The Speech and Kingly Presence of God in the Old Testament
The book of Hebrews begins with a divine self-exposure in which the God who “spoke to our fathers” by the prophets of the Old Testament reveals himself to be the God who “has spoken to us by his Son” (Heb. 1:1–2). That is to say, the Christ of the New Testament is not only central to the Old Testament but is its very purpose and consummate goal. Therefore, to read the Bible is to read a book about a God who is self-revealing, and self-revealing ultimately in the person and work of Jesus Christ. This Christ is central and present in the Old Testament through foreshadowing literary elements, covenantal promissory acts of God, and the triune theophanic presence of God. These can be seen by highlighting two central motifs of the Old Testament: the creative speech of God throughout the covenants, and the kingly presence of God in the temple of Israel.
The Speech of God in the Old Testament
The story of the Bible opens with a presumed existent God who “created the heavens and the earth” (Gen. 1:1) through speech: “For he spoke, and it came to be; he commanded, and it stood firm” (Ps. 33:9; cf. Heb. 11:3). The first act of God in history is the very act of him creating history by the word of his power. God’s creative fiat not only shapes the world according to his will but brings the material itself into being. Just as God’s word is his effective instrument in creation, it remains so throughout the Scriptures as God continues to create a covenant people for his name.
The Speech of God in the Covenant
“Now the Lord said to Abram” (Gen. 12:1). As creation began with the very speech of God, so do the covenants. God’s call to Abram was not merely calling him to covenant service, but was rather a covenant-creative speech that “made” Abraham into “a father of many nations,” calling him into the state of existing in covenant service with a new name fitting that new existence (Gen. 17:5). God continues to sovereignly administer and uphold these promises throughout history according to the creative consequence of his word: from the covenant words of Mount Sinai (Exod. 19:1–6) and speaking the covenant of David into existence through “the word of the Lord” (2 Sam. 7:4), to upholding the remnant of Judah through the prophetic speeches of the exiled prophets (Ezek. 1:3). This is the God of Scripture who speaks and it is done, for “God is not man, that he should lie, or a son of man, that he should change his mind. Has he said, and will he not do it? Or has he spoken, and will he not fulfill it?” (Num. 23:19). This covenant-creative speech of God continues in the New Testament: “For God, who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Cor. 4:6).
The Speech of God in Wisdom
As the covenant speech of promise made to David continues its creative consequence from David to Solomon, the covenant-speech of wisdom begins to shape the everyday life of the covenant people. Both the books of Psalms and Proverbs are central to Wisdom literature, and both begin with the fear of the Lord (Ps. 2:11; Prov. 1:7), proving that all Wisdom literature has its purpose and results in guiding the covenant people to “fear God and keep his commandments” (Eccles. 12:13). God’s speech is not just a covenant-creative act in the relational founding of the covenant. Rather, God’s speech is also a covenant-creative act that impacts, inspires, and sustains trusting reverence in the covenant king of Israel (Prov. 3:6)—whether through sufferings and trials as in the book of Job, or in the foundations of marriage as in the Song of Solomon.
The Speech of God in the Prophets
But this wisdom of God did not remain the foundation of Israel’s piety before the Lord, and therefore God spoke against them: “Hear this word that the Lord has spoken against you, O people of Israel, against the whole family that I brought up out of the land of Egypt” (Amos 3:1; cf. Mic. 6:9). The pre-exilic prophets are concerned with God’s covenant lawsuit as it is spoken against the people of Israel (Amos 3:1–2, 13; Hos. 4:1–3) and Judah (Mic. 6:1–2). The covenant speech of God is not only creative and sustaining, but it is also destructive in judgment. Due to Israel’s and Judah’s covenant unfaithfulness, God speaks judgment upon them that swiftly comes to pass through their exile. This judgment is a famine not “of bread, nor a thirst for water, but of hearing the words of the Lord” (Amos 8:11).
From the voice of God in Genesis 1:1–3 that created all things, to the silence of God in Amos 8:11, the Old Testament tells a story of a God who once spoke to a holy people but who remains silent at the close of its canon. Therefore, the speech of God is a central theme for the Old Testament Scriptures, from its first verses to its last, where God promises “a decree of utter destruction” (Mal. 4:6) that leads to four hundred years of judgment in silence.
The Kingly Presence of God in the Old Testament
The kingly presence of God is a central theme throughout all of Scripture, and it is most clearly associated with the temple of God. Even the Garden of Eden, with its guarding cherubim found in both the garden and the temple (Gen. 3:24; 1 Kings 6:27), is seen throughout Scripture as a tabernacle of the presence of God in which he walked “back and forth” (Gen. 3:8; cf. 2 Sam. 7:6–7). Furthermore, as the Spirit of God “hovered” over the face of the earth that was “without form” (Gen. 1:2), so this same Spirit “hovered” over the people of God throughout the exodus in the “wilderness” (Deut. 32:10–11). Therefore, beginning with the Garden of Eden, the earthly temple of Israel was representative to a supernatural condescension of the heavenly temple-presence of God the king (1 Kings 8:11; cf. Isa. 6:4; Ezek. 1:4). As all creation began with the kingly presence of God “in the beginning” (Gen. 1:2), so the narrative ends with the kingly rest of God (Gen. 2:1–3). This Sabbath rest of God is the divine self-enthronement, announcing God’s kingship over all creation.
The Presence of God in the Kingdom
Although God would rule and reign through Moses (Deut. 33:4–5) from his tabernacle-throne (Exod. 40:34), God knew that someday Israel would beg for an earthly king “like all the nations that are around” them (Deut. 17:14–20). That day did come, and just as God had promised David (2 Sam. 7), his son Solomon built the temple of God in Jerusalem. Upon its completion, “a cloud filled the house of the Lord . . . for the glory of the Lord filled the house of the Lord” (1 Kings 8:10–11). This cloud, a theophanic presence of God in his ruling glory—which was present in the garden, at the institution of the Abrahamic covenant (Gen. 15:17), and which led Israel out of Egypt and filled the tabernacle—now finds a permanent dwelling in the temple of Jerusalem. Here in the temple, God’s glory-presence once again implements the self-attainment of sabbatical rest, proclaiming as he did in creation his own kingly rule. But as seen above, the prophets warn Israel of forfeiting this presence by not heeding the voice of God.
The Presence of God in the Exile and After
“Then the glory of the Lord went out from the threshold of the house, and stood over the cherubim. And the cherubim lifted up their wings and mounted up from the earth before my eyes” (Ezek. 10:18–19). Ezekiel saw the glory cloud of God depart the temple and vacate his presence from the nation of Israel. Due to Israel’s continual covenant unfaithfulness, God brought full judgment upon them by removing his presence and by removing them from the presence of the Promised Land. But even in judgment, God, “the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel,” remained present (Jer. 29:4), preserving a remnant and promising that “he who is left in Zion and remains in Jerusalem will be called holy, everyone who has been recorded for life in Jerusalem” (Isa. 4:3). This promise of a remnant seems fulfilled in Ezra and Nehemiah, as the people of God return to their land and to Jerusalem. Yet, while the Hebrew Scriptures close with Cyrus of Persia’s decree for the return (2 Chron. 36:22–23), Malachi shows that this return does not bring a full realization of the promised return of God or the piety that describes a royal priesthood, a holy nation (Mal. 1:6).
Beginning with Adam’s exile from the garden and ending with God’s glory cloud departing the temple, the Old Testament points to a day when the promise of a remnant is truly fulfilled: “In that day the branch of the Lord shall be beautiful and glorious, and the fruit of the land shall be the pride and honor of the survivors of Israel” (Isa. 4:2). Yes, on that day, the presence of God will be “over the whole site of Mount Zion and over her assemblies” in the form of “a cloud of smoke by day and a glow of flaming fire by night; over everything the glory will be a canopy” (Isa. 4:5). This is the day of Jesus Christ, the coming of the true branch of the Lord.
The Promised Christ as the Theme of the Old Testament
Adam’s failure to speak righteousness and holiness to Eve as she gave him the fruit was a failure of Adam’s duty as prophet to speak on behalf of God (Gen. 2:20). The Old Testament depicts the seed of Adam following in the steps of their father, failing to heed the voice of God (Zech. 7:11). Just the same, Adam’s failure to “work and keep” the garden, leading to the presence of the serpent, was a failure of Adam’s duty as priest to guard the temple-garden of God from unrighteousness (Gen. 2:15; cf. Num. 3:7–8; 8:25–26; 18:5–6). Once again, the seed of Adam follows in his steps, failing to work and keep the temple (Mal. 1:7). Finally, Adam’s failure to subdue creation, including the serpent, was a failure of Adam’s duty as king to rule with dominion over creation (Gen. 1:28). Continuing the story, Adam’s seed fails to have dominion over creation as vice-regent kings (2 Chron. 36:11–16).
From the beginning to the very end, the Old Testament undoubtedly manifests the need for a better prophet, a better priest, and a better king. This promised “Anointed One” of God (Dan. 9:25–26) would not only prophetically speak on behalf of God but would be the very “Word of God” (John 1:1–5) as promised (Deut. 18:15–18; cf. Acts 3:22–23; 7:37). He would not merely work and keep the temple of God as priest, mediating God’s presence, but would be the very presence of God himself: Immanuel, “God with us” (Matt. 1:23; cf. Isa. 7:14). Finally, this promised child, born of the seed of David, would be a great king over every nation whose kingdom would have no end (Ezek. 37:25; Rev. 11:15).
This prophet, priest, and king is Christ, the “last Adam” (1 Cor. 15:45) whom God promised would crush the head of the serpent (Gen. 3:15), the very wisdom of God “in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” (Col. 2:3). He is the promised one of God who is “Lord of the Sabbath” (Matt. 12:1–8), and he is our Sabbath rest. He lives forever to proclaim God’s kingly presence over the re-creation that is the church, offering true Sabbath rest as the tabernacle of God and the holy Word from heaven (Matt. 11:28–30), and promising final rest in the presence of God for all those “who have believed” (Heb. 4:3). Ultimately, Christ is the very heart of the Old Testament, as he himself revealed to his disciples when “beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself” (Luke 24:27). Here is the purpose and consummate goal of the Old Testament, the very voice of the Lord, and his eternal kingly presence in the person and work of Jesus Christ.
Cody S. Edds holds an associate’s degree in mass communication and a bachelor’s degree in biblical studies with a focus in redemptive-historical hermeneutics. He and his wife, Amber, are members of Christ Reformed Baptist Church in Lookout Mountain, Tennessee.