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Bible Dictionaries

Watson's Biblical & Theological Dictionary


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that attribute of God by which he is present in all places. The statement of this doctrine in the inspired records, like that of all the other attributes of God, is made in their own peculiar tone and emphasis of majesty and sublimity. "Whither shall I go from thy Spirit, or whither shall I flee from thy presence? If I ascend up to heaven, thou art there; if I make my bed in hell, behold thou art there; if I take the wings of the morning, and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, even there shall thy hand lead me, and thy right hand shall hold me. Can any hide himself in secret places that I shall not see him? Do not I fill heaven and earth, saith the Lord? Am I a God at hand, saith the Lord, and not a God afar off?" "Thus saith the Lord, Behold, heaven is my throne, and the earth is my footstool." "Behold, heaven, and the heaven of heavens cannot contain thee." "Though he dig into hell, thence shall my hand take him; though he climb up into heaven, thence will I bring him down; and though he hide himself in the top of Carmel, I will search and take him out from thence." "In him we live, and move, and have our being." "He filleth all things."

Some striking passages on the ubiquity of the divine presence may be found in the writings of some of the Greek philosophers, arising out of this notion, that God was the soul of the world; but their very connection with this speculation, notwithstanding the imposing phrase occasionally adopted, strikingly marks the difference between their most exalted views, and those of the Hebrew prophets on this subject. To a large proportion of those who hold a distinguished rank among the ancient theistical philosophers, the idea of the personality of the Deity was in a great measure unknown. The Deity by them was considered not so much an intelligent Being, as an animating power, diffused throughout the world, and was introduced into their speculative system to account for the motion of that passive mass of matter, which was supposed coeval, and indeed coexistent, with himself. These defective notions are confessed by Gibbon, a writer not disposed to undervalue their attainments: "The philosophers of Greece deduced their morals from the nature of man, rather than from that of God. They meditated, however, on the divine nature, as a very curious and important speculation; and, in the profound inquiry, they displayed the strength and weakness of the human understanding. Of the four most considerable sects, the Stoics and the Platonicians endeavoured to reconcile the jarring interests of reason and piety. They have left us the most sublime proofs of the existence and perfections of the First Cause; but as it was impossible for them to conceive the creation of matter, the workman, in the Stoic philosophy, was not sufficiently distinguished from the work; while, on the contrary, the spiritual god of Plato and his disciples resembled more an idea than a substance."

Similar errors have been revived in the infidel philosophy of modern times, from Spinoza down to the later offspring of the German and French schools. The same remark applies also to the oriental philosophy, which presents at this day a perfect view of the boasted wisdom of ancient Greece, which was "brought to nought" by "the foolishness" of apostolic preaching. But in the Scriptures there is nothing confused in the doctrine of the divine ubiquity. God is every where, but he is not every thing. All things have their being in him, but he is distinct from all things; he fills the universe, but is not mingled with it. He is the intelligence which guides, and the power which sustains; but his personality is preserved, and he is independent of the works of his hands, however vast and noble. So far is his presence from being bounded by the universe itself, that, as we are taught in the passage above quoted from the Psalms, were it possible for us to wing our way into the immeasurable depths and breadths of space, God would there surround us, in as absolute a sense as that in which he is said to be about our bed and our path in that part of the world where his will has placed us.

On this, as on all similar subjects, the Scriptures use terms which are taken in their common-sense acceptation among mankind; and though the vanity of the human mind disposes many to seek a philosophy in the doctrine thus announced deeper than that which its popular terms convey, we are bound to conclude, if we would pay but a common respect to an admitted revelation, that, where no manifest figure of speech occurs, the truth of the doctrine lies in the tenor of the terms by which it is expressed. Otherwise there would be no revelation, we do not say of the modus, [manner,] (for that is confessedly incomprehensible,) but of the fact. In the case before us, the terms presence and place are used according to common notions; and must be so taken, if the Scriptures are intelligible, Metaphysical refinements are not Scriptural doctrines, when they give to the terms chosen by the Holy Spirit an acceptation out of their general and proper use, and make them the signs of a perfectly distinct class of ideas; if, indeed, all distinctness of idea is not lost in the attempt. It is therefore in the popular and just, because Scriptural, manner, that we are to conceive of the omnipresence of God. If we reflect upon ourselves, we may observe that we fill but a small space, and that our knowledge or power reaches but a little way. We can act at one time in one place only, and the sphere of our influence is narrow at largest. Would we be witnesses to what is done at any distance from us, or exert there our active powers, we must remove ourselves thither. For this reason we are necessarily ignorant of a thousand things which pass around us, incapable of attending and managing any great variety of affairs, or performing at the same time any number of actions, for our own good, or for the benefit of others. Although we feel this to be the present condition of our being, and the limited state of our intelligent and active powers, yet we can easily conceive there may exist beings more perfect, and whose presence may extend far and wide: any one of whom, present in what are to us various places, at the same time, may know at once what is done in all these, and act in all of them; and thus be able to regard and direct a variety of affairs at the same instant: and who farther being qualified, by the purity and activity of their nature, to pass from one place to another, with great ease and swiftness, may thus fill a large sphere of action, direct a great variety of affairs, confer a great number of benefits, and observe a multitude of actions at the same time, or in so swift a succession as to us would appear but one instant. Thus perfect we may readily believe the angels of God.

We can farther conceive this extent of presence, and of ability for knowledge and action, to admit of degrees of ascending perfection approaching to infinite. And when we have thus raised our thoughts to the idea of a being, who is not only present throughout a large empire, but throughout our world; and not only in every part of our world, but in every part of all the numberless suns and worlds which roll in the starry heavens,—who is not only able to enliven and actuate the plants, animals, and men who live upon this globe, but countless varieties of creatures every where in an immense universe,—yea, whose presence is not confined to the universe, immeasurable as that is by any finite mind, but who is present every where in infinite space; and who is therefore able to create still new worlds, and fill them with proper inhabitants, attend, supply, and govern them all,—when we have thus gradually raised and enlarged our conceptions, we have the best idea we can form of the universal presence of the great Jehovah, who filleth heaven and earth. There is no part of the universe, no portion of space, uninhabited by God; none wherein this Being of perfect power, wisdom, and benevolence is not essentially present.

Could we with the swiftness of a sun beam dart ourselves beyond the limits of the creation, and for ages continue our progress in infinite space, we should still be surrounded with the divine presence; nor ever be able to reach that space where God is not. His presence also penetrates every part of our world; the most solid parts of the earth cannot exclude it; for it pierces as easily the centre of the globe as the empty air. All creatures live and move and have their being in him. And the inmost recesses of the human heart can no more exclude his presence, or conceal a thought from his knowledge, than the deepest caverns of the earth.

The illustrations and confirmatory proofs of this doctrine which the material world furnishes, are numerous and striking. It is a most evident and acknowledged truth that a being cannot act where it is not: if, therefore, actions and effects, which manifest the highest wisdom, power, and goodness in the author of them, are continually produced every where, the author of these actions, or God, must be continually present with us, and wherever he thus acts. The matter which composes the world is evidently lifeless and thoughtless: it must therefore be incapable of moving itself, or designing or producing any effects which require wisdom or power. The matter of our world, or the small parts which constitute the air, the earth, and the waters, is yet continually moved, so as to produce effects of this kind; such are the innumerable herbs, and trees, and fruits which adorn the earth, and support the countless millions of creatures who inhabit it. There must therefore be constantly present, all over the earth, a most wise, mighty, and good Being, the author and director of these motions.

We cannot, it is true, see him with our bodily eyes, because he is a pure Spirit; yet this is not any proof that he is not present. A judicious discourse, a series of kind actions, convince us of the presence of a friend, a person of prudence and benevolence. We cannot see the present mind, the seat and principle of these qualities; yet the constant regular motion of the tongue, the hand, and the whole body, (which are the instruments of our souls, as the material universe and all the various bodies in it are the instruments of the Deity,) will not suffer us to doubt that there is an intelligent and benevolent principle within the body which produces all these skilful motions and kind actions. The sun, the air, the earth, and the waters, are no more able to move themselves, and produce all that beautiful and useful variety of plants, and fruits, and trees, with which our earth is covered, than the body of a man, when the soul hath left it, is able to move itself, form an instrument, plough a field, or build a house. If the laying out judiciously and well cultivating a small estate, sowing it with proper grain at the best time of the year, watering it in due season and quantities, and gathering in the fruits when ripe, and laying them up in the best manner,— if all these effects prove the estate to have a manager, and the manager possessed of skill and strength,—certainly the enlightening and warming the whole earth by the sun, and so directing its motion and the motion of the earth as to produce in a constant useful succession day and night, summer and winter, seed time and harvest; the watering the earth continually by the clouds, and thus bringing forth immense quantities of herbage, grain, and fruits,—certainly all these effects continually produced, must prove that a Being of the greatest power, wisdom, and benevolence is continually present throughout our world, which he thus supports, moves, actuates, and makes fruitful.

The fire which warms us knows nothing of its serviceableness to this purpose, nor of the wise laws according to which its particles are moved to produce this effect. And that it is placed in such a part of the house, where it may be greatly beneficial and no way hurtful, is ascribed without hesitation to the contrivance and labour of a person who knew its proper place and uses. And if we came daily into a house wherein we saw this was regularly done, though we never saw an inhabitant in it, we could not doubt that the house was occupied by a rational inhabitant. That huge globe of fire in the heavens, which we call the sun, and on the light and influences of which the fertility of our world, and the life and pleasure of all animals, depend, knows nothing of its serviceableness to these purposes, nor of the wise laws according to which its beams are dispensed, nor what place or motions were requisite for these beneficial purposes. Yet its beams are darted constantly in infinite numbers, every one according to those well chosen laws, and its proper place and motion are maintained. Must not, then, its place be appointed, its motion regulated, and beams darted, by almighty wisdom and goodness, which prevent the sun's ever wandering in the boundless space of the heavens, so as to leave us in disconsolate cold and darkness, or coming so near, or emitting his rays in such a manner, as to burn us up? Must not the great Being who enlightens and warms us by the sun, his instrument, who raises and sends down the vapours, brings forth and ripens the grain and fruits, and who is thus ever acting around us for our benefit, be always present in the sun, throughout the air, and all over the earth, which he thus moves and actuates?

This earth is in itself a dead, motionless mass, and void of all counsel; yet proper parts of it are continually raised through the small pipes which compose the bodies of plants and trees, and are made to contribute to their growth, to open and shine in blossoms and leaves, and to swell and harden into fruit. Could blind, thoughtless particles thus continually keep on their way, through numberless windings, without once blundering, if they were not guided by an unerring hand? Can the most perfect human skill from earth and water form one grain, much more a variety of beautiful and relishing fruits? Must not the directing mind, who does all this constantly, be most wise, mighty, and benevolent? Must not the Being who thus continually exerts his skill and energy around us, for our benefit, be confessed to be always present and concerned for our welfare? Can these effects be ascribed to any thing below an all-wise and almighty cause? And must not this cause be present wherever he acts? Were God to speak to us every month from heaven, and with a voice loud as thunder declare that he observes, provides for, and governs us; this would not be a proof, in the judgment of sound reason, by many degrees so valid: since much less wisdom and power are required to form such sounds in the air, than to produce these effects; and to give, not merely verbal declarations, but substantial evidences of his presence and care over us. In every part and place of the universe, with which we are acquainted, we perceive the exertion of a power, which we believe, mediately or immediately, to proceed from the Deity. For instance: in what part or point of space, that has ever been explored, do we not discover attraction? In what regions do we not find light? In what accessible portion of our globe do we not meet with gravity, magnetism, electricity; together with the properties also and powers of organized substances, of vegetable or of animated nature? Nay, farther, what kingdom is there of nature, what corner of space, in which there is any thing that can be examined by us, where we do not fall upon contrivance and design? The only reflection, perhaps, which arises in our minds from this view of the world around us, is, that the laws of nature every where prevail; that they are uniform and universal. But what do we mean by the laws of nature, or by any law? Effects are produced by power, not by laws. A law cannot execute itself. A law refers us to an agent.

The usual argument a priori, on this attribute of the divine nature, has been stated as follows; but, amidst such a mass of demonstration of a much higher kind, it cannot be of any great value:—The First Cause, the supreme all-perfect Mind, as he could not derive his being from any other cause, must be independent of all other, and therefore unlimited. He exists by an absolute necessity of nature; and as all the parts of infinite space are exactly uniform and alike, for the same reason that he exists in any one part he must exist in all. No reason can be assigned for excluding him from one part, which would not exclude him from all. But that he is present in some parts of space, the evident effects of his wisdom, power, and benevolence continually produced, demonstrate beyond all rational doubt. He must therefore be alike present every where, and fill infinite space with his infinite Being.

Among metaphysicians, it has been matter of dispute, whether God is present every where by an infinite extension of his essence. This is the opinion of Newton, Dr. S. Clarke, and their followers; others have objected to this notion, that it might then be said, God is neither in heaven nor in earth, but only a part of God in each. The former opinion, however, appears most in harmony with the Scriptures; though the term extension, through the inadequacy of language, conveys too material an idea. The objection just stated is wholly grounded on notions taken from material objects, and is therefore of little weight, because it is not applicable to an immaterial substance. It is best to confess with one who had thought deeply on the subject, "There is an incomprehensibleness in the manner of every thing about which no controversy can or ought to be concerned." That we cannot comprehend how God is fully, and completely, and undividedly present every where, need not surprise us, when we reflect that the manner in which our own minds are present with our bodies is as incomprehensible as the manner in which the supreme Mind is present with every thing in the universe.

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Bibliography Information
Watson, Richard. Entry for 'Omnipresence'. Richard Watson's Biblical & Theological Dictionary. 1831-2.

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