Elohim

                                                    

       Names of God

                by

        Nathan Stone

 

 

THE FIRST QUESTION in some of our catechisms is, "What is the chief end of man?"

and the answer is, "Man's chief end is to glorify God and to enjoy Him forever." But we

will experience God in such fashion we will glorify Him and enjoy Him--only in proportion

as we know Him. The knowledge of God is more essential for the Christian, and indeed for

all the world, than the knowledge of anything else--yes, of all things together. The prayer of

the Lord Jesus for His disciples in John 17:3 was: "And this is life eternal that they should

know thee the only true God, and him whom thou didst send, even Jesus Christ" (ASV).

And speaking of this, Christ, our Jehovah-Jesus, Paul sums up in Philippians 3:10 the great

goal of his life: "That I may know him."

 

"I suppose if sin had not entered the world," says one writer, "the acquisition of the

knowledge of God would have been the high occupation of man forever and ever." It is

 for a lack of knowledge of God that the prophet Hosea informs his people they are

destroyed. And it is from the lack of knowledge of God that many are without spiritual

power or life. There is little real knowle dge in these days of the one, true God.

 

There are many ways, of course, in which we may study God. The God who of old time

spoke, "unto the fathers in the prophets by divers portions and in divers manners, hath

at the end of these days spoken to us in his Son," the epistle to the Hebrews tells us.

And this Son, Jesus Christ, while on earth said in the great discourse and prayer with

God: "I have manifested thy name unto the men which thou gayest me out of the world…

(John 17:6). "And I have declared unto them thy name, and will declare it: that the love

wherewith thou hast loved me may be in them, and I in them (John 17:26).

 

True, it is in the face of Jesus Christ we best see the glory of God; yet while we are in the

flesh we can only know in part at most. And it behooves us to know all we can learn of God.

All the Scriptures are profitable to us for instruction and edification, but perhaps not very

many people know much about the person of God as revealed in His names. Surely a study

of these names should be a most profitable way of increasing that knowledge.

 

When Moses received a commission from God to go to His oppressed people in Egypt

and deliver them from bondage, he said: "When I come unto the children of Israel, and

shall say unto them, The God of your fathers hath sent me unto you; and they shall say

to me, What is his name? what shall I say unto them?" (Exodus 3:13).

 

Now the word God or even Lord, as we see it in our English Bibles, conveys little more

to us than the designation of the Supreme Being and Sovereign of the universe. It tells

little about His character and ways. Indeed we cannot say all that the mysterious word

God means to us until we know more about Him. And we can know little of what the

word God means until we o to the language from which the word God is translated, the

language which is the first written record of the revelation of Himself, the language in

which He spoke to Moses and the prophets.

 

Missionaries and translators have always had difficulty in finding a suitable word for the

Hebrew word we translate God. Those who have attempted to translate this word into

Chinese, for instance, have always been divided and still are as to which word is best.

One of the greatest of these translations preferred a word which means "Lord of Heaven."

 

Now a name in the Old Testament was often an indication of a person's character or of some

peculiar quality. But what one name could be adequate to God's greatness? After all, as

one writer declares, a name imposes some limitation. It means that an object or person is

this and not that, is here and not there. And if the Heaven of heavens cannot contain God,

how can a name describe Him? What a request of Moses, then, that was--that the infinite

God should reveal Himself to finite man by any one name! We can hardly understand or

appreciate Moses himself unless we see him in his many-sided character of learned man

and shepherd, leader and legislator, soldier and statesman, impulsive, yet meekest of men.

We can know David, too, n ot only as shepherd, warrior, and king, but also as a prophet,

a poet, and musician.

 

Even so, the Old Testament contains a number of names and compound names for God

which reveal Him in some aspect of His character and dealings with mankind. It is our

purpose in this series of studies to examine these names and their meanings, their

significance for ourselves as well as for those of old.

 

As one would expect, the opening statement of the Scriptures contains the name God.

"In the beginning God!" The Hebrew word from which this word God is translated is

Elohim. While not the most frequently occurring word for the Deity, it occurs 2,570 times.

The one which occurs most frequently is the word in the King James Version translated

Lord, and in the American Standard Version, Jehovah.

 

Elohim occurs in the first chapter of Genesis thirty-two times. After that, the name Jehovah

appears as well as Elohim; and in many places a combination of the two --Jehovah-Elohim

As far back as the twelfth century students noticed that these different names were used in

the Bible, but thought little of it until about the eighteenth century when a French physician

thought he discovered the reason for the use of different names of God. He said that the

Book of Genesis (especially) was based on two other documents, one written by a man who

had apparently known God only as Elohim-this was called the Elohistic document--and the

other written by a man who had known God only by the name Jehovah--this was called the

Jehovistic document.  Scholars pursued this theory until they thought there had originally

been five or six documents, and even many fragments of documents all pieced and fitted

together by a later editor, and then altered and added to by still later editors so that some

of the stories we now read in Genesis and other books were made up of parts of stories

from various documents and fragments. Moses was denied authorship of most of the

Pentateuch. The theory was carried to such lengths of absurdity that it was far more

difficult to believe than the simple, plain declaration of the Bible itself that Moses wrote

these things. And indeed who, of all people, could have been in a better position

and better able to write them than he? One can only think of many of these scholars that

much learning hath made them mad. The point is that they could see no other basis, no

other significance for the use of different names for God in the Old Testament than a

literary basis – a literary significance which is no significance at all for the spiritual mind.

There is a spiritual significance in the use of these different names. It is much more "rational"

to believe that the great and infinite and eternal God has given us these different names to

express different aspects of His being and the different relationships He sustains to His

creatures.

 

THE MEANING OF THE WORD

 

In order to gain some idea of the meaning of this name of God, Elohim, we must examine

its origin and note how, generally, it is used. There is some difference of opinion as to the

root from which Elohim is derived. Some hold to the view that it is derived from the shorter

word El, which means mighty, strong, prominent. This word El itself is translated "God" some

250 times and frequently in circumstances which especially indicate the great power of God.

For instance, in Numbers 23:22 God is spoken of as the El who brought Israel up out of

Egypt --"he bath as it were the strength of an unicorn" (wild ox). The Scriptures make very

much of God's mighty arm in that great deliverance. So in the next verse follows: "it shall

be said of Jacob and Israel, what hath God [El] wrought."

 

In Deuteronomy 10:17 we read that "Jehovah your Elohim is God of gods, and Lord of

lords, the God or El who is great, mighty, and dreadful." It is this word El which is used

in that great name Almighty God, the name under which God made great and mighty

promises to Abraham and to Jacob (Genesis 17:1; 35:11 ). It is also one of the names

given to that promised Son and Messiah of Isaiah 9:6, 7--God, the Mighty.

 

Thus, from this derivation, Elohim may be said to express the general idea of greatness

and glory. In the name Jehovah, as we shall see more fully, are represented those high

moral attributes of God which are displayed only to rational creatures. The name Elohim,

however, contains the idea of creative and governing power, of omnipotence and sovereignty.

This is clearly indicated by the fact that from Genesis 1:1 to 2:4 the word Elohim alone is

used, and that thirty-five times. It is the Elohim who by His mighty power creates the vast

universe; who says, and it is done; who brings into being what was not; by whose word the

worlds were framed so that things which are seen were not made of the things which do

appear (Hebrews 11:3). It is this Elohim with whose Greek equivalent Paul confronts the

philosophers on Mars' hill saying that He made the world (cosmos) and all things, and by

this very fact is constituted possessor and ruler of heaven and earth whose presence cannot

be confined by space; whose power doesn't need man's aid, for through His great will and

power and agency all things and nations have their very being. It is most appropriate that

by this name God should reveal Himself-bringing cosmos out of chaos, light out of darkness,

habitation out of desolation, and life in His image.

 

There is another word from which some say Elohim is derived. It is Alah, which is said to

mean to declare or to swear. Thus it is said to imply a covenant relationship. Before

examining this derivation, however, it may be well to say that in either ease, whether

El or Alah, the idea of omnipotence in God is expressed. To make a covenant implies the

power and right to do so, and it establishes the fact of "absolute authority in the Creator

and Ruler of the universe." So the Elohim is seen making a covenant with Abraham, and

because there is none greater He swears by Himself. "By myself I have sworn." In Genesis

17 we see perhaps a combination of both of these derivations. Inverse 1 we have: "I am the

Almighty God [El-Shaddai]; walk before me, and be thou perfect"; in verse 7: "I will

establish my covenant between me and thee and thy seed after thee in their generations

for an everlasting covenant, to he to thee Elohim and to thy seed after thee"--that is, to be

with them in covenant relationship.

 

It is the Elohim who says to Noah, "The end of all flesh is come before me." But He cannot

completely destroy the work of His hands concerning which He has made a covenant and so

He continues: "But with thee will I establish my covenant" (Genesis 6:18). "And the bow

shall be in the cloud; and I will look upon it, that I may remember the everlasting covenant

between God and every living creature of all flesh . . . and the waters shall no more become

a flood to destroy all flesh" (Genesis 9:16, 15).

 

The Elohim remembers Abraham when He destroys the cities of the plain and for His

covenant's sake spares Lot. Joseph on his deathbed declares to his brethren: "I die; but

Elohim will surely visit you, and bring you up out of this land unto the land which he

sware to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob" (Genesis 50:24). He is the Elohim who keeps

covenant and loving -kindness with His servants who walk before Him with all their heart

(I Kings 8:23).  With regard to Israel, over and over again it is written: "I shall be unto you

for Elohim and ye shall be unto me for a people." The covenant element in this name is

clearly seen because of God's covenant relationship to Israel, and this is especially brought

out in such a passage as Jeremiah 31:33 and 32:40, where the name Elohim is used in

connection with that new covenant, an everlasting covenant which God will one day make

with His people Israel when He will put His law and His fear within their hearts.  To Israel

in distress comes the word: "Comfort ye, comfort ye, my people, said your Elohim"

(Isaiah 40:1). For the eternal God who covenants for and with them and us will keep

His covenant.

 

 

THE PLURAL FORM

 

There is one other striking peculiarity in the name Elohim. It is in the plural. It has the

usual Hebrew ending for all masculine nouns in the plural. A devout saint and Hebrew

scholar of two centuries ago, Dr. Parkhurst, [Parkhurst, Hebrew Lexicon--see Elohim]

 defined the word Elohim as a name usually given in the Scriptures to the ever blessed

Trinity by which they represent themselves as under the obligation of an oath to perform

certain conditions. According to this definition the Elohim covenanted not only with the

creation but, as the Godhead, within itself, concerning the creation. This is seen from

Psalm 110, where David says concerning his Lord, the coming anointed One or Messiah:

"The Lord hath sworn, and will not repent, Thou art a priest forever after the order of

Melchizedek." This is, of course, as the Book of Hebrews confirms, the Lord Jesus Christ,

the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world, the first and the last, the eternally begotten

Son of God, the object of God's love before the foundation of the wor ld (John 17:24); who

shared God's glory before the world was (John 17:5). Colossians 1:16 tells us that by Him

or in Him were all things created. But creation is the act of the Elohim. Therefore, Christ

is in the Elohim or Godhead. Then even in Genesis 1:3 we read that the spirit of the

Elohim moved or brooded over the face of the waters. The entire creation, animate and

inanimate, was, then, not only the work of the Elohim, but the object of a covenant within

the Elohim guaranteeing its redemption and perpetuation. It is quite clear that the Elohim

is a plurality in unity. So, Dr. Parkhurst continues: "Accordingly Jehovah is at the

beginning of creation called Elohim, which implies that the divine persons had sworn

when they created."

 

It is significant that although plural in form it is constantly accompanied by verbs and

adjectives in the singular. In the very first verse of Genesis the verb create is singular,

and so all through the chapter and indeed through the Bible. In many places (as in Dent.

32:39; Isaiah 45:5, 22, etc.) we find singular pronouns. "I am Elohim and there is no Elohim

beside me," Other places in the Scriptures (II Kings 19:4, 16; Psalms 7:9; 57:2, etc.) use

adjectives in the singular with Elohim. In contrast with this, when the word elohim is used

of heathen gods, plural adjectives are used, as in I Samuel 4:8, etc. Then again this one

Elohim speaks of Himself as (Is, as in Genesis 1:26, "Let us make man in our image"; in

Genesis 3:22, which speaks of man becoming like one of us; in 11:7 God says: "Let us go

down and confound their language." In Genesis 35:7 Jacob builds an altar at Bethel, calling

it El Beth-El, the God of the House of God because there the Elohim revealed themselves

to him. Ecclesiastes 12:1 is rather, "Remember thy C reators "--plural, not singular. To the

sovereign Lord of the universe, the Jehovah of hosts, whom Isaiah saw exalted high upon

a throne, is ascribed the threefold Holy, and that same One from the throne calls to the

prophet, "Whom shall I send and who will go for us?" So instances could be multiplied.

 

There are some who object to the idea of the Trinity in the word Elohim, and it is only

fair to say that some conservative scholars as well as liberal and critical would not agree

with it, among them John Calvin. They say that the plural is only a plural of majesty such

as used by rulers and kings. But such use of the plural was not known then. We find no

king of Israel speaking of himself as "we" and "us." Besides, the singular pronoun is so

often used with Elohim. To be consistent with that view we should always find not "I am

your Elohim," as we do find, but "We are your Elohim" [Girdlestone, Old Testament

Synonyms, p. 39].

 

Others call it the plural of intensity and argue that the Hebrews often expressed a word in

the plural to give it a stronger meaning--so blood, water, life are expressed in the plural.

But as one writer points out, these arguments only favor the idea of a Trinity in the Elohim.

The use of the plural only implies (even in the plural of majesty) "that the word in the

singular is not full enough to set forth all that is intended." With Elohim the plural form

teaches us that no finite word can adequately convey the idea of the infinite personality

or the unity of persons in the Godhead.  Certainly the use of this word in the plural is

wonderfully consistent with that great and precious doctrine of the Trinity, and its use as

already shown in the Old Testament surely must confirm that view.

 

There is blessing and comfort in this great name of God signifying supreme power,

sovereignty, and glory on the one hand, for "thine [Elohim] is the power and the

kingdom and the glory"; and on the other hand signifying a covenant relationship

which He is ever faithful to keep. Thus He says to us, "I will be to you a God"

(Elohim), and we may say, "My God [Elohim]; in him will I trust'' (Psalm 91:2).