“Your face, Lord, I will seek”

Toward the theology of the face of God

Jiří Moskala, ThD, PhD, is professor of Old Testament exegesis and theology and dean of the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary, Andrews University, Berrien Springs, Michigan, United States.

At the center of Psalm 27, David responds to God’s appeal, “ ‘Seek my face’ ” (v. 8, ESV), by promising, “Your face, LORD, I will seek” (v. 8).1 David’s firm decision puts the notion of God’s face at the heart of the chiastic literary structure of this psalm.2 He explains why he desires to look at God’s face: “To gaze on the beauty of the LORD and to seek him” (v. 4) and to “see the goodness of the LORD” (v. 13).

Ancient philosophers have long attested that beauty, truth, and goodness form the foundational triad of human life; they are basic qualities of our existence. David could not imagine life without God, and so he asks the Lord, “Do not hide your face from me” (v. 9). The apex of his prayer is connected to his personal trust in God:

The LORD is my light and my salvation;
whom shall I fear?
The LORD is the stronghold of my life;
of whom shall I be afraid? (v. 1, ESV).

David’s words lead us to this fundamental question: What is so significant in David seeking or seeing the face of God? The short answer is that he wants to see the beauty of God’s
character—the truth about Him and His goodness.

The face of God

The Hebrew term panim (always plural) has two main meanings in the context of our study: (1) “face” and (2) “presence,”3 which explain why translators render the same biblical text differently. Some speak about God’s presence, and others translate it more literally as God’s face. The word panim comes with a plethora of additional meanings, such as “before,” “in front of,” “surface,” “person,”4 and appears 2,140 times in the Hebrew Bible.5 The Greek equivalent is prosopon, occurring 76 times in the New Testament; it also has the same two basic meanings.6

The biblical narrative of the creation of Adam contains implied imagery of God’s face, which suggests the first thing that Adam saw when he opened his eyes was the face of God (Gen. 2:7). Adam was in the presence of God—in a close relationship with a divine Person. Adam’s existence began by seeing the face of God; it was a face-to-face encounter. The warmness of the imagery alludes to the loving relationship between them.

What do people read in our faces when they interact with us?

For us, too, seeing God’s face should be an integral part of our walk with the Lord because humans were created to live in close relationship with Him and in dependence on Him (Gen. 1:26–2:3). But sin broke this relationship, and instead, fear, guilt, and shame followed. After eating the forbidden fruit, Adam and Eve hid and fled from God’s presence (Gen. 3:7–10).

In the priestly Aaronic blessing, God’s face is mentioned twice. It was the most desirable thing:

“ ‘ “ ‘The LORD bless you . . .
the LORD make his face shine on you . . .
the LORD turn his face toward you
and give you peace’ ” ’ ” (Num. 6:24–26).

God’s shining and turning His face toward His people expresses joy and shows acceptance, favor, respect, and forgiveness.

Many psalms attest to the same fundamental truth: “Let the light of your face shine on us” (Ps. 4:6). In the New Living Translation, this verse states: “Let your face smile on us, LORD.” We need this smile of God because God’s smile on us enables us to smile on each other. David could not imagine life without this favor: “How long will you hide your face from me?” (Ps. 13:1, ESV) In Psalm 11, he culminates his thought with the affirmation that “the upright shall behold his [the LORD’s] face” (v. 7, ESV). God said to Solomon: “ ‘If my people . . . humble themselves, and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven and will forgive their sin’ ” (2 Chron. 7:14, ESV).

To seek God’s face means to search for His favor and gracious intervention: “Now there was a famine. . . . David sought the face of the LORD” (2 Sam. 21:1, ESV). In this search, repentance, petitions, fasting, and praises are included (Joel 2:12–15; Phil. 4:6) because seeking God’s face must go hand in hand with total dedication to God. To appear before God’s face points to visiting the sanctuary (Deut. 31:11; Isa. 1:12), but “ ‘no one is to appear before me [lit. see my face] empty-handed’ ” (Exod. 23:15; 34:20). Thus, the face of God appears in the context of expectations and hopes that God will be with His people, change their situation, and bless them.

Jacob, Esau, and God’s face

The story of Jacob wrestling with a stranger and then meeting with his brother, Esau, is very illuminating because the whole narrative of Genesis 32 and 33 is composed around the key word face. The Hebrew text literally states that Jacob was fleeing from the face of his brother, Esau (Gen. 35:1); thus, “the face” means a person here. The image of Esau haunted Jacob for 20 years; during this time, he never visited his native lands, his parents, or reconciled with Esau. But before Jacob could meet with his brother, he needed to meet with his God. Before he saw the face of his brother again, he had to see the face of God.

The word face appears in these two chapters in crucial places, testifying to its significance. This expression appears four times in just one verse, yet English translations usually do not catch the textual interplay with this word. A literal translation highlights Jacob’s thoughts: I will cover his face with these gifts that go before my face, and afterward, when I will see his face, perhaps he will lift up my face (Gen. 32:20). Jacob wanted to blind—that is, appease, pacify, or calm—Esau’s anger, thus literally covering Esau’s face with extravagant gifts so that Esau would not see and remember the wrong that Jacob did to him. The many presents were his attempt to change Esau’s attitude toward him. The idiomatic phrase to lift up one’s face means “to favorably accept,” “to be kind,” “to forgive,” “to be friendly,” “to receive another person.”

Jacob then wrestled with “a man” (Gen. 32:24) in whom he recognized a divine Person (from a Christian perspective, this Person is identified with the preincarnated Christ).7 This is why he calls the place “Peniel,” which means the “Face of God” in Hebrew, and reasoned: “ ‘It is because I saw God face to face, and yet my life was spared’ ” (v. 30). What did Jacob read in the face of God? God gave him a new name and blessed him (vv. 26–29).

Later that morning, as his brother was approaching him, Jacob went forward to meet him by bowing down before Esau seven times (Gen. 33:3). Because Jacob first humbled himself before God, he was now able to humble himself before his brother, and Esau graciously accepted him. In that moment of reconciliation (v. 4), Jacob burst into a special recognition. According to Genesis 33:10, Jacob confesses that he sees God’s face in Esau: “ ‘If I have found favor in your eyes, accept this gift from me. For to see your face is like seeing the face of God.’ ” What was Jacob reading in the face of his brother? The same expressions of love, compassion, forgiveness, and grace that he saw in the face of God earlier. God’s smile on Jacob is reflected in Esau’s acceptance of his returning brother. What do people read in our faces when they interact with us?

Why do we need to seek God’s face?

  1. The face of God gives assurance of His presence (Gen. 28:15; Matt. 28:20; Acts 18:10).
  2. The face of God provides emotional stability and balance in a world of loneliness, anxiety, and fear. Someone loves, cares for, and protects me (John 14:27; Phil. 4:7).8
  3. The face of God leads and guides (Exod. 33:15).
  4. The face of God brings intellectual strength because we can rely on God’s infinite wisdom and counsel (Ps. 73:23, 24; Prov. 3:5–7).
  5. God’s presence brings prosperity and success for accomplishing His will, mission, and purpose. He enables His people to be His faithful witnesses (Acts 1:8; cf. Phil. 2:13).
  6. Seeing the face of God by the inner sight of faith is the key to a victorious life (Ps. 16:8).
  7. The face of God brings endurance and perseverance (Heb. 11:27; Rev. 14:12).
  8. The face of God gives us a sense of identity (Isa. 6:1–8; 43:1; Gal. 3:26–29; 4:5; 1 John 3:1).
  9. The face of God means that He watches over us, speaks to us, and hears our prayers (Pss. 32:8; 33:18).
  10. Seeing the face of God transforms lives (2 Cor. 3:18; Rom. 12:1, 2).

Jesus proclaimed, “ ‘Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God’ ” (Matt. 5:8). The redeemed, as the inhabitants of the New Jerusalem, will delight in seeing God’s face. True believers will constantly behold His countenance, and this face-to-face encounter will be their highest and ultimate experience. John describes it in celebratory language: “And there shall be no more curse, but the throne of God and of the Lamb shall be in it, and His servants shall serve Him. They shall see His face, and His name shall beon their foreheads” (Rev. 22:3, 4, NKJV).

This promise of seeing God’s face is the most fascinating picture regarding the closeness of the redeemed with God. They will live forever and rejoice in His presence. His presence will be permanently with them, so they will not need to seek His face. They will gaze upon the splendor and majesty of the Lord—His full glory. And the more they know their King and Lord, the more they will be thrilled to serve, obey, and worship Him. Each day throughout all eternity will bring new discoveries of God’s goodness, brilliance, and the grandeur of His character of love.

  1. Scripture is from the New International Version, unless otherwise indicated.
  2. Psalm 27 is written in a very symmetric chiastic structure:
    (A) the Lord is the strength of my life (vv. 1–3);
    (B) the beauty and truth of the Lord (v. 4);
    (C) my enemies (vv. 5, 6);
    (D) three positive petitions (v. 7);
    (E) Seek My face (v. 8);
    (D’) three negative petitions (vv. 9, 10);
    (C’) my enemies (vv. 11, 12);
    (B’) the goodness of the Lord (v. 13);
    (A’) He shall strengthen your heart (v. 14).
  3. See F. Brown, S. R. Driver, and C. A. Briggs, eds., A Hebrew and English Lexicon of the Old Testament (New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin, 1907), 815, 816; William L. Holladay, ed., A Concise Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1988), 293, 294.
  4. For details, see Brown, Driver, and Briggs, A Hebrew and English Lexicon, 815–819.
  5. Abraham Even-Shoshan, ed., A New Concordance of the Old Testament: Using the Hebrew and Aramaic Text, 2nd ed.(Jerusalem: Kiryat-Sefer, 1990), 949–952.
  6. John R. Kohlenberger III, Edward W. Goodrick, and James A. Swanson, The Exhaustive Concordance to the Greek New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1995), 861, 862.
  7. Jacques B. Doukhan, Genesis, Seventh-day Adventist International Bible Commentary (Nampa, ID: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 2016), 368, 372.
  8. Life without God is lonely. This aspect is especially underlined by Roger Scruton, The Face of God (London, UK: Continuum, 2012), 153–178.

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Jiří Moskala, ThD, PhD, is professor of Old Testament exegesis and theology and dean of the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary, Andrews University, Berrien Springs, Michigan, United States.

November 2020

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