“And He said, I will cause all of my goodness to pass over your face. And I will invoke my name in your presence, that is, I will show favor upon those who I will show favor to and I will show compassion upon those to whom I will show compassion.’”
Literally, the text reads, “And I will call in the name of Yahweh in your presence.” Many have taken this to be a sermon that God is preaching on his divine name. While that is a perfectly legitimate translation of the text, I don’t think that it captures the full meaning of what God is promising to do. The language of “calling in the name of Yahweh” appears 8 times in the Old Testament (Genesis 4:26, 12:8, 26:25; Exodus 33:19, 34:5; 1 Kings 18:24; 2 Kings 5:11; and Joel 2:32). In each instance apart from these two debated instances in Exodus, the language is used to reflect an invocation of God’s name, not a sermon. Thus, my suggestion is that we should understand these two debated uses as an invocation as well. Thus, Yahweh is not preaching a sermon on the divine name, but invoking his own name to give force to what it is that he speaks next.
And what does come next? Some suggest that Yahweh us making an idem per idem statement. In other words, this is meant to be a reflection of his divine character and name: “I am who I am.” Here, they suggest, God is expanding on what his name means–specifically in terms of God’s sovereignty. Yet, the Apostle Paul connects this statement with God’s election (Romans 9:15), and though God’s election does flow out of his sovereign character, it certainly is only a single aspect of God’s divine nature.
We can find clarification on this statement in Exodus 34:6-7, when God does invoke his own name. God speaks of both his compassion and his judgment; all of these things flow from his absolute divine nature. To those who would question God’s ultimate autonomy in creation, I would cite God’s response to Job’s questions in Job 38-39: “Who are you, oh man? …” And to those who would assert their own autonomy in matters of personal salvation, I say, “repent and put away your fallen pride!”
In a sense, then, we can suggest that God, as he approaches Moses on the mountain, did preach a sermon, but it is not as much a sermon on his divine name as it is a sermon on his divine sovereignty in judgment and redemption. What primacy God himself places upon preaching that he would do so himself! It does the heart of a believer good to hear the character of Yahweh faithfully preached. Though sometimes people in the pews complain about their preacher’s sermons not being “fresh enough” or “contemporary enough,” for the believer, God’s character, his blessings, and all that is contained in his word should always be fresh and rich and refreshing to hear. What a blessing that God gave to Moses on that mountain!
So why the themes of judgment and redemption? The Bible itself is the story of God’s redemption of a people for himself. Everything that God reveals to us in scripture is for the purpose of this separation—a separation between the elect and the non-elect, between God’s children and the children of the serpent. And, of course, all redemption and judgment has its climax in the person, work, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Jesus is the center of the scriptures and of redemptive history. Redemption and judgment are the story of the scriptures.
One pitfall that preachers often fall into is that they like to preach about redemption but shy away from preaching judgment. They like to preach that God is love (indeed he is) but neglect to preach that God is holy and righteous and brings judgment upon his enemies. The big problem with this is that redemption (or judgment) are rendered meaningless if they are not kept together. There can be no redemption if there is no judgment and speaking of judgment serves no purpose unless there is a hope of redemption. They are flip sides of the same coin and are inseparable if you want to present the scriptures in a meaningful way. Thus, when God proclaims these words before Moses, both judgment and redemption are held high as a pronouncement of his goodness.
Beloved, our culture, in only speaking of God as some sort of all-loving, sappy, celestial blessing-giver has tried to sell us a picture of God that is emasculated and impotent. They present God as just wanting good things for mankind and not having the power to stop evil from going on. Friends, reject that language with the strongest terms! This language (as one preacher is fond of saying) is from the very pits of hell and smells like smoke! Flee from it and flee from those who would preach it for it is not the truth. It is poison, spoiled food, and rotting flesh from a diseased animal. It is simply not suitable for consumption by the people of God. Beloved, flee to the truth of Christ in both redemption and judgment; this is what God pronounces with force—in his name.