The psalmist, David, began Psalm 138 with a resounding peal of praise: “I give you thanks, O LORD, with my whole heart!” In the stanza immediately following he spoke of bowing down toward the Jerusalem center of worship—to the tent where the ark was located.
But it wasn’t this temple that stirred his worship, rather it was the presence of God himself on earth. And, more to the point of David’s prayer, it is what God represents—his character—that stirred him. This is what David summarized as God’s “name”:
I bow down toward your holy temple
and give thanks to your name
For David God’s name meant much more than we have in mind with our own use of names. We experience a gap of language, of culture, of time, as reflected by casual prayers in the name of Christ: “We ask all these things in Jesus name, amen.”
Instead names for us tend to be mere tags or calling cards, as when we need to be distinguished from others in a crowd: “Linda, can you come over here?” A name is just a notification tool.
Yet a name can represent much more when it comes to be aligned with our spoken words. In years past, and even today in some settings, a person might say quietly but firmly, “My word is my bond.” By giving his or her word a speaker promises listeners that whatever was said is true and trustworthy. Yet the speaker’s character—and not just the form of a spoken promise—is what certifies the statement.
Character is especially critical in settings where lies are common. So the question of credibility is measured both by how long a person’s integrity has been sustained and by the strength of that person’s devotion to others. In politics this can be measured by the promises actually fulfilled by an elected candidate. Or in a family by parents who always keep their word to their children even when it would be easy to do otherwise.
We also recognize character by another practical measure: reputation. Think of how a man might respond to a friend’s promise of a desperately needed loan. The recipient of the promise will ask whether the promise is a real prospect or a bit of sympathy that won’t bear fruit. His response—of either relief or quick dismissal—is a measure of his friend’s reputation. The same is true in groups. When a person’s name is mentioned as a prospect for a character-sensitive job those who know that person will quickly slot him or her in a moral pecking order based on all their prior contacts.
This sort of thing is found throughout the Bible. Samuel, for instance, was a man who knew God personally:
And Samuel grew, and the LORD was with him and let none of his words fall to the ground. And all Israel from Dan to Beersheba knew that Samuel was established as a prophet of the LORD. [1 Samuel 3:19-20]
Now let’s return to where we started—to God’s name. In David’s psalm he shared at least a part of what he had in mind in what followed after the line we just noted above: “and give thanks to your name”
for your steadfast love and
These qualities represent God’s character. When God’s name is mentioned it represents a love that is utterly stable and certain. And with that love is a faithful devotion to others—his love is other-centered and can be viewed with absolute confidence by those who rest in that love.
The basis for David’s thanksgiving is then rooted in God’s name and his word:
for you have exalted above all things
your name and your word.
This is both an odd statement and a remarkably important truth for all believers. Odd in the sense that God’s character should be a given—his goodness an unquestioned axiom. Important because it secures believers in the bedrock of God’s being as we negotiate the uncertainties of a broken world. He means to be taken as trustworthy: our faith rests on this bedrock of his faithfulness.
Having said that we also recognize that in practice humanity pays little attention to both. Every small and large attitude or act of independence from God is a denial of his word and a demeaning of his character. Sin denies God’s goodness by acting as if a personal version of self-concerned goodness—of establishing “what’s good for me” or “us”—can legitimately exist outside God’s will. Paul confronted this categorically in Romans 14:23, “whatever is not of faith is sin.” Yet many Christians often live in persistent disobedience, treating God’s words and ways as optional—subject to their self-concerned view of goodness.
The problem has deep roots, beginning when God’s character and his word were challenged by the serpent in Genesis 3. First he asked Eve, “Did God actually say, ‘You shall not eat of any tree in the garden’?” That absurdity was quickly corrected—only one tree had been forbidden—but the skepticism remained in play: God’s name—his character—had been questioned. Nothing in Eve’s experience of God could have accounted for her giving credibility to such skepticism. But she continued to listen.
Next the serpent moved beyond mere skepticism and dismissed God’s word. God had warned Adam not to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil “for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.” The serpent, however, dismissed this: “You will not surely die.” And finally he promised an alternative source of wisdom and morality: “you can be like God, knowing good and evil.”
This was an incredible claim. God had spoken firmly, clearly, and on the basis of his absolutely reliable name. Yet the serpent challenged both. What’s more shocking is that Eve, then Adam, took up the serpent’s stance. Both ate the forbidden fruit.
We can only guess that the serpent’s status—as one who had already dismissed God’s name and word, yet was still alive—caught their attention. From that point of view it was a matter of “no harm was done—he’s not dead!” And, by extension, the only mystery was why God would have made his claim in the first place. So Adam and his wife joined the serpent in dismissing God’s name and his word.
The same question lingers today. Was God right when he told Adam “in the day that you eat” death would certainly follow? For believers the question is absurd. How could God ever tell a lie? What in God’s character can ever be questioned? Yet in actual practice his word is still treated as absurd: how many people today see themselves as dead? Even among Christians I suspect most would view non-Christians as “sick” or “damaged” by sin—but not as dead. In most circles Satan’s word has won the day. But not in all circles.
Paul, for instance, treated God as true and his word as trustworthy even in the inaugural debate over death. In Ephesians 2 he stood with God against Satan, Adam and Eve:
And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience.
Was Paul alone in this? Absolutely not. Jesus had led the way by treating the theologian Nicodemus as spiritually dead. Nicodemus was still a son of Adam and the serpent by presuming that he and Jesus were operating on the same playing field. That is, he came to Jesus without first being “born again” or “born from above”. His life was simply physical—the life of his flesh—rather than the life in the Spirit that Adam despised in Eden. So that which is born of the flesh is flesh but what is born of the Spirit is spirit. One is transient, the other eternal.
Let’s consider next if this might be the reason that God is not present to us on earth today. Let me suggest that we’re now offered the same circumstances that Adam had in Eden. God is temporarily away and we have freedom to love or not to love—to believe God’s word and trust his character, or not to. In his absence—absent only to view, not in reality—his name has been despised and his word is dismissed by the world at large. Yet some of us are drawn to him as the Spirit witnesses to us that his word is true. And that his name—his character—is trustworthy. Unlike the world that remains dead towards God—at least to God as he reveals himself—some of us are increasingly delighted in what he says and who he is. We believe him and trust him. All to the chagrin of the serpent whose claims against God are proven to be rubbish as we taste and see that the LORD is good. And that his word sets us free as we abide in it and in the love it represents to us.
So let’s return to the main point of Psalm 138.
for you have exalted above all things
your name and your word.
As we have been resurrected from death to life through our union with Christ, we now share in this ambition: to exalt Christ’s name and to abide in his word. This is how we escape from skepticism and arrogance and turn, instead, to the joy of sitting at the feet of our Lord, trusting him. We may be few, but our delight is without limits. As we, too, exalt God’s name and his word we make his presence visible on earth and anticipate the day when our faith will be sight.