“On the eighth day they came to circumcise the child, and they were going to name him Zechariah after his father. But his mother said, “No; he is to be called John.” They said to her, “None of your relatives has this name.” Then they began motioning to his father to find out what name he wanted to give him. 63 He asked for a writing tablet and wrote, “His name is John.” And all of them were amazed.” See complete Text: Luke 1:57-80
I’ve often wondered what it would be like to live in a culture where the majority of the names that people used were still tied to the language they spoke. Most of our names mean something—for instance various accounts say that my two names (Mary Kathleen) mean “wished for child, rebellion and bitterness” and “pure”, respectively—but these meanings are rarely, if ever, evoked when we say each other’s names.
To some extent it would have been different during the broad swath of time that covers the events of the Bible, as the majority of the names we find there are not only rooted in the languages spoken in those times, but were often specifically chosen to evoke the ideas and truths to which they pointed. Thus we have individuals like Elijah, whose name means “YHWH is God”, crucial in a time when Baal worship was prevalent, or Joshua (meaning “YHWH saves”), who led the Israelites in the conquest of the Promised Land.
Flash forward to the events of the first chapter of Luke, and we have Elizabeth and Zechariah, an elderly couple who had long endured the painful and shameful reality of not having borne a son, despite their faithfulness and righteousness, and what do their names mean? Zechariah’s name means “YHWH remembers” and Elizabeth’s, “God is Oath.” Both of their names point to the absolute faithfulness of God to act on his promises (the word “remember”, when attributed to God in the Bible, always implies action on His part, particularly with respect to his covenants) and yet there they were, Israelites in first century Palestine and, as such, subjects of the Roman Empire (a far cry from the glory believed to have been promised Israel) and bereft of what was commonly held to be a crucial sign of God’s favor: a son. What would it have been like to be in their shoes and yet reminded literally every time someone called their names that YWHW remembered and was oath? What would they have felt at being constantly reminded of his faithfulness in the light of their situation?
I don’t want to push the question too far, because it is impossible to know how much they cognized the meanings of their names when they were said, let alone how they considered their situation in light of God’s faithfulness. But it does point to a situation with which we are all familiar and have, at various points in our lives struggled: the painful dissonance we often feel when the situation we find ourselves in seems to be completely at odds with the goodness and faithfulness of God of which we often find ourselves constantly reminded at church, among friends, and even on social media. Speaking from my own experience, there are times when those reminders feel more like someone scraping at an open wound than pouring the healing balm of hope into it.
Often there is a temptation in those times to reconcile that sense of dissonance by assuming the hardships we face reflect that God has his mind on other, “more important” things, so as to explain why he seems to be absent from our situation or slow to act on our behalf. But even this would have been a potential source of struggle for Zechariah and Elizabeth, for the Israelites had been subject to other peoples for several centuries and there had been no prophet from God for 400 years. God did not even seem to be working on a more general level, let alone a personal one.
But God was at work in countless ways they could not see, yet were no less real because they could not see them; and in blessing them with a son, He would make manifest the extraordinary nature of that work: for not only would he bring healing to their wound of barrenness but he would also shatter the apparent wall of silence that had long seemed to divide YWHW from his people.
And what would the name of that son be? His name, to the surprise of many, was to be John, which means “YHWH has shown favor” or “YHWH has been gracious”.
Shown favor to whom? Been gracious to whom? To Zechariah and Elizabeth, yes, but also through them, to the whole world.
One of the things that gets easily missed both in the English and the Greek is the fact that John’s name brings to completion the three-fold nature of God’s interaction with mankind found in Hebrew thought which has been evoked all the way from Mary’s Magnificat through Zechariah’s Benedictus. Over and over again we see reference to God’s mercy (eleos, in Greek), but in fact at various points two different, yet intimately connected, concepts are being evoked: rechem (mercy, compassion) and chesed (steadfast love). These two terms, along with the chen (favor, grace) found in John’s name are what many scholars see as the Old Testament antecedent for the New Testament concept of grace: God’s unmerited favor, poured out in mercy out of his steadfast love for mankind.
What, indeed, is in a name.
There is a reality that goes deeper than every circumstance we face and every situation in which we find ourselves. It is the reality found in Zechariah and Elizabeth’s names, and evoked over and over again in Mary and Zechariah’s songs of praise: that God is good and faithful and he loves us with a steadfast love that doesn’t just function generally, but works intimately and personally in mercy. Wherever you are, whatever situation you find yourself in, hold tight to this truth because it is the greatest reality of all.
Truly the eye of the Lord is on those who fear him,
on those who hope in his steadfast love,
to deliver their soul from death,
and to keep them alive in famine.
Our soul waits for the Lord;
he is our help and shield.
Our heart is glad in him,
because we trust in his holy name.
Let your steadfast love, O Lord, be upon us,
even as we hope in you. (Psalm 33:18-22)
Kathleen Durham is the Vice President of Alighieri Press and serves as an author and speaker.