God, the Uncontained One - 2 Chronicles 7:12-16 and 1 Kings 8:27

Question

God cannot be contained (1 Kings 8:27) and does not dwell in temples made with hands (Isa. 66:1; Acts 17:24), so how did the temple contain God? (2 Chron. 7:12-16).

Answer

2 Chronicles 7:12-16 The LORD appeared to him at night and said: "I have heard your prayer and have chosen this place for myself as a temple for sacrifices. When I shut up the heavens so that there is no rain, or command locusts to devour the land or send a plague among my people, if my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then will I hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and will heal their land. Now my eyes will be open and my ears attentive to the prayers offered in this place. I have chosen and consecrated this temple so that my Name may be there forever. My eyes and my heart will always be there."

1 Kings 8:27 But will God really dwell on earth? The heavens, even the highest heaven, cannot contain you. How much less this temple I have built!

1 Chronicles states that God chose the temple for sacrifices and that his Name would be there forever, and that his eyes and heart would always be there. However, God cannot be contained. God's infinite nature cannot be contained by the finite. On this, the Bible is clear:
2 Chronicles 2:6 "But who is able to build a temple for him, since the heavens, even the highest heavens, cannot contain him? Who then am I to build a temple for him, except as a place to burn sacrifices before him?"

Jeremiah 23:24 Can anyone hide in secret places so that I cannot see him?" declares the LORD. "Do not I fill heaven and earth?" declares the LORD.

God did bless his people with manifestations of himself like the shekinah cloud of glory (Exod. 40:34) or a theophany (Isa. 6:1). However, God cannot be contained.
Isaiah 40:21-22 Do you not know? Have you not heard? Has it not been told you from the beginning? Have you not understood since the earth was founded? He sits enthroned above the circle of the earth, and its people are like grasshoppers. He stretches out the heavens like a canopy, and spreads them out like a tent to live in.

God is omnipresent. He may manifest himself is special glorious ways, yet may not be contained. Wayne Grudem clarifies the matter saying:

4. Omnipresence. Just as God is unlimited or infinite with respect to time, so God is unlimited with respect to space. This characteristic of God's nature is called God's omnipresence (the Latin prefix omni- means all). God's omnipresence may be defined as follows: God does not have size or spatial dimensions and is present at every point of space with his whole being, yet God acts differently in different places.

The fact that God is Lord of space and cannot be limited by space is evident first from the fact that he created it, for the creation of the material world (Gen. 1:1) implies the creation of space as well. Moses reminded the people of Gods lordship over space: Behold, to the LORD your God belong heaven and the heaven of heavens, the earth with all that is in it (Deut. 10:14).

a. God Is Present Everywhere: Yet there are also specific passages that speak of God's presence in every part of space. We read in Jeremiah, "Am I a God at hand," says the LORD, "and not a God afar off? Can a man hide himself in secret places so that I cannot see him?" says the LORD. "Do I not fill heaven and earth?" says the LORD (Jer. 23:23-24). God is here rebuking the prophets who think their words or thoughts are hidden from God. He is everywhere and fills heaven and earth.

Psalm 139:7-10 God's omnipresence is beautifully expressed by David:

Whither shall I go from your Spirit?
Or whither shall I flee from your presence?
If I ascend to heaven, you are there!
If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there!
If I take the wings of the morning
and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea,
even there your hand shall lead me,
and your right hand shall hold me.

There is nowhere in the entire universe, on land or sea, in heaven or in hell, where one can flee from God's presence.

We should note also that there is no indication that simply a part of God is in one place and a part of him in another. It is God himself who is present wherever David might go. We cannot say that some of God or just part of God is present, for that would be to think of his being in spatial terms, as if he were limited somehow by space. It seems more appropriate to say that God is present with his whole being in every part of space (cf. also Acts 17:28 where Paul affirms the correctness of the words, In him we live and move and have our being, and Col. 1:17, which says of Christ, in him all things hold together).

b. God Does Not Have Spatial Dimensions: While it seems necessary for us to say that God's whole being is present in every part of space, or at every point in space, it is also necessary to say that God cannot be contained by any space no matter how large. Solomon says in his prayer to God, "But will God indeed dwell on the earth? Behold, heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain you; how much less this house which I have built!" (1 Kings 8:27). Heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain God; indeed, he cannot be contained by the largest space imaginable (cf. Isa. 66:12; Acts 7:48). While the thought that God is everywhere present with his whole being ought to encourage us greatly in prayer no matter where we are, the fact that no one place can be said to contain God should also discourage us from thinking that there is some special place of worship that gives people special access to God: he cannot be contained in any one place.

We should guard against thinking that God extends infinitely far in all directions so that he himself exists in a sort of infinite, unending space. Nor should we think that God is somehow a bigger space or bigger area surrounding the space of the universe as we know it. All of these ideas continue to think of God's being in spatial terms, as if he were simply an extremely large being. Instead, we should try to avoid thinking of God in terms of size or spatial dimensions. God is a being who exists without size or dimensions in space. In fact, before God created the universe, there was no matter or material so there was no space either. Yet God still existed. Where was God? He was not in a place that we could call a where, for there was no where or space. But God still was! This fact makes us realize that God relates to space in a far different way than we do or than any created thing does. He exists as a kind of being that is far different and far greater than we can imagine.

We must also be careful not to think that God himself is equivalent to any part of creation or to all of it. A pantheist believes that everything is God, or that God is everything that exists. The biblical perspective is rather that God is present everywhere in his creation, but that he is also distinct from his creation. How can this be? The analogy of a sponge filled with water is not perfect, but it is helpful. Water is present everywhere in the sponge, but the water is still completely distinct from the sponge. Now this analogy breaks down at very small points within the sponge, where we could say that there is sponge at one point and not water, or water and not sponge. Yet this is because the analogy is dealing with two materials that have spatial characteristics and dimensions, while God does not.

Grudem, W. A. (1994). Systematic Theology : An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine. Leicester, England; Grand Rapids, Mich.: Inter-Varsity Press; Zondervan Pub. House.

Answer by Dr. Joseph R. Nally, Jr.

Dr. Joseph R. Nally, Jr., D.D., M.Div. is the Theological Editor at Third Millennium Ministries (Thirdmill).