What does the Bible mean when it says that the Lord hid his face? And why would he do this?
One passage we see this in is Psalm 30, when David says in verses 6–7, “As for me, I said in my prosperity, ‘I shall never be moved.’ By your favor, O LORD, you made my mountain stand strong, you hid your face; I was dismayed.”
In thinking about this, it’s helpful to acknowledge a couple of theological assumptions.
First, we know that God does not have a face. He is a Spirit (John 4:24). The language used here is anthropomorphic. In other words, the Bible is applying human characteristics to God—even though he does not have them—so we can better understand and relate to him.
Second, we know that God is omnipresent (Acts 17:27–28). God is infinite and, therefore, not bound by space, present equally everywhere (Psalm 139:8–9). He can’t be any less anywhere or before anyone.
In what sense then does God hide his face?
It’s a spiritual rather than a physical reality. Theologians talk about God’s covenantal presence with his people. Distinct from his omnipresence, this is his special presence with his people. We see this in the Garden of Eden as God walked with our first parents. We also see it in the Exodus, with the pillar of cloud and fire by night in the wilderness wanderings, as well as his special presence in the tabernacle. And it’s summarized in the familiar benediction, “The LORD bless you and keep you; the LORD make his face to shine upon you and be gracious to you; the LORD lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace” (Num. 6:24–26).
But what happens? How is it that we sense this covenantal presence impeded?
It’s because God’s people still sin, even though they follow God. In fact, Psalm 31 is centered around these verses. There are outbursts of praise in verse 1–5 and 11–12 with this confession in the middle in verses 6–10. Through sin we feel and sense as believers that God has hidden his face from us. The guilt from sin eclipses the experience of walking and living in the covenant of grace. Like Adam and Eve, who hid from God, we feel like God is hiding from us.
But has he gone anywhere? No.
Has his love changed? No.
Has our experience and perspective changed? Yes.
Imagine you fall asleep in a rowboat in a sizable lake. It’s a beautiful day, and you nod off while lying down and staring at the bright blue sky. After awaking, you wipe away the drool and get your bearings. As you look to the shore, you realize it is much further away than you remember. What happened?
On the one hand, you may be tempted to conclude that the shoreline is moving away from you. But we all know that is impossible. The boat has drifted away from the coastline. The distance is a result of the boat moving away from the shore.
Sometimes we get our bearings and wonder why God seems far off, but like the shoreline, it’s actually we who has drifted away from him. The reason for this is because of the effects of sin, whether the bitterness of it or God’s loving discipline for it. God allows us to feel the sense that he has withdrawn from us so we might gain a greater understanding of our need for him and, in repentance, return to him. Ezra models this for the people as they humble themselves before the Lord (Ezra 9:5–15).
When the sense of God’s shining and smiling face from the covenantal benediction feels far off, we should model the posture of humility and repentance before him. In so doing we begin to sense again the gracious smile of God. This, lest we forget, was secured by our Lord Jesus when he endured God’s righteous frown on our behalf. God hid his face from him that he might smile upon his people in him.