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Names were serious business in the ancient world. 

They were thought to reveal something of the character, identity, and even the destiny of those who bore them.  That’s rarely the case in modern Western culture.

Every few years I publicly reveal what the “W” of my middle name stands for. 

Back in the 1950’s, if my parents had been able to see far enough ahead, they might have named me Glenn.www.McDonald.  As it turns out, the “W” does not stand for William or Walter or Wesley or any other classic mainstream name.  It stands for “Wick.” 

That’s was my Dad’s nickname.  He was born Richard McDonald, but since his older brother Willard apparently struggled to pronounce his r’s when they were kids, he called my dad “Wickard.”  The name stuck.  Dad always answered to Wick.  My parents thought it would be wonderful if I were also a Wick, which only proves the Bible’s teaching that the sins of the parents will be visited upon their children.

The author of the book of Ruth, whose identity we do not know, quickly introduces us to the names of all the main players – with the exception of a character who won’t appear until chapter two.  Here’s how the stage is set:

In the days when the judges ruled, there was a famine in the land, and a man from Bethlehem in Judah, together with his wife and two sons, went to live for a while in the country of Moab.  The man’s name was Elimelech, his wife’s name Naomi, and the names of his two sons were Mahlon and Kilion.  They were Ephrathites from Bethlehem, Judah.  And they went to Moab and lived there.

Now Elimelech, Naomi’s husband, died, and she was left with her two sons.  They married Moabite women, one named Orpah and the other Ruth.  After they had lived there about ten years, both Mahlon and Kilion also died, and Naomi was left without her two sons and her husband.  (Ruth 1:1-5)

In the space of the book’s first five verses, a multi-generation family encounters five catastrophes:  a famine, exile to a land of Israel’s sworn enemies, and the deaths of all three of the male providers.  Life is not going to be easy. 

So what’s behind the names of these individuals? 

Elimelech means “God is king.”  That is a name of great honor.  Naomi sounds like the Hebrew words for “beautiful and pleasant.”  Their sons, however, bear more ominous names.  Mahlon means “sickness” and Kilion means “failed” – destinies that appear to have been fulfilled.  What were their parents thinking? 

One of the boys married Ruth, a name which means “friendship” – something that will be on spectacular display in her relationship with her mother-in-law.  Orpah appears to mean “stubborn.”  In 1954 an unwed Mississippi teenager gave birth to a little girl to whom she was determined to give a biblical name.  Her sister Ida suggested Orpah, which is the name that appeared on the baby’s birth certificate.  But her family and friends had so much trouble spelling and pronouncing her name that eventually she became known as Oprah – Oprah Winfrey.

What about your own name?

You can go with the one you received at birth.  Most people do, even if they sometimes wonder about Mom and Dad’s intentions. 

Or you can change it.  Reginald Dwight became Elton John.  Joaquin Bottom morphed into Joaquin Phoenix – no doubt a wise marketing move.  Jennifer Anastassakis opted for Jennifer Anniston – easier for her friends to remember.  Maurice Micklewhite chose Michael Caine – he had grown up loving The Caine Mutiny.  And Marion Morrison became John Wayne – “The Duke” should definitely not be named Marion. 

On the other hand, you might identify yourself with some kind of hidden personal descriptor – a dark name you would never actually speak aloud.  Perhaps you secretly know yourself as Hopeless, I’ll-Prove-All-You-Jerks-Wrong, or Worthless.

Or you can go with one of the names that someone else – perhaps a parent or an ex or a boss or a bully – hung on you somewhere along the way:  Failure, Slacker, Second Place, Not-As-Pretty-As-Your-Sister.

There’s one other option.  You can claim as your own the names that God has bestowed on every Christian in Ephesians 1:3-14.  There are seven of them – one for every day of the week.  If you’ve enrolled as a follower of Jesus, here is a seven-fold expression of your true identity:

Sealed (by the Holy Spirit)
Predestined (for adoption into God’s family)
Chosen (before the creation of the world)

You can name yourself.  Or go with what others call you.

Or you can conclude that God alone knows who you really are, and has the right to declare your identity, character, and destiny.

Whatever name you choose to answer to will almost certainly determine the shape of your life.

Here’s one reason to be encouraged: 

At least your middle name isn’t Wick.