The Nearness of God is Not Always Good News

A good portion of modern Christian praise songs emphasize nearness to God. They echo (or, sometimes, quote) Psalm 27:

One thing have I asked of the Lord, that will I seek after:
that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life,
to gaze upon the beauty of the Lord and to inquire in his temple. (Psalm 27:4)

But we don’t often examine what we’re singing—I know I don’t. In particular, when we read the Bible, we find that in many places being close to God was the exact opposite of a good thing.

The Garden

The first two chapters of Genesis show how familiar Adam and Eve were with being close to God. God made Adam by breathing “into his nostrils the breath of life” (Gen 2:7). It’s hard to get much closer than that! The Lord “took the man and put him in the garden of Eden” (Gen 2:15). He brought the beasts and birds to Adam to see if any would be a suitable partner (Gen 2:19). God even performed a delicate surgery on Adam to create Eve (Gen 2:21–22).

But after Adam and Eve fell into sin, everything changed. When Adam and Eve heard God approaching, they “hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God” (Gen 3:8). They could no longer be exposed so close to the holy God. This is a jarring contrast to the life they lived up to this point.

While this is not the end of the story, a chasm opened at the Fall. God sent Adam and Eve out of the garden and stationed angels to guard the way back in (Gen 3:23–24). The message was as bright as the angels’ flaming swords: Closeness to God will no longer be easy or automatic.

Passover and Sinai

In many ways, the rest of the Bible is the story of a return to God’s presence. Before the situation is resolved, we see several indicators that God’s presence is not always welcoming.

The Passover was an epic occasion of death in Egypt. The firstborn of every house and every beast was killed in one night. The Israelites were spared if they put lamb’s blood on their doorposts.

I’ve always been struck by the Lord’s role in the slaughter. He says:

For I will pass through the land of Egypt that night, and I will strike all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, both man and beast; and on all the gods of Egypt I will execute judgments: I am the LORD. (Ex 12:12)

God passed over his people, but God was also the one who struck down his enemies. Moses warned the elders of Israel that no one should go outside in the night “for the Lord will pass through to strike the Egyptians” (Ex 12:22–23). As God executed his judgment, he also provided a way for his people to escape.

When the Israelites arrived at Mt. Sinai, Moses went up the mountain to talk to God. With God at the top of the mountain, the people were not to get too close—anyone who touched the mountain would die (Ex 19:12). The mountain was “wrapped in smoke because the Lord had descended on it in fire” (Ex 19:18). The Israelites were convinced that they could not even hear from God or they would die (Ex 20:19).

God’s burning holiness was again on display here; getting close meant trouble. But there is another glimpse of redemption in this story. “The people stood far off, while Moses drew near to the thick darkness where God was” (Ex 20:21). The people could not go close, but one person went near God for them as a substitute.

Sending Jesus Away

The impulse to stay away from a holy God is not limited to the Old Testament. One of Jesus’s closest friends, in fact, knew he should be far away from the Lord.

After he taught a crowd on the shore from Peter’s boat, Jesus told Peter to put down his nets for a catch. Peter protested, having just finished an unproductive night of fishing. When he relented, his nets nearly burst with fish (Luke 5:1–6).

Peter realized he had doubted Jesus. He fell down at Jesus’s feet and said, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord” (Luke 5:8). Peter’s reaction to his sin wasn’t to seek forgiveness—it was to get away from Jesus. Before he followed Jesus as a disciple, Peter knew that his sin disqualified him from being in the company of this man of God.

Brought Near to God

We cannot get too close to fire without being burned, and (left to ourselves) we cannot get near God without suffering his judgment. We deserve this judgment, as we’ve broken his commandments again and again and again.

So why is it that worship songs can exult in being close to God?

It’s Jesus, of course! On our own, we’d have no hope. But we do not go to God on our own—Jesus takes us (1 Peter 3:18). We no longer have sin with us that God must judge, for he took care of that at the cross. And we are not just a blank slate—this wouldn’t be enough to get close to God. Because we have the righteousness of Jesus, because we are adopted as God’s children, we are joyfully welcomed into God’s presence. This is the work of our Savior, to deal with our guilt and to make us worthy of going close to God.

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Ryan Higginbottom
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