How to Know God

What does Yahweh mean?

Jeff Lark


"Yahweh" is the Hebrew word for the self-revealed name of the God of the Old Testament. It comes from the Hebrew verb "To be." At its core, "Yahweh" means "To be." The English Bible translates it as "LORD," which distinguishes it from "Lord" (which is translated as "master").


What's in a name? Depending on where you live, your name may or may not be especially significant. For some, your name may have been passed down from generation to generation as a badge of honor. For others, it may be a name with significant meaning. Or it may be a name your parents thought was cute.  

Names in the Ancient Near East always meant something. We see this throughout the biblical account. And this is most clearly seen when God gives himself the name Yahweh.



Biblical Background

The name "Yahweh" first shows up in the biblical story just after the creation of man and woman. But it isn't until thousands of years later that God pronounces the significance of His name. 

The people of Israel had been slaves in Egypt for 400 years. God heard their cries for deliverance. And in keeping with His promise to deliver, He chooses Moses to carry out that deliverance. Moses questioned God's call. He needed reassurance. And anticipating the resistance from fellow Israelites, he asked God whom He should say is sending him. In Exodus 3:14-15, God answered him. He said to Moses, "I AM WHO I AM." And He also said, "Say this to the people of Israel: 'I AM has sent me to you.'" God also said to Moses, "Say this to the people of Israel: 'The LORD, the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you.' This is my name forever, and thus I am to be remembered throughout all generations."

It is critical to notice how God declares who He is in these verses. First, He says, "I AM WHO I AM." This is a tricky phrase to translate. Hebrew does not have past, present or future tense. However, the reader can usually determine the tense implied. In this case, the possible translations could be "I was who I was" (past tense), "I will be who I will be" (future tense) or "I am who I am" (present tense).  

Each of these translations are legitimate based on the context. First, God even points backward to how He was the God of the patriarchs who lived centuries before. So "I was who I was" could make perfect sense.  

Second, "I will be who I will be" could make sense. God was assuring Moses he could trust Him in the future deliverance of Israel. God says future generations will remember Him by this name.

What Does "Yahweh" Mean?

But there are limitations to each of these translations. First, it is not that God is saying, "I was." In other words, "I'm a has-been." And God is not only saying, "I will be." In other words, "I wasn't in the past, but I will be in the future." Or, "I hope to be."  

So how should one translate this phrase? Because the context looks backward and forward, it is legitimate to translate it as "I am who I am." In other words, God is declaring, "I was God, I will be God, and I always and forever am God."

The Verb vs. the Noun

There is one more observation to make in these verses. The translators change between "I AM" and "LORD." The verbal form is translated as "I AM," and the noun form is translated as "LORD." 

The easiest way to explain the difference is with an illustration. For example, I could say, "I run" (verbal form). And to even make this example more explicit, "I run that I run". (It doesn't make a lot of sense, I know.) But then I could say, "I am a runner" (noun form). Or to make it more explicit, what if my teammates decided to name me "Run"? They would be saying, "He is so good at what he does that from now on, we are going to call him Run." And then, one day, I send some of my teammates to recruit an up-and-coming runner, and as I send them out, I say, "Tell him that Run has sent you."

The Tricky Translation and Usage of the Name

Not all English translations agree on how to translate the noun form of "I AM." The reason is Hebrew doesn't have vowels in their words. Usually, that was no problem at all. But there is some discrepancy when it comes to "I AM." 

So when it comes to the name "Yahweh," if the vowels are taken out, you are left with "YHWH." As a result, some read it as "YeHoWaH" (or transliterated into "Jehovah": the Y makes a "J" sound, and the W makes a "V" sound). Others read it as "YaHWeH."  

The other problem was that the Hebrew people had such a reverence for God that they didn't dare speak the name "YHWH" for fear of using His name in vain.  

So, with time, there wasn't even a verbal account passed down through the oral tradition of how to pronounce the name. 

And then, in the third century B.C., the Hebrew Scriptures (what we know of as the Old Testament) were translated into Greek. This translation, called the Septuagint, translated YHWH as Kurios, which translated into English is "Lord."   

While some modern English translations translate "YHWH" as "Jehovah" or "Yahweh," many English translations maintain the tradition of the Septuagint by translating the name as "LORD" (notice that it's all caps). So whenever you see the word "LORD," you can know you are reading the self-disclosed name of God, I AM.


More Than Just a Name: The Biblical Description of Yahweh

You now know what "Yahweh" means and where it came from. It is essential to understand how the Hebrew Bible describes who the LORD is. It is important to look at some of the "Lord is" statements.


The LORD is God, and there is no other besides him - Deuteronomy 4:35,39-40

"To you it was shown, that you might know that the LORD is God; there is no other besides him. Know therefore today, and lay it to your heart, that the LORD is God in heaven above and on the earth beneath; there is no other. Therefore you shall keep his statutes and his commandments, which I command you today, that it may go well with you and with your children after you, and that you may prolong your days in the land that the LORD your God is giving you for all time." (English Standard Version, along with all other Scripture quotations below)


The LORD is Peace - Judges 6:24

"Then Gideon built an altar there to the LORD and called it, The LORD Is Peace."


The LORD is righteous - 2 Chronicles 12:6

"Then the princes of Israel and the king humbled themselves and said, 'The LORD is righteous'."


The LORD is shepherd - Psalm 23:1

"The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want."


The LORD is a God of justice - Isaiah 30:18 [H3]

"Therefore the LORD waits to be gracious to you,

and therefore he exalts himself to show mercy to you.

For the LORD is a God of justice;

blessed are all those who wait for him."


The LORD is judge, lawgiver and king - Isaiah 33:22

"For the LORD is our judge; the LORD is our lawgiver;

the LORD is our king; he will save us."


The LORD is creator - Jeremiah 33:2

"Thus says the LORD who made the earth, the LORD who formed it to establish it—the LORD is his name."


The LORD is our righteousness - Jeremiah 23:6

"In his days Judah will be saved, and Israel will dwell securely. And this is the name by which he will be called: 'The LORD is our righteousness.'"


Yahweh's Description of Himself

It is one thing to consider how biblical authors described the LORD, but what if the LORD was to describe Himself? Yet this is precisely what happens in Exodus 34:6-7.

"The LORD passed before him and proclaimed, 'The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children's children, to the third and the fourth generation' " (ESV).


1. Full of mercy and grace

God's lead foot in describing Himself is that He is a God who is "merciful and gracious." The LORD delights in giving people what they don't deserve. The LORD's posture is not one of judgment, condemnation or ridicule. Instead, it is one of grace and mercy toward the most undeserving.


2. Abundantly patient

Next, God is abundantly patient. He describes himself as "slow to anger." The LORD does not have a short fuse. He does not become easily ticked off. Instead, He says of Himself that it takes a lot to anger Him.


3. Abounding in committed and unmovable love and faithfulness

The following way the LORD describes Himself is "abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands." Because the end of the verse talks about "generations," it is assumed that "thousands" here also refers to generations. In other words, the LORD is so unmovable in His love and faithfulness that it extends to thousands of generations.  


4. Quick to forgive

To cap off these attributes, the LORD speaks to humanity's most profound need: forgiveness. If the LORD is gracious and loving and faithful and patient and yet doesn't forgive, humans would never be able to have their deepest problem solved. All people would be desperately helpless without forgiveness from the LORD who created all things. 


5. Perfectly just toward the guilty from generation to generation

While we all want a God who is gracious and patient and quick to forgive, none of us would desire to live in a world where the judicial system always lets the guilty go free. Humans desire justice. Love necessitates justice. A father wouldn't be loving if he continually turns a blind eye to someone who is abusing his five-year-old daughter. And so it is with the LORD. 

The rest of Exodus 34:6-7 says, "... but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children's children, to the third and the fourth generation" (ESV). From generation to generation, the LORD will not turn a blind eye to injustice, hatred, destructive sin, greed, manipulation or abuse because He loves His children too much to let the destructiveness of sin hurt them.


6. Weight of the passage - thousands to three or four

But notice the overwhelming weight of the passage. The LORD's mercy, grace, patience, love, faithfulness and forgiveness far outweigh His justice. It's not even close: thousands to three or four.

The Forgiving yet Just LORD

The loving yet just character of Yahweh leads to the most critical question of all. How can the LORD be both forgiving and just?

In the New Testament, Jesus identified himself as "Yahweh." He says in John 8:58-59, "'Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I am.' So they picked up stones to throw at him, but Jesus hid himself and went out of the temple" (ESV). 

Why did the religious leaders pick up stones to stone him? Because they knew exactly what he just claimed when he said, "Before Abraham was, I am." He was declaring himself to be Yahweh.  

And this leads us straight back to the question "How can the LORD be both forgiving and just?" This same Jesus ultimately died as an innocent man to take on the punishment that every sinful person deserves. John 3:16-17 says it this way,

For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. (ESV)

God says that He is the LORD of grace, mercy, faithfulness and forgiveness. But He is also the God who doesn't leave sins unpunished. Out of His great love for all people, God sent His Son, the Great I AM, to rescue His people. And out of His justice, He had His Son, the Great I AM, take on the punishment for His sinful people. 

In doing that, Yahweh fulfilled all that He is. He fulfilled his justice by punishing one on behalf of all people. But He fulfilled His grace, love, mercy, faithfulness and forgiveness toward people who deserve punishment.

Yahweh, The God Who Relates

In the first chapter of the Book of Genesis at creation, the name Yahweh doesn't appear. The author of Genesis only refers to him as God. Only as God creates humans does the name Yahweh appear. The LORD is a relational God. He delights to be known. He delights to pursue people. He delights to lavish His forever love upon people. 

Because God's lead foot is grace, mercy, faithfulness and forgiveness, and because He has taken the punishment of the guilty upon Himself, we can freely come to him and enjoy His abounding love and grace.

So, what's in a name? As we have seen, there is no other name like the LORD.


Next Steps

In Exodus 34:6-7, God revealed that He is merciful, gracious and faithful to His people. But the Bible says more. God has always planned to extend His love and forgiveness to every kind of person, from every nation in the world. God has expanded His people to include you.

If you would like to know more about God's grace to the world, consider reading “Did Jesus Come to Reach the Gentiles?”

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