GOD BOTH FAR AND NEAR
by Bob Wheeler
God is infinitely greater than anything we can even imagine – unlimited in His being, knowledge and power – the Creator of heaven and earth. Yet at the same time He is close to us, and has personal knowledge of us. Theologians refer to this as God’s “transcendence” (God is exalted far above all else) and His “immanence” (God is present with us). But how God could be both at the same time is truly extraordinary.
Both ideas are brought out in Psalm 113. It begins with a call to praise the Lord (Hallelu Yah – praise the Lord – v. 1), and then reflects on God’s infinite majesty and glory:
“The Lord is high above all nations,
His glory above the heavens” (v. 4; NKJV).
The nations (goyim – Gentiles) are all the nations of the earth, whether they have any conscious knowledge of God or not. Empires and civilizations come and go – some are powerful and hold sway over large portions of the earth. Yet God is above them all. They are all relatively nothing in His sight.
Moreover God’s “glory” is “above the heavens.” God’s “glory” is certainly His reputation and honor, but the Bible also uses the term to refer to the splendor of God’s presence. This is God’s brilliant radiance, which makes Him stand out above all others. And this, the psalm says, is “above the heavens.” We stand in awe at the vast expanse of the night sky, the distant galaxies millions of light years away. And yet God’s glory is greater even still, and stands above all these.
But then the psalm goes on to ask a striking question:
“Who is like the Lord our God,
Who dwells on high,
Who humbles Himself to behold
The things that are in the heavens and in the earth?” (vv. 5,6)
The underlying Hebrew is a little hard to translate, but the main thought is clear: God makes His dwelling in heaven, far above the sphere of human activity; yet at the same time He graciously condescends to view what goes on down here on earth. How both could be true at the same time boggles the imagination, yet Scripture asserts both truths at once.
But then what does God do in light of what He sees? The last three verses of the psalm describe the care He exercises on behalf of the poor and disadvantaged.
“He raises the poor out of the dust,
And lifts the needy out of the ash heap,
That He may seat Him with princes –
With the princes of His people.” (vv. 7,8).
The language is very similar to that of Hannah’s prayer in I Sam. 2:8.
“He grants the barren woman a home,
Like a joyful mother of children.” (v. 9).
The implication here seems to be that in ancient Israelite society a woman’s social position within the home was not secure until she bore children, again apparently referring back to the experience of Hannah, who had been childless while her husband’s other wife had children. In both cases God sees the situation, is concerned about it, and does something to resolve it.
Here, then, are the two sides of God’s existence: His transcendence and His immanence. His transcendence, the fact that He is “high above all nations,” should move us to awe and wonder. God is infinitely greater than any earthly, created thing, and infinitely greater than ourselves. That fact should have a profoundly humbling effect on ourselves. When we approach Him in prayer we should do so with the utmost reverence and humility.
And yet, at the same time, God is near at hand. He knows about our personal circumstances, cares about what happens to us, and can take appropriate action. And this, in turn, should fill us with joy and praise – that such a great God, high and lifted up, the Ruler of heaven and earth, can condescend to view our poor plight and come to our aid – who can conceive of such a thing? And yet it is true! And thus the psalm begins and ends, “Praise the Lord!”