I started this post partway through writing last week’s about God never forgetting His covenant with us. One of the verses I quoted in that post was Isaiah 49:16, where God says, “Look, I have inscribed your name on my palms.” I really wanted to study that, but knowing I’d probably not get back to the other post if I went off on a tangent, I saved it for this week.
One reason this verse caught my eye is that we’re in the midst of the fall holy day season. When I got the idea for this post, we were between Yom Teruah (Day of Trumpets) and Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement). A common Jewish greeting during the Days of Awe between Trumpets and Atonement is, “May your name be inscribed in the Book of Life!” The Jewish people see these days as a time of repentance, reconciliation, and reconnection with God. They hope that on Yom Kippur, God will choose to write their names in His book of life for one more year.
Yom Kippur was a key moment of yearly atonement; the only day when the high priest could enter the holiest part of the temple and present a sacrifice to cover the sins of all God’s people that year (Lev. 16). It wasn’t the only time for repentance, though, and the book of life isn’t explicitly connected with this day in scripture. Today, Yom Kippur is a reminder of His atoning sacrifice, a day to humble ourselves and recommit to God. It also looks forward to the day when Satan is put away and there are no barriers between God and His people.
I don’t think scriptures indicate that God decides on Yom Kippur whether or not your name is “safe” in His book for the rest of the year. He’s more dynamic and responsive than that–He’ll accept repentance and give salvation any time during the year. For believers today, Jesus’s sacrifice and the security that comes with being in covenant with Him is a constant thing. However, God does talk about writing our names (usually in a book rather than on His hands) and He does have a book of life. Now, with Yom Kippur a few days behind us and Sukkot (Feast of Tabernacles) beginning soon, this seems a good time to study how and where God writes our names.
The Lord’s Book
As I began this study, I started by searching for the phrase “book of life” in three different English translations: WEB, NET, and KJV. This particular phrase only appears once in the Old Testament, where David prays his enemies would be “blotted out of the book of life” (WEB) or “deleted from the scroll of the living” (NET). The NET translators suggest that this phrase (which appears nowhere else) likely refers to a census scroll listing the living members of a community, rather than a reference to God’s Book of Life as discussed in the New Testament.
When we think of God’s book where He writes righteous people’s names, we immediately think of the Book of Life. That phrase has become so closely associated with this book that it even shows up in traditional Jewish greetings. I can’t confirm this, but I assume this had become a well known name for God’s book in the Jewish community by the time Jesus came along, and that’s why His disciples use “Book of Life” in the New Testament writings. The Jewish people didn’t just come up with the idea of a book of life on their own, though; they got it from the scriptures.
The first reference we find to God writing someone’s name comes from Moses. After the golden calf incident, Moses went back to God to beg for mercy.
Moses returned to Yahweh, and said, “Oh, this people have sinned a great sin, and have made themselves gods of gold. Yet now, if you will, forgive their sin—and if not, please blot me out of your book which you have written.”
Yahweh said to Moses, “Whoever has sinned against me, I will blot him out of my book. Now go, lead the people to the place of which I have spoken to you. Behold, my angel shall go before you. Nevertheless, in the day when I punish, I will punish them for their sin.”Exodus 32:31-34, WEB
This is a fascinating exchange. I’m guessing Moses must have had some unrecorded conversations with God about this book to even know it exists. From this conversation, we learn that Moses knew 1) his name was in this book and 2) his name could be removed. We also learn that God won’t blot one person’s name out in exchange for forgiving someone else–if He removes someone’s name, it’ll be because that person “has sinned against me.” We could also add to that “sinned without repenting,” since we know God is eager to offer forgiveness. An everlasting covenant with people who He’ll give everlasting life is His end-goal.
Writing Those Who Belong
If you’re searching for information about books in the Bible, there are only a few tantalizing tidbits that speak of books God keeps and/or places where He writes down names. For example, Psalm 87:6 tells us that God “writes up the peoples” ( WEB), like He’s keeping a “census book of the nations” (NET). This seems to hint at two books God keeps–one where He records everyone and another (I assume the same one Moses talked about) where He writes the names of the righteous.
My frame wasn’t hidden from you,Psalm 139:15-16, WEB
when I was made in secret,
woven together in the depths of the earth.
Your eyes saw my body.
In your book they were all written,
the days that were ordained for me,
when as yet there were none of them.
Then those who feared Yahweh spoke one with another; and Yahweh listened, and heard, and a book of memory was written before him, for those who feared Yahweh, and who honored his name. They shall be mine,” says Yahweh of Armies, “my own possession in the day that I make, and I will spare them, as a man spares his own son who serves him.”Malachi 3:16-17, WEB
One thing we can clearly tell from these verses is that being written in God’s book is a good thing. It’s connected to God knowing you intimately. It’s where the names of people God calls “mine” are written. We also see hints at some of the things people who are written in God’s book do and who they are. They’re God-fearing, honor His name, and they speak with other believers. This is similar to how Jesus talks about the church in Sardis.
But you have a few individuals in Sardis who have not stained their clothes, and they will walk with me dressed in white, because they are worthy. The one who conquers will be dressed like them in white clothing, and I will never erase his name from the book of life, but will declare his name before my Father and before his angels.Revelation 3:4-5, NET
Last week, we talked about a verse where Moses says God “cannot forget the covenant with your ancestors that he confirmed by oath to them” (Deut. 4:31, NET). There aren’t many things that God can’t do, but forgetting about the people He’s engraved in His palms and written in His book is one of them. While we are cautioned that it’s possible for a name to be “blotted out” or “erased” from God’s book, we’re also assured of God’s continuing commitment to those who do their best to follow Him. It takes perseverance and the humility to ask God for help since we can’t do this on our own, but we can overcome and walk with Jesus in the white clothing of righteous deeds (Rev. 19:6-8).
The Book of Life
The New Testament is where we start seeing the phrase “book of life.” Paul mentions it once, urging one of this readers to assist those “in the gospel ministry … whose names are in the book of life” (Phil. 4:3, NET). I wish we had records of Paul’s other teachings on the book of life. It sounds here like it’s common knowledge among his audience, though from our perspective this is the first time it’s mentioned in the New Testament. All the other information about it is in Revelation.
We already quoted one of the book of life verses from Revelation. Two others contrast those who will worship the beast power with those who are written in “the book of life belonging to the Lamb” and will stay faithful to God (Rev. 13:7-9; 17:7-9). The final verses look forward to a time beyond Jesus’s second coming, even after the Millennium and Satan’s final defeat (Rev. 19-20). These verses align closely with a verse from Daniel. Let’s look at all three of those verses.
“At that time Michael will stand up, the great prince who stands for the children of your people; and there will be a time of trouble, such as never was since there was a nation even to that same time. At that time your people will be delivered, everyone who is found written in the book. Many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth will awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt. Those who are wise will shine as the brightness of the expanse. Those who turn many to righteousness will shine as the stars forever and ever.”Daniel 12:1-3, WEB
Then I saw a large white throne and the one who was seated on it; the earth and the heaven fled from his presence, and no place was found for them. And I saw the dead, the great and the small, standing before the throne. Then books were opened, and another book was opened—the book of life. So the dead were judged by what was written in the books, according to their deeds. The sea gave up the dead that were in it, and Death and Hades gave up the dead that were in them, and each one was judged according to his deeds. Then Death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death—the lake of fire. If anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, that person was thrown into the lake of fire.Revelation 20:11-15, NET
Now I saw no temple in the city, because the Lord God—the All-Powerful—and the Lamb are its temple. The city does not need the sun or the moon to shine on it, because the glory of God lights it up, and its lamp is the Lamb. The nations will walk by its light and the kings of the earth will bring their grandeur into it. Its gates will never be closed during the day (and there will be no night there). They will bring the grandeur and the wealth of the nations into it, but nothing ritually unclean will ever enter into it, nor anyone who does what is detestable or practices falsehood, but only those whose names are written in the Lamb’s book of life.Revelation 21:22-27, NET
I feel woefully inadequate when it comes to writing about prophecy, but that’s where we find ourselves for these three verses. They’re talking about the resurrections that happen after Jesus’s second coming, in particular the resurrection after the Millennium when all the dead will come back to life and God opens the books (plural in Rev. 20:11). There are a few ways you could interpret this. The one I hear most often in my faith tradition is that God will open the books of the Bible so that people who’ve been resurrected can understand His law, then some time will pass so they have an opportunity to show Him how they’ll live with this new knowledge before the final judgement.
One thing we can say for sure is that God plans on deliverance, life, and light to come out of this. There’s an end for the wicked who refuse to live aligned with God’s way of life, but there’s also mercy and goodness and life for those who follow God. Here, we have a realization of God’s justice rewarding good and putting a merciful end to evil. These are sobering passages, but they also speak of a good future.
Writing God Inside Us
So where are our names written? If we’re following God, then they’re written on His palms and in His book of life. And it seems that’s where we’re going to stay unless we do something to get ourselves erased and then don’t repent. God deeply desires to give everyone eternal life (1 Tim. 2:3-4; 2 Pet. 3:9). He even writes Himself into us to help make sure that happens.
For if that first covenant had been faultless, no one would have looked for a second one. But showing its fault, God says to them,Hebrews 10:7-12, NET
“Look, the days are coming, says the Lord, when I will complete a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah.
“It will not be like the covenant that I made with their fathers, on the day when I took them by the hand to lead them out of Egypt, because they did not continue in my covenant and I had no regard for them, says the Lord.
“For this is the covenant that I will establish with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord. I will put my laws in their minds and I will inscribe them on their hearts. And I will be their God and they will be my people.
“And there will be no need at all for each one to teach his countryman or each one to teach his brother saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ since they will all know me, from the least to the greatest.
“For I will be merciful toward their evil deeds, and their sins I will remember no longer.”
God’s law is an expression of His character; a guide for how we can be in a relationship with Him. And He’s writing it inside of our hearts at the same time He’s forgiving and forgetting our sins. We also have a role to play in this; in Proverbs, we’re told, “Don’t let kindness and truth forsake you,” “Keep my commandments and live! … write them on the tablet of your heart” (Prov. 3:3; 7:2-3). Just as we want God to write our names and keep them close to Him, so we should also “write” His words inside us as part of internalizing His character.
Featured image by Andrys Stienstra from Pixabay
Song Recommendation: “Write Your Story” by Francesca Battistelli