Jesus announced that the Kingdom of God is ‘at hand’ i.e. that it is close to us. The Apostle Paul declares that God is not far from any of us (Acts 17:27). Psalm 139 attests that there is nowhere we can go to that God is not (Psalm 139:7-8), that he hems us in (Psalm 139:5).
Why then do we think that God is far off, that there is a gulf between us? This idea has come from the erroneous idea that because God is “holy” he cannot allow himself to be in the company of sin (and therefore sinners). There are two passages which are often called upon in support of this notion:
1) Isaiah declares that our sins have made a separation between us and God. Therefore, it is said, there must be a real physical separation.
2) Habakkuk, in wrestling with God, argues that God is “too holy to look on sin”. Since we are sinners it thus follows that God cannot even look on us, and therefore must have separated himself from us.
But let us read these texts carefully.
1) In the passage in question (Isaiah 59:1) Isaiah announces that God’s arm is not too short to save, i.e. he is within arm’s reach, nor is his ear to dull to hear i.e. he is close enough to hear us. So Isaiah is saying that God is close at hand. But, Isaiah goes on to say that our iniquities have separated us from God (Isaiah 59:2) Note very carefully that it does not say that our iniquities have separated God from us. The traffic here is one-way: God is still within arm’s reach, he hasn’t gone anywhere, but we have pulled away, we have turned back from following him (Isaiah 59:13).
Isaiah continues that our sins have hidden his face from us (Isaiah 59:2) but again it does not say that our sins have hidden our face from him. God still sees us… yet he no longer hears us. But this is not because God has gone away, as we have already seen, but in turning from him we have stopped calling on him.
If we keep reading the passage we will see what exactly is “far from us”: it is not God, but rather justice and righteousness (Isaiah 59:9,14). So God stretches out his own arm (he is only an arm’s length away!) to bring salvation (Isaiah 59:16).
Isaiah, therefore, is not testifying to a God who has separated himself from man. On the contrary, he is testifying to a people who have pulled away from God. God nonetheless remains within reach. God remains fully committed to his people, promising redemption if they would just turn back to him (Isaiah 59:20), and promising an everlasting covenant that is even closer (Isaiah 59:21)
In other words, for Isaiah there is no gulf other than the one we have created.
2) Habakkuk is a prophet who has a gripe against God (Hab 1:2). He witnesses injustice and is angry with God for not fixing it (Hab 1:3).
God’s response is unbelievable (Hab 1:5). Not only is he going to tolerate wickedness he is going to use it; he is going to raise up the barbaric Babylonians (Hab 1:6).
Habakkuk is shocked. God is going to use them (the Babylonians, of all people) to execute judgement? (Hab 1:12) Habakkuk rails against God that his eyes are too pure to look favourably on evil, to tolerate wrong, so why is he silent while these barbaric people swallow up those more “righteous”? Habakkuk sets himself up to watch over, and thus judge, God (Hab 2:1).
God re-directs Habakkuk. It is not about questioning God’s activity (or lack of) but of living by faith (Hab 2:4). God reassures Habakkuk that the Babylonians will not get way with their evil forever (Hab 2:17). Habakkuk learns patience (Hab 3:16), and that even when things look bad (Hab 3:17) he should rejoice in God (Hab 3:18)
So Habakkuk’s comment on the purity of God’s eyes is, firstly, an assumption made by Habakkuk. It is spoken by a rather rattled Habakkuk in response to God’s shocking revelation. Secondly, although the English translation renders the text “too pure to look on evil” the actual underlying meaning is “too pure to look favourably (with assent) on evil”. So even if we take Habakkuk as speaking a truth about God (the text does not actually confirm this), in any case the question is whether God can look favourably on evil (and this is refuted, because there will be come-uppance for the Babylonians’ evil ways).
There is no rationale, therefore, to lift this text out of context and assume that God is too pure to even look at (witness) evil. Indeed, it is a crazy notion, for if God had to avert his eyes from witnessing man’s wickedness then he would not be all seeing or all knowing.
So by studying both Isaiah and Habakkuk we see that we cannot jump to the conclusion that God is too holy to observe sin or ‘be in the same room’. Indeed, that premise falls apart when we remember that the fullness of the deity dwelt in Christ and yet..
– Jesus was a friend of sinners (Matt 9:11).
– Jesus mixed with crooked tax collectors and prostitutes, and even allowed a prostitute to wash his feet with her hair (Luke 7:38).
– Jesus united us to himself in his death (Gal 2:20, Col 3:3) while we were sinners (Rom 5:8).
So is God close to all men, even unbelieving sinners? You betcha!
In response to the unbelieving Pharisees (Luke 17:20) Jesus declared that the kingdom of God was already in their midst (Luke 17:21)
And the Apostle Paul declared that God is not far from any of us:
“And he made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place, that they should seek God, and perhaps feel their way toward him and find him. Yet he is actually not far from each one of us, for ‘In him we live and move and have our being’; as even some of your own poets have said, ‘For we are indeed his offspring.’” (Acts 17:26-28)
So the Biblical witness is that there is no gulf between God and sinful man. God is always close at hand. We are the ones with the problem when we imagine him afar of.
So let us reknew our minds and be reconciled; the Kingdom of God is in our midst!