1.2.3 The Shekinah: God as Natural Phenomenon
Volume 1: Foundations—Chapter 2.3
The Shekinah: God as Natural Phenomenon
The next category of Logos manifestations on our list is the non-anthropomorphic expressions of God’s presence in the human experience—instances where Yahweh has revealed Himself through visual or audible phenomena that are not based on human modes of expression in any way, whether in appearance or speech. These appearances are still physical and corporeal, however—they’re “real” in every sense of the word, that is, they happen in the real world, not in visions, dreams, or (as some would say) hallucinations. They are seen with man’s waking eyes; they are witnessed and attested to, often by thousands of people at one time. And they are, by design, impossible to ignore.
The word used to express this concept, Shekinah, is a Hebrew noun, but one not found anywhere in the Tanach. The word was used, rather, by later Targumists and rabbis to denote the radiance, presence, or glory of God as He dwells among His people. The concept of “dwelling,” in fact, is the basis of the word. The primitive root verb upon which Shekinah is based is shakan, which means to abide, dwell, settle down, or reside. Thus we see the concept of the Shekinah (though not the word) side by side with this root verb in the story of the wilderness wanderings: “And whenever the cloud [as the Shekinah was manifested in this instance] lifted from over the tent, after that the people of Israel set out, and in the place where the cloud settled down [shakan], there the people of Israel camped.” (Numbers 9:17) The related noun sheken is one’s dwelling place or residence, as in Deuteronomy 12:5—“But you shall seek the place that Yahweh your God will choose out of all your tribes to put His name and make His habitation [sheken] there.” In the rabbinical mind, then, the Shekinah is “the One [i.e., the one God] who dwells among us.” Of course, bereft of the information imparted in the New Covenant scriptures, the rabbis are clueless concerning the true nature of the Ruach Qodesh—the One God who dwells within us—and are horrified at the prospect of a Messiah who spent His time upon earth as “the One God who dwelled with us”—though He is called Immanuel (“God with us”) in both Isaiah 7:14 and Matthew 1:23. With only half the facts at hand, their confusion is understandable—even inevitable.
Though the word Shekinah isn’t used in scripture, the concept shows up often in the Old Covenant scriptures, and the reason is apparently always the same: the Shekinah appears when Yahweh wants to make an indelible impression on His people. Remember: “Form follows function.” The Holy Spirit allows Yahweh to empower, teach, and convict His children by dwelling within them—the “still, small voice.” His theophanies’ role was to communicate specific messages to specific individuals in an intimate setting—without frightening them to death. But the Shekinah was sent to do something for which neither of these other manifestations was appropriate: invest God’s people with a sense of awe, a deep and profound respect for the power and majesty of Yahweh. God was still “holding back” His actual glory, of course. But the obvious point of every Shekinah manifestation was to get our undivided attention.
I may be splitting hairs, but it seems that the Shekinah often appears with—in the same context as—a theophany. For example, the spectacular pyrotechnics of the burning bush fit the profile of the Shekinah, but the “Angel of Yahweh”—that is, a theophany who wanted to have a One-on-one conversation with Moses—was said to be “in” the flame. And the thunderous theatrics that wreathed Mount Horeb (Sinai) in smoke and flame were clearly the Shekinah—manifested to give all of Israel some palpable idea of Yahweh’s awesome power. But the God who met Moses on that same mountain to deliver His Instructions to him was a theophany: “And He gave to Moses, when He had finished speaking with him on Mount Sinai, the two tablets of the testimony, tablets of stone, written with the finger of God.” (Exodus 31:18) Not to be picky, but the Shekinah doesn’t exactly have “fingers.”
A word that might have been better chosen to represent the Shekinah concept is kabowd, usually translated “glory” (and occasionally “honor” or “splendor”). It’s derived from a root verb (kabad) that means to be heavy or weighty—hence to honor or glorify. (This is the same word used in the Fifth Commandment: “Honor your father and your mother.”) Forty-five out of the two hundred instances of kabowd in the Tanach refer to the “Glory of God”—a physical manifestation of Yahweh’s magnificence in the sight of man and for his benefit. In the previous section, we read that Moses asked God to “show him His glory,” that is, kabowd. And Yahweh, while taking steps to protect His prophet, was willing to comply: “While My glory [kabowd] passes by I will put you in a cleft of the rock, and I will cover you with My hand until I have passed by.” What this “glory” was, however, is not made clear, though Moses knew it when he saw it.
Although it is not called kabowd, I believe Moses received his first glimpse of God’s glory at the “burning bush.” Fire was the only terrestrial source of light with which he was familiar, and he described the encounter accordingly: “The Angel of Yahweh appeared to him in a flame of fire out of the midst of a bush. He looked, and behold, the bush was burning, yet it was not consumed.” (Exodus 3:2) A very subtle Shekinah had been used to get Moses’ attention so he and God’s theophany could have a little chat. What drew Moses’ notice was light—a light source strong enough to be clearly visible at high noon in the middle of the desert, but not so powerful that it would blind or kill him. There’s something in play here that’s so ubiquitous we tend to take it for granted, but we shouldn’t. Yahweh has balanced with exquisite perfection a myriad of factors that if shifted in one direction or the other even a little bit would spell disaster for the human race, and indeed, all of creation. Here in the case of the Shekinah, this balancing act is particularly tricky, because the whole purpose for Yahweh using these manifestations is to get our attention and engender our awe—which demands a display that’s intrinsically somewhat dangerous, a little “over the top.” Achieving the “Goldilocks syndrome”—getting it just right—can’t be easy, but Yahweh loves us so much, He does it time after time.
The next time we encounter the Shekinah, it’s leading the Children of Israel out of Egyptian bondage. “Yahweh went before them by day in a pillar of cloud to lead them along the way, and by night in a pillar of fire to give them light, that they might travel by day and by night. The pillar of cloud by day and the pillar of fire by night did not depart from before the people.” (Exodus 13:21-22) Notice that Yahweh Himself is said to have been “in” the pillar of cloud and fire, just as He had been “in” the flame in the midst of the “burning bush.” A bit later, at the Red Sea, this same Shekinah manifestation is called the “angel (i.e., messenger or envoy: malak) of God. “Then the angel of God who was going before the host of Israel moved and went behind them, and the pillar of cloud moved from before them and stood behind them, coming between the host of Egypt and the host of Israel. And there was the cloud and the darkness. And it lit up the night without one coming near the other all night.” (Exodus 14:19-20) The Shekinah didn’t just stand around looking awesome: it assumed the role of the Protector of Israel, separating them from the pursuing Egyptian armies. I find it fascinating that the same Shekinah that was seen as darkness to the Egyptians (read: those in the world) was light to Israel (read: those who are “upright with God”)—at the same time! The lesson: what we perceive in life will inevitably be determined by where we stand in relation to Yahweh.
A word used here to describe the Shekinah’s visible form deserves closer study: it was said to be a pillar of cloud, and a pillar of fire. An amud is a pillar, column, or supporting post. The noun is based on the Hebrew verb amad, which is one of the most fundamental (and most often overlooked) concepts in the entire Bible: it means to stand, remain, endure, take a stand, be upright, arise, or cause someone to stand (i.e., to appoint, ordain, or establish him). In Greek, the equivalent word is histemi, which is the root of the word usually (and errantly) translated “cross.” My point is simply this: Yahweh is constantly portraying Himself as a God who stands for us and with us, enabling us to stand upright in His presence. This concept “stands” in sharp contrast to the posture of man-made religions—groveling before both God and the people who have placed themselves in the position of gatekeepers and intermediaries. Like any father, Yahweh desires our respect, but not obsequious obeisance. He doesn’t want His children cringing in fear and bowing down in terror before Him, but rather standing upright (in every possible sense of the word), confident and secure in His presence. It’s hard to hug someone while you’re kissing his foot.
Perhaps the most “spectacular” expression of the Shekinah was the phenomena that accompanied the giving of the “Law” upon Mount Sinai. “Yahweh said to Moses, ‘Behold, I am coming to you in a thick cloud, that the people may hear when I speak with you, and may also believe you forever.’” Yahweh began by telling Moses why He would appear this way: He wanted to ensure that the people of Israel knew, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that God, not Moses, was calling the shots and giving the Instructions. But at the same time, He wanted the people to respect Moses as the one He Himself had chosen to lead the nation. So after a few days of preparation and consecration, Yahweh’s Shekinah was revealed. “On the morning of the third day there were thunders and lightnings and a thick cloud on the mountain and a very loud trumpet blast, so that all the people in the camp trembled. Then Moses brought the people out of the camp to meet God, and they took their stand at the foot of the mountain. Now Mount Sinai was wrapped in smoke because Yahweh had descended on it in fire. The smoke of it went up like the smoke of a kiln, and the whole mountain trembled greatly. And as the sound of the trumpet grew louder and louder, Moses spoke, and God answered him in thunder. Yahweh came down on Mount Sinai, to the top of the mountain. And Yahweh called Moses to the top of the mountain, and Moses went up.” (Exodus 19:9, 16-20)
The evidence of God’s immediate presence was visual, audible, and terrifying: thunder, lightning, a thick cloud of smoke enveloping the entire mountain, the blast of a trumpet, trembling earth, and the very voice of God. Though the Israelites weren’t familiar with volcanoes (having lived in the alluvial plain of Goshen for the previous four hundred years) Yahweh made certain that no one could logically mistake the Sinai experience for a mere volcanic eruption. That’s why He sounded the trumpet and provided thunder and lightning, and it’s why He audibly instructed Moses to ascend to the top of the mountain to receive the Torah. I have seen photographs of this mountain (which is located in northwestern Saudi Arabia, not the Egyptian Sinai Peninsula). To this day, the entire top portion of the mountain is blackened and burned—it’s nothing like volcanoes usually look; rather, it appears as if Someone has taken a gigantic blowtorch to it. The forensic evidence supports the scriptural description: Yahweh “had descended on it in fire.”
The people’s reaction was predictable: “Now when all the people saw the thunder and the flashes of lightning and the sound of the trumpet and the mountain smoking, the people were afraid and trembled, and they stood far off and said to Moses, ‘You speak to us, and we will listen; but do not let God speak to us, lest we die.’ Moses said to the people, ‘Do not fear, for God has come to test you, that the reverence of Him may be before you, that you may not sin.’ The people stood far off, while Moses drew near to the thick darkness where God was.” (Exodus 20:18-21) This reaction was precisely as God had engineered it, and for a very good reason. He wanted Moses to serve as a “type” of Christ here—an intercessor or intermediary delivering the Word of God to man while insulating him from His terrifying glory.
The most often mentioned Shekinah manifestation in the life of theocratic Israel was the “cloud” that rested upon the Tabernacle, dwelled within the Most Holy Place, guided Israel’s steps, and set their pace. At the end of the book of Exodus, we read that after Moses and Aaron had completed all the Tabernacle preparations as instructed by Yahweh, “Then the cloud covered the tent of meeting, and the glory of Yahweh filled the tabernacle. And Moses was not able to enter the tent of meeting because the cloud settled on it, and the glory of Yahweh filled the tabernacle.” The word translated “cloud” means just that: it’s anan, a cloud, either of water vapor or smoke (as in the cloud of burning incense mentioned in Leviticus 16:13), or a mist—dense enough to block light. “Throughout all their journeys, whenever the cloud was taken up from over the tabernacle, the people of Israel would set out. But if the cloud was not taken up, then they did not set out till the day that it was taken up. For the cloud of Yahweh was on the tabernacle by day, and fire was in it by night, in the sight of all the house of Israel throughout all their journeys.” (Exodus 40:34-38) More detail is given in Numbers 9:15-23, where it is explained that whether the cloud moved every day or remained in place for months at a time, the Children of Israel relied upon it for guidance in their wilderness wanderings, moving only when the Shekinah moved. In principle, we should all be doing that very thing—moving only at God’s leading.
Yahweh—as the Shekinah—had promised to speak with Israel from between the two cherubim that flanked the mercy seat—the covering of the ark of the covenant: “Make one cherub on the one end [of the mercy seat], and one cherub on the other end. Of one piece with the mercy seat shall you make the cherubim on its two ends. The cherubim shall spread out their wings above, overshadowing the mercy seat with their wings, their faces one to another; toward the mercy seat shall the faces of the cherubim be. And you shall put the mercy seat on the top of the ark, and in the ark you shall put the testimony that I shall give you. There I will meet with you, and from above the mercy seat, from between the two cherubim that are on the ark of the testimony, I will speak with you about all that I will give you in commandment for the people of Israel.” (Exodus 25:19-22) The only words that men could use to describe the Shekinah were mere descriptive suggestions. They saw it as a “cloud,” or as “glory.” But it didn’t follow the normal laws of physics; it didn’t dissipate, disperse, or diminish. This “cloud” didn’t obey the rules: it wrote the rules. It was simply the way Yahweh wished to present Himself in this place, at this time. Thus we read passages like this: “Give ear, O Shepherd of Israel, You who lead Joseph like a flock! You who are enthroned upon [or abide between] the cherubim, shine forth.” (Psalm 80:1)
The same Shekinah manifestation of Yahweh’s presence inhabited the temple of Solomon. “When the priests came out of the Holy Place (for all the priests who were present had consecrated themselves…), and when the song was raised, with trumpets and cymbals and other musical instruments, in praise to Yahweh, ‘For He is good, for His steadfast love endures forever,’ the house, the house of Yahweh, was filled with a cloud, so that the priests could not stand to minister because of the cloud, for the glory of Yahweh filled the house of God.” (II Chronicles 5:11-14) Whereas everybody in the vicinity saw the Glory of God enter the Temple, only one man saw it leave—and then only in a vision. Some four hundred years after the Temple was built, Ezekiel saw the Shekinah depart, in stages. It was as if It was reluctant to go, saddened beyond words at the way Israel had brought judgment upon itself. The story is recorded in Ezekiel 10.
This is precisely how the Glory of the God in Whom we used to trust seems to be leaving my beloved America—step by painful step, looking back over His shoulder as if to ask, “Are you sure you want Me to go away?” But this is a democracy: the majority has spoken. We (as a nation) no longer honor the God of our fathers. “We the people” haven’t listened to His voice in years, and we swear we won’t miss Him when He’s gone. But there are a few of us (relatively speaking) who cry out in anguish at the abominations we see around us, and sigh in frustration at our inability to turn the tide of apostasy. In the end, before Yahweh sadly leaves our world to its fate, He will turn around one last time, and say to us, “Come with Me, My children. The wrath I’m about to visit upon the earth is not for you.” I don’t know about you, but I’m ready to go now.
But I digress. Neither the Tabernacle nor Solomon’s Temple has existed for over twenty-five hundred years, and we have no record of the Shekinah ever taking up residence in the Second Temple. But in one of the hundreds of passages describing the eventual spiritual restoration of Israel under their King and Messiah, Isaiah reports that we haven’t seen the last of the Shekinah. “In that day the branch of Yahweh [a euphemism for Yahshua the Messiah] shall be beautiful and glorious, and the fruit of the land shall be the pride and honor of the survivors of Israel.” Unfortunately, Zechariah reveals that only one third of them will make it to this blessed stage.“And he who is left in Zion and remains in Jerusalem will be called holy, everyone who has been recorded for life in Jerusalem, when Yahweh shall have washed away the filth of the daughters of Zion and cleansed the bloodstains of Jerusalem from its midst by a spirit of judgment and by a spirit of burning….” And as in the original Tabernacle, the witnesses must be consecrated before Yahweh will dwell in their midst.
The glorified Messiah will reign at last on the throne of Israel, but He won’t be the only Logos manifestation of Yahweh present. The Shekinah will return as well: “Then Yahweh will create over the whole site of Mount Zion and over her assemblies a cloud by day, and smoke and the shining of a flaming fire by night; for over all the glory there will be a canopy. There will be a booth for shade by day from the heat, and for a refuge and a shelter from the storm and rain.” (Isaiah 4:2-6) And that’s not the end of it. As we shall see in the next section, the prophet Joel (in 2:28-32) reports that Yahweh will also “pour out His Spirit upon all flesh in those days,” causing the redeemed to dream dreams and witness visions of Yahweh’s glory. By my count, that's four separate ways Yahweh will be manifested among men during the Millennial reign of Christ.
Mortal man will still walk the earth during this time. But the offspring of the initial redeemed population—repentant Israel and the gentile “sheep” of Matthew 25:31-46—will have no plausible excuse for failing to perceive God in their midst. Without repealing free will altogether, Yahweh will have gone as far as logically possible to prove His love for mankind. It will be as obvious and as undeniable as the Shekinah—the towering pillar of cloud and flame hovering over the Messiah’s temple in spectacular glory. Only a fool would deny His presence.
But then again, that has always been true.