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). Continue reading