The psalmists declare, “you are near, O Lord” (119:151) and recognize that “it is good to be near God” (73:28). This theme of God’s nearness can be traced throughout the Bible. In some circumstances God is described as being near, at other times more distant. The first humans had the great privilege of living in the Garden of Eden, where God was present with them (Gen 3:8). When they disobeyed the command God had given them, they were banished from the garden and, therefore, from God’s direct presence.
But God did not leave humans on their own, nor did He remain at a distance from them permanently. In the book of Genesis He came near at times to select individuals like Noah and Abraham, relating to them, making promises to them, and making demands upon them. In time, He came near to the nation of Israel and dwelt with them, taking up residence in the tabernacle, which was at the center of their
camp in the wilderness.
God being near to His people results in great blessing. The Psalmist affirms that “The LORD is near to the brokenhearted and saves the crushed in spirit” (34:18), and declares to the Lord, “Blessed is the one you choose and bring near, to dwell in your courts!” (65:4).
The Bible affirms that God being near to us will give us comfort, protection, assurance, and hope. These are some of the blessings that answer the question: “What does God’s nearness do for us?” (or, “How does our closeness to God benefit us?”) But another question answered in the Bible is: “What does God’s nearness do to us?” (or, “How should our closeness to God affect us?”) This question is answered for the Israelites of the Old Testament in Deuteronomy 4:5–10, and the answer given by Moses has ongoing implications for God’s people, who are blessed to be near to Him.
In this passage, Moses first reminds the Israelites that following God’s teachings is essential when they enter the promised land (Deut 4:5). He then asserts that following God’s teachings will result in their “wisdom and understanding,” which should be apparent to the surrounding nations (4:6). Because Israel has been given these teachings (the Law) directly from God, the other nations should take notice when the Israelites live according to God’s guidelines.
The following verse makes the direct connection between Israel’s living according to God’s teachings and their close relationship to Him: “For what great nation is there that has a god so near to it as the LORD our God is to us, whenever we call upon him?” (Deut 4:7). God has come near to Israel and revealed Himself and His will to them. Moses explains that this nearness should result in them being a wise and understanding people. If this is the case, others will recognize something special in the lives of God’s people and come to understand that it was due to their close relationship to God.
The tragic story of the Old Testament is that Israel so often failed to live according to God’s teachings. The prophets came again and again to rebuke them for not living up to their high calling as God’s people. The result of their failure to follow the Law was that their lives so often did not display “wisdom and understanding” and the nations could not see the uniqueness of their God.
Israel’s responsibility to share the blessing of God with the other nations is found in God’s initial call of Abraham: He and the nation that would come from him were to be a blessing to “all the families of the earth” (Gen 12:1–3). We might describe this as Israel’s evangelistic calling. God’s intention was not to limit access to himself to Israel only. He intended to be near to them, and they were to draw others to him as a result.
In Deuteronomy 4:9 Moses warns the Israelites “not to forget the things your eyes have seen . . .” and to “make them known to your children and your children’s children.” Israel had to remember who God was, what He had done for them, and His close relationship to them. When they forgot these things, they so often fell into the sin of worshiping other gods. This failing occurred in spite of the fact that God had set up a worship system that was intended to remind them of His presence among them. The law and its call to holiness, the festivals that commemorated God’s gracious dealings with them—these were given to remind Israel that God was the holy and true God and He lived in their midst. If they remembered their God and what He had done for them, if they recognized His nearness to them, they would be careful to obey His teachings, which would demonstrate their wisdom to the surrounding nations.
Deuteronomy 4:5–10 and its call on Israel to demonstrate this wisdom to the surrounding nations finds a strong parallel in the teaching of Jesus. In Matthew 5:13–14 Jesus describes His followers as “the salt of the earth” and “the light of the world.” In each case, the salt and light stand out and are immediately recognizable by the one tasting or seeing them. Jesus draws out this implication when He calls His followers to “let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven” (5:16). As the other nations were to see Israel’s obedience to God’s teachings and recognize their “wisdom and understanding” (Deut 4:7), others are to see our good works and recognize that they are a result of our relationship with God.
The point of both passages is that those around us should be able to see that we are living in a way that honors Jesus. While there are temptations to conform to the world in all aspects of life—social, relational, economical, political, moral—when we live by God’s wisdom, our lives should be recognizably different. Unfortunately, it seems that the church’s testimony is too often bland and dark (instead of being salt and light) when we forget our closeness to God. We can be distracted from the incredible reality that God dwells in us—that we are the temple of the Holy Spirit. If God Himself dwells inside of us (and He does), then should not others be able to observe our lives and see that we have been affected and transformed by God living in us? Our nearness to God should result in us being more like Him.
Dr. Brian Luther is an associate professor of the Old Testament in the School of Divinity. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.