According to Nicholas Wolterstorff, worship is the “Godward acknowledgement of God’s unsurpassable greatness . . . whose attitudinal stance toward God is awed, reverential, and grateful adoration.” As we saw in our last post, this definition aptly summarizes the vision of worship set forth in Hebrews 12.28-29. As we also saw, the foundation for this vision of worship lies in God’s identity as “a consuming fire.”
If we are to understand what it means to call our God “a consuming fire,” we have to appreciate (1) the meaning of an image, (2) the meaning of a name, and (3) the meaning of a series of actions that unfold in God’s redemption of Israel from Egypt and in his coming to dwell in Israel’s midst. In the present post, I want to consider the meaning of an image by considering two texts which generate that image and which indicate its significance, namely, Exodus 3.1-6 and Deuteronomy 4.24.
Exodus 3.1-6 describes God’s appearance to Moses in the burning bush. Several features of this appearance are worth noting. First, the burning bush is a wonder. Moses has seen bushes before. Moses has seen fires before. And he, in all likelihood, has seen bushes on fire before. But Moses has never seen this: “the bush was burning, yet it was not consumed” (Exod 3.2). The wonder of the burning bush–its novel and unexpected nature–draws Moses like a magnet, causing him to “turn aside to see this great sight” (Exod 3.3). Second, the burning bush, as a sign of God’s presence, is a sign of God’s holiness: “When the Lord saw that he turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, ‘Moses, Moses!’ And he said, ‘Here I am.’ Then he said, ‘Do not come near; take your sandals off your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground” (Exod 3.4-5). Third, the burning bush is a sign of God’s covenant faithfulness. From the midst of the bush, God declares, “I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob” (Exod 3.6), and he announces that he has come to make good on his covenant promises to the patriarchs through the hand of Moses, whom he commissions to serve as the covenant mediator (Exod 3.7-22).
The image of the burning bush thus provides a threefold revelation of what it means for God to be a consuming fire. To describe God as a consuming fire is to describe God as a wonder. God is sui generis, unique and unprecedented, and, for that reason, he is an attractive force. To describe God as a consuming fire is to describe God as holy. God is transcendent, set apart in his pure and radiant brilliance and therefore elicitive of reverence and fear. To describe God as a consuming fire is to describe God as faithful. God is one who hears his people in their plight and who keeps his promises in the face of all adversity and opposition. Moses’ response to the threefold revelation of God as wonderful, holy, and faithful is appropriate, if not yet fully informed regarding the full significance of God’s identity as a consuming fire: “Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God” (Exod 3.6).
The image of God as a consuming fire, though initially revealed in Exodus 3.1-6, receives further elaboration in Deuteronomy 4.24: “For the Lord your God is a consuming fire, a jealous God.”
Within its immediate context, the image evokes God’s presence at Sinai. There God entered into covenant with Israel through Moses (Exod 19-24; note also the comparison of Sinai and Zion in Heb 12.18-29), in fulfillment of the prophecy spoken by God in Exodus 3.12 and by means of an unprecedented act of deliverance (Deut 4.32-35). There, in another unprecedented act, God spoke to Israel “out of the midst of the fire” (Deut 4.12, 15, 33, 36). This fiery mode of divine self-communication, whereby God causes Israel to hear “the sound of words” rather than to see a “form” (Deut 4.12), provides the basis for the prohibition of images in Deuteronomy 4.15-19. The identity and presence of the God who speaks from the midst of the fire cannot be depicted in or mediated by graven images because this God radically transcends all classes of creatures and thus all classes of creaturely forms, whether in heaven, or on earth, or in the midst of the sea. If the identity of this unique and incomparable God is to be known, and if his presence is to be enjoyed, then Israel must not look but listen: “Hear, O Israel” (Deut 6.4)!
The description of our God as a consuming fire in Deuteronomy 4.24 indicates something about God’s identity and something about the worship which he finds “acceptable” (Heb 12.28) and which he blesses. As the unique and incomparable one, God gloriously transcends all categories of creaturely being. Moreover, he is not to be numbered among the panoply of Ancient Near Eastern gods. He is “the God” (Deut 4.35). Because he is this one, he prohibits the use of images in worship. Furthermore, because he is this one, the unique and comparable one, God’s identity can only be known through a unique and incomparable medium: that of his self-revealing Word. If he is to be known, enjoyed, and worshiped aright, the Lord must proclaim his name to us, a point which we will unpack in the next post.
The good news of the God who speaks “out of the midst of the fire” is that the God who prohibits images also promises to make himself known through his Word and, in doing so, to come to us and bless us (Exod 20.23-24). Worship, first and foremost, therefore is a matter of hearing this promise and of preparing ourselves for the presence and blessing of our God, who is a consuming fire.
This article first appeared on Reformation 21