The Bible teaches that God is omnipresent. Everywhere we can go (and everywhere we can’t), God is there. David writes, “Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence? If I go up to the heavens, you are there; if I make my bed in the depths, you are there. If I rise on the wings of the dawn, if I settle on the far side of the sea, even there your hand will guide me, your right hand will hold me fast” (Psalm 139:7–10).
Paul also taught the fact of God’s all-encompassing presence: “He is not far from any one of us. ‘For in him we live and move and have our being’” (Acts 17:27–28). Jonah tried in vain to flee from God’s presence (Jonah 1:3); he found that, no matter where he went, God was there waiting for him. So there is a sense in which we are always in God’s presence.
But there is another sense in which we can either be in or out of God’s “presence.” In this sense, the presence of God can refer to His divine blessing and embracing love. The children of God are promised to experience everlasting joy in God’s presence: “You will fill me with joy in your presence, with eternal pleasures at your right hand” (Psalm 16:11; cf. Psalm 21:6; 46:4). But those who reject the gospel “will be punished with everlasting destruction and shut out from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might” (2 Thessalonians 1:9; cf. Matthew 22:13 and Revelation 22:15).
The presence of God can also refer to a place of honor. It is a privilege to stand in the presence of a king (Proverbs 22:29). The angel Gabriel had that honor, saying to Zacharias, “I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to tell you this good news” (Luke 1:19). The queen of Sheba said to Solomon, “How happy your people must be! How happy your officials, who continually stand before you and hear your wisdom!” (1 Kings 10:18).
Additionally, the presence of God can refer to the demonstration of overwhelming glory and heavenly majesty. When Isaiah had his vision of God on His throne, he described the seraphim as being unable to view God’s glory directly (Isaiah 6:2), and Isaiah was convinced of his own destruction in the face of such holiness (verse 5). The presence of God is a fearsome thing for sinful man to approach (1 Samuel 6:20).
The presence of God can also refer to a unique revelation of God to humanity. The Lord told Moses to consider the tabernacle (and later the temple) as the place where He chose to reveal Himself; thus, the tabernacle was where to find God’s presence (Deuteronomy 19:17). Earlier, Moses had encountered God’s presence at the burning bush (Exodus 3:4–5). David spoke of God’s presence at Sinai: “The earth quaked; The heavens also dropped rain at the presence of God; Sinai itself quaked at the presence of God” (Psalm 68:8, NASB).
We sometimes make a distinction between the all-pervading presence of God (His omnipresence) and the manifest presence of God. God’s manifest presence is the result of His overt and unmistakable interaction with us. When Israel camped at Sinai, God had been there all along, of course. But when they saw the fire and heard the trumpet and experienced the earthquake, they were in the manifest presence of God. The Bible describes the event as God’s “descending” to Sinai and “meeting” with the children of Israel (Exodus 19:17, 20). They were in the presence of God in a special way. As God used physical, earthly means of communicating with His people, they got the point that God was there and that they were in His presence.
At certain times in history, God has needed to manifest His presence; otherwise, His people would not have realized He was there. Jacob, after a fitful night in Bethel, awoke from his dream and said, “Surely the LORD is in this place, and I was not aware of it” (Genesis 28:16). He was “surely” in God’s presence, yet he didn’t even know it.