You make known to me the path of life;
in your presence there is fullness of joy;
at your right hand are pleasures forevermore.
Psalm 16, we’re told, is a Psalm of David – ie. the King.
Both Peter and Paul quote verse (Acts 2:27, 13:35) in direct reference to Jesus and the resurrection. David, while initially speaking of himself, was actually speaking prophetically, of the promised descendent of his who would establish the Kingdom forever.
What does this mean? That we will only know the benefits of fullness of joy in the presence of God as we are united to him, and receive from Him all he has to give us in his grace.
A king dos not live to himself, but is there for the benefit of those over whom he rules. Whatever benefits the King receives flows (or should, if he is a good king!) through to those who are citizens of his kingdom. Notice verse 3: ‘As for the saints in the land, they are the excellent ones,
in whom is all my delight.’ This king who is speaking is one who loves his people, and he finds delight in them, and so he is willing to share all the good things he has with them.
Joy in God’s presence, Pleasures at His right hand.
This does not mean that all experiences of joy and pleasure are necessarily an experience of the presence of God. That is paganism. David is saying that there are some very specific joys and pleasures that come only from God’s presence.
You may have seen these verses on plaques that people have in their gardens:
The kiss of the sun for pardon,
The song of the birds for mirth, –
One is nearer God’s heart in a garden
Than anywhere else on earth. (Dorothy Gurney)
This seems to be saying that the simple pleasure of being in nature somehow brings us close to God (or God lose to us). The Scriptures nowhere makes such a claim. It tells us that creation declares God’s glory, and gives us irrefutable evidence of his power, but it does not have the ability to bring us into his presence.
This verse is often quoted in isolation, out of context of the rest of her poem. the next verse reads:
For He broke it for us in a garden
Under the olive-trees
Where the angel of strength was the warden
And the soul of the world found ease.
See how she is saying that the benefit a garden has in bringing us near to God’s heart was because it should remind us of the fact that Jesus’ suffering for us that led him to the cross began in a garden. I imagine that she would be very disappointed to think that people are using her poem to suggest that we can somehow get direct access to God through a garden apart from knowing the crucified, risen Jesus!
So what are the pleasures David speaks of that come from God’s presence?
5-6 – The Lord himself. What other ultimate reason should we have for being in God’s presence than God himself? ‘chosen portion’ ‘cup’ and ‘lot’ are all words related to ‘inheritance’. The ultimate in joy is not the things God gives us, but the giving of God himself to us. Do you want to come to God the get things from him – or do you want to come to Him for Himself?
Flowing from the joy of having God Himself are many good things:
7 – Counsel, instruction. He guides us and gives wisdom. There is joy in knowing clearly the way in which God wants us to walk.
8 – Security. There is joy in being free from fear; knowing that we stand firm because – and notice this – the Lord is at our right hand!
9-10 Comfort in life and death. This is not saying that he will not die – but that even in death he will know that the Lord is with him, and because of this he has the sure hope of the resurrection.
These are the good things that we are to pursue – wisdom in life, freedom from fear, and comfort in death – and they are things that no matter how much we try to find them anywhere else or try to manufacture ourselves, we will only ever find them in the presence of God.
The word for ‘presence’ here is the Hebrew word, ‘face’. To be in God’s presence, is to have His face turned towards you.
In 1986 South Australia celebrated 150 years of being declared a colony. I was part of a school choir that performed at a concert that also featured John Farnham. I thought at the time is was a great thing to share the stage with a rock star. However, after the concert, as we were hanging out backstage, John Farnham himself walked past, stopped, looked at me and said ‘Gday mate’, and shook my hand. That was something altogether different to just sharing the same space with him. He had actually noticed me and acknowledged me. I doubt he ever tells the story of that night when he got to shake my hand.
To be in the presence of God is not simply to be in the same proximity as him. it is to know his face turned towards me; to know that he sees me and acknowledges me and welcomes me – and unlike John Farnham – will never forget me.
This idea is at the heart of how the Israelites were to understand who their God is:
22 The Lord spoke to Moses, saying, 23 “Speak to Aaron and his sons, saying, Thus you shall bless the people of Israel: you shall say to them,
24 The Lord bless you and keep you;
25 the Lord make his face to shine upon you and be gracious to you;
26 the Lord lift up his face upon you and give you peace.
27 “So shall they put my name upon the people of Israel, and I will bless them.”
These three lines are in parallel to each other: they are three ways of saying the same thing. So for the Lord to bless you, is for Him to make his face shine upon you, and to lift up His face upon you – in other words, to be truly blessed by God is to see his face, and to know that His face sees you.
The God who sees me
There is a beautiful story in the Scriptures that illustrates this. Hagar, the servant of Sarai, was essentially compelled to sleep with Abraham so that he could have a son. When she became pregnant, she had a falling our with Sarai, and was sent away. Then the Lord came to her:
7 The angel of the Lord found her by a spring of water in the wilderness, the spring on the way to Shur. 8 And he said, “Hagar, servant of Sarai, where have you come from and where are you going?” She said, “I am fleeing from my mistress Sarai.” 9 The angel of the Lord said to her, “Return to your mistress and submit to her.” 10 The angel of the Lord also said to her, “I will surely multiply your offspring so that they cannot be numbered for multitude.” 11 And the angel of the Lord said to her,
“Behold, you are pregnant
and shall bear a son.
You shall call his name Ishmael,
because the Lord has listened to your affliction.
12 He shall be a wild donkey of a man,
his hand against everyone
and everyone’s hand against him,
and he shall dwell over against all his kinsmen.”
13 So she called the name of the Lord who spoke to her, “You are a God of seeing,” for she said, “Truly here I have seen him who looks after me.” 14 Therefore the well was called Beer-lahai-roi; it lies between Kadesh and Bered. (Genesis 16:7-14)
To encounter ‘The Angel of the Lord’ is to encounter the Lord Himself. By bringing God’s words to people, the angel brings to them God’s very presence, such that all who encounter the Angel of the Lord speak of seeing and hearing God Himself. Some Bible scholars think that the Angel of the Lord is actually a pre-incarnate manifestation of God the Son. See how he finds her as she is in a place of abandonment in the wilderness. This encounter with Him leads her to call him, ‘The God who sees me’ and to realise that she had ‘seen him who looks after me’, and the place is called a name that means, ‘The Well of the Living One Who Sees Me.’ This is not a god who sits high and distant on his throne and sees me like I see ants in the dirt; He is the God who seeks and finds people in the wilderness – not only in a literal sense, because the wilderness in which she sat was symbolic of the wilderness that lay within her heart, and well by which she sat was symbolic of the fountain of life that was the Lord Himself who came to her, and made his face shine upon her and turned towards her to look at her and see her.
To be in the presence of God is to know His face turned towards us with grace; to have his favour rest upon us; to be blessed by him and to know His peace.
We will see in this series that there are times when people know His face turned towards them not in favour, but in wrath; when coming into the presence of the living God is to know Him as a consuming fire. And there are times when His own people experience God (actually or seemingly) hiding his face from them. His face is hidden when he judges and exiles Israel, with the strong language of casting them out from his presence (eg. 1 Kings 9:7). This reminds us that His favourable presence among us has always been His prerogative, not ours. We cannot force God to manifest Himself; He makes himself present to us by sovereign grace.
But we will see that His hidden face is neither His final absence, not his wrathful presence (as is the case with his enemies). Rather, it is a disciplining judgement of love, and always is a prelude to redemption and restoration back into His favour and presence.
We will see that the presence of God is not just an intellectual concept; it is not the philosopher’s theory that God is omnipresent – present everywhere all the time, because if He is God then there cannot be a place within His creation where He is not. If the presence of God brings fullness of joy and eternal pleasures, that means His presence is something to be experienced: it is a tangible reality, known in the fruit of joy and pleasure. The Christian life should not be merely knowing good and right ideas; it should be living ‘before the face of God’. Christian writer Oz Guiness writes:
“Only madmen, geniuses, and supreme egotists do things purely for themselves. It is easy to buck a crowd, not too hard to march to a different drummer. But it is truly difficult- perhaps impossible- to march only to your own drumbeat. Most of us- whether we are aware of it or not, do things with an eye to the approval of some audience or other. The question is not whether we have an audience but which audience we have. This observation underscores another vital feature of the truth of calling: A life lived listening to the decisive call of God is a life lived before an audience that trumps all others- the audience of One.”
Oz Guiness, The Audience of One
To live before the face of God – every moment knowing that He is the God who Sees, will only be a fearful thing to someone who is not assured of His grace and favour. Do you know God as the one who comes to condemn and frighten you into doing the right thing? Or do you know Him as the Father who comes to embrace you as His child in Jesus Christ; who has washed you clean from all your sin so that you may stand spotless and blameless in his presence?
There is something that is worse that being fearful of God’s presence, and that is being complacent about it. To think that both his wrath and his love are such trivial notions that the whole idea of being in His presence is just irrelevant to you and how you live your life. I am speaking here not just to non-Christians, but to Christians. Do we live our Christian life as if it’s just about following a set of principles or ideas, or do we will with a real, vital sense of being before the face of God?
As I said, this reality of being in the presence of God, or before his face, can only be known in Jesus Christ. Remember, it is the King who said, ‘In your presence is fullness of joy,’ and so it is only as our king Jesus shares the joy of the Father’s presence with us that we too will be able to share in his joy. He spoke of this when he was praying for us:
But now I am coming to you, and these things I speak in the world, that they may have my joy fulfilled in themselves. (John 17:13)
See that Jesus coming into the presence of the Father results in his joy becoming our joy! That’s because when he comes into the Father’s presence he brings us with him. This is no mere nice idea. He didn’t say, ‘that they may have some of my joy’ – but ‘my joy fulfilled in them’ or as the NIV puts it, ‘the full measure of my joy within them’. That’s a very bold claim to make. The joy that the eternal Son has, who has always been at the centre of the Father’s love for all eternity, is to be our joy.
Do you want to know that joy? It is right and good and even mandatory for us to seek the fullness of the joy that the Son has in the presence of the Father.
If by the end of this series on the presence of God none of us have come to a place of deeper joy in Him, then it will all be a waste of time. We should be open to Him doing things among us that we may not expect – things that will increase our Joy and bring glory to Him. We cannot manufacture God’s presence or make Him come any closer to us than He already is, but we do have a solemn duty to come before Him and seek His face so that we may rejoice in Him.