God's Presence - Blessing
A W Tozer describes how we ought to think about the fact that God is all-present (omnipresent), that he is everywhere:
We should never think of God as being spatially near or remote, for He is not here or there but carries here and there in His heart. Space is not infinite, as some have thought; only God is infinite and in His infinitude He swallows up all space. ‘Do I not fill heaven and earth?’ saith the Lord.’ He fills heaven and earth as the ocean fills the bucket that is submerged in it, and as the ocean surrounds the bucket so does God the universe He fills. ‘The heaven of heavens cannot contain thee.’ God is not contained: He contains.
The mind-stretching reality is that if the hundred thousand million galaxies that form the ever-expanding universe were compressed in a bucket, that bucket would be as awash and fully saturated with God’s presence as it would if lowered into the sea. God surrounds and fills the universe with the sea of his presence.
Tozer’s explanation quoted one of the two great OT passages on God’s presence: Jeremiah 23:23, 24:
‘Am I a God at hand, declares the Lord, and not a God afar off? Can a man hide himself in secret places so that I cannot see him? Declares the Lord. Do I not fill heaven and earth? Declares the Lord.’
The other grand text is the lyrical expression of Psalm 139:7-10:
7 Where shall I go from your Spirit? Or where shall I flee from your presence? 8 If I ascend to heaven, you are there! If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there! 9 If I take the wings of the morning and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, 10 even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me.
All of God was present wherever David would go, not merely some aspect of God. God is present with his whole being everywhere. A classic expression of God’s all-presence is: God does not have any size or spatial dimension and is present at every part of space with his whole being, and yet God acts differently in different places.
In respect to his people, while all of God is spatially present everywhere, he is specially present with his children. Indeed, he is with them and in them (cf. John 17:20, 21; 2 Cor. 5:17). He is especially present with his people to protect and to bless them. David wrote: ‘You make known to me the path of life; in your presence there is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forevermore’ (Ps. 16:11).
Most of the time when the Bible speaks about God’s presence, it refers to his presence to bless. The truth for believers is: All of God is always with us in every place and at all times to protect us and bless us. John Wesley, whose life and ministry so affected the church in Britain and America, died after calling out, ‘The best of all is, God is with us. The best of all is, God is with us.’
I have said all this because the life of Isaac, as it is presented in the brief compass of Gen 26, had to do with his learning that God was present with him. We see this in three parallel declarations of God’s presence at the beginning, middle, and end of the account.
The first was future: ‘Sojourn in this land, and I will be with you’ (3)
The second was present: ‘Fear not, for I am with you’ (24)
The third was past, as the pagan king Abimelech observed, ‘We plainly see that the Lord has been with you’ (28)
How Isaac related to and appropriated the reality of God’s presence had everything to do with how he lived. And so it is with us.
THE PROMISE OF GOD’S PRESENCE (1-5)
Famine. The specter of famine was never faraway for those dwelling in Palestine because it was (and is) an arid land. A year without rain, and many would necessarily be on the move. And Isaac was no exception.
Promise. There in Gerar Isaac saw a theophany and heard the voice of God (2-5). How Isaac must have thrilled at the reiteration of the promises of a people and land and blessing that had been given to his father. But there were two extra aspects that were sobering.
The first, the command to forego going down to Egypt, was a substantial test of Isaac’s faith because the famine was regional and thus included Gerar. Humanly speaking, to obey by staying in Gerar in time of famine was to court catastrophe. But God’s word was plain (3). Isaac was called to reside as an alien and dependent on the goodwill of the pagan community. And if he did, God said that he would be specially with him and bless him.
Note, secondly, that this call to a dangerous, vulnerable sojourn in Gerar was driven home by an allusion to the faithful obedience of Isaac’s father who obeyed ‘my voice and kept my charge, my commandments, my statutes, and my laws’ (5). God, who is always present, would specially be with him.
Way to go, Isaac! Bravo! Well, sort of.
SIN AND GOD’S PRESENCE (6-16)
You would think that the theophany with its promise of God’s presence and blessing and pathos-filled call to obedience would have put some enduring steel into Isaac, but that was not to be. Isaac, so human and so frail, mingled fear with his faith – a combination that produces a shameful lowness and meanness in the sins of religious people. And what follows is low.
Deception (7). When the local men began to show an interest in his magnificent, childless wife, Isaac adopted the disgraceful ruse that his father had twice succumbed to in his own weakness. Isaac did it despite his knowledge of Abraham’s earlier scandal and ignominy. Isaac was ignoble to the nth degree. How cowardly, how selfish, how faithless! And that is the point. Isaac did not believe that God was with him. He might have theologically affirmed it, if asked, but he did not subjectively hold to it in his heart. If he had, he would never have succumbed to this scandalous cowardice.
And, believers, here is a window into our own souls. It is one thing to theologically affirm that God is omnipresent. But it is quite another to have it dominate and inform us day in and day out. To embrace the sure knowledge that God is spatially present, and more, specially present to bless and protect us – what a difference it makes in our lives. Recognizing God’s presence crushes the temptation to compromise. God’s presence puts our fears to flight. It instills confidence and steel. It protects us and our loved ones.
Rebuke (8). What an irony. Due to his feeble faith Isaac put his wife and the promise in harm’s way. But it was the pagan king Abimelech who protected Rebekah and the promise upon pain of death (11)!
CONFLICT AND GOD’S PRESENCE (17-22)
From here on (though the text does not explicitly say it) we observe the actions of a chastened, repentant Isaac who truly believed that God was with him.
Prosperity and conflict. (12-16). Isaac stayed put and the result was both prosperity and conflict.
Isaac reaped a great harvest amidst a desperate famine and this brought on troubles from the Philistines causing Isaac to be on the move again. Astonishingly, Isaac kept finding water in time of famine! Clearly, God was with him and was blessing him. And now Isaac had Rehoboth – room to expand and rest and worship.
PROMISE AND GOD’S PRESENCE (23-25)
Isaac moves to Beersheba and it was there he was graced with a second theophany (24). Note that the declaration of God’s presence is now in the present tense, ‘I am.’
There can be no doubt that Isaac believed with all his heart that God was with him because we read that he built an altar there and called upon the name of the Lord (25). There in Beersheba he put down his tent stakes and dug another well. When God’s children truly believe that God is with them, a deepening of both faith and obedience takes place.
PEACE AND GOD’S PRESENCE (26-33)
Now we come to the pinnacle of the passage: (26-28a)
The first instance of the divine promise of God’s presence was future (3).
Next, it was present (24).
And now it is past, as voiced in a retrospect by Isaac’s unbelieving acquaintances: ‘The Lord has been with you.’
What was it that drew Abimelech to Isaac? It was this: “We see plainly that the Lord has been with you” (28). By his lifestyle, by his peaceable nature, by the blessing of God that self-evidently rested upon him, Isaac demonstrated the fundamental truth of Immanuel, God with us. His life pointed people to the God with whom he walked. He pointed people to the one to come, whose very name would be Immanuel (God with us), because he was God in the human form, God with us to make peace between God and us. Jesus did not come to bring us earthly prosperity but every spiritual blessing in him (Eph. 1:3).
Jesus came not merely to give us space to live and a well that we could call our own but rather living water that would flow out from us to the nations, drawing men and women to faith in him through our witness (John 7:38). Could it be said of your lifestyle that ‘we see plainly that God is with you’? Does your daily walk point people unmistakably to the God whom you serve and whose presence in your life you claim?
Think about that for a moment. When your non-Christian neighbors think about Christians, what do they see? Angry people who make it their business to point out everyone’s sin? Political activists who want to eliminate anyone who doesn’t look and think just like them? Or people in whose lives they see the image of Jesus? People whose love and compassion for lost sinners is unmistakable, who know how to enjoy a party, and in whose presence is a foretaste of the very best party of all?
At the same time, in the case of Jesus, there was no nonaggression pact between him and the nations. Far from it, the nations conspired together with his people to put him to death on a cross. Far from sparing him conflict, his loving concern got him crucified. But even this was part of God’s sovereign purpose to bring his chosen one to himself, to unite together into one body Jews and Gentiles.
So also for us, a righteous lifestyle will not always result in trouble-free relationships with those around us. The other side of Paul’s admonition to live at peace with our neighbors is his sobering caution to Timothy: “Indeed, all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (2 Tim 3:12). Even in the midst of persecution, however, our peace, gentleness, and obedience may still point people to our God.
Observe at last that the story of Isaac that began with drought and famine ended with an abundance of water amidst drought (32, 33). This is how God regards the life of the man who believes that God is with him.
MARRYING THE WORLD
After the high point of Isaac’s covenant of peace which resulted in a renewed naming of the site of the future town of Beersheba, Gen 26 closes on a negative note.
If Isaac demonstrated the proper way of relating to those around him, Esau proceeded to demonstrate the wrong way of relating to those around us who aren’t believers: marrying them. The extraordinary care that Abraham took to make sure that Isaac would find a spiritually suitable bride was of no consequence to Esau. He had no thought of spiritual things, of the Promised Land, of living by faith as a stranger and an alien in this world. instead, ironically at precisely the same age at which his father married Rebekah, Esau married himself to this world, acquiring not one but two pagan wives (34). Thus he became a source of great grief to his parents.
This reminds us that there must be a distinctiveness about us as Christians if we are to fulfill our God-given role of the world to Christ. There must be a saltiness that makes us different from the world. We are to be in the world but not of it. We should stand out as different in our workplaces and neighborhoods. In the NT as well as of the Old, God’s people are warned against marrying unbelievers. Why would you want to join your life at the deepest level with the life of someone who doesn’t share your most profound passion? Such a combination will almost inevitably either harm your marriage or harm your faith. We are called to be distinct people.
Isaac, for all his imperfections, was such a person. He was spiritually as well as physically a true son of Abraham. Jacob, at least by the time God had finished with him, was also going to be such a person. Esau, however, was not a son of Abraham in the spiritual sense, and he never would be. Thus we see working itself out in the lives of Esau and Jacob what God had sovereignly declared before they were born: that his sovereign choice for salvation rested on the younger, not the older.
An astonishing poem by Hildebert, the 12th century Archbishop of Tours, rhythmically chants about God’s omnipresence.
First and Last of faith’s receiving / Source and sea of man’s believing,
God, whose might is all potential, / God, whose truth is truth’s essential,
Good supreme in thy subsisting, / Good in all thy seen existing;
Over all things, all things under, / Touching all, from all asunder;
Center thou, but not intruded, / Compassing, and yet included;
Overall, and not ascending, / Under all, but not depending;
Over all the world ordaining, / Under all, the world sustaining;
All without, in all surrounding, / All within, in grace abounding;
Inmost, yet not comprehended, / Outer still, and not extended;
Over, yet on nothing founded, / Under, but by space unbounded;
Omnipresent, yet indwelling….
This is Genesis reality. God is spatially all-present. There is no place where all of God is not. All of God is everywhere. We also believe that he is specially present to protect and bless us, his children. This is what the Scriptures teach and what we believe!
In the light of these dazzling realities, I must ask you three questions regarding future, present, and past.
Do you believe that God will be with you? Do you believe that he will be with you in what you are facing this week, this month, this year?
Do you believe that God is with you – spatially, specially, right now in your hurt, in your troubles?
And do you believe that God has been with you all of these years in the ups and downs?
And more, do you believe it with all your soul, all your heart, all your being? Then do not fear.
Follow him and drink deeply from the wells of salvation.