Chapter 5: Elohim
by James B. Currie, Japan
The names of God in the Holy Scriptures are many; they are varied, colourful and pregnant with meaning. This is understandable when it is recognised that God designs to portray Himself by these names in His communication with His creatures. The names thus given are the Divine vehicle of God’s self-revelation.
Of these numerous God given designations three are found most often in Holy Writ. They are JEHOVAH, God’s personal name, which carries moral overtones; ADONAI, invariably translated "Lord", indicating God’s complete supremacy in every sphere of existence; and that considered in this chapter, ELOHIM. This title is almost always rendered "God" in the English translations of the Bible. The first two of these Divine titles have been capably dealt with in other parts of this publication. The present focus will be an attempt to show, to some degree at least, which characteristics of God are expressed in the title "Elohim". A threefold approach will be taken as we look at:
- The occurrences of Elohim in the Hebrew Scriptures
- The etymology of the title
- The attributes of God indicated by the title
THE OCCURRENCES OF ELOHIM IN THE HEBREW SCRIPTURES
So often does this word appear in the Old Testament, over 2,500 times, that the space required to consider each individual instance would be forbidding indeed. The best that can be achieved within the confines of this article is to examine some of the occasions where Elohim appears to relate in a definitive manner either to God’s own Person or refers to Divine characteristics. Thereby we may be able to grasp the meaning inherent to the term.
A very significant fact is that Elohim first appears in the introductory verse of the Bible. Gen.1.1 states, "In the beginning God [Elohim] created the heavens and the earth." Further, in the creation narrative as found in Genesis chapters 1 and 2, the same title appears 39 times. Upon the conclusion of this record of creation, Gen.2.3, and as preparation for man’s earthly debut, another designation of Divine Persons is given in the revelation. From Gen.2.4 the name "Lord God" is introduced. The unmistakable implication is that mankind too comes under the aegis of God’s creation mandate but with the added caveat that moral considerations are involved in this additional evidence of Divine power. Our attention is promptly drawn to the fact that Elohim is the God of infinite power capable of bringing the vast physical universe into existence merely by His spoken word. The omnipotence of Elohim pervades these two chapters at the very outset of God’s manifestation of Himself to His creation. The immensity of, apparently endless space furnished with billions of celestial bodies, each of which has its own distinctive glory, 1Cor.15.41, speaks of power immeasurable and unimaginable. Bringing the heavens and the earth into being, clothing them with His own special purpose in view and doing so from nothing which previously existed, staggers even the most profound intellect wherever found.
Another focus of Elohim is omnipotence: God’s power, might or strength. When Abraham obeyed the voice of the Lord and would have offered up his son Isaac, God supplied him with a substitute and thereupon pronounced a blessing upon Abraham. That blessing was sworn by God Himself, Gen.22.16, and the epistle to the Hebrews makes the comment, "when God made promise to Abraham, because He could sware by no greater, He sware by Himself" Heb.6.13. In chapter 22 of Genesis the word Elohim is used 5 times to show that it was the Lord, as Elohim Who tested Abraham, led him to the mount, provided him with the ram and then promised to bless him. The Elohim of Whom it is recorded that there is "no greater". In Deut.10.17 words that sum up the greatness of God’s Person are found: "For the Lord [Jehovah] your God [Elohim] is God of gods and Lord of lords, a great God, a mighty and a terrible, which regardeth not persons, nor taketh reward." Thus the meaning of the name Elohim is expounded for us in God’s own Word.
With reference to the earliest occurrences of the word Elohim in the book of Genesis, it is beyond question that God’s omnipotence is basic to its meaning, as we have seen, while the uniqueness of the Biblical account of creation’s beginnings is emphasised. Significantly, it may be noted that this name for God, Elohim, is not found in any of the ancient Semitic language chronicles but is found only in the Hebrew writings. This also suggests that the word is meant to convey something very special so that God’s peculiar creature, mankind, will grasp his special relationship to the God of his life.
THE ETYMOLOGY OF THE TITLE
Much has been written as to the origin and development of Biblical words especially with regard to the names of God. Since God has devised such a means as this in order to make Himself known to His creatures it makes an interesting and informative study. Moreover, salvation is an imperative for any who would know God, in keeping with what our Lord Jesus proposed in His definition of eternal life, which He said consisted of knowing "Thee the only true God and Jesus Christ Whom Thou hast sent". He added to this the words, "I have manifested Thy name unto the men which Thou gavest me" Jn.17.3,6. The more we appreciate the Divine Person and His attributes as thus made known to us, the more our hearts are drawn out in worship to the God of our creation. This has been expressed by the poet, as he seemed to be meditating on Matt.10.29-31:
- "Of all God’s marvels transcendent, this wonder of wonders I see,
- That the God of such infinite greatness, should care for the sparrows –
- and me!"
Some Hebrew scholars think that Elohim is derived from Eloah, the former being a plural noun and the latter singular. Eloah is believed to carry the meaning of ‘strength’ or ‘fear’. This leads to the interpretation of Eloah as ‘the Strong One’. This form of the word ‘God’ appears often in the book of Job but rarely elsewhere in Scripture. Perhaps the reason for this is that Job is particularly debating the very character of God with his three ‘friends’ and God is portrayed as ‘the Powerful One’.
Elohim has a different thrust of meaning. As a plural word it is always linked to singular forms of speech; verbs, adjectives, pronouns etc. Reference has already been made to the first seven words of the Hebrew Bible: "In the beginning God [Elohim - plural noun] created [singular verb] the heavens and the earth." The same grammatical anomaly appears in numerous portions of God’s Word. Linked still with creation’s day, the words of Gen.1.26,27 add weight to this seeming inconsistency: "and God [Elohim – plural] said, "Let us make [singular verb] man in our image, after our likeness …" so God [plural] created [singular] man in his [singular] own image [singular] , in the image [singular] of God [plural] created [singular] He him." Thus the word Elohim opens the way for the Biblical revelation of the one God Who subsists in a plurality of Persons. It is a unique word to describe an unparalleled communication. The essential unity of God’s own Being as He subsists in a plurality of three Persons. This is the meaning the word Elohim is meant to express and is clearly borne out by the background it has and by its usage in God’s Word.
THE ATTRIBUTES OF GOD INDICATED BY THE TITLE
The Divine Omnipresence
God, to be God, must be all-pervasive (omnipresent). Not merely capable of being so but in reality, being in all places all the time. He must not be limited in any way, either shut in to some places or shut out of others. To be truly God He must be transcendent to space, time and matter, and be beyond all the creation He made. Nor can the ideas of the polytheists, who maintain that the "gods many and lords many" 1Cor.8.5, of their darkened imaginations inhabit all the men, beasts and phenomena of the physical universe, be sufficient to explain this logical necessity. God must be present in the centre, circumference and all in between of His vast creation. The unwavering claim of both the Hebrew and Christian inspired writings is that Elohim alone is indeed possessed of this omnipresence. As with all infinite attributes the human intellect with its limitations, finds such a concept impossible to comprehend. It should be noted, though, that omnipresence is not a perception that offends logic. On the other hand it is not an idea that finds much support in the non-christian religions, since their expositions of the deities recognised are either speculative or ethereal, that is to say, without material form. Not so Elohim, Who has revealed Himself substantively as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Isaiah records words that were inspired by the Holy Spirit: "The Lord God, and His Spirit, hath sent Me" Isa.48.16. The "Me" of this quotation is none other than the One Who is called "the Son given" in 9.6 of the same prophecy. A trinity of persons can be conceived by the human mind, since humans have been created, spirit, soul and body, a triune being after the image of Elohim Who created him.
Elohim is spoken of as "the God of the whole earth" Isa.54.5; "the God of all flesh" Jer.32.27; the "God of heaven and the God of the earth" Gen.24.3. In each of these quotations it is the word Elohim translated as "God". Elohim leaves no doubt as to His claim to omnipresence when He uses the pen of His servant Jeremiah to write, "Am I a God at hand, saith the Lord, and not a God afar off? Can any hide himself in secret places that I shall not see him? saith the Lord. Do not I fill heaven and earth? saith the Lord" 23.23,24.
It is inconceivable that such a God for Whom these claims are made, be restricted in any way whatsoever. If such limitations are applied to Elohim in any degree then much of what is posited in relation to Divine attributes makes no sense. Further, many of the words of the Lord Jesus become unintelligible. For example, the great words of the gospel commission found in Matt.28.19,20, "Go ye therefore and teach all nations … and, lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world [age]." These words, to make any sense at all, whether believed or not, must be seen as a direct assertion of omnipresence, since He promises to be with His servants in all places at all times. Notwithstanding the amazing fact that the Lord Jesus took upon Himself the restraints of a perfect but physical humanity so that He could be in one place at one time and thereby suffer the experience of death, He never set aside His essential omnipresence. This, among other intrinsic attributes, was veiled by the Lord being "made in the likeness of men" to the end that He would "humble Himself" by becoming "obedient unto death" Phil.2.7,8. King David, in the confessional Psalm 139, was fully aware of this exclusive feature belonging to Elohim. He wrote: "whither shall I go from Thy Spirit? or whither shall I flee from Thy presence? If I ascend up into heaven, Thou art there: If I make my bed in hell, behold, Thou art there. If I take the wings of the morning, and dwell in the uttermost part of the sea; Even there shall Thy hand lead me" vv.7-10. This is an awesome thought! Before the presence of our God, Elohim, there is no secret hiding place, neither in heaven, earth or hell. By the very same token of God’s omnipresence the believer is completely assured that Elohim, "Thou God seest me" Gen.16.13, is the One upon Whom his trust is placed, as was Jacob’s who said He "will shepherd me all my life long" Gen.48.15.
The Divine Omniscience
To speak of God’s omniscience is to deal with the fact that God knows everything, 1 Jn.3.20. This is not merely to say that God knows all that men know, or can know. God’s omniscience, in the same manner as His omnipresence, must be absolute and an eternal attribute. With regards to Divine omniscience the Scriptures give an abundant witness.
Our attention is to be drawn to the fact that the first occasion on which the knowledge of Elohim is mentioned in Scripture comes from the lips of the evil one who acknowledges that things yet future and the cause and effect connected to all happenings are known to Him, Gen.3.5.
At the time of the conference in Jerusalem, dealing with the position of the Gentiles vis-à-vis the Jews and the Law, James made a statement that was far reaching. A drastic change as to the application of the Mosaic dispensation was being acknowledged and in relation to it and all other happenings the apostle said "known unto God are all His works from the beginning of the world" Acts 15.18. This could be taken to mean that God’s knowledge was limited to the era covering man’s habitation up to the present time but other Scriptures show that this is not the case. God’s knowledge is spoken of 3 times in Psalm 139 referenced above. David recognises that God is fully cognisant of his innermost thoughts, v.2, his every word even before uttered, v.4, and that such knowledge is something to which he cannot attain, v.6.
If, as has been noted, Divine omniscience is absolute and eternal then no mere creature can ever hope to grasp it. Man’s knowledge is received, partial and progressive. God’s is intuitive and instinctive with no one called upon to be His counsellor or His instructor, Rom.11.33,34. Nothing in the past has been forgotten by God; nothing in the present is hidden from Him, nor will the future unravel anything that will be unexpected to Him. Attempts have been made to explain how God can be aware of all things of all times at once without recourse to the limitations placed on men by their consciousness of the past, the present and the future. The efforts to illuminate the fact may not have been too successful but one illustration at least may help us to appreciate to a degree how God’s knowledge does not suffer limitations imposed by time or space. Suppose a person, standing by the roadside, watches a very long procession pass. He, at any given moment, sees only a small part of the parade, namely the present. Allow that individual to be carried aloft in some sort of flying machine then, from a height of two or three hundred feet, he would be able to see the whole pageant from beginning to end (past, present and future portions) without even turning his head.
For the unbeliever the idea of Divine omniscience is fearful. God says "I know the things that come into your mind, every one of them" Ezek.11.5. But the believer rests happily in this blessed fact that his God (his Elohim) knows everything. This is stated unequivocally in the New Testament in such places as Heb.4.13 where it is written, "all things are naked and opened unto the eyes of Him with whom we have to do". God knows everything about everything at all times. Not even a sparrow falls to the ground without your Father knowing, said the Lord Jesus, Matt.10.29. God knows everything instinctively without the need for learning or the need to be taught. His knowledge is at once perfect and complete. Nor does He ever need to modify His plans as the result of new information. The Elohim of our Bible is omniscient.
The Divine Sovereignty
A Divine attribute is something completely essential to the very nature of God, not merely a quality or feature of His thinking or actions. For this reason there are some thinkers of repute who believe that sovereignty is not basic to His nature but rather characteristic of the way He thinks or the method He chooses wherein to act. So far our consideration of Gen.1.1 – 2.3 as a record of the universe being brought into being, has shown that Elohim, in His creative movements, acted with untrammelled freedom: none able to control, dictate or otherwise interfere with His proposals or purpose. The decisions of Elohim are His own, uniquely, with no one on centre stage or on the periphery invited to assist, alter or contribute to the furtherance of this breathtaking work. Elohim programmed, determined and brought to perfection with purpose afore-thought, this vast universe for man’s benefit. Thus it is written, "He spake, and it was done; He commanded and it stood fast" Ps.33.9. The "He" of this verse is the Elohim of v.12: "Blessed is the nation whose Elohim is the Lord".
Relative to God’s salvation, the same holds true. In a very special and singular way "Salvation is of the Lord" Jonah 2.9. In the Psalms the phrase "the God [Elohim] of my salvation" is used 8 times and in numerous other references also. It was Elohim Who commanded Noah to build an ark to the saving of his house, Gen.6.13,14. This was in view of His sovereign decision to destroy the earth which He had made. In diverse texts throughout the Scriptures God allows Himself to be called "the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, the God of Jacob", see for example Ex.3.6. In every such instance it is the Name Elohim reminding us that God made sovereign choice of the patriarchs so that the work of salvation might be inaugurated and consummated in Abraham’s transcendent Son. It was also Elohim Who sent Joseph before his brothers into Egypt "to preserve [them] a posterity in the earth, and to save [their] lives by a great deliverance" Gen.45.7.
In Solomon’s enigmatic writings in Ecclesiastes, the word Elohim is found 41 times. God’s simple unadulterated plan for man is spelled out. It is that men should be happy and "enjoy Him forever". The wise king’s conclusion is "fear Elohim and keep His commandments" 12.13. For, he further states, "whatsoever God doeth, it shall be for ever: nothing can be put to it, nor any thing taken from it: and God doeth it, that men should fear before Him" Eccl.3.14. Elohim’s sovereignty is thus asserted as being eternal and inviolable.
The Divine Eternality
"From everlasting to everlasting, Thou art God [Elohim]" Ps.90.2. God is from everlasting, Ps.93.2, therefore has no beginning and His years shall have no end, Ps.102.27. Being omniscient He is able to recognise the limitations of time, past, present and future but He Himself is in no way affected by its nature or vicissitudes. He is the Creator of time, Rom.8.38,39, and thus can move either within or without its parameters. In the patriarchal age, when Abraham covenanted with Abimelech he dug the "the well of the oath" and planted a grove of commemoration in Beer-sheba calling upon Jehovah as "the everlasting Elohim" Gen.21.33. After Job’s three friends failed miserably to explain either God’s Person or His ways, Elihu, who in a measure became God’s interpreter for Job, spoke of Elohim saying "neither can the number of His years be searched out" Job 36.26. It stands to reason that if God is the Source and Originator of time then He may use its finite dispositions or ignore them as He pleases. An example of the former is His promise to Abraham in Gen.18.14: "At the time appointed I will return unto thee." As far as the second of these is concerned no change, which allows for transition in existence or in character, is contemplated in connection with God. The very opposite is the case and the believer sings with absolute confidence "No change Jehovah knows". This will be enlarged upon later. Suffice for now to note that God (Elohim), as to His essential Being, subsists with neither beginning nor end; as to the duration of His existence, He has neither predecessor nor successor and as to all of His actions in love, salvation and preservation He acts in supremely eternal independence with no interference or assistance brooked from any quarter. "Now unto the King eternal, immortal, invisible, the only wise God, be honour and glory for ever and ever, Amen" 1 Tim.1.17.
The Divine Omnificence
"Omnificence" is a descriptive, if rarely used word meaning either "having all power to create" or, for our present needs, "all good and always doing good"! "O Lord … Thou art good and doest good" Ps.119.65,68, says it all! David is constrained to write "I will sing praise to my God [Elohim] while I have my being" and this he does after a lengthy meditation upon the power, the goodness and the glory of God which he says "shall endure for ever" Ps.104.33,31.
"If God is good why …?" is the constant refrain on the lips of unbelief, but the chorus sung by those who know their God is "goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life", for "His [Elohim’s] mercy endureth for ever" Ps.23.6; 136.2. Mercy is the goodness of God extended to His creatures in need. Paul, appreciating sinful man’s great need, knows that only a "God rich in mercy" could meet it, Eph.2.4. The goodness of God is a pure and essential attribute and thus continues for ever, Ps.52.1. Job told his anxiety-ridden wife, "we receive good at the hand of Elohim" Job 2.10, and one of Asaph’s psalms reminded Israel that "Elohim is good to Israel" 73.1, while Paul drew the attention of the citizens of Lystra to the fact that it was the goodness of God providing them with those things basic to life and happiness, Acts 14.17.
Such was God’s determination to bless Abraham that, since He could find no greater by whom to swear, He swore by Himself. In other words, His desire to do good to Abraham was relentless. The believers of the present day enter into the blessedness of this truth and can raise their voices to sing:
- How good is the God we adore; Our faithful, unchangeable Friend,
- Whose love is as great as His power and knows neither measure nor end.
- (Joseph Hart)
The goodness of God takes in all His creatures, man and animal alike. It is universal. All men are invited to participate in God’s goodness: "O taste and see that the Lord is good: blessed is the man that trusteth in Him" Ps.34.8. The Lord Jesus encouraged His disciples to reflect a likeness to their heavenly Father by doing "good to them that hate you" for, without prejudice, "He maketh His sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust" Matt.5.44,45.
This goodness of God is essential in its nature, relentless in its desire, universal in its scope and unique in its possession. It is recorded by the three synoptic gospellers that the Lord Jesus declared unequivocally that this omnificence belongs to God and to no one else: "Why callest thou Me good? There is none good but one, that is, God" Matt.19.17; Mk.10.18; Lk.18.19. "Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and cometh down from the Father of lights, with whom is no variation nor shadow of turning" Jms.1.17, J.N.D. That brings us to the next attribute to be considered.
The Divine Immutability
If God was capable of or susceptible to change in any way, all that has been written here concerning His character or attributes would be meaningless. So would almost all of what is insisted in this book. An impermanent and changing universe demands a source that being without beginning or end, is eternally unchanging. In the last book of the Old Testament the Lord of Hosts claims immutability unconditionally. He says "I am the Lord, I change not" Mal.3.6. As a popular song of a few years back puts it, "nothing comes from nothing, nothing ever could"! In spite of what is arrogantly argued to the contrary, the cosmos demands a source and that source must be eternally unchangeable. What is laid down as principle in the Holy Scriptures concerning Elohim, answers what is demanded in a logical and reasonable way without stretching the credence of the creature who has been endowed by his Maker with a sense of eternity in his heart, Eccl.3.11, J.N.D. footnote. Throughout the whole of the Bible this truth is maintained in a most natural and unembarrassed fashion. The writer of Psalm 102, in contrasting his own impermanent state with that of the Lord’s says, "My days are like a shadow that declineth; and I am withered like grass. But Thou, O Lord, shalt endure for ever; and Thy remembrance unto all generations" vv.11,12. Not if God was given to change! The same writer, in language explicit and strong, states: "O my God … of old hast Thou laid the foundation of the earth: and the heavens are the work of Thy hands. They shall perish, but Thou shalt endure" vv.25,26. In J.N. Darby’s New Translation there are interesting changes made in the words of the prophecy of Isaiah. In Isa.37.16, where the A.V. says of the Elohim of Israel, "Thou art the God", it says "Thou art the SAME, even Thou alone". Also, in 41.4, "I the Lord, the first, and with the last: I am He" reads "I am the SAME". The epistle to the Hebrews emphasises this truth as applied to the Lord Jesus in the full orb of His Divine attributes. The quotation in Hebrews chapter 1 is from Psalm 102 where words suitable to the mouth of the crucified and suffering Saviour are recorded. "I said, O my God, take me not away in the midst of my days’’ and God’s answer to Him is, as found in Heb.1.10,12, "Thou, Lord, in the beginning hast laid the foundation of the earth; and the heavens are the works of Thine hands: they shall perish; but Thou remainest … Thou art the same, and Thy years shall not fail". This is verified to a greater degree in Heb.13.8, where the unambiguous statement is made, "Jesus Christ the same yesterday and to-day, and for ever."
A problem arises with the occasions God is said to "repent". God cannot be, at one and the same time, immutable and yet able to change His mind in the manner we consider. God never changes His mind in the way men accuse Him. For example, God created man with a definite purpose before Him. It was that men might glorify Him and enjoy His presence forever. Mankind balked at such a purpose and refused to obey it. The outcome being that God’s intention for all men altered. To illustrate this, the effects of the sun’s heating rays might be invoked. The same warming beams of the sun melt ice but harden clay. Neither the sun itself nor the rays it sends forth have differed in any way. The only difference is brought about by the reaction of the material upon which the sun shines.
At events of any consequence, during the boyhood of the writer, immediately prior to the National Anthem being played and sung, the crowd also sang a well-known hymn, with headgear removed in reverence and respect. It was also sung, almost nightly, in the air-raid shelters during the bombing raids in the Second World War. The words were:
- O God our help in ages past, our hope for years to come,
- Our shelter from the stormy blast, and our eternal home!
- Before the hills in order stood, or earth received her frame,
- From everlasting Thou art God, to endless years THE SAME.
The words thrilled the soul then, even in ignorance and do so still today. The Elohim of the believer; the same eternally, in love, in mercy, in grace, and in power.
At times we are far too glib in our attempts to explain God in what we think is reasonable and understandable language. God’s transcendent character is unmistakably set forth by Paul in Rom.11.33,34 where he writes: "O the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! how unsearchable are His judgments, and His ways past finding out! For who hath known the mind of the Lord? Or who hath been His counsellor?" But while God is revealed as the unsearchable One (the One Whose ways are beyond tracing out), He is far from being remote or isolated from man’s ability to "feel after Him". Paul told the Athenians that the bounds of their habitations had been determined by God aforetime so that they should seek and find the Lord, for said the apostle, "… He be not far from every one of us" Acts 17.26,27. God in grace has found a righteous means of ransoming lost souls so that none need perish and whereby the very mysteriousness of His own Being could be to some degree penetrated by mortal man. This is found in the revelation He has given of Himself in the sacrifice of His only Son, for, although "no man hath seen God [in actuality] at any time; the only begotten Son, which is in the bosom of the Father, He hath declared Him [bringing Him forth in revelation]" Jn.1.18. Thus, the Elohim of Biblical revelation is seen to be the God of omnipotence, omnipresence, omniscience, sovereignty, eternality, omnificence and immutability. Of Him, in relation to the saved of earth, it is written "God Himself shall be with them, and be their God" Rev.21.3.