A major theme in the book of Psalms is that worshipers could enter the Lord’s temple, come into His presence and see Him face to face if they met certain requirements, said BYU professor Andrew C. Skinner during the Sperry Symposium held at Brigham Young University on Oct. 26.
“The Hebrew Bible or Christian Old Testament contains several episodes in which God appeared to mortals,” he said. “Such an appearance is called a theophany, from the Greek theophaneia, meaning ‘God appearance.’ They were not everyday occurrences, but neither were they so rare as to be puzzling to mortal participants.”
Passages of scripture suggest that theophanies were a result of faithful devotion to God, obedience and covenant-keeping. The Old Testament says that the Lord would visit with the Israelites in the “tent of meeting,” and there He would dwell among the Israelites. The purpose of Solomon’s Temple — the first temple in Jerusalem — was to bring worshipers into direct contact with Deity.
Drawing from other scholars, Brother Skinner said that some believe that seeking the face or presence of the Lord had been at the heart of temple beliefs and rituals.
“This should not surprise us, after all, since we know that there existed a profound connection between the temple and many of the psalms — Israel’s ancient hymns — as scholars both in and out of the LDS community have noted,” he said.
So it is expected, Brother Skinner said, “to find some discussion of one of the temple’s central purposes — bringing worshipers into God’s presence — in certain ancient hymns of Israel that were composed in or for the temple.”
Brother Skinner reviewed some examples of theophany in the Old Testament, examined specific psalms of theophany that describe the quest to see the face of God in the temple, and discussed the requirements of those who were permitted to worship in the First Temple.
1. Examples of theophany
“Ancient Israel’s belief in the possibility of mortals entering God’s presence and seeing Him face to face is as old as the existence of Israel itself,” Brother Skinner said. “We know this from the culminating experience of Jacob, the immediate father of the Israelites, when he wrestled with a Divine messenger for a divine blessing. …
“Thus the House of Israel, our house — our family, was inaugurated by the appearance of God to the head of the family. But, even before Jacob had his life-altering experience, ‘the Lord appeared to Abram’ — Jacob’s grandfather — and commanded him to walk before the Lord in perfection.”
Another example showing that the Lord appears to men “face to face” is when the Lord spoke to Moses. “The experiences of other witnesses attest to the fact that mortals saw God in mortality, especially in the temple,” he said.
2. Psalms of theophany
Several Old Testament passages connect the privilege of seeing God with the specific locale of the Jerusalem Temple, he said. “But it is sometimes called the hill or mountain of the Lord — the place of the Lord’s dwelling.”
Many biblical passages refer to the temple not as built on a hill or mountain, but as the hill or mountain of the Lord.
“Clearly the Lord expected His people to seek His face in the temple,” he said. “It was His dwelling place, a place of effectual fervent prayer, and the place from which He, God, Himself would answer His people and dwell among them. In the world view of the psalmist, God’s earthly temple paralleled a heavenly temple.”
3. Requirements for worshipers to enter the temple
One of the best-known psalms that describes the conditions needed for a personal encounter with God is Psalm 24, where it speaks of the rules and qualifications of those admitted into the temple. From the psalms one learns that in order to go to the temple and see the face of God they must be “pure in heart” and have “clean hands and a pure heart.”
“In First Temple times, both the outward actions and the inward thoughts of the worshiper had to conform to a holy standard to gain entrance into the temple precinct,” he said. “Hands have to be clean.”
Psalm 15 is related to Psalm 24, and is a temple entrance hymn that offers qualifications required of those who seek the Lord.
“The Lord’s answer encompasses a series of requirements which seem very much the equivalent of an ancient certification of temple worthiness — a recommend, if you will, in LDS parlance.”
The concept of the temple as the place where the Lord may be seen face to face is one of the doctrines restored by Joseph Smith, taught Brother Skinner.
“A major part of Joseph Smith’s ministry seems to have been devoted to helping latter-day Israel understand that the promise of seeing the Lord face to face in the temple was literal and real, just as much as ancient Israel’s leaders and writers believed that such a promise was literal and real and centered in the temple,” he said.
The psalmist sought one thing above all others with one request of the Lord — that He “may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of [his] life, to behold the beauty of the Lord, and to enquire in his temple” (Psalm 27:4).
“Is this not the request of all true disciples in every age when the Lord’s temples have been available?” Brother Skinner asked.
The quest for every true follower of God is to seek the face of the Lord as said in Psalm 105:4, “seek the Lord, and His strength: seek his face ever more.”