Editor’s Preface: My friend John challenges us to think about the difference between the reality of God, and conventional names we use for God – a difference we may sometimes forget about. He leads you to examine the foundations of our Christian faith and distinguish it from common Christian jargon. NB: Sharing this post does not imply I endorse all the views therein contained. – Barney
One of the most famous and sung anthems from the Psalms is the beautiful sentiment of αλληλουια, Hallelujah, rendered ‘Praise the LORD’ in many of our modern English Bibles and hymn sheets.
Unfortunately, since ‘the LORD’ was suggested by John Wycliffe—way, way back in the late 1300s—it has become a poor translation of the Hebrew Name for God, Yahweh.
In the English spoken and written today, ‘Lord’ usage has really slumped, and the little that remains is scarily dark! Whether it is a warlord or drug lord, or a science-fiction / fantasy genre bad guy (e.g. Lord Voldemort in Harry Potter, the Dark Lords of the Sith in Star Wars and even the Lord of the Rings), the connotations are not good. Even landlords can be pretty dark and shady characters you might be thinking!
In addition to the usage problems, there are some rather striking grammatical issues with ‘the Lord’, in part arising from the fact that Wycliffe and other medieval translators were translating directly from the Latin Vulgate. Finally, we continue to see young people leaving the church in their droves, seemingly still in search of good, stable and accessible forms of authority, purpose and spirituality in their lives.
Despite these apparently legit concerns, ‘the Lord’ is somehow managing to dodge reassessment in nearly all of our most modern and dynamic translations into English. And so ‘the Lord’ limps on. Why is that?
The reasons are multiple. Shaking the earth clear from each root we progressively loosen history’s firm hold on this inadequate expression. Could praising the Lord be one of these roots?
Looking at the saying in the Hebrew and Greek, I was recently brought afresh to contemplate this idea of αλληλουια (Hallelujah, Praise the LORD). I paused, peacefully. Despite the problems I was exploring around the word ‘Lord’, there was and is something so good here. Why would I even describe it as beautiful? Because praising anything good is beautiful. It makes me smile deeply and transcends my bickering over terminology, so I am very grateful for this higher perspective!
However, I also feel confronted with this interesting idea. What if our English-speaking worship of ‘the Lord’ has strengthened the resilience of lordship language for centuries? Look at the words slowly in turn with me (the punctuation is designed just to slow us down a little).
P R A I S E.
‘T H E. L O R D.’
What has this English biblical command been doing to the Church’s relationship to ‘the Lord’? Remember this is a fundamentally beautiful, good and sacred practice. However, it seems to also be cementing the unfortunate English words themselves at that deeper, devotional level because of a problem in translation: Praise the one whose Name is ‘The LORD’, rather than praise the one whose Name has been translated ‘The LORD’. Praise this English title and invest it with value, sanctity and love. Make this medieval English title God’s actual name and preserve it at all costs.
Despite appearances, that is a significant and costly transition of perspective. A person’s name is relatively timeless, designed to refer directly to the core and entirety of their person, such that the named and the name are One.
We see that in the Old Testament too:
“But you shall seek ‘the LORD’ at the place which ‘the LORD’ your God will choose from all your tribes, to establish His name there for His dwelling, and there you shall come.”
New American Standard Bible, Deuteronomy 12:5 (quotes and emphasis added)
So, perhaps if we catch ourselves being exhorted to ‘praise the Lord’, let’s be aware of both the power of the idea and the inadequacy of ‘the Lord’ to continue naming the one we also call ‘God’.
As for the translators, they too are Christian. They too feel a burden of strong loyalty to the past and they too sense the special status instilled through all the worship and honour of this so-called name of ‘the Lord’. Serious reassessment of translating Yahweh with ‘the Lord’ is thus avoided, but it needn’t be! Once we all realise that
– ‘the Lord’ is not sacred of its own accord,
– ‘the Lord’ may not have been the best translation even to start with and that
– ‘the Lord’ is certainly failing to deliver now on the multiple layers of authority active in the biblical languages,
then we Christians can rethink how to express divine authority in our lives.
… and we already are. For instance, Eugene Peterson’s hugely successful The Message translation scored brilliantly on rethinking the Lord problem. Instead of mindlessly repeating ‘the LORD’, he dared replace these 6,866 Old Testament translations of Yahweh instead by ‘GOD’ (or simply Hallelujah!). That already feels a lot better! And if we tune in to the popular Christian media that is successfully engaging with the world, we are hearing the Christian message and work expressed with significantly less dependence on language of lordship than in the past. However, much more still needs to be done to provide us all with fresh linguistic resources and perspectives that invite us back to experience and express divine authority as something truly worthy of our praise.
 This problem concerns the adding of articles that the Hebrew authors and Greek translators were so careful to avoid in order to preserve the personal name of God. Since Latin does not have articles, translators may have been ignorant of this fact.
 The effect is equally strong elsewhere, e.g., Come, let us bow down in worship, let us kneel before ‘the LORD’ our Maker (Psalm 95:6, NIV, quotes added)