What Is God’s Name?
Moses had a momentary encounter with the Holy, and the closer he got, the more afraid he became. He heard the voice of God sending him on a mission, and his fear turned to doubt. “Who am I, that I should go on this mission?” And God responded, “I will be with you” (Ex. 3:12). He didn’t really answer Moses’ question about who Moses was; He simply said, in effect, “Don’t worry about who you are, because I’m going to be with you.”
“‘And this shall be the sign for you, that I have sent you: when you have brought the people out of Egypt, you shall serve God on this mountain.’ Then Moses said to God, ‘If I come to the people of Israel and say to them, “The God of your fathers has sent me to you,” and they ask me, “What is his name?” what shall I say to them?’” (Ex. 3:12–13). Now we get to the crux of the matter. Moses no longer was asking the question, “Who am I?” At this point, what Moses asked was, “Who are you? What’s your name?”
In the very early days of Ligonier Ministries, somebody asked me, “What are you trying to do? What’s your mission? What’s the purpose of this ministry that you’ve put together?” I told him, “It’s a teaching ministry to help ground Christians in the Word of God,” and he responded, “What is it that you want to teach, that the people don’t already know?” That was easy. “Who God is,” I said. “Romans 1:18–25 tells us that everyone in the world knows that God is, because God has so clearly manifested Himself to all of them in creation that men are left without excuse, because His general revelation has pierced their minds. They know He exists, but they hate Him.” I went on: “In large measure, that’s because they know He is, but they don’t have any idea who He is.” The fellow said, “But what do you think is the most important thing that Christians need to know in this day and age?” I said, “Christians need to find out who God is.”
I think the greatest weakness in our day is the virtual eclipse of the character of God, even within our churches. A woman with a Ph.D. in psychology who was a member of a church on the West Coast once got in contact with me. She was very angry and said, “I go to church every Sunday, and I get the feeling that our minister is doing everything he can to conceal from us the character of God. He’s afraid that if he really opened up the Scriptures and proclaimed the character of God as He is portrayed in the Bible, people would leave the church because they would be uncomfortable in the presence of the Holy.” Moses wasn’t the first person to hide his face in the presence of God. That started in the garden of Eden, with the flight into hiding by Adam and Eve, who were ashamed.
So Moses asked, “Who are you? What’s your name—if you even have a name?” God had already revealed Himself as “the God of your fathers, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob” (see Ex. 3:6). Moses knew that; he wanted to know God’s name.
In 1963, on national television, David Frost interviewed Madalyn Murray O’Hair, the famous militant atheist. Frost debated with O’Hair about the existence of God. As she was getting angrier and more frustrated, Frost decided to settle the debate in the classic American way: by taking a vote. He put it to the studio audience, saying, in effect, “How many of you people out there [about thirty people were there] believe in some kind of God, some kind of higher power, something greater than yourself?” Everyone raised their hands. O’Hair essentially responded, “What do you expect from the uneducated masses? These people haven’t grown out of their intellectual infancy; they’re still brainwashed from the culture and this mythology of God.” She went on insulting everybody in the studio audience.
That’s not what I expected her to do. I thought she would turn to the audience and say, “You believe in some kind of higher power, in something greater than yourself. Let me ask you: How many of you believe in Yahweh, the God of the Bible? The God who demands that you have no other gods in front of Him? The God who sends men, women, and children to hell forever, and condemns people because they don’t believe in this mythical Jesus?” I wonder how the vote would have changed if the question had been asked with more clarity. It’s almost an institution in our culture to describe God as a higher power, a force, something greater than ourselves. But what is that higher power? Gravity? Lightning? Earthquakes? The trouble with a nebulous, nameless, characterless power is that, first, it is impersonal, and second and more importantly, it is amoral. There’s an upside and a downside to worshiping such a higher power. The upside, to a sinner, is that an impersonal, amoral force makes no ethical demands on anyone. Gravity does not make judgment about people’s behavior; even if someone should jump out of a window six stories high, there is no personal condemnation from gravity. No one’s conscience is seared by gravity. If your higher power is impersonal and amoral, that gives you a license to behave any way you want with impunity.
The downside, however, is that there is nobody home. This belief means that there is no personal God, no Redeemer. What kind of a salvific relationship can you have with thunder? Thunder makes noise, booming through the sky—but in terms of content, it’s mute. There is no revelation, no hope offered. Thunder and gravity have never been able to forgive any sin.
In God’s answer to Moses, we see a contrast to this impersonal force. He didn’t say, “It is what it is,” which seems to be the name of false gods of our day. He said, “I AM WHO I AM” (Ex. 3:14). This name is related to God’s personal name, Yahweh. So the very first thing that God reveals about Himself in that name is that He is personal. He can see; He can hear; He can know; He can speak. He can relate to the creatures He made in His own image. He is the God who brought up His people out of the land of Egypt. He is a God with a name and a history.
Many years ago, I taught a college course on theology, and we were studying the names of God. I was trying to illustrate the significance of the names of God, and what they reveal about God’s character. Just before class, a girl, whom I’ll call Mary, walked into the room in a strange, somewhat awkward manner—so that anyone could see the glittering diamond ring on her left hand. I said, “Mary, are you engaged?” She pointed to a man in the back room and said, “Yes, to John.” I said, “Congratulations. When you say you’re going to marry him, I assume you love him—is that a safe assumption?” She said, “Yes.”
I said, “Why do you love him?” She said, “Because he’s so handsome.” I said, “Yes, he is very good looking. But look at Bill—he was the escort to the homecoming queen this year. Don’t you think he’s good looking?” She said, “Yes, Bill’s very handsome.” I said, “There must be something else about John, besides the fact that he’s handsome.” She said, “He’s also athletic.” I said, “Yes, he’s good. But Bill’s the captain of the basketball team. Why don’t you love Bill instead of John?” She was starting to get frustrated, and said, “John’s so intelligent.” I said, “He is a very good student. Of course, Bill is probably going to be the valedictorian of the class. So, Mary, there has to be something else about John that distinguishes him from Bill in your eyes—something unique to him, that causes you to have this great affection. What is it about him that makes you love him so much?
She became almost upset and said, “I love him because … I love him because—I love him because he’s John.” And I said, “There you go. When you want to focus on the crystalized essence of who He is, and what He means in terms of your relationship and personal history with Him, it all comes back to His name.
I turned to the class and explained, “That’s why, when we look at God, we know His name is wonderful. In that name, He reveals manifold things about the excellency of His being and the perfections of His character. And that’s why the saints of old, if we asked, ‘Tell us everything you know about God,’ they would finally say, ‘Yahweh—I AM WHO I AM.’”
This excerpt is adapted from Moses and the Burning Bush by R.C. Sproul.