In evangelical theology, the doctrine of God’s revelation is primary. Man does not ascend into the heavens, nor pull God down to earth (Romans 10:5–17). Rather, we find in Creation and in Scripture that God has spoken and that he is a speaking God (Psalm 19). That said, there is a corollary doctrine that must be remembered—the doctrine of God’s hiddenness.
God is not only a speaking God; he is also a hidden God (Isaiah 45:14). Because of the Fall, every child of Adam and Eve is born outside of Eden and estranged from the God who speaks. To say it differently, while Adam was put in the Garden of Eden to enjoy communion with God, sin made it impossible for man to have immediate access to God. Therefore, in this age, God remains hidden to those in Adam (Rom 5:12–21) and invisible to those who know him, as well (1 Tim 6:16). Accordingly, as much as we consider the doctrine of God’s revelation, we must realize—and stand amazed—that his revelation comes from a position of hiddenness that is equally biblical.
Tracing out a biblical doctrine of hiddenness, A. Oepke and R. Meyer in the Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, provide a thorough-going survey of God’s hiddenness in the Old Testament. Though giving too much credit to the place of mystery religions, which trade in the currency of hiddenness, and employing a higher-critical approach to the Old Testament, they provide a fruitful study understanding the God who hides himself from sinful man.
Therefore, in what follows, I summarize their findings and highlight ten truths about God’s hiddenness and revelation. These ten points are found in their article on the cluster of New Testament words for “hidden” (κρύπτω, ἀποκρύπτω, κρυπτός, κρυφαῖος, κρυφῇ, κρύπτη, ἀπόκρυφος). The general flow of thought and the block quotations all come from their article. Some of the Scripture passages listed below are cited in their work, others have been added in order to flesh out the doctrine of God’s revelation.
Ten Truths About the Hidden God Who Reveals Himself
- Hiddenness denotes an important distinction between Creator and creature.
The Bible testifies that God is hidden to his creatures. He has the freedom to reveal himself, but such revelation requires an elaborate system of mediation for sinful man to know a holy God. Therefore, Oepke and Meyer state,
It is possible that God should make Himself known to the senses. But because of the inaccessibility and consuming holiness of Yahweh, death would normally result (Is. 6:5, etc.). The accent falls on the fact that God alone disposes of Himself and of all being. In distinction from the Greek world, His hiddenness is here regarded as strictly essential and willed.
At the same, the language of God hiding himself (or his face) is typically a word of judgment. For instance, the Bible speaks often about God hiding himself.
- Deuteronomy 31:17 – Then my anger will be kindled against them in that day, and I will forsake them and hide my face from them, and they will be devoured. And many evils and troubles will come upon them, so that they will say in that day, ‘Have not these evils come upon us because our God is not among us?’
- Deuteronomy 32:20 – And he said, ‘I will hide my face from them; I will see what their end will be, for they are a perverse generation, children in whom is no faithfulness.
- Isaiah 45:15 – Truly, you are a God who hides himself, O God of Israel, the Savior.
- Pss 30:7; 104:29; Isaiah 8:17; 54:8; 59:2; 64:7
Similarly, Scripture speaks of God as dwelling in darkness.
- 1 Kings 8:12 – Then Solomon said, “The Lord has said that he would dwell in thick darkness. (2 Chron 6:1; cf. Exod 20:11; Deut 4:11;
- Job 28:21 – [Wisdom] is hidden from the eyes of all living and concealed from the birds of the air.
Therefore, the first thing we should recognize is that hiddenness is not an essential attribute of God, but a work of God in creation that gives a partial explanation to the doctrine of incomprehensibility.
In himself God is light (1 Timothy 6:16; 1 John 1:5), so it would be inappropriate to conclude that he also lives in darkness (1 Kings 8:12). The point is that the God of light is hidden from fallen mankind. Therefore, hiddenness is something that permeates redemptive history, but it is not essential for creation. In the beginning and in the end, God will be revealed. However, the disclosure of divine is entirely in God’s control, and it is not a disclosure of God’s essence but his actions (speech-acts) in the world.
- Nothing is hidden from this God who controls all being.
While God hides himself, nothing is hidden from him. As the eternal creator and sovereign God, he sees all things and knows all things. Nothing can be hidden from him—whether material or immaterial. Sinners cannot hide from him (Jeremiah 16:17; 23:24; Job 34:22), nor anyone else.
- Psalm 139:1–6 – O Lord, you have searched me and known me! 2 You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from afar. 3 You search out my path and my lying down and are acquainted with all my ways. 4 Even before a word is on my tongue, behold, O Lord, you know it altogether. 5 You hem me in, behind and before, and lay your hand upon me. 6 Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is high; I cannot attain it. (cf. Psalm 139:7–18)
- Daniel 2:22 – he reveals deep and hidden things; he knows what is in the darkness, and the light dwells with him.
- Hebrews 4:12–13 – For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart. 13 And no creature is hidden from his sight, but all are naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give account.
- Sinful man tries to flee from the omniscient God.
Though impossible, the sinful condition of fallen man is so great, he will attempt to escape from God’s presence (e.g., Jonah). As Oepke and Meyer put it:
The ungodly lurks like a lion in ambush to rob the poor (Ps 9:29). His purpose is secretly to overthrow the righteous (Pss 9:28; 63:4). They offend in secret (Ez. 8:12; Is. 29:15); they set up their (Dt. 27:15). Aware of his sin, the sinner avoids the light of God: Adam after the fall, Gn. 3:8, 10; the murderer Cain, Gn. 4:14; the thief Achan, Jos. 7:19, 21, 22. When judgment falls, the guilty will try to hide in clefts of the rocks, but in vain, Is. 2:10; cf. 29:14; Jer. 4:29.
- The righteous gives up this useless flight.
When a man is converted, he no longer flees from God but to God. Hiddenness is no longer the way of life; openness is.
He does not hide from God. He discloses everything. This is the prerequisite for the restoration of fellowship. Parallels, which might be adduced from other religions can only serve finally to show with what unique intensity the moral relation to God was experienced on the soil of the Old Testament revelation of God. The righteous, too, is in the first instance in danger of covering his sins, and he gives way to this temptation for a period. But then the hand of God is so heavy on him that he resolves to conceal his misdeeds no more. He now has a sense of relief and blessing (Ps. 32:1–5).
- It is a comfort to the righteous that his way is not hidden from Yahweh and that his supplication is manifest to Him.
Reconciliation changes everything, and those who once hid themselves from God now find their greatest delight in the presence of God. The house of God is the Psalmist greatest desire (cf. Psalm 27:4; 73:28; 84:1–12)
The righteous need not hide from God’s face (Job 13:20). He knows very well that his defects are not concealed (Ps 68:5). But he is also confident that his sighing before God is not hidden (Ps 37:9). Yahweh demands such confidence. The prophet reproachfully asks a people of little faith why it thinks and says that its destiny and cause are hidden from Yahweh (Isa 40:27).
- Yahweh gives the elect a share in His own hidden life.
While this statement can easily be misunderstood as God sharing his divine essence with his elect, or the elect gaining access into the divine nature, this is not what it means. Rather, God works to protect and provide for his people, as they draw near to him. In the Bible, this nearness is related to the temple, and thus, much of the language of hiding in God is related to God’s house—the temple where the covenant is mediated. As Oepke and Meyer summarize,
Yahweh protectively conceals the righteous in His tent in the hour of trouble, Pss 26:5; 30:20. He shelters His servant under the cover of His hand (Is. 49:2). He is a cover for His people against storm and rain (Is. 4:6). His people may go into the chambers and hide until wrath is past (Is. 26:20).
- God also comes forth from His hiddenness.
A significant part of the biblical storyline centers of God revealing himself to his covenant people. While the story begins with Yahweh ejecting Adam and Eve from his holy mountain, there are many encounters of God revealing himself to Noah, Abraham, and his sons. Accordingly, the story of the Bible centers on God’s revelation to his chosen people. As Oepke and Meyer put it:
Yahweh did not conceal anything He planned to do from Abraham (Gn. 18:17). It is customary for Israel’s leaders, especially the prophets, to see what is hidden (Is. 29:10). On the other hand, God’s direction forces the enemies of God’s people to confess that the God of Israel is for them a God who hides Himself, Is. 45:15. Later, the living revelation of the present became less prominent. Past revelation was codified. But the boundaries were thereby extended. Every member of the community who could receive it now had access to the hidden wisdom of God (Ps 118:19). The image of secret treasuries was now used (cf. 1 Macc. 1:23; Daniel 11:43; Is. 45:3; Prv. 2:4).
As the Prophets receive God’s Word and the scriptures are recorded for future generations, God’s revelation is no (entirely) longer dependent on individual experience (like that of Moses and the Prophets), it is dependent on a corpus of revelation. God’s hiddenness is now fully mediated through his Son and the words of the Prophets and Apostles (Heb. 1:1–2).
- Yahweh, however, keeps control over His revelation.
The presence of God’s full revelation in the world does not mean that revelation is out of God’s hands. Because knowledge of God comes from his Word and his Spirit (1 Cor. 2:14–16), he retains full authority and control over his revelation. As Oepke and Meyer state:
If He wills, He may again conceal [his revelation] in judgment. Even the righteous is not spared such experiences. He often conceals His purposes even from His prophets (2 Kings 4:27). Even the righteous know the painful experience of God concealing His face or His ear from him. He prays that this may not happen, and often his prayer is heard, but only as free and unmerited grace (Job 3:23; 13:24; 34:29; Lam. 3:56; cf. Pss 9:31; 21:24; 43:24; 50:9; 68:17; 88:46; 101:2; 142:7. The hiddenness of Yahweh can become almost intolerable. He leads His people into the darkness (Lam. 3:6); He becomes for them a bear or lion in ambush (Lam. 3:10). But Yahweh’s grace is not at an end. His mercy is new every morning. Hence the righteous is still; perhaps there is hope (3:22, 28ff). In prayer, he flees from the hidden God to the revealed God. Such notes are never sounded outside the Bible.
Like with the people of Israel, God can still withhold his light. This is God’s righteous judgment on his people, and those who are his will cry out for the light to dawn on them again.
- The immediate task of the righteous is to hide this treasure in himself.
God’s Word is more precious than gold or silver and sweeter than honey (Ps 19:7–11). Therefore those who have received God’s revelation do not treat it lightly. Rather, they treasure it, seek wisdom from it (Prov 4), and store up his word in their hearts (Ps 119:9–11).
This is the chief aim for God’s people. We are to value God’s word and to store it in our hearts, that it might transform us from one degree of glory to another.
- What God says and does is not to be kept hidden.
At the same time, those who have received knowledge of the hidden God must not keep hidden that knowledge. We are called to bring to light the mystery of Christ. In fact, this is exactly how Paul speaks in the New Testament. In Colossians 4:2–4, Paul prays for success in declaring the mystery of Christ to others. And throughout his letters, he speaks of his ministry as a proclamation of the mystery of Christ—the message of Christ once hidden, now revealed (Rom 16:25; 1 Cor. 2:1; 4:1; Eph. 1:9; 3:3–5; 5:32; 6:19).
In sum, what was once hidden about God’s way of salvation has now been fully revealed in Christ. Therefore, we are called to pray for God’s mercy and to proclaim the message of the gospel, so that those who are currently in darkness (under God’s judgment) might have the light of Christ shine into their hearts (2 Cor 4:4–6). In this way, the hiddenness of God in creation is going away but never does that movement from darkness to light mean that creation is discovering the mysteries of God. Rather, God who dwells in heaven is making himself known to us.
The storyline of the Bible unfolds this mystery, and as we come to the doctrine of God, we must not make the error of natural theology or mysticism, two ways that seek to know God devoid of his personal revelation. Instead, because he has made himself known by his Word, true knowledge comes in the form of the gospel and the revelation of God now contained in the Bible. For this reason, a biblical theology of revelation must include hiddenness and vice versa. Only as we see how God has hidden himself from his creatures do we understand the grace of his revelation. Likewise, only as we see the purpose and power of God’s revelation to overcome our darkness do we begin to have the “tools” necessary to know God.
All in all, man in his status of creature cannot cross the divide to know the Creator. In our nature, we are entirely dependent on God to speak to us. That said, the condition of man in our fallen state is doubly in need. It is not our finitude that prevents us from knowing God; it is also our sinfulness. Therefore, we need God’s grace to speak to us and to enable us to know him.
This is the bedrock of the Christian doctrine of God. Natural theology cannot ascertain who or what God is. Neither can mysticism. We are in need of a word from heaven, and praise be to God he has spoken to us. The question is: Are we listening?
This article first appeared at David’s website and is posted here with his permission.