What is God’s Sjechienah?

In the Bible a curiosity about God is mentioned: His Sjechienah. It represents God’s deep longing to dwell in the midst of His people in His glory. He wants to live amongst His children as their Father. Christians often think that this is fulfilled by the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. But is this really true? What is written about it in the Bible?

By Marco van Putten

God’s Sjechienah represents His residing on earth [1], but also His glory. His seeable appearance goes together with all kinds of wondrous phenomenon’s, like extraordinary colors, reflections, smoke (clouds) or fire. God’s Sjechienah represents His Majestic Presence, which compels awe and fear. God’s Sjechienah is bound to His Person (to God, the Father) but is most of all bound to location (foremost to the Temple; Dt 12:5). His Sjechienah primarily dwelled in the Holiest of Holies of God’s House on the sacred ground: The hindmost, secluded room. After Moses, the High priest was the only allowed to be in His Presence once a year. Above all God’s Sjechienah represents His Kingship on earth, but also His holiness [2]. God’s Sjechienah explicitly exists outside humans.

Word study
The word ‘sjechienah’ is not mentioned in the Hebrew Bible [3], but it is developed by Pharisaic rabbis [4] deducted it from the root sjachan (settle/dwell permanently). It’s remarkable that the word has the female suffix ‘-ah’. Since God in the Bible explicitly is defined as being male [5]. Thus, the suffix must [6] have a different meaning. Namely in the sense of ‘meant to’ reside or ‘that what allows it to’. That shows that the Sjechienah is not literally God Himself, but a sort of ‘covering’ or the ‘outward appearance’ outside Him. The manifestation of God in Creation (Ex 24:10; Is 6:1-4; Eze 1:4-28; 10:1; Rev 4:3-6) [7].

God’s Sjechienah is related with the repeated announcements of God that He wants to live under His people. But in those announcements mostly other words are used, like those deducted from the root ‘soem’ (setting op/arraying) and jasjav (sitting down/(temporarily) remain). In many translations all these words sjachan, soem and jasjav are however translated in Bible using the same words, like ‘reside’ or ‘live’ by which the differences of these separate words are lost.

Other Hebrew words often used linked with the Sjechienah of God are: panajw (His countenance); kavod (glory/worthiness); hod (magnificence/luster); hadar (honor(ing)/being exalted); tif’arah (manorness/radiance; Is 46:13); kisseh (throne) and nogah (splendor/clearness; Eze 1:28).

First appearances
God uses His Sjechienah when He appears before believers. This is how He came towards the Israelites in the Sinai desert (Ex 16:10) and afterwards took position at the mountaintop of Horeb (Ex 24:16), That appearance was in clouds, smoke and fire (Ex 19:16) [8].
From the first appearances of God’s Sjechienah it becomes clear that He originally was outside His people and kept distance from them. But God says repeatedly and explicitly that He wants to live with His people (Gn 9:27; Ex 29:45; Lv 26:11-12; 1 K 6:13); within His sanctuary (Hebr Misjkan; Ex 25:8). His Sjechienah is the expression of that. Appearances like the burning bush or the pillar of smoke and fire are something different and seem to be related to angels (Ex 3:2; 32:34).

The Sjechienah of God has a number of properties, like:

His majestic mantle (Job 40:5 (10); Ps 93:1)

His covering

The Sjechienah is meant to hide God for the eyes of the believers, but also to protect them for His blinding, holy Power (Ex 33:20; 1 K 8:12)

To make aware of His manor and glory (Is 40:5)

To emphasize his authority

God is King and wants to rule His Creation from the Temple mount in Jerusalem (Jo‘El 3:17). Heaven is only His temporal residence and that is also not central in Creation but earth is. God will and shall reign on earth and establish His authority there by exercising His final judgment over the whole of Creation.

To represent His holiness (Ps 22:3; 99:3)

God’s Sjechienah explicitly represents God Himself (Ex 33:14-16; Nm 10:35-36) and not a separate divine Personality, as some think [9]. But His Sjechienah represents God being bound to a place (His residing on His throne) and not that He is omnipresent in Creation (leaving of His throne) [10]. The rabbi’s imagine a radiance of God’s Sjechienah in Creation (Is 6:3) [11]. Christians however see a direct link between God’s Sjechienah and the Holy Spirit. But is this correct?

God’s Spirit versus God’s Sjechienah
The Holy Spirit exalts God, the Father, and realizes God’s Plan of Salvation in Creation. After the Lord Jesus completed His mission on earth, He returned to God, the Father, in order to complete another mission in heaven through which the Holy Spirit descended to the believers on earth. The Spirit shared the completed work with man and makes it possible for man to keep the New Covenant by observing its Torah. By pouring down God’s Spirit on the believers they were thereby qualified as being holy.

God’s Sjechienah is ‘separate’ from God’s Plan of Salvation. But is there no link whatsoever between the Holy Spirit and God’s Sjechienah? God’s Sjechienah represents His Presence. It’s must be clear that this has to do with God’s Spirit, but the difference is that the Spirit represents God differently. God’s Sjechienah represents the fact the humans cannot, neither are allowed to come close to God. Therefore it seems contradicting that believers need to receive the Holy Spirit in order to make it possible for God’s Sjechienah to come closer to them. Whilst God’s Sjechienah fills them with awe and fear for God. This makes an important difference between God’s Sjechienah and the indwelling of God’s Spirit clear. Ahead of that stands the fact that the Holy Spirit is another Person than God, the Father. Both are Expressions of the Same One God, but Both have their Own function. The Holy Spirit makes the believer come closer to God, but God, the Father, can simple not just be approached. Ultimately there remains a distance between God and man, since He is ‘above’ man (1 S 15:29). He is totally different then man. He is its Creator and the King of the universe. God’s Sjechienah emphasizes that.

Man is obliged to do God’s will and that’s in the first place fulfillment of the calling God gave (Gn 2:15). That’s the contribution of the Holy Spirit. Thus, God has to be always separate from man and the Holy Spirit has to give understanding about this distance. This is a difficult issue, but important to understand. There is the Way and Mediator to God and there is God Himself (Gal 3:20). Coming close and keeping distance are Both needed to finally worship and serve God, the Father. The indwelling of God’s Spirit thus is related to God’s Sjechienah, but it’s impossible that it is the same since the Spirit needs to make the difference between God and man clear.

It is also important to mention that the indwelling of the Holy Spirit has two forms, like many other things of God: it’s individual and collective. Although the Holy Spirit was poured out on Pentecost on some of the believers that represent the remnant of Israel, but not yet on the collective of Israel. Ergo, the completion of the work of the Lord Jesus on earth was officially rejected by Israel and thus God banished them again by this time scattering them amongst the nations. Thus the pouring out of the Holy Spirit on the collective of Israel is still to happen as long as they are scattered [12] and incomplete. It will happen once Israel is restored and comes into that position during the latter days.

God’s Temple and God’s Sjechienah
The function of God’s Sjechienah is ultimately to represent God on earth and this was for more than 360 years the case in the Temple (2 Chr 5:14). But where is His Sjechienah when the Temple on earth no longer exists? The majority view [13] in Judaism is that the Sjechienah then moved to the Temple in heaven [14]. The prophet Ezekiel saw that in a vision (Eze 9:3; 10:4, 18; 11:23). This is elsewhere confirmed in the Bible (Acts 7:55; Rev 15:8). It was also previously known that the Sjechienah of God could change its dwelling place.

Still, Ezekiel also saw the return of the Sjechienah to the Temple of God (Eze 43:2-7) [15]. The question is whether this prophecy was fulfilled after the building of the second Temple in the 6th century BCE, but this is nowhere in the Bible confirmed. Some events however described in the New Testament seem to suggest that God’s Sjechienah was indeed present in the second Temple, like the central place this Temple had for the Lord Jesus and His followers (Mr 14:49; Acts 2:46). Also, Matthew describes that the main curtain in the Temple was torn from top to bottom at the moment that the Lord Jesus died (Mt 27:51). However, the words of the Lord Jesus suggest that the Sjechienah was not present, since He teaches that God is in heaven (Mt 6:9) [16].

The return of God’s Sjechienah to earth
Does the Sjechienah return to the earth? If so, when? The Lord Jesus expressed His eagerness that the believers would see God’s Sjechienah again on earth (Jh 17:24). Also He said that He intrinsically was separate from God’s Sjechienah, just like the Holy Spirit, but that He in the end of times would share it (Lc 24:26). Then God’s Sjechienah would return to the earth (Rev 21:10-11, 23).

When the Sjechienah returns, will the Holy Spirit continue to dwell in the believers? God’s Sjechienah represents the difference between God and man. If the office and functioning of the Lord Jesus change, then that of the Holy Spirit will also. Still believers will continue to be connected through His Spirit, because man isn’t a spiritual (non-physical) being but remains eternally a created physical being. Even when man will become equal to the angels (Lc 20:36).

[1] God’s presence and acting upon the earth in contrast with His transcendence in heaven.
[2] Something that the sons of Aäron experienced when they were killed by the Sjechienah of God (Lv 10:2).
[3] This is no problem, since it becomes clear from the Bible that the Sjechienah of God exists.
[4] The word is first mentioned in a Targoem from the time of Bar Kochba (mid 2nd century), but is broadly elaborated in the latter exilic literature from the 3rd century forward (Talmoed).
[5] The first man Adam, who was created in the image and likeness of God, was also male.
[6] God doesn’t have a female side.
[7] This distinguishes the Sjechienah of God from the angels, since the latter are spiritual beings separate from God.
[8] Some scholars argue that these are characteristics of a volcanic eruption. These however, ignore the Biblical facts: Moses stayed 40 days and nights in the direct neighborhood of God’s Sjechienah and later His Sjechienah of fire and smoke moved from the mountaintop to the Tabernacle (Ex 40:34-38).
[9] Like Maimonides, however the majority of rabbis reject that. It conflicts with monotheism. Some Christians wrongly think that God’s Sjechienah is the Angel of God, the Lord Jesus or the Holy Spirit.
[10] Based on their banishment from God, Judaism has logically developed an understanding of God’s Sjechienah that God is omnipresent (present everywhere); God is with banished Israel.
[11] To imagine God in Creation without addressing the corruption of satan conflicts with the Bible and comes close the paganism (animism; imagining Creation itself divine).
[12] Also Christians experience the physical consequences of the scattering of Israel, however they can partake in the Temple service in heaven (but Israel is for the time being excluded from it).
[13] However some rabbi’s have the minority view that God’s Sjechienah accompanies the exiles until Israel has been restored.
[14] The majority in Judaism thinks that this is the permanent state of the Sjechienah, since the service in the synagogue and the Oral Torah are supposed to have made the Temple service redundant. It is even suggested that by these God would have raised the Jewish religion to a higher plane. The majority view in Christianity goes even further: The Lord Jesus would have abolished both the Torah and the Temple, the church has replaced Israel and the Christian Oral Law is superior to the Bible.
[15] Which has a different floor plan and service from previous Temples.
[16] It was Him that wanted the Sjechienah of God to return to earth, likewise that is what the Holy Spirit wants today.