God’s nearness to us — nearer than our inmost being, as St. Augustine puts it — is one of the great comforts of our faith.
Yet, in Jeremiah 23:23, God, speaking through the prophet, stresses His distance:
Am I a God near at hand only and not a God far off?
This verse seems to offer a harsh reality check, and yet, it brings its own special consolation. Read on its face, there is kind of a realism to it akin to Job’s acceptance of His fate: “Shall we accept only good and not also evil from God?” (Job 2:10; note that Job is not saying God causes evil, only that He permits it). Likewise here: Is God only close and not also distant? Confronting the truth in our naked humanity and staring into the abyss of our nothingness before God brings a certain the kind of comfort that comes with accepting the reality of one’s situation.
In context, the statement takes on new meaning. God is denouncing the false prophets. His declaration that He is also a God who is ‘far off’ is meant to convey the truth that He is everywhere and no deceitful prophet can hide from Him. Saying He is both near and far is akin to Christ identifying Himself as the beginning and the end, the Alpha and the Omega in the Book of Revelation.
This interpretation is confirmed by the next verse in Jeremiah:
Can anyone hide in secret
without my seeing them?
Do I not fill
heaven and earth?
Although the truth of God’s omnipresence comes across with a punitive edge here it is also consoling. God’s farness means that wherever we go there He will be. We cannot run away from Him. As Psalm 139:7-10 says,
Where can I go from your spirit?
From your presence, where can I flee?
If I ascend to the heavens, you are there;
if I lie down in Sheol, there you are.
If I take the wings of dawn
and dwell beyond the sea,
Even there your hand guides me,
your right hand holds me fast.
That we cannot escape from His presence is a great comfort. Because, try as we might, we never want to be in a place where there is no God.
Put another way, the declaration of Jeremiah 23:23 means that God is always near. As the nineteenth century Anglican commentator Charles John Ellicott writes,
The true prophet feels that He is equally near, equally God, in all places alike. Familiar as the word omnipresence is to us—so familiar as almost to have lost its power—the fact, when we realise it, is as awful now as it was when it presented itself to the souls of Patriarch, Psalmist, or Prophet.
The commentator’s phrase ‘equally God’ is a key aspect to God’s omnipresence. God is not some spiritual ether stretched out from heaven over the expanse of the whole universe. There is not ‘more of God’ in heaven and ‘less of Him’ here on earth. This follows from the doctrine of God’s absolute simplicity. God is not made up of parts and He is not a compound of things. Otherwise He could lose ‘part’ of Himself. If that could happen He would not be God.
The doctrine of divine omnipresence thus means that God is equally God everywhere. This is the great comfort of His being a God both ‘near’ and ‘far.’ We cannot lose God’s presence, nor can we run away from it.
True, God may sometimes feel absent to us. In such times we feel compelled to seek Him. The doctrine of divine omnipresence means we can be assured of finding Him if we truly look for Him (Jeremiah 29:13).
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