by: Rev. Cheryl Hauer, International Development Director
These miraculous appearances of the tangible, visible presence of the God of Israel brought comfort to His people, as they were assured that He was indeed with them, but at the same time, such appearances were so frightening that those same people covered their eyes and ears in sheer terror and begged Moses to mediate for them.
Today, the word in both Jewish and Christian teaching that conjures up the awesome, overwhelming, glorious, and terrifying presence of God Himself is shekinah. The concept of shekinah has become so prevalent in both Christianity and Judaism that it is commonly used in reference to physical manifestations of God. When asked to define it, however, Christians are often at a loss. Words like “glory” and “light” are used to try to capture the essence of shekinah, while in Judaism, it has come to be defined simply as “the divine presence.”
In Jewish thought, the Shekinah manifests itself as a form of joy, connected with prophecy and creativity. It is what caused prophets to prophesy and King David to compose his psalms. The prophets made numerous references to the presence of God, particularly in the context of the Temple and the Tabernacle, which have traditionally been attributed to the presence of the Shekinah.
Further, the Shekinah comes to rest upon the righteous. But, the rabbis say, not amidst laziness or idle conversation but only amidst the joy that comes from obedience. The Shekinah is also associated with pious acts of charity, prayer, and even with the divine presence that descends upon every Jewish home on Shabbat (Sabbath).
In addition to the various accounts indicating the presence or glory of God recorded in the Old Testament, many Christians also consider the Shekinah to be referenced in numerous instances in the Christian Scriptures as well. It is commonly equated with the presence of the Holy Spirit, and just as the Shekinah is linked to prophecy in Judaism, so it is in Christianity: “For prophecy never came by the will of man: but holy men of God spoke as they were moved by the Holy Spirit” (2 Pet. 1:21).
Most Christians, however, would be surprised to learn that the word shekinah does not appear in the Bible at all, not anywhere. It is actually a Rabbinic term that was coined in the early medieval period to describe events where God’s physical presence was manifest, often accompanied by miracles performed to guide and protect Israel.
Shekinah can best be rendered, “Him who dwells.” It comes from the Hebrew word shakan which means to dwell, settle down or abide. Mishkan (“dwelling place”), the word used for the Tabernacle, is also derived from shakan. Ohel is actually the Hebrew word for “tent” and could have described the physical nature of the Tabernacle, but this was more than just a tent; it was the “dwelling place” of “Him who dwells.”
According to Vine’s Expository Dictionary, there are several words in the Bible that mean to dwell or abide. One is yasav, which simply means “to dwell” and appears over 1,100 times in the Hebrew Scriptures. But shakan is unique among those words because its meaning includes the concepts of relationship and duration. It means to take up residence within a neighborhood with the specific purpose of staying for a long time. It implies intimacy and conveys the idea of continuity as a member of a community.
When Solomon built the Temple, he was overcome with the awesomeness of God and asked, “But will God indeed dwell [yasav] on the earth?” (1 Kings 8:27). But God made His intentions clear: “…the cloud filled the house of the LORD so that the priests could not continue ministering because of the cloud; for the glory of the LORD filled the house of the LORD. Then Solomon spoke, ‘The LORD said He would dwell [shakan] in the dark cloud. I have surely built You an exalted house, and a place for You to dwell [shakan] in forever’” (vv. 10b–12). Isaiah tells us, “For thus says the High and Lofty One who inhabits [shakan] eternity, whose name is Holy; I dwell [shakan] in the high and holy place, with him who has a contrite and humble spirit…” (57:15).
These are only two of dozens of instances in the Scriptures where God reveals His desire to dwell (shakan) with His people. Clearly, “He who dwells” would live in intimate relationship with each of His children as part of a community of believers who were in it for the long haul. The Divine Presence (shekinah) would like to come and stay (shakan) for a very long time.
Finally, it is important to note that shekinah is a feminine noun. The rabbis say this is further revelation of God’s heart toward His children. It was, in times past, the mother who bathed the baby, cleaned his scrapes and wounds, and changed his soiled diapers, all the while gazing fondly into his eyes and laughing with delight at his childish innocence, loving eternally and unconditionally. So it is with “Him who dwells.”
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