“I am who I am . . . . Say this to the people of Israel, ‘I am has sent me to you.’ . . . Say this to the people of Israel, ‘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, and thus I am to be remembered throughout all generations" (Exodus 3:14-15, ESV).The italicized "Lord" is a (sort of) translation of the divine name Yahweh, the most important of all God's names. What Yahweh means is explained by what God says before it. It means "I am who I am," or possibly "I will be who I will be," or just "I am," for short. The idea could be something like this: I am who I am and I always will be who I am. No matter how you cut it, the name Yahweh and God's words explaining it are mysterious, not because we can't know something of what they mean, but rather, because there's so much possible meaning.
At the very least, "I am" means that God exists. We live in a physical world, surrounded by physical things, and it's easy to live our lives as if what we can see and touch is all that exists. God is not physical; we can't see or touch him, but his name "I Am" assures us that he there, as real—no, more real—than the stuff around us.
God Is Eternal
Where did God come from? As "I Am," he just is; he didn't come from anything. He had no beginning, and he will have no end. He is the One “who is and who was and who is to come" (Revelation 1:8 ESV). He existed forever in eternity past and he will exist forever in eternity future.
God Is Unchanging
When a person (or Popeye, perhaps) says, "I am what I am," it means we have to take them as they are, warts and all, because they aren't going to change. "I am who I am" is a little like that, pointing to God's unchangeability; but unlike a stubbornly flawed person, God is perfect, so with him, not changing is a good thing. All God's perfections—his love, his faithfulness, his holiness, etc.—are constant. He always be what he's always been, and we can count on it.
God's eternal purpose is unchanging, too, and this is the aspect of God's unchangeability that God is pointing to in the passage from Exodus quoted above. God was the God the Israelites' fathers and he will be their God, too. As "I Am," he will always be faithful to them. He will keep his promises.
God Is Independent
The name "I Am" tells us God existed when there was nothing else, so he is not dependent on anything. He needs nothing from anyone or anything to be who he is.
No, the thread of dependency has to run the other way. God existed by himself before the universe did, so the whole universe and everything in it had to come from him. Absolutely everything is dependent on God for its existence. We need him, but he doesn't need us.
What's more, since he is not dependent on anything, nothing outside of him can constrain him. Whatever he plans, he can accomplish. This is yet another reason he can be counted on to keep his promises.
God Is Near
We might think that the independent, eternal, unchanging God of "I Am" would be a far off God, but that's not how he is. The passage from Exodus 3 ties God's name "I Am" to his covenant faithfulness. "I Am" promises to be with Moses and the Israelites just as he was with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. And it's by his name "I Am" that they are to remember his faithfulness in the generations to come.
And then there's Jesus. Jesus was "I Am" dwelling right here with us. John Piper says
when Jesus said, "Before Abraham was, I AM," he took up all the majestic truth of the name of God, wrapped it in the humility of servanthood, offered himself to atone for all our rebellion, and made a way for us to see the glory of God without fear. 1Through Jesus Christ, we can draw near to the God who is who he is. Through him, we can know the independent, eternal and unchanging God of "I Am" as our Father, too.
Here are a few ways you can learn more about the attributes of our God whose name is "I Am."
- Read the chapter on God's attributes or perfections in your favorite systematic theology. Wayne Grudem's Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine is fairly easy to read and understand.
- Study Tim Challies' infographic on the attributes of God.
- Read J. I. Packer's Knowing God.
- There are also a few related posts here at Out of the Ordinary: on our unchanging God; on God's independence; on God's love; on God's goodness.