A few days ago, I discussed the name “Jehovah” and pondered its removal from the songs of the URC Hymn Proposal. Although I didn’t offer my own viewpoint at that time, I did identify four questions that can help us evaluate the Songbook Committee’s decisions:
- How serious of an offense is it to God when we use the name “Jehovah”?
- Does the Jewish practice of replacing “YHWH” with “Adonai” actually have Biblical grounds?
- What name for God is an accurate replacement for “Jehovah”? Should we instead use “YAHWEH”? “Adonai”? “The LORD”?
- What is the best way to non-intrusively replace references to “Jehovah” with a better name?
Last June, I submitted an 88-page report on the Hymn Proposal to the leadership of West Sayville Reformed Bible Church. (After being compacted a bit, the report eventually made its way to the Songbook Committee through classical overture.) In this critique, which I’ve quoted below, I devoted a section to this very topic. While I can’t give any wise answers to the second and third questions, I did have some recommendations (albeit rather uneducated ones) regarding the first and fourth.
Due to my lack of knowledge about God’s name in the Hebrew language, I cannot comment on the accuracy of the name “Jehovah”—I trust the Hebrew scholars the Songbook Committee has consulted in their decision that the name should be avoided where possible. Since the arguments at the end of this explanation seem a little faulty, however, I would like to make a few comments.
With regard to the “phonetic corruption of God’s name”: Certainly we are to reverence God’s name, but we must also realize that human language in its entirety is flawed! How do we know that the way we pronounce God’s “real” name, YAHWEH, is not incorrect as well? I would humbly submit to the Committee that God knows our hearts when we use the name “Jehovah.” We know we’re referring to God, and God knows we’re referring to him. If a choice is offered between “Jehovah” and “Lord” or some other name for God, then I would definitely try to pick the other name. However, in the psalm and hymn settings, I am not sure that it is wise to sacrifice the quality of the poetry or the familiarity of the hymn for the sake of linguistic exactness.
With regard to the offense given to Jews: By no means do I want to disrespect the Jews, but “Jehovah” seems comparatively low on the list of things they would be offended about in Christian worship. Do we make any effort to tone down our declarations of the deity of Jesus Christ, the nature of the Trinity, or God’s purpose of election to avoid disturbing the Jews? It seems slightly convoluted to me to worry about one word when the whole of Christianity is offensive to them.
To flesh out my position on this issue, here are two contrasting examples. Consider hymn № 8 in the 1959/1976 CRC (blue) Psalter Hymnal: “O Jehovah, Hear My Words.” This is an unfamiliar psalm setting to most, I would venture to assume. Because of that, familiarity is not a big factor when considering modifications to this hymn. Additionally, the placement of the syllables is favorable enough that the first line could be changed to “Lord, my God, O hear my words.” This alteration does not interfere with the poetry of the setting, stilt the relationship between poetry and music, or place God’s name on a weak syllable (which I believe should be avoided if at all possible). It is faithful to Psalm 5 and does not change the meaning of the line significantly. In this case, I believe removing “Jehovah” works well and is a wise modification to the song.
On the other hand, consider hymn № 304 in the blue Psalter Hymnal: “Hallelujah, Praise Jehovah.” I can’t speak for all URC churches, but I know that in West Sayville, we sing this song regularly enough that most of us are familiar with it. Compare this psalm setting with the version in the 1987 CRC (gray) Psalter Hymnal, № 188. In this second instance, “Jehovah” has been completely removed. The first line of the hymn is completely unrecognizable, and many phrases in the original have needed to be changed as well. In this case, the poetic aspect has been completely changed, the words do not fit as well with the music, some elements of the original meaning have been altered, and congregations’ familiarity with the psalm setting is lost. In instances like this, I do not recommend that “Jehovah” be removed from the text. (Note also that for this hymn, the 1990 Trinity Hymnal has kept “Jehovah” even though the text has been modernized—see № 110.)
To distill this information down into a few bullet points, I object to removing “Jehovah” if…
- Scriptural, doctrinal, or confessional accuracy is compromised (I, 1, 3, 4).
- The original meaning of the hymn or psalm setting is affected (vii).
- Congregations’ familiarity with the hymn or psalm setting is lost (viii).
- The poetic flow of the hymn or psalm setting becomes stilted (III, i).
- God’s name ends up on a weak syllable (i).
- The altered lyrics interfere with the original music (iv).
When these problems can be avoided, I support the Songbook Committee’s decision to remove “Jehovah.” Otherwise, I recommend that the original version of the hymn or psalm setting be kept—as the Committee has done in the case of “Guide Me, O Thou Great Jehovah” (URC 2010 № 176).
(The parenthetical references in the bulleted list refer to grounds for selecting church music presented by the committee and expanded by the West Sayville musicians, which appeared in the report. I’ve uploaded them here on URC Psalmody in a document called Principles and Guidelines.)
Now that I’ve shared my thoughts, where do you stand on this issue? Does the name “Jehovah” continue to be a common appellation for God in your congregation? Should this questionable term be removed from our new Psalter Hymnal, or should it remain for the sake of tradition and familiarity? In what unobtrusive ways might the Songbook Committee be able to solve this dilemma? I look forward to your comments.