Have you ever stopped to wonder what God’s name is? After all, God is not really a name; it’s a title like “governor” or “professor.” Today, we don’t attach too much significance to a person’s name. We give our children a name we think sounds nice or we name them for a relative or a friend. But we don’t really attach much meaning or significance to it. Not so in Bible times.
In Bible times names usually meant something. Parents gave their children names that had prophetic significance or that reflected circumstances surrounding their birth or character traits they hoped the child would possess. We can see something similar in names that were popular a century or two ago—names such as Prudence, Faith, and Grace for girls or Victor for a boy.
What is God’s name?
To begin with, God is referred to by a number of names in the Bible—not just a single name. By some counts there are more than 20 different names for God mentioned in the Bible. And each of these names has great significance. Each one tells us something important about God—His character and how He relates to us. So let’s look at some of the more frequent and significant names for God in the Bible.
1st occurrence: Genesis 15:2
Meaning: Lord, master
Description: Adonai is a sort of royal title. It denotes majesty, respect, and authority. In the English Bible, it is usually translated as Lord and is often combined with Yahweh to refer to God as Lord God. Adonai points to God as the One who is in charge—the Boss.
Who or what is in charge of your life? How often do we say with our lips that God is our Lord, yet with our actions acknowledge that someone or something else is truly in control? Adonai must be our Lord and Master. We must allow Him to be our ultimate authority. We must let Him be in charge of our life. He will never take advantage of being the Boss. He insists on being in charge, but He always has our best interest in mind.
1st occurrence: Genesis 2:4
Meaning: The Self-existent One
Description: Yahweh is the most commonly used name for God in the Old Testament. It occurs more than 6,500 times. It is the same name as Jehovah. Jehovah is actually a sort of “made up” word with an interesting story.
Ancient Hebrew was written using only consonants—no vowels. (It was as if we spelled the name Hazel as HZL.) So Yahweh was written YHWH. Around the first century AD it became common for Jews to avoid speaking God’s name, Yahweh, for fear of doing so too casually and thus breaking the second commandment, “You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain,” (Exodus 20:7). So when they read Scripture aloud, they substituted another of God’s names, Adonai for Yahweh.
Eventually, as written, Hebrew began using vowels as well as consonants, some scribes who copied the Old Testament scriptures placed the vowels for Adonai in the consonants for YHWH to alert the reader to say Adonai instead of Yahweh. Thus the name YHWH now appeared written as Yahowah. In the 13th century Christian scholars reading the Hebrew Old Testament—and not knowing this complicated background—Latinized Yohowah into Jehovah—a word that is made up of the consonants of Yahweh and the vowels of Adonai.
The name Yahweh comes from a Hebrew word meaning “to be” or “to exist.” Thus it signifies God as “the Self-existing One. That is why in Exodus 3 when Moses asked God, “Who shall I tell Pharaoh has sent me?” God replied, “I AM. Tell Pharaoh I AM has sent you.”
God has always existed; He is before all things. He is the source of all things. Yahweh emphasizes that aspect of God’s being. Because He is self-existent, Yahweh is the source of life for everything and everyone else. He is always there. He is always present and accessible when we call on Him for deliverance, forgiveness, and guidance. That’s the significance of Yahweh as God’s primary name. He is the God who is always there.
1st occurrence: Genesis 1:1
Meaning: Strength and power
Description: Elohim is the name by which God is introduced in the very first verse of the Bible. “In the beginning, God [Elohim] created the heavens and the earth” (Genesis 1:1). He is the Creator God who by His awesome power speaks the world into being.
Elohim is stronger and more powerful than anyone or anything. He is the God powerful enough to create the world from nothing. But He is also the God who is strong enough to handle anything you or I may face. When you are dealing with impossible circumstances, know that Elohim is able to help you overcome any difficulty in life.
Pronounced: El Shuh-die
1st occurrence: Genesis 17:1
Meaning: God Almighty, all-sufficient
Description: When Abraham was 99 years old, God appeared to him and said, “I am Almighty God [El Shaddai]...I will make My covenant between Me and you” (Genesis 17:1, 2). El Shaddai is the name God uses for Himself when He enters into a covenant relationship with Abraham and begins to work through him and his descendants as a special people.
El Shaddai is all powerful. Nothing is impossible for Him. Abraham and Sarah were past the age for childbearing, but El Shaddai promised them a son. And He fulfilled that promise. He is God Almighty. Whatever our need, El Shaddai is able to supply it. He is all-sufficient. Depending on which estimate you accept, there are between 5,000 and 7,000 promises in the Bible. No matter how many there actually are, our Almighty God, El Shaddai, is able to keep every one of them.
Pronounced: El El-yone
1st occurrence: Genesis 14:8
Meaning: Most High, exalted
Description: This name for God comes from a Hebrew word meaning “to ascend,” “to go up.” It describes that which is highest or uppermost. It focuses on God’s exalted position and is often translated “the Most High” or “God Most High.” This exalted position of El Elyon was the one to which Lucifer aspired in heaven, when in his pride he declared, “I will be like the Most High (Isaiah 14:14).
In her book, I Want to Know You, Kay Arthur wrote: “If God is not sovereign, . . . if all things are not under His dominion, then He is not the Most High, and you and I are either in the hands of fate (whatever that is), in the hands of man, or in the hands of the devil” (p. 15).
Pronounced: El Oh-lahm
1st occurrence: Genesis 21:33
Meaning: Everlasting, unchanging
Description: The Hebrew word, Olam, comes from a root meaning “eternity.” Thus El Olam means the God who is Eternal or the Everlasting God. David wrote, “From everlasting to everlasting, You are God” (Psalm 90:2). There has never been a time when God did not exist. He has no beginning and no end.
Our human minds cannot fathom the concept of eternity, but we can accept it by faith. And we can experience eternity if we accept Jesus Christ as our Savior. The Bible assures us, “God so loved the world that He gave his only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life” (John 3:16). If we are in Christ, we will experience eternity as we live with Him forever.
The term Olam also carries with it the idea of unchanging. Everything we know on this earth changes in some way over time. But God never changes. His character, His Word, His promises, His purposes never change and never fail. For us, this means that El Olam, the Everlasting God, is constant, dependable and reliable. We can put our complete confidence in Him.
Pronounced: El Roy
1st occurrence: Genesis 16:13
Meaning: All-seeing, watching
Description: This name of God occurs only once in the Bible. When Hagar fled into the desert from the harsh treatment by her mistress, God appeared to her by a spring of water and told her to return. He promised to bless her. Hagar “called the name of the Lord who spoke to her, [El Roi] You-Are-the-God-Who-Sees” (Genesis 16:13). The all-seeing God had noticed her distress and came to her to comfort and guide her life.
El Roi is all-seeing. The idea that God sees everything we do could be disturbing. But El Roi is not watching to catch us in some sin. El Roi is watching over us to care for us like a mother watches over her child. He numbers the very hairs of our head. He knows everything about us. We are never out of His all-seeing protection.
1st occurrence: Mark 14:36
Description: Abba is the name Jesus Himself used for His Father when He prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane (Mark 14:36) In Aramaic, it is the familiar name small children use for their father—Daddy. Jesus prayed, “Daddy, all things are possible for You.” Abba expresses all the love and affection of a small child for his dad.
And it’s not only Jesus who can call God the Father, “Daddy.” The Bible says that God has adopted you as His child and that now you may call him, “ ‘Abba,’ Father” (Romans 8:15). The great God of the universe invites you and me to call Him, Daddy! You can come to Him as a little child comes to his dad. In His arms you are secure.
What’s In a Name?
Shakespeare wrote, “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” Perhaps, but that doesn’t mean a name isn’t important.
When you sign your name on a check or a document, that signature legally stands for you—the person behind the name. And that signature is only as good as the character of the person who writes it. That’s why businessmen and women are jealous of their “good name.” They know that their name and their character are inextricably bound up together.
It’s the same with God. His names tell us who He is, what His character is like, what we can expect from Him.
The Bible is the story of God and the salvation He offers. It’s all wrapped up in His many names—His names are the very nature of God. The apostle John closes his gospel with these words: “These [things] are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in His name” (John 20:31).