Tom Wright: The personal presence of God

This was above all the place of meeting: according to Exodus 25:17–22, the lid of the ark was where God would meet with his people. This lid (kappōreth; in Greek hilastērion), with its carved angels at either end, then played an important role in one strand of early Christian interpretation of the cross. God’s intention to meet in this way with his people provided the context for the whole sacrificial system. The glad offerings of worship, the necessary offerings for purification (since nothing impure could approach the divine Presence), and the equally necessary offerings for sins all make this point. When this furniture and these sacrifices are referred to in the New Testament, they must be seen within the larger story of God and tabernacle (or Temple), which is itself part of the larger story of God, Israel, and the world.

When the Israelites finally entered the promised land, conquered it, and occupied it, the tabernacle was placed in a shrine at Shiloh until it was captured by the Philistines (another “exile” of sorts). David then brought it back, intending to build a permanent shrine in his new capital, Jerusalem. This became the subject of one of the most significant brief conversations in the Old Testament. The prophet Nathan, responding to David’s proposal to build God a “house,” declared that God would instead build David a “house.” This was an important passage for some Jews in the time of Jesus, and it was extremely important for the early Christians as they reflected on the meaning of Jesus’s life, death, and resurrection:

YHWH declares to you that YHWH will build you a house. When your days are fulfilled and you lie down with your ancestors, I will raise up your seed after you, who shall come forth from your body, and I will establish his kingdom. He shall build a house for my name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever. I will be a father to him, and he shall be a son to me.

(2 Sam. 7:11–14, slightly altered)

The point is, of course, a pun on “house.” David asks permission to construct a building, but God promises him a family. Has God, speaking through Nathan, changed the subject? Is it just a verbal trick? No. First, because David’s son Solomon will be responsible for constructing the Temple in Jerusalem; and, second, because David’s ultimate son will be, in a tantalisingly special yet unspecific sense, God’s own son. In the shimmering possibilities of later readings, particularly the early Christian readings generated by Jesus’s resurrection (where “I will raise up your seed” suddenly took on a meaning never before imagined), the building that Solomon would construct was only a signpost to the ultimate divine answer to David’s request. If there is to be a place where the living God will dwell forever among his people, it will not be in a building of bricks and mortar; it will be in and as a human being, the ultimate son of David. Somehow everything that might be thought and celebrated about the Temple and about God’s intention of dwelling with his people would come into a new world of meaning when David’s projected “house” turned out to be a human being.

The great royal psalms, such as Psalms 2, 72, and 132, celebrate this promise. Psalm 89, intriguingly, likewise celebrates the promise, but questions rather sharply why it isn’t being fulfilled as expected. We can imagine devout Jews through to Jesus’s day and beyond singing and praying those ancient prayers in the hope that one day deliverance would come, one day a true king would come, one day the living God would call the whole world to account and come back to live forever with his people. How he would do this, when and where and through whom he would do it remained frustratingly indistinct. That he would do it was the scriptural promise.

When Solomon built the Temple and dedicated it with great pomp, splendour, and the sacrifice of thousands of animals, the divine Glory did indeed come to dwell in it. The magnificent scene is described in 1 Kings 8, which comments that the priests were unable to stand before the glorious divine Presence (v. 11). This description resonates with what had happened when the tabernacle was constructed and dedicated in the wilderness (Exod. 40). The creator of the world had deigned to take up residence in this building in fulfilment of the promises made to this royal house. Here was the spot where heaven touched earth, where a “little world” came into being as a sign of the ultimate intention that the divine Glory would fill the whole earth (Ps. 72:19). Indeed, in the later vision of the prophet Isaiah, the angels surrounding the divine Presence sang that the whole earth was already full of his glory (6:3). We are not told of other occasions when the divine Glory was so clearly visible in Solomon’s Temple. But the building remained the focus of prayer, sacrifice, and pilgrimage for the great festivals up to the time when the Babylonians destroyed it in 587 BC. Even after that, devout Jews might pray toward its location. That, according to Daniel 6:10, is what Daniel did in his room in Babylon, perhaps reflecting Solomon’s prayer in 1 Kings 8:46–53.

The destruction of the Temple was only possible, according to Ezekiel, because the glorious divine Presence had finally abandoned it to its fate. Ezekiel provides a graphic description, in chapters 10 and 11, of the divine Glory—whirling wheels and all—leaving the Temple, alighting briefly on the Mount of Olives, and then taking off for an unknown destination. The Glory had departed. It was only a matter of time before the Temple would be destroyed.

But it is to Ezekiel, toward the end of his book in chapter 43, that we owe one of the fullest descriptions of the divine Glory returning to a rebuilt Temple, once God had thoroughly cleansed and purified his people. This is where the promise of “resurrection,” the promised restoration after the “death” of exile, fits in. And that leads us back once more to Isaiah 40–55, where the prophet declares that the Glory of YHWH will be revealed once more and all flesh shall see it, because sins have been forgiven, the people have been pardoned; the exile will be over, Babylon will be destroyed, the ancient covenant will be renewed, and creation itself will flourish as always intended. Once again we note that this is the passage in which we find, in chapters 52 and 53, the most striking of all biblical images about one person suffering and dying on behalf of the many. All this—the rich combination of story and promise, of Glory and Temple, of exile and restoration—would be in the front of people’s minds during the Second Temple period, that is, between the late fifth century BC and the late first century AD.

Throughout that period, though the Temple was rebuilt and the sacrifices regularly offered until AD 70, when the Romans destroyed it once and for all, nobody ever suggested that the divine Presence had actually returned in power and glory. Like all holy places, the Temple undoubtedly retained a strong sense of memory, of “presence” in that sense. It does to this day, which is why devout Jews pray fervently at the Western Wall, often scribbling prayers, folding them up, and pushing them into the cracks between the massive, ancient stones. But they do not suppose that the divine Glory, which the later rabbis referred to as the Shekinah, the “tabernacling Presence” of God, is there in the same way as in Exodus 40, 1 Kings 8, Isaiah’s vision, or the promises of Ezekiel 43 or Isaiah 40 and 52.  Isaiah spoke, after all, of the sentinels on Jerusalem’s walls lifting up their voices and singing for joy, because “in plain sight they see the return of YHWH to Zion” (52:8). That never happened. The postexilic prophets—Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi—insisted that it would happen, but it hadn’t yet.
Centuries later, the rabbis looked back on this period and produced a list, with a sense of gloomy resignation, of all the ways in which the Second Temple was deficient in comparison with the First Temple. Notable on the list of what was missing in the Second Temple was the Shekinah itself, the glorious divine Presence. In Jesus’s day, the hope was alive that the Glory would return at last. But nobody knew exactly what that would mean, how it would happen, or what it would look like.

To these questions the New Testament writers offer an answer that is so explosive, so unexpected, so revolutionary, that it has remained entirely off the radar for most modern readers, including modern Christian readers. To take the most obvious example, the Gospel of John says: “The Word became flesh, and lived among us. We gazed upon his glory, glory like that of the father’s only son, full of grace and truth” (1:14). The word for “lived” here is eskēnosen, “tabernacled,” “pitched his tent.” John is saying that in Jesus the new tabernacle, the new Temple, has been built, and the divine Glory has returned at last. The “Word” who was and is God has become flesh. The vehicle of this glory is the “father’s only son”: picking up 2 Samuel 7 and the related psalms, the evangelist is declaring that the ancient promises and the long-awaited hopes have been fulfilled in this Messiah, this Jesus, this Davidic son of God. Through this Jesus we glimpse that the very phrase “son of God,” like the tabernacle itself, was a building designed for God himself to dwell in. Readers are invited to see the creative Word through whom all things were made coming as a human being and, as Isaiah had promised, unveiling the divine Glory before all the nations. Once we understand the imagebearing purpose of human beings, this is perhaps not so hard to imagine as some have supposed. As John’s gospel progresses, we come to realise that the moment when that Glory is fully unveiled is the moment when Jesus is crucified. This is part of John’s dramatic and revolutionary theology of the cross.

We should note what all this means. Modern Christians need to be reminded regularly that Jews in this period did not perceive themselves to be living within a story of an angry moralistic God who threatened people that he would send them to hell if they displeased him. Nor were they hoping that, if somehow they could make things all right, they would go to a place called “heaven” and be with God forever. Some ancient pagans thought like that; most ancient Jews did not.

They were hoping, longing, and praying for what the prophets had sketched, what the Psalms had sung, what the ancient promises to the patriarchs had held out in prospect: not rescue from the present world, but rescue and renewal within the present world. Israel’s fortunes would plunge to a low ebb, and then lower, down to the very depths; but there would come a time when God would return in person to do a new thing. Through this new thing not only would Israel itself be rescued from the “death” of exile, the inevitable result of idolatry and sin, but the nations of the world would somehow be brought into the new creation the creator God was planning. And one of the central, vital ways of expressing this entire hope—rescue from exile, the rebuilding of the Temple, the return of YHWH himself—was to speak of the “forgiveness of sins.” Exile was the result of sin. As many biblical writers insisted (one thinks, for a start, of Deuteronomy, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Daniel, and the Psalms), if exile was to be undone, sin would have to be forgiven.

This can be seen in many places, but one striking example is found in Lamentations, the poetic quintessence of the theme of exile as a result of sin. Line after line indicates the direct connection:  Israel’s sin is the cause of exile. Then at last, after the brief note of consolation in chapter 3, we find the sudden promise toward the end of chapter 4:
The punishment of your iniquity, O daughter Zion, is accomplished,
he will keep you in exile no longer. (4:22)
This is exactly in line with the promise of Isaiah 40:1–2:
Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God.
Speak tenderly to Jerusalem,
and cry to her
that she has served her term,
that her penalty is paid,
that she has received from YHWH’s hand
double for all her sins.
Israel’s God comes as a warrior king who will defeat the idols of Babylon and set his people free and also as the gentle shepherd who will lead his flock and give special care to the mother sheep with their lambs (40:3–11). All these promises are finally made good in the Servant Songs, particularly the fourth and final one (52:13–53:12). This is where Israel’s sins are finally dealt with.

The same is true of Jeremiah 31, a collection of oracles predicting the joyful return of the exiles. Wave upon wave of poetry declares and celebrates the powerful love of YHWH, as a result of which sins will be forgiven, exile will be undone, Jerusalem will be rebuilt, and so on. At the heart of this there will be a “new covenant”:
The days are surely coming, says YHWH, when I will make a new covenant with the
house of Israel and the house of Judah. It will not be like the covenant that I made with
their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt—a
covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, says YHWH. But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says YHWH: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, “Know YHWH,” for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says YHWH; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more. (31:31–34)

The “forgiveness of sins” was a huge, life-changing, world-changing reality, long promised and long awaited. It was the fulfilment of Israel’s hopes for restoration, coupled with the sense that when Israel was restored, this would somehow generate a new day for the whole human race. It is startling to reflect on just how diminished the average modern Western Christian vision of “hope,” of “inheritance,” or indeed of “forgiveness” itself has become. We have exchanged the glory of God for a mess of spiritualised, individualistic, and moralistic pottage. And in the middle of it we have
radically distorted the meaning of the central gospel message: that, in accordance with the Bible, sins are forgiven through the Messiah’s death. We have domesticated the revolution.

Tom Wright, The Day the Revolution Began


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