BIBLICAL Horizons, No. 91
Copyright 1997 Biblical Horizons
Citing Melchizedek in Genesis 14:18-20, James Jordan has written that "the name of God in use among the nations was God Most High’" (Hebrew, `el `elyon; in Through New Eyes, p. 176). In addition to Melchizedek, one could cite the example of Balaam, who invokes the Lord both as `El `Elyon and as `El Shaddai (Numbers 24:16). A survey of the use of the word in a Hebrew concordance, however, indicates that "God Most High" or simply "Most High" are frequently used by Israelites as titles for Yahweh. The majority of the instances of this title in the Old Testament do not come from Gentiles but from Israelites.
Jordan’s point can be sustained, of course, since he does not claim that Israelites never used this name, only that it seems to be a name used by Gentiles. We do find, however, in addition that the Israelite usage of this name often has a Gentile context. That is, the name is used when Gentiles or the whole world are in view.
First, it is worth noting that that the basic meaning of `elyon is "uppermost" or "highest." Thus, it describes the "uppermost basket" in the Egyptian baker’s dream (Genesis 40:17), and it is frequently used in reference "highest" gates, courts, or stories of the temple or city or buildings (2 Kings 15:35; Jeremiah 20:2; 36:10; Ezekiel 41:7; 42:5). In Ezekiel 9:2, the "uppermost" gate apparently means the "northernmost."
Applied to persons, then, `elyon refers to the one with highest authority, the Big Chief. Used of Yahweh, it highlights His pre-eminence over the nations and over other gods. It is "God Most High" who divides the earth among the nations (Deuteronomy 32:8). Yahweh is "Most High" because He is a "great King over all the earth" who brings nations under Israel (Psalm 47:2). As "Most High," the Lord registers Gentiles as if they were the natural children of Zion (Psalm 87:5). Yahweh is exalted as "Most High" above all gods (Psalm 97:9).
Specifically, the Lord manifests that He is exalted above the nations by delivering Israel and protecting her from her enemies. Thus, Psalm 83, a prayer that the Lord would scatter the nations that have covenanted against Israel, ends by calling on the Lord to make the nations know that He alone is "Most High over all the earth" (Psalm 83:18). He manifested Himself as Most High God in Egypt (Psalm 77:10-20), and by His continual deliverance of His faithful people (Psalm 7:17; 9:3; 21:7; 57:2; 91:1, 9). In the wilderness, Israel forgot the Lord’s redeeming work in Egypt, forgot that He was "Most High God their Redeemer" and tested Him (Psalm 78:17, 35, 56).
Isaiah’s taunt against the king of Babylon picks up on these themes (Isaiah 14:4). The king aspires to ascend to heaven, above the stars and clouds, to become like `Elyon (verses 13-14). Instead, he will be thrust down to Sheol and the pit; instead of being highest he will be lowest (verse 15). The Lord proves Himself `Elyon by putting down all who contest His high position.
Thus, though it is not true that `el `elyon is used only by Gentiles, it is most frequently used to specify Yahweh’s relation to the nations; specifically, that the covenant-keeping God of Israel, is also the Highest, the exalted King of the nations and their gods, who casts down all who exalt themselves against Him.
Though the Lord is uniquely `Elyon, there are several places where others are said to participate in His height and exaltation. It is the privilege of Israel that the Lord has set her "high (`elyon) above all nations that He has made, for praise, fame, and honor; that you shall be a consecrated people to the Lord your God" (Deuteronomy 26:19). She will maintain that high position so long as she remains faithful to the covenant (Deuteronomy 28:1). God Himself is Most High, but He manifests His pre-eminence by exalting His people above the nations (Psalm 47:2-3). Likewise, the "gods" of Psalm 82 are "sons of the Most High" (verse 6), though they, like the king of Babylon, will be thrust down (verses 7-8). Israel’s king is Yahweh’s firstborn, and thus inherits His position and becomes the `Elyon of the kings of the earth.
Being set up on a pedestal has its risks, for it means that, should Israel fall, her shame will also be raised high and be conspicuously public among all nations. Thus, the Lord ironically warns Solomon that if Israel departs from the covenant the Lord’s house will be raised "high," that is, it will become a gigantic heap of ruins. It will attract notice and wonder, not because of its glory but because of its ruination, and will become a proverb and byword among the Gentiles (2 Kings 9:8; 2 Chronicles 7:21). Should Israel test the Most High, she will be laid low but also ironically her humiliation will be "raised up" for all to see. And so, there is height and there is height: The people of the Most High will forever be `elyon, but whether for glory or for shame depends on our faithfulness.