Few things in Scripture, few things in the Christian life, are more familiar than the Lord’s Prayer. Sunday after Sunday, we pray these words together with our brothers and sisters. At home, alone or with our families, we pray this prayer daily, as Jesus taught us (Luke 11:2: “When you pray, say...”). But because these words come so easily to our lips, we may not stop and wonder if we really understand them.
Children don’t have this problem. I’ve heard of children being confused by the first petition because they hear it as “Harold be your name.” We laugh, but if someone said, “Okay, then, what does that petition really mean?” we might end up humming and hawing.
To start with, this is a petition, a request. We aren’t saying that God’s name is holy. We’re asking God to do something, to make his name something, to make it hallowed. We’re praying that God’s name be holy-fied.
But that’s confusing to us also. God is holy. His name is holy (e.g., Lev 20:3; 22:32; 1 Chron 16:10; Pss 30:4; 33:21; 97:12; 99:3; 103:1; 105:3; 106:47; 111:9). How can we pray that his name be hallowed, that it be made holy, if it is already holy?
Really, we have the same problem with words like glorified, exalted, magnified, since God is already glorious, high and lifted up, and great. What we’re doing in these petitions is praying in contrast to—in opposition to, as a correction of—the opposite.
What is the opposite of hallowing God’s name? It’s profaning or blaspheming God’s name.
That can happen in the world, as the wicked lie about God. In 2 Kings 18–19, Sennacherib says, in effect, “I’ve conquered other nations and their gods, so don’t let Hezekiah fool you into trusting in YHWH. He can’t help you any more than those other gods helped their nations.” He speaks about YHWH as if he is like the gods of the nations, and so YHWH overthrows him and his whole army. “Hallowed be your name,” in this light, means “When the wicked lie about you, show yourself to be the true God.”
But the misrepresentation of God can happen especially among God’s own people, God’s holy people, who bear God’s name before the world.
As Carmen Joy Imes, among others,has shown, the Third Word is not primarily about cussing. It says, quite literally, “You shall not bear my name in vain.” It has to do with carrying God’s name around emptily, as if God were a lightweight and not heavy and glorious.
YHWH’s name was placed on Israel at Sinai and every time the Aaronic priests pronounced the blessing (Num 6:22-27: “They will put my name on the children of Israel and I will bless them”).God describes Israel as “my people who are called by my name” (2 Chron 7:14). Everywhere they went, in everything they did, and in everything that happened to them, Israel bore YHWH’s name, serving as YHWH’s representatives before the world, showing and telling the world who YHWH is.
Precisely for this reason, Israel also could profane YHWH’s name in a way that the nations could not, by treating YHWH’s name as if it were not holy and giving YHWH a bad reputation. Only Israel was given the Third Word; only Israel could bear God’s name in vain. Keep my commandments, YHWH tells Israel in Leviticus 22. “You shall not profane my holy name, but I will be hallowed among the children of Israel.”
As Christians, we have been baptized into the name of the Triune God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (Matt 28:19) and so we now bear God’s name before the world. Specifically, we bear the name of Christ and we must not bear it in vain. In everything we do, we represent—or misrepresent—Jesus and therefore the Father also. When we sin, we do so bearing the name, and our sin gives Jesus our Lord and God our Father a bad reputation.
And so, when we pray “Hallowed be your name,” we’re saying, “Father, keep us from shaming you in the world. Grant that my behavior as a husband rightly reflects how Jesus treats the Church. Grant that my behavior as a father doesn’t lead my children to reject you as their heavenly Father. Keep me from misrepresenting you by failing to be merciful as you are, so that people think you’re as harsh as I am, or by failing to stand up against sin so that people think you’re indifferent to it.”
We’re praying that God would forgive our sins—this petition cannot be separated from the rest of the Lord’s Prayer—and liberate us from our sins so that we are not entangled in them; instead, we want our light to shine in the world so that people see our good works and glorify our Father in heaven (Matt 5:16).
Praying in this way ought to make us think about how we’re representing our Father. But Jesus is not exhorting us to do better. He’s giving us a prayer to pray. It is God the Father who must hallow his name, changing us and changing our world and changing our circumstances, until nothing dishonors him anymore.
But we need to go a bit deeper.
When we think of God’s holiness, I suspect, we often see it in opposition to sin. If God’s name is hallowed, then that will take place through him overthrowing and punishing sin. Certainly that’s what he does when Sennacherib blasphemes his name.
But most often, when God says that he is going to hallow his name, he isn’t talking about overthrowing sin or punishing sinners. Rather, he’s speaking about acting to save the people who bear his name in the world.
Consider the prayers of Moses and Joshua. In Exodus 32, Moses prays:
YHWH, why does your wrath burn hot against your people whom you have brought out of the land of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand? Why should the Egyptians speak and say, “He brought them out to harm them, to kill them in the mountains, and to consume them from the face of the earth”? Turn from your fierce wrath and relent from this harm to your people.
Moses reminds YHWH of his promise to the patriarchs. Having made that promise, how can YHWH then let the Egyptians denigrate him? YHWH has a reputation to uphold!
Moses prays again in Numbers 14:15–16: “If you kill these people … then the nations which have heard of your fame will speak, saying, ‘Because YHWH was not able to bring this people to the land which he swore to give them, therefore he killed them in the wilderness.’”
When Israel is defeated by Ai and Joshua doesn’t know why, he prays in a similar vein: “YHWH, what shall I say when Israel turns its back before its enemies? For the Canaanites and all the inhabitants of the land will hear and surround us and cut off our name from the earth. Then what will you do for your great name?” (Josh 7:8–9). We might think that because Israel—sharing in Achan’s sin—deserves to die, then YHWH is upholding his name by bringing judgment on them. But Joshua doesn’t present it that way. If Israel is defeated, then YHWH’s name will be mud.
Again and again, YHWH acts to save and protect his people for his name’s sake. In spite of their sin, Samuel says, “YHWH will not forsake his people for his great name’s sake, because it has pleased YHWH to make you his people” (1 Sam 12:22). We might think that YHWH upholds the holiness of his name by punishing sin, but, however true that may be, David prays “For your name’s sake, YHWH, pardon my iniquity” (Ps 25:11) and Israel prays “Help us, God of our salvation, for the glory of your name, and deliver us and provide atonement for our sin, for your name’s sake” (Ps 79:9).
Jeremiah echoes this prayer: “YHWH, though our iniquities testify against us, do it for your name’s sake; for our backslidings are many; we have sinned against you.... Why should you be like a man astonished, like a mighty man who cannot save? Yet you, YHWH, are in our midst and we are called by your name; do not leave us!” (Jer 14:7, 9). Israel deserves punishment, but if that’s all there is, then YHWH’s name is profaned—and so the prophet and the faithful call upon him to forgive and not to forsake his people.
And YHWH promises to do just that. Israel was a transgressor from the womb, he says, but then he adds, “For my name’s sake, I will defer my anger, and for my praise I will restrain it from you, so that I do not cut you off.... For my own sake, for my own sake, I will do it, for how should my name be profaned?” (Isa 48:9, 11).
Israel is going into exile and crying out under her oppressors and in that situation, YHWH says, “My name is blasphemed continually every day.” But he makes a promise: “My people will know my name.” The good news of peace and salvation will come: “Your God reigns!” (Isa 52:5, 6, 7).
The hallowing of God’s name, in spite of Israel’s sin and exile, is precisely the coming of God’s kingdom. There really aren’t two distinct petitions—“Hallowed be your name” and then also “Your kingdom come”—but one threefold petition, with “Your kingdom come” and “Your will be done” expressing how our Father’s name is made holy in the world.
And hallowing his name is exactly how YHWH describes his salvation. In Ezekiel 20, he talks about how Israel refused to throw away their idols and abominations when they were in Egypt:
Then I said, ‘I will pour out my fury on them and fulfill my anger against them … but I acted for my name’s sake, that it should not be profaned before the Gentiles among whom they were, in whose sight I had made myself known to them, to bring them out of the land of Egypt (20:8–9).
When he brought them into the wilderness, they rebelled again and YHWH responded with the same grace: “Then I said I would pour out my fury on them in the wilderness, to consume them, but I acted for my name’s sake, that it should not be profaned before the Gentiles, in whose sight I had brought them out” (20:13–14). The second generation also rebelled and again YHWH responded with grace: “Then I said I would pour out my fury on them & fulfill my anger against them in the wilderness. Nevertheless I withdrew my hand and acted for my name’s sake, that it should not be profaned in the sight of the Gentiles, in whose sight I had brought them out” (20:21–22).
And even now, after the Exile, YHWH plans to restore them, gather them, accept them, receive offerings from them once more, and he describes this salvation this way: “I will be hallowed in you before the Gentiles.... Then you will know that I am YHWH, when I have dealt with you for my name’s sake, not according to your wicked ways nor according to your corrupt doings, O house of Israel” (20:41, 44). YHWH hallowing his name and dealing with Israel for his name’s sake is contrasted with dealing with Israel according to their sin by punishing them and leaving them in exile.
In Ezekiel 36, YHWH returns to this theme: Israel defiled the land and YHWH poured out his fury on them and scattered them among the nations. “When they came to the nations, wherever they went, they profaned my holy name—when they said of them, ‘These are the people of YHWH, yet they have gone out of his land” (Ezek 36:20).
Notice that YHWH doesn’t say “Wherever they went they profaned my name because of their wicked behavior.” He isn’t saying that in all the lands they went to, they continued sinning, true as that may have been. Nor does YHWH say that he is going to respond by punishing them in order thereby to hallow his name.
Rather, he says that they sinned, he punished them with exile, and the result was that his name was profaned. Wherever Israel went, people said, “Those are YHWH’s people. He promised them that land. But he didn’t keep his promise.” In this sense, Daniel and Ezekiel and all the godly people in Israel who went into exile participated in Israel’s corporate profaning of YHWH’s name as much as the wicked in Israel did. Their presence in Babylon led the nations to think that YHWH was unfaithful to his promises and to his people.
And that situation couldn’t continue. YHWH goes on:
But I had concern for my holy name, which the house of Israel had profaned among the nations wherever they went. Therefore, say to the house of Israel, ‘Thus says YHWH God: “I do not do this for your sake, O house of Israel, but for my holy name’s sake, which you have profaned among the nations wherever you went. And I will hallow my great name, which has been profaned among the nations, which you have profaned in their midst; and the nations shall know that I am YHWH … when I am hallowed in you before their eyes” (36:21–23; cf. Rom 2:24).
How would that hallowing happen?
I will take you from among the nations, gather you out of all countries, and bring you into your own land. Then I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean. I will cleanse you from all your filthiness and from all your idols. I will give you a new heart and put a new Spirit within you; I will take the heart of stone out of your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. I will put my Spirit within you and cause you to walk in my statutes and you will keep my judgments and do them (36:24–28).
When we come to the Lord’s Prayer and Jesus teaches us to pray “Hallowed be your name,” these passages in Ezekiel in particular, and all the others about YHWH’s name being profaned or glorified, ought to spring immediately to mind.
What does it mean for YHWH to hallow his name? It’s true that he overthrows the wicked and punishes sin, but that’s not the primary focus when Scripture speaks of hallowing his name. Rather, YHWH hallows his name by forgiving, saving, restoring. He will gather them, bring them out of exile, sprinkle them with clean water to cleanse them, give them a heart of flesh instead of a heart of stone, putg his Spirit within them (Pentecost!) so that they keep his commandments, and bless them abundantly.
God’s name is hallowed—glorified, upheld, vindicated, honored, regarded as holy—when he saves; when, in spite of lies told about him, he keeps his promises, showing that he is YHWH, the faithful one; when he overcomes his people’s sins by which they profane his name and restores them from the exile that makes it seem as if he’s unfaithful or impotent, so that now they do reflect him rightly in the world.
Which is to say that this prayer is answered in and through Jesus himself. Jesus is the true worshiper, who never profaned God’s name but who represented his Father faithfully, all the way to the cross. God’s name is hallowed when his Son bears “our sins in his own body to the tree so that we, having died to sins, might live for righteousness” (1 Pet 2:24). God’s name is hallowed in Jesus’ death on the cross for our forgiveness; his resurrection in glory, bringing us out of exile and death with him; and his outpouring of the Spirit on his people to empower us to live for him and to carry his name faithfully before the world.
That is what Jesus was teaching his disciples and the crowds around them to pray for. We are so used to this prayer that we think it is our prayer, a prayer for all Christians of all times and places. In an important sense it is, but in another sense it is not ours, first and foremost. Jesus gave this prayer to the Israel he was gathering around himself in his earthly ministry, and he gave it at a certain historical moment and in connection with the expectations of that moment.
The Sermon on the Mount is the proclamation of the good news of the kingdom, the kingdom Jesus said was coming soon (Matt 4:17), and in that context Jesus teaches his disciples to pray for that kingdom to come in the near future. And the petition “Hallowed be your name,” drawing as it does on Ezekiel 20 and 36, indicates Israel’s situation and Israel’s hope.
Israel has sinned and incurred God’s wrath. Though they are physically in the Promised Land, in another sense they are back in Egypt, back in Exile, oppressed by enemies—not so much the Romans as their own leaders and the demons who appear even in their synagogues—and heading toward a further great flood of judgment (Matt 7:24–26). That’s their situation. That’s the reason John and Jesus, announcing the good news, don’t say, “Rejoice for the kingdom of the heavens is near,” but rather say “Repent.”
And in that situation, Jesus teaches his followers to remind God of his promise in the prophets and implied all through Scripture to hallow his name, to show himself to be faithful to his promises and his people, and to do so by saving people who don’t deserve it. As Andrew Perriman puts it, “The Lord’s prayer begins, therefore, as an eschatological prayer for the restoration of a sinful people oppressed by its enemies.”
We are at a different moment in time. We are not praying this prayer as Israel in exile, under judgment, longing for rescue and looking forward to a great new beginning in our generation. The kingdom has come. Jesus has suffered and died, has risen again, has poured out the promised Spirit, has overcome his church’s first great persecutors, has established God’s kingdom in the world.
And yet there is more to come, more for which we are longing. We pray this prayer in the face of our own sin (“My sin gives you a bad reputation, so hallow your name by making me faithful”) and the sin of the church and the world. We pray this prayer in the face of opposition in the world (“Hallow your name by not allowing the wicked to get the upper hand forever”). We pray this prayer in the face of persecution (“How long are the wicked going to laugh and think that their ability to persecute is proof that you don’t care and that Jesus isn’t the good shepherd of his sheep?”). We pray this prayer in the face of suffering and death (“It looks as if you’re as powerless and helpless as we are, but show instead that you are the Lifegiver”).
We pray this prayer because it often looks as if God isn’t keeping his promises, because God’s reputation is not what it ought to be in the world—many times because of us and sometimes because of the situations God puts us in. “You’ve put your name upon us and we bear your name before the world so that both what we do and what happens to us reflects on you. Show yourself to be who you are. Don’t let us drag your name through the mud and don’t let your promises fall to the ground. Give yourself a good reputation—not merely by punishing sin or overcoming the wicked but by saving us, by establishing your kingdom in all the world, by seeing to it that your will is done on earth as it is in heaven, as you said you would.”
That is what “Hallowed be your name” means in the Bible: Save us, though we don’t deserve it, because you have put your name on us and have promised yourself to us. Save us, because you have given us Christ and made us Christians, and Christ—the totus Christus, the body as much as the head—cannot be left under judgment and exile and death. And that is a prayer that God must answer—or else what will he do for his great name?
Rev. John Barach, a Theopolis fellow, is pastor of Covenant Presbyterian Church in Sulphur, Louisiana. Visit his blog for more essays.
Carmen Joy Imes, Bearing YHWH’s Name at Sinai: A Reexamination of the Name Command of the Decalogue, Bulletin for Biblical Research Supplements 19 (University Park, Pennsylvania: Eisenbrauns, 2018); cf. John M. Frame, The Doctrine of the Christian Life, A Theology of Lordship (Phillipsburg: P&R, 2008), 493–494; James B. Jordan, “The Third Word,” Biblical Horizons 60 (Nov 1998). Imes notes that the only other closely related phrase in the Bible is in Exodus 28:29, where the high priest bears the names of the tribes as their representative. To bear someone’s name is to represent the one whose name you bear.
Bible quotations are either my own or a slight modification of the NKJV.
None of the commentaries I consulted when I studied the Lord’s Prayer in the Sermon on the Mount drew attention to this aspect of the first petition, but my thoughts were pushed in this direction by some comments John Piper makes linking God’s name and our salvation in The Pleasures of God (Sisters, OR: Multnomah, 2000), 98–105, and by Andrew Perriman’s blog post “The Lord’s Prayer and Its Eschatological Context." Perriman, in turn, attributes what he says to J. D. G. Dunn, who cites N. T. Wright, who cites Joseph Fitmyer (“in good rabbinic fashion,” says Perriman).
Cf. Jakob van Bruggen, Matteus: Het evangelie voor Israel, 3rd ed., CNT (Kampen: Kok, 1994), 111–112.
In conversation, Matthew Colvin pointed out to me that much more could be said about Paul’s use of this passage and this theme in Romans 2. Israel has failed to be the Abrahamic blessings to the nations, instead causing God’s name to be blasphemed, but the church—living by the Spirit, promised in Ezekiel 36—becomes salvation to the Gentiles. My thanks to Matthew and to the others who read and commented on rough drafts of this article.
In Matthew 2, Herod is another Pharaoh, murdering the Hebrew babies; Joseph, Mary, and Jesus must flee—and in that context, Matthew quotes Hosea 10: “Out of Egypt I have called my son.” John’s baptism, too, is a call for Israel to leave Egypt, come out to the wilderness, pass through the Jordan waters again, and reenter the land, in anticipation of the coming forgiveness of sins and the gift of the kingdom (see Joel Garver, “Baptism in Matthew and Mark."
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