Sunday, February 10, 2008

What's in a Name? God's Self-Disclosure

God also said to Moses, “Say to the Israelites, `The Lord, the God of your fathers—the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob—has sent me to you.’ This is my name forever, the name by which I am to be remembered from generation to generation.”

In the modern world, a person’s name is merely an identifying label, like a number, which could be changed without loss. Bible names, however, have their background in the widespread tradition that personal names give information, describing in some way who people are. The Old Testament constantly celebrates the fact that God has made his name known to Israel, and the psalms direct praise to God’s name over and over (Pss. 8:1; 113:1-3, 145:1-2, 148:5, 13). “Name” here means God himself as he has revealed himself by word and deed. At the heart of this self-revelation is the name by which he authorized Israel to invoke him—Yahweh as modern scholars write it, Jehovah as it used to be rendered, the Lord as it is printed in English versions of the Old Testament.

God declared this name to Moses when he spoke to him out of the thornbush that burned steadily without being burned up. God began by identifying himself as the God who had committed himself in covenant to the patriarchs (cf. Gen. 17:1-14); then, when Moses asked him what he might tell the people that this God’s name was (for the ancient assumption was that prayer would be heard only if you named its addressee correctly), God first said “I am who I am” (or, “I will be what I will be”), then shortened it to “I am,” and finally called himself “the Lord (Hebrew Yahweh, a name sounding like “I am” in Hebrew), the God of your fathers” (Exod. 3:6, 13-16). The name in all its forms proclaims his eternal, self-sustaining, self-determining, sovereign reality—that supernatural mode of existence that the sign of the burning bush had signified. The bush, we might say, was God’s three-dimensional illustration of his own inexhaustible life. “This is my name forever,” he said—that is, God’s people should always think of him as the living, reigning, potent, unfettered and undiminished king that the burning bush showed him to be (Exod. 3:15).

Later (Exod. 33:18–34:7) Moses asks to see God’s “glory” (adorable self-display), and in reply God did “proclaim his name” thus: “The Lord, the Lord, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin. Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished . . .” At the burning bush God had answered the question, In what way does God exist? Here he answers the question, In what way does God behave? This foundational announcement of his moral character is often echoed in later Scriptures (Neh. 9:17; Ps. 86:15; Joel 2:13; John 4:2). It is all part of his “name,” that is, his disclosure of his nature, for which he is to be adored forever.

God rounds off this revelation of the glory of his moral character by calling himself “the Lord, whose name is Jealous” (Exod. 34:14). This echoes, with emphasis, what he said of himself in the sanction of the second commandment (Exod. 20:5). The jealousy affirmed is covenantal: it is the virtue of the commited lover, who wants the total loyalty of the one he has bound himself to honor and serve.

In the New Testament, the words and acts of Jesus, the incarnate Son, constitute a full revelation of the mind, outlook, ways, plans, and purposes of God the Father (John 14:9-11; cf. 1:18). “Hallowed be your name” in the Lord’s prayer (Matt. 6:9) expresses the desire that the first person of the Godhead will be revered and praised as the splendor of his self-disclosure deserves. God is to be given glory for all the glories of his name, that is, his glorious self-revelation in creation, providence, and grace.

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