What's in a Name?
In RW 80 the column “Songs for the Season” featured the song “Guide Me, O Thou Great Jehovah,” which has been changed in some hymnals to “Guide Me, O My Great Redeemer.” The fact that RW on this occasion did not change the text prompted Bert Polman to write this challenging and informative essay.
Though credible modern translations of the Bible no longer use the term “Jehovah” as a proper name for God, “Jehovah” lingers on in older Bible translations and in a number of hymn texts, of which “Guide Me, O Thou Great Jehovah” is probably best known (see RW 80, pp. 32-33). Where did the term “Jehovah” come from, and why is it omitted in modern translations of the Bible and in altered versions of hymn texts?
A Very Brief History
Being a consonantal language in which vowels were spoken but not written initially, the Hebrew of the Old Testament uses YHWH for God’s self-revealed name “I AM” (Ex. 3:14). After the Exile, the Jews chose not to say the holy name YHWH. When reading they would substitute “Adonai” or sometimes “Elohim” whenever they ran across the word YHWH. When vowel points (small markings under and above the Hebrew letters) were added to the Hebrew text, it became the practice to write the vowels of “Adonai” under the Hebrew consonants YHWH as a visual reminder to use “Adonai” as the substitute spoken word for the unpronounceable YHWH. Not understanding this Rabbinic custom of substitution, some medieval Christian scholars misconstrued the combination of consonants and vowels and fused them into the artificially fabricated term “Jehovah.”
From then on, “Jehovah” [with alternate spellings such as “Iehoua”] became an acceptable name for God in a number of sources. The sparse use of “Jehovah” in the famous King James Bible of 1611 helped to cement its use in the English language, as did the lavish use of the term in the American Standard Version of 1901.
With few exceptions, modern biblical scholars avoid “Jehovah.” Modern Bible translations such as the Revised Standard Version (1952), the New International Version (1978) and TNIV (2005), and the New Revised Standard Version (1990) all omit “Jehovah” and favor “LORD” (all caps to distinguish between “Lord,” the translation of “Adonai”). The Jerusalem Bible (1966) is noteworthy for its use of “Yahweh.”
Why is “Jehovah” no longer used by biblical scholars and in modern Bible translations?
- Modern scholarship has uncovered the misunderstanding that led to the artificial and corrupt construction “Jehovah.”
- Modern dialogue with Jews has made Christians more sensitive to the Jewish reverence for God’s covenant name YHWH and affirmed the Christian desire not to cause offense by using the erroneously construed term “Jehovah” whose pronunciation sounds blasphemous to Jews.
- Orthodox Christians want to distance themselves from the use of “Jehovah” because of the term’s appropriation by the Jehovah’s Witnesses cult.
“Jehovah” in Psalms, Hymns, and Spiritual Songs
Language is never set in stone; it is constantly changing. Since language is dynamic, the texts we sing should be cast in contemporary language in order to communicate most effectively with contemporary people. Many modern hymnals provide altered versions of classic hymn texts because they are used as current means of communication in worship—hymns are not museum artifacts. The committee that compiled the 1987 Psalter Hymnal, for example, consciously decided to use the NIV text of the Bible as its standard for biblical language. Thus all the instances of “Jehovah” in older Psalter translations had to be recast. “Jehovah is my light,” for example, was no longer acceptable as the title line for Psalm 27. In consort with some other contemporary hymnals, “Guide Me, O Thou Great Jehovah” became “Guide Me, O My Great Redeemer” in the Psalter Hymnal. Some hymnals perpetuate the old language: “Guide Me, O Thou Great Jehovah” is still found in 2001 books such as Worship & Rejoice and the African American Heritage Hymnal.
Presumably because of their continued reliance on older Bible translations, various authors of contemporary hymns continue to use “Jehovah.” And let’s not forget the countless church anthems that also use “Jehovah” and thereby keep alive this awkward term.
If we are to promote a faith language in our singing that is consistent with contemporary language, most habits of Christian prayer, and modern versions of the Bible that have deemed the use of “Jehovah” as incorrect and offensive to some, then we must excise “Jehovah” from our vocabulary. “Jehovah” as a phonetic corruption of God’s name is passé.