What Does YHWH mean?

In this short meditation on the Tetragrammaton, John Piper demonstrates that God declares His eternality and utter self-sufficiency by His Name, YHWH.

The One God is YHWH, but the Three Persons are also YHWH. Jesus is called YHWH in Jeremiah 22:36, for His Name will be, “THE LORD OUR RIGHTEOUSNESS”.

Jesus is God, and has always been from everlasting, for John 1:1 says, “the Word was God.” (Micah 5:2) We know none can become God, for He will not give His glory to another. (Isaiah 42:8)

Since He calls Himself, “I AM WHAT I AM”, or “I AM WHO I AM”, we know that all that God is, He has always been, and none made God or even added counsel to Him. John 1:3 declares that whatever was made, was made by Christ. Thus we see, Jesus, being eternal, was not made by His Father, nor Himself, since that is illogical.

The Tetragrammaton, YHWH, is explained by that preceding clause, “I AM THAT I AM.” And it is that larger clause I want to examine in the glorious light that John Piper sees in it.

“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 KJV)

There, the verb “I AM”, that appears three times, is in the imperfect.

We have heard that the imperfect refers to ongoing or incomplete actions, especially in the future, however, it is not so simple. We will see that several features of the imperfect come into play in His Name.

The imperfect is subtle, even without the vav consecutive, which is not used in Exodus 3:14 and which we will not examine. The imperfect though, can refer to future, one-time, actions.

“I will make [imp.] a covenant with you.” (2 Samuel 3:13 NKJ)

Other times the imperfect can portray one-time actions in the present, though we could say these are incomplete.

“Hannah, why do you weep [imp.]? Why do you not eat [imp.]?” (1 Samuel 1:8 NKJ)

The ability of the imperfect to express simple, one-time actions, in the present and future, is connected to the more common power of the imperfect for ongoing action. There is, in both, a fullness of action which we don’t ascribe to the imperfect by saying that it only covers “incomplete” actions. The nature of the imperfect is shown not only in progressive, and uncompleted, actions, but in progressive, ongoing actions.

When God says “I AM”, He uses the imperfect because of its progressive, ongoing nature, without limiting that eternal fountain of Being to an incomplete, or still to be finished process. But this is entirely proper to the imperfect, though the name of this inflection is in contradiction to the idea.

The grammarian Gesenius says, “[The linguist] Driver rightly lays stress upon the inherent distinction between the participle as expressing mere duration, and the imperfect as expressing progressive duration (in the present, past, or future). Thus the words וְנָהָר יׂצֵא [participle] (Genesis 2:10) represent the river of Paradise as going out of Eden in a continuous, uninterrupted stream, but יִפָּרֵד, [imperfect] which immediately follows, describes how the parting of its waters is always taking place afresh.” [text citations edited]

The participle can describe a continuous action, but the imperfect can be employed to emphasize the ongoing nature in time (or we shall see, in eternity) of that action. Gesenius also gives the example of Genesis 2:6, which, “represents new mists as constantly arising.”

“But there went up [imperfect] a mist from the earth.” (Genesis 2:6 KJV)

The imperfect has a special use for continual or repeated action, which is called the frequentative. Again, the name here characterizes the imperfect well in some of its function, but does not do justice to its uses of a more continuous or ongoing nature.

But in the Tetragrammaton, we see the frequentative imperfect, expressing a kind of eternality. This mode of the verb can refer to the past, present, or future. And in some cases is used to speak of eternity, as below.

The LORD shall reign [imp.] for ever and ever. (Exodus 15:18 KJV)

or again, the frequentative in a continual present,

[The LORD] heareth the prayer of the righteous. (Proverbs 15:29 KJV)

So the frequentative, despite its name, can mean an action not only frequent, or repeated, but continual and ongoing.

What is more, the imperfect often expresses actions that are contingent on certain factors, certain conditions. This contingent relation to a condition is expressed by particles like “perhaps”, “if”, “in order that”, “because”, “lest”, or as here in Exodus 3:14, “that”.

In Exodus 3:14 when the two imperfect verbs appear, “I AM THAT I AM” we see that the eternality of God’s being is conditional on His being, that is, He exists because of His own being, and solely to the end of His own being. [Thus the second I AM is also related as the end, or “in order that”, to the first I AM.] It is a strangely paradoxical contingency, unique among all beings, because His end and sufficiency and purpose, were always satisfied by His own innate being.

The imperfect that answers a contingency may be in response to an action, “b if a”. Other times, the imperfect rests on a contingent, “will, desire, judgment, premonition, or permission” in which case we may translate with auxiliary words, “shall, might, should,” etc. [From Kelley and Crawford’s Grammar]

Here God’s eternal existence reflects that “desire” and “judgment” which says “yes” and “I shall” to His own being.

The imperfect not only involves progression or continuation, but the motives involved in actions. Thus we see that the jussive and cohortative are in the imperfect. These two verb forms are used when there is an urging, desire, determination, or permission to act.

Finally, the imperfect can answer a question, and He is the only one, by virtue of being the Truth, and the great Satisfier, who really can answer our questions.

The imperfect embraces questions perhaps because the question is uttered in a desire, or determination to hear an answer. As the Living Word proceeds from God in an eternal revelation, and the Son is said, proceeding from the bosom of the Father, to be in eternal generation, so God’s Name proceeds as a continual, miraculous, answer to that ground of His Being.

That answer is YES, and that answer is AMEN, and that answer exists in a kind of wonder of Life, which superabundantly resolves the questions “who?” and “why?” without a statement of the question, but also without a denial of the question. Yet God gave His Name as an answer to Moses’ question, “they shall say to me, what is his name? what shall I say [imp.] unto them?” (Exodus 3:13 KJV)

So God’s Name is an answer to our own question, but is there not also in the sufficiency and satisfaction of the “I AM” a living answer that overflows the cup of every potential question even in the Godhead?

Now Pharoah did ask that very question, yet like Pilate, did not learn the answer when He should have.

“Pharaoh said, who is the LORD, that I should obey [imp.] his voice to let Israel go? I know not the LORD, neither will I let Israel go.” (Exodus 5:2 KJV)

But we all ought, with Jacob, ask “who are you, and what is your name?” for His Name is wonderful.

“Why is it that you ask [imp.] my name?” (Genesis 32:29 NAS)

For what Jesus told not Jacob, He does tell us through Moses.