Scripture speaks of the “presence” of God in two distinct senses: on the one hand there is His general, universal presence and, on the other hand, there are the various special manifestations of His presence.
1. His Universal Presence. God is spirit, John 4. 24. Unlike spirit-beings such as angels, however, He is not limited by way of space or location. He is present everywhere. This is the teaching of both Old and New Testaments.
(i) Psalm 139 gives us an insight into David’s great appreciation of God. He acknowledged that God “beset” him behind and before (in front), v. 5. To “beset” is to “besiege” and the relevant Hebrew word is so translated on many occasions; e.g. Deut. 20. 12; 1 Sam. 23. 8; Dan. 1. 1. David was aware that God confronted him on every side, leaving him with no place for escape from His presence.
David posed questions to which he knew there were no answers: “Whither shall I go from thy spirit? or whither shall I flee from thy presence?” v. 7. There is no place in the universe where God is not. The vast expanse of the heavens could not shelter one sinning angel from God’s gaze, Jude 6.
David considered various possible hiding places, but only to reject each in turn. “If I ascend up to heaven”, he said, “thou art there: if I make (lit. spread, strew) my bed in hell sheol, the abode of the dead), behold, thou art there”, v. 8. Here David considers two places altogether inaccessible to man-heaven and the place of the dead. When illustrating the inability of His foes to evade His judgement, God cited the same two places: “Though they dig into hell (sheol), thence shall mine hand take them; though they climb up to heaven, thence will I bring them down”, Amos 9. 2. Through the prophet, He proceeded to give the assurance that such men would find no refuge either in the height of the mountain (Carmel) or the depth of the sea, Amos 9.3.
David continued, “If I take the wings of the morning, and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea; even there shall thy hand lead me”, w. 9-10. The expression “wings of the morning” denotes the daybreak, the very first beams of morning light. If, David says in effect, I could fly at the speed of light (now known to be 186,000 miles per second) and thereby in an instant cross the great sea, still I would find myself held by the same hand which is upon me now, vv. 5, 10. David knew God’s universal presence to be wholly inescapable.
(ii) Solomon shared David’s conception of the majesty of God. To Hiram, king of Tyre, he testified, “The house which I build is great: for great is our God above all gods. But who is able to build him a house, seeing the heaven and the heaven of heavens (i.e. the highest heavens) cannot contain him?”, 2 Chron. 2.6. Solomon recognized that he was to build a Temple not for God’s residence but for God’s worship: it was only that men might “burn sacrifice (lit. incense) before him".
Later, in his prayer at the dedication of the Temple, Solomon asked, “Will God in very deed dwell with men on the earth? behold, heaven and the heaven of heavens cannot (not simply “do not") contain thee”, 2 Chron. 6. 18. The wise man realized that “the eyes of the Lord are in every place, beholding the evil and the good”, Prov. 15. 3.
(iii) Consider the words of Isaiah, "Thus saith the Lord, The heaven is my throne, and the earth is my footstool (cf. Matt. 5. 34-35): where is the house that ye build unto me?”, Isa. 66. 1. Stephen quoted these very words in his defence before the Jewish council, “Solomon built him a house. Howbeit the most High dwelleth not in temples made with hands; as saith the prophet, Heaven is my throne …”, Acts 7. 47-49. Sadly, many Jews of the day entertained very crude ideas of God and needed to be reminded that He could not be limited or confined within the walls of the Temple.
(iv) “Am I God at hand (near, nigh)”, the Lord asked through Jeremiah, "and not a God afar off? Can any hide himself in secret places (lit. in hiddenness, i.e. in the deepest recesses) that I should not see him? saith the Lord. Do not I fill heaven and earth?”, Jer. 23. 23-24. Again the point is made that there is no possibility of hiding from God. Let none suppose that He is locked so securely within the walls of His heavenly palace that He cannot peep out to behold that which is done upon the earth! Truly, He observes the deepest recesses; cf. Ezek. 8. 12. Heaven is His throne-not His prison! We confess with Augustine, “He is in the world yet not confined to it; out of the world yet not debarred from it”.
The earth is filled not only with God’s riches, Psa. 104. 24, His mercy, 119. 64, His goodness, 33. 5, His glory, Isa. 6. 3, and His praise, Hab. 3. 3. It is filled, too, with His presence, Jer. 23. 24.
(v) Paul took up the same theme when preaching at Athens, “God … seeing that he is Lord of heaven and earth, dwelleth not in temples made with hands (did he owe this to Stephen?-see (iii) above) … though he be not far from every one of us; for in him we live, and move, and have our being”, Acts 17. 24, 27-28. Paul asserts not only that God is everywhere but, quoting from Epimenides the Cretan, that every act and emotion – yea, existence itself-comes from Him. God sustains the being which we have derived from Him, of Job 12. 10. Our Lord upholds (bears, carries along) all things by His powerful word, Heb. 1. 3. With neither effort nor difficulty He is actively engaged as the Preserver of every part of His creation.
In summary, God fills the whole of His universe, yet it does not (and cannot) contain Him. We must not imagine that He is partly present in each of the various realms of His creations-He is wholly, simultaneously and universally present in all.
2. Special Manifestations of His Presence. God’s presence is manifested uniquely and supremely in heaven.
Biblically, the use of the word “heaven” (often lit. “the heavens") falls into two main categories: it is used of the physical heavens and of the abode of God. We are now concerned only with the latter. Four testimonies will suffice.
In his great prayer, Solomon referred several times to heaven (lit. the heavens) as God’s dwelling place, 2 Chron. 6. 21, 30, 33, 39. The Lord Jesus spoke often of the “Father in heaven (lit. the heavens)”; eg Matt. 5. 16, 45, 48. Paul wrote concerning our Master (lit. Lord) in heaven (lit. the heavens), Eph. 6. 9. Elsewhere he equated “the third heaven”, 2 Cor. 12. 2 with “paradise”, v. 4; cf. Rev. 2.7. The writer to the Hebrews tells us that Christ has “entered heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God for us”, Heb. 9. 24.
God is said also to have manifested (and still manifests His presence in special ways on earth.
(i) In one sense, He dwelt in the land of Israel, Num. 35. 34. For Him to cast His people out of the land, therefore, was for Him to cast them out of His sight and presence, 2 Kings 17. 23; cf.13. 23; 17. 18, 23; Jer. 23. 39. It was probably from “the presence of the Lord” as manifest in the land of Israel that Jonah rose up to flee, Jon. 1. 3 (cf. the local significance of “the presence of the Lord” in Gen. 4. 16).
(ii) God’s presence was associated often with “the cloud”, Exod. 13. 21; 40. 34-38; 1 Kings 8. 11; Matt. 17. 5, which some refer to as the Shekinah. This title is derived from the Hebrew root “sh-k-n”, meaning “to dwell” and is of rabbinical (and not biblical) origin. The divine presence was also linked with the ark of the covenant, Num. 10. 35-36. The One to whom it was said, “Thou that dwellest in the heavens”, Psa. 123. 1, condescended to be addressed as “Thou that dwellest between the cherubim’, 80. 1. The Tabernacle and Temple were regarded successively as God’s dwelling place. His command to Israel at the first was, “Let them make me a sanctuary; that I may dwell among them’, Exod. 25. 8. It is interesting that Scripture does not speak of God “dwelling” with men before the Exodus. Once redeemed from Egypt, however, Israel sang, “He is my God, and I will prepare him a habitation”, Exod. 15. 2; cf. v. 13. Clearly, God only dwells among His people on the ground of redemption, Exod. 29. 45-46.
The article in the next issue will consider the truth of God’s presence with His people, together with some of the practical implications of God’s presence, both universal and special.