Our word majesty comes from the Latin; it means greatness. When we ascribe majesty to someone, we are acknowledging greatness in that person, and voicing our respect for it: as, for instance, when we speak of “Her Majesty” the Queen.
Now, majesty is a word which the Bible uses to express the thought of the greatness of God, our Maker and our Lord. “The LORD reigns, he is robed in majesty. . . . Your throne was established long ago” (Ps 93:1-2). “They will speak of the glorious splendor of your majesty, and I will meditate on your wonderful works” (Ps 145:5). Peter, recalling his vision of Christ’s royal glory at the transfiguration, says, “We were eyewitnesses of his majesty” (2 Pet 1:16).
In Hebrews, the phrase the majesty twice does duty for God; Christ, we are told, at his ascension sat down “at the right hand of the Majesty in heaven,” “at the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in heaven” (Heb 1:3; 8:1). The word majesty, when applied to God, is always a declaration of his greatness and an invitation to worship. The same is true when the Bible speaks of God as being on high and in heaven; the thought here is not that God is far distant from us in space, but that he is far above us in greatness, and therefore is to be adored. “Great is the LORD, and most worthy of praise” (Ps 48:1). “The LORD is the great God, the great King. . . . Come, let us bow down in worship” (Ps 95:3, 6). The Christian’s instincts of trust and worship are stimulated very powerfully by knowledge of the greatness of God.
But this is knowledge which Christians today largely lack: and that is one reason why our faith is so feeble and our worship so flabby. We are modern people, and modern people, though they cherish great thoughts of themselves, have as a rule small thoughts of God. When the person in the church, let alone the person in the street, uses the word God, the thought is rarely of divine majesty.
A well-known book is called Your God Is Too Small; it is a timely title. We are poles apart from our evangelical forefathers at this point, even when we confess our faith in their words. When you start reading Luther, or Edwards, or Whitefield, though your doctrine may be theirs, you soon find yourself wondering whether you have any acquaintance at all with the mighty God whom they knew so intimately.
Today, vast stress is laid on the thought that God is personal, but this truth is so stated as to leave the impression that God is a person of the same sort as we are—weak, inadequate, ineffective, a little pathetic. But this is not the God of the Bible! Our personal life is a finite thing: it is limited in every direction, in space, in time, in knowledge, in power. But God is not so limited. He is eternal, infinite and almighty. He has us in his hands; we never have him in ours. Like us, he is personal; but unlike us, he is great. In all its constant stress on the reality of God’s personal concern for his people, and on the gentleness, tenderness, sympathy, patience and yearning compassion that he shows toward them, the Bible never lets us lose sight of his majesty and his unlimited dominion over all his creatures.
PERSONAL YET MAJESTIC
For illustration, we do not have to look further than the opening chapters of Genesis. Right from the start of the Bible story, through the wisdom of divine inspiration, the narrative is told in such a way as to impress upon us the twin truths that the God to whom we are being introduced is both personal and majestic.
Nowhere in the Bible is the personal nature of God expressed in more vivid terms. He deliberates with himself, “Let us . . .” (Gen 1:26). He brings the animals to Adam to see what Adam will call them (2:19). He walks in the garden, calling to Adam (3:8-9). He asks people questions (3:11-13; 4:9; 16:8). He comes down from heaven in order to find out what his creatures are doing (11:5; 18:20-33). He is so grieved by human wickedness that he repents of making them (6:6-7).
Representations of God like these are meant to bring home to us the fact that the God with whom we have to do is not a mere cosmic principle, impersonal and indifferent, but a living Person, thinking, feeling, active, approving of good, disapproving of evil, interested in his creatures all the time.
But we are not to gather from these passages that God’s knowledge and power are limited, or that he is normally absent and so unaware of what is going on in the world except when he comes specially to investigate. These same chapters rule out all such ideas by setting before us a presentation of God’s greatness no less vivid than that of his personality.
The God of Genesis is the Creator, bringing order out of chaos, calling life into being by his word, making Adam from earth’s dust and Eve from Adam’s rib (chaps. 1–2). And he is Lord of all that he has made. He curses the ground and subjects mankind to physical death, thus changing his original perfect world order (3:17-24); he floods the earth in judgment, destroying all life except that in the ark (chaps. 6–8); he confounds human language and scatters the builders of Babel (11:7-9); he overthrows Sodom and Gomorrah by (apparently) a volcanic eruption (19:24-25). Abraham truly calls him “the Judge of all the earth” (18:25), and rightly adopts Melchizedek’s name for him, “God Most High, maker of heaven and earth” (14:19-22 RSV). He is present everywhere, and he observes everything: Cain’s murder (4:9), mankind’s corruption (6:5), Hagar’s destitution (16:7). Well did Hagar name him El Roi, “the God who sees me,” and call her son Ishmael, “God hears,” for God does in truth both hear and see, and nothing escapes him.
His own name for himself is El Shaddai, “God Almighty,” and all his actions illustrate the omnipotence which this name proclaims. He promises Abraham and his wife a son in their nineties, and he rebukes Sarah for her incredulous—and, as it proved, unjustified—laughter: “Is anything too hard for the LORD?” (18:14). And it is not only at isolated moments that God takes control of events, either; all history is under his sway. Proof of this is given by his detailed predictions of the tremendous destiny which he purposed to work out for Abraham’s seed (12:1-3; 13:14-17; 15:13-21; and so on).
Such, in brief, is the majesty of God, according to the first chapters of Genesis.
How may we form a right idea of God’s greatness? The Bible teaches us two steps that we must take. The first is to remove from our thoughts of God limits that would make him small. The second is to compare him with powers and forces which we regard as great.
J. I. Packer, Knowing God (Westmont, IL: IVP Books, 2011).