God’s presence is our life. Holy Scripture makes this point again and again. “In thy presence is fullness of joy; at thy right hand are pleasures forevermore” (Ps. 16:11). Those who are his, and who are holy unto him, he causes to draw near to him; those who are rebels his nearness destroys (Num. 16:5). All our good is to draw near to God, to have him draw near to us (Ps. 73:28). His nearness is our exaltation, raises us up and gives us joy (Ps. 148:14). So great is our need of God’s presence that we are commanded to seek him while he is near, to forsake our thoughts and ways that we might find, possess, and enjoy him (Isa. 55:6-7). His nearness is our peace (Isa. 57:19), our strength unto praise and witness (Ps. 73:28), and our salvation (Isa. 45:21). To be with him is better than anything else, everything else (Phil. 1:23). He is the “chiefest of ten thousand” (Song of Solomon 5:10), his love and presence heaven itself. Without him, half of us missing, the half that makes the other half worth having: like a sun without warmth, life without love, eyes without sight. All the madness, sinfulness, and despair of men are ultimately traced to this: the angel of death has cut us off from the presence of the Lord.
How, then, may we enjoy God’s presence and know that he is near to us? As many paths are offered as there are preachers. Some say find him within yourself; this is the city of man’s sin induced delusion. Still others propose ritual, mystery, or the occult. Much of the church is gripped by the idea that God’s presence is a feeling or mood that may be heightened or induced by the right music, an inspirational message, or worship as spiritual pep rally and theater. It is truly tragic that we have sold his privileged presence purchased and sealed for us by the blood of the Son of God for a spiritualized dish of pop culture frenzy. The priests of Baal tried this, and they were destroyed. God’s presence destroys those who seek it man’s way, drawing near to him with their lips but having hearts far from him (Isa. 29:13). When a church attempts to enjoy God’s presence on man’s terms, you may be sure that its leaders are concerned with control and notoriety, not faith and submission; flee them.
Pushing back these noxious mists, let us return to the garden. Each afternoon, God came down to fellowship with Adam and Eve. Perhaps some symbol of his presence they beheld, but the important thing was that he “walked and talked” with them. They knew he was present with them by the words they heard from him. This is very suggestive, indeed, absolutely determinative for seeking and finding the Lord. We know him not in our foggy thoughts or a warm flutter in our heart, but in his word. God is a speaking, talking God. He makes himself known to us by communicating with us, but on his terms, now through his word alone, which the Holy Spirit writes upon our hearts and to which he opens our ears and subdues our wills to teachableness.
Consider Psalm 119:151. In the previous lines David expresses his concern that ungodly men are drawing near to him. Sensing the danger, his utter inability to protect himself, he is encouraged by the Holy Spirit with another presence: “Thou art near, O Lord; and all thy commandments are truth.” This line teaches us two main things. First, that when we feel overwhelmed and besieged by the wicked, all hope and courage are found in the promise that the Lord is near to us. “Greater is he that is in you, than he that is in the world” (1 John 4:4). “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me” (Ps. 23:4).
The second truth is the way we may be confident of his presence and truly know that he is near us: because his commandments are the truth. This parallelism is powerful. God is near when his word is near to us. And notice that this is not a word we dream up, but his own commandments, revealed by his Spirit, written down by holy men speaking by the Spirit, and written upon our hearts by the same Spirit. Back to the garden! We enjoy God’s presence – his nearness to us, and all the confidence that comes from having the Lord of Hosts, our Maker, Rock, Provider – when his word is in our hearts: the guide of our life, the love of our life, the milk upon which we feed, the light by which we walk. God is always near when his word is near; we do not have him if we do not have his word, hunger after it, meditate upon it, cling to it, and obey it in the course of our lives.
The apostle teaches us the same lesson in Romans 10. “But the righteousness which is of faith speaketh on this wise, Say not in thine heart, who shall ascend into heaven? (that is, to bring Christ down from above:) or, who shall descend into the deep? (that is, to bring up Christ again from the dead.) But what saith it? The word is nigh thee, even in thy mouth, and in thy heart: that is, the word of faith, which we preach; that if thou shalt confess with thy mouth the Lord Jesus, and shalt believe in thine heart that God hath raised him from the dead, thou shalt be saved” (10:6-9). Then as now, there were those recommending flights to heaven as the way to enjoy God: mystical experience, emotional rapture, secret enlightenment. Others said “immerse yourself in this life: plumb the depths of its wisdom, or sink into the abyss of chaos to find illumination.” Baal worship and the “amusement park Jesus” mentality common today share this in common: seek God’s presence on your terms. The pursuit is futile; it is deadly.
We shall not find God or draw near to him but through his word. It is here, in our mouth and in our heart; it is the word of faith, the gospel preached to us. This is the reason we must want nothing else to be preached to us. This is the reason the church’s rejection of exegetical preaching, its fondness for stories, principles, and entertainment, is proving so impotent and dissatisfying. There is no God in it, only man. He is only where his word is. To separate “God” from the Bible is like trying to quench your thirst by drinking from an empty cup. He walks and talks with us only when we read his word, receive it with meekness, and desire only to have his pure truth preached to us by men not trying to sell us something but who themselves have “eaten the scroll” and speak only of those things which they have seen and heard – from God’s own mouth, tested by his infallible Scriptures, Christ Jesus himself reading the Book of Life and preaching heavenly truth to us by men in whom he has committed this living, powerful treasure.
I would draw two practical points from this. First, if you would know God’s presence in your life, reject the silliness of our age: that God is in me, that I really feel him to be near because life is going according to my desire, that when I have enthusiasm, God is near, when I do not, he is not. If you want the Lord to walk and talk with you, wear your Bible out. Wear your knees out praying the blessed, eternal truth that he has established from of old. Wear out your chair or pew in a church body that treats the Bible not as an open script that we can modify and dress up to suit modern tastes but as his own living voice. Live by God’s word in your home; live by your own wisdom and push him far away. Seek from him a meek, teachable heart; then, you may be sure that he will guide you in the way you should go (Ps. 25:9).
The Bible, therefore, believingly read and preached, received and obeyed, is nothing other than fellowship with God, his own presence and voice, a return to the garden in anticipation of our eternal dwelling with him there. Here, in this quiet place, all is not giddiness and enthusiasm; often it is more like Asaph’s “for all day long have I been plagued, and chastened every morning” (Ps. 73:14). When the Holy One of Israel walks with you, do not expect life to be a party and principles for success. He chastens us for our sins, rebukes, and warns. But here alone is his covenanted presence. Here he speaks: to shine in our hearts the light of the knowledge of his glory in the face of Jesus Christ. Here he guides, encourages, opens heaven, fulfills promises, strengthens for our warfare, and supports us in every trial. Here alone we are safe: secure from the plots of the wicked, hopeful even in the darkest dispensations of his providence, and happy. In his presence is fullness of joy.
Second, the church is strong only when God is with her. If we are besieged by evils, ignorance, enemies, and immaturity, we do well to ask, “Is God near us, or not” (Deut. 31:17)? The great revival for which we long is really nothing other than God coming into his temple, refining, purifying his temple of priests that they may offer unto him acceptable sacrifice. He will come when we hunger for his word again, for him again, to be taught by him, led by him, submissive to him. Then, when his word is our life, when it is preached simply and boldly, unbelievers will know the Lord is in our midst (1 Cor. 14:25): not because we have the best show, make the best promises, boast the hippest music. None of these things persuade men of their need of God or lead them to desire him above all else: only his word. Let us not run from him any longer, as Adam and Eve did, but hear his voice. Then, his presence will be all our life and joy again, all our victory and peace, the doom of the wicked, and the saving health of the nations.