 33:16, NIV).
Throughout the Old Testament, the words “sanctify,” “holy” and “set apart” all come from the Hebrew word qâdash. This is the same root word where Mekoddishkem originates. The name Jehovah Mekoddishkem means “the God Who Sets You Apart” or the “God Who Makes You Holy.”
“Keep my decrees and follow them. I am the Lord, who makes you holy” (Leviticus 20:8, NIV).
“Say to the Israelites, ‘You must observe my Sabbaths. This will be a sign between me and you for the generations to come, so you may know that I am the Lord, who makes you holy’” (Exodus 31:13, NIV).
YHWH (Yahweh or Jehovah)
It’s incredibly appropriate that we end with YHWH. Where all the other names were descriptions of God, this is God’s actual name given to Moses from within the burning bush:
“Moses said to God, ‘Suppose I go to the Israelites and say to them, “The God of your fathers has sent me to you,” and they ask me, “What is his name?” Then what shall I tell them?’
“God said to Moses, ‘I am who I am. This is what you are to say to the Israelites: “I am has sent me to you’” (Exodus 3:13-14, NIV).
The name YHWH is known as the “Tetragrammaton,” which means “consisting of four letters.” The four Hebrew letters that make up this name are yud, hay, vav, hay. Jewish traditions consider this name too sacred to speak aloud. Some translators translate this four-lettered name Yahweh, Jehovah, or LORD in all caps.
The name speaks of God’s immediacy and attendance of God, alluding to His omnipresence. It appears in the Old Testament over 6,500 times.
“And when the Israelites saw the mighty hand of the Lord displayed against the Egyptians, the people feared the Lord and put their trust in him and in Moses his servant” (Exodus 14:31, NIV).
“Now I am about to go the way of all the earth. You know with all your heart and soul that not one of all the good promises the Lord your God gave you has failed. Every promise has been fulfilled; not one has failed” (Joshua 23:14, NIV)
Getting to know our God
Learning about the names of God isn’t an empty exercise in biblical trivia. Getting to know His names helps us glorify and love God by helping us understand His character and nature. Through His names, God is revealed to us more clearly and we can experience Him more deeply.
In the Gospels, we get to see God even more clearly as He is revealed in Jesus Christ. Jesus adds a new intimacy to the names of God as He encourages us to pray in His name. Our familiarity with God’s name ultimately brings us closer to Him.
If you’re looking for tips to help you share your love of God with your loved ones, download a free copy of our ebook Bringing the Gospel Home. It will give you tips and suggestions for sharing your faith in a way that your friends and family will be open to hearing.