Covenant and Mystery
We like to discover what is hidden. One of the joys of Christmas is unwrapping gifts. Some people slowly and carefully unwrap each gift so as to save the paper and prolong the pleasure of discovery while others are so curious that they rip open the gifts as quickly as possible. No matter how we do it, we all want to know what is inside. One of the games that children enjoy playing is hide and seek. There is always great laughter when the person hiding is found. Some of you enjoy discovering the solution to a Sudoku or a Crossword puzzle and others enjoy uncovering what is hidden by reading or watching a “whodunit.”
We find it much more difficult to live with mystery. I play a little game with my grandson. I pull my thumb off and he is mystified. He is 4 years old and that is just the right age to know it shouldn’t happen, but not old enough to figure out how it is done. That is just like most of us who are driven nuts by sleight of hand artists who make things disappear and change places in an instant and we just can’t figure out how they do it.
Isn’t it interesting that God has asked us to live with mystery? We want to know everything about God, but He has veiled Himself in mystery and we can’t just walk away and ignore Him because He desires to live in a covenant relationship with us. So what God is asking us to do is live in a close relationship with mystery. How do you live in a covenant relationship with mystery?
This morning we will look at two passages of Scripture which reflect on this. We have already read Psalm 50:1-15 and now I would like to read I Kings 8:6-13.
I. The Mystery of God
A. The Mystery of God’s Presence – I Kings 8:6-13
The context of I Kings 8:6-13 is the occasion of the dedication of the temple which Solomon built. All the people gathered together in order to prepare for worship in the temple. In previous times, the presence of God had been with Israel in the tent of meeting particularly in the Holy of Holies where the Ark of the Covenant was kept. Now that the new temple was completed it was time to move the Ark into this new temple. The priests moved the ark into the Holy of Holies with the poles and left the poles in place. The text mentions that the poles were so long that you could see them from the Holy Place but not from outside the Holy Place. As the priests came out of the Holy of Holies after placing the ark, a cloud filled the temple. It is described as a thick cloud which plunged the area into darkness. I imagine it was like driving through a thick fog on a cloudy day. Things were hidden and it was impossible for the priests to do their work of offering sacrifices. The cloud is declared to represent “the glory of the Lord filling His temple.”
When this fascinating event happened, Solomon commented in verse 12 that, “The Lord has said that he would dwell in a dark cloud.” What does he mean by that?
This was not the first time that a cloud had been associated with the presence of God. When Israel left Egypt, we read in Exodus 13:21 that God accompanied them in a pillar of cloud during the day. When God entered into covenant with his people at Mount Sinai, we read in Exodus 19:9, "The Lord said to Moses, “I am going to come to you in a dense cloud, so that the people will hear me speaking with you...” When the wandering people of Israel finished putting together the tent of meeting we read in Exodus 40:34, "Then the cloud covered the Tent of Meeting, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle."
Even in the New Testament there are references to God making His presence known in a cloud. At the transfiguration, we read in Matthew 17:5, "While he was still speaking, a bright cloud enveloped them, and a voice from the cloud said, ‘this is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased. Listen to him!’" Later when Jesus ascended into heaven, we read in Acts 1:9, "After he said this, he was taken up before their very eyes, and a cloud hid him from their sight." When Jesus returns we once again have mention of God’s presence in a cloud as we read in Luke 21:27, "At that time they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory."
What all of these incidents tell us is that the presence of God is hidden from us. There is a mystery to who God is. Although much has been revealed to us about God, including all that has been revealed to us in Jesus, there is still a lot of mystery about who He is. We just don’t know everything about God. We understand that this is deliberate. If we knew everything about God, He would be somehow less than He is. Because God is so absolutely holy, it is impossible for us to be able to see God. He is so glorious and so amazing and so pure that in our sinful humanness we are unable to know all there is to know about God. That is why God has always revealed Himself to human beings in a cloud. Much of who God is remains hidden from us and so we must live with mystery.
B. The Glory of God’s Presence – Psalm 50:1-15
What we do know is that although the cloud veiled God, yet those who were present got a sense of the glory of God. We read in verse 11 that as the temple was filled with the cloud, “the glory of the Lord filled his temple.”
One question which came to my mind was how did God’s glory appear when His presence was so hidden? How did they recognize the glory of God? What did they see?
The Bible tells us much about the glory of God and one of the other passages which we read today was Psalm 50:1-15. In this passage, there are a few glimpses of the glory of God.
The glory of God is seen in the names of God. This Psalm begins with a very powerful first verse in which three names of God are given. The fact that there are three names of God is quite awesome because when something is repeated three times in the Bible, it is something that is important, something that is emphasized. All three names for God are piled up one after another. El is the first name for God. NIV translates it “the Mighty One” which is accurate, but it would also be accurate to say God. Elohim is the word that is most often used for God and refers to God as the one who is the powerful creator. Jehovah is the third name of God and reminds us that God is the redeemer who is in a covenant relationship with His people. All three names declare the powerful, creator, redeemer, covenant making, one and only God. The glory of God is revealed in these names.
The extent of the glory of God is seen in the next phrase which declares the authority of God “from the rising of the sun to the place where it sets.” God is God over everything. There is no place on earth, or in heaven for that matter, where God is not the sovereign ruler.
Verse three allows us to see images which display the power of God. The words of Psalm 50:3, "…a fire devours before him, and around him a tempest rages" give us images of what may be behind the cloud. These pictures evoke in us a sense of wonder as we perceive the power and the uncontrollable nature of our God. We do not control His presence, we cannot domesticate God. He is fire, He is a tempest that rages and we have no control over what He chooses to do. In His awesome and powerful presence we see the glory of God.
In verses 8-13 we read that God does not need our sacrifices. At the time, of course, part of the worship of God was through animal sacrifices. In showing that God does not need those sacrifices there is an interesting description of how God owns all creatures on earth. The fact that God knows everything and that every animal is his reveals the sovereignty and power of God. When our children were young and we travelled through parts of Saskatchewan and Alberta we often were moved to sing, “He owns the cattle on a thousand hills…” I had never realized that this is actually from scripture because Psalm 50:10 says that “the cattle on a thousand hills” belong to God. So once again we see the glory of God in His sovereign power and control over all that He has created.
The Bible is filled with images of God’s glory. There is the glory of God the creator, the glory of the presence of God and the glory of God’s work as redeemer. Some of that glory is visible to us. We see the glory of His creation and we see the glory of the work God has done in saving us. But much of the glory of God is still hidden from us. We do not fully understand what is behind the cloud. For example, we do not understand how God can be three persons in one God. Because God is so wonderful, so amazing and so much beyond us, it should not surprise us that we do not understand everything about God.
It is up to us to get to know as much as we can about God, but we must always live with the humility to recognize that we won’t ever know everything about God. Can we live with that mystery? Will we always need to live with that mystery? The day will come when the mystery will be revealed. The promise of Revelation 21:23 is, "The city does not need the sun or the moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and the Lamb is its lamp." At that point, there is no mention of a cloud, but rather of light because then, the glory of God will be much more clearly seen. For now, however, we live with mystery.
II. Covenant with God
It is hard for us to live with mystery, but in the two passages which we have been looking at, one of the truths which come out so clearly is that even though there is a lot of mystery, God nevertheless invites us to live in a relationship with Him.
When we see a sleight of hand artist, it boggles our mind. One response is to dismiss it and when we leave the place where we saw the magician, we soon forget about the amazing thing that we don’t understand. We can’t dismiss God, for He has come to us in order to enter into a covenant with us.
A. God Makes a Covenant – I Kings 8:6-13; Psalm 50:1-15
Although I Kings 8:6-13 mention mystery, these verses are much more about how God came to His people to live with them. The purpose for which Solomon had built the temple was so that God would dwell among His people. Even though Solomon knew that God did not live in a building, he had built it for the express purpose of having a place where God would be present with His people. Solomon said in 1 Kings 8:13, "I have indeed built a magnificent temple for you, a place for you to dwell forever."
This idea that God would dwell with His people was not a new idea that Solomon invented. It was in line with all the events of Israel’s history, particularly the story of the covenant that was made at Sinai and in the story of the tent of meeting that was built in the wilderness. In fact in all of these stories it was God who had initiated the relationship with His people and entered into a relationship with them.
Although the cloud impresses us with the mystery of God, it also communicates God’s presence. God had come to live with His people in the tent and now He came to live with them in the temple.
The mention of the fact that the only things in the ark were the two tablets of stone which Moses had placed there also reinforces the idea that God desires to live in a covenant relationship with His people. These tablets contained the conditions of their relationship with God and were the symbols of the covenant they had with God.
So we see that although God is not fully understood, yet He desires to have a relationship with His people. In their commentary, Keil and Delitsch write, “The cloud, as the visible symbol of the gracious presence of God, filled the temple, as a sign that Jehovah the covenant God had entered into it, and had chosen it as the scene of His gracious manifestation in Israel.”
In I Kings 8 covenant was re-established with God’s people. In Psalm 50 covenant was evaluated. In this Psalm we hear a summons, to the heavens, to the earth and in verse 5 God invites His people when He says, “…gather to me my consecrated ones…” In verse 7 God speaks, “Hear, O my people.” Because God is hidden, we sometimes forget what it means to follow Him and in this Psalm God was inviting the people to think again about what it meant to be His people. VanGemeren writes, “It was a great temptation of God’s covenant people in the past, as it is now, to believe mistakenly that everything is in order between them and God.” That is why God spoke to them. He was inviting them to review the covenant they had with Him. As we read Psalm 50, we are not only reminded about what it means to live with this God of mystery, but also have an opportunity to renew covenant with Him.
B. Living in Covenant With God– Psalm 50:14, 15
So as we recognize the challenge of living with a God of mystery, it is also good for us to consider what it means to be in a relationship with Him. How do you enter into a covenant with a God whom you do not fully understand? How do you relate to a God who is veiled in mystery? As I read Solomon’s statement about God living in a dark cloud that is the question that came to my mind. It was also the question that came to Peter’s mind as he stood in the middle of the cloud in the presence of the transfigured Jesus. He had no idea what he was talking about because the mysterious, glorious presence of Jesus and His Father baffled him, as it so often does us. It is much easier to relate to someone we can see, but how do we relate to someone who has only revealed a part of Himself to us? Are we living as we should with our glorious and mysterious God?
The message of Psalm 50 is interesting. Although God did not rebuke them for the sacrifices they were offering, we also get a sense that it was not really sacrifices that God wanted. In fact, a rather compelling case is made that God does not need sacrifices. Why is this raised? The problem is that in seeking to live with a God of mystery, we want to put it in terms that we understand. Israel did so by formalizing the sacrifices and before long it became a formalized religion. We do the same thing. We make a list of religious rules and then we don’t have to live with mystery anymore. Instead, we live in a relationship with God just doing what we have perceived we must do. But this Psalm tells us that that is not what God wants. If that is not the way to live in relationship with one who is mystery, what is the way to relate to Him?
Psalm 50:14, 15 provide a good answer to that question and the essence of the answer is that God desires people to live in a relationship of faith with Him. If we know everything about God, we know exactly how we need to respond, but if we don’t know everything about God, then we need to relate on the level of faith. Faith is defined in Hebrews 11:1 as, "…being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see." God is one in whom we must relate according to “what we do not see.”
What does that faith look like in practical terms? These two verses help us understand. There are four actions which express the life of faith.
The first action is thanksgiving for all that God has done. Because we see the glory of God in so many ways, we see what God has done. We see His creation, we see His redemption. For those things which we see, we give thanks. Thanksgiving requires perception. That is we need to be able to see what God has done. It is good for us to consciously take the time to look so that we will see. Thanksgiving requires will. We need to acknowledge and recognize that God is the source of all we have. Thanksgiving requires declaration. We need to make known and speak our thanks. It is a great idea to sit down and write out all the things which God has given us, which we are thankful for and then tell Him.
The second action is to “fulfill your vows.” This means that even though we do not understand all that God is about, there are certain things we know He wants. Obedience to these things is what it means to fulfill your vows. We don’t always understand God’s ways, but we nevertheless have many directions regarding His ways and obedience even when we don’t get it all is a critical way of living by faith in the one we don’t fully understand. There are many difficult questions about why certain things happen in this world. These are part of the mystery of what we don’t understand. For example, “Why does evil seem to prevail? Why do bad things happen to good people?” I don’t understand these things! But I choose to live in obedience and in trust anyway. That is faith and that is what it means to “fulfill your vows.” Where is the place where you need to obey that you are not now obeying?
The third thing that God requires is that we “call upon” Him. The mystery of God makes this both difficult and necessary. It is difficult because we don’t always see quick answers. If you add blue food coloring to water, the water turns blue right away. When we pray we sometimes have to wait and we get impatient and by the time we see the answer, we have forgotten that we had asked God for help. So we are prone because of mystery and because of the condition of our own hearts to rely on our own strength and resources. But God calls us to call upon Him when we are in trouble. The glory of asking one who has not fully revealed Himself is that we have the assurance that He has resources that are far beyond what we can see. His promise is that when we ask Him, He will deliver us. What is the trouble you are in? Are you calling upon Him?
Those who call upon Him discover that He delivers. That deliverance is not always in the way we expect, but it always happens because God has promised. The fourth response is that we honor God because we have experienced His deliverance, but even that response requires a conscious effort to recognize the work of God and a choice to declare His glory.
So these are the things which are involved in faith – thanksgiving, obedience, trust and honoring God. These are the practical ways in which we relate to the God who is filled with glory but is also veiled to us.
Mystery might tempt us to give up. Although God is filled with mystery, God yet reveals Himself and desires a relationship with us.
Are we OK to live with mystery?
If we are, then let us live by faith
We have an opportunity to express that this evening. It will be a time to renew covenant – to say, it is OK between me and God and God’s people. It will a time to approach the God of glory and mystery and ask Him to bless His work. Doing mission in a world opposed to God is “trouble” so we are called to pray, so let us come together this evening, at the beginning of the year and renew covenant and pray bringing glory to the God who has revealed Himself, but remains hidden in a wonderful mystery.