“That dread and amazement with which as Scripture uniformly relates, holy men were struck and overwhelmed whenever they beheld the presence of God. When we see those who previously stood firm and secure so quaking with terror, that the fear of death takes hold of them, nay, they are, in a manner, swallowed up and annihilated, the inference to be drawn is that men are never duly touched and impressed with a conviction of their insignificance, until they have contrasted themselves with the majesty of God.” John Calvin
I have heard people say that they would love to see the LORD. I have heard people sing, and I have sung, words extolling the LORD being high and lifted up and wanting to see Him in the light of His glory. What was the effect upon people in the Scriptures who did witness and encounter the holiness of God? What was their reaction?
Believers may often respond with the exclamation of “wow” following a particularly moving worship service. I wonder how many of us react with the exclamation of “woe?” Are we duly touched and impressed with a conviction of our own insignificance when we encounter, however briefly, the majesty and holy magnificence of God? Let’s look at some Old Testament characters who were.
Let’s begin with Abraham. The father of the faithful. Abraham is known in the Scriptures as the “friend of God” (James 2:23). What was Abraham’s perspective and reaction when realizing he was in the presence of the LORD in Genesis 18:1-33?
First, when the LORD appeared to Abraham by the oaks of Mamre he ran to meet the LORD and the two other visitors with Him and bowed himself to the earth (Genesis 18:2). One commentary explains that, “When the visitor is an ordinary person, the host merely rises; but if of superior rank, the custom is to advance a little towards the stranger, and after a very low bow, turn and lead him to the tent, putting an arm round his waist, or tapping him on the shoulder as they go, to assure him of welcome.”
Following a time of refreshment from Abraham and Sarah to the three visitors, the LORD reveals to Abraham His intentions of judging Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 18:16-21). What follows is Abraham’s negotiations with the LORD as to the extent of His judgment. Throughout this exchange, Abraham acknowledges that he is only “dust and ashes” and possesses a posture of submission and deference to the LORD. Abraham did not view the LORD as a buddy, in which he could address Him as an equal.
Dr. John Walvoord explains that, “Abraham … hurried to them (18:2), hurried back to the tent (v. 6), ran to the herd (v. 7), and his servant hurried (v. 7); Abraham bowed low before them (v. 2); he had water brought to wash their feet (v. 4); he served them freshly baked bread (v. 6), a choice … calf (v. 7), curds and milk (v. 8), and he stood while they were eating (v. 8; cf. vv. 1–2). All this suggests that he perceived who his visitors were.”
What about the Patriarch Job? What was his response when he finally received the audience before God that he so earnestly requested in light of his extreme sufferings? In Job 42:1-6 we receive the answer.
“Then Job answered the Lord and said: 2 “I know that you can do all things, and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted. 3 ‘Who is this that hides counsel without knowledge?’ Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know. 4 ‘Hear, and I will speak; I will question you, and you make it known to me.’ 5 I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you; 6 therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes.”
Job’s response, to being in the presence of the LORD and the LORD’s response to Job’s complaints (Job 38-41), was one of self-condemnation, an acknowledgment of his own ignorance of the ways of God, and a self-despising resulting in repentance. In short, Job repented of his pride.
Our third example are the people of Israel at Mt. Sinai in Exodus 19. Israel assembled at Mt Sinai for what would become an eleven month stay (Exodus 19:1-40:38; Numbers 10:1-11). It would be on the third day of their assembling that God would appear to the people. Exodus 19:16-20 records what occurred.
16 “On the morning of the third day there were thunders and lightnings and a thick cloud on the mountain and a very loud trumpet blast, so that all the people in the camp trembled. 17 Then Moses brought the people out of the camp to meet God, and they took their stand at the foot of the mountain. 18 Now Mount Sinai was wrapped in smoke because the Lord had descended on it in fire. The smoke of it went up like the smoke of a kiln, and the whole mountain trembled greatly. 19 And as the sound of the trumpet grew louder and louder, Moses spoke, and God answered him in thunder. 20 The Lord came down on Mount Sinai, to the top of the mountain. And the Lord called Moses to the top of the mountain, and Moses went up.”
There is a brief statement in vs. 16 regarding the reaction by the people to the presence of God: “all the people in the camp trembled.” The word “trembled” means to be actively and continually, physically and emotionally, terrified.
From but three examples found in the Old Testament, we see that people were physically, emotionally and spiritually brought low when they encountered the holy LORD God. Was this the same type of reaction for those we find in the New Testament who encountered the LORD’s holiness? When next we meet, we will discover the answer.
What about you? Do you have a sense of your own unworthiness when entering into the LORD’s presence: whether in corporate or private worship? May we approach the LORD today with the fresh eyes of understanding of how to correctly come before the presence of the holy One. Remember, “that men are never duly touched and impressed with a conviction of their insignificance, until they have contrasted themselves with the majesty of God.”
Soli deo Gloria!