What’s in a Name? How Names in the Bible Reveal Meaning and Lead Us to Trust in the Name above All Names

namesFor to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government
shall be upon his shoulder, and his name shall be called
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.  
— Isaiah 9:6 —

What’s in a name? In the Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible, we find a helpful introduction to the way names are used in the Old Testament. Here’s what it says,

In the OT names not only looked to the circumstances of a birth (e.g., Jonathan means “Yahweh has given [a son] ”; Reuben means “Look! A son”) but could also wish a blessing (e.g., Isaiah means “Yahweh’s salvation”; Immanuel means “God be/is with us”). Royal names could change when a person attained the throne. Several Israelite kings had their names changed by their overlords, showing that they were under authority of an outside power (e.g., the name of Eliakim was changed to Jehoiakim by the Egyptians, 2Ki 23:34). Others seem to have adopted their own throne name, as some have suggested for Azzariya/Azariah (meaning “Yahweh aided”) adopting the name Uzziah (meaning “Yahweh is my strength”). King David was identified at his death by four titles: son of Jesse, man exalted by the Most High, anointed by Jacob’s God, Israel’s favorite singer (2Sa 23:1).

Sentence names in the ancient Near East. Most names in the ancient world make statements, i.e., they are self-contained sentences. Many of the statements are about a deity. One can easily recognize the deity name in names such as Ashurbanipal, Nebuchadnezzar, or Rameses. Anyone even casually familiar with the Bible has noticed how many Israelite names end in -iah or -el, or start with Jeho- or El-. All of these represent Israel’s God. This type of name is called a theophoric name, and affirms the nature of the deity, proclaims the attributes of the deity or requests the blessing of the deity. One way to interret the titulary of this verse [Isaiah 9:7] is to understand it as reflecting important theophoric affirmations: The Divine Warrior is a Supernatural Planner, The Sovereign of Time is a Prince of Peace. (Note: the word “is” is not used in such constructions, as all names demonstrate).

Compound names in the ancient Near East. The name Maher-Shalal-Hash-Baz in Isa 8:1 is a compound name comprised of two parallel statements. Since Isa 9:6 proposes this child’s name (singular) rather than his names (plural; the NIV translates around this by avoiding the word “name” and translating “he will be called”), an attractive option is to consider this to be just one (long and complex) theophoric name. Though such compound names are not the norm in the ancient Near East, Isaiah is not presenting these as common. Assyrian use of compound names can be observed in the names Tiglath-Pileser III gave to the palaces and the gates he built Calah. The latter are named “Gates-of-Justice-Which-Give-the-Correct-Judgment-the-Rulers-of-the-Four-Quarters, Which-Offer-the-Yield-of-the-Mountains-and-the Seas, Which-Admit-the-Produce-of-Mankind-Before-the-King-Their-Master.” (Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible, 1132)

These are neat observations, but what can we learn from them? At least three things.

How Names and Stories of Renaming Teach Us To Read the Bible . . .

First, they teach us to stay alert when we find unfamiliar names in the Bible. Unlike America, where names are given because they sound neat or novel, names in the Bible carried great significance. For the modern reader, they provide great illumination to what is going on in the biblical passage. For instance, Nahum means ‘comfort,’ yet his prophecy is anything but comfortable. Knowing the contrast between his name and his message, heightens the irony of the book. Therefore, we should always be aware of what names mean, for the giving of a name is often revelatory in Scripture.

Second, when we see name changes in the Bible, it puts us on high alert for what is going on. I’m not just speaking about the difference in names, like that of Saul to Paul, or the duplication of names like Moses’s father-in-law (Reuel and Jethro). I’m talking about narratives in the Bible where we find names changed, e.g., God renaming Jacob ‘Israel,’ Moses naming Hoshea ‘Joshua,’ or Jesus renaming Simon ‘Peter.’ In such instances, the name change highlights the significance of the moment and anticipates what is to come in the life of the individual. This is probably the best way to read Isaiah 9:6–7.

Third, we should remember the words of Revelation 2:17, where Christ promises the saints at Pergamum the gift of a new name; “To the one who conquers I will give some of the hidden manna, and I will give him a white stone, with a new name written on the stone that no one knows except the one who receives it.” I do not know exactly what this means, but following the pattern of Scripture, it certainly signifies the fact that the identity we receive from earthly parents or worldly friends will be rewritten by the Lord when we see him in glory.

. . . and Trust in the Name of Jesus

For Christians who trust in the name of Christ, we already know that our identity is no longer found in the names we can make for ourselves—that is the way of Babel (Gen. 11:4). Rather, we receive the name the Lord has given us (Gen. 12:2). In this age, we receive the name “Christian,” “beloved,” “Married,” and “redeemed”—to name only a few. But in the age to come, God will reveal to us who he made us to be. Glorified with him, we will receive a new name and a place in his eternal Garden-City, the New Jerusalem.

This promise reminds us, we are not just defining ourselves, making our own destiny, or determining the legacy of our own names. Rather, we are accomplishing all the purposes for which we have been created. This is actually true for Christian and non-Christian alike (see Prov. 16:4). But especially, for those who know Christ—or, those to whom Christ has made himself known—we are living out the good plans God has for us. As Ephesians 2:10 says, “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.”

With this in mind, the next time you find a funny name in the Bible, take time to figure out what it means, and then consider where your name stands before God. Is it in the Lamb’s book of life (Rev. 13:8; 17:8)? If so, give thanks and continue to walk in a manner worthy of the life you have received from the Lamb. But if you are uncertain of the place of your name before the one who has the Name above all Names, then seek shelter under the only name that saves—the name of Jesus Christ.

For only those who find life in Jesus, will receive a new name from the Lord when Jesus returns. To that end, let us keep reading God’s word and learning how to live out the identity God has given us in him.

Soli Deo Gloria, ds

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