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Did you know that the translators of the King James Bible designed a simple code system into their translation to designate the various Hebrew names for God in the Old Testament? Understanding this system unlocks profound new insights into the Scriptural teaching about the nature and character of God.
This article begins by looking at how the code system works. It then examines some specific Old Testament passages to see how knowing which Hebrew name for God is used contributes to an accurate interpretation of what the Bible teaches.
The KJV Code System For Divine Names
If you look at the KJV text carefully, you will notice that there are various names for Deity in the Old Testament, including "God," "GOD," "Lord," "LORD," or some combination of these terms. These different words and spelling variations were used by the King James translators to designate the various Hebrew words for God. The three primary Hebrew words for God are Elohim, Jehovah (Yahweh), and Adonai.
Elohim. This is a general Hebrew name for Deity that designates God as our Creator and the object of all true worship. It occurs 2,570 times in the Old Testament. 1 In most instances it is rendered "God" in the King James Bible, that is, with a capital "G" and with the letters "od" written in lower case. Elohim is plural in form, however, when it refers to the true God, it designates only one Divine Being. We know this because it is consistently used with singular verbs, and with adjectives and pronouns in the singular, so that by the rules of Hebrew grammar it must be understood and translated as singular.2
Because Elohim is a general term for God, it is also used when describing false gods. For instance, Exodus 20:2-3 declares: "I am the LORD thy God [Elohim] which have brought thee out of the land of Egypt ... Thou shalt have no other gods [elohim] before me."
Since the same word is used for the one true God and for false gods, the KJV translators simply used a capital "G "and made it singular when the context is speaking of the one true God, to prevent confusion. To reiterate, the KJV translators followed the rules of Hebrew grammar in rendering Elohim singular when it refers to the true God; in the verse above, the pronouns used with God are singular ("I," and "me") and the verb form of the Hebrew word translated as "brought" is also singular. These grammatical cues require that the word Elohim be translated as singular here, and consistently throughout the Old Testament when it refers to the true God.
In a handful of instances Elohim is used with the first person plural pronoun, "us." For instance, we read in Genesis 1:26: "And God [Elohim] said, Let us make man in our image" (see also Genesis 3:22; 11:7; Isaiah 6:8). Thus, Elohim conveys both the unity of the one God, and yet allows for the plurality of Divine Persons as expressed in the historic Christian doctrine of the Trinity. It is unique to monotheistic Israel and is not found in the languages of any of her polytheistic, Semitic neighbors.3
Jehovah/Yahweh. This is the personal name of the God of the Bible and speaks of Him as the holy, self-existent God who hates sin but provides redemption. It is used 5,321 times in the Old Testament.4 The Hebrew word Jehovah is written as "LORD" in the KJV Bible. Notice that all the letters are capitalized. In some instances Jehovah is also written as GOD. Again, with all the letters capitalized. Wherever you see the words LORD or GOD in the Bible written in all uppercase letters, you will know that in every case it is the word Jehovah (or Yahweh, as modern scholars believe it should be pronounced) in the Hebrew text.
Adonai. This word means "Sovereign," or "Master," and emphasizes the Lordship of God. It is used more than 300 times in the Old Testament as a designation for God.5 It appears as "Lord" in the King James Bible. Notice that it is spelled with a capital "L" and lower case "ord." Like Elohim, Adonai is a special plural form. In this plural form it always refers to God.6 The singular form, Adon, is used to designate men who are lords over other people. A rare exception where a singular form for Lord (Adona) is used for God will be discussed later.
Joshua 7:6-7 illustrates how the different names for God in the Hebrew text are coded into the King James Bible:
And Joshua rent his clothes, and fell to the earth upon his face before the ark of the LORD [Jehovah] until the eventide, he and the elders of Israel, and put dust upon their heads. And Joshua said, Alas, O Lord [Adonai] GOD [Jehovah], wherefore hast thou at all brought this people over Jordan, to deliver us into the hand of the Amorites, to destroy us? would to God [Elohim] we had been content, and dwelt on the other side of Jordan!
Are Elohim And Jehovah Separate Gods?
The Bible uses the names Elohim, Jehovah, and Adonai interchangeably for the one true God, along with combinations of these names and a number of other less frequently occurring terms. In fact, one of the names of God in the Old Testament is Jehovah-Elohim. It is translated in our King James Bible as "The LORD God" and literally means "Jehovah is Elohim," or "The LORD is God." (Jehovah-Elohim is rendered "LORD God" 20 times in Genesis 2-3, and there are scores of other examples in the Old Testament).
Since the name Elohim is a general Hebrew word for "God" and was also used to designate the false gods of Israel's heathen neighbors, we have the proclamation in the biblical Scriptures that Jehovah is our Elohim. It is a proclamation that Jehovah is the true God.
There are over 700 verses in the Old Testament that show Jehovah (LORD) and Elohim (God) are the same God. Many of these verses also state that Jehovah is the only Elohim. Following are a few examples.
Isaiah 43:10,11. Ye are my witnesses, saith the LORD [Jehovah] and my servant whom I have chosen; that ye may know and believe me, and understand that I am he: before me there was no God [Elohim] formed, neither shall there be after me. I, even I, am the LORD [Jehovah]; and beside me there is no savior.
Note from these verses that there are several things which God wants us to know, believe, and understand: (1) There is only one God (Elohim) and Jehovah is that one true God. (2) There were no Elohims formed before Jehovah. This means that Jehovah does not have a Father. That is, no God (Elohim) preceded him, by whom He was procreated. (3) There will be no Elohims formed after Jehovah. Some say that Isaiah 43:10,11 is talking about idols. But that cannot be true for there certainly have been idols and false gods made and worshiped since this passage was written. Therefore, when God said no gods would be formed after him, it must mean no real, true Gods.
Isaiah 44:6,8. Thus saith the LORD [Jehovah the King of Israel, and his redeemer the LORD of hosts; I am the first, and I am the last; and beside me there is no God [Elohim] ... Fear ye not, neither be afraid: have not I told thee from that time, and have declared it? ye are even my witnesses. Is there a God [Elohim] beside me? yea, there is no God [Elohim] I know not any.
The emphatic "Thus saith Jehovah" in the above verse commands our attention. The following points are made under authoritative declaration: (1) Jehovah is the first Elohim and the last Elohim. There can be only one first and only one last. Again, this rules out the possibility of any other Gods existing throughout all of eternity past and all of eternity future. It also again shows that Jehovah and Elohim are not different Gods. (2) Jehovah is the only God (Elohim) that exists. This again rules out the possibility of other sovereigns existing. (3) No reasonable person would challenge the intellect of God. When He says that He does not know of something, this certainly does not imply any limitation in the scope or capacity of His knowledge. On the contrary, when He says He does not know of something, we may be assured this means that thing does not exist. So it is plain that when God says He does not know of any other Gods it is because they do not exist. Thus, these verses affirm in the clearest possible terms that no other Gods exist, nor will exist, throughout all of time and space, in this universe or any other.
Deuteronomy 6:4. Hear, O Israel: The LORD [Jehovah] your God [Elohim] is one LORD [Jehovah].
Notice the word "one" in this verse. It must be noted that there are two words for "one" in Hebrew: echad and yachid. Echad, the word that is used here, "stresses unity, while recognizing diversity within that oneness."7 For instance, we have one army, but within it there are many members. The oneness described in this verse does not suggest a "oneness of purpose," but a singleness of Being. The word yachid could have been used to designate one that does not allow for a plurality within the oneness.
The following conclusions are in order: (1) Jehovah and Elohim are the same God. (2) While there is only one God, a plurality of divine Persons within that oneness is suggested in the Old Testament.
Psalm 110:1. The LORD [Jehovah] said unto my Lord [Adona], Sit thou at my right hand, until I make thine enemies thy footstool.
A plurality of divine Persons within the one God is exactly what we find in this verse. It has been universally recognized for centuries by both Jews and Christians as a Messianic psalm. Matthew 22:41-46 shows that Jews in Jesus day understood the "Lord" (Adona) in Psalm 110:1 to refer to the Messiah. Read Acts 2:32-36 and Hebrews 1:13 and you will see that the New Testament clearly presents Psalm 110:1 as an invitation by God the Father ("LORD"/Jehovah) to His Son, Jesus Christ ("Lord"/Adona) to sit at His right hand. Two observations are in order:
- Notice that Jehovah is speaking to Adona (a singular form of Adonai). As was mentioned earlier, when the word 'Lord' is used for God it is usually written in the plural form (Adonai), which is in harmony with the historic Christian doctrine of God's Tri-une nature (Trinity). In this verse Jehovah is speaking to a specific Person within the Trinity, so he uses the singular word for Lord. God is in fact speaking to God, or to state it from the perspective of the Apostle Peter's sermon in Acts 2:32-36, the Father is speaking to His pre-incarnate Son, Jesus Christ.
- However, this points up a major contradiction between Mormon doctrine and the Bible, for according to the LDS Church, Jehovah is Jesus. In the words of President Spencer W. Kimball, "There are three Gods: the Eternal Father, Elohim, to whom we pray; Christ or Jehovah, and the Holy Ghost."8 Thus, in the popular brochure, "What Mormons Think of Christ," the late Mormon apostle Bruce R. McConkie offered this translation of Psalm 110:1: "The Lord (Elohim, the Father) said unto my Lord (Jehovah, the Son), sit at my right hand."9 As we have seen, the KJV system for designating the divine names does not allow for this translation; it is completely impossible. The text clearly states that it is Jehovah (LORD), not Elohim, who is inviting the Messiah to sit at His right hand. In order to support the Mormon doctrine of God, Elder McConkie was forced to manipulate the clear text of Scripture.
The Inescapable Conclusion
As we have seen from the Old Testament Scriptures above, it is surely wrong to say that Elohim, Jehovah, and the Holy Ghost are separate Gods. The Bible states emphatically and repeatedly that there is only one God, it declares that Elohim is Jehovah, and it uses the names Elohim, Jehovah, and Adonai interchangeably. The Bible also teaches that the Father is God, the Son is God, and the Holy Ghost is God (Acts 5:3,4). The awesome but inescapable conclusion is that God is Tri-une in nature. How gracious that He has stooped to reveal Himself to us in His infallible Word. How crucial that we interpret His Word accurately.
1. Jack B. Scott, s.v. "elohim," in Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, 2 vols. (Chicago: Moody Press, 1980), 1:44.
4. J. Barton Payne, s.v. "Yahweh," in Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, 1:210.
5. Robert L. Alden, s.v. "adon," in Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, 1:13.
7. Herbert Wolf, s.v. "echad," Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, 1:30.
8. Faith Precedes the Miracle, p. 85.
9. See also, Elder McConkie's The Mortal Messiah, 4 vols. (Salt Lake City: Deseret, 1980), 3:386.