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Yahweh: The God beyond Verb Tenses

Yahweh: The God beyond Verb Tenses September 29, 2021

In Exodus, when God reveals God’s proper true name to Moses, God makes up a new verb tense. Yahweh: I Am/Was/Will Be Who (or-What-or-That) I Am/Was/Will Be. I suspect Moses is, at least, for a moment, not all that glad he asked.

Israel’s God’s name is not “I am whoever I happen to be right now,” or “I will be exactly the one I was,” or “I will be in the future whomever I want to be at that point.” The traps of voluntarism, reactionary-ism, and process theology lie within these misreadings.

Instead, God is beyond verb tenses. God can be ever new without changing in the slightest. Yahweh who can be entirely faithful to who Yahweh has been . . . and still surprise us in the future.

The Fortunes of Zion

This is what the singers of Psalm 126, from Israel’s hymn book, are hoping, at least.

“When the LORD restored the fortunes of Zion, we were like those who dream. Then our mouth was filled with laughter…Restore our fortunes, O LORD…”

Photo by Rich Potts

What a strange hymn. They are remembering a future restoration.

As I mourn the loss of a friend this week, the strange tangle of verb tenses in this Psalm is on my mind. Those of us who profess faith in the God of Israel tend to say that all suffering is already overcome and in the past, even if we are right then in the midst of it. My friend’s wife and family are in the midst of it.

The fortunes of Zion, the graces of creation, are fully and finally restored.  The hunger has ended, the virus vanquished, the brokenness reconciled. We can look back on it, and sing in the past tense, as if we were recalling the end of a bad dream: when the Lord restored

And yet here we are, hungering and weeping. Restore our fortunes. Make us like those people we just imagined ourselves to be, looking back on these unfortunate times.

The Lonely Now

The God beyond verb tenses is the God who meets us in the middle, in the present, and takes us to a place not just future, but beyond any future we can imagine. A future that is present with us now, was present at creation: the future of life in God’s abundance.

God’s proper name is a verb that doesn’t quite fit into human speech. Yahweh “means”–insofar as any name can mean anything– an eternal fullness that is the excess of every moment, every experience in time. Ever new and never changing.

And we are beings in the middle of time. I am “a creature who comes in a median size,” as W. H. Auden put it. For me the present is that vanishing point where the expected future becomes the inaccessible past. So I live with loss. I live with future dreams that have withered, pleasant memories of the laughter of friends and the joyous time with parents. Beautiful moments that become bittersweet memories.

Even when we can recall the laughter, though, we don’t always experience it now. Now can be a lonely place.

Remembered futures

Humans so often go out weeping and come home not with joy, carrying the sheaves, as in the Psalm, but weeping still. And bearing empty sacks.

We go out in search of bread, in search of lost loves, grieving for the dead. We sow the seeds of springtime in tears: our plans for family, our dreams of the future. We sow our seeds always on the verge of despair that the summer won’t be kind, and that our harvest will turn into raisined fruit on withered vine.

You are not alone.

The God beyond verb tenses is the God of resurrection, of restoration. The God who forgets nothing that is lost, for whom those memories are as present as is that angst-ridden future.

And this same God will surprise us again. The God who journeyed alongside you yesterday is with you still today, and will be your companion tomorrow.

That’s because God’s ability to surprise us with faithfulness is the one thing that never changes about Yahweh, the God of Israel.

Songs of faith

This is faith: to sing the song of our future reconciliation as though it were past—already accomplished.  Because, in fact, in God’s eternity and in Christ’s resurrection, it is.

I am going to practice remembering my future with God.  I am going to say a prayer that the God unconfined by time will bring us the restoration which has already come to pass.

Remember when the Lord restored our fortunes?  Restore our fortunes just like that, O God of Israel.


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