Jehovah: A Solution?

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:

  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?

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.



9 Responses to “Jehovah: A Solution?”

  1. 1 Wood April 30, 2012 at 10:28 pm

    Why would someone remove the sacred name of God? The Bible uses his name over 7,000 times. That is the name he gave himself. Who are humans to remove his name? “Lord” and “God” are titles. How can someone have a personal relationship with another person whose name they don’t know or use? As to whether it should be Jehovah or Yahweh, Jehovah is the most commonly used name in English. If one were to withdraw from using that name in favor of something that could be viewed as less offensive, consider that Jesus is the most common form of the name of God’s Son, yet, it could also be Joshua or Yezus. It makes no difference to Almighty God, as he knows his name and he can hear it no matter what language humans praise him in.

    • 2 Michael Kearney April 30, 2012 at 11:29 pm

      You have an excellent point there, Wood. Regardless of our native language, God knows our hearts. Thus, it seems to me that such excessive concern about the name “Jehovah” tends to be legalistic rather than realistic.

      And with regard to offense…do we realize that the name “Jesus” is just about as offensive as “Jehovah” to non-believing Jews?

      Thanks for your comments!


  2. 3 Joel May 1, 2012 at 10:20 am

    Purely anecdotal and purely my own personal thoughts, but shouldn’t we want to use the most accurate name for God that He has revealed? Jehovah comes from what we know now as an inaccurate mistranslation. The majority of our Bible translations we use in worship don’t have Jehovah (in fact, I think it is only the American Standard Version that has it?), so I think, from a practical standpoint, it would help if the Psalms we’re singing match the Scripture we’re reading. Yes, the Lord knows our hearts, but He is still holy and requires holiness of us. The Psalms are filled with examples of how He is incredibly concerned with His name and is certainly not indifferent to the right use and glory of His name. I don’t want to presume upon God and say that “it makes no difference” to Him. Can we point to such indifference in Scripture?

    From a personal standpoint, my wife’s name is Elizabeth, but I don’t call her Betty – though it is a derivative of her name that others may go by (and not as bad as a mistranslation!). That’s not the name she wants to be called, and it’s not how she introduces (“reveals”) herself to others. Calling her Betty would be dishonoring to her, and she certainly wouldn’t appreciate it, even if my heart was in it. She is not Betty, she is Elizabeth.

    It might also be worth noting that it’s not just the URC committee that has been thinking through these issues. Two churches with which the URC has Phase 2 ecclesiastical fellowship with (CanRef, OPC) have studied this issue in depth, along with another church that Synod 2012 is considering entering Phase 2 with (RPCNA).

    Am I way off base? Again, these are only my own thoughts as I think through this issue and shouldn’t be taken out of the context of furthering the conversation.

    • 4 Michael Kearney May 1, 2012 at 10:43 am

      Sure, Mr. Pearce, I agree with your basic point–absolutely, we should use the most accurate name for God that he has revealed. And without a doubt, Jehovah is not the most accurate name. But I think the problem is that we are working with existing songs that have been in use for hundreds of years. Although familiarity and tradition should never have preeminence over Scripture, they are still a powerful factor in worship. My concern is that completely removing this name might do more harm than good for our churches.

      I like your analogy about personal names, but I can carry it a step further. I’ve always gone by “Michael,” not “Mike.” It’s just never appealed to me. Still, I have plenty of friends who simply don’t pick up on this fact. They have called me “Mike” for years. Do I view this as dishonoring? Not really; I understand my friends’ hearts. I’d rather let them continue doing it than to hurt their feelings by correcting them. Similarly, even when people butcher the pronunciation of “Kearney,” I can always tell that they aren’t trying to be disrespectful or annoying; their hearts are sincere.

      The question is, Does God’s name deserve a different kind of “exclusive status” than the names we give each other? Certainly we are to refer to him with respect and reverence. Certainly we should try to use the correct name whenever possible. But is it worth hurting a relationship to tell a sincere friend that you don’t want to be called “Betty”? Is it worth impeding our worship to forbid the use of an equally sincere name for God?

      These are questions that I can’t answer for our body of churches. This is an especially difficult issue because none of us know the mind of God. Still, they warrant some careful consideration.

      Thank you for these thoughts!


      • 5 Jim O May 1, 2012 at 2:18 pm

        Let’s keep playing with the personal name idea… what if for years I, out of an innocent misunderstanding of phonics, mispronounced “Michael” (perhaps with a soft “ch” and wrong phonetic pronunciation of the vowels). You, in graciousness, never corrected me. But suddenly one day in my study of phonics and the English language I realize my mistake. Wouldn’t it behoove me to change my ways and start pronouncing your name correctly? Or should I continue in my mistake since it’s tradition and “I’m used to it?”

        Of course God understands what we mean when we address Him by “Jehovah,” He knows our hearts and our intents. But does our Christian dedication to Scriptural accuracy perhaps imply that we should strive for that accuracy in our singing, as well?

        On the other hand, the point is well made that this is a wisdom issue. How helpful would it be for our churches to pull the rug of centuries of tradition out from under their feet in one fell swoop?

        In any change so large as a new hymnal, there will always be aspects of change that are startling and uncomfortable to some. There is always one (or two) generation(s) that need to submit to/deal with the awkwardness of change. The question is, are those changes worth the discomfort? Will these changes improve the situation of the future generations? In this case, would it be helpful for *our* children to grow up singing songs without “Jehovah” and growing to love lyrics that are perhaps more accurate?

        I don’t think this is an issue with easy answers or clear-cut “sides.” No matter what decisions are made, inevitably someone will be offended or disappointed. Conversations like these are very helpful and help to provide light and wisdom on the issues. Thanks, Michael (I pronounced it properly in my head as I wrote it).

        • 6 Michael Kearney May 1, 2012 at 4:51 pm

          This personal name analogy is certainly getting around! You brought up several aspects that had never even occurred to me. (I remember the shocking realization that for years I had incorrectly been pronouncing Rev. Kevin Hossink’s last name as “Hossnik.” Needless to say, I did not keep that pronunciation–tradition or no.)

          Striving for accuracy is a noble goal, but finding a way to gradually improve the accuracy of our song texts without offending long-time members takes true wisdom. That’s why I’m convinced that more than anything, the URC Psalter Hymnal Committee needs our support and prayers. Only by God’s grace will they be able to complete their work for the benefit of our federation.

          Practically, this change might be effected in a number of ways, such as completely replacing old psalm settings using the name “Jehovah” with new ones. But here is another procedure to consider–the best description I can think of is a more gradual, less aggressive approach. Consider this:

          It’s no secret that the new Psalter Hymnal is already a source of much controversy and potential dis-unity among the United Reformed Churches in North America. With this in mind, what would happen if the Songbook Committee simply made a few minor replacements of the name “Jehovah” in the lesser-known psalms and hymns of this first edition of the URC Psalter Hymnal? It’s likely that we’ll have a second edition of our new Psalter Hymnal in a few more decades. At that time, the editors of the second edition could implement a more thorough transition away from “Jehovah.” By that time, the old blue Psalter Hymnal may have peacefully sailed away into the sunset, and URC members might be more favorable to modernization.

          That’s not to say today’s URC members are wrong in their desire to preserve the beloved old versions of the psalms and hymns; my point is simply that it might be in the Songbook Committee’s best interest to mellow out the changes in this first edition of a URC songbook until we achieve greater unity as a federation. Even after you realize that you’re mis-pronouncing someone’s name, it sometimes takes a long time to teach yourself to say it the right way. 🙂

          Thanks so much for participating in this discussion.


  3. 7 Nancy A. Almodovar May 1, 2012 at 11:47 am

    In hymns and psalms throughout Church history the writer or the one paraphrasing a psalm has used the Name of God that the Scriptures have used for that particular characteristic of God or more specifically the one that Psalm that is being put to music has used. Now, we also have issues of whether we are going by the Hebrew text or the LXX. If the LXX has changed the Name, yet the NT Writers utilized the LXX more than the Hebrew Bible, I think we’re still on safe ground to use that of the LXX.

    If I’m going to paraphrase or put to music say Psalm 22, I’m going to be able to use two variations “El” AND “Yhwh” because they are both there.

    These are just my thoughts.

  4. 8 J. Tate June 16, 2012 at 4:07 pm

    How many songs in which Jehovah is deleted actually use Yahweh (or Yahoweh or Yahveh or etc.)? Probably not many but I’m willing to be corrected. Indeed, it seems to be another way of following the old Jewish tradition of not using His name at all – indeed, as the pope cowed to political correctness in forbidding His name from being used out of “fear of offense”, how many who delete Jehovah do so not merely out of correctness, but approach this Pharisaical (and Roman) error?

    • 9 Michael Kearney June 16, 2012 at 4:18 pm

      I believe you’re correct–I’ve never heard of a song that uses the proper term “YAHWEH.” As to motives–well, I really don’t know. I suppose there are some who approach this dilemma legalistically, but there are also valid reasons for using a more correct name.

      Thanks for your thoughts!


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