Do you know the difference between “Lord” and “LORD?” Why would capital letters be used to distinguish between two Hebrew words? Is it important for you to know? This article will explain the issue of translating The Name and why it matters, not only in our English Bibles today, but in translations throughout history and around the world.
Where Is the Name?
Psalm 8 has an unusual beginning: “O LORD, our Lord, How excellent is Your name in all the earth!” What strikes me first is the repetition of “Lord.” But a second point is the reference to His name. What is His name? Does your Bible tell you?
We can’t see it, but His name is right in that verse. In fact, His name is all over the Old Testament, right from the second page! But it is hidden from us in thousands of verses, just as in Psalm 8:1.
Do you know how to see it? The key, for us English Bible readers, is to understand the difference between “Lord” and “LORD,” two completely different Hebrew words. This key unlocks treasures hidden for us in the Old Testament. Treasures that He never intended to be hidden.
Our Unique God Has a Unique Name
“There are many gods and many lords,” Paul wrote to the church at Corinth. Following up, he referred to the first of the Ten Commandments: “Yet for us, there is one God.” (1 Corinthians 8:5, 6). Among the many gods—gods of the Chaldeans, gods of the Egyptians, gods of the Canaanites—all through history one God has remained preeminent. Only He is truly God. Only He created all things. Only He enters into eternal covenant with His people. Only He exists eternally, with no beginning and no end. Only He is completely self-sufficient in the true sense of the word.
And just like any of those so-called gods, this God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob has a name. His name is emphasized in Exodus 3, when Moses asked Him about it. The reply: “I am who I am.” Then since no human can say “I am who I am” and mean it the way it was truly meant, the One speaking with Moses gave a modified, third-person, form of The Name. “Yahweh, God of your fathers.” Yahweh means not “I am” but “He is.” (Exodus 3:14, 15). This is the name of the true God, in contrast to the many other gods, throughout the Hebrew Old Testament. As says the famous Shema, “Hear, O Israel: Yahweh our God, Yahweh is one!” (Deuteronomy 6:4).
Yahweh is a name, not a description or title. It is distinct from “God” or “Lord.” There are many gods and lords, and when the Old Testament writers used the Hebrew word for “God” (Elohim) or “Lord” (Adonai), they are using a title or description. These are not His name, though the writers sometimes used it like a name, just as we do. But to them it was clear that this God of whom they wrote was the one and only true God and Lord, and his one and only name is Yahweh. It is, as He so often said, a holy—a wholly unique—name.
A Name Too Holy to Speak?
Out of reverence to the holy nature of their God and His name, the Jews at some point began to avoid pronouncing The Name. Some think this was due to misunderstanding Leviticus 24:16, “Whoever blasphemes the name Yahweh shall be put to death.” It seems that some copies or translations of this verse gave the idea that just saying the Name was punishable by death.
This led to quite a difficulty, since The Name occurs thousands of times in the Hebrew Scriptures, and the Scriptures were often read aloud. So instead of saying Yahweh whenever the text read that, the Jews began to say Adonai (“Lord”) in place of The Name.
Originally, Hebrew was written in consonants only, with no vowels. Because of this, The Name in the Hebrew Scriptures appeared as YHWH. Years later, scribes added vowel markings to the text to preserve the pronunciation of the words. But they didn’t insert the proper vowels in YHWH. Apparently to remind readers to say Adonai instead of Yahweh, these scribes inserted the vowels of Adonai with the consonants of YHWH. Jewish readers did with this new non-word the same as they had been doing with YHWH: they pronounced it Adonai.
How the Name Was Hidden from Us
By the time of Jesus, most Jews outside of Palestine did not speak or read Hebrew fluently. For the Old Testament Scriptures, they used a Greek translation called the Septuagint. How did the Septuagint handle The Name? There may have been exceptions, but in many copies of the Septuagint the name Yahweh never shows at all. Instead, the translators used the Greek word for “Lord.” They were not translating The Name; they were translating Adonai which was always read in place of The Name anyway.
For centuries, translations of the Old Testament into new languages followed this pattern, and The Name was hidden. Many readers never knew that the word translated “Lord” in their Bibles was used for two different Hebrew words. They had no way of knowing in which instances their word for “Lord” was used in place of the holy name Yahweh.
That changed slightly in the sixteenth century. When Martin Luther translated the Old Testament into German, he recognized the loss that would occur if he simply used the German “Herr” (“Lord”) in place of The Name without marking it in some way. Luther solved the problem by using all capital letters whenever the word represented the Hebrew Yahweh—like this: “HERR.” In the preface to the new German Bible, Luther explained the difference between “Herr” and “HERR.”
This effort was commendable, but it didn’t help when the Scriptures were read aloud.
Luther’s change didn’t completely make it over into English. When the Authorized (King James) Version was published in 1611, it almost followed Luther’s pattern, but with two exceptions. First, instead of all capital letters, “small caps” was used, like this: “the LORD.” It was more difficult to notice the difference between “the Lord” and “the LORD.” The second difference was that the translators said nothing at all about the distinction in the preface to their Bible, leaving English readers clueless as to the use of The Name in Scripture.
Furthermore, this practice gets a little complicated in the hundreds of places where Hebrew Scriptures use the term “Adonai Yahweh.” What then? “Lord LORD” seems a little awkward. English Bibles normally write this term as “Lord GOD” (with small caps God representing Yahweh). This doesn’t really solve the problem, since now we have another word representing The Name and adding to the confusion.
Trying to Bring Back the Name
With the publishing of the American Standard Version (ASV) in 1901, The Name made its reappearance in English. But rather than using Yahweh or an English form it, the translators followed the practice of early Hebrew scribes. They combined the consonants YHWH with the vowels of Adonai and came up with the English form “Jehovah.” While not quite the same as “Yahweh,” at least “Jehovah” was recognizable as a name—a significant improvement!
But not everyone appreciated this supposed improvement. English readers liked the way their Bibles read and were not ready for such a significant change. The ASV was never used much by American Christians and churches, and has been largely forgotten.
The disappointing trend continues. The 2010 edition of the Holman Christian Standard Bible (HCSB) inserted “Yahweh” in places where The Name was especially in focus, over 600 times (e.g., Psalm 8:1 “Yahweh, our Lord, how magnificent is Your name throughout the earth!”). But their latest revision, the Christian Standard Bible (CSB) published in 2017, removed every instance of “Yahweh” and reverted to “the LORD.”
As Scriptures are translated into minority languages around the world, how should The Name be handled in the Old Testament? Clearly it would be preferable to use the name Yahweh or a form of it that would be appropriate in the language. However, Bible translation is seldom as simple as we wish, as the publishers of the ASV and HCSB discovered.
Most language groups around the world have at least some contact with the Bible in another, more widely used, language. Whether members of the community have access to an English, Swahili, German, or some other Bible, they may be already accustomed to the common practice of substituting their word for “Lord” or “Adonai” in place of The Name. And just like Americans, some of them find it hard to adjust to such a significant change as bringing The Name back into the text.
Reverence the Name
If they misunderstood Yahweh’s intentions regarding the use, mis-use, and non-use of His Name, the Jews have nevertheless taught us something: Our unique and holy God is to be reverenced, and His Name likewise. We represent Him to the world, and let us not hide or contort His true nature. Remember, “Thou shalt not take (or “bear”) the name of Yahweh thy God in vain” (Exodus 20:7).
One simple article cannot resolve all the issues about using The Name in the text of Scripture. But that was not my goal. I hope this article opens new treasures of understanding for you in reading the Old Testament.