The Pulpit Commentary

Exodus 3:1-22 (Exodus 3:1-22)

THE MISSION OF MOSES . After forty years of monotonous pastoral life, affording abundant opportunity for meditation, and for spiritual communion with God, and when he had attained to the great age of eighty years, and the hot blood of youth had given place to the calm serenity of advanced life, God at last revealed Himself to Moses "called him" ( Exodus 3:4 ), and gave him a definite mission. The present chapter is' intimately connected with the next. Together, they contain an account of that extraordinary and indeed miraculous interchange of thought and speech between Moses and God himself, by which the son of Amram was induced to undertake the difficult and dangerous task of freeing his people, delivering them from their bondage in Egypt, and conducting them through the wilderness to that "land flowing with milk and honey," which had been promised to the seed of Abraham more than six centuries previously ( Genesis 15:18 ). Whatever hopes he had entertained of being his people's deliverer in youth and middle life, they had long been abandoned; and, humanly speaking, nothing was more improbable than that the aged shepherd, grown "slow of speech and of a slow tongue" ( Exodus 4:10 )—his manners rusticised—his practical faculties rusted by disuse—his physical powers weakened—should come forth from a retirement of forty years' duration to be a leader and king of men. Nothing less than direct supernatural interposition could—one may well believe—have sufficed to overcome the natural vis inertiae of Moses' present character and position. Hence, after an absolute cessation of miracle for more than four hundred years, miracle is once more made use of by the Ruler of the Universe to work out his ends. A dignus vindice nodus has arisen; and the ordinary laws of that Nature which is but one of his instruments are suspended by the Lord of All, who sees what mode of action the occasion requires, and acts accordingly.

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Exodus 3:14 (Exodus 3:14)

I AM THAT I AM . No better translation can be given of the Hebrew words. " I will be that I will be (Geddes) is more literal, but less idiomatic, since the Hebrew was the simplest possible form of the verb substantive. " I am because I am" (Boothroyd) is wrong, since the word asher is certainly the relative. The Septuagint, ἐγώ εἰμι ὁ ὤν , explains rather than translates, but is otherwise unobjectionable. The Vulgate, sum qui sum , has absolute exactness. The idea expressed by the name is, as already explained, that of real, perfect, unconditioned, independent existence. I AM hath sent me to you. " I am" is an abbreviated form of " I am that I am," and is intended to express the same idea.

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Exodus 3:13-15 (Exodus 3:13-15)

God's revelation of himself under the name Jehovah, and the meaning of it.

At first sight the name by which God shall be called may seem unimportant, as it is unimportant whether a man be called Tully or Cicero. But, originally, each name that is given to God is significant; and according as one name or another is commonly used, one idea or another of the Divine nature will be prevalent. Hitherto God had been known mainly to the Semites as El , Eliun , Elohim , "Exalted, Lofty," or Shaddai , "Strong, Powerful." Another name known to them, but rarely used, was JHVH , "Existent." (The vocalisation of the name has been lost, and is uncertain.) God was now asked by Moses under what name he should speak of him to the Israelites, and was bidden to speak of him as JHVH . What, then, was the full meaning of JHVH , and why was it preferred to the other names? Probably as a security against polytheism. When words expressive of such attributes as exaltation, strength, knowledge, goodness, beautifulness, even creative energy, are made into names of God, there is a temptation at once to extend them from the one to the many, from the possessor of the attribute in the highest degree to others who possess it, or are supposed to possess it, in a high degree. Thus all such words come to be used in the plural, and the way is paved for polytheism. But if God is called "the Existent," this danger disappears; for there are but two kinds or degrees of existence, viz; self-existence, and created, dependent existence. "The Existent" must mean "the Serf-Existent," who must necessarily be One. Hence JHVH never had a plural. The only way by which an Israelite could become a polytheist was by deserting Jehovah altogether and turning to Elohim. In vindicating to himself the name Jehovah, "He who exists," or "He who alone exists," God declared himself to be—

l. eternal;

2. uncaused;

3. unconditioned

4. independent;

5. self-sufficient.

He placed a gulf, profound—not to be bridged—between himself and every other being. He indicated that all other gods were unrealities—breath, vapour, shadows of shades; that he alone was real, stable, to be trusted; and that in him his worshippers might have "quietness and assurance for ever."

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Exodus 3:13-17 (Exodus 3:13-17)

The second difficulty: the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob-what is his name?

Moses feels that when he goes among his brethren, one of their first questions will be as to the name of this God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Consider—

I. HOW IT WAS THAT THE POSSIBILITY OF SUCH A QUESTION WAS SUGGESTED TO HIS MIND . All the deities of the other nations had names, and doubtless the gods of Egypt were well known by name to the Israelites. Part of the glory of each nation came from the fact that it was under the protection and favour of so renowned a being as its God. The feeling of Moses in asking this question may be illustrated from the clamour of the Ephesian mob against Paul. The Ephesians felt that it was a great deal to be able to say that Diana had a special interest in them. And so it seemed to Moses a reversal of the proper order of things to go to his brethren with no more indication of the Being who had sent him, than that he had been historically connected with Abraham, IsaActs and Jacob. Moses could not believe that his own people would rest contented with such a representation as this; indeed, we may very reasonably go further, and assume that he himself was anxious to know the name of this unnamed God. He was not yet filled with the light and power of the pure monotheistic conception. Certainly he had just felt what real might there was with the God of his fathers, and probably there was no shadow of doubt in his mind that this God was powerful far beyond any of the rest; but he had yet to learn that he was God alone, and that all other deities, however imposing, were nothing more than the fictions of degraded and wayward imagination. When we bear in mind that Moses was only at the beginning of his personal acquaintance with God, then we shall see that there was nothing wonderful or unreasonable, from the point of his attainments at the time, in asking such a question. Observe also that the very question is a revelation of how ignorant the Israelites were of God. How clear the proof is that the thought of God, as Jehovah, came down from above, and did not rise out of the corrupted hearts of men. When we have much to do with persons, it is a matter of necessity to have names for them, and if they give us none, we must make them for ourselves. But the Israelites had no transactions with God, save as he came down and pressed his presence upon them; and even then all that they could see was such power as became manifest to the senses. It is very certain that if God had not revealed this name, there was no faculty among the Israelites to invent it.

II. THE GIVING OF THE NAME . We must bear in mind the purpose for which the name was given. The question at once suggests itself—Would God have given this name, if he had not been asked? To this perhaps the best answer is that the difficulty out of which the question rose was sure to be felt, even if the question itself was not asked. Some name of the kind assuredly became needed for distinguishing purposes. It was a name as helpful to the people of idolatrous nations as to Israel itself. An Egyptian or a Philistine could say, "The Hebrews call their God Jehovah." What the Israelite understood by the name in itself, is, we may fairly say, a point impossible to settle. The wisdom of God is certainly evident in giving a name which, while it so well served a temporary purpose, remains still to suggest matters which no lapse of time can ever render indifferent. It is vain to discuss the form of the expression, with the aim of tying it down to mean some particular aspect of the Divine nature, to the exclusion of others. Far better is it for Christians to take it—and thus, surely, devout Israelites would take it—as suggesting all that it is fitted to suggest. There is the name; some will put into it more, and some less, but no one can pretend that he has filled it with the fulness of its import. It would be very helpful for the Israelites always to bear in mind the occurrence of the first person in this great distinguishing name. The God of Abraham, IsaActs and Jacob, is one who can say " I ." He is not represented by some dumb idol, voiceless save through the traditions of those who worship it. He who says " I am" thus registers in Holy Writ an expression which will have meaning and suggestiveness in every language under heaven. What an intimation is given to us of the permanent value of the expression when we come upon it so suddenly in the discussion between Jesus and the Jews! They had spoken haughtily concerning great names in the past—the dead Abraham and the dead prophets; when straightway, as by the breath of his mouth, Jesus shrivels up the glories of all mere mundane history by his declaration, "Before Abraham was, I am." ( John 8:58 .) Abraham and all the rest of us have come into existence. But Jesus is one who, even here below, with the knowledge of what happened at Bethlehem, has that in him whereby he can say, " I am."

III. THE GIVING OF THIS NAME MADE IT NEEDFUL TO REITERATE AND EMPHASISE THE NAME ALREADY GIVEN . There is nothing to indicate that the name for which Moses asked was to be mentioned to the Israelites unless they applied for it. The real necessity and value of it belonged to the future rather than the present. The name already given was the name of urgent importance for the present need. It could not for a moment sink into the background even before the name " I am." The one thing needful for Israel, at this time, was to get them into the past, and to bring before their minds with all possible freshness and impressiveness, the actions, the purposes and the claims of the God who had dealt with Abraham, IsaActs and Jacob. Of what avail is it to know that there is an eternal immutable God, unless we, in our mutability, in our melancholy experiences of time, are brought into helpful connection with him? We may ponder over the name Jehovah without coming to any knowledge of the God of Abraham, IsaActs and Jacob; but if we only begin by a devout consideration of the narrative concerning these men, then assuredly we shall come at last to a profitable and comforting knowledge of God. There are many good purposes to be served by studying the differences between created and uncreated existence, and by making ourselves acquainted with those subtle speculations concerning the Divine nature which have fascinated and too often tantalised the greatest intellects among men; and yet all these are as nothing unless from our acquaintance with them we advance, still searching and seeking, to a personal knowledge of the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. It is well to have our minds lifted up to lofty conceptions; it is better still, coming to the Father through Christ, to have our hearts nourished, gladdened and consoled.— Y .

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Exodus 3:13-15 (Exodus 3:13-15)

The proper Name of God.

"This is my name for ever," etc.—( Exodus 3:15 .) This incident of the burning bush teems with subjects susceptible of homiletic treatment. We name a few of the more important, which we ourselves do not linger to treat.


2. THE DOCTRINE OF THE ANGEL - GOD . Note in Exodus 3:2-4 that "The Angel of Jehovah," "Jehovah," and "God," are one and the same.

3 . THE RESTRICTION OF JUDAISM CONTRASTED WITH THE FREEDOM OF THE GOSPEL : Exodus 3:5 . For valuable hints on this, see 'Moses the Lawgiver,' by Dr. Taylor of New York, pp. 46, 47.

4 . THE DOCTRINE OF IMMORTALITY IN THE OLD TESTAMENT : Exodus 3:6 , comp. with Matthew 22:31 , Matthew 22:32 .

5 . SHRINKING AT THE DIVINE CALL . The reluctance of Moses; his four reasons—incompetence, Matthew 22:11 ; ignorance of the proper name of God, Matthew 22:13 ; incredulity of the people, Exodus 4:1 ; want of speaking power, Exodus 4:10 —and how they were severally overcome.

6 . OUR LIFE WORK Preparation for it and possible late discovery of it : Exodus 4:10 . It is in connection with the second disability of Moses that the Deity gives his proper name. Note, that whilst Elohim and other names are generic, this name "Jahveh," or more commonly "Jehovah." is the distinctive proper name of God. See Isaiah 42:8 , in Hebrews As a foundation it will be needful to exhibit, in a popular way, the connection between the Hebrew form for " I am" and "Jehovah." See exegesis of verses 14, 15 above, and also the valuable Dissertation on the Divine Name, by Russell Martineau, M . A ; in Ewald's 'History of Israel,' Eng. ed. vol. 2.433. The writer of the hymn, "The God of Abraham praise!" speaking of "Jehovah, great I Am," showed that he had perceived the etymological relation. The fundamental idea in the name is that of "Being," but around that idea plays many a prismatic light, something of which will now be exhibited. There are associated with " I am," " I am what I am," "Jahveh," the following ideas:—

I. EXISTENCE . How calm and solemn is this Divine affirmation in the silence of the desert, as in it God protests against being confounded with—

1 . Idols. Material or intellectual. Over against the teaching of the atheist positivist, pantheist agnostic, polytheist, God places his " I am. "

2 . Mere phenomena. Who can separate always surely in nature between reality and appearance; or within the realm of mind, between certainty and illusion or delusion? But behind all phenomena is the Existence—God.

II. ETERNITY . The Existence is absolute, without any limit of time; so much so, that many are anxious to translate "Jahveh," or "Jehovah," everywhere by "The Eternal" See same idea of God in Revelation 1:4-8 . In opening out the eternity and consequent immutability of God, we expound it, not metaphysically, but experimentally, that is, in relation to the actual experience of men, who need beyond everything the assurance of an unchanging Saviour and Father to trust, and love, and serve—"the same yesterday, to-day," etc.

III. CAUSATIVE ENERGY . "Jahveh," or "Jehovah," is from Hiphil, the causative form of the verb. Carries, then, in itself, not only the meaning "To be," but "To cause to be." The idea is not however merely, having once for all caused existence, but that of constantly creating. Note this mighty causative force operating—

1 . In nature , which is the momentary work of the ever-present God.

2 . In creating a people for his praise, as now about to do in the desert of Sinai.

IV. PERSONALITY . The transcendently sublime egoism, " I am!" It is not necessary that we should be able to answer the question, What is a person? to know what personality is, or to be sure that there is personality in God. On this point see Wace's Boyle Lectures on "Christianity and Morality," p. 62, and, indeed, the whole of lecture

4 . on "The Personality of God." "The question of immediate practical importance is, not what God's nature is, but how we may feel towards him, and how we may suppose him to feel towards us. The simple and perfectly intelligible answer given to these questions by the Jews was, that they could feel towards God in a manner similar to that in which they felt towards other beings whom they considered persons, and that he felt similarly towards them." Our true knowledge of personality is quite independent of our ability to define it in words. This meeting of the personality in Moses with the personality in God constituted for Moses a crisis in his history. So is it ever—the confronting of my spirit by the Spirit of God is the supreme moment of existence.

V. FIDELITY . The words in Revelation 1:14 may be read: " I shall be what I shall be." From future to future the same; not like the gods of the heathen, fitful, capricious. What God was to the fathers, that he will be to children's children; not a promise broken or a purpose unfulfilled.

VI. COVENANTAL GRACE . Evidence that "Jahveh," or "Jehovah," is the covenantal name of God is accumulated in abundance in Smith's 'Bib. Dict.' under word "Jehovah," (sect. 5.) p. 957. To the many striking illustrations there, add, that Jesus is equivalent to Joshua—Jehovah that saves.

VII. MYSTERY . God we may apprehend, never comprehend; touch, as with the finger, never grasp or embrace. " I am what I am." Job 11:7-9 ; Psalms 77:19 ; Habakkuk 3:4 .— R .

Observe generally on the name:

1 . It was then new: Exodus 6:3 . Not absolutely new, but practically so.

2 . It became sacred. The Jew never pronounced it. This savoured of superstition, and its ill effect is to be seen in the suppression of the name Jehovah, even in our English Bibles, and in the substitution for it of LORD in small capitals. We will enter into their reverence without showing their superstition. "Where the Spirit of the Lord is there is liberty."

3 . The name is a root-designation in the revelation of God. Assumed universally in Judaism and Christianity, see Maurice's 'Patriarchs and Lawgivers,' pp. 165, 166.

4 . The name sets forth objective truth. "This is my name for ever." It is the sign-manual of the Almighty across nature, in providence, on the cross. The name gives us a true idea of the Deity.

5 . The name should be subjectively cherished. "This is my memorial to all generations," God's forget-me-not in the believer's heart. The name by which he would be remembered.— R .

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Exodus 3:11-17 (Exodus 3:11-17)

Hindrances to service and how God removes them.


1 . Moses knew the pomp and pride of the Egyptian court. He remembered how Israel had rejected him when he was more than he was now. Once he had believed himself able for the task, but he was wiser now: "Who am I ?" etc. He might serve God in the lowly place he held, but not there. Moses in this the type of multitudes. God's call for service is met on every hand by the cry, "Who am I that I should go?"

2 . How God meets this sense of weakness.


1 . His own thought of God was dim. How then could he carry conviction to the hearts of the people? The same lack of clear, living thought of God keeps tongues tied to-day.

2 . How it may be removed.

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