El-Elyon, The Most High God

This post is part of a series about the names of God in the Bible. This series is based off of the study that took place in our Ladies’ Bible Class. You can watch those sessions online at WestsideLife.org/media. Just look for the “Name Above All Names” media series.

“When heaven decides to move, everyone else needs to adjust. When El Elyon lays down a decision, it doesn’t matter what anyone’s title is down here—God will see His decision through, and He will make a way where there seems to be no way from a human point of view.” – Tony Evans, The Power of God’s Names (p. 184)

El-Elyon, The Most High God

Today we focus on the name El-Elyon, or The Most High God. This name is used a few dozen times in the Bible, especially in the Psalms. El is the shortened version of Elohim and means God, while Elyon is the Hebrew word meaning high or highest. The basic meaning is therefore “The highest God,” or the “Highly exalted God.”

The first time this specific name for God is used is in Genesis 14—once again during the lifetime of Abraham. But Abraham is not alone in using this name for God. By my count, at least twelve people use this name in the Old Testament, along with seven more in the New Testament. 

Note that the time between the first and last occurrences of El-Elyon in the Bible is over 2,100 years! The idea that God was high above all others was an enduring part of Israel’s theology. The following is a list of when God is called “The Most High God” or simply “The Most High.”

Examples in the Old Testament:

  • Narrator / Author of Genesis (Gen. 14:18)
  • Melchizedek (Gen. 14: 19, 20)
  • Abraham (Gen. 14:22)
  • Balaam (Num. 26:16)
  • Moses (Deut. 32:8)
  • David (2 Sam. 22:14; Psalm 7:17; 9:2; 18:13; 21:7; 57:2)
  • Sons of Korah (Psalm 46:4; 47:2; 87:5) 
  • Asaph (Psalm 50:14, 73:11, 77:10, 78:17, 35, 56; 82:6; 83:18)  
  • Unknown Psalmist (Psalm 91:9; 92:1; 97:9; 107:11)
  • Prideful Israelites (Isaiah 14:14)
  • Author of Lamentations (Lam. 3:35, 38)
  • Daniel (Dan. 7:17, 22, 25 x2, 27)

Examples in the New Testament

  • The Angel Gabriel (Luke 1:32, 35)
  • Zechariah, John the Baptist’s Father (Luke 1:76)
  • Jesus (Luke 6:35)
  • Demon-Possessed Man in the Gerasenes Region (Mark 5:7, Luke 8:28)
  • Stephen the Martyr (Acts 7:48)
  • A Demon-Possessed Slave Girl (Acts 16:17)
  • Author of Hebrews (Hebrews 7:1)

The Original Context

El-Elyon first occurs in Genesis 14:18-22, where it is used four times by three different people: (1) the narrator of Genesis, (2) a mysterious character named Melchizedek, and (3) Abraham. 

The literary context is a battle between four powerful kings from the North (Assyria / Mesopotamia) and five weaker kings from the South. The exact details of this battle are largely inconsequential from Israel’s point of view, but things get personal for Abraham when he finds out that the conquering kings of the North have taken his nephew Lot captive as a prisoner of war. It’s at that point that this north-south war between non-Israelite kings becomes an important part of Israel’s story.

Abraham Rescues Lot

When Abraham is informed that Lot has been taken captive, he immediately springs into action. Abraham departs the area of Mamre (close to Jerusalem) with a minuscule fighting force of 318 men. His journey from one side of Israel to the far northern border is long and arduous. 

When he arrives, he is massively outnumbered compared to the four northern armies, but he and his fighting men are nevertheless successful at defeating them and rescuing the prisoners—including Lot.

It’s pretty incredible to imagine how 318 men who had just marched hundreds of miles could defeat four armies and free their prisoners when they were so hopelessly outnumbered. So what was the secret to their success?

The Jewish historian Josephus addresses this question in his volume titled Antiquities:

“…and before they could arm themselves he slew some as they were in their beds, before they could suspect any harm; and others, who were not yet gone to sleep, but were so drunk they could not fight, ran away.” -Antiquities, Book 1, ch.10.

Abraham knew a direct attack on a significantly larger army would be a suicide mission. Instead, he reasoned that a sneak attack would give them a much better chance. From a tactual point of view, striking by night (Gen. 14:15) caught the enemy off guard and gave Abraham the advantage. And if Josephus’ account is accurate, the fact that many of the enemy soldiers were simply too drunk to function would have made the battle that much easier.

El-Elyon Gives the Victory

Abraham made a wise decision to strike by night, but we know that the real reason he was successful was because God was with him in battle.

After all, there’s no earthly way that an army of 318 could defeat four armies that most likely numbered in the tens of thousands. But one thing that the Bible makes clear is that things that seem impossible to us are always possible with God. After all, Jesus himself says, “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible,” (Matthew 19:26). As the rest of the story is told, we’re reminded that God gives the victory, so God gets the credit.

After Abraham’s successful rescue operation, he returned home. Upon his arrival, Melchizedek king of Salem appeared rather mysteriously to bless Abraham. Melchizedek means “king of righteousness,” and Salem means “peace,” (i.e. shalom). That means Melchizedek represents peace and righteousness. You might recognize salem from the name Jerusalem (“city of peace”), and in fact they are actually one and the same . In Psalm 76:2, the Bible explicitly connects Salem with Zion, i.e. Jerusalem.   

It is Melchizedek who first declares that God is El-Elyon, the Most High God:

Genesis 14:18-20 (NIV), “Then Melchizedek king of Salem brought out bread and wine. He was priest of God Most High, 19 and he blessed Abram, saying,“Blessed be Abram by God Most High, Creator of heaven and earth. 20 And praise be to God Most High, who delivered your enemies into your hand.”Then Abram gave him a tenth of everything.

Melchizedek’s Blessing

There’s a very strong case to be made that Melchizedek—the King of Salem and a Priest of God—is a foreshadow of Jesus Christ. The author of Hebrews makes this point in Hebrews 7:3 when he says, “Without father or mother, without genealogy, without beginning of days or end of life, resembling the Son of God, [Melchizedek] remains a priest forever.”

In Genesis 14, the connection between Melchizedek  and Jesus is striking: 

  • Melchizedek is The King of Peace; Jesus is the Prince of Peace (Isaiah 9:6). 
  • Melchizedek is a King and Priest, just like Jesus (Rev. 17:14, Hebrews 4:14)
  • Melchizedek is the King of Righteousness; Jesus is our righteousness (1 Corinthians 1:30).
  • Melchizedek brings a meal of bread and wine; Jesus eats bread and wine at the Last Supper (Luke 22:7-23).
  • Melchizedek blesses the man whose family would one day bless the whole world (Gen. 12:3); Jesus is the fulfillment of that very promise (John 1:29, John 3:16).

With these similarities in mind, we can turn out attention to the significance of what Melchizedek tells Abraham, especially verse 20: “And praise be to God Most High, who delivered your enemies into your hand.”

There’s no doubt that the four kings of the north felt like they were the strongest, bravest, most accomplished fighting force around. They had just won a decisive victory over a coalition of kings and had reaped the rewards of treasure and fortune. But despite whatever strength they thought they had, they were no match for the Most High God! God’s power is far beyond anything we can ever imagine. Kings and armies and chariots and horses might be impressive from a human point of view, but they are hardly worth mentioning compared to the power of God. After all, the moon seems pretty bright—until you see the sun. 

El-Elyon, The God Who Fights for Us.

The nation of Israel was no stranger to conflict. When you read through the Old Testament narratives, it can almost feels like the Bible is a textbook on military history. But one thing the Bible makes clear about all this fighting is that whatever success Israel had on the battlefield was a result of God’s power and God’s intervention. If God promised a victory, Israel was victorious. If God predicted a defeat, Israel was defeated. The battle belonged to the Lord, and Israel was just along for the ride.

Deuteronomy 20:2-4 is a representative example of God communicating this theological truth to the armies of Israel:

2 When you are about to go into battle, the priest shall come forward and address the army. 3 He shall say: ‘Hear, Israel: Today you are going into battle against your enemies. Do not be fainthearted or afraid; do not panic or be terrified by them. 4 For the Lord your God is the one who goes with you to fight for you against your enemies to give you victory.”

In fact, God’s ability to bring victory to Israel was so impressive that he once them to just stand still (Exodus 14:14).

When you realize that God is the Most High God, the God whose power far exceeds every other army, power, philosophy, law, regulation or force the world has ever seen, these unlikely victories in the Bible start to make sense.

Since God is El-Elyon, of course Abraham’s 318 men could easily defeat the four armies of the north! Since God is El-Elyon, of course Gideon’s 300 men could easily defeat the thousands upon thousands of Midianites in Judges 6-7! Since God if El-Elyon, of course a shepherd boy who was too weak to wear proper armor or carry real weapons could defeat the nine foot tall champion Goliath—with just a sling and a stone. 

Their human ability, no matter how limited it might be, was simply a vessel by which God could demonstrate his unequaled power. 

El-Elyon Today

So what is your obstacle? What is your “four armies of the north” that seems like an impossible challenge? What is your Goliath? 

God has promised to fight for his people, to give us the ability to withstand every temptation, and to be with us always. Some might focus on how big the problem is, but we choose to focus on how big our God is. When you understand that God is the biggest, the highest, the most exalted, all of our problems come into the proper perspective: there’s nothing God can’t handle!