I Am That I Am
Love (1757-1825) was a Church of Scotland minister at London and Glasgow, and an organizer of the modern foreign missions movement. John Macleod wrote of him, “In his early spiritual experience he was very thoroughly searched by the teaching of Jonathan Edwards and the men of the older New England introspective school. This left its mark on his teaching in turn.” When “Rabbi” John Duncan was ordained at Milton Church, Glasgow, in 1836, those who had admired Love’s ministry turned to Duncan as “the Elisha on whom the mantle of their master had fallen.” These two sermons are dated 1788, and were published in Love’s Discourses on Select Passages of Scripture (Edinburgh 1829).
“And God said unto Moses, I AM THAT I AM: and he said, Thus shalt thou say unto the children of Israel, I AM hath sent me unto you.” Exodus 3:14.
The general sound of heaven, eternal life, salvation, the love of God in Christ, is pleasing to the ears of men. There are few to be met with who suspect themselves to have any dislike at the things expressed by these terms; much less that they in danger of being eternally damned on account of an obstinate refusal of such blessings. Every man thinks himself fond of heaven, and that his desires of eternal life are not only sincere, but sufficiently strong, to bring him, at one time or other, to go through whatever may be required that he may obtain that blessedness. Why do men entertain such flattering thoughts of themselves? It is because they know not the plague of their hearts, and because they consider not the true nature of the salvation and happiness which are brought to light by the gospel. If the testimony of God, in his word, may be credited, there is that naturally in every man’s heart, which, without the interposition of grace, will infallibly lead him to neglect, to despise, to hate, and to cast away, all the treasures of salvation, and all the joys and glories of heaven. This assertion will not appear strange, if we consider what the Scripture teaches of the nature of heaven. It is a happiness, spiritual, intellectual, holy — consisting in the knowledge, the image, the fellowship, the service, of the infinitely holy God. But, from experience, it is plain, how cold, how dead, how perverse, the hearts of men are, as to the great truths concerning the being and perfections of God. And it is only because these fundamental truths are basely and carelessly passed over by many preachers, that the hearts of many professors of religion do not fret, and boil, and foam with indignation, in the hearing of the word of God. I am persuaded that if the glory of the true God were faithfully, and in its proper majesty, published as it hath sometimes been, unless God should sovereignly change the hearts of many, it would soon thin many places of worship. Were God to appear in the sanctuary, as he hath sometimes done, the whole herd of hollow-hearted, worldly, conceited professors, would flee from him, as wild beasts keep at a distance from a fire blazing in the desert.
These remarks I have thought necessary, to rouse your attention to that great subject which this text sets before us. When Moses was about to give his last testimony concerning the character and ways of God, he begins with this solemn exclamation, “Give ear, O ye heavens, and I will speak: and hear, O earth, the words of my mouth!” He knew the hardness of the people’s hearts whom he addressed, and the difficulty of awakening them to a sense of God. For my own part, I wish to proceed with fear and trembling in the illustration of this passage, not only because of the dignity of the subject, but because of the danger there is lest a suitable reception should not be given to the truths which shall be declared from it. I am afraid of the consequences which a lukewarm, and heedless, and much more, a presumptuous and hostile, hearing of such truths may draw after it. Take heed, I beseech you, how ye hear. These walls, these seats, this light of the sun, shall be witnesses against every man or woman who shall, in the course of this subject, judge himself, or herself, unworthy of everlasting life, by resisting the truth, or by holding it in unrighteousness.
Before entering on the text itself, I must observe some things as to the circumstances in which this divine oracle was delivered.
And first of all; Moses and the Israelites were in circumstances of deep humiliation and distress. The murdering hand of oppression, early lifted up against the life of Moses, and generously resented by him in mature years, had depressed him from royal splendor to the sorrows and labors of a helpless exile. The sweat of hopeless labor, stained with the blood of the beloved infants, produced those groans and cries of the Israelites, which pierced the heavens and roused the God of vengeance. In this night of trouble, when earth afforded no prospect of deliverance, the God of heaven shone forth, and made this solemn revelation of himself to Moses. Such is the way of God, in imparting to sinful men the knowledge of himself. The first conversion of the soul to God, and remarkable discoveries of his glory afterwards, are frequently ushered in by severe, outward trials. But should it happen otherwise in this respect, God will not have much to do with any soul, without making it to feel spiritual trouble. God will pull down the stubborn stoutness and frothiness of a secure spirit, when he comes, in earnest, to make himself known. For this is his invariable rule, “I dwell with him that is of a contrite and humble spirit.” And therefore, the people who think to steal into saving knowledge, with a whole heart, will one day find themselves disappointed.
Another circumstance which deserves our attention is the long course of retirement, meditation, and search after God, through which Moses passed, before he obtained this glorious manifestation. He had been wandering about in this solitude for many years, far from the bustle and clamor of cities and courts. Much intercourse with God, he, no doubt, enjoyed in that period; but nothing remarkable enough to be put on Scripture record, till the expiration of forty years. And hence, we learn, that solitude and silent meditation are suited to the obtaining of the knowledge and fellowship of God; as, on the contrary, a noisy bustle, willfully and wantonly delighted in, will assuredly banish God from the soul. And this is one reason why I consider London as one of the chief nurseries for hell, that the devil hath in the whole world. Those who wish to know God, and to walk with him, must, as far as his providence allows, keep at a distance from the noise of fools, and seek the silent haunts of wisdom, in the closet and in the field.
But, after all that long tract of ordinary communion with God, the mind of Moses needed a further preparation for hearing the words of the text. Suddenly, when perhaps musing on the perfections of God, as displayed in the visible objects around him, and thus cherishing his faith of promised deliverance to himself and the church, he was roused by a spectacle which elevated his mind above the ordinary course of nature. A bush, which, probably, he had often seen without any remarkable circumstance, became, in a moment, encircled with radiant fire, and remained unconsumed amidst the flame: yet, even this symbol of the divine presence did not sufficiently overawe the spirit of Moses, till he was checked and solemnized by that voice from the midst of the bush, “Draw not nigh hither: Put off thy shoes from off thy feet; for the place whereon thou standest is holy ground.” Then, we are told, Moses trembled and durst not behold.
He was standing before God, in this solemn posture, when, after other important declarations, and in answer to a humble inquiry concerning the arduous work then assigned him, God said to him, “I AM THAT I AM: and thus shalt thou say to the children of Israel, I AM hath sent me unto you.”
I shall prosecute the illustration of these words, by endeavoring, in dependence on grace, to do the following things: First, To point out what is the general tendency of such a manner of speaking, concerning the divine nature, as the Lord himself here uses. Second, To show what are those particular things in the Godhead, to which this description is chiefly to be applied.
I. I propose to point out the general tendency of this manner of speaking concerning the divine nature. “God said, I AM THAT I AM: thou shalt say, I AM hath sent me unto you.”
There is a general impression on the heart, which these words are suited, at the first hearing, to produce. If these is due earnestness in the soul’s inquiries after God; if the question, “Where is God my Maker?” comes with force from the heart; if there is proper attention, and proper sensibility; such words as these of the text will sink deep, and produce great effect. This will be the case, even before the extent of their meaning hath been deliberately and accurately surveyed. This general impression and tendency of the words, we are now to point out. It consists of such things as the following:
1. This manner of speaking is suited to strike down our natural pride of understanding, by the apprehension of that sublime mysteriousness and unsearchableness, which necessarily belong to the nature of God.
Humility consists in the creature’s willingly acknowledging its own inferiority to God. One of the first views of God, which produces this acknowledgment, is that of his being incomprehensible, or exalted above the possibility of being perfectly known, by any other understanding beside his own. This humble sense of distance from God, was, in the state of primitive integrity, entirely sweet and joyful. But, as the first motion of apostacy from God consists in an attempt to shake off the sense of inferiority to him, so we are taught, that an aspiring to equality with God, in point of knowledge, was interwoven with man’s first transgression. The mysterious dignity of the Godhead, as infinitely beyond the reach of created faculties, being uneasy and troublesome to man, he became dissatisfied, because the Author of his being had set bounds to his knowledge. The same poison is found operating in every child of Adam, and is a fatal hindrance to their returning to God. For, as God cannot lay aside his essential greatness, so, while this petulant impudence of understanding remains, there can be nothing but a mutual loathing between God and the haughty sinner. It is, therefore, one of the first aims of divine revelation, to recover the soul from this diabolical madness, by presenting to view the glorious unsearchableness of God. Nor is there any other passage, where this is done with more striking majesty, than in the words of the text.
2. This manner of speaking concerning God is designed to make a wide separation between him and the whole system of created or imaginary beings.
The understanding of man, having lost those bright ideas of God which it once possessed, runs wild in its imaginations concerning him. Agitated by pride, passion, and carnal enmity, it debases and profanes the Godhead, by the vilest and most devilish fancies. In its more sober and regular excursions, it mingles the Creator with his own works, and thinks that he is very honorably treated if he is adorned with some of those excellencies which are to be found in men themselves, or among the created angels in heaven. But this text, with many other places of Scripture, is designed to cut down every such imagination, and to represent God as possessing existence and excellency, absolutely incomparable. We are here taught to beware of dishonoring God by bringing down his sacred nature to the level of any other being whatsoever. Nor must we suppose that we have at all given to God his proper glory, till we have ascribed to him such excellency as entirely transcends all that can possibly be found in the universe of created beings.
3. The understandings and excellencies of creatures being pulled down into their proper place, this majestic name, I AM — I AM THAT I AM, teaches us humbly to believe that in the nature of God are laid up immense treasures of the highest positive excellency. The first sound of these words intimates more than that no creature can comprehend God, or is comparable with him. While created glory is annihilated, it is declared that substantial excellence, worth and goodness exist in the nature of God. While our eyes are called away from the shadows of being and excellency, God is set forth as one worthy to attract the utmost attention, and able to satisfy the most extensive capacities, of an intelligent creature. And thus,
4. The heart is filled with ardent desire after the genuine knowledge of God, as that which must be the source of all delight, dignity, and perfection.
In the Epistle to the Hebrews, we are warned to “take heed, lest there be in any of us an evil heart of unbelief, in departing from the living God”; and that, as “without faith, it is impossible to please him”; so, “he that cometh to God, must believe that he is, and that he is a rewarder of them that diligently seek him.”
The crowd of mankind pass by the notices of the being of God, and the testimonies of his glory, as not worthy of much regard; because they do not believe that any valuable treasure is there concealed. On the contrary, many are strongly persuaded that thoughts of God can afford nothing but a dismal gloom, destructive of all real enjoyment. So deeply rooted is this persuasion in their hearts, that they choose rather to hazard eternal misery, than resolutely to resist the carnal vanity of their minds, and to keep them close to such subjects. Indeed it is, in the nature of the thing, impossible to desire and seek after God with such constancy and ardor as is necessary to our finding him, if the persuasion of the intrinsic and supreme excellency of his nature is not firmly settled in the heart. And it is equally impossible, on the other hand, steadfastly to believe that there is a boundless heaven of excellency in the divine being, without being roused up to desire, with the utmost ardor, the sight and enjoyment of that excellency, unless a person is possessed with devilish enmity and despair.
The influence of the text, to excite desire after the knowledge of God, is very manifest. For here the great God holds himself forth as comparatively the only being worthy of regard, the fountain of living waters, the God of glory, before whom all created beauty is eclipsed, and in whom alone the creature, in itself empty and shadowy, may be solidly satisfied, exalted, and established.
5. The voice of God, in this passage, is well suited to season our earnest inquiries after God with reverence and submissive dependence on his own light and power, for the discovery of himself.
Such ideas of God as this text is adapted to produce will awaken strong desires after the knowledge and enjoyment of him, as has been already observed. But these desires differ widely from the disorderly tumults of enthusiastical affections. Enthusiasts may be generally known by their want of spiritual modesty; as a prostitute, in her forehead, bears her mark of distinction from a virtuous woman. But those who come under the genuine impression of the text, while they cannot live without God, and secretly pant after him, feel a sacred horror of reverential fear, in the thoughts of approaching so glorious a majesty. Far from a romantic, or presumptuous petulance, they submissively wait for the light and breathing of the Spirit of grace to open their way, and to bring them nigh to the object of their desire. They think too highly of God to imagine it possible for a creature to intrude upon the hidden glories of his being, independently of his own gracious illumination. And their thoughts, both of the subject of this knowledge, and of the marvelous light by which this knowledge is created, are too solemn to leave any relish for ranting, lightness or presumption in the matters of God.
I have thus given an account of the general tendency of this important passage, and have shown what is the frame or posture of soul into which we are brought by these words, when the sense of them is first introduced into our hearts. And in this more general view of the passage, it corresponds with such places of Scripture as the following: “Canst thou by searching find out God? Canst thou find out the Almighty unto perfection? It is as high as heaven; what canst thou do? deeper than hell; what canst thou know? The measure thereof is longer than the earth, and broader than the sea.” Job 11:7-9. “There is none like unto the God of Jeshurun, who rideth upon the heaven in thy help, and in his excellency on the sky.” Deut. 33:26. “Be still and know that I am God: I will be exalted among the heathen, I will be exalted in the earth.” Ps. 46:10. “Thou art more glorious and excellent than the mountains of prey.” Ps. 76:4. “Whom have I in heaven but thee? and there is none upon earth that I desire besides thee.” Ps. 73:25. “As the hart panteth after the water-brooks, so panteth my soul after thee, O God.” Ps. 42:1. “Tremble, thou earth, at the presence of the Lord, at the presence of the God of Jacob.” Ps. 114:7.
There are views of the glory of God still more particular and explicit, to which these comprehensive words bear a reference. These we proposed to inquire into, in the second part of this discourse. But this shall be reserved for a farther opportunity.
Application. Let us come to the application of what hath now been said.
1. The observations already made on this subject furnish us with a view of that distinguishing character which, in consequence of regeneration, belongs to the children of God. It is well know that real saints are, in Scripture, frequently characterized as those who in a peculiar manner seek, and fear, and know God. But the Scripture likewise mentions a hypocritical seeking, and fear, and knowledge, of the true God. It is, therefore, a matter of high importance to understand well, and seriously to apply, the distinctions between these two characters. For this purpose, we shall find some assistance from what hath at this time been spoken.
It hence appears, that the sincere seekers of God are brought to acquiesce in the mysterious unsearchableness of God, and of divine things; that their natural pride of understanding is pulled down; that they are taught, in their thoughts of God, to exalt him far above every other being, and to rise above the whole compass of created beings, whether visible, or invisible: that, by a deeply-rooted persuasion of the immense excellency and intrinsic glory of the divine being, they are drawn ardently, and supremely, to desire the living God; and that their inquiries after him are conducted with awful reverence, and submissive dependence on the direction and light of the Holy Ghost. Such is their character. How then doth the matter stand with us? Many things may be done in religion, and much seeming comfort obtained, while we remain utter strangers to this character. And what will it avail any of us, to be reputed saints with men, who know not the heart; or that we imagine ourselves to be among the people of God, if we are indeed still in the gall of bitterness, and bond of iniquity? “What is the hope of the hypocrite, though he hath gained, when God taketh away his soul? Will God hear his cry, when trouble cometh upon him? Will he delight himself in the Almighty, will he always call upon God?” In the day of judgment, many sad outcries shall be heard, of souls disappointed of heaven, and eternally lost, through the neglect of these things: and dreadful will it be, if any one of us, after this explicit warning, shall be found in that unhappy number.
2. This subject supplies matter of direction and encouragement, to all such as seek God in the manner which hath been described.
Is this truly the character and exercise of any among you? Then I am authorized, as the messenger of the Lord of Hosts, to say, “Happy are ye; it shall be well with you.” “They shall praise the Lord that seek him; your hearts shall live for ever.” You shall find the object of your desire, and your souls shall be satisfied as with marrow and fatness. You may be laboring under much darkness, distance from God, temptation, sorrow, contempt of men, for such as you the world never did — never will — love. But these things will make manifest your sincerity; they are only for a season, if need be. “Light is sown for the righteous, and gladness for the upright in heart.” “They that sow in tears, shall reap in joy.” By and by, the day will break and the shadows will flee away.
In the meanwhile, you see where your path lies. Go on as you have begun. Seek the Lord, in humble adoration of his incomprehensible glory, setting him far off from created objects, believing his supreme excellency, with longing desire, with lowly reverence, with submissive dependence. He hath not said to you, “Seek ye me in vain.”
3. This subject suggests some important sentiments, as to the general state of religion in our time and country.
If the strength of religion lies in the knowledge of God, and if that knowledge can be obtained only by such sort of seekers as we have described, then there is little reason to compliment the present time as a flourishing period of religion. We may see from this subject what hath been the chief cause of the decay of religion, and what is likely to be the death of it in this country. For, I scruple not to assert that, as our religious state is sunk very low, so we have no reason to expect any general revival of it in this country unless by such an interposition of grace, as is hardly so much as wished for, either by saint or sinner. That kind of seeking after God, which alone will ever restore the dignity and strength of religion, has not only been long a very unfashionable thing; but the great body of professors of religion, in almost every corner, seem to have formed a combination to do what they can to batter it out of the world.
But, though all should grow worse and worse, without remedy, for a number of years, the upright people of God have resources against it; for,
4. The general view which we have now taken of this text, teaches us the absolute certainty of two things: — On the one hand, that the religion which is truly founded in the nature and revealed character of God shall assuredly be kept alive, revived, honored, and set on high; on the other hand, that condemnation, shame, and misery, shall overtake all who shall stand aloof from this kind of religion, on whatever pretence. Should the great body of people in this country and age choose to be damned, rather than submit to the power of genuine religion; hell will make room for them all: “The wicked shall be turned into hell, and all the nations that forget God.” And somewhere else, or in some future period, a seed shall rise to condemn the former generations of hypocrites and profane sinners; they shall rise to seek, to know, to enjoy, to glorify, the eternal God. “A seed shall serve him; it shall be accounted to the Lord for a generation.”
But dreadful is the aspect of this text on every false professor, whom the Lord shall finally condemn. The ground of his quarrel with such people lies very deep. It is because God is what he is, that he will contend with those, to whom his glorious being is offensive. Them, he will punish, as certainly as He is what he is. Against them will he turn the whole treasures of stores of his infinite glory. Them, he will continue to punish, while this name, I AM THAT I AM,” continues to belong to him.
Therefore, thus saith the Lord of hosts, “Consider your ways.” Turn ye to Him, from whom the people of Britain, the people of the eighteenth century, have deeply revolted. “Seek ye the Lord, while he may be found, call ye upon him, while he is near. Let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts, and let him return unto the Lord, and he will have mercy upon him, and to our God for he will abundantly pardon.” “Kiss ye the Son, lest he be angry, and ye perish from the way, when his wrath is kindled but a little.”
To the Father, Son, and Spirit, the Great God, whose incommunicable name is “I AM THAT I AM,” be majesty, dominion, and glory everlasting. Amen.
“And God said unto Moses, I AM THAT I AM: and he said, Thus shalt thou say unto the children of Israel, I AM hath sent me unto you.” Exodus 3:14.
I shall proceed immediately to the second thing I proposed from this text, which was to show what are those particular excellencies in the Godhead, to which, chiefly, this description or name of God is to be applied.
This subject is unavoidably attended with difficulty, both to the speaker and the hearers. The tongues of angels must falter here, if they attempt fully to declare what is above all expression; “Shall it be told him,” says Elihu, “that I speak? if a man speak, surely he shall be swallowed up.” I should, indeed, have altogether declined this subject, were I not certain, not only that the things to be suggested upon it are of a practical nature, but that they are the very soul and strength of genuine religion. I am encouraged to go forward while I consider, on the one hand, the express charge given by the inspired writer, “Declare his glory among the heathen”; and, on the other hand, the promises of divine teaching, by that Spirit of truth, who, in his gracious illuminations, searcheth all things, even the deep things of God.
1. After the general impressions concerning God which this passage naturally produces, when we begin more closely to survey the wonderful title here exhibited, one of the first ideas presented to our minds is that of the self-existence, independence, and eternity of the Divine Being.
“I AM THAT I AM.” Whatever are the nature and excellencies of God, he possesses them in a manner entirely peculiar to himself. No other being shares with Him in the glory of existence underived, eternal, absolutely independent. We may, in our thoughts, anticipate the existence of all other beings; we may think of the time, when they were not; we may conceive of them as rising, in a moment, from the obscure abyss of nothing, and we may search for the powerful cause of their nature and excellencies; but all such inquiries respecting God are at once precluded by this sublime title, “I AM THAT I AM.” He exists. He is, and was. But there is no superior cause, no origin, no beginning of his Being. Here, our understandings are struck down and astonished. Here is impenetrable darkness, arising from excessive glory in the very manner of God’s existence. Confess thyself Atheist, thou, who rejectest mysteries in religion. Thy hell-born pride cannot pass over the very threshold of the temple of sacred truth.
How solemn is this prospect! God lives from everlasting to everlasting, without cause, or extrinsic support of his Being. The vast globe, hanging upon nothing, is, in comparison of this, but a trifling wonder. The understanding takes its flight across the immeasurable ocean of past ages, and sees itself surrounded with an eternity of unproduced being: With admiration and complacency, it reposes itself in the great, the inexplicable fact — that Jehovah, a God of infinite glory, is, was, and is to come!
Its strength is exhausted; the wings of fatigued contemplation droop.
There is a sort of affinity between the gloriousness of the manner, and the gloriousness of the nature, of the Divine Being; so that the mind naturally passes from the one of these ideas to the other. When we perceive that God possesses existence in so singular and sublime a manner, we are led to believe that the existence so possessed, is, in its nature, supremely glorious. And thus the self-existence of God, is a kind of presumptive proof of the glorious excellence of his nature. This I proceed to point out, as likewise implied in the divine name we are presently considering.
2. I therefore observe that these words, “I AM THAT I AM,” bear a special reference to that fullness of Divine Beauty, or Glory, which is essential to God. The sublime manner in which God exists, if kept apart from the consideration of the excellency of what he is, could give no solid satisfaction to the mind. It would, therefore, be extremely foolish, to confine the significancy of the expression to that introductory idea. Let us rather follow the impulse and connection of our spiritual ideas, by endeavoring to contemplate the transcendent excellency of the divine nature. For this purpose, I have directed your views to that which I consider as the very center and substance (if such language may be here used) of all that is excellent and amiable in the Godhead. There resides essentially in God, an infinite fullness of divine beauty. Of this assertion I pretend not to give any full explication, any more than I can fully unfold his self-existence. But the one fact is as certain to me, as the other. I am as much persuaded, that God hath an immense fullness of essential glory, as I am, that his Being is underived and eternal. Were it not for this persuasion, I should loathe and detest my own existence as a rational creature. Because I would be certain that it was out of the power, even of God himself, to make me happy. I am not, therefore, now contending for an empty speculation. For, let this sentiment be accounted as abstruse, uncertain, or useless as men please, it is certain to me that the first foundation of all religion, and of all true religious comfort, lies here. And I bless God, I have a joyful certainty of this most precious fact, that the Divine Being hath in itself an Infinite fullness of peculiar glory. But, as I have already said, I cannot unfold the nature of this glory. It is, indeed, by a kind of spiritual sight or perception only that any glimpse of this supreme beauty can be obtained. Nor do I regard the charge of being enthusiastical or mystical here otherwise than with contempt; for these assertions will bear the strictest scrutiny, both of sound reason, and of soundly applied Scripture.
I shall, however, endeavor a little farther to illustrate what I have now pointed out as a principal part of the signification of this divine title, so as, if possible, to bring it down to the meanest capacities.
You will observe what I have asserted, “that there is in the Godhead an Infinite fullness of divine beauty or glory.” Consider what is here meant by divine beauty.
Every one knows what beauty or glory is in visible objects. But God is a Spirit. His beauty, therefore, is spiritual, removed at an infinite distance from body and its excellencies. Created spirits are capable of possessing a kind of beauty. But, as they are limited, dependent beings, so all their beauty is of a relative kind. The beauty of created spirits consists in their good dispositions towards God and one another. There is in God a kind of beauty, to which the beauty of created spirits bears a resemblance. But there is also in God a beauty, like to which, in a strict sense, nothing can possibly be found in the whole circle of creation. You see I am endeavoring to express these things with as much brevity and perspicuity as the subject will admit. You must not, therefore, blame me, though you find it difficult to continue your attention so steadily as is necessary, in following out the sublime inquiry. Happy is the man that getteth hold of this wisdom, though it should, for a time, be only as the man who began to see men as trees walking!
I have brought you forward to this point, that God possesses in himself a peculiar kind of beauty, such as cannot possibly reside in any created being. This divine beauty is something which God sees in himself, quite independently of any consideration of other beings besides himself. It existed in God from eternity, and would have been the same, though no creature had ever existed, or been thought of. It is, therefore, something quite distinct from the goodness or love of God, or any such disposition in him, as requires a created object to be exercised about. This divine beauty is, above all other things, amiable and glorious. It is loveliness and glory, in the highest possible sense of the words. Of such beauty, God possesses an infinite fullness. There are, in the Divine Being, endless recesses of such glory, in comparison of which, the whole extent of created worlds is, in the sight of God, as a small, inconsiderable point; or, as the prophet speaks, “less than nothing, and vanity.”
I understand the expression in the text as having a principal reference to this Supreme, independent Beauty of the Godhead, though not exclusively of other things which shall immediately be mentioned. I AM THAT I AM.
It would carry me too far, to enter on a critical and argumentative defence of these important sentiments. I have amply laid the truth before you. If you are much enlightened from above, you will perceive a kind of intuitive evidence in these truths; such as will sweetly persuade and satisfy your minds. I shall, therefore, only subjoin some passages and expressions of Scripture, the full emphasis and force of which cannot possibly be perceived, without having recourse to these views of the divine excellency which have now been exhibited.
He is, in Scripture, styled, “The King of glory,” “the God of glory,” “the blessed God,” “the fountain of living waters,” “He, who hath life in himself,” “the blessed and only Potentate.”
It is, in Scripture, said of him, Ps. 145:3, “Great is the Lord, and greatly to be praised; and his greatness is unsearchable.” I Tim. 1:17, “To the King eternal, immortal, invisible, the only wise God, be honor and glory for ever and ever. Amen.” Ps. 96:6, “Honor and majesty are before him; strength and beauty are in his sanctuary.” Ps. 16:11, “In thy presence is fullness of joy; at thy right hand there are pleasures for evermore.” Matt. 5:8, “Blessed are the pure in heart; for they shall see God.” Rev. 15:4, “Thou only art holy.” Rev. 4:8, “And the four living creatures had each of them six wings about him; and they were full of eyes within; and they rest not, day and night, saying, Holy, holy, holy, Lord God Almighty, which was, and is, and is to come.”
Those who are, by grace, enabled properly to enter into these views of the Divine Being, will find, thereby, a kind of universal light diffused over all divine truths; and they will be able, with less difficulty, to follow out the remainder of this subject.
3. The significancy of this divine title, or name, I AM THAT I AM, extends itself to all that divine perfection, which, in God, is, as it were, internally exercised towards his own supreme beauty.
As, in an incomprehensible manner, God exists and possesses, in his own being, infinite beauty; so he, at the same time, enjoys the light of an infinite understanding, whereby he perfectly knows and beholds his own beauty. Infinite beauty, and infinite knowledge of that beauty, are, in God, as it were, proportioned to each other. He hath an infinitely perfect sight, or consciousness, of his own excellency.
Along with this, there is in God an infinite rectitude of will, whereby he esteems, embraces, and rests in his own beauty, with an infinite strength of affection. And this is necessarily accompanied with joy and delight, properly divine and infinite.
With reference to this glorious assemblage of beauty, wisdom, holiness, and blessedness, eternally resident in the Godhead, many expressions of Scripture, besides the text, are to be, at least in part, understood. Some of these have already been mentioned, and others may now be added.
I Tim. 6:16, “Who only hath immortality, dwelling in the light which no man can approach unto, whom no man hath seen, nor can see; to whom be honor and power everlasting. Amen.” I John 1:5, “This, then, is the message which we have heard of him, and declare unto you, That God is light, and in him is no darkness at all.” I John 4:16, “God is love.” Heb. 12:29, “For our God is a consuming fire.” Exod. 15:11, “Who is like unto thee, O Lord, among the gods? who is like thee, glorious in holiness, and fearful in praises?” Ps. 147:5, “Great is our Lord — his understanding is infinite.”
4. Another view of the Divine Being, transcendently mysterious and sublime, to which the language of the text may be referred, is the distinction of Persons in the Godhead.
It appears, from the second verse of the chapter, that the words of the text were uttered by the Second Person of the glorious Trinity. For he, who in the text assumes to himself the language of supreme Deity, is there styled the Angel of Jehovah. What he speaks of himself in this passage contains in it a decisive claim to proper Divinity. For there can be no higher Godhead than that which the text expresses. It is, therefore, an important part of the signification implied in the text, as standing connected with the context, that the Son of God, — who, with regard to the wonderful condescensions of his mediatorial office, is spoken of as sent by the Father, and styled his Angel or Messenger, — is truly possessed of the incomprehensible, Divine Essence, and all its peculiar glories. And though the words, “I AM THAT I AM,” directly point our attention to that Divine Essence itself, which belongs to each of the Divine Persons; yet, their meaning may justly be extended to the mysterious fact, revealed in the Holy Scriptures, — That the One, individual, Divine Essence, continuing One, subsists eternally in Three distinct Persons. The enemies of this glorious mystery, either foolishly, or disingenuously, misrepresent it, as though it were a direct contradiction to arithmetical truth; and they insinuate that no man can believe in Three equal Divine persons, without either destroying the unity of the Godhead, or admitting that, in numbers, three and one are the same thing. The doctrine of the Trinity labors under no such contradiction. We do not believe that there are Three infinite Essences; or that Three Divine Essences are one Essence; or that Three Divine Persons are One Person; but our faith is, as has been already expressed, that the One, infinite, Divine Essence, continuing One, subsists in Three distinct Persons, so that the whole of that glorious Essence belongs, equally, to each of these Persons. It is not my present business, to engage in dispute with the ignorance, arrogance, and blasphemies, of those who proudly assume the name of Unitarians, as though all who abhor their damnable heresies were guilty of encroaching on the inviolable unity of the Godhead. To these heretics it belongs to cherish the monstrous fancy of a greater and a less God; a supreme, and inferior object of worship; or else, to proclaim themselves Deists, or rather Atheists, by insinuating, that the Author of the Holy Scriptures hath been all along teaching and encouraging a crime, which he, at the same time, threatens to punish with everlasting torments. — It is, no doubt, a mark of a very enlightened age, that it gives encouragement to fight against this mystery, with arguments which would operate, with equal force, against the self-existence of God; for against this may be proposed, as supercilious and formidable questions, as that demonstrative one of Dr. Price, “What an oddity must this appear to a child?” — Let them explain to me, from principles of reason, the self-existence of God, and I will undertake to explain the mystery of the Trinity. But let them remember that a proof of the fact is not an explication of its nature. But, leaving these men to the mercy or justice of God, which will shortly give them a full conviction of their error, I call on those who have, in some measure, believed the Trinity of Divine Persons, to consider, what majestic glory is in this name, I AM THAT I AM, when we remember that it belongs equally, in its full emphasis, to Three distinct persons. Low ideas of the Godhead itself, make the doctrine of the Trinity insipid and empty, to many who speculatively believe it. But, in proportion as our ideas of the Divine Essence are raised and expanded, so will our admiration and delight be increased, while we contemplate the Father, Son, and Spirit as each of them infinitely glorious in the possession of this wonderful abyss of perfection. Thus, the beams of divine glory come upon our minds with accumulated force; and all that is glorious and excellent in the Divine Essence, appears unspeakably more so, while we think that, as the inspired writer asserts, “There are Three that bear record in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost; and these Three are One.”
Thus far I have endeavored to open the signification of the text, in reference to what is in God himself, and would have resided in him, though no created universe had ever appeared. But these things lay the foundation for a just view of the words in their relation to the whole universe of created beings, and particularly to the redemption of sinful men.
5. I proceed, therefore, to take notice that the original source of all the counsels and purposes of God respecting his creatures is to be found in his own Being. This is part of the signification of this glorious name, I AM THAT I AM, that the reason of whatever God purposes or performs is wrapt up in what he himself is. To explain this a little farther, according to our measure: —
It is an arduous thing to inquire what ends or motives prompted God to form the design of creating and governing the universe. Some understanding of this matter we must have, if we desire truly to glorify God in his works. Men easily fall into such errors here, as corrupt all their religious sentiments. And the great cause of these errors is the want of just apprehensions of the Divine Being. The glory of the Creator is so obscured, and the importance of the creature is so magnified, by the minds of men, that many think themselves guilty of no impiety, when they give the interests of the creature a place superior to that of the glory of God himself.
But those who enter properly into the views I have endeavored to give, of God’s essential excellency, will thereby be enabled to think in a manner worthy of God on this subject.
The Scripture teaches us to consider zeal for his own honor, or a desire to display his own excellency, as the primary, supreme, and ultimate reason of all God’s works. Benevolence to other beings is, at the same time, represented as the chief, subordinate principle of action in the Deity. It is plain, from what hath been already said, that these two principles — zeal for himself, and benevolence to others — must belong to God. And it is equally plain that zeal for himself must be, with God, first and uppermost. This is the necessary result of that infinite worth, or excellency, which is in God, and of that knowledge and esteem which he hath of his own worth. For we must not think of God as of a created being. A creature may soon love itself too much, or in a sinful manner, and so become hateful and vile. But the more that God loves himself, and prefers himself to all other beings, the more amiable and glorious doth he appear. For he is indeed worthy of an infinite love. At the same time, fullness of excellency, self-approbation, and blessedness in God, naturally overflows, as it were, in a vast benevolence towards other beings. This benevolence may be justly called not only great, but boundless and infinite. For it hath no other limits, than those which arise from the immense, internal perfection of Deity. God loves his creatures as much as he can possibly do, while his supreme love justly and necessarily terminates in himself: that is, as much as a God of infinite perfection can do. Where the happiness of the creature is consistent with the superior interests of His glory, there he promotes it with infinite zeal. And those displays of his glory, in which he chiefly delights, are connected with the largest and noblest communications of happiness among his creatures.
And thus you see how this name, I AM THAT I AM, contains in it the reason of all God’s works. He is, as it were, stirred up to work, by zeal for his own glory, and by benevolence, or desire to communicate felicity. And this zeal and benevolence arise from the fullness of his essential excellency.
That you may hear the voice of God himself in confirmation of these sentiments, I shall repeat the following passages of Scripture: “For of him, and through him, and to him, are all things: to whom be glory for ever. Amen.” Rom. 11:36. “Thou art worthy, O Lord, to receive glory, and honor, and power: for thou hast created all things, and for thy pleasure they are and were created.” Rev. 4:11. “The Lord hath made all things for himself; yea, even the wicked for the day of evil.” Prov. 16:4. “Of the increase of his government and peace, there shall be no end, upon the throne of David, and upon his kingdom, to order it, and to establish it with judgment and with justice from henceforth, even for ever. The zeal of the Lord of Hosts will perform this.” Isa. 9:7. “For my name’s sake will I defer mine anger, and for my praise will I refrain for thee, that I cut thee not off. Behold, I have refined thee, but not with silver; I have chosen thee in the furnace of affliction. For mine own sake, even for mine own sake, will I do it; for how should my name be polluted? and I will not give my glory unto another.” Isa. 48:9-11. “And in very deed for this cause have I raised thee up, for to show in thee my power: and that my name may be declared throughout all the earth.” Exod. 9:16. “And I, behold I, will harden the hearts of the Egyptians, and they shall follow them: and I will get me honor upon Pharaoh, and upon all his host, upon his chariots, and upon his horsemen.” Exod. 14:17. “And he said unto him, Why callest thou me good? there is none good but one, that is, God.” Matt. 19:17. “Say unto them, As I live, saith the Lord God, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked; but that the wicked turn from his way and live: turn ye, turn ye from your evil ways; for why will ye die, O house of Israel?” Ezek. 33:11. “For I lift up my hand to heaven, and say, I live for ever. If I whet my glittering sword, and mine hand take hold on judgment, I will render vengeance to mine enemies, and will reward them that hate me.” Deut. 32:40-41.
6. I observe, in the last place, that this title, I AM THAT I AM, includes in it that fullness of perfection whereby God accomplishes his own counsels and designs. God hath all his resources in himself. In his own Being, he finds those stores of power, wisdom, and all-sufficiency, in the view of which, he says, “My counsel shall stand, and I will do all my pleasure.” “I will work, and who shall let it?”
I have thus given some account of the extent of this august title, I AM THAT I AM.
Application. I shall briefly point out the application of what hath now been delivered. For this purpose,
I. The following remarks, by way of inference, may be attended to.
1. From this subject, as now illustrated, we have an important view of the difference between the primitive and the fallen state of our nature. Everyone feels difficulty, labor, and obscurity attending such inquiries concerning God. But it was otherwise with man before his apostacy. Then his illumined understanding easily and sweetly perceived the glories of the Divine Being. This light was his natural element, in which he easily moved. God was ever before his eyes, in such glory as is, in some respects, unknown to the wisest of mere men while in this world. The truths concerning God which the apostate world despises, as abstruse, dry and uncertain, were plain, clear and inexpressibly sweet to Adam while he continued in the image of his Creator.
2. We are furnished by this subject, likewise, with a view of the wide distinction between a fallen and a regenerate state. The wisest men, while unregenerate, grope in midnight darkness with respect to God. And this darkness is accompanied with a fatal aversion from the light. In their speculations concerning God, natural men are disposed to trifle, to invent falsehood, to profane, or transform his sacred Being: Or if, by just reasoning, they form some true notions of the Deity, there is, in all these notions, an essential defect, a mortal coldness. Like the hearing a distant and uninteresting report, their ideas of God have no power to reach the heart, to expel its natural enmity, to sanctify or captivate the affections. But regenerating grace brings the soul into a new world with respect to God. Even where the natural powers of understanding are most slender, that light, justly styled in Scripture, “marvelous,” gives a vital, heart-transforming knowledge of the living God. To persons of the weakest capacity, regeneration gives a kind of instinctive perception of the sublimest truths concerning God.
3. The consideration of the series of truths now proposed leads us to remark that all the objections against divine truth, in which unbelievers trust and glory, have their origin, not in light, but in darkness. It is not the mark of an enlightened age, when such objections obtain general regard and admiration, as though they were the sublimest wisdom. It is rather the mark of a period forsaken by the Spirit of God, and sinking down into ignorance, stupidity and ungodliness. It might not, perhaps, be difficult to show that, in respect of philosophy, history, eloquence, and most branches of human learning, the present time, notwithstanding of its conceited pretences, is indeed degenerating into spuriousness and barbarism. But it is more awful to think of the stubborn alienation, and petulant profaneness, of many who profess Christianity, while, with proud disgust, they turn away from the solid and glorious foundations of religion in the substantial truths, revealed by reason and Scripture, concerning the Divine Being.
II. Let this subject be applied for the trial of our spiritual state.
The Scripture often characterizes the children of God by their peculiar knowledge of him. This subject gives us a clear view of the nature of that knowledge. In this respect, I hope the discourse may be useful to the more advanced and established Christians, to confirm their confidence of having obtained the saving knowledge of God. Some, however, who have indeed been taught of God, may be tempted to suspect themselves of hypocrisy, because they cannot follow out such discourses, so as distinctly, and in a satisfying manner, to understand them. For the relief of such persons, I observe, that it is one thing to have genuine and saving views of God, and another to be able to describe these views, or even clearly to understand a just description of them given by another. It may require, perhaps, many discourses to bring some, even of the children of God, to a distinct, speculative knowledge of what hath been now delivered on this subject. And it is their duty, with humility, diligence, earnestness, and patience, to wait upon God for further illumination. In the meanwhile, the weakest of those who have truly seen the glory of God, may, through the assistance of the Spirit, discover the reality of saving light in themselves, by proposing to themselves the following questions:
1. Is my knowledge of God supernatural? Is it indeed wisdom from above? Hath God shined in my heart, imparting spiritual light, which no created power could produce?
2. Are my views of God evangelical? That is, have they a strong tendency to destroy self-confidence, and self-righteousness; to humble me in the dust; and to commend to my highest regard the gospel method of salvation?
3. Are my discoveries of God of a heart-purifying nature? Do they discover sin, strip it of its false charms, and fire me with irreconcilable hatred, indignation, and revenge against it? Do they present to my view the beauty of universal holiness in heart and in life, so that I am thereby attracted and enamored?
4. Are my ideas of God of a heart-satisfying nature? Do they convey to my inmost soul, a vital and heavenly pleasure; such as renders me independent of worldly comfort, disposing me to loathe, to despise, to turn away from, the unlawful pleasures of sense, and comparatively to disrelish, even the allowed comforts of life, otherwise than as the fruits of divine goodness?
5. Does my knowledge of God inspire a celestial zeal and courage, setting me above the slavish fear of men and devils, of reproach, of sufferings, or death?
6. Are my manifestations of God attended, at once, with a tender delicacy, leading me to watch against their being interrupted, lost, or abused; and with an unextinguishable and insatiable avidity, after the increase and perfection of spiritual light?
Every person whose conscience, upon impartial and deliberate trial, gives a favorable answer to these questions, is warranted, by the word of God, to draw the comfortable conclusion that he hath been taught of God, and hath obtained such discoveries of his glory as shall finally terminate in the everlasting light of heaven. I might produce various testimonies of Scripture in support of each of these evidences. But, the time being exhausted, I hasten to conclude this application of the subject, by,
III. Calling and exhorting all sorts of persons, whether sinners or saints, whether weak or strong Christians, to employ their utmost diligence in using the appointed means of obtaining this divine knowledge. What hath been said of it may convince you how necessary it is that the arm of Jehovah should be revealed in giving us this knowledge of himself. To seek for it, then, implies not only that we spend time in meditation and prayer, reading, hearing, and spiritual conversation, but, that while using these means, we make earnest application to God himself that he may teach and enlighten us by the Spirit of his Son.
To this I now call and exhort every person present. “Seek the Lord and his strength, seek his face evermore.” This is the voice of God, “Seek ye my face.”
If you have already seen his glory, and felt the sweetness of his light, satisfying your souls as with marrow and fatness, what shall be the excuse of your sloth? Can you refuse to go forward, or will you think of slackening your diligence in this pursuit? With what ardor and confidence doth it become such persons as you to solicit the throne of grace for more liberal effusions of the enlightening Spirit, to yourselves, your brethren, and unconverted sinners?
If there are any amongst us, who, on religious pretences, snuff and spurn at the whole of this subject, as having little to do with their exercises and comfort, I must say to such persons, What if your coldness and dislike be only a fulfillment of such places of Scripture as these? “The carnal mind is enmity against God”; “The natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God.” What if God should understand it, as a saying to him, “Depart from us, for we desire not the knowledge of thy ways”? I should not be pure from the blood of such people, were I not to warn them that they are presently under a strong diabolical influence; and that all the comfort connected with such a course, however sweet it may seem to be, and however fairly disguised, will be found, at length, to have proceeded from no better author than “Satan, transformed into an angel of light.” I say, therefore, to every such person, in the words of Peter, “Repent of this thy wickedness, and pray God, if, perhaps, the thought of thine heart may be forgiven thee.”
But I am afraid there may be some hearing me of a still worse character. Are there none here who are willful triflers with religion; who allow their hearts to gad after vanity, even in the sanctuary of God; who have been sitting just now, if awake, delivering themselves over, without reluctance, to some wild reverie of fancy? They do not know what hath been spoken, more than a person in China or Mexico. Are there none, to whom it never was matter of an hour’s pain, that God is at a distance from them, and that they know him not? Are there none who will venture to forego all the sweetness of religion, for a pitiful morsel of the world’s gain, or pleasure, or applause? Is there no person here who secretly thinks that religion has in it no real pleasure, at least for him; and who would be glad, with all his heart, could it be demonstrated to him that there is no God? I am afraid the world has in it more people of this kind than one would wish to suppose. If any of them are in this assembly, let them know that the God of heaven now wishes to talk a little with them, though by means of a mortal voice.
“What iniquity have ye found in me, that ye have gone after vanity, and are become vain? What wrong have I done you? For what cause do ye hate me, and flee from me? I have long been grieved with you, I have been angry with you every day; it repenteth me that I have made you. You have moved me to jealousy with that which is not God, you have provoked me to anger with your vanities. A fire is kindled in mine anger, and shall burn unto the lowest hell, and shall consume the earth with her increase, and set on fire the foundations of the mountains. But I remember that you are but flesh, a wind that passeth away and cometh not again. Mine heart is turned within me; my bowels are troubled for you. As I live, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked; but that the wicked turn from his way and live: turn ye, turn ye from your evil ways, for why will ye die? Behold my servant, whom I uphold; mine elect in whom my soul delighteth. I have given him for a covenant of the people, for a light of the Gentiles, to open the blind eyes. Hear ye him. Employ his saving power. Come now, and let us reason together. Turn ye, even to me, in him, with all your heart. He shall be made unto you, wisdom, righteousness, sanctification, and redemption. Behold, I will pour out my Spirit unto you, I will make known my words unto you.
“But if ye will not hear it, and if ye will not lay it to heart, to give glory to my name, I will even send a curse upon you; and I will curse your blessings; I will send leanness into your souls; I will blast and burn up your idols, before your eyes; I will say, it is a people of no understanding, therefore, I, who made you, will not have mercy upon you, and I, who formed you, will show you no favor. Yet a little while, and I will shake not the earth only, but also heaven. You shall see my despised Son coming in the clouds, and your hearts shall burst with grief; He will be revealed from heaven, with his mighty angels, in flaming fire, taking vengeance on them that know not God, and that obey not the gospel. He will say to you, ‘Depart, ye cursed, into everlasting fire’; and all my saints and angels shall say, Amen.”
Thus, in the name of God, I have administered the external call to every unconverted sinner, now within the reach of my voice.
May God Almighty bless and glorify his word, for his great name’s sake! Amen.