The Little Credo of the Great I-AM
|Dr. John McKenna|
Note first the passage (highlighted) in its context of vv 4-9:
4 So Moses chiseled out two stone tablets like the first ones and went up Mount Sinai early in the morning, as the LORD had commanded him; and he carried the two stone tablets in his hands. 5 Then the LORD came down in the cloud and stood there with him and proclaimed his name, the LORD. 6 And he passed in front of Moses, proclaiming, "The LORD, the LORD, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, 7 maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin. Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished; he punishes the children and their children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation." 8 Moses bowed to the ground at once and worshiped. 9 "O Lord, if I have found favor in your eyes," he said, "then let the Lord go with us. Although this is a stiff-necked people, forgive our wickedness and our sin, and take us as your inheritance."The background to The Little Credo is Israel’s shocking descent into idolatry in the incident of the golden calf (Exodus 32). It might seem to us that God would be justified in rejecting Israel. And in dialog with Moses, God threatens to do just that. However, what God seems to be doing is testing Moses to see if he will join God in remaining committed to his people. Thankfully, Moses rises to the occasion and intercedes for Israel.
The Little Credo declares not what Israel deserves from God (rejection), but who God is in himself and in covenant with his people despite her failings. This declaration expands on God’s earlier self-disclosure to Moses from out of the burning bush (Ex 3:14-15).
14 God said to Moses, "I AM WHO I AM. This is what you are to say to the Israelites: 'I AM has sent me to you.'" 15 God also said to Moses, "Say to the Israelites, '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, the name by which I am to be remembered from generation to generation.Dr. McKenna comments on this confession of the Great I-AM:
Here is the Voice of the Self-Revealing, Self-Naming, Self-Defining and Self-Giving God as the Lord of His People. Here is the voice of the Great I-AM He is as the Lord and God with Moses for His People among the nations….Here is confession that is new in the history of the world, a confession Moses must make as he is compelled to follow the speaking of this Voice. Moses’ confession establishes a new beginning for Israel (pp 41-42).Indeed, this confession from God, now on the lips of Moses, provides along with Ex. 34:6 the theological foundation of Exodus and all the Old Testament. It reveals who God is in his own being. Of course, the principal way we learn of this being is in observing God's doing—principally in delivering Israel out of Egypt in an act of sheer compassion and grace. Israel has not earned this deliverance and the new identity it gives her as God's people. God enters into covenant relationship with Israel entirely out of his own grace, compassion, love and faithfulness. Then God offers Israel as his people certain covenant stipulations—general stipulations in the Decalogue (the Ten Commandments) and specific stipulations in the Statutes. Obedience to these stipulations does not earn Israel her privileged position with God. Rather it helps her enjoy that position in covenant fellowship with God. However, Israel fails to keep the stipulations. She descends into idolatry within days of agreeing to them. And God’s response to her disobedience is stunning. He is not so much focused on Israel’s apostasy as he is on his own faithfulness. Israel may fail, but God will not, for he is “compassionate and gracious….slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness.” He is who he is. And He will be with Israel who he is. Note Dr. McKenna's comment:
“In spite of her evil opposition to Him, in spite of her preference for the Calf, and in spite of her desires to return to Egypt, He will be who He truly is with her. Thus the ‘Little Credo’ of the Great I-AM becomes the Self-Defining giving of the Great I-AM to his BCR [Biblical covenanted relationship] with Israel.... [The characteristics about God enumerated in The Little Credo] are not merely ideas about God. They do not inform us as to the attributes of some abstract God we may want to conceive in our minds. Their significance is who He is and who He chooses to be among makers of idols. They sign a meaning for us that belongs to the reality of the nature of His Being the Self-Revealing and Self-Naming One He is in time and times and the time of His Eternity with us. They are the way He has chosen to be with Himself in His Divine Freedom for Israel in HIS BCR with her...They define the way that He will provide with Himself for His People” (pp75-76).Let’s consider these five attributes of the LORD God as enumerated in The Little Credo:
In 34:6, the LORD is said first to be “compassionate.” The Hebrew word is rachum, derived from a word meaning “womb.” It is translated into English as compassion and mercy. It speaks of God’s tender care—like the care a fetus experiences in her mother’s womb. This tender care of God for his people, despite their sin, is vividly portrayed in the book of Hosea. Just as Gomer breaks faith with her husband Hosea, so Israel breaks faith with her husband the LORD. But just as Hosea shows rachum (compassion) toward Gomer, despite her sin, so the LORD shows tender compassion toward his people Israel. God saves here despite her sin. That is true compassion.
The word in Hebrew is chanun, perhaps best translated “favor.” It has to do with God’s sustaining power. What he has created (Israel as a nation in this case), he will sustain—he will favor.
3. Slow to anger
The phrase in Hebrew is erk apayim and literally means “wide of nostrils.” The thought is that God’s nostrils are able to spread so wide (like the rising anger of a threatened bull) that it will be a very long time before God reaches the end of his patience. Indeed, God is long-suffering with his people. This patience is the basis of what Proverbs points to as God’s wisdom (Prov. 14:29; 15:18; 16:32; 25:15). What we learn here is that time is God’s servant in his dealings with his disobedient people. Indeed, in his compassion and favor, God is slow to anger in order that his people may have time to come to know him for who he is and thus to turn to him in repentance and faith.
4. Abounding in love
The phrase in Hebrew is rav chesed and means “great of grace.” According to Dr. McKenna, chesed “is certainly one of the most significant and vital theological terms to be found in the Old Testament” (p81) and is often translated “abounding in love” or “loyal covenant love” or “loving kindness,” and sometimes as “grace.” Its meaning has to do with covenanted love—who God is in covenant relationship with his people. He always acts toward his people in love and grace.
5. (Abounding in) faithfulness
The phrase in Hebrew is rav emet and means abounding in faithfulness or truth. As in the Little Credo, emet is often coupled in Scripture with chesed. In the New Testament, they are coupled in their Greek translation in speaking of Jesus, the Incarnate LORD God who is “full of grace and truth” (John 1:14). The Hebrew word emet is related to the word Amen, which means affirmation, confirmation, justification or sanctification concerning who God is with his people. It signifies that God keeps his promises. And so we add our little amen to God’s definitive and stunning Great Amen. He is always faithful and true, despite our faithlessness. Amen to that!
Dr. McKenna sums up these five attributes, which he refers to as "divine perfections," (emphasis added):
...When we allow Exodus 3:14-15 to resonate with 34:6-7, we may hear the Great I-AM the Lord God is in His Divine Freedom to define and give Himself in the covenanted relationship, always in spite of Israel’s opposition to Him, struggling with His People to give them freedom to worship who He truly is with the People of God among the nations. The God of compassion with Israel is not ever some One different from this Great I-Am. The God of favor, that has been given Israel comes from the God of Eternity. The Lord God with His long-suffering is the Creator. The Lord God of great grace and truth or faithfulness in His Covenant with her is the God of the Beginning. We do not, when we can hear this resonance, divide and divorce the Great I-AM from the Lord God of the Covenant in Israel’s history. He is who He is in His Acts with her just as surely as He is who He is in Himself without her or the Creation….If she will not hear this Lord and God as the Great I-AM He actually is in His self-Revealing, Self-Naming, Self-Defining, and Self-Giving interactions with her in this way, she will not confirm Him in His relationship with her. She will not ‘amen’ what He has ‘Amened.’ She will not know Him for who He truly is. The point then becomes that we must learn to understand Him on His terms, the five terms of the ‘Little Credo’ of the Self-Defining Great I-AM He actually is, the Lord God is in His Divine Perfections, who belongs both to time and the times right across the history of Israel among the nations of His Creation (pp86-87).Dr. McKenna then shows how The Little Credo is the theological foundation upon which all Scripture rests. Scripture “is a record of the personal reality of this One Great I-Am the Lord God is with His People in spite of the fact that His People prefer their Idol to Himself….In spite of Israel’s disobedience to His Voice, He will not fail. He will not fail because of His Majestic and Divine Freedom to act for them” (p 95). We fail to understand Scripture properly when we read it merely chronologically. Instead, we must read it theologically. For example, the creation accounts of Genesis are rightly understood only when viewed through the lens of God’s self-revelation in The Little Credo. In short, we must read Exodus before we read Genesis. In that order we understand that God creates precisely because he is compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness. Because he is who he is, he creates a universe out of nothing. On the same basis, he takes a “nothing” people (Israel) and makes of them his special, covenant people. And then, through the Incarnation, this same Lord God takes human nature upon himself and in doing so re-creates it, making all people his dearly loved children—not on the basis of their performance or merit, but on the basis of who he is and what he does as the God of all grace.
This same God gives to Israel the Law with its priesthood, tabernacle and worship system. Why? Not so that Israel can earn his love and favor, but so that she may enjoy what God has given her already, entirely on the basis of his grace. In Scripture we do not find multiple Gods working out multiple covenants. Rather there is one God (who is a tri-personal communion of love in himself), who works through his one covenant, to draw all humanity into a relationship of love and grace with himself. Yes, the outworking of this covenant goes through various “stages” or “dispensations” (and thus we speak of an Old Covenant and a New Covenant). However, throughout there is but one God, who always is faithful to and always relates with all humanity on the basis of his love and grace.
And to that Great Amen of the Great I-AM we say our amen!