by Abraham Kuyper
8Seek ye my face.
In bygone days nothing was more common than to hear an aged, godly man tell with affectionate delight how he came to know God.
At such and such a time "I learned to know the Lord," was then the manner of expression.
Afterwards this changed, and they would say: "in such and such a way I was discovered to myself;" or, "I was converted then and there;" or, "it was then that I surrendered my soul to Jesus;" or, "it was thus that I found my Savior"—or whatever terms they might choose by which to tell what had transpired in their soul.
Every one of these forms of expression has its own significance, but it can scarcely be denied, that the former way of saying, "I learned to know the Lord," is by no means inferior to the later ways in truth, depth and fervor.
Jesus himself said: "This is life eternal, that they know thee" (John 17:3), and He thereby but confirmed the plaintive cry of the Prophet about this decline in Israel, that there is no knowledge of God in the land (Hosea 4:1).
And yet, it cannot be denied, that in the long run the saying: "I have learned to know the Lord," can not satisfy because, without being observed, it has been separated from its mystical background and made to consist in external, intellectual, doctrinal knowledge.
To know God has more than one significance.
Surely he does not know God who lacks all knowledge of His Being, Attributes and Works. Neither can he be said to know God who has not learned to worship Him in His Holy Trinity. Again, in connection with this, the saying of our Savior should not be lost sight of: "No man knoweth the Father save the Son and he to whom the Son will reveal him" (Matthew 11:27); a revelation which must undoubtedly be taken to include the light that shines out upon us from the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
But as readily as we grant this, it should be maintained with equal stress and emphasis, that this does not exhaust the knowledge of God; that it contains a spiritual reality which goes deeper than intellectual acumen, and employs the abstractions of dogma and doctrine merely as a means by which to clarify impressions received, the perceptions of the soul and spiritual experience.
The latter has gradually been forgotten, although knowledge of God in the abstract has been retained. This knowledge became a collection of formal and doctrinal expositions. And at length he deemed himself as most advanced in sacred learning, who was able to give the most impressive, clever and exhaustive interpretation of some dogma regarding God.
This could not permanently satisfy, and then the soul's experience of the life of grace passed to the other extreme and mysticism began to seek religion altogether, or nearly so, in the work of redemption by Christ, in conjunction, of course, with what applied to oneself.
Was this a gain?
Undoubtedly in part. Far better an inward condition of soul that warmly refreshes itself in the work of salvation and glories in the walk of the way of redemption, than a sort of Christianity that merely weaves webs out of doctrinal intricacies.
But it is not the highest way.
Old time worthies occupied a far more exalted vantage ground when they learned to know the Lord both in a doctrinal and mystical way. From this viewpoint it was God Himself Who ever remained the center, and religion (which is the service of God) came far more completely, more fervently, into its own.
Created after the Image of God, it is natural and necessary that in our relation to Him, as far as possible, we should have apperception like to that in our relation to our fellow man.
There is a language in nature; there is a language that addresses us from the animal-world, but altogether different and far richer is the language that is addressed to us by man, even though his voice be silent.
The face, the countenance speaks; speaks by its entire expression, but especially through and by the eye. The eye is as a window of the body through which we look into another's soul, and through which he comes out of his soul, to see us, scan, and address us.
The rest of the body in comparison to the face is dumb and inanimate. It is true, expression is effected by means of the hand, and especially the people of southern Europe have the habit of emphasizing and guiding every word with a motion of the hand; and it is also true that with violent emotion the whole body acts, giving expression to feeling. All this does not alter the fact that the higher a level a man has reached, the more the rest of the body remains composed and calm, letting the face alone do the speaking, thereby imparting to it a far richer and finer expression.
A ruffian in the market place speaks with both hands and feet; a prince upon a throne says far more by look, and majesty of face.
From this it necessarily followed, that in speaking of our intercourse with God, "the face of God" was given the prominence, and that distinction was made between what proceeds from His mouth, what expresses itself through His eye, and what breathes in anger from His nostrils.
We reveal ourselves in the highest sense by speaking face to face, and so our walk with God could not be illustrated otherwise, than by the privilege of being permitted to meet God face to face.
This may not be taken in a materialistic way, such as has even led to the representation of God, the Father, in the form of an aged man.
It is known that even Moses fell into this snare, when he prayed that he might see God's face. A bold prayer, that received as answer: "Thou canst not see my face, for there shall no man see me and live" (Exodus 33:20).
Thus this remains forbidden. Never should we think of the holy God in an earthly way. The imagery which here must lend support remains wrapped in mystical dimness. A visible face exhibits what is corporeal, and God is spirit.
The fact is this.
When we look any one in the face so intently that at length we grasp his inner self, then the external face has only been the means by which to attain knowledge of his internal existence, and it is conceivable that if all the external fell away, we should still retain the knowledge of his person.
Knowledge of God is reached in another way. Here no physical auxiliary enters in between. Here our spirit enters directly into the spirituality of God as soon as God's Spirit enters into us. In like manner, nay, far more effectively, we obtain a spiritual knowledge of the being and nature of God; and in order to describe this knowledge we merely use the imagery of the face.
The main thing is that we no longer satisfy ourselves with a conception of God, a scientific knowledge of God, or a speaking about God, but that we have come in touch with God himself; that we have met Him, that in and by our way through life He has discovered us to ourselves, and that a personal relation has sprung up between the Living God and our soul.
This mystical knowledge of God is expressed in Scripture in all sorts of ways. We read constantly of the secret walk with God, of dwelling in His Tabernacle, of walking with God, and so on; and the Gospel itself unfolds this in the rich, glorious thought that the Father comes and tabernacles with us. And yet the most frequently used term to express the higher knowledge of God is, "the face of God."
Of Moses, the man of God, this stands recorded as the highest distinction that marks him off from all the Prophets, that God spoke with him face to face, as a man speaketh with his friend.
What face here signifies is obvious.
Hence when Scripture brings us the Divine exhortation: "Seek ye my face" (Psalm 27:8), it contains a profound significance.
We can perceive one at a distance, we can hear him spoken of, we can become aware of his presence without yet having approached him, and placed ourselves before him, so that he looks at us and we at him.
But there is a moment in the life of the child of God when he feels the stress of the inability to rest, until he finds God; until after he has found Him, he has placed himself before Him, and standing before Him, seeks His face; and he can not cease that search until he has met God's eye, and in that meeting has obtained the touching realization that God has looked into his soul and he has looked God in the eye of Grace. And only when it has come to this the mystery of grace discloses itself.
* * * * * * *
This devotional classic offers 110 meditations on a single thought from Psalm 73: "As for me, it is good to be near to God." The author states, "The fellowship of being near unto God must become reality ... it must permeate and give color to our feeling, our perceptions, our sensations, our thinking, our imagining, our willing, our acting, our speaking. It must not stand as a foreign factor in our life, but it must be the passion that breathes throughout our whole existence."
The meditations reflect the blending of spiritual vigor with doctrinal loyalty so consistently expressed in the life of Abraham Kuyper. These are devotions with true substance, avoiding the extremes about which Kuyper adds a word of caution: "Stress in creedal confession, without drinking from the Living Fountain, runs dry in barren orthodoxy, just as truly as spiritual emotion, without clearness in confessional standards, makes one sink in the bog of sickly mysticism."
Abraham Kuyper (1837-1920) was a Dutch political leader and Calvinist theologian. Elected to parliament in 1874, he became Prime Minister in 1901 and served in that capacity until 1905. As a theologian, he revived a systematic, orthodox Calvinism. He founded the Free Reformed Church and the Free University of Amsterdam. His other works include Principles of Sacred Theology, Lectures on Calvinism, and The Work of the Holy Spirit
Further information about Abraham Kuyper's life can be seen in the translator's "Biographical Note"; further information about To Be Near Unto God can be found in Abraham Kuyper's "Preface" to that book.