Is God present or absent in your life?
The Bible is a book filled with glorious promises and wonderful words of hope and comfort. But it is not a book that sugarcoats reality nor minimises evil. It also offers major warnings and tells us of the consequences of rejecting God and his Word.
As such we have a number of passages that are among some of the most alarming and tragic in all of Scripture. The five passages I wish to share here all have to do with the Lord’s Presence, and being separated from it. I offer the short form of each one here:
-“Then Cain went away from the presence of the Lord.” Genesis 4:16
-“But he did not know that the Lord had left him.” Judges 16:20
-“The glory has departed from Israel.” 1 Samuel 4:22
-“Then the glory of the Lord went out.” Ezekiel 10:18
-“I never knew you; depart from me.” Matthew 7:23
I will speak to each one briefly, and then finish with some words of hope to offset these gloomy words. But first let me mention two things. One, the notion of God’s presence can be understood in differing ways. For more biblical and theological detail on this, see this earlier piece of mine: https://billmuehlenberg.com/2016/01/14/20609/
And two, the intent here is not to unleash yet another major debate on issues like whether the believer can lose his salvation. This piece is meant to look at some rather ominous passages and to urge us to take the warnings of Scripture seriously. But as will be seen, it will also finish on a very positive note. But as to this particular theological debate, I offer a few thoughts on it here: https://billmuehlenberg.com/2017/07/11/saved-always-saved/
Let me speak a bit about each passage. The Genesis text has to do with Cain settling in the land “east of Eden.” While this describes an action involving a geographical move, the phrase makes for a great spiritual metaphor of individuals and nations. Indeed, a neat book called A Long Way East of Eden was written by Pete Lowman twenty years ago.
The book discusses the postmodern flight from God. As to Gen. 4:16, the context has to do with how Cain slew Abel, and how he became “a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth.” Lowman says this about the passage:
Homelessness, alienation. Cut off from the presence of God; alienated from the land, and from his work; denying his brother; a ‘restless wanderer on the earth’, lost in the wasteland, a long way east of Eden. . . . The central relationship breaks down through our declaration of autonomy and our determination to deify ourselves, run our own universe, determine our own ‘good and evil’. This loss of God leads to increasing violence…
The second text of course speaks about Samson. He is such an ambivalent figure in the book of Judges (see chapters 13-16). God uses him, yet he is so given over to immorality and the like. He eventually lost his God-given strength while in a relationship with Delilah, yet at the end of his life he got it back and he inflicted punishment on the Philistines. It is a tragic thing to not even know that the Lord has left you.
My third and fourth episodes have to do with the glory of God leaving Israel. In the Samuel text it is because the ark – which represents the very presence of God – is captured by the Philistines. When the man of God Eli hears this news, he dies. Then we read this in verses 19-22:
Now his daughter-in-law, the wife of Phinehas, was pregnant, about to give birth. And when she heard the news that the ark of God was captured, and that her father-in-law and her husband were dead, she bowed and gave birth, for her pains came upon her. And about the time of her death the women attending her said to her, “Do not be afraid, for you have borne a son.” But she did not answer or pay attention. And she named the child Ichabod, saying, “The glory has departed from Israel!” because the ark of God had been captured and because of her father-in-law and her husband. And she said, “The glory has departed from Israel, for the ark of God has been captured.”
And in Ezekiel 10-11 we read about Ichabod happening on a bigger scale: leaving the temple and Jerusalem. The glory of God that accompanied the people from the time of the exodus was now withdrawing because of the people’s sins and disobedience. What a great tragedy indeed.
And my New Testament text is surely one of the most horrible things to read. The fuller text (verses 21-23) says this: “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness’.”
I discuss that passage further here: https://billmuehlenberg.com/2012/03/19/the-most-frightening-words-in-scripture/
I must end on a brighter note. The antidote to the loss of God’s presence is of course having God with us. And that is the good news of the gospel: Immanuel is God with us. Richard Phillips, commenting on the 1 Samuel passage, nicely ties all this together:
If there was ever a time when Ichabod may have been named, it was when Jesus died, for then the true glory of God was removed from the earth. All that the ark of the covenant symbolized – God’s glory and the only way of salvation through the atoning blood – had departed from this world. This was vividly depicted in the darkness that covered the earth during the three hours that Jesus suffered on the cross (Matt. 27:45). Yet God’s resolve to save his people is proved by the fact that when his Son was rejected and put to death, Jesus was not ultimately taken away, but rose from the grave on the third day in order to bring eternal life to those who would believe in him.
Reflecting on Jesus’ atoning death, we should remember Phinehas’s widow’s cry of “Ichabod!” and do the same. We should lament that God’s glory is rightly removed from us because of our sin. But if we look up from our despair in sin and see Jesus as the Savior who died to put away our shame and reproach, and then who rose again, we see a new beginning in his forgiving grace. Our sin cries “Ichabod!,” “the glory is departed,” but God’s grace replies “Immanuel,” the name given to our Savior, meaning “God is with us” in the grace of Jesus Christ. Though we would rightly be abandoned by God, the gospel assures us of forgiveness and acceptance in Christ. As Paul puts it, “For God, who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ has shone in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Cor. 4:6, quoting Gen. 1:3).
That is certainly tremendous news indeed. From Ichabod to Immanuel. May the latter always be true of you and me.