By now, the novelty of winter has certainly worn away. All of the childlike wonder that accompanies the first snows of the season are long since forgotten in the bitterness of bone chilling cold. Well, that is true if you live in certain parts of the Northern Hemisphere. If you are fortunate to reside in warmer locations, try not to gloat.
Thoreau, writing on the coldest day of 1855, noted the old saying that “by the 1st of February the meal and grain for a horse are half out.” He spent the rest of that frozen month skating on the local rivers. We are likewise inclined to the introspection of imposed solitude when reflection comes easily, if not with a friendly face.
Like the wheel of the liturgical year, the earth’s seasons mirror those of our life, and now is the perfect time for context. As Patricia Hampl wrote in A Romantic Education “And what else was there to do in the winter? Stay inside and read. Or write. Stay inside and dream. Stay inside and look, safely, outside. The Muse might as well be invited—who else would venture out?”
Enjoy the season my friend. As Shelly said “If winter comes, can spring be far behind?”
As long as the earth endures, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night, shall not cease.
“Poetry strips the veil of familiarity from the world, and lays bear the naked and sleeping beauty which is the spirit of its forms.”
1 Then Job answered the LORD: 2 “I know that thou canst do all things, and that no purpose of thine can be thwarted. 3 ‘Who is this that hides counsel without knowledge?’ Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know. 4 ‘Hear, and I will speak; I will question you, and you declare to me.’ 5 I had heard of thee by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees thee; 6 therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes.”
The great theologian Mike Tyson said “Everybody has a plan until they get hit.” Well, he might have been talking about boxing but that’s pretty good theology too. There is a big difference between knowing about God and knowing God. In the Bible, every time God appears to man the result is the same; fear and trembling. It’s easy to think all of this is limited to old stories about other people, but God still does this, and it always stuns to silence when the infinite intersects with the finite.
In his book Out of the Depths, Ken Kovacs writes:
At one point (or many), we all hit a similar wall when we realize that our perspectives are too narrow and limited and we’re called (or sometimes forced) to yield to a wider frame of knowing. In his essay A Defense of Poetry, written in 1821, poet Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822) said that poetry “purges the film of familiarity which obscures from us the wonder of our being”. Something of the same is required in order for us to “see” God. The “film of familiarity” is wiped away and we’re allowed to see something anew. Job confronts the inadequacy of his former ways of framing the world. His new experience yields a wider, more comprehensive view of reality, of justice, even of God. It’s a gracious reframing of his world, his self, the God he thought he knew—something far more profound and expansive. Job’s vision changes everything.
Describe a time in your life when God revealed Himself.
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.
Kenneth E. Kovacs is pastor of the Catonsville Presbyterian Church, Catonsville, Maryland, and has served congregations in St. Andrews, Scotland, and Mendham, New Jersey. Ken studied at Rutgers College, Yale Divinity School, Princeton Theological Seminary, and received his Ph.D. in practical theology from the University of St. Andrews, St. Andrews, Scotland. He is also an analyst-in-training at the C. G. Jung Institute-Zürich. Author of The Relational Theology of James E. Loder: Encounter & Conviction (New York: Peter Lang, 2011) and Out of the Depths: Sermons and Essays (Parson’s Porch, 2016), his current research areas include C. G. Jung and contemporary Christian experience. Ken has served on the board of the Johnson C. Smith Theological Seminary in Atlanta, is a current board member of the Presbyterian Writers Guild, and a book reviewer for The Presbyterian Outlook.
The word ‘theophany’ does not actually occur in the Bible. It comes from two roots which combine to give the literal meaning, ‘appearance of God’. In Scripture a theophany is a localized, formal and personal manifestation of God.
Two primary principles provide the context for theophanies: (1) Being omnipresent, God cannot be and is not limited to a particular place and time (1 Kings 8:27; Ps. 139:7–10; Is. 55:8–9). Therefore, theophanies do not abrogate his omnipresence.
(2) The Bible teaches that all of creation reveals God (e.g. Ps. 19:1–6; Rom. 1:20). God has designed and formed the creation in such a way that it mirrors his attributes, character and person. However, the fallenness of human beings prevents them from interpreting this general revelation properly (Rom. 1:21ff.). Therefore God has provided special revelation (Scripture) for the particular purpose of redeeming humanity. Theophanies are phenomena within special revelation.
So seeing God’s power in the forces of nature or seeing his beauty in the beauty of creation is not a theophany as such. Theophanies are always accompanied by verbal revelation which clearly identifies God. In theophanies God reveals himself to be known, i.e. he is personal.
That theophanies are redemptive in character can be seen from the first instance, where God appeared to Adam and Eve in the garden after the Fall (Gen. 3:8), and through the final form of Christ, God incarnate (Rev. 1:13ff.). Whenever God revealed himself in this manner it indicated some significant event in the advancement of his programme of redemption, such as a renewed pledge of faithfulness (Gen. 15), the imminent judgment of his enemies (Exod. 14) or the commissioning of his prophet with a message for his people (Is. 6).
The forms of theophanies
Theophanies occur in a variety of forms, including storms, fire and clouds and are usually accompanied by auditory phenomena such as a voice or thunder. There are often tactile accompaniments such as heat, coolness and earth tremors. There are instances in which the form is not described, and all we are told is that God appeared (e.g. Gen. 12:1; 17:1; 35:9; 1 Sam. 3:21; 1 Kings 9:2; 2 Chron. 7:12). In these cases, the content of the encounters is the guide to their significance. It is the words of God which, for the reader of Scripture, constitute the importance of the meeting, since the form is not reported to us. However, where the form is indicated, it is an additional pointer to the significance of the encounter (see ‘The Angel of the LORD’ and ‘The glory cloud’ below).
Dreams and visions may be considered as both distinct from yet similar to theophanies. Dreams involve an imprint upon the subject which is psychical rather than sensory (e.g. Gen. 28:10ff.). Nevertheless, the same principles apply. The form is adapted to the particular purpose of the encounter. Visions, it may be argued, are sensory, but they are in fact distinct from material theophanies. Both dreams and visions are more ‘flexible’ than theophanies because they are not bound to the space and time limits of material.
The glory cloud
The two dominant forms of theophanies in Scripture are the glory cloud and the Angel of the LORD. The most vivid appearance of the glory cloud was that which began at Mt Sinai (Exod. 19:16), where Moses received the Law of God, and continued through the wilderness period. It must have been massive both in size and effect, for the Israelites ‘trembled and stood at a distance’ (Exod. 20:18). This response was consistent with God’s demands in the situation, for the mountain was off-limits to the people (19:12, 21, 24). Only Moses and the leaders of Israel could ascend the mountain (24:9ff.). The significance of this can be found in the association which this thunderous, fiery presence would have evoked.
One association would have pertained to common perceptions of deity in Israel’s cultural context. The Canaanite deities Baal and El were associated with the thunderstorm and the mountains. As the chief deities in the Canaanite pantheon, they were thought to dwell in the mountains. Critics argue that this association with the God of Israel was an incorporation of pantheistic notions into Israelite religion, but in fact quite the opposite is the case. God, in effect, was coopting this association to declare himself the God above all gods. It was he, and not Baal, who was the true and living God. Rather than Baal, it was Yahweh (the LORD) who ‘makes the clouds his chariot’ and ‘walks upon the wings of the wind’ (Ps. 104:3). It was Yahweh to whom was due exclusive and complete devotion (Exod. 20:3).
A second association with the storm theophany, which constitutes a pervasive OT theme, is between the heavenly courts and the glory cloud. God’s throne was regarded as beyond the skies, concealed by the clouds and filled with light. Whenever Scripture provides a glimpse of God’s heavenly throne, this conception is affirmed (e.g. Is. 6). The significance is that God had established his throne presence in Israel’s midst. The connection was clear when the glory cloud took up abode in the Tabernacle and, subsequently, in the Temple. This presence brought the blessings of divine protection and justice and made ethical demands. Israel’s special responsibility to be a kingdom of priests and a holy nation (Exod. 19:6) was directly related to the immediate divine presence in their midst, beginning at Sinai and continuing in their life in the land of Canaan.
This understanding of the glory cloud would have been extended by the Israelites to prior theophanies. In particular we may think of the smoking oven and flaming torch (Gen. 15:17) which passed between the animal pieces as a sign of divine commitment to Abraham. Early Israel, as the original audience of Genesis, would have understood that the God who made the covenant with Abraham was the same God who manifested himself on the mountain and who would accompany them through the wilderness. The pledge, ‘To your descendants I have given this land’ (Gen. 15:18) would have been theirs too as they moved towards Canaan. The glory cloud theophany is identified functionally with the Holy Spirit (e.g. Neh. 9:19–20; Is. 63:11–14; Hag. 2:5). This identification is confirmed in the consummate descent of God’s glory/Spirit upon believers, the new abode of God (1 Pet. 2:5), at Pentecost, constituting the true Israel (Acts 2:1–4).
The Angel of the LORD
The other dominant form of theophany in Scripture is the Angel of the LORD, the appearance of a human form which is frequently identified as God. Not all appearances of this special angel are so identified (e.g. 2 Sam. 24:16). But in the vast majority of cases the identification is clear, variously made by explicit claims (e.g. Exod. 3:15), possession of divine attributes (Gen. 16:10), receiving worship (Josh. 5:14), accepting sacrifices (Judg. 13:19–23), being called God (Judg. 13:22) and forgiving/remembering sins (Exod. 23:21). Instances of the Angel of the LORD include Abraham’s encounter with the three angels near Sodom and Gomorrah (Gen. 18), Lot’s visit in Sodom (Gen. 19), Hagar in the wilderness (Gen. 21:9–21), Abraham at Mt Moriah (Gen. 22:1–19), Jacob at Peniel (Gen. 32:24–32), Moses at the burning bush (Exod. 3:1–6, 13–16), Israel in the wilderness (Exod. 23:20), Balaam on the road (Num. 22), Israel at Bochim (Judg. 2), Gideon at Ophrah (Judg. 6:11–24), Samson’s parents (Judg. 13), Elijah in the wilderness (1 Kings 19:1–8), Elijah after Ahab’s death (2 Kings 1:3, 15), the Assyrians near Jerusalem (2 Kings 19:35), Zechariah in his night visions and Daniel in the fiery furnace (Dan. 3:25).
The fundamental significance of this figure is in the posture of a warrior, manifested for the protection of God’s people and for leading God’s army in battle. In the patriarchal period he was a defender on the clan level (Gen. 15:1), but from the period of the Exodus onwards he was the leader of an army (Josh. 5:14).
God’s condescension to a temporary human form communicated to Israel that he was their defender and protector. They were to see their need to trust in him rather than in the strength of their own numbers. They also were to anticipate the theophany par excellence which was to come in Jesus Christ. The Angel of the LORD as God taking human form quite naturally anticipated the permanent abode in flesh that God would assume at the incarnation. Both Jesus and the Angel are called ‘Lord’ (Gen. 16:7; John 20:28) and ‘God’ (Gen. 48:15–16; Heb. 1:8); they both claimed to be ‘I AM’ (Exod. 3:2–14; John 8:58), lead and guide God’s people (Exod. 14:19; Matt. 28:20) and are commanders of the Lord’s army (Josh. 5:13–15; Rev. 19:11–14). The parallels are substantial enough that the Angel of the LORD is frequently termed a ‘Christophany’—a pre-incarnate, temporary manifestation of the second Person of the Trinity.
Beyond his identification with the Angel of the LORD, Jesus Christ is the consummate theophany in that he is the permanent and complete joining of the divine and human natures in one Person. ‘The Word became flesh and lived for a while among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth’ (John 1:14). Surpassing all the theophanies of the OT, Christ came as the throne room of God (being the final Temple, John 2:19–21), a full manifestation of God (Col. 2:9) bringing God’s consummate Word to humanity (Heb. 1:1–3). As such he saves undeserving sinners, not through their own efforts but through his inestimable grace (Titus 3:4); he makes ethical demands of us to live in accordance with his character (Titus 2:11) and he leads the armies of heaven in the defence of his people and in the defeat of their enemies (Rev. 2:16).
Paul Douglas Gardner, New International Encyclopedia of Bible Characters: The Complete Who’s Who in the Bible (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 2001), 641–644.