The most common and the most important name for God in the Old Testament is a name that in our English versions never even gets translated. Whenever you see the word LORD in all capital letters, you know that this name is behind it. In Hebrew the name had four letters—YHWH—and may have been pronounced something like Yahweh. The Jews regarded this word with such reverence that they would never speak it, afraid that they would inadvertently take the name in vain. (If only we were that concerned with profaning God’s name!) So whenever they came to this name while reading the Scriptures, they pronounced the word “adonai” which means “my lord.” The English versions have basically followed the same pattern. They translate the proper name Yahweh with the word LORD in all caps. Unfortunately, the English word LORD does not communicate to us a proper name like Greg. But Yahweh is God’s proper name in Hebrew. It occurs 6,828 times in the Old Testament. That’s more than three times as often as the simple word for “God” (Elohim—2,600; El—238). This reflects that God wants to be known not as a generic deity, but as a specific Person with a name that carries his unique character and mission.
The most important text in the Bible for understanding the meaning of the name Yahweh is Exodus 3:13–15. God has just commanded Moses to go to Egypt and to bring his people Israel out of captivity. Moses says to God in verse 13, “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?” God said to Moses, “I AM WHO I AM.” And he said, “Say this to the people of Israel, ‘I AM has sent me to you.'” God also said to Moses, “Say this to the people of Israel, “The LORD (that is, Yahweh!), the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, the God of Jacob, has sent me to you’: this is my name for ever, and thus I am to be remembered throughout all generations.”
Now notice that God gives three answers to the question, “What shall I tell them your name is?”
1. First, in verse 14 God says, “I AM WHO I AM.”
2. Second, in verse 14 God says, “I AM has sent me to you.”
3. Third, in verse 15 God says, “Yahweh . . . has sent me to you . . . this is my name for ever.”
So two facts reveal that this text provides an interpretation of the name Yahweh. One is that the name Yahweh and the name I AM are built out of the same Hebrew word (hayah). The other is that Yahweh seems to be used here interchangeably with I AM. “I AM has sent me to you” (v. 14). “Yahweh . . . has sent me to you” (v. 15). I think it would be safe to say that God’s purpose in this meeting with Moses is to reveal, as he never had before (Exodus 6:2), the meaning of his personal name Yahweh. The key is in the phrase I AM and especially in the phrase, I AM WHO I AM.
Think about this for a minute. What does it mean when you ask your God, “Who are you?” and he answers, “I AM WHO I AM?” What does this say about God?
First, it says that God exists. This may seem so obvious and so basic that we wouldn’t need to mention it. Well, it is obvious and it is basic, but the reason we should mention it is that most people live as if it were not true, or as if it were a truth that makes no difference in life. Those who acknowledge God’s existence by ignore His authority in their lives are functional atheists.
Second, this name says that God is absolute reality. There is no reality behind His existence. If you asked me how I got to be the way I am, I would say that my father and mother gave me a set of genes and they reared me a certain way and I have been surrounded by thousands of influences in my environment—that’s how I got to be the way I am. But when we ask God how he got to be who he is, he answers, “I AM WHO I AM”. In other words, nobody gave me a set of genes. Nobody and no power brought me into existence or shaped my personality. I had no beginning. There is no reality outside myself that did not come from me. And so there is no force or influence upon my character and power except what comes from me and is controlled by me. I am utterly absolute. Behind me there is no reality. Asking the question, Why is God the way he is? is like asking me, When are you going to stop beating your wife? It is unanswerable because it assumes a state of affairs that does not exist. I am not beating my wife and so I cannot stop. And there is nothing behind or outside God that could be an answer to the question, why he is the way he is. There comes a point when you stand face to face with absolute reality and realize that he simply is who he is.
A third implication of the name I AM WHO I AM is that God does not change. In Malachi 3:6 God says, “I Yahweh do not change; therefore you, O sons of Jacob, are not consumed.” If God’s character is not determined by any forces outside himself, then he is not subject to the changes we are. People change their mind because of unforeseen circumstances or out of weakness. God foresees everything and has no weaknesses. Nothing in all creation takes him off guard and backs him into a corner where he might have to act out of character or compromise his integrity.
Fourth, the name I AM WHO I AM tells us that God is inexhaustible. Isaiah 40:28 says, “Yahweh is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He does not faint or grow weary.” If God is the everlasting absolute Reality, then he is the Creator of the ends of the earth and of the universe. And if he is the Creator of everything, then all energy—all motion and combustion and fusion and fission—originate in him. Somehow all the energy in the universe must get started. And since God is the first and absolute reality, it all starts in him. He is an inexhaustible reservoir of power. This must mean that he is energy. He is power. His personality is radiant with infinite energy. He never needs recharging. He never needs a backup system. There is nothing for him to plug into. Everything in the universe plugs into him. If he ever shut down, there would be absolute nothingness. In him we live and move and have our being. He cannot faint or grow weary. He is an unending river of life and the source or our strength every morning—and will be for all eternity.
A fifth implication of the name I AM WHO I AM is that God is objective truth. One person’s view of God is NOT as true as everybody else’s. God is who he is and nobody’s opinion of him makes any difference. Therefore, our calling as his creatures is to strive to know him for who he is, not for who we would like him to be.
A sixth implication of the name I AM WHO I AM is that we must conform to God, not he to us. If children are supposed learn manners from their parents and not the parents from the children; if players are supposed to learn their plays from their coach and not the other way around; if soldiers learn their strategy from the general instead of the general learning from the soldiers; then surely it is obvious that creatures should conform all their lives to the will of their Creator! But do we live this way? Most of God’s creatures go their own way with little or no thought of conforming their lives to the daily will and character of an absolute God. And when they think of God, they picture him arbitrarily in images of their own making, to suit their own desires. But if God simply is who he is and not who we make him out to be, then we must conform to him, not him to us.
Finally, Jesus used this name of himself to identify himself as God. In John 8:56–58 Jesus is answering the criticism of the Jewish leaders. He says, “Your father Abraham rejoiced that he was to see my day; he saw it and was glad.” The Jews then said to him, “You are not yet fifty years old, and have you seen Abraham?” Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly! I say to you, before Abraham was, I AM.” When Jesus said, “Before Abraham was, I AM,” he took all the awesome truth of the name of God, wrapped it in humble servanthood, allowed himself to take the punishment for our rebellion, and made a way for us to see the glory of God without fear. In Jesus Christ we can have the privilege of knowing Yahweh as our Father—I AM WHO I AM—the God
- who exists
- who is absolute reality
- who never changes
- from whom all power and energy in the universe flows
- who is absolute truth, and
- to whom all creation must ultimately conform.
This is the name of God: I AM WHO I AM!