You will know that I am the LORD
Reading Ezekiel with my daughter Rebekah is very interesting. The other day we had a chapter (2) that reminded her of Taffy Tegumai in Rudyard Kipling’s Just so stories. (“For they are a rebellious people.”) All the way through it’s been mildly disconcerting to have Ezekiel addressed as “Son of Man” if you’re used to the New Testament usage where Jesus applied it to himself, possibly with Daniel more in mind. And then today we get chapter 12 with its repeated refrain “then you will know that I am the LORD”.
Other Bible translators recently have commented on and asked about the formula. On the face of it nothing seems too remarkable, but the familiar English translation hides a significant detail. The LORD (caps) is a common English translation following the Greek translation (κυριος) of the Hebrew Bible’s standard replacement (Qere, see below) for God’s personal name Yahweh, “I am”. At some point after most of the Hebrew Bible was written it became considered more respectful and appropriate to say Adonai (my lord) than the actual sound of the name. French tradition is different, but English uses ‘the Lord’ which sounds more like a title than a name. Now there is some fluidity between titles and names in many cultures but this can misdirect us in English in a significant way here.
Claiming “I am David” is not the same as “I am the father/husband/son/translation consultant”. The first is a unique identity but the role of the second is considerably broader. I am the father of 4 daughters and saying “I am the father” brings that relationship to the fore. Saying “I am David” just establishes an identity claim.
And so when we hear in English “then they will know that I am the LORD” we think this is about God claiming sovereignty over his people. It makes sense. But it isn’t what the LORD was actually saying in this case, because we have a personal name and identity not a title/role. It’s not “I am the Lord and you are my subjects” but “I am Yahweh”. This then causes some trouble because it no longer makes much sense. If we had a case of identity theft or misrepresentation (“would the real Yahweh please reveal himself”) this statement would make sense, but that’s not what is going on in Ezekiel and in the other parts of the OT where this formula is used – especially the prophets.
So what does it really seem to mean?
Every time it’s used (Exodus, Leviticus, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel…) it’s either in a declaration or with the verb ידע (know) and connected to some dramatic act that God is doing (yet not just proving his lordship):
- Ezekiel 25:11 (NIVUK)and I will inflict punishment on Moab. Then they will know that I am the Lord.” ’
- Ezekiel 30:19 (NIVUK)So I will inflict punishment on Egypt, and they will know that I am the Lord.” ’
- Exodus 29:46 (NIVUK)They will know that I am the Lord their God, who brought them out of Egypt so that I might dwell among them. I am the Lord their God.
- Ezekiel 6:7 (NIVUK)Your people will fall slain among you, and you will know that I am the Lord.
- Exodus 14:18 (NIVUK)The Egyptians will know that I am the Lord when I gain glory through Pharaoh, his chariots and his horsemen.’
We see here that Moab, Egypt, Israel, all can know (from God’s mighty works) that he is the Lord, or that he is Yahweh.
Since the individual words here don’t seem to give a sensible sense of why he should say that, we should be open to the likelihood that there’s some kind of idiomatic expression going on here. If someone does something and you learn or conclude something about that person from their action, how would we express that in English normally? I think we would say something like, “then you will know what Yahweh is like”, or the more sinister “then you will know that you are dealing with Yahweh” or some such. It always seems to be a chastening experience – learning to take Yahweh seriously, rather than playing games or make-believe.
We do see so many cases of divine identity fraud in the world, but that’s not what’s going on here so much. These rebukes are part of our loving heavenly father’s stinging corrective of the way people use the breath he has given them to misrepresent or minimise his activity in the world and our responsibility to him. And that’s dangerous.
Whether in Nigeria or the UK, as we face crooks, kidnappers, covid, chaos, sickness, sorrow, stress and more, we have a desperate need to take God more seriously, to fear him first and make sure we every day are depending on his son to bring us through. After all, it’s through the Son and the Spirit that we really know what Yahweh is like. Jesus gives us a stern telling off for not fearing him enough, and thus for falling into foolish fear of things that are in reality less fearsome (people, disease, death, poverty).
Qere: Hebrew’s euphemistic replacement said out loud when reading different letters – either as a way of correcting a presumed error, or avoiding saying God’s name out loud.