The Bible identifies God’s people Israel as a community living in the presence of God.
This began when they encountered God at Sinai. Yet there was never any tradition of pilgrimage to Sinai, as might have been expected. For the good
reason that when the Israelites left Sinai, their God had already agreed to go with them.
Moses made the request “If thy presence will not go with me, do not carry us up from here”, and God had promised “My presence will go with you
and I will give you rest” (Exodus ch33 vv14-15).
On the journey, the visible sign of his presence was the pillar of cloud and fire.
The more permanent symbol was the Ark of the Covenant. The attached “mercy seat” and the attendant cherubim show that God was deemed to locate
himself above the Ark in meeting with Moses and his successors. When the Ark was carried across the Jordan, that signified the moment when God entered
the land along with his people (Judges ch3 vv14-17). The event is obliquely celebrated in the Song of Solomon; “What is that coming up from the
wilderness like a column of smoke?” (Song of Solomon ch3 v6)
There was also the Tabernacle, enclosing the space within which God met with Moses. Exodus records elaborate instructions about the making of the
tent, but it was probably renovated from time to time. Fabric does not keep as well as wood.
During the time of Judges, the central sanctuary was at Shiloh. At the end of this period, the Ark and the Tabernacle were separated for a while. The
Ark was taken into battle, to signify the presence of the Lord in battle, and was captured by the Philistines. On being returned to the Israelites, it
found at least two temporary locations.
Meanwhile the sanctuary of Shiloh had been destroyed around this time, perhaps in the same campaign that captured the Ark. David found the priests
taking refuge at Nob and continuing the Tabernacle practice of presenting the shewbread.
Then when the Ark was brought into Jerusalem, it was kept inside the tent which David had pitched for it (2 Samuel ch6 v17).
The building of the Temple, like the institution of kingship, was an imitation of “the nations round about”. In both cases, God did not ask for
this development and did not really want it. Once they were in place, however, they provided a symbolism which became useful for teaching purposes.
The Temple inherited the role of “the presence of God” when the Ark and the Tabernacle were brought into it, as confirmed when “the glory of the
Lord filled the house of the Lord”. Nevertheless. Solomon admitted that the real dwelling place of God is in heaven, and even the highest of the
physical heavens cannot contain him. Even the Temple was only a symbol, a reminder that God was always with his people (1 Kings ch8).
Their sense of living in the presence of God was undermined when the kingdom was destroyed, and especially when the Temple itself was destroyed. The
sense of loss is demonstrated by the vision of Ezekiel, in which the glory of the Lord leaves the Temple and the city (Ezekiel ch11 v23). Yet Ezekiel
himself, in the first chapter, had encountered a vision of God in the plains of Mesopotamia, underlining the point that the presence of God is not
limited by space.
Some of the prophets of the Old Testament promise a final battle in which the enemies of God’s people will be overcome conclusively. I looked at
this theme in The Last Battle in Old Testament prophecy
Following this final victory, God’s people are able to return to the land, and the restoration of the people is to be accompanied by a renewed sense
of God’s presence.
Restoration of God’s presence; Old Testament version
“I will return to Zion and will dwell in the midst of Jerusalem” (Zechariah ch8 v3).
“You shall know that I am the Lord your God, who dwell in Zion, my holy mountain” (Joel ch3 v17).
“The king of Israel, the Lord, is in your midst; you shall fear evil no more” (Zephaniah ch3 v15).
The last portion of Ezekiel shows us a picture of the renovated Temple, but this is really about the restoration of the presence of God; “This is
the place of my throne and the place of the soles of my feet, where I will dwell in the midst of the people of Israel for ever” (Ezekiel ch43
For, as God says elsewhere;
“Heaven is my throne and the earth is my footstool; what is the house which you would build for me, and what is the place of my rest?” (Isaiah