In these verses, we read the beginning of the account of God’s appearance to Moses in the burning bush. As we study this passage, we will largely behold three points: the unapproachable holiness of God, the goodness of His descendent to rescue His people, and the revelation of God’s holy name.
STANDING ON HOLY GROUND // VERSES 1-6
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.”
With these words, we officially leave behind the four hundred years of slavery and Moses’ forty-year sojourn in Midian, and we begin the account of God’s deliverance of His people from Egypt. Those centuries of suffering were chronicled in Scripture as being the two-chapter prologue to the great act of redemption that God worked, which is recounted in the remaining 38 chapters of Exodus as well as the rest of the Pentateuch. We know that the same is true of our sojourning in this life as well. All the suffering and affliction that we endure here will soon be revealed to only have been the backdrop to our eternal redemption in Christ.
Here we find Moses as the shepherd of his father-in-law’s flock. Pink makes a great observation:
From Egypt to “the backside of the desert”, from the palace to the sheepfold, was a radical change for this man who was yet to fill so important a role. Tending flocks seems a strange preparation for the one who was to be the liberator of a nation of slaves. And again we are reminded of how different are God’s thoughts and ways from man’s. And the ways of God are not only different from ours, but they are obnoxious to the flesh: as Gen. 46:31 tells us, “Every shepherd is an abomination to the Egyptians”. Thus God leads His servants to take that very place which is hateful to worldlings.
Indeed, as God so often does, He pulled Moses away from the luxuries of Egypt and even away from the tents of Midian in order to meet with Him. Apart from the distractions and worries of everyday life is where God most often reveals Himself. God did just that with Moses. At Mount Horeb, which is also later to be called Mount Sinai, the angel of the LORD appeared to him… As we see in verse 4, the presence of the angel of the LORD is quickly replaced by descriptions like: When the LORD saw… This, of course, leads to the age-old question of who exactly is this angel? Because the angel of the LORD often seems to be the direct physical representation of God, I tend to believe that He is the preincarnate Christ. Especially since Paul tells us that Jesus is the image of the invisible God (Colossian 1:15), it seems rational that the visible revelations of God in the Old Testament, which is what the angel of the LORD very often is, would still be Jesus.
Moses is then pulled closer to the burning bush because he noticed that the bush, though burning, was not burnt. Drawn in by his curiosity, the LORD spoke to Moses out of the burning bush, Moses, Moses! And he said, “Here I am.” The scene continues:
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.
Here we see Moses entered into the presence of the Holy One. Many cultures today still take off shoes before entering a home out of both respect and cleanliness. Similarly, God instructed Moses to remove his sandals as both a sign of respect and a display that nothing impure may appear before God. It is also important that Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God. In Isaiah 6, the prophet was likewise caught up into the holy presence of the Almighty, and in his vision, he saw seraphim, and “each had six wings: with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew” (Isaiah 6:2). Thus, even the glorious seraphim that surround God’s heavenly throne cover their faces and feet before the LORD of glory.
Indeed, the removal of Moses’ shoes was a visible reminder that he was wholly unworthy to be so near to God, while the hiding of his face indicates that Moses clearly felt his inadequacy. R. C. Sproul is right about the terror of God’s holiness when he writes:
Yet as fearsome as death is, it is nothing compared with meeting a holy God. When we encounter Him, the totality of our creatureliness breaks upon us and shatters the myth that we have believed about ourselves, the myth that we are demigods, junior-grade deities who will try to live forever.
The holiness of God brings to the forefront of our thoughts our sinful idolatry. In His blinding presence, there is nowhere to hide from His purity nor from our desperate attempts to be gods. Thus, there is nothing more naturally repellent to us than holiness. It strips away all of our intricately constructed lies about ourselves and leaves us naked and exposed. It reveals the depths of our insufficiency and unveils our wickedness.
Even so, God does not leave us to die in the darkness of our sin.
COME, I WILL SEND YOU // VERSES 7-12
Despite Moses’ fear, the LORD continues to speak:
Then the LORD said, “I have surely seen the affliction of my people who are in Egypt and have heard their cry because of their taskmasters. I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them out of the hand of the Egyptians and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey, to the place of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites.”
Notice here the repetition of the verbs that described God at the end of chapter 2: seen, heard, and know. He declares to Moses that He has seen His people’s affliction, He has heard their cries for rescue, and He knows their suffering. The fourth verb from chapter 2 was remember. God remembered His covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. While God is expressly acting upon that remembrance (see verse 6 and verse 15), He now declares two new actions that He will take: come down and bring them up. God has now come down to deliver His people and to bring them up to the land of Canaan that He long ago promised to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
I believe that these two declarations are meant to bring the events of Babel back to our minds. You see, on the plains of Shinar, all the people of the earth gathered together to make a name for themselves by raising up a tower up into the heavens. But for all their efforts to bring themselves up to God, we are told that “the LORD came down to see the city and the tower” (Genesis 11:5). They attempted to prop themselves up, so God came down and scattered them across the earth and confused their languages so that they became foreigners to one another.
We now have a reversal of the events of Babel. Here God does not come down to disperse and scatter but to unify, strengthen, and bring up. At Babel, He humbled and brought low the proud and exalted, while here He exalts and raises up the humble and lowly. Here again let us see how God’s wisdom is antithetical to human wisdom. In God’s kingdom, the way up is down. The surest way to find ourselves brought low is by asserting our independence and security, while the surest way to find God’s helping hand is by confessing without reservation our desperate need of Him.
Despite Moses’ long sojourn in the wilderness of Midian, we can assume that he had never forgotten the plight of his people. Surely, he still thought often of their labor and of their suffering, yet he would then possibly remember his failed attempt to start a revolution, would hang his head, and wonder when God would do something. He very likely did not expect to hear these next words:
And now, behold, the cry of the people of Israel has come to me, and I have also seen the oppression with which the Egyptians oppress them. Come, I will send you to Pharaoh that you may bring my people, the children of Israel, out of Egypt.
It was glorious news that God was going to deliver the Israelites! But was Moses, now eighty years old, as eager to be the deliverer that he once thought he could be? Evidently not: But Moses said to God, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and bring the children of Israel out of Egypt?” Moses’ forty-year lesson in humility paid off. He now saw the task clearly and knew that he was fully incapable of leading such a deliverance, especially now that he was too old to fight any battles.
It is here that we would answer Moses’ self-doubt with what we deem to be encouraging. “Don’t doubt yourself Moses; God made you for such a time as this!” “All you need is faith, Moses. Have faith in God and faith in yourself!”
God, however, takes a different approach: But I will be with you, and this shall be the sign for you, that I have sent you: when you have brought the people out of Egypt, you shall serve God on this mountain. The LORD notably does not tell Moses that his fears of going before Pharaoh and delivering God’s people are out of proportion or unwarranted. Growing up in Pharaoh’s palace, Moses likely knew many people who came to be executed at the whims of the king of Egypt. Indeed, Moses did not flee from Egypt entirely for nothing! Moses judged his inadequacies rightly. As it turns out, “you’ve got this” is rarely the best form of encouragement. Moses did not need to be placated with words of fluff about how special he was. No! He needed to take his eyes off of himself entirely and to set his gaze upon God. It would not be Moses’ own skills that would deliver Israel out of Egypt; it would be the hand of the Almighty working through Moses as His instrument.
Despite what the world around us believes, self-esteem and self-confidence are not what we desperately need; we need, instead, to be more reliant upon God in all things however big or small. Indeed, Peter tells us that this should still be the pattern for believers today. He tells us that our acts of service should be done with the strength that God provides and that our words should be the oracles that God has spoken. Then, since we are reliant upon God for what we do and say, we are able to truly give Him the glory in all that we do and speak.
Notice also what God’s sign to Moses is: when you have brought the people out of Egypt, you shall serve God on this mountain. God pledges to bring Moses back to Horeb, back to Sinai, as a sign that He will be with Moses and that He has sent Moses.
Isn’t that interesting?
God’s sign will come at the end of their deliverance from Egypt. Why is that? Well, I can think of at least two reasons.
First, God seems to be essentially saying, “The sign that I am sending you and that I am with you will be the completion of the exodus. Your sign is that I will sustain you until the end.” We find a parallel to this in our own salvation since the great sign that we have been redeemed by Christ is that He keeps us to the end of our earthly race.
Second, this may also be a subtle nod the continued need of God’s strength upon Moses to lead the Israelites in the wilderness. As we know, the Israelites were not immediately brought into the Promise Land. They were first brought to Sinai to receive God’s law and covenant. When they were then brought to the edge of Canaan, they refused to go in, so God made them wander in the wilderness for forty years until that whole generation had died out. Thus, while the exodus from Egypt was the looming concern for Moses, he would need God’s presence no less as he led the people after their flight from Pharaoh.
THIS IS MY NAME FOREVER // VERSES 13-15
But Moses’ concerns had not yet been assuaged:
Then Moses said to God, “If I come to the people of Israel and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?” God said to Moses, “I AM WHO I AM.” And he said, “Say this to the people of Israel: ‘I AM has sent me to you.’” God also said to Moses, “Say this to the people of Israel: ‘The LORD, the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you.’ This is my name forever, and thus I am to be remembered throughout all generations.
After dwelling four hundred years in a polytheistic society, Moses’ concern is legitimate. While most of Israel seemed to still cry out to the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, they were surrounded by countless other deities that all seemed very real. How would they know the true God, the God of their ancestors?
God’s answer is given in three stages. First, God simply answers, I AM WHO I AM. Volumes upon volumes have been written upon this revelation of God’s identity, and in many ways, our eternity will be spent diving ever deeper into its depths. Suffice it to say, we will certainly not plumb its depths now! In a nutshell, God is describing Himself as eternal, self-existent, and self-sufficient. He eternally is. No one brought God into being. He never came into existence. He always was, always is, and always will be. Sinclair Ferguson notes how this revelation of God’s nature was displayed through the imagery of the burning bush:
The fire that was in the bush, present in the bush but preserving the bush. It was a symbol of God’s redemptive power. But notice especially the fire that was in the bush but was not dependent upon the bush for its energy to burn. A most pure fire. A fire that was nothing but fire. A fire that was not a compound of other energy sources but had its energy source in itself.
Second, God says, Say this to the people of Israel: ‘I AM has sent me to you.’ John Piper writes that “even here he has not yet told Moses his name. He is building a bridge between his being (“I AM WHO I AM”) and his name (Yahweh). Here he simply puts the statement of his being in the place of his name… The one who is—absolutely is—sent me to you.”
Finally, God tells Moses His name:
God also said to Moses, “Say this to the people of Israel: ‘The LORD, the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you.’ This is my name forever, and thus I am to be remembered throughout all generations.
LORD, when presented in all capital letters, is God’s holy name, Yahweh, being used. We translate it as LORD because of the Jewish practice of replacing it with Adonai (which means Lord) while reading the Scriptures aloud. Because of the progression of God’s answer to Moses, we can clearly imply that God’s name is meant to be a declaration of His absolute being. “In other words,” writes Piper, “God’s name is a message. And the message is about how he intends to be known. Every time his name appears—all 6,800 times—he means to remind us of his utterly unique being.” Or we might simply say that God’s holy name is a constant reminder of His holiness.
Indeed, as I wrote about the aseity of God, it is deeply significant that Moses asked God for His name at all:
Like all other false gods, the Egyptian gods were named by the people who invented them, yet Moses knew better than to attempt naming this God. Instead, Moses asked God to reveal His name, and God does. The LORD’s revealing of His own name is an easily overlooked but nonetheless potent declaration of His aseity. He is the God who cannot be named by man because He is not dependent upon man, and yet He reveals His name to us because He has willingly chosen to bind Himself to us by covenant.
We would also do well to remember that Jesus’ death was directly related to God’s name. You see, even though there are many who say that Jesus never claimed to be God, that very claim was the reason that the Sanhedrin had Jesus crucified. They accused Him of blaspheme, of claiming to be one with and equal to God. John 8 gives us one such example.
After an extended argument with some Jews, Jesus told the crowd that “your father Abraham rejoiced that he would see my day. He saw it and was glad” (v. 56). The Jews then asked how He could have met Abraham when He was not even fifty years old. “Jesus said to them, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I am’” (v. 58)’” The crowd very much understood that Jesus was using God’s holy name as His own, so they attempted to stone Him.
The confession of every follower of Christ is, therefore, a declaration of Jesus’ deity: Jesus is Lord. Jesus is Yahweh. He is the Holy One incarnate, both God and man. In fact, we just spent a season celebrating and remembering the wonder of Jesus’ birth called Advent, which means coming or arrival. Thus, while it was an act of marvelous grace for God to come down to deliver the Israelites out of Egypt, the coming of Jesus eclipses even that appearing. In Jesus, the Holy One came down but not to remain set apart. No, in Jesus, the Holy One drew near to us, bearing our sin and shame without ever sinning Himself. Indeed, He came down to us with the express purpose of bringing back up to the Father, to restore the communion with God that we lost in the Fall. Paul says this very thing in the great gospel passage of Ephesians 2. Consider verses 4-7:
But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved—and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus.
Brothers and sisters, let us constantly remind ourselves that God is no less holy today than He was when Moses and Isaiah hid their faces in fear of His presence. He is still blindly, terrifyingly holy. Yet today we are able to draw boldly to His throne of grace only because the holy righteousness of Christ has been imputed to us. He has covered us, as it were, with Himself, so that when the Father looks upon us, He sees the steadfast and spotless obedience of His Son rather than our own damnable rebellion against Him.
After commending the faith of Moses and others of the Old Testament, the writer of Hebrews says, “And all these, though commended through their faith, did not receive what was promised, since God has provided something better for us, that apart from us they should not be made perfect” (Hebrews 11:39-40). In Christ, we have received what even Moses did not. This is seen most clearly in God’s command for Moses not to come near, whereas the Father now beckons us to draw ever nearer.
Although we may read of the burning bush with longing to see such a sight, we should remember that an even greater sight is before us. We should ever be reminded that something even more marvelous than the bushing bush is here: in Christ, the Holy Spirit now dwells within us, but we are not consumed. Indeed, this is more miraculous than the fact that God is able to preserve a bush from the fire of His presence. As was visibly displayed in Acts 2, the holy fire of God’s Spirit has come to dwell within us, and in Christ, we are are not burned to ash.
This is especially displayed in the Lord’s Supper, in the Table before us. Here we do not find God coming down only to tell us to stay back; instead, we see God taking on our flesh so that we can draw near. O brothers and sisters, we are no longer under a “come but stay away” covenant; instead, this covenant says,
The Spirit and the Bride say, “Come.” And let the one who hears say, “Come.” And let the one who is thirsty come; let the one who desires take the water of life without price.Revelation 22:17
As you come to the Table to receive the physical signs of Christ’s body and blood, meditate upon the greater communion that we have with the Father through our Lord, a communion that now says for us to come near. Meditate upon the wonder that God is no longer simply with us but through His Spirit is now in us. Meditate upon the access that we now have in Christ to our Father’s holy throne of grace. Meditate upon the love and beauty of our Savior.
 Reuel is now called Jethro from here onward without any explanation given. The simplest answer is that the priest of Midian was known by both names. Others, however, argue that Reuel was Jethro’s father and Moses’ grandfather-in-law. Ryken also notes that Jethro may have been more of a title for Reuel that he was called by.
 A. W. Pink, Gleanings in Exodus, 22.
 R. C. Sproul, The Holiness of God, 55.
 Sampled at the beginning of the song “Self-Sufficiency” by Timothy Brindle, from the album, The Attributes of God by Shai Linne.
 John Piper, Providence, 89.
 Piper, Providence, 90.