FAQ: I was once taught that when it says in Psalm 138:2 that God “magnified his Word above all his name,” it means He underscored it to emphasize that He stands behind it. Is that true?
Psalm 138:2 is a very meaningful verse, and the second stanza is one of the sentences in the Hebrew text that can have a number of meanings. First, the Hebrew words in the verse each have several definitions. Second, there is a custom involved. Third, the words themselves can be understood to be in different positions in the sentence. To properly relate to the verse, we must understand that had God wanted us to get a singular meaning from the verse, He could have worded it, or it and its context, in such as way as to get that one meaning. When God uses vocabulary and syntax in such a way as to allow for multiple meanings, which is not uncommon, very often all of them have some significance. The possibility of multiple meanings is a way God pulls the reader into a deeper relationship with Him, inviting us to pray, think, and ponder the depth of the meaning of the words, and thus the fullness of His Word.
The word order in the Hebrew text, and the sense of the verse, gave rise to the translation of the KJV, ASV, etc. A very literal translation of the Hebrew text reads, “For you have exalted above all your name your word.” Placing the noun phrase, “your word” before the noun phrase “your name,” (not uncommon in Hebrew because an adjective, or a phrase acting in an adjectival manner, usually comes after the main noun) yields the sense in the KJV, “for thou hast magnified thy word above all thy name.”
According to Hebrew custom, the “name” of someone referred to his authority and reputation. Thus, the name of God refers to His authority and reputation, just as the name of Jesus refers to his authority and reputation. That is why today we pray in the “name” of Jesus Christ, i.e., we pray according to his authority (John 15:16); we command healing in the name of Jesus Christ (Acts 3:6); why demons must come out when we use the name of Jesus Christ (Acts 16:18); and why baptism was done in the name of Jesus Christ (Acts 10:48). God’s “name” was His authority and reputation, so a cultural understanding of this translation is that God exalted His Word above all other things that are under His authority, even His authority itself.
However, it also occurs in Hebrew that when two noun clauses occur side by side, two things are being referred to rather than one of the nouns serving as an adjective. Thus the phrase, “your word your name,” can legitimately have the sense given in the NIV and ESV: “for you have exalted above all things your name and your word,” even though there is no “and” connecting the two nouns. According to that translation, God’s Word and His authority are exalted above all Creation, and that is certainly true.
We saw above that the “name” of God refers to His authority and reputation. Thus, if a translator believes that relationship is being emphasized in the verse, he arrives at a translation such as the NASB: “For Thou hast magnified Thy word according to all Thy name.” In other words, God, in all His authority, has exalted His Word. This is not a literal translation, nor does it seem to be the primary meaning, but it can be an undertone in the Hebrew.
One further translation can be reached by realizing that “promise” is part of the semantic range, the range of definitions, of imrah (Strong’s number 565; translated “word” in most versions). If a translator thinks that a specific category of “word,” in this case a “promise,” is being used in the verse, he arrives at a translation that could be similar to the Jerusalem Bible: “your promise is even greater than your fame.” The entire Old Testament is messianic, and looks forward to the coming Messiah and what he will bring. It is not wrong to say that before Christ came, God exalted above everything else His name and the promise of the Messiah. On the other hand, “promise” is definitely more of a derived meaning in this verse. It is there, but as part of the greater “Word.” God exalted His “Word,” which obviously included the promise of the Messiah.
Also in the verse is the Hebrew verb gadal (Strong’s number 1431), which in this context means to “make great.” Young’s Literal Translation actually reads, “made great.” Given the culture of biblical times, the word “magnify” can be somewhat misleading, because we think of a magnifying glass. “Exalt” seems to be a more fitting translation for the time and culture.
With so many different translations of Psalm 138:2, what is the “right” translation? Again, it is important to understand that none of the above translations is “wrong,” in the sense that what they say in English is not being communicated, prominently or as an undertone, in the Hebrew. Furthermore, we need to remember that God wants us to spend time with Him in prayer and pondering, taking time to understand Him, and putting multiple meanings in a verse is a way of assuring that we will do so.
Nevertheless, there does seem to be a primary meaning to Psalm 138:2. Although the NIV and ESV are good translations, they are less likely the primary meaning of the verse. This is due to the fact that in the culture of the Old Testament, people already understood that the “name” of God was exalted above all things, so there would not be much point in saying it. On the other hand, to say that God exalted His Word above His very name, His authority, would be an amazing revelation.
In the biblical culture, it was common for rulers to use their authority to break the rules and go against even what they themselves had promised. But our God is different from earthly, sinful rulers. He exalts His Word above His authority, and lives by His own rules. This is just what we would expect from our Just and Loving God, who lives by His own rules and keeps His promises. That is why we can trust God, but cannot trust man. We could not ask for a better God, or a better example.
“for you have exalted your Word above all your name.”