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God of the Universe — Shepherd of Men

The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not want. He makes me lie down in
green pastures, he leads
me beside still waters, he restores me.
He leads me in paths of righteousness for the sake of his name. — Psalm 23:1–3

The one who is seated on the throne of the heavens leads David on the hills of Judea. The God of the Bible is sovereign over the universe. Yet, his eyes are upon his people. He cares for them. The true God is a God of relationships. The 23rd Psalm contains some of the most poignant words ever found in human language. Throughout our world they are better known than the constitutions of great nations. We are moved by the words of this psalm because we are drawn to David’s God. We too desire such a shepherd.

There are none among human beings or their gods who can compare to him. An imagined “cosmic unknown” really is unknown and cannot help us. God is referred to in the above lines from the 23rd Psalm four times as “he.” The true God is an individual, not an “it” or a  “they.” He has character and is knowable.

The LORD is YHWH – They Knew Him by Name

When David wrote about “the LORD” being his shepherd, he was actually calling him by name. Linguists, Bible scholars and the best of our Bible translations tell us that the word “LORD” when found in all capital letters in our Bibles is actually a stand-in for י the name of God (YHWH or YHVH). The English Standard Version states, “As is common among English translations today, the ESV usually renders the personal name of God (YHWH) with the word LORD (printed in small capitals).”[1] This device has been used by major translations over time, including the Authorized Version (King James).

Thought to have been pronounced “Yahweh” by many, that name occurs some 6,823 times in the Hebrew Bible.[2] It is the single most frequently occurring word in the Old Testament.[3] According to the New American Standard Bible, the name ceased to be spoken by Jews of old, “because of reverence for the great sacredness of the divine name.”[4] When reading the Scriptures aloud they would often speak a Hebrew word for Lord (adonai) rather than pronounce the name. When the Hebrew Bible was translated into Greek, Aramaic and Syriac, words with the meaning of “lord” in those languages were employed rather than writing the name. Due to lack of use, over time people became uncertain about the pronunciation.[5] All of this led to the substitution of the English word “LORD” (all capital letters) in most English translations.[6] In this present book, the author uses “LORD” and “YHWH” interchangeably.

What was intended out of reverence, however, had unanticipated consequences. Using the word “LORD” rather than God’s name leaves us with a somewhat nondescript reference that sounds more like a title or office than a personal name. David had a closeness to God reflected in the fact that he called him “YHWH.” By ceasing to use his name, we lost some of that sense of intimacy. Nevertheless, familiarity with the name and even accuracy regarding its pronunciation are of little value if we do not know who God is and do not have connection with him for ourselves.

When I see the word “LORD” in my Bible, I find it inspiring to remember that it is actually God’s name that is intended. When I think of that, I feel a kinship with David and all of God’s people of old who did speak his name. Reflecting on that name also reminds me that the true God is an individual with a personal name and is not an impersonal force or power. And it reminds me that YHWH is a single individual. The name YHWH in its thousands of occurrences is consistently accompanied by singular verbs and pronouns. It is YHWH who is the God of the universe. And he is the shepherd of men.[7]

Continue reading – next in series

Gill, J. Dan (2016). What is God Really Like? In, The One: In Defense of God (pp. 43-45). Nashville, TN: 21st Century Reformation Publishing.

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[1] The Holy Bible, English Standard Version, “Preface,” Cross-way Bibles, Text Edition: 2007, ix. The NIV, NASB, NRSV and others provide similar explanations. In reality, two words are normally substituted for “YHWH” because it is customary to add the definite article to “LORD” when translating. In certain circumstances, (particularly when the name YHWH is in association with adonai, e.g. Gen. 15:2) some translations use “GOD” (all capital letters) to indicate the name. The name YHWH is sometimes referred to as the “Tetragrammaton,” a term from Greek which references the four letters that compose the name in Hebrew.

[2] That is the count offered by Ryrie. Charles C. Ryrie, Ryrie Study Bible – Expanded Edition, New International Version (Chicago: Moody Bible Inst., 1994).

[3] This is according to Kittle. (That is the count disregarding particles.) B. P. Kittle, V. Hoffer and R. A. Wright, Biblical Hebrew — A Text and Workbook (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1989), 410.

[4] After referring to YHWH as God’s “special or proper name,” the NASB states, “It is known that for many years YHWH has been transliterated as Yahweh, however, no complete certainty attaches to this pronunciation.” New American Standard Bible, “Principles of Translation,” Lockman Foundation, 1995.

[5] The tradition of not pronouncing YHWH continues to this day among Jews. A common practice is to verbalize haShem, “the name” (or other stand-in words) when reading the Hebrew Bible aloud. There was no directive in the Law of Moses or the prophets which prohibited the speaking or writing of God’s name.

[6] In the Septuagint (LXX), kurios (Greek for lord) was substituted for YHWH. Aramaic and Syriac versions used similar approaches. The Vulgate used dominus (Latin for lord). For a brief summary see: “YHWH,” Tremper Longman III, ed., The Baker Illustrated Bible Dictionary (Grand Rapids: Baker Publishing Group Holy Bible, English Standard Version, “Preface,” Crossway Bibles, Text Edition, 2007.

[7] The Shepherd in this psalm is not the Messiah, but rather YHWH himself. It has been suggested by some that the 23rd Psalm may be Messianic. E.g. Harold Lindsell, ed., Harper Study Bible — Revised Standard Version (New York: Harper and Row, 1964), 790. While it may well be Messianic, it is a mistake in any event to see the Messiah as being the shepherd in this case. Clearly it is “YHWH” (v.1) who is the shepherd and if the psalm is Messianic, Messiah would be identified with the speaker/writer. The LORD then is the Messiah’s shepherd. In chapter 11 of this book, the reader will find a consideration of the Messiah as chosen by YHWH to be a shepherd for the people.

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