When God Calls You By Name

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,
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,
your Savior.
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.”

Isaiah 43:1-4, WEB

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]).

Isaiah 40-45

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!
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.

Isaiah 40:26, NET

“I am the Lord! That is my name!
I will not share my glory with anyone else,
or the praise due me with idols.

Isaiah 42:8, NET

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.

Image of a man praying with a Bible, with text from Romans 9-10, 12, WEB version: “if you will confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord, and 
believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For with the heart, one believes resulting in 
righteousness; and with the mouth confession is made 
resulting in salvation. ... there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; for the same Lord is Lord of all, and is rich to all who call on him. For, ‘Whoever will call on the name of the Lord will be saved.’”
Image by WhoisliketheLord Studio from Lightstock
Calling Cyrus

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,
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.

Isaiah 41:25, NET

This is what the Lord says to his chosen one,
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.”

Isaiah 45:1, 3-4, NET

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,
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. …

Isaiah 43:1, NET

I will tell the north, ‘Give them up!’
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.’”

Isaiah 43:6-7, WEB

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,’
and another will use the name ‘Jacob.’
One will write on his hand, ‘The Lord’s,’
and use the name ‘Israel.’”

Isaiah 44:5, NET

When God Calls Us By Name

Image of a woman smiling and worshipping with the blog's title text and the words "God knows everything about us and He still wants us to draw into a closer and closer relationship with Him, getting to know His name as well as He knows our names."

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

God’s Parental Compassion

I started studying compassion this week and discovered something that seemed a bit odd at first. There are two main Hebrew words translated “compassion” in the Bible, and one of them is also translated “womb.” For example, these two verses use the exact same word:

even by the God of your father, who will help you,
by the Almighty, who will bless you,
with blessings of heaven above,
blessings of the deep that lies below,
blessings of the breasts, and of the womb (rachum).

Genesis 49:25, WEB

Yahweh, remember your tender mercies (rachum) and your loving kindness,
for they are from old times.

Psalm 25:6, WEB

To English speakers, “womb” and “compassion” are entirely different words. We might associate compassion with feminine traits, but other than that there’s not much connection. In Hebrew, though, this word describes love you feel deep in your guts. Racham (H7356), along with closely related words like raham (H7355) and rachum (H7349), are all part of the same word-family (Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament [TWOT] 2146). They refer “to deep love (usually of a ‘superior’ for and ‘inferior’).” It’s the sort of love/mercy/pity/compassion that people feel for each other because “they are human beings (Jer 50:42) and which is most easily prompted by small babies (Isa 13:18) or other helpless people” (TWOT).

Love for the Little Ones

Racham and related words are only rarely used “of men” (TWOT), though it does describe the type of love that a mother has for her children (1 Kings 3:26). Far more often, this word is used to describe how God feels, particularly as a parent toward people who owe their birth to Him (Is. 46:3-4). That’s all of humanity, really–He’s our Creator even if we’re not yet in a parent-child relationship with Him. He sees us as children who belong to Him.

“Can a woman forget her nursing child,
that she should not have compassion on the son of her womb?
Yes, these may forget,
yet I will not forget you!

Isaiah 49:15, WEB

God feels towards us the way a good mother feels towards her children. Even though God always presents Himself as male, women are also made in His image and many traits that we think of as “feminine” are traits of God. His love is perfect and far surpasses even the best parents.

Like a father has compassion on his children,
so Yahweh has compassion on those who fear him.

Psalm 103:13, WEB

Note that in this verse, the Psalmist specifies that “Yahweh has compassion on those who fear him.” It’s similar to how we’ve talked in the past about different types of love that God has for people. Though He has agape for everyone–benevolent love that always seeks good things/outcomes for the people loved– He only has phileo–familial affection based on shared interests–with those who’ve responded to His invitation to enter a relationship with Him (see “Not All God’s Love Is Unconditional: How To Become A Friend Of God”). We’re all little children in God’s eyes and, for those of us in relationship with Him, we’re recipients of a special, familial love that invovles reliable compassion and mercy.

Love that We Can Count On

One of the things that makes God’s love so precious is that we can count on it never to fail. His compassion and mercy aren’t going anywhere and we have abundant evidence in the Bible (and often from our own lives as well) that this is true. He even considers this character trait part of His name (Ex. 33:19; 34:6; Deut 4:31). One example of His rachum can be found in God holding Himself back from destroying ancient Israel no matter how many times they betrayed and forsook Him (Neh. 9:17-19, 27-31). There’s even more evidence in the Psalms, where the writers speak of God’s mercy, recall times when He had compassion on them, and ask for more mercy when they miss the mark (here’s a link to Psalms with rachem words).

It is because of Yahweh’s loving kindnesses that we are not consumed,
because his compassion doesn’t fail.
They are new every morning.
Great is your faithfulness.

Lamentations 3:22-23, WEB

This is still true for us today. Already, we’re the people Hosea prophesied of “who had not obtained mercy, but now have obtained mercy” (Hos. 2:23; 1 Pet. 2:9-10). And if we’re in distress, even if we’ve done something He tells us is wrong, we can count on Yahweh’s great mercies (2 Sam. 24:13-14; Ps. 51:1). That’s a promise backed-up by the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, who came to earth bringing the most incredible proof of our Father’s deep mercy and compassion (Luke 1.76-79; Eph. 2:4-6; Tit 3.4-7).

Just like a little child can trust in a good, responsible mother or father, so we can trust in God. In fact, we must be like little children if we want to inherit the Kingdom of Heaven (Matt. 8:2-4). The more we grow to see Him as our Father and ourselves as completely dependent on Him, the more easily His compassion and mercy flows toward us.

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Drawn To God

My new favorite Bible Study tool is the New English Translation with its 60,000+ translator’s notes. As I was perusing the pages (you can get a print version or access the whole thing for free online), I noticed the translation notes on Song of Songs take up more space than the actual text. Apparently, not only is this text’s interpretation widely debated, but it is also notoriously difficult to translate. As you might know if you’ve read some of my other posts or my short book God’s Love Story, I favor the interpretation that the Song is both a celebration of human love and an allegory of Christ’s love for the church. With that in mind, here’s one of the verses with a footnote that I found intriguing:

Draw me[a] after you; let us hurry!
May the king bring me into his bedroom chambers!

[note a] The verb מָשַׁךְ (mashakh, “draw”) is a figurative expression (hypocatastasis) which draws an implied comparison between the physical acting of leading a person with the romantic action of leading a person in love. Elsewhere it is used figuratively of a master gently leading an animal with leather cords (Hos 11:4) and of a military victor leading his captives (Jer 31:3). The point of comparison might be that the woman wants to be the willing captive of the love of her beloved, that is, a willing prisoner of his love.

Song of Songs 1:4, NET

Another translation for mawshak in this verse is “Take me away with you” (NIV, WEB). There are nuances of meaning for this Hebrew word (as the NET footnote points out), but the basic one is “to draw, drag, seize” (Brown–Driver–Briggs; Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament). Here in Song, and in a few other places as well, it can be understood as “entice, allure, woo” (TWOT). In those verses, it is connected with one of the many pictures God gives us for relating to Him–as a lover alluring, wooing, and drawing His bride to Himself.

Alluring us with Love, Kindness and Grace

Hosea is one of the books that makes the analogy of God as bridegroom and husband most clearly. God instructs the prophet Hosea to marry a prostitute because ancient Israel “continually commits spiritual prostitution by turning away form the Lord” (Hos 1:2, NET). God used Hosea’s marriage and his writings to teach that, even though Israel was unfaithful, God still promised “in the future I will allure her,” and then “you will call, ‘My husband’; you will never again call me, ‘My master'” (Hos. 2:14, 16, NET).

Later in Hosea, God talks about how He “drew” (mawshak) Israel out of Egypt “with leather cords” (NET), “with cords of a man” (KJV), or “cords of human kindness” (NIV). Though the NET presents a compelling case for the “leather” translation, I favor “human kindness” because it connects more strongly to the overall theme of God wooing His people that is found so often in Hosea. It would also echo the language God uses in Jeremiah 31:3.

Yahweh appeared of old to me, saying, “Yes, I have loved you with an everlasting love. Therefore I have drawn you with loving kindness.”

Jeremiah 31:3, WEB

Alternate translations for this passage include “That is why I have continued to be faithful to you” (NET), “That is why I have drawn you to myself through my unfailing kindness” (NET footnote), and “This is why in my grace I draw you to me” (CJB). God’s drawing of us to Himself is prompted by His everlasting love, and it is done with faithfulness and kindness.

Longing for God to Satisfy Us

The time Jeremiah speaks of when God draws His people to Him is followed by a time “when watchmen will call out … ‘Come! Let us go to Zion to worship the Lord our God!’” (31:6, NET). Those who claim the Lord as their God are eager to be drawn, rescued, and gathered by Him (Jer. 31:7-9). Their response here is much like the Beloved in Song of Songs–take me away! draw me after you!–and like that of David in this psalm.

How precious is your loving kindness, God!
The children of men take refuge under the shadow of your wings.
They shall be abundantly satisfied with the abundance of your house.
You will make them drink of the river of your pleasures.
For with you is the spring of life.
In your light we will see light.
Oh continue (mawshak) your loving kindness to those who know you,
your righteousness to the upright in heart.

Psalm 36:7-10, WEB

We can find all we need to satisfy us in the great One who loves us, the Lord our God. We can call on Him to draw us closer, and He will faithfully respond to our longing for Him.

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Persevere, Grow, Love: Jesus’s Message To The End-Time Believers

A lot of people want to know if we’re living in the end times. Is this it? Have the events of Revelation started? Will Jesus return soon? And there are plenty of people willing to answer them by setting dates, making predictions, or identifying the mark of the beast. There’s much fear, much distraction, and an eagerness — sometimes almost a desperation — to figure things out. We often overlook that the apostle John offered a simple answer to this question nearly 2,000 years ago.

Little children, these are the end times, and as you heard that the Antichrist is coming, even now many antichrists have arisen. By this we know that it is the final hour. (1 John 2:18, all quotes from WEB translation)

We are living in the end times, and have been for as long as there’s been a new covenant church. Whether Christ returns this year, the next, or 100 years from now the things He had to say about how His people should prepare for the end of this world do apply to us. An end will come for each of us one way or another (whether we die or Christ returns before that), and we are told to be ready.

Near the end of His human ministry, Jesus’s disciples asked, “tell us, when will these things be? What is the sign of your coming, and of the end of the age?” (Matt. 24:3). In Matthew 24:4-41 He answered their question by describing what “the beginning of sorrows” will look like, how things will get worse, and signs that His coming is near. He also clarifies that we do not know “the day or hour” but that we can still be ready and watchful. He then expounds on how to do that through a series of parables. Read more

Do I Love God Enough To Obey Him?

The apostle John had a particularly close relationship with Jesus. Though Jesus loved all of “his own who were in the world,” John is identified in particular as a disciple “whom Jesus loved” (John 13:1, 23; 19:26; 20:2, 21:7, 20-24). If we want to know Jesus — and we do, because that’s part of salvation and eternal life (John 17:3; Phil. 3:8) — then who better to learn from than John?

We’re taking a short break from our series on godly wisdom because I really felt like this was the topic I should be studying this week. Love and relationship are so important to God. Knowing Him and being known by Him are central to salvation, Christianity, and our eternal hope. We have to know Him in His way, though. Jesus said there will be people at the end who think they know Him and yet never had a relationship with Him (Matt. 7:21-23). That’s a scary thought, but John makes sure to leave us guides in his writings for how to love Jesus and how to tell whether or not we truly know Him.

Knowing God is Essential to Life

John’s writings are among my favorite in the New Testament. He highlights Jesus’ power and divinity — the things that make Him so much higher than us — more than any other gospel writer, yet He also highlights Jesus’s love and His longing for relationship — the things that make Him closer to us. The way John talks about Jesus and the Father makes it clear that the powerful, eternal, creator God longs for a relationship with us.

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him. Without him, nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men. … The Word became flesh, and lived among us.  (John 1:1-4, 14, WEB)

Jesus came here not just to die for our sins and reconcile us to God, but also to get to know us. He is the good shepherd who knows His sheep and is known by His own, who choose to follow Him (John 10:14, 27). He calls us His followers, friends, chosen, and beloved (John 15:12-16). And He reveals that knowing Him and the Father is key to eternal life (John 17:3). The importance of knowing and being known by God cannot be overstated. Read more

The Romance Of Passover

Many Christians have a complicated relationship with the Song of Solomon, or Song of Songs as it’s also called. They skip it when reading through the whole Bible, ignore it in study, and struggle to explain what it’s doing in scripture. Even the idea that the Song is an allegory for the love between God and His people and/or Christ and the church (the dominant interpretation for thousands of years) has been largely abandoned by modern Bible scholars.

In Jewish tradition, the Song is associated with Passover (Pesach) and is read at this time of year. Some say this is just because the song references the spring season. But other rabbis describe this book as the “holy of holies” in the canon of scripture. They accept as a matter of fact that “Israel, in it’s covenant with God made on Mt. Sinai, was married to God” and the people owed Him their “absolute fidelity” (quotes from “Why Do We Sing the Song of Songs on Passover?” by Benjamin Edidin Scolnic).

This assumption explains why the prophets speak so often of Israel’s unfaithfulness to God as marital infidelity. In reference to Hosea, Gerson Cohen said this was “because his Israelite mind had been taught from childhood to think of the relationship between God and Israel in terms of marital fidelity, in terms of love” (quote from “The Song of Songs and the Jewish Religious Mentality”). The Song of Songs might be the most explicitly romantic book in the Bible, but it’s certainly not the only time romantic imagery is used to teach us something about the relationship between God and His people. The Apostle Paul (also a Jewish rabbi) even said after giving instruction to human husbands and wives that “this mystery is great, but I am speaking with reference to Christ and the church” (Eph. 5:32, LEB).

Covenants and Romance

So what does all this have to do with Passover? For some writers, the Song actually functions as a midrash on Exodus — a commentary in the form of a poetic, figurative retelling of the Exodus story. With this interpretation, “the Song of Songs, according to the rabbis, is a text which describes the very events that Pesah celebrates and commemorates.” You can read more about this viewpoint in Scolnic’s paper (click here).

Even without turning to Jewish midrash, though, we can find connections between God’s romance of Israel and the Exodus story. Take, for example, one of my favorite passages from Hosea: Read more