Following the siege of Jerusalem, it is recorded by the Roman historian Tacitus that the Roman General Pompey entered into the Holy of Holies, the inner sanctuary of the Temple of God. Here’s what Tacitus records:
“As victor, he claimed the right to enter the Temple, and this incident gave rise to the common impression that it contained no representation of the deity – the sanctuary was empty, and the Holy of Holies untenanted.” Tacitus, Histories, Book 5:11-12
The Romans were astounded. Coming from a world that lived perpetually under the watchful eye of Mt. Olympus, a world of columns and pillars, temples and shrines, and statues and idols it was a staggering discovery that at the geographical center of Jewish religious experience to find nothing more than …
an empty room.
That’s because deep within the Jewish monotheistic innovation is a Creator God who cannot be explained, quantified, defined, or controlled. The Jews did not dare tend to the Holy of Holies, as if to try and manage or manipulate God. They didn’t even try to say the Name that God had given to Moses. Every time you read in your Bible the words “LORD,” in all caps, you are reading the alternate word that protected people from mispronouncing the Name. In fact, to create an image for God was among the most grievous sins for the people of Israel, as their history could readily attest. Any attempt to try and define God or picture God using the imagination of man always ends in making idols.
This is a God whose presence to Israel was a cloud of darkness with lightning coming from it.
This is the God who answers Moses’ ageless question “show me your glory,” by only letting him see the afterglow after he passes by for “no one can see my face and live.”
This is a God who speaks all at once with a Voice that sometimes rolls like thunder, and other times is like a whisper.
This is a God who is at the same time both relentless in pursuit of justice and tenderly generous in dispensing grace.
Zophar the Naamathite says to his friend Job “Can you fathom the mysteries of God? Can you probe the limits of the Almighty? They are higher than the heavens above–what can you do? They are deeper than the depths below — what can you know? Their measure is longer than the earth and wider than the sea.”
Paul writes to Timothy about a God who “is alone immortal and lives in unapproachable light.” To the Romans he quotes Job and asks “Oh the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable his judgments and his paths beyond tracing out! Who can know the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counselor?”
And yet deep within human nature is this desire to know the Unknowable that causes us to continue to create and build and plan and imagine ways to bring definition to the undefinable. This longing, A. W. Tozer says, “to know What cannot be known, to comprehend the Incomprehensible, to touch and taste the Unapproachable, arises from the image of God in the nature of man. Deep calleth unto deep, and though polluted and landlocked by the mighty disaster theologians call the Fall, the soul senses its origin and longs to return to its Source.”
Thomas Cahill asks it this way: “Can we open ourselves to the God who cannot be understood, who is beyond all our amulets and schemings, the God who rains on picnics, the God who allows human beings to be inhuman, who has sentenced us all to death? All the other gods are figments, sorry projections of human desires. Only this God is worth my life… For “there is no other.”
How can we satisfy this longing to know him who is unknown?
Who is the God of the Empty Room?