Can you by searching find out God?
God is beyond us. However much we think we know about Him, He is an inexhaustible, unfathomable depth. He is not an object for us to scrutinise, or a challenge we can absorb, or something malleable which we can mould into a form of our own liking. Our basic starting point when we think of God is to realise that our minds simply cannot encompass Him. Yet He is knowable, when He makes Himself known. And when He makes Himself known, the knowledge of Him makes us not only realise our own littleness but also entrust ourselves to Him to be saved by Him and to live to His honour. These points are made by Hugh Binning in the following updated extract, where Binning reflects on God’s eternity and incomprehensibleness before insisting on the practical consequences for sinners like us coming to truly know God.
God is the unbeginning alpha and the unending omega
This is properly to be, and only this deserves the name of being – that which never was nothing, and never shall be nothing, which may always say, “I am.”
Man is, but look a little backward, and he was not, you shall find his beginning: and step a little forward, and he shall not be, you shall find his end. But God is alpha and omega, the beginning and the end.
But who can retire so far backward as to apprehend a beginning, or go such a leap forward as to conceive an end in a being who is the beginning and end of all things, but without all beginning and end? Whose understanding does it not confound? We cannot imagine a being, but we must first conceive it as nothing and in some instant receiving its being. Therefore, canst thou by searching find out God?
A man’s imagination may extend to suppose to itself as many thousands of years before the beginning of time as have been so far. Then let all the angels and people of all generations from the beginning be employed in nothing but calculating this. And then suppose a product to be made of all their individual sums of years. It would be vast and unspeakable, but yet your imagination could reach further. You could multiply that great sum as often into itself as there are units in it. Now, when you have done all this, you are never a whit nearer the days of the Ancient of Days. Suppose then this was the only activity of humans and angels throughout all eternity, all this marvellous arithmetic would not amount to the least shadow of the countenance of Him who is from everlasting. All that huge product of all the multiplications of humans and angels has no proportion to that never beginning and never ending duration.
Our lives are fleetingly brief
But O, where shall a soul find itself here? It is enclosed between infiniteness before and infiniteness behind, between two everlastings. Whichever way it turns, there is no outgoing, whichever way it looks, it must lose itself in an infiniteness round about it.
Though we vainly please ourselves in the number of our years, and the extent of our life, yet the truth is, we are still only losing as much of our being and time as passes. First we lose our childhood, then we lose our adulthood, and then we leave our old age behind us also, and there is no more before us.
But though days and years are in a continual flux about Him, and they carry us down with their force, yet He abides the same for ever. He is the beginning without any beginning, the end without an end, there is nothing past to him, and nothing to come. He is all, before all, after all, and in all. He beholds out of the exalted and supereminent tower of eternity all the successions and changes of the creatures, and there is no succession, no change in His knowledge, as in ours. He is never driven to any consultation on any emergent or incident. He is in one mind, and who can turn Him?
The being of God is beyond us
Now, canst thou by searching find out God? If mortal creatures cannot attain the measure of what is finite, O then, what can a creature do, what can a creature know, about Him who is infinite, and the maker of all these things? You cannot compass the sea and land, and how then can you comprehend Him who hath measured the waters in the hollow of his hand? (Isa. 40:10). You cannot measure the circumference of the heavens, and how then can you find out Him who metes out the heavens with His span and stretches them out as a curtain? (Isa. 40:12, 22).
Canst thou by searching find Him out? And yet you must search Him, not so much out of curiosity to know what He is (for He dwells in inaccessible light which no man hath seen, nor can see; 1 Tim. 6:16), or to find what we cannot know when we have found – not so much to find Him, as to be found of Him. But though you never find Him out, yet you shall not seek Him in vain, for you shall find blessedness in Him.
This all means that we must seek God
What shall we then do? Seek him, and search him indeed! If we cannot know Him [through and through], we must reverence, fear and adore what we do know. Enough of Him may be known as may teach us our duty and show us our blessedness.
Let then all our inquiries of Him have special reference to this purpose, that we may out of love and fear of such a glorious and good God, worship and serve Him, and compose ourselves according to His will, and wholly to His pleasure. Whatever you know of God, it is but a vain speculation, and a work of curiosity, if it does not lead to this end, to frame and fashion your soul to union and communion with Him in love. Whatever you know of God, it is but vain speculation if it does not reveal yourself to yourself in such a way that in the light of God’s glorious majesty you distinctly see your own darkness and deadness and utter impotency.
The angels that Isaiah saw attending God in the temple cannot behold His glory, but must cover their face with their wings from the radiant and shining brightness of His majesty. Yet they have two other wings to fly with. Being composed in reverence and fear to God, they are ready to execute His commands willingly and swiftly. What then does Isaiah make of this glorious sight? “We are all unclean, people and pastor.” The glory of God shining on Isaiah does not pull him up into arrogance and conceit of the knowledge of such profound mysteries, but he is more abased in himself by it.
So it was with Job. “I heard of Thee by the hearing of the ear,” he said (Job 42:5), “but as long as it was hearsay, I thought myself something; I often reflected upon myself and my actions with a kind of complacency. But now since I have seen Thee by the seeing of the eye, I abhor myself in dust and ashes. Self-love made me loathe other people’s sins more than my own, and self-love covered my own sins from me, presenting me to myself in a feigned likeness. But now I see myself in my true shape. Thy light has pierced into my soul, and I cannot endure to look at myself.”
Here is the true knowledge of God’s majesty: it exposes within you a mystery of iniquity. Here is real knowledge of God: it abases all things beside God, not only notionally, but in affection. This knowledge attracts and unites your soul to God, and draws it away from yourself and all created things. Knowledge falsely so called is what puffs us up, but true knowledge empties a soul of itself, and humbles the soul in itself, so that it may be full of God.
Finding God has concrete practical effects in our life
This then is the first property of saving knowledge of God: it removes all ground of vain confidence (so that a soul cannot trust to itself), and then its real, proper intent is to bring the soul to trust in God, and depend on Him in all things.
For this purpose the Lord has called Himself by so many names in Scripture, corresponding to our various needs and difficulties. It is so that He would make known to us how all-sufficient He is, so that we would turn our eyes and hearts towards Him. This was His intention behind revealing this name, “I am” – it was so that Moses would have a support for his faith. If Moses had looked at the outward appearances of things, was it not almost a ridiculous thing to go to the king with such a message, that he would dismiss so many subjects? Was it not the attempt of some madman to think of leading so many thousands into another nation? “Well,” says the Lord, “I am: I who give all things a being, will give a being to my promise; I will make Pharaoh hearken, and the people obey.”
What is there that this name of God does not match? If He is what He is, then He can make of us what He pleases. If our souls had this name “I AM” constantly engraved on our hearts, O what power the divine promises and threatenings would have with us! “I, even I, am he that comforteth thee,” He says. If we believed that it really was He, the Lord Jehovah, how we would be comforted! How we would praise Him by His name JAH! How we would stoop before Him, and submit to His blessed will!
If we believed this, would we not be as dependent on Him as if we had no being in ourselves? Would we not make Him our habitation and dwelling-place? Would we not be reassured about our own stability, and the stability of His church, from His unvariable eternity (like the psalmist in Psalm 90 and Psalm 102)? How can we think of such a fountain-being, without at the same time acknowledging ourselves to be shadows of His goodness, and acknowledging that we owe to Him what we are, and so consecrating ourselves to His glory? How can we consider such a self-being, independent, and creating goodness, without having some desire to cleave to Him, and some confidence to trust in Him?
In sum, whatever you hear or know of God, realise that it is vain and empty unless it descends down into your heart to fashion it to fear and love Him, and unless it extends to your outward behaviour to conform it to obedience. “You are but vain in your imaginations, and your foolish hearts are darkened, while when you know God you glorify him not as God.” If glorifying God is not the fruit and end of your knowledge, that knowledge shall be worse to you than ignorance, for it both brings on judicial hardening here, and will be your solemn accuser and witness against you hereafter (Rom. 1:21, 24). The knowledge of Jesus Christ, truly so called, is neither barren nor unfruitful, for out of its root and sap springs humility, confidence in God, patience in tribulations, meekness in provocations, and temperance and sobriety in lawful things (2 Pet. 1:5–8).
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