Exodus 3:13
Great Texts of the Bible
The Eternal Name

And Moses said unto God, Behold, when I come unto the children of Israel, and shall say unto them, The God of your fathers hath sent me unto you; and they shall say to me, What is his name? what shall I say unto them? And God said unto Moses, I AM THAT I AM: and he said, Thus shalt thou say unto the children of Israel, I AM hath sent me unto you.—Exodus 3:13-14.

A new day was dawning for Israel—the day of exodus—the era of national development—in which each man was to have a part unknown before. National expansion always involves new views, new terms, fresh adjustments, and changed ideals. And as Israel faced a new life, there was given a new view of God and new terms were chosen for its definition.

The text suggests three things—

I.  The Necessity for the Name.

  II.  The Meaning of the Name.

  III.  The Revelation in the Name.


The Necessity for the Name

1. Why did Moses ask to know the name of God?—The reason, as the text tells us, was not primarily to satisfy himself, but that he might possess credentials wherewith he could approach this stubborn people. He had just been gazing at the burning bush, and by that sight he had been taught that the place where God reveals Himself is holy ground and that His presence should ever inspire reverence and holy fear. God appeared to Moses with a message, and Moses was charged to deliver it. Whereupon, overwhelmed by the commission, he urged: “But who am I that I should go in to Pharaoh and that I should bring forth the Children of Israel out of Egypt?” Moses recognized his own insufficiency. Unless he could tell the Israelites and Pharaoh in whose name he was sent, he knew that it would be useless to undertake the commission.

The naming of an heir to a throne is regarded as not unworthy of debate and argument by grave and aged ministers of State. Albert Edward, Prince of Wales, on succeeding to the throne, styled himself Edward vii., thus making an appeal to the noblest traditions of the English past. It was with deliberate intention that the late Emperor of Germany called himself Frederick William, and that his son, the present Emperor, chose the name of William. So the assumption of a title by the Popes, who at their accession to the tiara drop their own names, and choose a new one from those borne by the first Bishops of the Roman See, is watched with great interest as affording an indication of the probable policy and character of the coming pontificate. It was with relief that the world heard Cardinal Ricci take the style of Leo xiii., rather than that of Pius, or Gregory, or Clement, or Sixtus. No one can imagine that the late Emperor of the French could have held his throne for sixteen years had he, whose baptismal appellation was Louis Napoleon, preferred to be known as Louis xix., instead of Napoleon iii.1 [Note: C. C. Edmunds.]

2. What did the commission of Moses mean?—The Israelites without faith could not come near to God. Sinful as they were, they could not, if they dared, behold the glory of God. They could not even behold the face of Moses when it shone with the radiance of God’s glory; still less could they understand the revelation of God’s loving, ever-abiding presence which He vouchsafed to His true servant. This, then, was the commission given to Moses first of all—to interpret God—in so far as he could understand and interpret the incomprehensible—to this faithless people.

When the people of Israel crowded for the first time into the House of God which Solomon had reared, the king, on bended knees and with uplifted hands, exclaimed: “Behold, heaven and the heaven of heavens cannot contain thee, how much less this house which I have builded.” It is the spirit in which the Infinite should ever be approached by the finite. As no space can enclose Him, so no name can contain Him. Human speech, which can clothe the things of man in pompous attire, is poor, ragged, and beggarly when brought near the throne of God. Even the holy angels, whose faculties have never been beclouded by sin, and who know the nearest and fullest revelations of God, bow before the Ineffable Unknown, the Unutterable One. Our words, then, which only glance superficially at earthly things and never reach their depths, how can they fitly describe or contain the Infinite, the Holy God, in whom is all fulness of perfection, whom we have never seen, and whom by faith alone we approach?1 [Note: R. V. Pryce.]

3. To interpret God in any degree a name is necessary.—No name indeed can ever set God forth, yet some name we must have. Accordingly we revere the name of God as well as God Himself, and say: “Hallowed be thy name”; for though the name is only a name, as in any other case, yet it sets before us what no other name can—it sets before us a living God.

My father named me after Boardman, that dauntless hero who preceded Judson in missionary work among the Karens. When I was old enough I read the history of the struggles, sufferings, and achievements of that brave young man. His name, which I so unworthily bear, has been to my soul an abiding and unfailing inspiration. Luther, Calvin, Knox, Bunyan, and Carey were long ago gathered to their fathers; but the power of their names is still invoked wherever Christian workmen need a higher courage, a steadier purpose, and a more fervent zeal. But there is a name above every name—a name which is reconstructing our disordered planet, re-creating our fallen and ruined humanity, and which stands everywhere for the sweetest charities of earth, the synonym of the purest life, and the symbol of the highest civilization; a name which carries healing to the wounded, rest to the weary, pardon to the guilty, and salvation to the lost; a name which makes the dark gateway of the tomb the portal to a temple resplendent with the glory of celestial light, where the music of golden harps by angels’ fingers touched is ineffable and eternal.2 [Note: J. B. Hawthorne.]


The Meaning of the Name

1. It is probable that the name Yahweh was not new to Moses or the Israelites. An entirely new name would have meant to them an entirely new God. It is extremely unlikely that the name is of Babylonian origin. If the supposed traces of it in Babylonian literature are genuine, they only point to the introduction of foreign (i.e. Western Semitic) cults. Some maintain that the name is found as an element in early North Syrian proper names. But, if so, this only implies that the name became known to Semitic tribes other than the Israelites.

The ultimate etymology of the name is quite uncertain. The primary meaning of hawah was perhaps “to fall” (cf. Job 37:6, hwç’,? “fall thou”), which is found also in Arabic. Hence some explain “Yahweh” as “He who causes rain or lightning to fall”; or “He who causes to fall (overthrows) by lightning”, i.e. the Destroyer. In this case Yahweh in primitive Semitic times would be somewhat equivalent to the Assyrian Adad or Ramman. It is quite possible that the name Yahweh may in the far past have had a physical meaning, and have been a product of nature-worship.1 [Note: A. H. McNeile.]

2. Hebrew writings tell us much as to the character and attributes of the God of the Old Testament, yet the exact meaning which the writer of Exodus 3:14 attached to the name Yahweh is far from clear. Yahweh, however, may be considered as (1) causative imperfect of hawah, “to be,” which would express “He who causes to be”—either the Creator or the Life-giver, or “He who brings to pass”—the Performer of His promises. But an objection to this interpretation is that this tense of the verb is found only in late Syriac. (2) The ordinary imperfect of hawah, “to be.” The Hebrew imperfect denotes either habitual action, or future action, and therefore can be translated either “He who is,” or “He who will be.” The name “He who is” represents to modern thought the conception of an absolute existence—the unchangeable, self-consistent, absolutely existing One. And this has been adopted by many writers both in ancient and modern times. But the early Hebrew mind was essentially practical, not metaphysical. Professor A. B. Davidson (in Hastings’ Dictionary of the Bible, ii. 199b) says that the verb “does not mean ‘to be’ essentially or ontologically, but phenomenally.” He explains it as follows: “It seems evident that in the view of the writer ’ehyeh and yahweh are the same; that God is ’ehyeh, ‘I will be,’ when speaking of Himself, and yahweh, ‘He will be,’ when spoken of by others. What He will be is left unexpressed—He will be with them, helper, strengthener, deliverer”; the word is explained by the “I will be with thee,” of Exodus 3:12.

Among other interpretations Davidson’s is the most attractive. The passage receives a simple and beautiful explanation if the expression, “I will be what I will be,” is taken as an instance of the idem per idem idiom, which a speaker employs when he does not wish to be explicit. Moses asked for God’s name, i.e. for a description of His nature and character (cf. Genesis 32:29; Jdg 13:17 f.); and he was taught that it was impossible to learn this all at once. God would be what He would from time to time prove to be; each age would discover fresh attributes of His Being.1 [Note: A. H. McNeile.]

3. The new name of God was no academic subtlety, no metaphysical refinement of the Schools, unfitly revealed to slaves, but a most practical and inspiring truth, a conviction to warm their blood, to rouse their courage, to convert their despair into confidence and their alarms into defiance. They had the support of a God worthy of trust. And thenceforth every answer in righteousness, every new disclosure of fidelity, tenderness, love, was not an abnormal phenomenon, the uncertain grace of a capricious despot; no, its import was permanent as an observation of the stars by an astronomer, ever more to be remembered in calculating the movements of the universe. In future troubles they could appeal to Him to awake as in the ancient days, as being He who “cut Rahab and wounded the Dragon.” “I am the Lord, I change not, therefore ye sons of Jacob are not consumed.”

Therefore I trust, although to outward sense

Both true and false seem shaken; I will hold

With newer light my reverence for the old,

And calmly wait the births of Providence.

No gain is lost; the clear-eyed saints look down

Untroubled on the wreck of schemes and creeds;

Love yet remains, its rosary of good deeds

Counting in task-field and o’er peopled town;

Truth has charmed life! the Inward Word survives,

And, day by day, its revelation brings;

Faith, hope, and charity, whatsoever things

Which cannot be shaken, stand. Still holy lives

Reveal the Christ of whom the letter told,

And the new gospel verifies the old.2 [Note: J. G. Whittier.]

4. Two thoughts are evidently contained in the Name.

(1) There is the thought, first, of the permanence of God. We have often heard an expression concerning the “Great I Am,” as if, in popular esteem, it involved only the thought of self-sufficiency; that God is complete in Himself, having no real need of others to augment His pleasure or to complete His world; that He rules alone, absolute Master and Dictator of everything, and in no way bound to listen to any earthly voice or make change in the operation of ordinary laws or sequences. But that is not the idea He was giving to Moses. It is all that some men claim to see in Him, and so they ignore Him and live alone. God had come to each of the old Hebrew saints, being to each of them what He was not to the others, and yet being the complete answer to the needs and aspirations of all. And it was in just this sense that He wanted to come into touch with the individual lives of His people through all succeeding time. Along with the spirit of adaptability which would make Him of value to each life, regardless of its eccentricities, was to go the thought of permanency. He lives perpetually in the present tense. “I AM,” is His name. We live, so often, in other tenses. Some of us in the past, perhaps, when life was serener and we had other difficulties to combat; a past for which we long, because it was easier and more triumphant. Or, perhaps, we are living in the future, and feeling that all the blessedness of God’s presence will be given to us then. This is the view that so many of us get, of a God who is to be ours by and by, when we shall have struggled through the world by dint of hard endeavour and have saved our souls—that the vision of God will be ours when heaven begins. But the personal presence, personal co-operation, personal blessing, is to be ours all through the years.

(2) But there is a thought here, also, as to the permanence of life. Our Saviour quoted this text and gave such emphasis to His interpretation that St. Matthew, St. Mark, and St. Luke have noted it. St. Matthew quotes Him as saying: “But as touching the resurrection of the dead, have ye not read that which was spoken unto you by God, saying, I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob? God is not the God of the dead, but of the living.” Christ emphasizes the eternal presence, and means us to note the tense. There is no statement which suggests that the personal relation of God to these men was merely a matter of history—that it is entirely a thing of the past. Every past moment was once present, and so the statement of this perpetual presence reaches back into the past. But every future moment will at some time be present, and the eternal presence reaches forward through all coming time.

One of the later scientific reinforcements of the philosophic argument for immortality has been drawn from the principle of continuity. This principle has been used by the authors of the Unseen Universe as the basis for the construction of an elaborate argument for the continuation of our life after death; and still further, with the help of other admitted physical truths, they have sought to render conceivable the possibility of another sphere of existence connected with this, yet superior to it, in which we have now our spiritual birthright, and into which after death our life shall without personal loss be transformed. According to this view, death would become a transference of individual existence from this visible universe to some other order of things intimately connected with it. The conclusion of their reasonings with regard to life in its connection with matter, they have expressed in this sentence: “In fine, we maintain that what we are driven to is not an under-life resident in the atom, but rather, to adopt the words of a recent writer, a Divine over-life in which we live and move and have our being.”

5. As the sublime and beautiful conception of a loving spiritual God was built up slowly, age by age, tier upon tier, this was the foundation which ensured the stability of all, until the Head Stone of the Corner gave completeness to the vast design, until men saw and could believe in the very Incarnation of all love, unshaken amid anguish and distress and seeming failure, immovable, victorious, while they heard from human lips the awful words, “Before Abraham was, I AM.” Then they learned to identify all this ancient lesson of trustworthiness with new and more pathetic revelations of affection: and the martyr at the stake grew strong as he remembered that the Man of Sorrows was the same yesterday and to-day and for ever; and the great apostle, prostrate before the glory of his Master, was restored by the touch of a human hand, and by the voice of Him upon whose bosom he had leaned, saying, Fear not, I am the First and the Last and the Living One.

The mysterious “I AM” who spake to Moses is the same “I am,” the ever-existent Christ, who speaks to us. He whom we adore as submitting to death was the Lord of Life. He whom men treated with such indignity was the Lord, the Creator of angels. He whom men falsely and unjustly judged was the Judge of quick and dead, the sole executor of judgment, for it is said by Him, that the Father judgeth no man, but hath committed all judgment unto the Son. He, the “I AM” who thus, as recorded in Exodus, at the bush, spake to Moses, and declared His intention of redeeming His people from Egyptian bondage, now redeemed them from another and far worse bondage, not by plaguing their oppressors, and physically destroying them, but by submitting Himself on their behalf, first to ignominy and tortures, and then to death. Not by power, not by might, but by My Spirit—the Spirit of love, meekness, gentleness, goodness—not by superhuman power, but by superhuman humility. “Thou art the king of glory, O Christ: thou art the Everlasting Son of the Father: when thou tookest upon thee to deliver man thou didst not abhor the virgin’s womb; when thou hadst overcome the sharpness of death thou didst open the kingdom of heaven to all believers.”


The Revelation in the Name

1. When God wants a man to do some good and useful work, He gives him a fresh thought about Himself, His character, and His purposes, a thought which tells him what He is, what He has done, what He is now doing, and what He wills to be done; and by that thought He not only illumines his mind, but also feeds his faith, sustains his patience, and fires his zeal, so that though he may never set foot in the land of promise, yets he keeps on, steadfastly climbing the slopes of Pisgah, and from its heights catches cheering glimpses of the lengthening issues of his toil.

Somehow the revelation comes! You see it written on the sheet let down from heaven to the startled gaze of the sleeper on the house-top at Joppa, assuring him that the creative energy of God cleanses all His work of commonness and makes it full of meaning and beauty; that He condemns the narrowness that would shut out from His infinite love any Cornelius who fears God and works righteousness, and that therefore prejudiced and reluctant Peter must initiate a new era in the religious thought and life of the world.

It comes to the perplexed Augustine, as, with wearied brain and agitated soul, eager to find pardon for his sin and freedom from the tyranny of his youthful lusts, he wanders in the gardens of his friend Alypius, at Tagaste, and says to him, “Tolle lege; tolle lege!” “Take and read; take and read!” And forthwith he opens the New Testament and reads the closing verses of Romans 13 and at once dedicates himself to the life of purity revealed in Jesus Christ.

Somehow it comes. See how it haunts the soul of Martin Luther, filling his youth with awe and firing it with the passion for holiness. Constraining him to listen to the spiritual counsels of Stanfutz, then goading him to undertake the pilgrimage to Rome, where, as he climbs “the holy staircase,” he swiftly learns that God does not require men to crawl up the “Scala Santa” repeating hollow phrases, but to accept His free forgiveness, and from the impulse it gives follow after that holiness without which no man can see the Lord. It comes to John Wesley from the Moravians, and makes him glad with a new joy and strong with a new power. It comes to Dr. Clarke as he meditates on the needs of the churches, and guides him in creating that latest and most effective instrument, the Christian Endeavour movement, for the training and culture of the young in robust godliness, fervent piety, and fruitful service to mankind.

2. Wherein lay the strength of this revelation of God to Moses?

(1) First, it identified God with the work he was given to do. It asserted, in effect, that it was a part of His work, belonged to God, and partook of His eternity; did not depend primarily upon the worker, but upon God Himself. The man was but as a cog in the mighty wheel of the progress of the world; a tool in the hands of the infinite. In that is security. Moses had lived in the midst of whirling change, and inherited a past crowded with trouble and sorrow. His own fortunes had passed through the splendours of a court, the privations of the desert and the anxieties of the criminal; but now, as he faced the responsibilities of leadership, it was with the assurance that God, the God of Abraham, his father’s God, endured, that He was the Eternal, the one fixed centre in a wide circle of ceaseless vicissitude, the “I am that I am”; and as He was, so was His work. Therefore the heart of Moses was fixed, trusting in the Lord, and he went to his task, body, soul, and spirit, with faith and insight, hope and endurance. He saw not the fleeting forms of service, but God’s invisible Israel, the regenerate future of humanity, the gold separated from the dross in the fires of trial, and man redeemed, ending triumphant over every obstacle, and feasting on the bounty of God.

Where ordinary men see a stone and nothing more, the genius of Michael Angelo beholds an angel before hammer or chisel has touched it. To the eye of his companions John Newton is a drunken, swearing sailor; but God sees in him the redeemed, re-made, messenger of love and mercy. The people of Elstree see no more than a tinker, living a loose, irregular life, in John Bunyan; God sees the dreamer of the pilgrim journey from the City of Destruction to the land of Beulah. The call of God is so fraught with revelations of the possibilities of men and of man in God, that those who hear it go forth to their work with an unquenchable hopefulness and an all-subduing zeal.

Blind souls, who say that Love is blind;

He only sees aright;

His only are the eyes that find

The spirit’s central light.

He lifts—while others grope and pry—

His gaze serene and far;

And they but see a waste of sky

Where Love can see the Star.

(2) When a man feels that his work is God’s rather than his own, he is raised at once to the loftiest ranges of power by the development of his humility. The maximum of human force for any work is never reached till we are self-oblivious, absorbed in our task, heedless of ourselves and all besides, except the mission we have to carry out. At this height men are simply irresistible, for they are one with God’s eternal purpose and almighty power.

Ruskin says: “I believe that the first test of a truly great man is his humility. I do not mean by humility doubt of his own power, hesitation of speaking his opinions, but a right understanding of the relation of what he can do and say to the rest of the world’s doings and sayings. All great men not only know their business, but usually know that they know it; they are not only right in their main opinions, but they usually know that they are right in them; only they do not think much of themselves on that account.… They have a curious sense of powerlessness, feeling that the greatness is not in them, but through them—that they could not do or be anything else than God made them; and they see something Divine and God-made in every man they meet, and are endlessly, foolishly, incredibly merciful.” Kipling pictures the artist at the supreme moment of his success as realizing that his work is due, not to his own genius, but to a power that is working in him and through him. This is our strength. God works in us, to work not only our own, but also the world’s salvation.

Whither away, O brawling Stream,

Whither away so fast?

Fleeing for life and death you seem.

Speak, as you hasten past

Answered the Brook, with a pompous roar,

Tossing its creamy foam,

“I go, my flood in the Main to pour—

Listen, O Sea, I come!”

Whither away, O River deep,

Gliding so slow and calm?

Your gentle current seems half asleep,

And chanting a drowsy psalm.

Answered the River, with whisper low,

Swaying her lilies fair;

“Down to the measureless Sea I go—

The Sea will not know I am there.”1 [Note: Augusta Moore, in Scribner’s Monthly, xiii. 30.]

(3) But the tenderest and strongest element in the new thought of God given to Moses is that God is the Redeemer, and is coming down to the lowest levels of the suffering life of Israel to save the people from all their troubles and raise them up to share His own life in its peace and joy for evermore. That is the sum of all God’s speech to us. Out of the burning bush comes the revelation of the Cross. God is Himself at the centre of the fires that burn humanity; He is afflicted in all our afflictions; He shares our lot so that He may redeem us from all our iniquities.2 [Note: John Clifford.]

A living God means an active Redeemer. This is the interpretation of God which Moses is to set before the people. God chooses Moses to go and speak to Pharaoh on Israel’s behalf. He will be a Pillar of Fire, giving light by which an untrained, unarmed nation of hereditary bondsmen will see the way out of Egypt. He will, in the meek and slow-tongued Moses, confound the arrogance and assumption of the magicians of a mighty Empire. “Tell them that ‘I AM’ hath sent thee. Let them know that I have heard their cry. Say to the elders that ‘I have visited you.’ Tell them that certainly I will be with thee, and ye shall serve God in this mountain.”1 [Note: J. G. Gibson.]

3. The credentials which God gave to Moses are the same as Christ gave to His Church. But how often we are loth to go without better credentials than these! And yet what better could we have? “As my Father sent Me into the world, even so have I also sent them into the world.” As we look upon the seething chaos of social hopelessness, we feel it to be well-nigh impossible to do anything great—we are so feeble, and in nature so insufficient. We feel much as Elijah did when he bent in abject despair at the brook: “I, even I only, am left, and they seek my life to take it away.” Considered numerically, what prospect is there that the few millions of aggressive Christians will ever win over the hundreds of millions who are at present almost altogether out of sympathy with the objects of the Christian religion? Surely all our ferment and prayer and testimony, our martyrdom and love and self-sacrificing thought are thrown away! We are only men as they are, and must be borne down at last by numbers!

A tiny volume of gas is not distinguishable from the gases we call air about it. But give to that gas in its tiny volume heat, and it becomes incandescent; and so long as gas remains with air about it, that flame gives light, in darkness ever so dense. One tiny volume enlightens many thousands of times its own space of air, because that very burning has taken place in connexion with it. So, though dark the social night in which we shine, our Gospel will be approved. We are Messengers of the King of Light, in whom is no darkness at all, and our presence is omnipotent for good, so long as He goes with us.1 [Note: J. G. Gibson.]


Chadwick (G. A.), The Book of Exodus, 54.

Gibson (J. G.), Stepping-Stones to Life, 181.

Leckie (J.), Sermons Preached at Ibrox, 35.

Pierce (C. C.), The Hunger of the Heart for Faith, 71.

Sadler (M. F.), Sermon Outlines for the Clergy and Lay Preachers, 115.

Stanford (C.), Symbols of Christ, 74.

Vaughan (J.), Sermons (Brighton Pulpit), xxii. No. 1242.

Christian World Pulpit, xxx. 259 (Pryce); lix. 352 (Clifford).

Churchman’s Pulpit (Fifth Sunday in Lent), vi. 175 (Peabody).

Thinker, i. 324 (Lowe).

The Great Texts of the Bible - James Hastings

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