Q. In the Bible, why is God’s name written sometimes as “LORD” and sometimes as “Lord”?
A. The English “LORD” and “Lord” in the Old Testament actually translate two different Hebrew words. The first is the proper noun representing God’s personal name as He revealed it to the ancient Jews. The second is the more common name for God.
God’s personal name was so revered that the Jews refrained from speaking it aloud for fear of breaking the commandment against taking it in vain. Instead, the word Adonai, a common noun meaning “lord, master, sovereign,” was substituted, even when God’s name appeared in Scripture being read aloud. The Septuagint, an ancient Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures used by Greek-speaking Jews throughout the world (and by the early Christians), made the same kind of substitution, using the Greek term for Lord (kyrios).
Over the generations, though the written form of God’s personal name was preserved in the Hebrew scriptural text, the original pronunciation was eventually forgotten because it was almost never spoken. Since ancient Hebrew had written characters only for consonant sounds (the vowels were supplied by oral tradition), all we know for certain is that this name is represented by four Hebrew letters that are transliterated in contemporary English as YHWH. This most holy name of God is thus commonly known as “the Tetragrammaton” (literally, “that which has four letters”).
Whenever YHWH appears in the Hebrew text, English translators often follow the Jewish tradition by rendering the word as “LORD.” But they place it in small capital letters to indicate that it refers to God’s personal name. When the term “LORD” appears in normal type, the Hebrew word translated is usually Adonai or some related form.
An exception to this custom was necessary when the original Hebrew text referred to God as Adonai YHWH, “the Lord YHWH.” Rather than translate the phrase awkwardly as “the Lord Lord,” it was often rendered instead as “the Lord God,” with the small capital letters in “God” once again indicating that the Tetragrammaton was indicated.
Jewish scholars eventually developed characters to represent vowels, which were then inserted into the ancient biblical text of consonants. But to remind the reader that YHWH was not to be spoken, the vowels from the term Adonai were inserted into the consonants of YHWH.
In earlier English, the Tetragrammaton was typically transliterated as JHVH rather than YHWH. The translators of the King James Version and other early English Bibles mixed the supplied vowels of Adonai with the consonants in the divine Name. The result? YHWH was rendered as “Jehovah,” which has no real basis in the original text.
Modern scholars sometimes render YHWH as “Yahweh.” But that term is just another guess at the original pronunciation. The Vatican has directed that “Yahweh” not be used in Catholic liturgy and music, out of respect for the ancient tradition that forbids attempts to pronounce YHWH.