I remember feeling completely lost when I first read Isaiah. It didn’t make much sense, which made it a puzzle, which meant I kept going back to it over and over. I’m glad I did because, years later, Isaiah is now one of my favorite books. There are so many passionate expressions of God’s love for His people here, and so much insight into how He relates to us when we slip up and make mistakes. I’m particularly fond of this passage:
But now Yahweh who created you, Jacob,Isaiah 43:1-4, WEB
and he who formed you, Israel, says:
“Don’t be afraid, for I have redeemed you.
I have called you by your name.
You are mine.
When you pass through the waters, I will be with you,
and through the rivers, they will not overflow you.
When you walk through the fire, you will not be burned,
and flame will not scorch you.
For I am Yahweh your God,
the Holy One of Israel,
I have given Egypt as your ransom,
Ethiopia and Seba in your place.
Since you have been precious and honored in my sight,
and I have loved you,
therefore I will give people in your place,
and nations instead of your life.”
For me, reading this verse is the spiritual equivalent of wrapping up in a fluffy blanket and snuggling in with a cup of hot cocoa. It makes me feel safe and loved and warm. It doesn’t stand by itself in Isaiah’s book, though, and the context adds more layers of meaning and assurance to the words of my favorite verses. There’s a particularly intriguing emphasis on names, which is what I’d like to dig into deeper today.
Called By Name
Names matter deeply in the Bible and ancient Hebrew culture. The Hebrew word for name, shem, “often included existence, character, and reputation” (TWOT entry 2405). When speaking of God, there are some passages where “shem Yahweh is so intricately bound up with the being of God, that it functions almost like an appearance of Yahweh.” Shem also “signifies the whole self-disclosure of God in his holiness and truth.” Names stand-in for who a person is as a whole. They often have profound meaning, and in some cases God renames people He’s working with to signify who they’re becoming in him (for example, “Abram” [exalted father] becoming “Abraham” [father of many nations]).
You can see, then, now much it meant to have someone call you by name or to give you permission to call yourself by their name. When God says, “I have called you by your name. You are mine” it means He fully knows who we are and He claims us as His own (Is. 43:1, WEB). Most translations of this verse say “called you by name” or “called you by your name,” but there are some that choose to emphasize God’s role in naming His people. For example, “have named thee” (JUB), “I have chosen you, named you as My own” (VOICE), and “I have called thee by my name” (Clarke’s commentary). Either way you choose to translate it, this is a declaration of knowing and caring on a deep, personal level.
In Old Covenant times, God commissioned the priests to bless Israel and put His name on them. He promised to redeem, “my people, who are called by my name” if they sought Him with humility and prayer. Then in the New Covenant, He fulfilled prophecies that say Gentiles will be called by His name as well (Num. 6:27; 2 Chr. 7:14; Acts 15:17). Those who belong to God have His name associated with them (which is one reason it’s so important that we obey the command “You shall not misuse the name of Yahweh your God” [Ex. 20:7, WEB]).
The verses we opened this post with are part of a longer message from God that Isaiah records in chapters 40:1-45:13. It’s mostly focused on God’s plans to deliver His people. One of the famous Servant Song prophecies pointing to Jesus as the Messiah is found in this section. There are also promises of God’s comfort, reliability, and protection. He reminds His people that He’s all-powerful and any idols we could come up with are completely insignificant and impotent. God also speaks of His anger with those who’ve abandoned Him for useless pagan gods, while declaring His refusal to permanently abandon them in return. Rather, He revealed He’s planning something new, including providing deliverance using the non-Israelite King Cyrus (who’s mentioned several times throughout this section of scripture).
Power in the Name
Within this passage about anger, deliverance, and God’s plans for redeeming His sinful people, He declares truths about Himself and His name. He also demonstrates His power by showing that He knows even the stars by name.
Look up at the sky!Isaiah 40:26, NET
Who created all these heavenly lights?
He is the one who leads out their ranks;
he calls them all by name.
Because of his absolute power and awesome strength,
not one of them is missing.
“I am the Lord! That is my name!Isaiah 42:8, NET
I will not share my glory with anyone else,
or the praise due me with idols.
God’s power contrasted with the uselessness of idols is a recurring theme in this section of Isaiah’s book. It’s one of the reasons that’s God is so angry with His people. There’s no sense in abandoning the all-powerful, all-loving creator of the universe to bow down and pray to a carved hunk of wood. He will not share His glory. And if we know His name, then we shouldn’t expect Him to be okay with half-loyalty or intermittent faith. We ought to reverence His “absolute power and awesome strength,” giving glory to His name.
One thing about this passage in Isaiah 40-45 that seems a bit odd to me is how much time God spends talking about Cyrus. Why would God keep brining up a Persian conqueror when discussing how He knows and redeems His people? I didn’t remember much about this part of history, so I did a bit more research and GotQuestions.org provides a good overview of Cyrus’s appearances in the Bible. He’s the Persian king who let the Jewish people go back to Israel after 70 years in captivity.
I have stirred up one out of the north and he advances,Isaiah 41:25, NET
one from the eastern horizon who prays in my name.
He steps on rulers as if they were clay,
like a potter treading the clay.
This is what the Lord says to his chosen one,Isaiah 45:1, 3-4, NET
to Cyrus, whose right hand I hold…
“I will go before you
and level mountains.
Bronze doors I will shatter
and iron bars I will hack through.
I will give you hidden treasures,
riches stashed away in secret places,
so you may recognize that I am the Lord,
the one who calls you by name, the God of Israel.”
Here in Isaiah, God is predicting that will happen and revealing His role in stirring up Cyrus to help God’s people. He’s also showing Isaiah (and readers like us) that He can call someone by name even if they don’t submit to Him. God is sovereign, and He gets to choose who He works with in mighty and powerful ways. He might even use someone unexpected to do great things.
Names and Us
Now we get to the chapters where God calls His people by name. Right before the Isaiah 43 passage, God speaks of sending a Messiah (who we now know as Jesus) to redeem His people, looking ahead past the physical relief Cyrus would bring to Israel to a more lasting and complete spiritual relief that Jesus brings to all God’s people. Here, Isaiah also talks about the reasons people need a Messiah–“they would not walk in his ways, and they disobeyed his law. Therefore he poured the fierceness of his anger on him” (Is. 42:24-25). Sins separate us from God, but He has a plan to deal with that.
Now, this is what the Lord says,Isaiah 43:1, NET
the one who created you, O Jacob,
and formed you, O Israel:
“Don’t be afraid, for I will protect you.
I call you by name, you are mine. …
I will tell the north, ‘Give them up!’Isaiah 43:6-7, WEB
and tell the south, ‘Don’t hold them back!
Bring my sons from far away,
and my daughters from the ends of the earth—
everyone who is called by my name,
and whom I have created for my glory,
whom I have formed,
yes, whom I have made.’”
Those who God calls by name and whom He calls by His name will not stay separated or forsaken. He calls us not to be afraid, but to trust in His power and deliverance. He has good things planned for us. We just need to stay connected with Him; associated with His name.
One will say, ‘I belong to the Lord,’Isaiah 44:5, NET
and another will use the name ‘Jacob.’
One will write on his hand, ‘The Lord’s,’
and use the name ‘Israel.’”
When God Calls Us By Name
When God calls you by your name, that indicates a close, personal relationship very much like the one He had with Moses (Ex 33:12, 17). His relationship with Moses was exceptional, especially in Old Covenant times when having a friendship with God was a little more rare. Now, though, we all have the opportunity to have God call us by name.
“Most certainly, I tell you, one who doesn’t enter by the door into the sheep fold, but climbs up some other way, is a thief and a robber. But one who enters in by the door is the shepherd of the sheep. The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep listen to his voice. He calls his own sheep by name, and leads them out. Whenever he brings out his own sheep, he goes before them, and the sheep follow him, for they know his voice. They will by no means follow a stranger, but will flee from him; for they don’t know the voice of strangers.” Jesus spoke this parable to them, but they didn’t understand what he was telling them.John 10:1-5, WEB
Jesus is the good shepherd who knows each of us by name. When we’re tuned-in to His voice we can “hear” Him calling us to follow Him each day. He knows us intimately, and is more familiar with our “existence, character, and reputation” than anyone else we can know. He knows everything about us and He still loves us. He even wants us to draw into a closer and closer relationship with Him, getting to know His name as well as He knows our names.
Featured image by Prixel Creative from Lightstock
Song Recommendation: “What A Beautiful Name” by Hillsong Worship