For our God is a consuming fire (Hebrews 12:29 HCSB).
Clouds and thick darkness surround Him;
righteousness and justice are the foundation of His throne.
Fire goes up before Him and burns up His foes on every side.
He protects the lives of His godly ones;
He rescues them from the hand of the wicked.
Light dawns for the righteous,
gladness for the upright in heart.
Be glad in the LORD, you righteous ones,
and praise His holy name. (Psalm 97:3, 10b-12 HCSB)
The declaration of the LORD: “I will be a wall of fire around [Jerusalem], and I will be the glory within it” (Zechariah 2:5 HCSB).
The Bible is full of interesting–and often difficult–tensions. Many of these tensions deal with the character of God Himself, which makes the difficulties that much more difficult. But these tensions are necessary and foundational to life and worship.
The tension in the texts above is between the realities that God is both ours AND a consuming fire.
Hebrews 12:29 is quoting Deuteronomy 4:24. In Deuteronomy, consuming fire is to be understood as an expression of God’s holy jealousy; if the people forsook Him for idols, they were subject to being consumed by His holy hatred for sin. They would be covenant-breakers, unfaithful spouses in fact, and His jealousy would be provoked.
We see this holy, consuming fire in Psalm 97 as well. The language of fire is combined with the language of clouds and thick darkness surrounding God. These are all Exodus images; Mount Sinai was cloaked in thick clouds, darkness, fire, thunder, and lightning when Yahweh Himself descended upon it. The holiness of God was frighteningly clear there as well: by His presence, the entire mountain became holy, and if anyone or anything–person or animal–touched the mountain, that one was to be executed immediately.
In the Exodus we also see fire and clouds and holy jealousy; we see it in the pillars of cloud and fire that guided and protected the Israelites during their journey. En route to the Red Sea, the fire-cloud moved from leading the people to being a shield between them and the pursuing Egyptians. It was in a sense their sun and moon, for the cloud and fire guided them throughout the wilderness wanderings. When the tabernacle is finished, the glory cloud of Yahweh descends upon it, and no one can enter it. Fire and cloud mark the presence of God, but also demarcate holy from unworthy.
In Zechariah 2, Yahweh promises to be a “wall of fire around [Jerusalem]” and the “glory within it.” These promises to the repatriated exiles are reprises of the Exodus; you have come out of your own Egypt, He says, and you will be protected by the cloud and fire of Yahweh Himself, just as they were. I dwelt with them, and they were allowed to live and worship in the shadow of My glorious presence; I will dwell with you too, and you too will live in the shadow of My glorious presence.
The presence of Yahweh by way of cloud and fire was a terror to His enemies, but a consoling confidence to His people. In context, the call in Zechariah 2 was to rebuild the temple at the expense of Jerusalem’s walls; the remaining exiles still in Babylon were to come home, and they were to reinstitute faithful worship in Jerusalem while being defenseless against marauders, invaders, and animals. They had to trust that Yahweh would indeed be their wall of fire around and glory within.
For us Christians today, we often gravitate to one or the other aspect of God at the expense of the other. In Hebrews 12 terms, we either take God as ours or God as a consuming fire, failing to hold both at the same time. To neglect one or the other is deadly.
To see God as ours but not a consuming fire is to slander His holiness. Prior to the exile, the Jews held a doctrine known as the inviolability of Zion. Basically, they believed that Yahweh would never let His city and His temple and His Ark of the Covenant be conquered, so any prophetic threats levied against their sins were empty. They wanted to keep God as theirs (on their terms, of course), where He was a consuming fire to enemies. They had no time for Him being a consuming fire to them. They wanted Yahweh kept on His leash, contained and handy, not the untameable Lion of Judah. (See Klein’s discussion in his NAC commentary (which is very good).
On the other hand, to see God as a consuming fire but not ours is to slander His love. The holiness of God puts His great love into proper context; in Psalm 8 terms, “what is man that You are mindful of him?” That a consuming fire would not consume us, but rather love us–what a thought! What a joy! We must remember that there is rejoicing in Heaven before the angels–God Himself rejoicing–when a sinner repents. It is the joy of Jesus to present us blameless to the Father, and it is the Father’s delight to receive us from the Son.
Father, give us an incendiary joy at Your presence, and give us an amazed trembling at Your holiness.