The most arcane practice of English Bible translations is the use of “The Lord” for God’s name. It is a translation choice with zero scholarly merit, it confuses by creating artificial distance between the reader and the text, and is not defensible on any legitimate grounds. At best it is condescending, but more likely it is just simply superstitious.
If you were to hear me preach from the Old Testament, you would hear me say “Yahweh” in the places where my NASB or ESV says “The Lord.” I’m often asked after services by visitors what Bible translation I use which uses Yahweh. I tell them I’m using theirs, and have them open to the front of their Bible, and show them where it says something along the lines of:
There is yet another name which is particularly assigned to God as His special or proper name, that is, the four letters YHWH. This name has not been pronounced by the Jews because of reverence for the great sacredness of the divine name. Therefore, it has been consistently translated Lord. It is known that for many years YHWH has been transliterated as Yahweh, however no certainty attaches to this pronunciation.
If you can train your mind to get over all the inaccuracies in that note (and it is bad—note the passive “assigned,” as if God was named by someone else; and how is different sized CAPS a form of translation?) you understand what the NASB editors are saying is that you are supposed to read Yahweh when you see them giving you The Lord. As if Christians have the decoder ring from The Christmas Story, and we can see through CAPS of varying fonts to the word “Yahweh.”
Let me briefly explain why translations say they do this, and then explain why they should stop.
First, some do this because they say we don’t know “with certainty” how YHWH was pronounced by the Jews of Moses’ day. But this misses the point. We don’t know with “certainty” how any of the Hebrew words were pronounced. I’m not even sure Yahweh spoke Hebrew to Adam in the garden anyway. How did Adam pronounce Eve? Is it the same way Americans do it? We can’t even agree on how to pronounce Isaiah, much less Yahweh. But the solution is not to render Isaiah as “ISH,” and it is certainly not to replace Isaiah with “The Prophet.”
Second, some translations say they do this to avoid offending the Jews, whom the translations tell us refuse to pronounce Yahweh because of “reverence for the great sacredness of the divine name.” Ha! Imagine the scene in John 8:58 when Jesus declared “before Abraham was, I am,” and the Jews picked up rocks to stone him. Now tell Jesus, “You know, they are rejecting you because of the great reverence they hold for the sacred name of Yahweh…you see, you vocalized the great Tetragrammaton, so they had no choice but to stone you…”
It is really bad translation practice to change something as fundamental as God’s name to avoid offending people who would simply prefer you not mention the name of Jesus’ God around them to begin with. Do we really think that the Pharisees of today are having their devo’s in the NASB? And if they are, I doubt it is the font size of The Lord that will cause them to reject Christ.
Third, some translations say they do this because everyone else does it. That is seriously the reasoning the NIV uses in their preface—which is ironic to say the least. This too shows a really bad translation philosophy when it comes to names. As my dad might have said when I was a kid “Everybody else is doing it” is just as much of a reason to not do something as it is to do something.
Why does this matter? For a few reasons:
God gave us his name, so we should use it. When God sends Moses to Israel, Moses tells God, “They are going to ask who sent me, and I’m going to have to give them a name…” (Exodus 3:13). God did not tell Moses—“I have a name, but I also have ten commandments, and one of them says not to take my name in vain, so you had better not say it, because then others might think you were taking it in vain.” Yet this is the exact logic used by those who refuse to print “Yahweh” out of some sort of superstitious fear.
God told Moses, “Tell them ‘I AM’ sent you” (Exodus 3:14). Then, later, he reiterates that while he had appeared to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, they did not learn his name (Exodus 6:3). But Moses and the Israelites are different, because he gives them the privilege of calling him “by my name, Yahweh.” Even the KJV uses “Jehovah” here, instead of The Lord. The point is obvious: God wants those with whom he is in a saving relationship to address him by his name, which he gives them. Frankly, it’s absurd to say that it’s improper to use the name that God himself gives. If he didn’t want us to use it, he wouldn’t have given it to us, and he certainly wouldn’t’ have commanded Moses to use it.
Use of The Lord is confusing. It introduces an article to sentences where there is none. It takes a proper name out of the text and inserts a title instead. When God’s name is used along side the actual Hebrew word for lord (Adonai), it gets downright convoluted—“The Lord God.” In this case “The Lord” translates Adonai, and God is used for Yahweh. Because the smaller font size for the capital O is the same size as a normal O, the only way you know that the text actually says Yahweh is the single capital D. This simply is not acceptable. Imagine if a translator did that in any other field: instead of translating a name, he gives you a different word as a title, plus an article, and indicates it by capitalizing a single letter of the new word. But this is exactly what Bible translations do, and it is confusing.
Use of The Lord fosters superstition. The third commandment forbids Yahweh’s covenant people from lifting up “the name of Yahweh in vain” (Exodus 20:7). This commandment forbids calling yourself a follower of Yahweh but leading an empty life. Certainly application of it can be to ensure that you only use Yahweh’s name when you are actually addressing him. But to “apply” this commandment by refusing to translate it accurately in the first place…well it is absurd. The result is a superstition that lives on, where some people won’t even address God by name at all, for fear of violating the third commandment.
This is straight pharisaical law-keeping, minus the law and the keeping. It is a play right out of the “if it is a sin to work on the Sabbath, better not leave the house at all” play book. And just to be safe, better not translate the command either—otherwise someone might accidentally sin by reading it (and imagine what would happen if they read it out loud!). This kind of superstition is alive and well, aided and abetted by our English translations.
Regardless, this translation slight-of-hand fails at its task anyway. Ask yourself: does substituting God’s name for “The Lord” keep you from taking his name in vain? If someone swears by exclaiming “Good Lord!” has the shrewdness of English translators kept them from violating the third commandment?
Earlier I quoted the NASB translator’s note on The Lord, but the ESV is no better. It actually introduces its apology for using The Lord with this line, which I’m not making up: “In the translation of biblical terms referring to God, the ESV takes great care to convey the specific nuances of meaning of the original Hebrew and Greek terms…” They tell us that, right before they explain why they take the name Yahweh, add an article, a title, and four shrunken capital letters. They then say they do this because it is actually “beneficial to the English reader, enabling the reader to see and understand the different ways that the personal name and the general name for God are both used in the Old Testament.”
You know what else helps the reader see that God gives us his name? Actually translating the text that God gave us, instead of the vocalized superstitions of the Pharisees. If you are a pastor, do your part—when you read Scripture to your congregation, give them the name that God told his people to use. Or, as the Holman translation used to say—“The name is Yahweh.”