The Burning Bush

Read: Exodus 3:1-14

God reveals his personal name to Moses at the burning bush, and calls him to help save his people. But Moses doesn’t want to go. Sound familiar?

The Burning Bush

When we turn from Exodus chapter 2 to Exodus chapter 3, we discover that Moses, the Hebrew baby raised as Pharaoh’s grandson, has undergone a rather dramatic change of circumstances. He is 80 years old now, and he’s working as a shepherd in the arid wastelands of the Sinai peninsula. Forced to flee after killing an Egyptian slave-master, Moses ran eastward into the desert. There he met a group of nomadic tribesmen, married the daughter of one of their priests, and took up the life of a wandering herdsman.

Now after forty years of tending his father-in-law’s flock—time that God used to humble him—Moses is ready to be used. And the Lord calls him to his life’s work in a most unusual way. Here’s the story:

Now Moses was keeping the flock of his father-in-law, Jethro, the priest of Midian, and he led his flock to the west side of the wilderness and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. And the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a flame of fire out of the midst of a bush. He looked, and behold, the bush was burning, yet it was not consumed. And Moses said, “I will turn aside to see this great sight, why the bush is not burned.” When the Lord saw that he turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, “Moses, Moses!” And he said, “Here I am.” Then he said, “Do not come near; take your sandals off your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.” And he said, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” And Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God. (Exodus 3:1-6)

So here’s Moses, just going about his business in the wilderness. It’s another typical day on the job, until he looks up to see an amazing sight, a burning bush that isn’t burning up. It’s an interesting curiosity, but that wasn’t the most important thing. What really mattered was the voice Moses heard when he turned aside to investigate this strange sight. God himself spoke to Moses out of that fire (v. 4). He hadn’t forgotten his people; he would not abandon them forever to their enemies. He was not blind to their needs or deaf to their cries; the Lord would not fail to keep his promises. But as always with God, his word would be fulfilled in his way and his time. Now that time had arrived, and Moses would be the instrument through whom God would deliver his people.

The Sacred Name

There’s just one small hitch, though, to the divine plan: Moses didn’t want to be part of it. He wasn’t interested in being God’s chosen servant. As soon as the Lord commissions him, Moses begins to make excuses.

He starts by arguing how insignificant he is. “Who am I, that I should go to Pharaoh?” (v. 11). “I’m just a nobody out here in the desert,” Moses is saying; “I really think you should find somebody more famous, more important to do such a big job.” “That’s alright, never mind,” the Lord replies, “it doesn’t matter who you are because I’m going with you and I will be there behind you, around you, in front of you.” Then Moses claims he doesn’t really know enough to do this job. “What if I go and talk to the Israelites and tell them I’ve come from God and everything, and then they don’t believe me? What if they say, ‘God sent you, did he? Well, tell us his name then’? Then what do I say?”

So God proceeds to reveal his name, that is, his nature, his character, to Moses. And so we read in one of the great verses in all the Bible:

God said to Moses, “I AM WHO I AM. . . . Say this to the people of Israel, `I AM has sent me to you.'” (v. 14)

And with that verse, we’ve truly reached one of the high points of the Bible—the revelation of the personal name of the living God. The name in its biblical sense means so much more than just an identifier. The Lord isn’t trying, in fact, to identify himself here; he’s already told Moses who he is: “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob” (v. 6). Rather, when God tells Moses his personal name, he does it in order to reveal his inmost nature: he is Jehovah, the Great I AM. The Lord is the God who is. He is the eternal one, self-existent, constant, always the same. All other things in existence, from the greatest galaxy in the universe down to the tiniest subatomic particle, are derived from God. But he alone is. Everything else changes; it grows old, slows down, dies, then decays. Even the universe will do that some day. But God always is what he is; he always has been and always will be exactly who he is now.

“And what is that?” we might ask. What is God’s essential character, his unchanging nature? There are many ways of answering that question. Long books have been written. Theologians traditionally talk about the attributes of God, often using long Latin words: omniscience, omnipotence, omnipresence. God is infinite, eternal, all-powerful, all-knowing—he is all those things. It’s all true. But later in Exodus, when Moses asks the Lord to reveal even more of his inmost self, this is what God offers him:

I will cause all my goodness to pass in front of you, and I will proclaim my name, the Lord, in your presence. I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion. (Exodus 33:19)

More than power, more than infinity, more than any other quality—don’t you see—the Lord’s name proclaims, “I am compassion and mercy.” He is the Lord who is gracious; that is what never changes about him.

Continued Objections

Moses is, I think, without question, the most privileged and important person in the Old Testament. I don’t think even Abraham had a more powerful encounter with God than did Moses at the burning bush. But do you realize that you and I have been given something greater than anything Moses knew?

Jesus once remarked that no one up until his time was greater than John the Baptist; not even Moses, we presume. But then he said that the least person in the kingdom of heaven was greater even than John (Matthew 11:11). The coming of Jesus into the world brings a whole new order. The humblest believer in Christ has a greater position than the giants of the Old Testament. We have been given such an opportunity. We who live in the light of the gospel are so incredibly privileged. We know even more about the Lord than Moses did. We truly know God’s personal name; that name is Jesus. He is the Great I AM. In fact, that’s what he said, “Before Abraham was, I am.” It’s the most audacious claim Jesus ever made.

And more than that, it’s true. God himself confirmed it. The Bible says that God has been pleased to bestow upon Jesus “the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus, every knee shall bow . . . and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Philippians 2:9 ff.). Someday everyone who is saved will worship and confess that Jesus is the Lord, and only those who confess his name will be saved. For those who know already that Jesus is Lord, our great privilege is also our great responsibility. We can make the Lord’s name known to everyone. We can share with people everywhere better news than Moses did, about a wider and deeper and more lasting salvation. We can offer people, not just rescue from bondage in Egypt, but rescue from slavery to sin, redemption even from Satan and death. We can promise, not a home in Canaan, but a home in heaven, with eternal life in Jesus’ name.

We can do all those things, but are we? Though Moses had been specially called to deliver the people of Israel from their bondage, he didn’t seem too interested in obeying. He didn’t want to have to confront Pharaoh. He preferred his quiet life in Midian, content to tend his sheep and enjoy his family and keep his knowledge of the Lord to himself. So the excuses just kept on coming.

What if they don’t believe me when I tell them about you? . . . What if they think I’m making up this wild story about seeing you in a burning bush? . . . Come to think of it, I’m not all that good a speaker. Maybe it would be good if you found somebody who was better with words.

You get the feeling that Moses will never run out of excuses, that he’ll just ramble on and on until he piles up an insurmountable barrier to simply obeying God’s call.

But God doesn’t let him. The Lord has an answer for every one of Moses’ excuses, and he offers them one by one, up to and including the ultimate answer to any possible excuse—“I will help you” (v. 12). If that’s true for Moses, it must be true for us too. So what’s our excuse for not telling everyone we know the name of the Lord?

About the Author

david bast
Rev. David Bast

Rev. Dave Bast retired as the President and Broadcast Minister of Words of Hope in January 2017, after 23 years with the ministry. Prior to his ministry and work at Words of Hope, Dave served as a pastor for 18 years in congregations in the Reformed Church in America. He is the author of several devotional books. A graduate of Hope College and Western Theological Seminary, he has also studied at both the Fuller and Calvin seminaries. Dave and his wife, Betty Jo, have four children and four grandchildren. Dave enjoys reading, growing tomatoes, and avidly follows the Detroit Tigers.