At times in my life, I see evidence of God’s presence beyond any doubt. Passages of Scripture light up with meaning, and prayer flows easily. Worship brings me joy as I reflect on how palpably God keeps his hand over my circumstances. Walking with God seems tangible during these times, as if he is physically beside me, and my love overflows in easy obedience. But then there are times that it seems God has gone on vacation. The same passages of the Bible seem devoid of life; I trudge through prayer and push myself to worship. Why does God sometimes feel so distant?
When we look at the life of Israel, we find the same apparent ebb and flow of God’s presence that we feel in our own lives. The opening chapter of Exodus depicts God’s fulfillment of his promise to Abraham for numerous descendants—a nation grown large enough to incite Pharaoh to enslave them out of fear and vengeance (1:8–14). Distanced from the land and favor God had promised them, the Israelites must have struggled to understand their God. Why would he increase their numbers only to allow Pharaoh to drown their newborn boys in the Nile (1:22)? When would God deliver them?
Generations pass before God spares Moses and raises him up in Pharaoh’s own house. When Moses flees Egypt and wanders the plains of Midian, God reveals himself through a burning bush. He acts on behalf of Israel, manifesting his presence through miracles, plagues on Egypt, and the parting of the Red Sea. God leads Israel through the wilderness, as a pillar of cloud by day and a cloud of fire by night. His voice thunders from a mountain, his holiness overcoming the Israelites until they fear for their lives. Wanting to remain among his people, God commands them to construct a tabernacle, which serves as his dwelling place until the temple in Jerusalem is completed hundreds of years later. His presence among the Israelites is overwhelming.
Painted wooden chest of Tutankhamun (1333–1323 BCE) showing the king in a battle against Asiatics. Egypt, 18th dynasty. Egyptian Museum, Cairo, Egypt. [Credit: Wikimedia Commons / Yann Forget, PD-Art (PD-old-100). Tutankhamun in his gigantic chariot triumphantly tramples down his Asiatic foes.
Yet even with so many memories of his glory, the Israelites forget God’s nearness and care for them. With the Egyptians advancing on them before the Red Sea, they complain that Moses brought them out of Egypt only to die in the wilderness (14:11–12). After a three days’ walk, they find no water, their food stores run out, and they despair (15:22; 16:3). And while Moses spends 40 days and nights atop Mount Sinai, receiving instructions from Yahweh, the Israelites even build and worship a golden calf, attributing their deliverance from Egypt to a false god (32:1–6). At the first sign of hardship or confusion, the Israelites assume God has left them.
Moses breaking the tablets of the law
Although the Israelites doubt God’s presence throughout the book of Exodus, his protection and provision for them is obvious to us, since we have the whole story: God was near Israel at all times. His presence and care were constant, though the evidence seemed sparse from the perspective of the Israelites. Even when their babies were in danger, the writer of Exodus tells us that God honored the obedience of the Hebrew midwives who allowed the babies to live (1:20). He heard the people groaning under slavery, remembered his covenant, and took notice of Israel during their hardest years (2:23–25).
What about us? What truths do we hold to when God seems distant and far off? We know that God’s presence among humanity reached its fullest expression with the advent of Jesus. John’s Gospel states, “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14). In Greek, the word for “dwelt” literally means “pitched his tent.” In Jesus, God came near—not just in a tent like he did in the tabernacle, but now in flesh. And today, rather than looking for God in pillars of cloud and fire, the Holy Spirit dwells in Christians who carry God’s presence with them. Although he often goes unperceived, that won’t always be the case. In John’s vision of the new heaven and new earth, he describes everything made new, and a loud voice from the throne proclaims, “He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them” (Rev 21:3, emphasis mine).
Aubry Smith, “Is God There?,” in Moment with God: A Devotional on Every Biblical Book, ed. John D. Barry and Rebecca Van Noord (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2014).