Our starting point is to notice that this is a strong praise psalm. In fact, it is a superb example of what our praise of God should be. The psalm begins and ends with the words “Praise the LORD,” and the first of its three stanzas repeatedly calls on all the servants of God to extol God, which is what the remainder of the psalm (stanzas two and three) does.
There is an important emphasis on the “name” of God in this first stanza, where the word “name” occurs three times, once in each verse. We do not think much about names today. For us they are usually just convenient tags for identifying people or things. They do not have much significance. It was quite different in Bible times. Then names meant a great deal. They were thought to disclose something of the character of the persons bearing them, and in some cases they were considered a portent bringing about the destiny the name implied. To give a person a bad name would be the same thing as to curse him. On the other hand, to be told a person’s name would mean being brought into his confidence and friendship.
In the case of God, “the name of the LORD” is all important, for it has to do with the revelation of who God is. In other words, it is not just any God we are to worship. We are to praise the one, true and only “LORD” who has revealed himself in creation, on Sinai and more recently in the person of his only Son, Jesus of Nazareth.
We must give special attention to the revelation given on Mount Sinai, because it was there that the name Jehovah was revealed to Moses, and Psalm 113 is emphasizing this important name. It is found four times in the first stanza, five if we count the opening “Praise the LORD.” It is also found in verses four and five, and in the closing “Praise the LORD.”
There has been much debate about the meaning of this name, of course. It is called the Tetragrammaton, meaning “four letters” (the consonants yod, hay, waw, hay), written YHWH, and the problems come from the fact that the Jews considered this name too holy to pronounce. Therefore, the normal Hebrew vowel pointings that indicate how a word should be understood and pronounced were omitted for this name, and as a result, no one today knows how it was pronounced.
The problem is not just in the area of pronunciation, however. That is a relatively insignificant matter. The far greater problem is how YHWH is to be understood. The consonants seem to be a form of the Hebrew verb “to be” (hwh), but depending on what vowels are supplied to the consonants, the verb can be understood either as a Hiphil form, indicating causality, or as a Qal form, meaning either “I am” or “I will be.” If the verb is a Hiphil, indicating causality, the meaning would be “He who causes to be” or “He who brings into existence.” The Jewish scholar David N. Freedman is insistent on this meaning, and there is certainly nothing wrong with it theologically since God is indeed the one who brings all things into being.
We cannot forget, however, that the only place in the Bible where YHWH is explained is Exodus 3:14. And this verse, reinforced by several New Testament passages (Matthew 22:32, Mark 12:26, John 8:58, and the important “I am” sayings in John’s gospel), seems to show that the simple meaning is preferable: “I am who I am” or “I will be what I will be.” Though derived from the most basic of all verbs and expressed in the simplest verbal form, YHWH expresses a wealth of God’s attributes.
1. God is a person. It is significant that it is God who makes known his name to Moses and that he does it by speaking to him. This shows that we are not dealing with the abstract God of the Greek philosophers, with Plato’s “divine reason” behind the observable particulars of life, nor with what the English scientist Sir James Jeans called “a great mathematical something.” God is a divine person who has created and communicates with persons made in his image. It is because God is a person (actually three persons in one, as the doctrine of the Trinity affirms) that we can know him and fellowship with him. You cannot have fellowship with a mathematical equation or a mere cosmic force.
2. God is self-existent. “I am who I am” also indicates that God is self-existent. That is, he has no origins and is therefore answerable to no one. This means, among other things, that God as he is in himself is unknowable. In order to know something we have to determine its origins, how it came into being, what caused it. But God has no origins; nothing caused him or explains him. Hence, we cannot know God except as he reveals himself to us, and even then we do not know God in himself. We only know him anthropomorphically, that is, only to the extent that he compares himself to us and to the finite things we know.
A. W. Tozer says that this is one reason why philosophy and science have not always been friendly toward the idea of God. They are impatient with anything that refuses to give an accounting of itself.1 Perhaps this is why even believing people seem to spend little time thinking about God’s person and character.
1A. W. Tozer, The Knowledge of the Holy (New York: Harper and Row, 1961), p. 34.