God's Forgetfulness and God's Face
True believers may, and do, experience times when they feel as if God has forgotten them. They feel as if the divine no longer takes interest in them. David felt this as well. He expresses this in Psalm 31 in language that may make one wonder about God, however. There we read,
"How long, O LORD? Will You forget me forever? How long will You hide Your face from me?" (Psalm 13:1, NASB)
Does God really "forget" and does God really have a "face"? Is God omniscient or not? Is God invisible or not? How should we understand these statements?
David expresses himself in question form: "How long....Will You forget....will You hide Your face....?" Consider the following two aspects of David's complaint: "Will You forget me forever?" and "How long will You hide Your face from me?"
There are at least two ways to understand these and other statements like them. One way would be to take "forget" and "face" literally (i.e., properly). This would mean that as we "forget," so God forgets, and as we have a "face," so God has a face. If one looked up the words for "forget" and "face" in a lexicon one would find that "forget" means "to forget" and "face" means "face." So at first read, taking the words to mean what they normally mean, God forgets and God has a face. But does He?
Another way to understand these and other statements like them is to take "forget" and "face" as figures of speech (i.e., improperly). David utilizes and applies creaturely terms to God in order to describe his own experience. Applying creaturely terms to God is done many, many times by Scripture writers (e.g., Psalm 8:6, "...the works of Thy hands..."). The church has wrestled with this scriptural phenomenon over the centuries and derived from that study a method of interpretation that respects the fact the God is Creator and man is creature, that God is omniscient and we are not, that God does not have a literal face but we do.
Let's take the second term under consideration to illustrate how the church has understood it. Does God have a face (i.e., with contour, eyes, brows, cheeks, nose, lips, mouth, etc.)? In other words, is God like us, possessing physical or finite creaturely human features which take up space in time? The answer is no, obviously. We know this to be the case from many, many other places in Scripture (e.g., John 1:18). God is invisible (1 Tim. 1:17). But David says "Your face." Statements which predicate physical features of man to God have been labeled anthropomorphisms by the great minds of the church. An anthropomorphism is a physical feature of the created realm, in our discussion possessed by man, attributed to God. Things such as eyes, feet, hands, and a face attributed to God are anthropomorphisms. God, then, does not have a literal face; man does. But the figure of speech means something, doesn't it? Of course it does. What does it mean and how is it being used here? It must refer to divine favor extended to David on the earth. David felt as if God was not extending, or communicating, divine favor to him. It is like a human father who turns his face from his son. It is a figure of speech. Though God does not have a literal face, He does at times withhold the sense of His presence and favor from His children. So to "hide Your face" must refer to a perceived (by David) action of God.
But what about divine forgetfulness? David says, "Will You forget me forever?" One could understand "forget" as to cease, or fail, to remember or to fail to think of. This would mean that God at one time possesses the knowledge of things that at another time He does not possess. Taken this way, and reflecting on what David says (i.e., "Will You forget me forever?"), this would entail that what God forgets now He might forget forever. But it also leaves open the door that what God forgets now He might not forget forever. Who knows? Either way this would entail God can know things now that He might not always know. Assuming this view, and assuming the worst for David (i.e., that God forgot David forever), this would mean that God can know things now that He never knows again because He forgets them. In other words, at one moment, God possesses the knowledge of David and at another moment He does not. This would mean that, after all, God is like us, forgetting today what He knew yesterday. What a horrifying thought, if real!
Psalm 31 illustrates something important about interpreting the Bible. We must not take things at face value, if taking them as such contradicts other teachings of Scripture. If God forgets us, He is not omniscient. If God has a face, He is not invisible, nor infinite because faces have measurable limits. Who wants God to be like us, forgetting today what was known yesterday? Who wants Him to be a finite being, confined to space and time like us, a physical being, and thus a creature subject to change? I hope you don't!
Richard C. Barcellos, is pastor of Grace Reformed Baptist Church, Palmdale, CA and Associate Professor of Exegetical Theology at IRBS Theological Seminary. He is the author of Getting the Garden Right: Adam's Work and God's Rest in Light of Christ; The Covenant of Works: Its Confessional and Scriptural Basis; and Trinity and Creation: A Scriptural and Confessional Account (forthcoming from Christian Focus/Mentor).