Notice how in Isaiah 6:1 the word Lord is printed. It begins with a capital letter and then is finished with lowercase letters. This stands in contrast with the word LORD that occurs later in the text and frequently in Scripture. Sometimes the word Lord appears in all capital letters—LORD. This is not an error in printing or a mere inconsistency on the part of the translator. Most English translations of the Bible follow this device of rendering the word Lord sometimes in lowercase letters and other times in uppercase letters. The reason for this difference is that two different Hebrew words are used in the original text, but both are rendered in English by the word Lord.
When the word Lord occurs in lowercase letters, the translator is indicating to us that the word Adonai is found in the Hebrew Bible. Adonai means “sovereign one.” It is not the name of God. It is a title for God, indeed the supreme title given to God in the Old Testament. When LORD appears in all capital letters it indicates that the word Jahweh is used in the Old Testament. Jahweh is the sacred name of God, the name God revealed Himself to Moses with in the burning bush. This is the unspeakable name, the ineffable name, the holy name that is guarded from profanity in the life of Israel. Normally it occurs only with the use of its four consonants—yhwh. It is therefore referred to as the sacred “tetragrammaton,” the unspeakable four letters.
We see, for example, this contrast in words found in the Psalms. Psalm 8 reads, “O LORD, our Lord, how excellent is thy name in all the earth.” What the Jew was saying was, “O Jahweh, our Adonai, how excellent is thy name in all the earth.” Or we could render it, “O God, our Sovereign one, how excellent.…” Again we read in Psalm 110: “The LORD, said unto my Lord, Sit thou at my right hand.” Here the Psalmist is saying, “God said to my sovereign, sit thou at my right hand.”
LORD is the name of God; Lord is His title. We speak of President Ronald Reagan. Ronald is his name; President is his title. If the highest office in our land is the office of president, so the highest office and title in Israel was the office of Sovereign. The title adonai was reserved for God. It was the title that was given to Jesus in the New Testament. When Christ is called “Lord,” he is invested with the New Testament equivalent of the Old Testament adonai. Jesus is called the Lord of the lords, the King of the kings, gaining a title that beforehand was reserved only for God, the supreme Sovereign of heaven and earth.
When Isaiah came to the temple, there was a crisis of sovereignty in the land. Uzziah was dead. The eyes of Isaiah were opened to see the real King of the nation. He saw God seated on the throne, the sovereign one. — R. C. Sproul, The Holiness of God (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 1993), 29–31.
I have just completed a seven-part Bible Study called Ancient Words. It explores seven key Hebrew words we need to understand in order to really understand the gospel. This article is an excerpt from this Bible study. The Bible Study is available on Amazon. It is also avail as well as part of my Good Questions Have Groups Talking subscription service.
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