The conventional wisdom is that God is just like a religious Santa Claus: nice, gentle, and tame. In other words, a God totally unknown to the Israelites.
The Israelites Were Afraid at Sinai
In Exodus 19 we read of the intense preparations the Israelites take before the theophany on Mt. Sinai. This is the first contact the ordinary Israelites have ever had with the Lord, and they are terrified.
And So Is Everyone Else
Terror is actually the universal sentiment in scripture when ever anyone meets with God or his angels. Even in the New Testament, the human response to a theophany (a divine appearance) is always fear:
- Remember the shepherds in Luke’s account of Christmas, keeping watch over their flocks by night? The first thing the angel of the Lord says to them is “Fear not!” [Luke 2:10].
- On the Mount of Transfiguration, even Peter is terrified at the temporary vision he, James, and John are given of the true nature of Jesus. When they hear the voice of God, they fall to the ground in terror [Matthew 17:6].
- On the road to Damascus, Paul also falls to the ground in fear after hearing the voice of the risen Christ [Acts 9:4].
Scripture is clear: the majesty of God is terrible to behold.
Her Majesty is Not AmusedWe should not be surprised that divine majesty is as serious as something can be. Even 21st century interactions with human majesty require clear protocol and produce respect and solemnity. Consider the rules that even the American President has to observe when he meets with Her Majesty. For example, it is considered reprehensible to ever turn your back on the queen. Why? Because majesty provokes respect.
“All Rise”We don’t have a king or queen in this country, but we do have the law, and the law is majestic and terrible. The law has the power of life and death over the people. When the judge enters the courtroom, everyone stands out of respect, not of the person of the judge, but of the law which the judge represents. Only God is greater than the law.
God is Not Tame
It shouldn’t be surprising that a divine appearance is terrible. Moses was right to prepare the people. Any God worth the title is by definition greater than anyone of whom we can conceive. Our pop culture versions of the Santa Claus God betray our lack of honest imagination.
To paraphrase C.S. Lewis, God is good, but he is not tame.
No, it’s not surprising that God is terrible and majestic. But do you know what is surprising?
That the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, full of grace and truth [John 1:14].
The Incarnation? That’s surprising in the best possible way.