There’s a phrase that’s used in Old Testament and New Testament scholarship that you may have heard; it’s the phrase, “the silent years.” What that refers to is the period between the last of the Old Testament prophets, Malachi, and the appearance of God to Zechariah in the New Testament to announce the birth of John the Baptist—four centuries in which there was no new revelation from God. God was silent.
Now there’s a period like that in the early history of Israel, and about the same length of time. God had last appeared to the patriarch Jacob in a vision prior to his going down to Egypt to announce that he should go, that God was going to be with him and his family, and that after the passing of centuries He was going to bring the people out again After that, as far as we know, there was no new revelation from God. Four centuries went by, and it was only at the end of that time that God appeared again with the great revelation. Moses had acted on behalf of God (as he thought) when he was in Egypt. He acted rashly, though with good motives. He had to run away and he went to the far side of the desert. He lived in Midian, and four decades went by. So in the first case you have 400 silent years, and now you have 40 silent years when Moses is away. Moses was about 80 years old when God finally appeared to him. In Moses’ mind he must have thought that he had blown it.
Now the third chapter of Exodus begins by telling us how Moses, who was now a shepherd in the service of his father-in-law, Jethro, in Midian, was driving his flocks down into the Sinai. He came to Horeb, which is identified as the mountain of God (although it probably wasn’t known as that at the time).
Well, while Moses was there watering his flocks, he notices a bush that is on fire, and yet it was not burning up. So he went toward it, and as he did, he heard God calling to him out of the bush, “Moses, Moses.” He responded, as characters do in the Bible when God calls them by name, by saying, “Here I am.” God began to tell him to do a number of things. He had to take off his shoes to approach God humbly and in purity. And when he did that, God had three things to tell him. First of all, He told Moses who He was who was speaking. In verse 6 God says, “I am the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.”
Now that’s significant all by itself because what that is telling us is that this is no new God who is speaking. Moses had come out of Egypt with all its polytheism. They had all kinds of gods. But this was not one of the polytheistic heathen gods. This was the true God, the God of their fathers, the God who had revealed Himself originally to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.
Interestingly enough, this is the verse that Jesus referred to later when He was quizzed about the resurrection. The Sadducees were trying to make fun of anybody who would believe in such a preposterous thing. Jesus said they erred because they didn’t know the power of God or the Scriptures, and this was the Scripture He referred to. What He was referring to here was the verb in the sentence, “I am the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.” Jesus put the whole doctrine of the resurrection upon the tense of that verb. If God had said, “I was the God of Abraham,” well, Abraham would be dead and gone. But instead, God reveals Himself to Moses as the one who is the God of the patriarchs. Jesus uses this verse to prove the resurrection because it means that the patriarchs are still living.
The second thing God told Moses when he approached the bush was that He was concerned for His people. In verse 7 we read: “I have indeed seen the misery of my people in Egypt. I have heard them crying out because of their slave drivers, and I am concerned about their suffering.” This passage lists the present inhabitants of the promised land where God through Moses is going to take them; He is going to drive those people out. But the significance of this is that it’s the same listing that we find in Genesis 15, when God enacts the covenant with Abraham when He first begins to talk to Abraham about what He is doing. So it’s a way of saying that what God is doing here is remembering His covenant, because He had promised to be with Abraham and bless His posterity and bring them into their own land, and He is acting now.
The third thing God had to say to Moses was that He was sending Moses to lead the people out of Egypt. “So now, go. I am sending you to Pharaoh to bring my people the Israelites out of Egypt” (v. 10). But this was not a word that Moses was anxious to hear. At this point, having been left alone, as it were, for four decades, he begins to object. Now it’s in the context of this objection that God reveals His name to Moses, because Moses wants to know what to tell the Israelites when they ask who this God is.
We want to see, however, that even before God revealed His name to Moses, the very form in which He had appeared to Moses and attracted his attention already teaches us important things about God. It teaches us things that the name itself is going to bear out. We need to think of that, you see, because the setting becomes important for the revelation of the name. Here is God appearing to Moses in this bush in a flame of fire where the bush isn’t burning up. Now what’s significant about that, of course, is that fire is an ancient and continuing symbol for God. So here is God symbolized by the fire in the midst of this bush. A bush, on the other hand, is a very commonplace thing. There are bushes all over the countryside. So when the fire is in the bush and the bush isn’t consumed, it’s a way of teaching about what we call the immanence of God, that God is not aloof somewhere, that God is actually here with His people. He sees them and He identifies with them.