El Elyon - God Most High, in the Bible
Pr. Thomas Cherian
The Bible records a number of names and titles of God in the Old and New Testament. El Elyon is one such title. The following article will first look at the significance of a name or title in Hebrew. Thereafter, we shall trace where the title occurs particularly in the Old Testament and finally venture into the various possible meanings that can be drawn based on the context of these Biblical passages.
I. The significance of names
In Old Testament times, a name was not only a means of identification, but an identity as well. It revealed the personality or character of a person. Many times a special meaning was attached to the name. Names had, among other purposes, an explanatory purpose (for example Nabal, which means ‘fool’, is the target of Abigail's explanation to David: "For as his name is, so is he; Nabal is his name, and folly is with him”–1 Samuel 25:25). Throughout scripture, God reveals Himself through His names or titles. There are more than 900 names or titles of God in the Bible. When we study these names, which are revealed to us in the Bible, we will have a better understanding about the God of the Bible. Thus, the meanings behind God's names reveal the central personality and nature of the One who bears them.
From a theological point of view, the personal name of God, YHWH was revealed only once to Israel through Moses as seen in Exodus 3:13-14. The remaining titles are associated with the name of a place, patriarch or the character of God. These titles were mostly given by the people of God in the Old Testament or individuals associated with them. It has been noted that the titles are interchangeably used for the Name of the God of Israel. The title El Elyon is one of the many titles used in Biblical text, especially in the Old Testament. This title is used by a non-Hebrew king Melchizedek for the first time, while conversing with Abram.
II. Mentions in the Bible:
The title occurs both as the simple Elyon as well as the compound El Elyon in the Bible. The Hebrew Elyon occurs 31 times in the Old Testament. The equivalent Aramaic word ‘Hilay’ occurs 10 times, all in the book of Daniel. Elyon is always translated as “Most High.” When preceded by El, the Hebrew word for God, it is translated as ‘God Most High’. In the New Testament, the Greek equivalent to Most High is used nine times.
The compound name El Elyon (translated ‘God Most High’ or ‘Most High God’) occurs 12 times in the Old Testament. It first occurs four times in Genesis 14:18, 20, and 22. Furthermore, passages in the Old Testament that use the compound name ‘El Elyon’ are Psalms 78:35, 78:56; Daniel 3:26; Psalms 9:2 and Daniel 3:26, 4:2, 5:18, 21. A similar title Yahweh Elyon (YHWH Most High) is used in Psalms 7:17; 47:2; and 97:9.
With the help of some statistics provided by the NASB version, we derive the following:
‘The Most High’ is used 27 times in the Old Testament and 5 times in the New Testament
‘The Most High God’ is used 6 times in the Old Testament and 4 times in the New Testament
‘God Most High’ is used 5 times in the Old Testament
‘LORD [=YHWH] Most High’ is used 3 times in the Old Testament
III. Meanings of the title El Elyon
In the following study, we will observe the various possible meanings that can be ascribed to the title El Elyon in the Old Testament and also look at its New Testament equivalents.
A) Etymological meaning
El Elyon is a compound title and is therefore a combination of two separate words El and Elyon.
1) El: The words El or Elohim are the terms used for God by both pagans and Hebrews. It specifically refers to the monotheistic God of Israel. Some believe that it has been derived from ‘el, which originates from the root word ’wl (which means strong). Others think that Elohim is derived from two other roots: ’lh (which means "god") in conjunction with ’eloah (which means fear). Meanwhile, some others presume that both ’el and Elohim have come from ’eloah.
2) Elyon: This is another word that means Most High. The word ‘elyon’ is an adjective derived from the Hebrew root 'lh, meaning to ‘go up’ or ‘ascend’. In each of the instances, where the adjective occurs, it denotes that which is highest or uppermost. It is used to describe either the height of objects (2 Kings 15:35; 18:17) or the prominence of people (Psalms 89:27) or the prominence of Israel as a nation (Deuteronomy 26; 19; 28:1)
When applied to Yahweh, the name ‘Elyon’ stresses His highest supremacy. When the two names ‘El’ and ‘Elyon’ are combined, the resultant name can be literally translated as ‘the extremely exalted, sovereign, High God’; this is further expanded in Psalms 57:2 as the One who is revered and strong, as in Psalms 57:2.
B) Meanings based on biblical passages
Following are the few meanings that we will discuss to understand the nature of God based on the context of various biblical passages.
1) The monotheistic and supreme God
In Genesis 14, we find this name of God used four times in the story of Melchizedek. Abraham’s nephew Lot was held captive in the midst of a war between nine Canaanite kings. Abram went out to rescue Lot and as he was returning home, he met Melchizedek who introduced himself as the king of Salem and priest of God Most High (El Elyon). Unlike Melchizedek, all the other kings with whom Abram had come in contact with were worshippers of Canaanite gods. His words made it clear that he represented the Most High God (El Elyon), when he spoke to Abram in verses 19-20 (NKJV). So the conversation between Melchizedek and Abram reveals two things. The first thing is that there is one and only one true God who created the heavens and the earth. In other words, Abram and Melchizedek were monotheistic in their belief. Secondly, even though there were many gods (which are actually false) as believed in the pagan world, the God whom they believed is the most supreme God, who enabled Abram to win the battle.
2) Highest in all sense
God is pictured as higher than anything else in this world, be it in the political, social or religious spheres.
a) Highest in priesthood
Although Melchizedek and Aaron were high priests from a human point of view, God is the highest of all, and all human high priests are subject to Him. In the New Testament, Jesus is presented as the greatest or highest of all priests because He lives forever and also He doesn’t need to offer sacrifice every now and then (Hebrews 7).
b) Highest in receiving glory:
Abram gave Melchizedek tithes of all, which is, of the spoils from the war with nine kings (Hebrews 7:4). This may be looked upon, as a gift of gratitude presented to Melchizedek. Please note that those who receive kindness should show kindness. Gratitude is one of nature's laws. So, Abraham was expressing his gratitude to God Most High, who deserves all praise and honour by presenting his gifts to God’s representative.
How awesome is YHWH Most High, the great King over all the earth (Psalms 47:2). The title ‘Most High’ stands alone and is found in many poetic passages, especially in the Psalms. It appears in Balaam’s oracle in Numbers 24:16 as a separate name parallel to God Almighty. Also, it appears in Moses’ final song in Deuteronomy 32:8 (a much discussed verse). Psalms 83:18 and 97:9 also portray YHWH as the Most High over all the earth. All these descriptions point to the fact that there is no equal to EL Elyon. He is, therefore, incomparable.
4) Sovereign ruler
The title El Elyon identifies God as the sovereign ruler of the universe. He is in complete control of everything that happens. In the book of Daniel, the title El Elyon is used to indicate God’s sovereignty over kingdoms. When King Nebuchadnezzar met El Elyon he came to his senses and realized that he was nothing compared to the sovereign God. In Daniel 4:34 (NKJV), Nebuchadnezzar blessed the Most High, and praised and honoured Him who lives forever. In Isaiah 14:14, out of Satan’s mouth comes one of the greatest testimonies of the sovereignty of God ever uttered when he called God ‘the Most High’. In Mark 5:7, demons acknowledged the sovereignty of God. As per Daniel 7:27, the sovereignty, power and greatness of all the kingdoms under the heavens will be handed over to the saints, the people of the Most High. His kingdom will be an everlasting kingdom, and all rulers will worship and obey Him.
5) Omnipotent God
Omnipotence means all powerful. While blessing Abram, King Melchizedek is acknowledging the fact that defeating the nine kings with an army of 318 men was solely due to the help of an all-powerful God (Genesis 14:11–20). This is because El Elyon is seated on the highest throne. The name or title ‘Elyon’ emphasizes God’s uniqueness and his supremacy over all. It reminds us that he is the Creator of heaven and earth, and the Owner of all. He is not merely mighty, but is the Almighty who proves His omnipotence by protecting His children even from the blazing furnaces and leaving Nebuchadnezzar awestruck (Daniel 3:26). His omnipotence is seen when He supersedes the natural law of birth of a human child (Luke 1:35). Above all, His omnipotence is very clearly seen from the thundering voice that resounded from heaven (2 Samuel 22:14).
6) Omniscient God
“Does the Most High have knowledge? …when I tried to understand all this, it was oppressive to me till I entered the sanctuary of God; then I understood their final destiny,” expresses Asaph in Psalms 73:3, 6-11, 16. Asaph wrote this during the most depressing and uncertain moments of his life. He was concerned about the future of both himself and the wicked. His doubts were cleared when the Most High revealed Himself as an (omniscient) all-knowing God. The Most High remembers the remote past and knows the future of all as well.
7) Most secure place
The most secure place in this world is the shelter of the Most High. All the other places of refuge, as per a human point of view, cannot be really trusted. The natural calamities and terrorist attacks occurring in the world today explain this fact very well. Psalms 91 categorically states the power of the presence of the Most High. He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High will rest in the shadow of the Almighty (Psalms 91:1). If we make the Most High our dwelling, even the LORD, who is our refuge, then no harm will befall us, no disaster will come near our tent. For he will command His angels concerning us to guard us in all our ways; they will lift us up in their hands, so that we will not strike our foot against a stone (Psalms 91:9-12).
C) New Testament Perspective
As mentioned above, ‘the Most High (God)’ appears nine times in the New Testament. The most memorable instance is when the angel Gabriel appears to Mary who was to give birth to Jesus (Luke 1:32). The ‘Most High’ here refers to ‘the Lord God’. When Mary questioned the possibility of her conceiving a baby while being a virgin, Gabriel answered, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you (verse 35).” Again, ‘the Holy Spirit’ is obviously ‘the power of the Most High’ who is God.
In Luke’s account that is similar to Matthew’s account of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus terms his genuine disciples as the ‘children of the Most High’ (Luke 6:35). Later, when Jesus was about to deliver a demon-possessed man from Gadarenes, the chief demon cried out in a loud voice acknowledging Jesus as the Son of the Most High God (Mark 5:7; Luke 8:28). Later, and similarly, as the Apostle Paul was about to cast a demon out of a slave girl with a spirit of divination, the demon acknowledged Paul and Silas as the ‘servants of the Most High God’ (Acts 16:17). Thus, both Jesus and demons recognized God as ‘the Most High God’.
What does it mean for God to be designated as ‘Most High’ or in similar terms? It surely means that God resides in heaven and that His throne is very high, thus higher than any other throne. This fact symbolizes that God is greater than anyone else.
God Most High (El ELyon) is one of the most significant titles that describe His personality in a wide sense. At least seven attributes can be discovered when we look at the context in which this title is used in various biblical passages. This supreme, exalted, omniscient, omnipotent God is unique and incomparable. Those that trust in Him will never be shaken, even in an insecure and uncertain world. The most important thing El Elyon desires is to dwell in human hearts. Isaiah chapter 57 states that He wants to have sovereignty in our hearts, even as He does in the heavens and the earth, but He leaves that choice to us (Isaiah 57:15). One of the most important natures of God Most High is His humility. Though He is High and Exalted, He wishes to dwell in a contrite and lowly heart (Psalms 34:18). Unfortunately, contriteness and humility have become rare virtues in Christendom today. The Most High God is seeking for a church that includes people with broken and humble hearts, so that He could use them in an extraordinary way. If the Most High God can come down to the most minuscule level and become human to save humanity from the pit of sin, how much more humble and sensitive should a child of God be. May we consider others better than ourselves to hold on to our humility and thereby save them from missing eternity with God Most High. This is a fundamental sign of true spirituality. Let us be reminded that the Most High will be coming very soon to gather His humble bride and take them to the highest heavenly realms.