Jehovah: Why (and Why Not)?

Have you ever sung “Come, Ye That Fear Jehovah”?  A favorite selection from the blue Psalter Hymnal, this jubilant paraphrase of Psalm 22 has been used in worship for about a hundred years now.  At first, I was grateful to see that it had been included in the URC Psalter Hymnal Committee’s Hymn Proposal.  But when I looked at the music for the first time, I was flabbergasted—the text had been drastically altered.  Instead of singing “Come, Ye That Fear Jehovah,” we were now singing “Come, All Who Fear the LORD God.”  As in several Hymn Proposal selections, the name “Jehovah” was eliminated from this song.   Why?

In the March/April 2012 issue of The Outlook, Mrs. Sheila Ypma of the URC in Lethbridge, Alberta, presents a commentary on this trend.  Below is an excerpt from her article.

If the name Jehovah will be taken out of our psalms, then we will no longer sing these wonderful words of exaltation to and of Jehovah.  Then we will also lose a wonderful heritage.  I am not sure if members in the URCNA want such drastic changes made to the beautiful psalm renditions of our PH [Psalter Hymnal].  However, if Synod 2012 approves the removal of the name Jehovah from the four songs mentioned above (HP [Hymn Proposal] #3, 4, 19, and 271) then, to be consistent, all other references to Jehovah will likely be eliminated.

We wonder why the name Jehovah is no longer a suitable name for our God.  Until now, we delighted in the name Jehovah and considered it to be theologically sound.  We had not been told that it was sinning against God to call on the name of Jehovah.  If it is sin to call God by the name Jehovah, then by all means change the above songs and the more than seventy-four other blue PH psalm versifications that attribute praise, glory, honor, and reverence to Jehovah.

To be accurate, I should mention that some small errors in reasoning are present in this opinion piece.  For one thing, the issue related to the name “Jehovah” is mainly one of linguistic correctness, not theological soundness.  Personally, I do not believe that we can label the use of this name as a sin against God.  (I’ll give a justification for this view in a future post.)  Also, without giving a clear case for continuing to use the name “Jehovah,” the author appeals only to tradition, a source that should always be secondary to the authority of Scripture.  Nevertheless, I share Mrs. Ypma’s fundamental concern: I too would be extremely disappointed if favorite psalm settings like “Jehovah Is My Light” and “Hallelujah, Praise Jehovah” appeared in drastically modified form in the future URC Psalter Hymnal.

Yet it is unwise for us to ignore the significant reasons presented by the Psalter Hymnal Committee in defense of their decision.  In a “Frequently Asked Questions” page on the URCNA website, the committee offers this explanation:

The Songbook Committee, along with the Canadian Reformed “Book of Praise” committee, requested advice about the best rendering of the covenant name of “Yahweh” (YHWH) from several Old Testament (Hebrew) scholars.  We received responses from Dr. Cornelis Van Dam of the Theological College of the Canadian Reformed Churches, and from Prof. Mark Vander Hart of Mid-America Reformed Seminary.  Both of these scholars encouraged us to avoid the term “Jehovah” as much as possible.

The term “Jehovah” first appears in the medieval church and arises out of a misunderstanding of the Hebrew text.  Here’s what happened: When reading the Torah, the Hebrew name of God, YHWH, was not pronounced by the Jews and so when they came across the name, they would automatically say “Adonai” (meaning “Lord”) or sometimes “Elohim.”  Later, when vowel markings were placed under the Hebrew letters, the ancient vocalizers put the vowels of “Adonai” under YHWH in order to remind the reader to say “Adonai.”  What happened in the medieval context was to take the consonants YHWH of the written text and read this with the vowels of “Adonai”—thus “Jehovah” or the alternate spelling “Iehoua.”

 This means that “Jehovah” is actually a phonetic corruption of God’s name. Further, the pronunciation “Jehovah” sounds blasphemous to Jews today. They still highly reverence the covenant name YHWH, and we would do well not to cause unnecessary offence.

Based on the advice of the scholars we consulted, our committee thinks it best to find replacements for “Jehovah” wherever possible. In this we are also following the practice of the Trinity Hymnal (1990 edition), the Book of Praise, and other songbooks used by most confessionally-orthodox Reformed churches.

Now, to be frank, I must admit that I don’t completely agree with the Psalter Hymnal Committee’s conclusions.  Unfortunately, because we must work from existing songbooks and centuries-old traditions, the best solution is not as simple as a blanket removal of this questionable term.  From Mrs. Ypma’s article and the committee’s decision, these key questions arise:

  1. How serious of an offense is it to God when we use the name “Jehovah”?
  2. Does the Jewish practice of replacing “YHWH” with “Adonai” actually have Biblical grounds?
  3. What name for God is an accurate replacement for Jehovah?  Should we instead use YAHWEH?  Adonai?  The LORD?
  4. What is the best way to non-intrusively replace references to “Jehovah” with a better name?

Feel free to share your own responses and reactions to these questions in the space below.  In the near future, I hope to follow up on this post with some related thoughts.  As always, stay tuned!


3 Responses to “Jehovah: Why (and Why Not)?”

  1. 1 Jim O April 24, 2012 at 10:10 pm

    Let me address your questions (at least 1-3).

    First, to clarify and flesh out what is said by the committee in the quoted portion above:

    The Name of God revealed in Exodus 3 as the covenant Name is (as best as we can transliterate into English) “Yahweh.” The Hebrew language, having no written vowels in early years, would write it “YHWH.” This Name is frequently represented in our English Bibles by “LORD” or “GOD” in all caps.

    As an application of the 3rd Commandment, a tradition developed among the Jews to read “Adonai,” which simply means “Lord” (with no caps). This was done to make sure no one would “accidentally” take the Name in vain whilst reading the Scripture aloud.

    When vowels were later added to the language, the scribes simply put the vowels for “Adonai” under the letters “YHWH” in order to remind the reader to follow the tradition.

    In the medieval church’s translations, not knowing any better, they combined the consonants of “YHWH” and those vowels of “Adonai” to come up with “Jehovah” (y’s and j’s being interchangeable, as are w’s and v’s). This, I believe, came into the English translations via William Tyndale, who first introduced the word “Jehovah.”

    So, the word “Jehovah” is technically not linguistically faithful to the actual revealed Name of God in the Old Testament. “Yahweh” is the best English representation, although “LORD” or “GOD” are another good tradition.

    As you say, “Jehovah” is a tradition well-embedded in our beautiful history of psalmody, and a harmless one at that (it arises from an honest misunderstanding). Getting rid of it would cause many familiar songs to seem awkward in our ears and mouths. “Jehovah” has become a name for God with centuries of sincere Christian prayer, preaching, and singing to back it up.

    But, as is pointed out, it can be offensive, even blasphemous, to faithful Jews, for it is a corruption of the revealed covenant Name of God.

    So, that’s the answer to question #1.

    To question #2, I’d say the “biblical ground” would be a (perhaps overzealous) tradition of guarding the Name of God as an application of the 3rd commandment. This has some relation to many English translations saying “GOD” or “LORD” in all caps.

    To question #3, I suppose it could be represented as “Yahweh,” or (my preference) simply follow the old tradition of “LORD” or “GOD” or “The I AM.”

    To question #4, I’ll leave the answer to wiser minds than mine.

    • 2 Michael Kearney April 24, 2012 at 10:20 pm

      Thanks so much for taking the time to explain this! While I have a pretty good working knowledge of music, I can’t say the same when it comes to the Hebrew language, church history, or Jewish tradition. That’s when it’s so helpful to have a seminary student to comment. 😉

      Still, your comments basically confirm the impression I got from other sources: The practice of replacing “YAHWEH” with “Adonai” is rooted primarily in Jewish tradition, not necessarily in Scripture. So, while we try to remain faithful to the Bible and inoffensive to the Jews, we must also take this “tradition” factor into account.

      Thank you!


  1. 1 Jehovah: A Solution? « URC Psalmody Trackback on April 28, 2012 at 7:10 am

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