The Scriptures often speak of God's presence in human history. The most common Hebrew term for "presence" is panim [yIn'P], which is also translated "face, " implying a close and personal encounter with the Lord. The Greek word prosopon [provswpon] has the same semantic range. The Greek preposition enopion [ejnwvpion] also commonly appears; several other Hebrew and Greek words occur only a few times.
God's presence carries a wide range of meaning. It may be something people fear. Adam and Eve's sinfulness drove them to hide from the Lord in the garden of Eden ( Gen 3:8 ). God's holiness cast light on Isaiah's sinfulness ( Isa 6:5 ). Many people who encountered God or his angel feared for their lives ( Judges 13:22 ; Luke 1:11-12 ; 2:9 ). Others tried unsuccessfully to escape his presence ( Jon 1:3 ). As God displays his presence through his great power, the whole earth trembles ( Judges 5:5 ; Psalm 68:8 ). False gods also become powerless before him ( Isa 19:1 ). Fear and trembling are proper responses before the One who controls all creation ( Jer 5:22 ).
Knowing God is present should keep our behavior respectful and humble, for God hears our every word and holds us accountable ( Ecclesiastes 5:2 Ecclesiastes 5:6 ). He will not tolerate pride, and will bring our speech under his judgment ( Eze 28:9 ). However, he will exalt those who humble themselves before him ( James 4:10 ).
God also displayed his presence at a place of worship. The Israelites brought their sacrifices to the tabernacle and later the temple because God chose to establish his name there ( Deuteronomy 14:23 Deuteronomy 14:26 ). Worshipers thus experienced a special closeness to the Lord in such a place. Inside the place of worship, the bread of the Presence reminded Israel of God's nearness ( 2 Chron 4:19 ). When Solomon dedicated the temple, the manifestation of God's glorious presence prevented priests from fulfilling their usual duties ( 1 Kings 8:10-11 ). Reverent and proper behavior was important, for disastrous consequences might result if people did not follow God's pattern for worship ( Lev 10:1-2 ).
God's presence also accompanied times of covenant renewal and other solemn occasions. Before Isaac died, he determined to bless his son "in the presence of the Lord" ( Gen 27:7 ). Aaron was confirmed as high priest in God's presence ( Num 16:7 ; 17:9 ). As the Israelites prepared to enter Canaan, Moses told them they stood in God's presence ( Deut 29:15 ). God would guide them as they undertook the enormous task of conquering the land ( Numbers 32:29 Numbers 32:32 ), and would provide Israel's leaders the strength they needed ( Joshua 1:9 ). The apostle Paul charged Timothy to remain faithful to the Lord, reminding his son in the faith of God's watchful presence as Timothy performed his ministry ( 1 Tim 5:21 ; 2 Tim 4:1 ).
The Bible describes heaven as a place filled with God's presence. Angels stand in God's presence and act on his authority as he directs them ( Luke 1:19 ). Satan came before the Lord when he sought permission to attack Job (1:6, 12). The heavenly host rejoice before God when one sinner repents ( Luke 15:10 ). Christ completed his earthly ministry by entering "heaven itself, now to appear for us in God's presence" ( Heb 9:24 ). Since heaven is the highest, most exalted place of all, it is fitting that God display his presence there.
God's presence is a place where prayer is heard. David sought the Lord's presence when Israel faced a three-year famine ( 2 Sam 21:1 ). God's spokesman called the nation to cry out to the Lord in the face of Jerusalem's destruction ( Lam 2:19 ). Paul constantly interceded for the Thessalonian church, bringing their name before the Father's presence ( 1 Thess 1:3 ). Christians may approach the Lord with confidence because of Christ's finished work on our behalf ( Heb 4:15-16 ). Furthermore, God promises to hear and forgive those who come into his presence with humble repentance ( 2 Chron 7:14 ).
God's presence is also a place of judgment. The Lord cast his people from his presence ( Jer 15:1 ; 52:3 ). The Scriptures describe this action as God hiding his face ( Isa 59:2 ; Ezek 39:29 ). But God's presence for judgment also carries an eschatological dimension. The Lord will one day summon all nations before him; heaven and earth will flee his holy presence ( Rev 20:11 ). Those who see this judgment coming will beg for deliverance, but to no avail ( Rev 6:16 ). The most awful aspect of God's judgment is eternal separation from his presence ( 2 Thess 1:9 ).
But God's presence is also a place of blessing. David counted it a joy to experience the Lord's presence ( Acts 2:25 Acts 2:28 ), and Peter described it as the source of blessing for all who place their faith in Christ ( Acts 3:19 ). To experience God's presence is to experience the shining of God's face ( Psalm 67:1 ). Believers always live in God's presence, and he notes all their deeds ( Mal 3:16 ). He has promised to be with us until he comes again ( Matt 28:20 ).
In the age to come, God's presence will be the ultimate blessing, for believers will see him face to face ( 1 John 3:2 ). His immediate presence will render a temple unnecessary ( Rev 21:22 ). It is the anticipation of this presence that should motivate Christians to faithful service in this present age ( 1 Thess 2:19 ; 2 Peter 3:10-11 ).
Bryan E. Beyer
Copyright © 1996 by Walter A. Elwell. Published by Baker Books, a division of
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Bibliography InformationElwell, Walter A. "Entry for 'Presence of God'". "Evangelical Dictionary of Theology".