Heaven is my throne, and the earth my footstool. What sort of house will you build for me? says the Lord, or what will be my resting place? Did not my hand make all these things?
Acts 7:49-50 CSB
I have thought and written about the fundamentalists and the atheists of the world who, ironically, approach the Bible in the same way. Both groups of people read the Bible in a wooden, inflexible, literal kind of way. (See Sam Harris Podcast with Bart Ehrman – Part 2 – Wooden Fundamentalism)
This passage above gets me thinking about these things again. The passage quoted above is from Steven’s address to the Jewish leaders who had him stoned after calling them stiff-necked like their ancestors in the desert (among other things).
Steven recited the Jewish history to them, including the Ark of the Covenant that was created for the Ten Commandments and Tent of Meeting that was carried through the desert. The Tabernacle with the Ark of the Covenant became the inner sanctum of the Tent of Meeting. These structures the people carried with them became the place they would meet with God.
David desired to build God a home, a permanent place for the Ark of the Covenant and Tabernacle, and Solomon accomplished David’s dream. David knew, however, that God does not live in a temple made by human hands. Solomon, David’s son who built the Temple, acknowledged this when he dedicated the Temple:
“But will God really dwell on earth? The heavens, even the highest heaven, cannot contain you. How much less this temple I have built!1 Kings 8:27
They understood that the Tabernacle, the Tent of Meeting, and the Temple were symbolic. These physical structures and the activity organized around them and in them were meant to point to a metaphysical reality of much greater substance.
It’s ironic that David, a man after God’s own heart, knew these things, but the people of God generally often did not. David was a man after God’s own heart, but the Israelites on the whole were often stiff-necked, as Stephen said.
I find it ironic that people who try to interpret and apply the Bible in the most literal way fall on opposite ends of the spectrum. Fundamentalists and atheists both tend to interpret the Bible literally. They are the two sides of the same interpretive coin.
At the end of the passage quoted above, the Lord poses the rhetorical question, “Did not my hand make all of these things?” Does anyone literally believe that God’s hand made the universe? (Only one hand?)
I would venture to guess that nearly everyone understands this phrase to be allegorical. Yet, there are so many things in the Bible that people try to take and apply literally that are, perhaps, not as obviously allegorical.
I’ve heard the counter statement that we cannot pick and choose the things we believe out of the Bible. We must believe every word of it, or reject all of it. This is the literalist approach – all or nothing. Never mind that a verse like the one quoted above is clearly not intended to be taken literally!
Not to pick on “fundamentalists” (whatever that term might mean), but those people we tend to label with that term tend to push a very literal interpretation of Scripture. They, in a sense, double-down on the “facts” stated in the Bible and believe everything. Many atheists dig in on the same literal way of interpreting the Bible, but they believe none of it. They both approach the Bible the same way, but one believes 100% and the other believes 0%.
It’s a false dichotomy. In saying these things, people are drawing the lines, setting down the rules and the parameters, and trying to box in the reality of God. (Or box Him out!) People are approaching God and His word in a mechanical, earthly way according to what Paul the Apostle calls the “elementary principles of the world”. (Gal. 4:3 ESV)
God cannot be understood or approached that way. We can only approach God in spirit and truth. (John 4:24) Paul says the natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned.” (1 Corinthians 2:14).
For this reason, Jesus said we must be born again (John 3:1-21), because “that which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.” (John 3:6) We need a new spirit. Our eyes must be opened to see.
David understood these things. Images like God creating the universe with his hand are allegorical. It’s the best language we have to describe God, but it is inadequate.
We do not have words to describe God as he really is. For this reason, ancient Hebrews refused to say the name associated with God. They understood that God cannot be reduced to a name spoken in human tongue.
The Tabernacle, the Tent of Meeting, and the Temple were allegorical of the fact that God desires to “dwell” with us and have relationship with us. To the extent the Israelites viewed the activities associated with them as rote, ritualistic efforts to gain some favor from a God who can benefit us, they grievously missed the point.
For these reasons, the prophets sensed that God came to hate their feasts, festivals, and assemblies (Amos 5:1). He was displeased with the burnt offerings (Jer. 6:20) and the multitude of their sacrifices (Isaiah 1:11), even though God instructed them to do those things. Their practices came to be viewed as “vain offerings”, and those practices became an abomination to God (Isaiah 1:13), because the people lacked the heart attitude that the practices were intended for them to achieve.
The Hellfire and brimstone message we consider typical of fundamentalists conveys the same attitude. The idea that we need to be saved from hell misses the point. The focus is all wrong.
Whether hell is a real place, a lake of fire, a pit to which people go down (or whatever imagery you want to use) is not the point. The point is that we are made for God. We are made to have relationship with God, and anything else is no good.
The focus should be on the positive – the relationship God desires with Us, His created beings He made in His own image.
The Tabernacle, Tent of Meeting, and Temple were demonstrations of God’s desire to live among and have relationship with people. The idea of hell should convey to us that our failure to engage God in relationship and yield to him in right relationship denies the very purpose of God and the reason he created us. The outcome is bad.
We need to seek God and to worship him in spirit and truth. We need to find the reality and substance behind the allegory. As Paul said, those rituals associated with the Temple “are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ”. (Colossians 2:17) The Law was “only a shadow of the good things that are coming—not the realities themselves”. (Hebrews 10:1)
In the book of Revelation, Jesus spoke to John in his vision, saying:
Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me.
We don’t believe that Jesus literally stands at a physical door and knocks, waiting for us to open it. We rightly understand that He is trying to get out attention and is waiting for us to open up to Him in a metaphorical/”spiritual” sense.
When the prophets said God will put a new heart into people, a heart of flesh, rather than a heart of stone, the prophets were foreshadowing what Jesus called being born again. These are allegorical descriptions of a real, substantive change that is “spiritual” in nature that God desires for us to experience. The experience and the change are no less real for being nonphysical.
The prophets were foreshadowing the coming of Jesus and the Holy Spirit who Jesus would leave with us to guide us into all truth. The prophets were foreshadowing the times that we live in.
All of the Old Testament is a foreshadowing of the New Testament – a new covenant. But it isn’t a completely new covenant; it is the covenant God wanted with us all along. He wants a personal relationship with people who are willing and want to engage Him on His own terms.
He wants people who will call Him Father, and people He can call sons and daughters. He isn’t literally our father. He didn’t sire us like a human father. He did form us in the womb and “breath” life into us, and He fathers us spiritually when we engage with Him, yield to Him, receive Him, and “walk” with Him.
All these things are metaphorical illustrations of a real relationship we can have with God. It is the best language we have to describe the reality of it, but even the best language falls short.
The images of Heaven as God’s throne and the earth as God’s footstool are not meant to for us to build a theology around heaven as a literal throne and earth as a literal footstool. They merely convey the idea that God exists in a “bigger” reality than what we imagine from our perspective (the earth).
God transcends our world and what we know. We should not, then, try to box Him into the wooden, dogmatic conceptions of our minds.
Yes, the Bible is the revealed “word” of God, but it is written in human languages by people who have done their best to pass on what God gave them using human language that is not wholly adequate for the task and through their own understanding in their own cultural context. That word is true, but we need to be careful to understand the limitations of the conduit of the message.
In short, we need the Holy Spirit to guide us. We need to remain humble and open to correction. We need to “listen” for God as much today as in days gone by when there was no Old Testament and New Testament. Maybe more, as we can get dogmatic in thinking that we have it all nailed down like an insect on a laboratory table.