If you've read through the history of Israel, normally referred to as the Old Testament, you see a clear pattern in the presence of God. Or a not-so-clear-pattern:
When Israel wandered in the wilderness, God led them by day in a pillar of smoke. When Moses ascended the mountain to speak with the Lord, a thick cloud settled over everything. And when Solomon built a Temple for the great I Am, a permanent presence among His people, God's glory filled that Temple with smoke so thick that nobody could even enter it.
This is where the story gets interesting. Because after this moment, after this dedication of the Temple, after God comes to dwell among His people in Jerusalem, we never hear about this smoke again.
It makes you wonder, doesn't it?
God comes to fill His temple with His holy presence, and the clouds are so thick nobody can even go into the Temple. And then just a few pages later begins a story of people going in and out of the Temple at will. Faithful people, unfaithful people, Levites, priests, Temple servants, Temple raiders, Israel, foreign nations. People are going in and out and nobody mentions any smoke.
And it's not just when Israel has turned its back on God that this is true. We could almost make sense of it to say there's no smoke when Babylon raids the Temple and takes the Lord's holy utensils along with the exiles. Israel has fallen out of favor with God. Why would His presence still be among them?
That raises an interesting question of itself: can man's unfaithfulness really drive God away? Can it make Him move out of His holy place? Can we displace God in our community by merely turning our backs on Him? The implications of this are troubling. On the one hand, we have a faithful God, but if we can make Him appear to be unfaithful by breaking His heart so much that He moves out of the neighborhood...how can we trust in our Constant Friend?
But that's a question for another day. Returning to the story at hand, it's not just when Israel has turned its back that people are free to go into and out of the Temple. The Chronicles record a whole string of faithful Judean kings who attempt to restore the people to God's good favor. These kings found the testimonies of Moses in the Temple, read through the law books, tore their clothes in grief and undertook reforms to restore Israel to its rightful place as a nation of God.
They re-instituted the festivals, partook of the Passover, weeded out the unrighteousness among them. They cleansed themselves, cleansed the Temple, cleansed the priests, and rededicated everything - and everyone - to the glory of God.
And yet, not once is holy smoke mentioned again.
It's weird, right? I wonder if Israel noticed. I wonder if they thought about it. The Bible doesn't say as much, but they'd have to be thinking it, wouldn't they? They'd know the stories of the wilderness, the mountain, the Temple dedication. They'd know that God always came in smoke and fire. They'd know about the thick clouds that settled over the holy places, and they'd know they weren't seeing it. And if they're not seeing it...
is there anything holy?
It's the question we all have, isn't it? Is there anything holy? Are we doing anything right? Am I doing anything right? We do our best to be faithful, but where is the smoke? Where is the fire?
Maybe that's just not the way God does it any more. Maybe that's not the way He's done it in a long time. After all, there was no smoke settled over Hezekiah. No cloud to cover Josiah's reign. Maybe God changed His style.
But if so - when? And why? And how? And how could we ever know? When our eyes scan the horizons and see into the deepest easts and furthest wests, how are we to see the presence of God?
It's the eternal question, isn't it? It's the question we're still asking today. Where is the smoke? Where is the fire?
Where is the Lord?
Is there anything holy?