I’ve nearly finished reading through the Psalms. Last Sunday I had the wonderful gift of being able to go for a half hour stroll in the fresh morning sun, and then sit for half an hour or so in order to read and ponder Psalm 145, which begins:
“I will extol you, my God and King
and bless your name for ever and ever
Every day I will bless you
and praise your name for ever and ever.
I guess with my current studies in mind the word “name” was always going to leap out at me, immersed as I am in Exodus and the way in which the meaning and significance of God’s name develops through the book. But it wasn’t those studies that my mind leapt to first, rather it was a number of songs that have had significance for me over the years. I remembered song lines such as:
You are the Sovereign I am
Your name is holy
You are the pure spotless lamb
Your name is holy
In Your name
There is mercy for sin
There is safetly within
In Your holy name
In Your name
There is strength to remain
To stand in spite of pain
In Your holy name
This week at a prayer meeting in church we sang:
In the name of the Father
In the name of the Son
In the name of the Spirit
Lord we’ve come
We’re gathered together
To lift up Your name
To call on our Savior
To fall on Your grace
Our God saves, our God saves
There is hope in Your name (Paul Baloche)
We know, and the Psalmist knows, that the name of God is hugely significant. However, not many of our songs spell out why this is so. What struck me about Psalm 145 is that it is all about the name of God.
v3-7 are a call to praise this God, and in particular for one generation to tell to the next of the sheer greatness of God. God’s works, God’s mighty acts, God’s wonders, God’s awesome (fearsome) deeds – all of these things are to be recounted, and all these things tell of the “glorious splendour of his majesty”. But what is this glorious splendour all about? We begin to get a hint in verse 7 where the call to praise culminates in speaking of the fame of God’s abundant goodness and his righteousness. God is not just glorious in the sense that he is King and Sovereign (although he is), he is glorious because he is good and upright.
That comes home in the next verses:
8 The LORD is gracious and compassionate
Slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.
9 The LORD is good to all
and his compassion is over all that he has made (all his works)
Verse 8 is a direct quote from Exodus 34. In Exodus 32 Israel have sinned. Because Moses has been such a long time up the mountain (40 days and nights) they want a replacement, and they have Aaron construct a golden calf to represent the god(s) who brought them up out of Egypt. It is either the first or second commandment (worship of other gods, or worship of the true God by means of man made images) broken before the tablets have even been received. Moses has received the instructions to build a sanctuary by which God will be with his people, in their midst – but the people have instead tried a do-it-yourself approach. Exodus 32-33 paint a vivid picture of God’s wrath against the people’s sin, and by the beginning of chapter 33 the tension in the narrative has reached a climatic point. Moses has interceeded with God and secured the people’s ongoing existence, but God cannot go with them, because they are so stiff necked he might destroy them at any minute.
In Exodus 33 Moses seeks a re-confirmation of God’s promise to go with the people, and having secured some sort of assurance in 33:17 then goes on to ask “Show me, please, your glory”. I don’t know what Moses means by that question, but the answer in 33:19 and onwards is breathtaking. God will pass all his goodness (same word as in Psalm 145:7) before Moses, and he will proclaim his name – he will have compassion to whom he will have compassion, he will show grace to whom he will show grace to – but Moses will not see God’s face, because no-one can see God’s face and live. Moses is going to see as much of God as any mortal man can. Even though no one can see God’s face and live, God will provide a place where Moses can stand, and he will cover Moses with his hand, and he will proclaim his name, and Moses will see the “back” of God as he passes by on that rock.
It is in that context that the verse Psalm 145:8 quotes comes. God himself is standing before Moses, proclaiming his own name, expounding what that name means to Moses. And he begins:
The LORD, the LORD (possibly “the LORD is the LORD”), a God compassionate and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness…
It is this compassion and steadfast love that the Psalmist praises God for in the rest of the Psalm. The foundational truth for Psalm 145 is that the LORD is good, and his compassion is over all that he has made, or perhaps even more comprehensively “over all his works”. This compassion word is related to the word for womb, and it speaks of the tender mercies of our God (Zechariah’s song), of the love that God has for his people. The love that Isaiah (49:15) speaks about when he records God’s words “Can a woman forget her nursing child, that she should have no compassion on the son of her womb? Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you.”
The bond between God and his people is stronger than that of a mother and the child she is nursing. I think we are meant to know as we read that verse from Isaiah that if a mother forgets her child her body will remind her. The physical reality of that connection is meant to make us realise how intimately God has tied himself to his people. When we cry for him God knows. He has compassion. His compassion is written over all he does. That is the compassion he feels for us and has for us.
God’s awesome splendour, and glorious majesty are exercised in loving compassion. In the season of Easter we see that most supremely in the cross. John paints a picture for us Jesus as God himself come to us, the “I am”, full of grace and truth. John shows us the Jesus whose glorification comes by being nailed to a cross.
Exodus 34 and Psalm 145 show us why God’s compassion needs to go to the cross. Psalm 145:20 echoes Exodus 34:7 – while God is full of compassion and grace, God will nonetheless punish sin. This makes the warning of Exodus 32:34 a full part of the revelation of God’s character. The warning is stark, the ESV (somewhat awkwardly literal in English translation) preserves the ambiguity of the Hebrew verb when it says “in the day when I visit I will visit their sin on them”. “Visit” can be used positively – in Exodus 3 for example – of God’s help, or “negatively”, in Exodus 20 and 34 (probably) of God’s punishment on sin. This is not surprising when we realise that God is a Holy God. When he turns up and dwells among sinful people then he will punish. That is one reason for the book of Leviticus. And it leaves us with a question. How can I be sure I will experience God’s compassion?
And that question drives us back to the cross. It is at the cross where, as for Moses in Exodus 33, God provides a place we can stand. It is at the cross that God comes into the world, that he “visits” the world, and where he “visits” sin on himself, on the spotless Son of God. “Because my sinless saviour died, my sinful soul is counted free, for God the just is satisfied to look on him and pardon me.” “my sin, not in part but the whole, is nailed to the cross and I bear it no more, praise the LORD, praise the LORD, O my soul.” His compassion is over all his deeds – and the ultimate proof of that is that he was willing to give himself to death, even death on a cross. I love the way that in Getty/Townend’s “O to see the dawn” the final chorus switches from “took the blame, bore the wrath” to “what a love, what a cost”. It is right to speak of God’s wrath at the cross, but it is vital too to know that the reason Jesus bore the wrath was because of the love, the compassion that Father and Son have for us.
And so we see that the name of God is all about the compassion of God, and the love of God, and therefore that it is all about the Cross where we see God’s compassion written over all he does. God’s splendour and majesty and glory are shown in nail scarred hands of love. When we speak of God’s glory we speak of nails, of blood, of tears. When we speak of God’s majesty we speak of a wooden cross, a darkened sky and unspeakable agony.
And then we turn with Mary through our tears and hear that voice speaking our name, and we know that God’s compassion is not an empty love, is not a failing love. We know that it is a love stronger than death, a love that defeats death. A love that through the place of greatest pain gives birth to a new creation, a new world, a new promised land.
We see that one day God’s compassion will shine out still more as he wipes away every tear from every eye. When all trace of pain and sorrow, of sickness and sin is gone, and all that is left is joy and peace and unspeakable joy full of glory as we spend eternity seeing the face of God that Moses could not see. Where “we shall see his face, and never, never sin, and from the rivers of his grace drink endless pleasures in” (Isaac Watts).
When we speak of praising God’s name it is that compassion and grace and love we praise – and so we take up the old words of Psalm 145 and with eyes filled with the knowledge of the cross and the glimpse of the new creation we can use those words to praise the God who hid Moses to give him a glimpse of glory, and we can live now knowing that one day we will be like him, for we will see him as he is – utterly transformed by the sight of God.