When you think about it, God could have signaled His presence to Moses in any way He pleased. Why a burning bush? Is there any significance to God’s chosen way to manifest Himself?
The burning bush episode in Exodus chapter three is linked in my mind to the story of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednigo in Babylon. I’ll go into that in a minute, but let’s look again at what happened:
Now Moses was tending the flock of Jethro his father-in-law, the priest of Midian. And he led the flock to the back of the desert, and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. And the Angel of the Lord appeared to him in a flame of fire from the midst of a bush. So he looked, and behold, the bush was burning with fire, but the bush was not consumed. Then Moses said, “I will now turn aside and see this great sight, why the bush does not burn.”
So when the Lord saw that he turned aside to look, God called to him from the midst of the bush and said, “Moses, Moses!”
And he said, “Here I am.”
Then He said, “Do not draw near this place. Take your sandals off your feet, for the place where you stand is holy ground.” Moreover He said, “I am the God of your father—the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” And Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look upon God. (Exodus 3:1-7)
The consuming fire of God
There’s something about encountering God’s presence that makes people realize, with horror, that they are sinful, and that standing before a holy God is dangerous. There are many who express great fear of seeing God, or even being near Him. When Peter realizes who Jesus is, he quickly says, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord.” (Luke 5:8)
Isaiah expressed his encounter with God like this: “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!” (Isaiah 6:5)
There was a day I was worshiping in our congregation here in Israel and I had a similar thought: How amazing it is that we are approaching the Lord of glory, coming into such close contact with His powerful presence, and not being burnt up!
“For the Lord your God is a consuming fire, a jealous God.” (Deuteronomy 4:24)
We see what happens when mortal man marches brazenly into God’s presence right at the beginning of Israel’s wilderness wanderings. Aaron’s sons were supposed to follow in his high-priestly footsteps, but took it upon themselves to ignore God’s instructions about how to approach Him. Perhaps they thought there were many ways to worship God, and that God had merely been giving suggestions. Whatever their reasoning, they were badly mistaken.
Then Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron, each took his censer and put fire in it, put incense on it, and offered profane fire before the Lord, which He had not commanded them. So fire went out from the Lord and devoured them, and they died before the Lord. (Leviticus 10:1-2)
The fire of God devoured them. The shock must have ricocheted throughout the whole camp of Israel. It was soberly noted. Presumption and profanity are not a good idea in His holy presence. The nation learned what it was to be God-fearing. What it was to stand before One who can, and will, judge according to His own standards—not ours.
When wood doesn’t burn
So for God to appear as the Angel of the Lord in holy fire makes sense. But the fact that Moses—never mind the bush—didn’t burn up is extraordinary. And why a bush? This was not the first time that trees were involved in an a manifestation of God. It was at a tree—an oak, or terebinth tree—that God first appeared to Abraham. God’s voice instructed Abraham to “Go forth”, but it was at the oak of Moreh that God actually appeared to him. Trees are often used in the Bible to symbolize different kinds of God’s people, while thorns and thistles represent worthless sinners. But all of them, whether mighty oaks or insignificant briars, burn in fire, and represent mortal man. This issue of wood being so perishable is a reminder of man’s mortality, and can be traced as a recurring motif throughout the Bible. In Jesus, in the Incarnate Deity, we have a man who cannot be burned. He can withstand God’s holiness because He shares in that nature. He is fully God, yet fully man. We cannot see God and live, but the Messiah walked among us. The burning bush—the fire and wood—symbolizes both deity and humanity. The Angel of God appeared, the voice of the Lord came—the visible theophany of YHWH.
The fourth man in the fire
So now, over to Babylon and the furnace that was seven times hotter than it needed to be. The Burning Bush echoes in the story of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednigo… and the fourth person in their midst. The fire should definitely have burned them up, but somehow, miraculously, it didn’t.
In that furnace designed for burning enemies of the state a miracle took place: Once again, the Angel of the Lord appeared in the fire—another theophany. The pre-incarnate divine Messiah was there with them there too. And again, the fire did not burn them. Just as Jesus was the fourth person in that fire, protecting His people from certain death, it is because of Jesus that we are saved and can come into the presence of a holy God. Because of His mercy, we are not consumed.
This I recall to my mind, therefore have I hope. It is of the Lord‘s mercies that we are not consumed, because his compassions fail not. They are new every morning: great is thy faithfulness. (Lamentations 3:21-23)
Medieval rabbinic commentator, Rashi, wrote of these verses in Lamentations 3 that, “It is the kindnesses of God that we were not annihilated, that we have not perished because of our sins”.1 Rashi is counting on God’s kindness to spare us. Sometimes this verse is translated instead to mean it’s the mercies that are not consumed (rather than us), and of course that is true as well. But are we just spared purely due to God’s mercy? Is that how it works? If so, how come God has mercy on some and not others? On what basis is He making the decision to have mercy or not? Are we to quake in our boots, not knowing whether or not we will be consumed? No!
It is the justice of Jesus the Messiah and His perfect sacrifice that we are preserved, even when should not be. The price is justly paid, and it is through Jesus that we can be certain we will receive mercy.
Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need. (Hebrews 4:14-16)
The only way to stand before God’s holy fire and not be consumed is to come in the name of Jesus, on the basis of the sacrifice He paid for us. Just like Aaron’s sons, those who insist there are alternative ways to do it will discover the truth the hard way. A lot will be burnt up in the consuming fire of God at the end of time—all our fruitless deeds and dead works, all the unrighteous who refused forgiveness and insisted on their own way. But you can draw near with confidence, knowing that just like the bush, you will not be burned. Because if Jesus is with you, you can stand in the glorious presence of God. And you will not even be singed.
Rashi on Lamentations 3:22 ~
“Indeed, His mercies never fail: Heb. כִּי לֹא תָמְנוּ, like כִּי לֹא תָמוּ. And some explain: כִּי לֹא תָמְנוּ, [for we have not ended] like (Num. 17: 27): “Are we then altogether given (תָמְנוּ) to die?” It is [because of] the kindnesses of the Lord that we have not ended, that we have not perished because of our iniquities.”