Number 33. Shekinah
Tom Hamilton


I looked for the word high and low in the Old Testament, but could find it nowhere. It was only when I turned to other Jewish writings that I found The word mentioned.

The word shekinah means "abiding". The fact that, down throughout the ages, the Jews have given it a special name, signifies the important place it has held in their history and traditions.

The Shekinah was a visible, miraculous gesture on the behalf of God as a token of His abiding presence and power among Israel.

I found the word in the Mishnah. It sheds significant light upon many passages in the Old and New Testaments. Consider the following:- Jesus, (said John in John 1:14 ), "tabernacled amongst us". Why the word tabernacle?

Why does John talk (in many places, particularly his first letter) about “walking in the light", and why is there said to be "no occasion of stumbling" for those who do?

What is the cloud concerning which Paul writes in 1 Cor 10:1? And what significance does it hold for us?

What about the Holy Spirit being our Guide (John 16:13), and Comforter (John 14:16)?

What of the believer being now the temple of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor 6:19 )? And the church being a dwelling-place of God by the Spirit (Eph 2:22)?

What of Jesus abiding in us, and us in Him (John 15)?

What of the miracles in 1 Cor. 12? The tongues of fire at Pentecost (Acts 2)?

Does it shed any light on the nature and identity of the church?

Firstly, I want to quote the relevant portions of the Mishnah, and in order to draw your attention to the significance of each part in relation to the meaning of the Shekinah to Israel, I have headed each section, also giving footnotes to any relevant scripture, Old or New Testament.

A Covering Tabernacle

"When Israel was to encamp, the pillar of cloud rose up and spread over the children of Judah like a booth, covered the tent outwards, and filled the tent inwards."1

A Guide, A Protection, A Source of Miracles

"One of the clouds of glory was on the right hand, one was on their left, one was before them and one behind them. One was over them One was in their midst. And the cloud, the Shekinah which was in the tent. And the pillar of cloud which moved before them, making low high places, making high low places, killing scorpions & serpents, burning thorns and briars, guiding them in the straight way."2

LIGHT BY DAY, PROTECTION BY NIGHT

"During the 40 yrs when the children of lsrael were in the wilderness, none of them had need of the light of the sun by day, nor of the moon by night. If the light was reddish, they knew that the sun had set. If it was whitish, they knew it had risen. When one looked into a barrel, one knew what was in it, and a pitcher; by reason of the cloud, the Shekinah in their midst."3

Six or perhaps seven clouds are recorded (depending upon whether we count the one in their midst as being the one in the tent); only one being called the Shekinah - the one in their midst.

The Shekinah was all of these to Israel - light, a tabernacle, a shadow, a guide, a protection (from the heat of the desert sun by day, and the cold by night), a glory, a source of miracles, a beauty, and a concealment from enemies.

The children of Israel were guided, protected, fed, clothed (it is recorded that their clothes never wore out, nor their shoes4), and carried for the space of forty years in the desert of Sinai.5 Can it be any wonder to us that God was angry with them for tempting Him and for having an "evil heart of unbelief" when they had seen his miracles and wonders for so long and yet remained unpersuaded?

When Israel ceased from being travellers, God withdrew all but one remaining cloud, the Shekinah. They settled in Canaan, and the ark (where the Shekinah was) eventually settled in Shiloh (lit "resting-place"). Nevertheless, the same sense in which the Shekinah had become a "booth" and a protection for them remained. It was the abiding presence of God. Consider the following Psalms:-

90:1 Lord, you have been our dwelling-place throughout all generations.

31:20 You are my hiding-place

91:1 He that dwelleth in the secret place of the Most High shall abide under the shadow of the Almighty

46:1 God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble

After the Captivity

Sometime after Israel returned from captivity, they adopted a new form of worship which reflected their sense of loss of this abiding presence. They called the new gatherings by the name of synagogues. While the Shekinah was with them, the sense of calling, of summons remained. Now they "gathered themselves" - indeed the Greek word for synagogue means a "gathering". The sense of nearness and of the imminence of God had gone, the voice of the prophets dried-up.

Concerning Jesus

When Jesus was upon earth, He became the same to those who saw Him as the Shekinah had been - the same source of miracles, healings, wonders, light, guidance, and protection. John said of Him:-

John 1:14 And the Word was made flesh and tabernacled amongst us.

John l:14 And we beheld His glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth

Just as miracles and wonders happened in the wilderness, so they happened through Jesus.

One day, He announced the fact that He was going to depart (John 14), but said that it would be far better for them if He did (14:28 16:7 ). He said He would send "another Comforter"

(John 14:16). This word "another" means another of the same kind (eteros). Jesus was telling his disciples that exactly the same as He had been to them, the Holy Spirit, the Comforter, would also be when He had gone.

Abiding with us today is the same Holy Spirit - He lives and walks with us. The same Comforter, Guide, Protector and Wonderworker is here abiding with us.6,7

Identity and Nature of the Church

Although Jesus only used the word ekklesia on a handful of occasions, He presumed, rightly, that his listeners understood its meaning and significance. They must have done, for none of his disciples are recorded as having questioned Him concerning it. Furthermore, the first use of the word subsequent to Jesus' words is found in Acts 7:38, used of Moses under the cloud at Sinai (see Exodus 19:3,17 ) and the people of Israel.8

Consider also Paul's words in 1 Cor. LO:l

All Israel were under the cloud, and all passed through the sea

The Greek word ekklesia has the sense of calling or, more strongly, of a summons. Literally it means "called out". It is, therefore, very different from the meaning and sense of the word chosen by the Jews to call their "gatherings" (synagogues) when they had lost this sense of calling, and lost this sense of the abiding presence of God.

Isaiah’s Prophecy Concerning the Gentiles (Isaiah 60:1-5)

Arise shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord is risen upon thee. For behold, the darkness shall cover the earth, and gross darkness the people: but the Lord shall arise upon thee, and his glory shall be seen upon thee. And the Gentiles shall come to thy light, and kings to the brightness of thy rising. Lift up thine eyes round about and see: all they shall gather themselves together, they shall come to thee: thy sons shall come from far, and thy daughters shall be nursed at thy side. Then thou shalt see, and flow together, and thy heart shall fear, and be enlarged; because the abundance of the sea shall be converted unto thee, the forces of the Gentiles shall come unto thee.

Isaiah's prophecy was that the Gentiles would come to "thy light". Who is referred to by the use of thy? Of course it is referring to Israel. We, as Gentiles, have come to their light and their glory9. Hence the visible token in Acts chapter 2 of "tongues of fire" upon the believers.

Consider also Jesus' words in Matt. 18:20 :-

For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.

The words found underlined, firstly, are found in the passive voice. This signifies that the church is not where two or three gather themselves in His name, but where they are gathered unto his name10 This is far removed from the idea of a synagogue, which has the idea of "assembly", or of "meeting", and yet this is the idea held most commonly today of what the word church means (something meeting-centred and initiated by man).11

The "I am in the midst" (of those gathered unto my name) is surely a direct reference to the Shekinah, the cloud which was in the midst.

We could summarise by saying that the church is a referred term given to those who have been (however temporarily) "gathered" together by Christ, tokened by His abiding presence in exactly the same way as the Shekinah had been in the midst of Israel.

Conclusion

As the Shekinah was to Israel a token of the miraculous and abiding presence of God with them, so we as Gentiles have come to their light, and have become among the "sons and daughters" (spoken of by the prophet Isaiah in ch. 60), who have come from afar to be "grafted-in", into what, essentially, is theirs. This Shekinah belongs, in a sense, to them because if God's promises to them are according to grace (and they are), then even though there have been corridors of time characteristic, for them, by an absence of God's presence (and by a worship in the synagogue which has reflected this absence), yet God is still carrying them on eagle's wings and will, furthermore, restore Israel. Otherwise, grace is no longer grace.

The church is where we find the Shekinah, in the same way as it was only found where Christ was found walking on Israel's soil two thousand years ago. The implications of this in our understanding of the church are vast. Many groups of people can (and do) call themselves by the name “church" - indeed, the word has all but lost any sense of the meaning of its Greek counterpart - but they are only the church who have the Shekinah and who are gathered unto His name.

We must remove from our thinking ideas of church which have either, on the one hand, been "gentile-oriented", (and which have therefore lost their sense of identity in a Hebrew context), or on the other hand which have their roots in an idea similar to that of a synagogue, (i.e. that of meeting and where the initiative is left principally with man). Neither of these are correct.

To Israel, the meaning of church (although they didn't have the Greek word before the captivity) was lost after their return from captivity, and this loss was reflected in their new form of assembly and worship through the synagogue system. Perhaps also because of the sense of "permanency" of the temple, they had also lost the sense of God "tabernacling" with them. Interestingly, this seems to me to have happened now to the church. We too have all but lost the meaning and sense of the word. Perhaps, in a sense, neither of us will fully-recover its true meaning until we both (they as Jews together with us as Gentiles by nature) rediscover the Shekinah in our midst, which for them will be the wonderful discovery of Jesus as Messiah.

Notes

1. Consider Jesus who, John declared (chi :14) "tabernacled among us” and whose glory they beheld.

In Rev 21:3, the "tabernacle of God is with men".

Consider also the fact that we have now become the dwelling-place of God - individually (our bodies, see 1 Cor 6:19) and as the church together (Eph 2:22 )

Further references in the Old Testament - Exodus 4038; Psalms 105:39; Isaiah 45.

2. A guide - Exodus 40:36,37; Psalms 78:14; Psalms 99:7; and in the New Testament the Holy Spirit - John 14:16-18,27; 1 John 2:20,27

A source of miracles - Deut 5:34; 26:8; 11:2-5. In the New Testament - 1 Cor 12:10. Protection - for the New Testament see Mark 16:17,18. Also, John talks about the believer walking in the light, and as a consequence having "no occasion of stumbling" (1 John 210 ). Only through sin does the believer remove himself from the covering of the light. This is a direct reference to the Israelites who, through sin, removed themselves from the light and its protection, and were bitten by serpents (see Num 216). See the many other refs in John's writings.

3. There are many references to this light of fire (by night) and cloud (by day). Some of these are - Exodus 13:21; 14:19,24; Exodus 40:34-38; Numbers 9:15; 10;34; 14:14. Psalms 105:39; Isaiah 60:1,19,20. In the New Testament-John 14:9; 1 John 15:7; James 1:17; Rev 22:5 - note how in the new heavens and earth, no light of sun or moon is necessary, for there will be perfect light. Now, however, we live in the darkness described by Isaiah in ch6O, and referred to by the apostles John, Peter and Paul in their letters. Even as Jesus was the light of the world while He was in the world (especially), He has sent the Holy Spirit to be the same to us now, and for us to have the same miraculous light enjoyed by the Israelites during their travels through the wilderness.

4. see Deut. 8:4

5. see Deut. 27; 47; 4:32-39; Exodus 19:4

6. Paul said that "all Israel were under the cloud, and all passed through the sea" (1 Cor 10:1). The significance to us in the New Testament is the doctrine of baptisms - in water and in the Holy Spirit.

7. Compare 2 Cor 6:16 - "and I will dwell in them, and walk in them..."

8. The existence of this verse alone suggests we cannot restrict its use to the narrow idea popularly held among believers today (see later discussion)

9. see Romans 9:4,5 & Eph 2:12

10. The use of the Greek preposition eis signifies unto; the meaning being "for my purpose” or "under my authority"

11. This does not mean man's initiative cannot be involved, but that rather that man's initiative cannot justify us calling; ourselves a church where Jesus hasn't gathered us together.

(Reprinted from Tishrei Vol 2 No 2, Winter 1993/1994, Rabbinic Judaism as a Background to Scripture.)