Merry and Pippin meet Treebeard in chapter four of J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Two Towers.” Treebeard is an Ent, a tree-like figure with a rich and ancient story. After they make their introductions, he tells the hobbits that they may call him Treebeard, but that’s not his actual name. “Treebeard” is simply what his real name sounds like in their language.
“My name is growing all the time,” he tells them. “And I’ve lived a very long, long time; so my name is like a story. Real names tell you the story of the things they belong to in my language…”
Real names tell you the story of the things they belong to. Just like Treebeard’s, our names are growing all the time as we live. Our names are like stories. In the Bible, a name often reflects the character and story of a person.
But “story” does not necessarily refer to fiction. It refers to a sequence of events —a plot—that moves characters forward in development.
The Bible unfolds a sequence of events—authored and orchestrated by God—that move characters forward. The Bible is a story. And in the Bible, names are more than mere labels.
According to Scripture, “A good name is to be chosen rather than great riches” (Proverbs 22:1). Ecclesiastes tells us that “a good name is better than precious ointment” (7:1). In the Song of Songs, the woman says to her husband that his name is “oil poured out” (1:3).
A name tells the story of a person. The Bible has its share of Treebeards. Abram’s name meant “father,” but God changed it to Abraham, the “father of many nations.” That was going to be his story. God gave Jacob the name Israel—“God strives”—because he “struggled with God and with man, and prevailed.” That was his plot.
Isaac’s name meant “laughter” because his mother laughed at God’s promise. Jacob was named “heel catcher” since he came out of the womb holding onto Esau’s heel. Isaiah was commanded to name one of his children Shalal-Hash-Baz, meaning “speed the spoil, hasten the prey,” as a foreshadowing of the coming Assyrian invasion.
We are all made in God’s image. We reflect him. Human names tell their stories because God’s names tell His story. And He goes by many names because His story is always moving. His is the most spell-binding tale.
And what are His names?
“God Almighty,” “Most High God,” “I AM WHO I AM,” “The Lord of Hosts,” “Lord,” “Father,” “the divine being.” These names are illustrations of God’s story: who He is and what He does.
His names convey truth about His character and His character is inextricable from his actions. His names describe what He has done, what He does, and what He will do. The names of God paint the story of God in past, present and future colors.
And what is His story? It is the rescue, healing and renewal of creation. He is making all things new. Earth will one day be subsumed by heaven. That is the glorious dénouement. His names tell that story and it is the greatest story still being told.
In the Christian community, we move and are moved forward in God and His story (Acts 17:28). We are thick in His plot. What do our names say about our development in His story?
God may not name us individually as He did with some of His people in the Bible, but He does name His people collectively according to a distinct spiritual identity.We are painted in Scripture as Christ’s bride. We are joined with Him in deepest love. We are called the body of Jesus. The Church functions as Christ’s physical presence on earth, to speak truth and love the broken. We even suffer for the sake of His Name (Acts 5:41). Our collective names tell our stories as separate plots in His ongoing narrative.
For the faithful lovers of King Jesus, their names will one day also change. According to Revelation 2:17, Jesus will personally give each disciple “a white stone with a new name written on the stone that no one knows except the one who receives it.” When His Kingdom has come, you will receive a new name for a new story. A name that is unique to you, a true and right picture of who you are in Christ and of what you have done for the sake of His kingdom.
Some of you have a good handle on things. You are confidently moving forward in your stories. Others are scared and feel like absolute misfires in the world. But for the screw-ups and wanderers, as well as the orderly and in control, God has His own story in mind. His story makes sense of our stories.
He invites all people into His community of faith, into His story. And the names He has for them are “friends,” “beloved,” and “beautiful.” That is who we are. We need only live out the story of our names.