God is also holy. And when Moses approached this bush he had to take off his sandals. Sandals of course would be dirty, picking up dust of the ground. Thus, they became a symbol for defilement or impurity. But the significance of putting off the sandals is to approach God in holiness, and that’s what Moses had to do.
So right away, you see, we are talking now about the holiness of God which, if we understand what holiness is, also involves God’s transcendence. Holiness, as we think about it, usually has to do with righteousness. Holiness involves the majesty and glory of God. It involves his will, that is, the force of a personality, indeed a sovereign and omnipotent personality. And it also involves the idea of wrath. Wrath is closely associated with holiness because the wrath of God is that characteristic that goes out against anything that would intrude upon His holiness or try to oppose His will. Now that’s the attribute of God that you find most often attributed to Him in the Bible. You don’t often read phrases like God’s sovereign name, or His loving name, or His wise name. But you do read about His holy name again and again. As Exodus 15 says, “Who among the God is like you, O LORD? Who is like you, majestic in holiness, awesome in glory, working wonders?” Or again, you have it in this threefold repetition in Isaiah 6:3, where the seraphim are saying, “Holy, Holy, Holy is the LORD God Almighty; the whole earth is full of his glory.” You also find it in Revelation 4, as the seraphs sing the same song. And you find it in the Psalms as well.
What’s the real meaning of holy? Well, the basic meaning of the word is separation. When it’s used of us in our case, it means being separated from sin and being separated unto God. We are to belong to Him. That is why Peter refers to Christians as a holy people. He doesn’t mean, of course, that they are sinless. But he means if they are Christian, by definition they are separated unto God. They have done what Jesus said in Luke 9, when He explained what it meant to be a disciple: they have denied themselves, taken up their cross, and are following him. A people who have done that is a holy people separated unto God.
In the case of God, when you are talking about holiness, what you are talking about is His transcendence, that is, that He is separated from us. He is over us and above us and infinitely beyond us, and certainly not like us. We have been made like Him in a certain sense, and that’s important, too. But God is not like us. And that is why when God reveals Himself to us it has to be by analogy or, as we might say, in anthropomorphic terms. He reveals Himself in words that we can understand because of our experience and that we relate to. But it’s only analogous to what God is like. So when we say that God is powerful, we have an idea of what that means because we understand something of what power means. But the power of God is infinitely above anything we imagine. We only begin to touch upon it when we think along those terms. A transcendent God is one who is above us in all things.
All that is symbolized by the form of the revelation. God is transcendent, that is, infinitely above us and in an absolute sense incomprehensible by us. But at the same time God is immanent, because He reveals Himself from the bush. That might seem strange to us in our limited understanding, yet that’s the nature of our God. His transcendence and immanence are held in a wonderful balance in the Scriptures. If God were not transcendent, He wouldn’t be God. He wouldn’t be worth worshipping. If He were not immanent, we wouldn’t know Him and couldn’t worship Him. But what we find in Scripture is the wonderful truth that the transcendent God makes Himself known. And that’s what he is doing here in the third chapter of Exodus.
God also has a name that He reveals to Moses in this chapter. The name He gives Himself is not arbitrary. For us names have, generally speaking, lost their meaning. We normally don’t name a child based on what the name means. Not so in the Bible! Names in the Bible are very important, because they tell something about the bearer of the name. The name Moses means “drawn forth,” and he was drawn out of the water. The name Abraham means “father of many,” and Abraham had faith that God was going to give him a multitude of descendants, as God had promised, even though at the time he did not have any children.
In the case of God, His names are a vehicle of revelation. Elohim, which is usually translated “God.” The LORD of Hosts, El Shaddai, and many others, reveal something about God to us. But the name we want to look at now is actually the name by which He reveals Himself to Moses at the burning bush. In Exodus 3:14, God gives His name to Moses: “I am who I am.” Jews regarded this as God’s name above all other names.
There has been much debate about the meaning of the name, and even about its origins. In the Hebrew text it’s just four letters, and because of that is called the tetragrammaton (“four letters”). So the tetragrammaton is the four-letter name for God. The Hebrew consonants are yodh, he, waw, and he. It’s usually written YHWH because in the original Hebrew text they didn’t have the vowel markings, but only the consonants. The reason we have problems with it is because we don’t even know how to pronounce it properly, since to the Jews the name was considered so holy that it was blasphemous to speak it. They probably got that from Exodus 20:7, which forbids taking the name of the Lord in vain. And with a characteristic rabbinic approach, they said “Well, that means you shouldn’t even utter it on your lips because to utter the name of God on sinful human lips is blasphemy.” So they didn’t say it. Well, then, how did they refer to the name when they came upon it in Scripture? They said Adonai instead, which simply means “lord.”