I used to be bad with names, and I was OK with it. That’s until I met Ray.
Ray and I were slated to direct a middle school retreat at Lakeside Bible Camp, where we expected to have 100+ kids show up from Friday evening to Sunday afternoon. And during our preparations for the weekend, Ray said something that changed my life. He said he’d know every kid’s name before lunch on Saturday.
“That’s impossible!” I said. “I couldn’t do that. I’m bad with names.”
“The only reason you’re bad with names is that you don’t care,” he replied. “If you really wanted to get to know these kids, you’d learn their names. It’s as simple as that.”
Ray was not the most energetic youth worker and I had way better game ideas than he did, but the kids gathered around him. Kids would walk up to him and say, “What’s my name?” And he’d tell them.
They loved him because he knew them.
Names are essential to personal relationships. Until we know someone’s name, we’re dealing with a unit, not a person. And who wants to be a unit?
As I said, that weekend changed me. I began putting real effort into getting to know people’s names, realizing I’d never really tried before. And when I became a pastor, I knew everyone’s name by the end of the first Sunday with them. It was all in the wanting, and I wanted to. Ray had discipled me in name-learning.
At the heart of Christian faith is a name: Jesus. We can know him because he has a name. And we can know we’re known by him because he knows our names.
Jesus said this of himself:
The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep listen to his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes on ahead of them, and his sheep follow him because they know his voice. … I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me (John 10:2-4, 14).
Easily the worst translation choice with the Hebrew Scriptures was to follow the Jewish reading tradition of not saying the name Yahweh to keep from saying it in vain. Where Jews substitute the word adonai (Hebrew: Lord) for the name, Christian translators have substituted the all-caps word LORD. Because of this, we have a major disconnect with God when we read the Old Testament, having lost his personal name. And so we capitalize the generic word “god” and treat it as if it were a name, knowing full well it isn’t.
Psalm 6 just comes across as whiny when the name Yahweh is replaced by LORD. Because it’s such a personal psalm, it requires a personal God.
How can we expect God to be personal with us if we’re not personal with him?
And Psalm 6 oozes with the personal. In 10 verses, it uses 20 times the Hebrew suffixes that we translate as I, me, and my. My bones. My soul. My groaning. My bed. My couch. My eyes. My foes. My weeping. My cry for mercy. My prayer. My enemies. And at the head of the psalm is a name, David, giving all of this personal expression a name to attach it to.
And the very first word of the psalm? Yahweh. A name.
David isn’t speaking to the ceiling. He’s not whistling in the dark. He’s talking to a person. The Person. He’s not wishing upward. He’s opening up his heart to Yahweh. This is intimate, visceral.
Eight times, the name Yahweh is called on. And right in the very middle of the psalm is the poetic center, the axis on which the entire psalm prayer moves.
Among the dead no one proclaims your name.
Who praises you from the grave? (Ps. 6:5)
My Mom (her name is Kathleen) died a few months ago. I used to see her every day. But even more than that, I used to hear her say my name every day. I don’t anymore.
That’s what David’s getting at here. This isn’t a theological statement about the silence of the dead. It’s a personal truth: If I die, you won’t hear me say your name any more.
If I die, my prayers die. My voice saying your name goes out of the world.
Yes, on this side of the resurrection of Jesus, we have hope for resurrection ourselves, since he is the firstborn from among the dead, and the Spirit is the deposit guaranteeing our inheritance. And yet, something is lost in this world — our voices saying the Name.
As David winds up the psalm, he matches his personal pleas — my weeping, my cry for mercy, my prayer — with God’s personal responses — Yahweh has heard, Yahweh has heard, Yahweh accepts.
Away from me, all you who do evil,
for Yahweh has heard my weeping.
Yahweh has heard my cry for mercy;
Yahweh accepts my prayer (Ps. 6:8-9).
The personal meets the personal. The relationship is confirmed regardless of the surrounding circumstances. Circumstances are always secondary to relationships.
The psalm rises or falls on the relationship, not on the circumstances. The names determine everything. Speaking. Listening. Responding. Loving.
After his fifth use of the name Yahweh, David drops in the key Hebrew word associated with the Name: chesed. Translated as mercy, lovingkindness, unfailing love, faithfulness, chesed combines all of those relational aspects together.
Turn, Yahweh, and deliver me;
save me because of your unfailing love (Ps. 6:4).
Using the name Yahweh always has chesed in mind — God tied to his people by the bonds of covenantal love to which he will always be faithful. A whole complex relationship is tied up in the use of the name. It always is.
Ray was right. There is no relationship without names. Learning a name opens up the possibility of relationship. Continuing to use a name opens up all kinds of complexities, nuances, and flavors in a relationship.
“God” isn’t God’s name. Yahweh. Abba. Jesus. Now, those are names to build a relationship on.