The Withdrawal of God's Presence

by Kenneth J Price

There is a very solemn word spoken by the prophet Hosea, a tremendous word, even the word of the Lord to His own people. "I will go and return to my place, until they acknowledge their offence and seek my face: in their affliction they will seek me early" (5:15).

Yet the Psalmist encourages us to think of the Lord as being not far from us, because His word says so. "Where can I go from your Spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence? If I ascend into heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in hell, behold, you are there. If I take the wings of the morning, and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me. If I say, 'Surely the darkness shall fall on me', even the night shall be light about me; indeed, the darkness shall not hide from you, but the night shines as the day; the darkness and the light are both alike to you" (Psalm 139:7-12).

But there are occasions when He is far from us and this is such an occasion in the history of the people of Israel. When God is offended; when they, His people have rebelled against Him; when they have gone their own way, then God says, "I will go and return to my place until ..." and one rendering translates it "until they become guilty."

God is holy, just and righteous. He is a God of majesty and might. He dwells in light that no man can approach so that no man has seen God at any time in all His fulness, His majesty, His glory, His beauty, His holiness. Because of these characteristics of our great God, the God of Israel, He cannot bless evil; He cannot look upon sin. "You are of purer eyes than to behold evil, and cannot look on wickedness" (Habakkuk 1:13).

Idols, Whoredoms, Rituals

There are conditions that God cannot bless, and one is revealed in Hosea's prophecy (4:17): "Ephraim is joined to idols" , to which God says: "Let him alone." Idolatry is recorded against Israel many times, even in the Temple itself, as they were copying the nations that were round them. They wanted a God whom they could see and feel and touch, and to our spiritual amazement we hear even Aaron, in making the golden calf, say to the people: "These are your gods, O Israel, which brought you out of the land of Egypt" (Exodus 32:4).

Hosea also declares (5:3): "I know Ephraim, and Israel is not hid from me: for now, O Ephraim, you commit whoredom, and Israel is defiled" ; in fact, "they have committed whoredom continually" (4:18). Idolatry and immorality are often tied up together, and this in the most unexpected place, the Temple, where "they will not frame their doings to turn unto their God; for the spirit of whoredoms is in the midst of them, and they have not known the LORD" (Hosea 5:4).

They did so on the surface. "They shall go with their flocks and with their herds to seek the LORD" ; the form of religion was there; they went through the motions; they went through the paraphernalia "with their flocks and with their herds to seek the lord" , but "they shall not find him; he has withdrawn himself from them" (5:6). So they will come back satisfied with their own ritual, but they will not find God. It is interesting to note that after the Babylonian captivity Israel seems to have been cured of idolatry, as God said: "There shall you serve other gods day and night, where I will not show you favour" (Jeremiah 16:13).

There was another matter in God's contention with His people, a natural corollary following their actions. "They have dealt treacherously against the LORD; for they have begotten strange (or pagan) children" (Hosea 5:7). They had linked up with the surrounding nations and intermarried and produced a race of "strange" , pagan outcast children, whom God then rejected. He had forbidden them to intermingle with the heathen nations, but they did. They intermingled; they married; they had children; so God rejected them and said: "I will go and return to my place ..."

When God was Obeyed

God was amongst His people when Solomon dedicated and prayed in the Temple. When he prayed that prayer of penitance and dedication everything was in harmony with what God had said, and as a result, "the cloud filled the house of the LORD, so that the priests could not stand to minister because of the cloud: for the glory of the LORD had filled the house of the LORD" (I Kings 8:10,11).

It had also been so in the wilderness with the pillar of fire by night and the cloud of God's presence by day. The presence of God accompanied His people, and the heathen nations surrounding them trembled at the appraoch of this people, "a wise and understanding people ... who have God so near unto them ... so great, that have statutes and judgements so righteous ..." (Deuteronomy 4:6-8). God was there and they feared at their approach because God in the midst of them was mighty. He was showing His presence in a very real and wonderful way to provide and protect them. But now God had left, and a catastrophe, which man cannot avert happens when He withdraws Himself from His people.

"Until" Speaks of Hope

It is a merciful God who says: "I will go and return to my place UNTIL ..." God is making it clear that there is a condition which He demands. He says: "I will go and return to my place UNTIL they acknowledge their offence" or "UNTIL they become guilty." His withdrawal from His people is only until such time as they will meet His condition for restoration.

The High Priest bore the names of the children of Israel upon his breastplate and upon his shoulders when he went in to the holiest of all places to plead the mercy of God for the nation, both in the Tabernacle and in the Temple. Hosea's role was a clear message, certainly of condemnation, but yet, a call to repentance, as there was clearly hope, as this would be the beginning of a return in Israel to the God of Israel.

God is a God of judgement and justice. Sometimes He had to bring Israel with their back to the wall before they would call upon Him. He could not bless them until their waywardnesses were brought into the light of His holiness, and so He often had to afflict them. He would ordain affliction so that "in their affliction" they would seek Him early and earnestly.

"Until they Acknowledge their Offence"

There is a wonderful comfort which God waits to bestow upon Israel, for we read of their future response to Him: "Come, and let us return to the Lord: for he has torn, and he will heal us; he has smitten, and he will bind us up. After two days will he revive us; in the third day he will raise us up, and we shall live in his sight" (Hosea 6:1,2).

What a blessed hope this is! Israel will return and experience the Eternal's presence as never before. This is the promise of our great God who never changes; He remains the same "yesterday, and today, and for ever" (Letter to the Hebrews 13:8). "For I am the LORD, I change not; therefore you sons of Jacob are not consumed" (Malachi 3:6).

The God of Israel is a faithful God. He is also an unchanging God, and Israel can still rejoice in His promises. "O that Israel had hearkened to my commandments. Then had their peace been as a river" (Isaiah 48:18).

The God of Israel is a faithful and unchanging God, unlike the good and bad leaders whom the history books record have perished, and whose promises and policies become obsolete anyway. God never grows old, nor do His promises become obsolete. "You, Lord, in the beginning laid the foundation of the earth; and the heavens are the works of your hands: they shall perish, but you remain; and they shall all wax old as does a garment; and as a cloak you shall fold them up, and they shall be changed: but you are the same, and your years shall not fail" (Letter to the Hebrews 1:10-12).