What is the meaning of the “presence of God?”

One of my most popular blog posts, in terms of generating search results, is the post “Should we treat church buildings as holy ground?” wherein I address the title question. My answer hangs on the meaning of the presence of God. But what does “the presence of God” really refer to anyway?

Yesterday morning I was reading 1 Kings 8 and I discovered that Solomon both asks and addresses that question in his prayer of dedication of the temple.

Right after the Ark of the Covenant is brought into the temple the Bible says “the cloud filled the LORD” causing Solomon to declare “the LORD has said that he would dwell in a dark cloud; I have indeed built a magnificent temple for you, a place for your to dwell forever” (1 Kings 8:10-13).

Solomon built the temple to be the “dwelling place” of God.

But Solomon understood the apparent contradiction here. How could one building provide a suitable dwelling place for the Creator of the universe? He asks in his prayer: “But will God really dwell on earth? The heavens, even the highest heaven, cannot contain you. How much less the temple I have built!” (1 Kings 8:17) God’s presence is not something contained in space, even the whole of created space, but he definitely seen it as something real.

He answers how he understands the presence of God in the next verse. “Yet give attention to your servant’s prayer and his plea for mercy, O LORD my God. Hear the cry and the prayer that your servant is praying in your presence this day. May your eyes be open toward this temple night and day … so that you will hear the prayer of your servant.” (8:28, 29) For Solomon, God’s presence is made known when He answers the prayer of his people. But what is most instructive, or what was most surprising to me, was the specific answer to prayer Solomon was looking for. “Hear the supplication of your servant and of your people Israel when they pray toward this place. Hear from heaven, your dwelling place, and when you hear, forgive.” (8:30)

I would have expected Solomon’s prayer to read the more generic “and when you hear, answer.” But no, Solomon knew what he and the people needed most when it came to God’s presence – his mercy.

Note how this theme is expanded in the rest of the prayer:

  •          When your people have been defeated… hear and forgive and bring them back to the land. (33-34)
  •          When there is no rain because the people sinned… hear from heaven and forgive. Teach them the right way to live. (35-36)
  •          When a famine or plague comes to the land… Forgive and act; deal with each man according to all he does. (37-40)
  •          When the people sin and are taken captive… hear their prayer and forgive your people; forgive all offenses they have committed against you. (46-51)

There are a few three sections of this prayer where the pattern doesn’t hold.

  •          When a man wrongs his neighbor… Judge between your servants, condemning the guilty and vindicating the innocent. (31-32)
  •          When a foreigner comes and prays… hear his prayer from heaven so that all people may know your name. (41-43)
  •          When your people go to war… uphold their cause. (44-45)

Still, forgiveness is a major theme of Solomon’s prayer. God’s presence, or at least the evidence of God’s presence, is seen in the mercy He shows his people.

This squares with Hebrews 4:16, “Let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mart and find grace to help us in our team of need” and Hebrews 10:22, “let us draw near to God with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience and having our bodies washed with pure water.” Again, both the way into God’s presence, and the benefit of it, is marked by the mercy of God.

We often think of God’s presence in terms of mysticism or ecstatic religious experience. I think that an awareness of the real presence of God in our midst should lead us to what Jonathan Edwards called “religious affections” but that, objectively, the primary means and benefit of the presence of God is none other than his mercy and grace.