The Library of Congress in Washington D.C. is one jaw-dropper of a building. If you have an architectural bone in your body, a modicum of historical interest, or a primal appreciation of fine art, this building is an exquisite treasure. The Library of Congress is officially described as “the nation’s oldest federal cultural institution … the research arm of Congress … [and] the largest library in the world.” Its architectural grandeur, artistic splendor, rare holdings, and ubiquitous historical symbolism comprise an illustrious tribute to our nation.
In what is identified as the “South Mosaic Corridor,” just off the “Great Hall,” is located an ornate, domed ceiling. One fresco depicts a woman robed in splendor (you’ve seen the type: pudgy, pale skinned, bare-footed, breasts flaunted, billowing dress). Underneath this romanticized portrait is inscribed the word “Providence” (abbreviated to fit the space). Next to this fresco, occupying a space of its own, are painted the words: “The true Shekinah is man.”
The ironic juxtaposition of these ornate missives bears witness to two competing orientations that continue to wield influence in our diverse culture. Adding to the irony is the precipitous drop in the percentage of American citizens who would have any idea what either statement means. At the dawn of the 20th century when these words were painted on the ceiling of the Library of Congress, they were well understood concepts. Today, they are as outdated as a rare book—and just as valuable for our consideration.
“Providence” is a code-word in Christian theology for God’s continuing and sovereign influence over all things, including particularly His invisible preservation of the world He created and His appointment of all that comes to pass in that world. To believe in divine providence is to believe that nothing happens by chance but that everything—great and small, good and evil—is ordained by God such that He permits even sin and disaster to exist so as to steer the universe to the final end for which He created it. (For a moving example of the nation’s once vivid understanding of this concept, read President Lincoln’s second inaugural address).
“Shekinah” transliterates a Hebrew word meaning “to dwell” or “to settle down.” The Hebrew Scriptures use this word to describe God’s glorious presence dwelling among His people. Objectified in a great pillar of cloud that shielded the Israelites from the intense brilliance of God’s presence, the Shekinah-cloud protected them from their enemies, led them to the Promised Land, and settled down in the tabernacle where Israel met with God (Exod. 13:21-22, 40:34-38). “Shekinah” came to symbolize the immanent presence of the transcendent God dwelling with glory among His people.
There is a sense in which humanity—created in the image of God—uniquely and profoundly incarnates the glories of our Maker (Gen. 1:27). But to posit that “the true Shekinah is man” constitutes a brazen grab for God’s rightful place as sovereign of the universe. Heralding God’s providence is an endeavor to magnify God as the creator and sustainer of the cosmos and the sovereign Lord of history. It is to say God is bigger than you may think. To trumpet man as the true Shekinah is to suppress the Creator’s glory by usurping it. It is to say man is as big as you may wish. These are two radically distinct agendas.
At the heart of this disjunction is the question each of us must answer: Who is sovereign lord of the universe and source of all goodness, pleasure and glory? Who is the true Shekinah? Many answer, “I am!”
The Apostle Paul’s letter to the Romans renders a far more glorious answer. By virtue of our sin, the Apostle contends, humanity falls short of the glory of God (Rom. 3:10-12, 23) and naturally seeks idolatrous pleasure in the duller lights of created things, rather than in our Creator (Rom. 1:18-2:5). God is the sinless and glorious source, agent, and end of all things (Rom. 11:36) who provides salvation from sin and death and will one day restore the physical universe to its original design and perfection (Rom. 3:19-26; 8:1-30). God works the wonder of this grace by sending His son, Jesus, as the true Shekinah in whose life we see the glory of God (John 1:14; Col. 1:19, 2:9; Heb. 1:3). Because His sacrificial death paid the full penalty of our sins, those who trust in His death and resurrection are delivered from eternal destruction and from the deceptions and horrors of this world’s false sources of glory and joy (Rom. 6:23).
Who is the true Shekinah—the ultimate source of unsurpassed glory and infinite joy? You are living out your answer to that question every day. Do you find yourself squinting at a mirror or lifting up your eyes and drinking in the splendors of God? Your answer is the difference between life and death.
Dan Miller has served as the Senior Pastor of Eden Baptist Church since 1989. He graduated from Pillsbury Baptist Bible College in 1984 and his graduate degrees include the MA in history from Minnesota State University, MDiv and ThM from Central Baptist Theological Seminary and DMin from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. Dan is married to Beth and the Lord has blessed them with four children: Ethan, Levi, Reed and Whitney.