Introduction to the Names and Titles of God

by Dr. Ralph F. Wilson
http://www.jesuswalk.com/names-god/0_intro.htm
Audio (12:26) |

Why should we study the names and titles of God? So we can toss around fancy Hebrew names? No. So we can expand our fount of knowledge. No. The only adequate motivation I know of to undertake a serious study of the names and titles of God is so that we may come to know God better. To know him more fully is the journey of a lifetime. Knowing God is like carefully examining a diamond, polishing it so that we can peer into it, and then looking at it from all sides and through its many facets, enjoying its colors, being delighted by its sparkles, and learning to appreciate it fully.

But God is not a beautiful but lifeless diamond. He is the Living God. As we learn his names and meditate on them, we will come to know him more intimately. We will begin to trust him more fully. And we will find our hearts drawn ever more passionately to do his will here on earth as it is in heaven. And so I invite you to undertake a journey with me to explore God by means of his names.

Why Study the Names and Titles of God?

Should we study the names, titles, metaphors, and descriptors of God so we can impress others with our God vocabulary. By no means. I believe there are three ways that a study of God's names and titles can benefit us, all of them closely related:

  1. Our prayer life is enriched by having meditated on God's names, titles, and metaphors. For example, as I've studied about God as my Shepherd, I find myself calling on God in prayer as my Shepherd, trusting him to supply my needs and to guide me.
  2. Our worship is enriched, as well. With a limited vocabulary of praise and a limited understanding of God we are reduced to a kind of hobbled, truncated praise. But as we begin to know more of God's facets, we are able to praise him better. Several passages in the Psalms and Isaiah indicate a joy in naming the titles and metaphors of God before him.
  3. Our faith in and understanding of God is increased. As I study how God provides as a shepherd, I now am able to trust him more fully in this area of my life. Whereas I once had a lot of anxiety about making ends meet, now my trust in God as my Shepherd and Provider bring me confidence, assurance, and joy that was missing before.

What Is a Title of God?

But what exactly is a name? The word "God" is a generic noun used to designate a divinity. It is not a name or title. The Judeo-Christian God has really only one name -- Yahweh or Jehovah. We'll explore his name in depth in chapter 3. He has several titles. And beyond titles, many metaphors and descriptors. Let's look at some definitions from the Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary:1

Name -- "A word or phrase that constitutes the distinctive designation of a person or thing." Let's use Billy Graham as an example. "Billy" is his first name, "Graham" is his surname. God's revealed name is Yahweh.
Title -- "An appellation of dignity, honor, distinction, or preeminence attached to a person or family by virtue of rank, office, precedent, privilege, attainment, or lands." When he is introduced in public he is often called "Reverend Graham" or "Doctor Graham." If he had been a pastor, he might have been referred to as "Pastor Graham." He also might be titled "Evangelist." One of God's titles might be "King of kings," that is, king over all other kings that there might be.
Metaphor -- "A figure of speech in which a word or phrase literally denoting one kind of object or idea is used in place of another to suggest a likeness or analogy between them." For example, God is referred to as Rock scores of times. God our Rock is so common in the Bible that Rock is used by itself to refer to God (Deuteronomy 32:4). But what about this this verse?
      "In that day the LORD of hosts
      will be a crown of glory,
      and a diadem of beauty,
      to the remnant of his people." (Isaiah 28:5)
Clearly, Yahweh is compared metaphorically to a crown and diadem. But if you were to use the term "crown" or "diadem" in conversation with Biblically literate people, few would know you referring to God. By no means all metaphors for God become popular terms for God. This study is pretty much limited to metaphors by which God is referred or addressed in Scripture. For example, he is referred to our Hiding Place, but while the scriptures contain metaphors of God as a mother hen gathering her chicks to protect them under her wings, since God is not specifically referred to as mother hen, I'm not including it as a focus of this study. Of course, that doesn't make the metaphor any less valid.
Descriptor -- "Something (as a word or characteristic feature) that serves to describe or identify." Many metaphors of God could also be called descriptors. In English we have several grammatical constructs used to describe nouns. One is an adjectival phrase, a noun together with an adjective modifying it. In Hebrew and Greek, this modifier often appears in the genitive, such as "God of mercy." Another is a predicate adjective, "an adjective which appears in the position of the predicate (i.e., after the verb) but which modifies the subject,"2 such as "God is merciful." This describes a quality of God, but is it title? Probably not. But if God is addressed in prayer as "Merciful God," perhaps we should consider it a descriptor. If the phrase is used often enough, perhaps this might even be considered a title.3

Perhaps this helps you see the fuzzy borders of determining what are the names, titles, metaphors, and descriptors of God. Add to that different translations. So let's not be too dogmatic about precisely which are which. What we're really seeking to know is the God who existed long before any names for him were even needed.

The Documentary Hypothesis

Given the history of Old Testament scholarship over the last century, any discussion of the names of God must consider the Documentary Hypothesis.

Though the traditional view is that Moses was the author of the Pentateuch, since the Enlightenment there has been growing speculation on who the authors were. The most celebrated and complex theory of authorship was advanced by German Old Testament scholar Julius Wellhausen (1844-1918), a theory known as the Documentary Hypothesis. He posited four strands of sources for the Pentateuch which are abbreviated JEDP:

 

Source/strand

Name of God

J

Yahwistic

Yahweh

E

Eloistic

Elohim

D

Deuteronomic

 

P

Priestly

 

The Yahwistic source could be identified, so goes the theory, by the editor's use of Yahweh (Jehovah) or LORD for God; the Eloistic source by the use of El for God. Supposedly, a late but clever editor wove all these strands together into a single narrative. Wellhausen was widely influential and the theory grew more and more complex -- and speculative. His theory captivated much of Old Testament scholarship for more than 100 years. These days, however, Wellhausen's JEDP theory is in disarray. R.N. Whybray commented in 1995 on the state of Pentateuchal studies:

"There is at the present moment no consensus whatever about when, why, how, and through whom the Pentateuch reached its present form, and opinions about the dates of composition of its various parts differ by more than five hundred years."4

Our focus is on the text that comes down to us in the Bible itself, not on speculative theories of sources.

Features of This Study

This study is designed with various kinds of readers in mind. It is written for Christians who are seeking to understand and grow in their faith, though it will be profitable for Jews, Muslims, and seekers. It is meant to be used for personal study, in small group Bible studies and adult classes, as well as the basis for preaching.

Hebrew and Greek Word Studies. Rather than relying on previous books about the names of God, I've gone back to the original Hebrew and Greek languages and the conclusions of contemporary conservative scholars to determine the meanings of the words as precisely as possible. If you find Hebrew and Greek confusing, you're not alone. Please accept my condolences and just skip it. But for preachers, teachers, and small group leaders I've included this kind of information, as well as footnoting my sources, so that readers can assess the value of the information and not just pass it along blindly to their listeners.

Questions are included at various points in each lesson to help the reader pause and think more deeply. It's too easy for us to read unthoughtfully and assume that we understand what we are reading. The questions are designed to help readers articulate and apply what they are learning to their own lives and growing faith. Each question includes a hyperlink to the Joyful Heart Bible Study Forum where participants can share their answers to the questions and read what others have written.

Songs and Hymns are ways that we use the names and character of God in our worship. To help those designing worship services around the names and titles of God, I have tried to include some of the more popular hymns and songs that I could find. My list is, of course, incomplete, so perhaps you'll be able to suggest some other songs.

Michangelo's Creation of Adam (1511), Sistine Chapel, Vatican
Detail of Michelangelo's "Creation of Adam" (1511), a fresco on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, Vatican.
Lists of the Names and Titles of God in each of eleven categories are included too. I encourage you to try to use these ways of addressing God in your prayers for each week of the study. Your prayers will be richer for it, and so will your understanding of the great God whom we serve.

Artwork and paintings are windows that help us learn about God in other ways. I've included some paintings that illustrate incidents in which God's names were revealed. For those who are preparing PowerPoint and multimedia presentations, you are welcome to follow links in my webpage-in-progress, "Artwork relating to the Names and Titles of God"
(www.jesuswalk.com/names-god/artwork_names-god.htm).

How to Study Using the E-Mail Bible Study

Here's how our online study will work:

  • Names and Titles of God, by Dr. Ralph F. Wilson

    Now available as in paperback and  e-book formats. Includes Hebrew & Greek word studies, discussion questions and handouts for groups or classes, suggests songs, comprehensive with 120 core names, titles, etc., total of 219 varieties.  Detailed index. Modestly priced. Buy your copy today.

    Each Saturday I'll e-mail you the lesson for the week. Then you'll read the Bible passage and use my notes to help you understand it better.
  • On Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and maybe Thursday, you'll receive a question from that week's lesson to think about and answer. This is designed as a "total immersion" approach to Bible study, since I believe God wants to use it to work real and permanent change in your life. (You can opt out of the daily questions if you like, however, and just receive the weekly lessons.) You'll be thinking about these passages constantly for over these 11 weeks -- long enough for God to work his Word into your life and lifestyle.
  • You can respond to the questions using the Joyful Heart Bible Study Forum -- and read others' answers to reinforce your own understanding.
  • With each lesson you'll receive a link to a 20- to 30-minute audio teaching that sums up the passage you've been studying that week. Some who learn better from hearing than from reading really appreciate this.
  • Then on Saturday, I'll send you the next week's lesson.

Okay, we're about ready to begin. Don't be afraid to stretch yourself and do some things you've never done before. It is my joy to take this journey with you. Let's pray:

Father, guide us as we learn about you through your names, titles, and metaphors that we find in your Word. I pray that you would change our lives, energize our faith, and make us more like you in this process. Help us to know you more fully. In Jesus' name, we pray. Amen.

Yours in Christ's service,
Pastor Ralph


References

  1. Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary (Eleventh Edition; Merriam-Webster, Inc., 2003).
  2. Albert H. Marckwardt and Frederic G. Cassidy, Scribner Handbook of English (Third Edition; Charles Scribner's Sons, 1960), p. 256.
  3. To make it even more complicated, Hebrew may omit the verb and put a noun side by side with Elohim or Yahweh. Does this make it a title? Maybe.
  4. R.N. Whybray, Introduction to the Pentateuch (Eerdmans, 1995), pp. 12-13, cited in T. Desmond Alexander, "Authorship of the Pentateuch," DOTP 61-72.

Copyright © 1985-2014, Ralph F. Wilson. <pastor@joyfulheart.com> All rights reserved. A single copy of this article is free. Do not put this on a website. See legal, copyright, and reprint information.

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