Exodus 3 and Christian Worship

July 7, 2018 | In Church

This post was originally written in the form of an essay for a ‘Current Issues’ assessment as part of my study at Christ College

In 2008, the Catholic church, along with Protestants alike, debated the use of the name Yahweh in their liturgy and music1. Meanwhile the Jewish church has not used this name for centuries2. In light of the revelation of God’s name in Exodus 3, and other pieces of scripture, this paper will attempt to explore how this unique name for God could be used in the modern church, today.

I have previously argued that the name Yahweh, as revealed to both Moses and us in Exodus 3 carries significant weight throughout the whole Old Testament, particularly for the nation of Israel. It conveyed the entire character of God, describing his work in creation, in creating covenant with Moses’ patriarchs, and in keeping his covenant as he bought the nation out of Israel and into the promised land. Protestant theology acknowledges that “in both Old and New Testament everlasting life is offered to Mankind by Christ”3 and therefore we should acknowledge the relationship between God and his people best described by the name he gave Himself. This is the same relationship which was supremely ratified in the death and resurrection of Christ.

Both Christian worship music, and Christian-inspired secular music, use references to Yahweh. For example, secular band U2’s album How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb has a track with Yahweh as it’s title, but makes no intelligible reference to the God of Israel or His character4. Then, in the Christian worship context, we have both traditional and contemporary songs referencing Yahweh directly by this name.

Bono from U2 performing in Sydney in 2010

So, should we take the approach of removing the use of God’s unique name in corporate worship, and if not, how should it be used?

Interestingly, in one hymn book5, there are 5 hymns attributed to our Exodus 3 passage, but only one of them calls the church to sing of I AM. It certainly seems, then, that in more traditional worship contexts this removal may already have been, perhaps unconsciously, done.

From scripture, it would appear that there is a model for worshiping God using his holy name. For example, Isaiah 12 elicits Israel to ‘call upon his name’ (v4) and to ‘sing praises’ (v5) to Him because of the character displayed by his acts – which his name also conveys. Similarly, Psalm 150 inspires us to create music to praise Him for his mighty deeds, according to his excellent greatness (v2). Rendered in English, this psalm transliterates the holy name of ‘the LORD’ 3 times. I believe these examples, amongst others, certainly provide an opportunity to use this name in our weekly gatherings.

However, I do believe we need to exercise some caution when using this name. Service and music leaders in contemporary churches should be careful to avoid the trap that Bono, the lead singer of U2 and the band’s main lyricist, fell into. It would seem that many of the lyrics of contemporary worship songs, where the name Yahweh is used, treat it more as a poetic device than a way of describing the Lord. But if a purpose of music and liturgy in corporate worship is the teaching of God’s word, then a more robust approach must be taken6.

The key to this approach is ensuring that the name is correctly put in a context that explains or expresses the significance of it. Exodus 34:6 provides a wide-ranging description of God’s character, as defined by God himself, starting with the repetition of his name. Indeed many of the times that the term is used as a descriptor for God in the Old Testament, it is accompanied by a qualifier that has echoes of the description within Exodus 34. It would seem appropriate then, that we should follow a similar pattern in the use of the name in our modern context. The benefit to us, today, in following this pattern is for the average congregation member. They may not have a full understanding of the significance of what God’s name meant to Israel and Jesus’ contemporaries and so reciting it as part of liturgy or song should also express and teach us about how great the character of God is.

The way in which we worship, both in the words we speak and the songs will sing, will continue to adapt to be appropriate for the context of the modern church. However, the God of the Bible never changes, and a proper understanding of his character empowers those who put their trust in Jesus to know and love him better. Therefore, I think it is helpful that we use the name Yahweh, when appropriate in our corporate worship, to aid us to recognise and see the greatness of the God who authored the salvation story across the whole Bible.

  1. Zylstra, Sarah Eekhoff. “Barring Yahweh: the Vatican gives orders to excise the name from worship. do Protestants agree?”. Christianity Today 52, no. 10 (2008): 15-15.
  2. Cohon, Samuel S. “The name of God: a study in rabbinic theology.” Hebrew Union College Annual 23, no. 1 (1950): 583.
  3. The Church of England in Australia. An Australian Prayer Book. Sydney Square, New South Wales: Standing Committee of the Church of England in Australia, (1978). 628 – Anglican Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion, Article VII
  4. Stockman, Steve. Walk On, The Spiritual Journey of U2. Orlando, Florida: Relevant Books, (2005): 228; Stockman disagrees with my claim here, saying that the song passes as ‘nothing short of a modern hymn’.
  5. Together in Song, The Australian Hymn Book II. Harmony ed. East Melbourne, Victoria: HarperCollinsReligious, (1999).
  6. Colossians 3:16 encourages us to sing as a way of teaching and admonishing one another.
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