God’s Revelation of Himself to Israel

by B. B. Warfield

The Old Testament does not occupy itself with how Israel thought of God. Its concern is with how Israel ought to think of God. To it, the existence of God is not an open question; nor his nature; nor the accessibility of knowledge of him. God himself baa taken care of that. He has made himself known to his people, and their business is not to feel after him if haply they may fumblingly find him, but to hearken to him as he declares to them what and who he is. The fundamental note of the Old Testament, in other words is Revelation. Its seers and prophets are not men of philosophic minds who have risen from the seen to the unseen, and, by dint of much reflection, have gradually attained to elevated conceptions of him who is the author of all that is. They are men of God whom God has chosen, that he might speak to them and through them to his people. Israel has not in and by them created for itself a God. God bas through them created for himself a people,

God’s Revelation of Himself to Israel; Not Israel’s Notions of God

If we are to attend at all to the Old Testament’s own conception of the matter, therefore, it is a mistake to look into the Old Testament for lsraelitish ideas about God. What it professes to give us is God’s revelation of himself to Israel. We may, of course, discern here and there, tucked away in some corner or other, certain ideas about God which are of human invention. These we are given to understand, are, for the most part, inheritances from a less instructed past. or borrowing from uninstructed neighbors; and it is the very purpose of God’s revelation of himself to eradicate them from the heart of Israel, and to supplant them by the image of himself, the only true God. And no doubt Israel was a very stiff-necked people, slow of heart to believe all: that was spoken by the prophets, slower still of mind to assimilate the entirety of their message and to frame its lire and thought upon it. And therefore these evil inheritances and borrowings repeatedly appear in the background of the successive revelations, supplying often their occasion, often conditioning their form and their course. It is quite possible to gather them together and make a show of them openly, in contrast with the revelations of Goa. Thus we may form some conception of what the native thought of the Israelites was, and what we should have got from Israel bad not God intervened to teach it what he really is, and how he would have his people think of him.

Similarly, today, a curious inquirer might doubtless uncover some very odd, some very gross, some very wicked notions about God. lurking in the minds of these or those Christians. But, it would be unfair to look upon these strange, perhaps unworthy, notions of God as the God of Christianity, merely because they have been or are entertained by some Christians, so it would be unfair to think of those inadequate or debasing ideas of God which some Israelites betray clinging to their minds, as the God of Israel. The Christian God is not the God which some Christians have imagined for themselves; not even the God which all true Christians believe in; nor even the God whom the best of Christians intelligently worship. For who has availed to know him to perfection? The Christian God is the God of the Christian revelation. And the God of Israel is not the God which some Israelites have fancied to be altogether like unto themselves, or, mayhap, something indefinitely less to be admired than themselves; but the God of the Israelitish revelation. He must be sought, therefore, not in the thought of Israel, but in his own self-disclosures through his prophets.

The Unity and Personality of God the Basis of His Revelation

At the center of the conception of God which was revealed to Israel lay the great fact of the divine unity. “Hear, 0 Israel, Jehovah our God is one Jehovah” – so ran the fundamental confession; and in its stirring announcement, it came at length to be considered, that the whole religion of Israel was summed up. And little wonder. By the passionate conviction of the divine unity which was wrought into Israel’s very soul, the Israelite was protected from at least the worst of the debasements of the heathen about him, with their gods many and lords many, each rivaling the others in iniquity. But we must bear in mind that the monotheism of Israel was, ever concrete, never abstract. The real emphasis fell, after all, therefore, upon the high and austere Theism, which formed its foundation-stone. The God of Israel was before all else and before all else a Person. Here it is that the center of the center of the revelation of God to Israel lies; and there is no period in the life of Israel reflected to us in the pages of the Old Testament where the personality of God has not already been made the unwavering conviction of its heart. There was, therefore, no temptation in Israel to think of God as some vague “ground of being”, the substrate of all that exists; or as the undefined, perhaps undefinable, “principle of the moral order of the world”. Over against themselves He stood, another Self, capable of communion with them aa Person with persons; talking with them, concerning himself for them, showing himself their friend. They met with him walking in the garden in the cool of the day: they talked with him in the door of the tent; they reasoned with him and were sure he was open to their appeal. They looked to him to act, as persons do, under the influence of motives, and to be governed as persons are, by rational considerations.

The Uniqueness of God in His Holiness and Power

So vivid an anthropomorphism might easily, it may be conceived, bring with it its own dangers. Israel’s safeguard from these lay in the intense reverence with which it bad been taught to think of its God. “Who is able to stand in the presence of the Lord, this holy God?” they asked in trembling awe; “who is like Thee among the gods, glorious in holiness. fearful in praises, doing wonders”? The sense of the uniqueness of God was as strong in Israel as the sense of his unity. As he alone was God, there was none like him-he was the only one of his kind. In the awful majesty of his Being there was nothing which could even represent him; Israel was forbidden therefore to form any similitude of God. If, then, God was a Person, it was not aa a person among other persons that he was to be conceived. He was a Person infinitely exalted above all other persons. Like them in all in which the life of a free spirit ‘consists, he was immeasurably removed from all the weaknesses which belong to humanity.

Of course one element in the incomparable glory of this great Being was his almighty power. There was nothing beyond his accomplishment. All that exists was the work of his hands; and all that he has made he upholds and governs.  As for men, he had made them all, and he had made them for himself, and he did his pleasure among them. None could dispute his rule; none withstand his will. No Israelite was permitted to imagine that there was anything too hard for God or that there was a limit beyond which he could not advance. His, in Robert Browning’s phrase, was “the will that can”. The heavens belonged to him to their utmost heights; the earth and all that therein is. It lay thus at the very basis of the revelation of God to Israel that he is the Omnipotent Person, in whose glorious will is found the ultimate account of all that comes to pass.

The Exaltation of God in Righteousness and Mercy

But of course Israel was not permitted to imagine that it was his might alone which made God God; that it was the irresistibleness of his will which constituted his majesty. Israel knew perfectly well that it is not bare strength which exalts a person. And Israel found the unapproachable greatness of God not in the mere fact that he has a resistless will, but in the nature of that will which none can resist. “Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right”? – that was from the beginning the sure plea with which every Israelite approached his God. If he was the embodiment of all power, he was also the very impersonation of all that was right, of all that ·was faithful, of all that was true. Exalted in judgment, the holy One was sanctified in righteousness; just and righteous was he who bas commanded his testimonies in righteousness and very faithfulness. Those who looked up to him in awe because he was so great, looked up to him in love also because he was so good. If men might not always perceive the righteousness of his acts, that was not because their righteousness admitted of doubt, but only because men are so blind. They knew beyond the possibility of mistake that whatsoever he should do would be right; and if they knew beyond the possibility of mistake what was right, they knew what he would do. Righteousness, always, and everywhere, therefore, he would reward; wickedness he would unfailingly rebuke. Nor was it a narrow conception of righteousness which the Israelites were taught to attribute to their God. And certainly it was no harsh one. He whose Name was “the Lord, the Lord, a God full of compassion and gracious, slow to anger, and plenteous in mercy and truth, keeping mercy for thousands, forgiving iniquity and sin: and that will by no means clear the guilty” – such a God was assuredly not that “hard God” who the modern poet (but no ancient prophet) tells us “dwelt at Jerusalem”. The God of Israel was not only a God who commanded and saw to it that he was obeyed. He was a God who loved and attracted love.

The Culmination of God’s Revelation in His Grace in Redemption

ln a word, the God of Israel was the God of grace; and it is here that we at last reach the real heart of the revelation of God to Israel. He certainly made himself known as the God of nature. He was the maker of the heaven and the earth; and all that is his workmanship and all that he has made he governs in all its movements. He made himself as certainly known as the God of history; the courses of human life run only in channels of his appointing. But he made himself known above all things as the God of Israel, who had chosen Israel to himself out of the purity of his unmotivated love, —not for anything good he had seen in Israel by which he might have been moved to love it, but solely that he might do good to Israel, and out of Israel create a people capable of responding to him in grateful devotion. For of what other people was it ever heard that God went to redeem it unto himself for a people, and to make him a name, and to do great things for it and terrible things? Of course, the great deliverance from Egypt rose in Israel’s mind when it thought of God as its Redeemer. But it would be a mistake to suppose that Israel’s thought of God as Redeemer was absorbed in the thought of this national deliverance to the exclusion of all else. Rather this stood out before it as the symbol of the unearned goodness of its God. In it Israel saw but a thrilling proof that the need of man is the opportunity of God. Knowing itself as the redeemed of the Lord it knew its God as the redeeming God, the good God who with outstretched hand and bared arm delivers his people from destruction, and saves it from its distress. The proclamation to Israel of a redeeming God was in its essence thus the proclamation of a God who saves from sin; and it is distinctly over against a quickened sense of sin that the God of Israel made himself known aa the God of grace who visits his people with salvation.

The Consummation of God’s Revelation in Christ as Redeemer—Suffering Servant, and Anointed King—Rejected

Thus the revelation of God to Israel culminated in the revelation of God coming to save his people. It was not clearly revealed to Israel that this coming of Jehovah to redemption was one with the coming of the anointed King; as it was not clearly revealed to Israel that the anointed King was one with the atoning Servant. It required the fulfilment to weave together all the  threads of the great revelation into one marvelous portraiture. But it was clearly revealed to Israel that God was its Saviour, and that he would visit his people in his compassion, and that he would redeem them from all their iniquities. In this hope Israel rested, and by it Israel lived: and resting in and living by it Israel laid its ear to the ground and listened with beating heart for the voice crying, “Prepare ye in the wilderness the way of Jehovah, make level in the desert a highway for our God”. Oh, the pity of it, that when at last the long expected voice went booming out from the wastes of Jordan, Israel’s ear was holden that it should not hear; and it failed to recognize in the “Behold, the man”! of the Roman governor the “Behold your God”! for which it had so long been waiting. But verily it was he who came, as a mighty one, and his arm has ruled for him, and he has fed his flock like a shepherd, and gathered his lambs in his arms, and carried them in his bosom, and gently led those that give suck. And it is his voice, and none other, that is crying down the ages, “Look unto me, and be ye saved, all the ends of the earth; for I am God, and there is none else.”


Source: Benjamin B. Warfield, “God’s Revelation of Himself to Israel” in The Sunday School Times, August 4, 1907. Republished in The Bible Student and Teacher Vol.7, Number 4 (Oct. 1907).

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