Can we really know God? If we look for an answer to this question in Scripture we might find that the answer is Yes and No. Paul the apostle is unequivocal in the answer he gives in Romans 11:33: “Oh, the depths of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments and His ways past finding out!” He goes on to quote Isaiah, “Who has ever known the mind of the Lord?” (verse 34).
The answer of course has to be that no one has ever known the mind of the Lord. Isaiah 55:8-9, with the Lord himself speaking, is no less unequivocal: “My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways My ways, says the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are MY ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts.” Then there is 1 Samuel 16:7 “The Lord does not see as man sees, for man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.”
And yet the Bible assures us that we can not only know God, but that we are obligated to know him, as Jeremiah 9:23-24: “Let not the wise man glory in his wisdom. Let not the mighty man glory in his might, nor let the rich man glory in his riches; but let him who glories glory in this, that he understands and knows Me, that I am the Lord, exercising lovingkindness, judgment, and righteousness in the earth, for in these I delight says the Lord.” In this context “to glory” means something like “to boast” or “to take heart.” It is saying that we can take heart or find assurance in that we not only under-stand and know that Yahweh is the God of heaven, but we have knowledge of his attributes and what pleases him – lovingkindness, justice, and righteousness in the earth.
This is an unusually revealing passage in that it gets to the heart of what it means to know God – that he is kind, loving, merciful and righteous, and that we too are to have those same virtues. To know suggests intimacy. In knowing God we become like him, reflecting his image. A Christian is especially blessed in that he sees God’s likeness perfectly manifested in Christ: “who being the brightness of His glory, and the express image of His person” (Hebrews 1:3). Christ reveals to us what God is like. We come to know God in a special way in knowing Christ. Paul could say, “that I may know Christ and the power of His resurrection” (Philippians 3:10), for in knowing Christ he better knows God.
In Jeremiah 22:15-16 the prophet names precisely what it means to know God. After referring to caring for the poor and needy, which the people were neglecting, the prophet says, “Is not that what it means to know me? Yahweh demands.” This being the case, might there be those with gracious and generous hearts who know God without realizing that they know him? This is the picture we have in Matthew 25:31-40 where those who showed compassion to the needy were blessed as if they had shown compassion to Christ himself, but they did not know this. They were nonetheless told:
“Inasmuch as you did it to one of these the least of my brethren you did it to me.”
Two stories about God in the Old Testament point to two dimensions of knowing God, his transcendence (above and separate from nature) and his immanence (active in nature and involved in human affairs). The theist believeds both the transcendence and immanence of God. If one believes in either of these but not the other he is an atheist of one sort or another. If one believes in his transcendence only (God wound up the universe but left it to wind down on its own) he is a deist. If he believes in the immanence of God only (God is nature) he is a pantheist.
Both stories are theophanies in that God appears in one form or another. In Isaiah’s call to be prophet, Isaiah 6, he is in the temple and sees God sitting on his throne, high and lifted up, and the train of his robe fills the temple. There are seraphim (angles, burning ones) above the throne who cry out to each other, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory.” The temple was filled with smoke and its foundations shook, Isaiah was terrified, supposing he was disintegrating, “Woe is me, for I am undone, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of people of unclean lips, for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts.”
Up to this point in the story God is gloriously transcendent but not immanent, “dwelling in unapproachable light,” as Paul puts it in 1Timothy 6:16. It is almost too much for the future prophet. He cries out “Woe is me,” as if he is coming apart. This is not a picture of God as the loving father forgiving a wayward son, such as Jesus depicts in the parable of the prodigal son.
What does Isaiah learn about God from this experience? He now knows that God is glorious beyond description. And the angels proclaim his holiness, a prominent theme all through Isaiah. God is glorious and God is holy! That is a lot to say about God, especially if one really knows it. It is to know the transcendence of God.
The other story is about God appearing to Moses in the burning bush, Exodus 3, which emphasizes the immanence of God. The verbs of action (immanence) that God uses in talking to Moses are remarkable: “I have seen the oppression of my people who are in Egypt, and have heard their cry because of their taskmasters, for I know their sorrows. So I have come down to deliver them from the Egyptians, and to bring them up from that land to a good and large land, to a land flowing with milk and honey” (Exodus 3:7-8).
God in this story is not fearful and unapproachable. Moses may have removed his sandals, being on holy ground, but unlike Isaiah he doesn’t become unglued. The difference is that here God is immanent. He enters into human affairs and even makes history. He sees, hears, and knows about the suffering of his people, and he has come down from heaven to earth to deliver them. We sing about ‘Heaven came down and glory filled my soul.’ We are singing of God’s immanence, which finds expression in his grace, “God so loved the world that he gave. . .” When one believes that God hears and answers prayers he believes in the immanence of God.
So when we “understand,” to refer to Jeremiah again, both the transcendence and the immanence of God we really will know him. But only in part. Even in eternity we will never know God in his fullness, for we will always be finite beings, and the finite can never fully comprehend the infinite. We will see God somewhat like Moses saw him. “Show me your glory,” Moses pleaded. God told him that he could not see his face, for one could not see his face and live. But God would allow his glory to pass before him. He placed Moses in the cleft of a rock, and as he passed by he covered Moses’ face with his hand so that he would not see his face. When God took his hand away Moses could see the back of God but not his face (Exodus 33:18-23).
In eternity we, like Moses, see but the back of God – the slightest degree of his splendor and majesty – that will be our glory.