At the beginning of 2021, my One Year Chronological Bible Reading Plan had me in the throes of Joseph’s story—after more than twenty years believing his son was dead, Jacob, the Hebrew patriarch, learned Joseph was actually alive. In his frail, old age, Jacob faced the startling proposition to leave Canaan, the land he’d known all his life, and travel to Egypt where he would be reunited with his long-lost son. Such a journey would be a heavy task for one so old and weak. He couldn’t walk or ride an animal; he’d have to be carried the entire way.
No doubt Jacob wondered how it could even be true that his son, whom he’d been led to believe had been mauled and eaten by wild animals at seventeen, was alive in Egypt. And not just alive, but a very great and powerful man second only to Pharaoh himself. Despite the testimony of his other sons, it still seemed like a dream. If Joseph was alive—of which Jacob’s remaining sons convinced him—would he make it to Egypt to see him? What if his health deteriorated on the way? Despite his questions and fears, the nearly unbelievable news brought life back to Jacob’s weary spirit. He got in the cart and, with all his family and belongings, headed to Egypt.
When the caravan stopped at Beersheba, perhaps the closest spot to Egypt that Jacob was familiar with, God came to him in a vision. “Jacob, Jacob,” God called.
“Here I am,” Jacob said.
“I am God, the God of your father. Do not be afraid to go down to Egypt, for there I will make you into a great nation.” The voice was calm, a breeze on the night air. And then God said, “I myself will go down with you to Egypt, and I will also bring you up again, and Joseph’s hand shall close your eyes.”
At that time, I didn’t know what it was about those words—I myself will go down with you—but they leaped out of the screen and took hold of me. I was floored.
“I myself…” You, your very self? With me?
I wanted to cry. I wanted to scream. I couldn’t then, and still can’t, recall a more profound and apparent spiritual experience in my life.
I felt like Digory and Polly at the end of The Magician’s Nephew as they bid farewell to Aslan and were tossed and floating in a sea of gold: “Such a sweetness and power rolled about them and over them and entered them that they felt they had never really been happy or wise or good, or even alive and awake, before.”
I myself will go down with you.
There’s so much contained in those words; it’s nearly incomprehensible. I spent the rest of the year meditating on them, not so much trying to decode the phrase as I was trying to drown myself in their sweetness and power again and again. Imagine all of God’s omniscience, all of his omnipresence, all of his omnipotence—all of that goodness and glory and terribleness—wrapping itself up and going someplace with you—you, specifically.
Fresh at the start of another year, those words come back to me. I don’t know what the weeks and months ahead hold. I’ve got a heavier graduate degree workload than I wanted or anticipated in the waning weeks of last year. My short-term writing plans are essentially shredded. I’m closing in on a high-pressure examination that’s been a long time coming. Within the next couple of months, I’ll be pushed far outside my comfort zone on projects in which I never anticipated being involved. And while I have big, long-term plans, my vision beyond March remains blurry.
But if I picked a scriptural theme for this year, it’d be the one that startled me and captivated me: God telling Jacob, I myself will go down with you.
In the vision offered to Jacob, God made promises about the future of his chosen people in Egypt: “there I will make you into a great nation” and “I will also bring you up again.” These are beautiful, big-picture promises. Promises that God hadn’t forgotten the covenant he’d made with Jacob’s father and grandfather—promises that he would work through history to bring about. But what about all of Jacob’s practical worries? There’s nothing in his vision that says, “all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.” There’s no promise of health or glory for Jacob. There’s no guarantee of success or happiness or pleasure.
The primary promise that Jacob receives is the promise of presence. I myself will go down with you. Jacob gets a guarantee that the God of his father will be with him. He also receives a secondary promise of presence: the guarantee that his long-lost son will be with him at the time of his death. Joseph’s hands will lower Jacob’s eyelids over his vacant gaze.
I’d love to know now that I’ll finish this semester with high marks. I’d love to be promised that, miraculously, I’ll shed my nervousness and reticence for the weeks ahead where I’ll have to speak in front of strangers. I’d love to know that my upcoming examination will go swimmingly. And, probably more than anything, I’d love a roadmap for the nine months after March.
I could pray for certainty. But if God could give me these guarantees—and I’m sure he can—he has chosen not to.
Instead, I receive from him the promise that he will go with me. He will be there. He will be present. And I know, from meditating on this promise last year, that his presence is comforting enough.
Generations later, one of Jacob’s descendants depended on the same promise that had been delivered to his forefather. Moses had been tasked with leading the Hebrews out of Egypt and into their promised land. It was a vast undertaking: hundreds of thousands were in his care. He had to develop a system of government, sustainable economic practices, and a rough-and-ready military, all while being stranded in the desert due to the people’s lack of faith in God’s plan. But Moses refused to take a step into the future without the guarantee of God’s presence.
Perhaps out of faith, but just as likely out of frustration, he made a demand of the God who set him to this task in Exodus 33: “If your presence will not go with me, do not bring us up from here. For how shall it be known that I have found favor in your sight, I and your people? Is it not in your going with us?”
Panim, the Hebrew word translated as “presence,” means face. The act of presence cannot be carried out without turning the face toward the person who is to be seen, heard, and known. Moses is saying, “Look at me! Look at us! See us! Hear us! Know us! Go with us—whether in life or in death.” For that is what he requests: the Hebrew halak bears the figurative meaning to walk with one whether they live or die, or in whatever manner of life they find themselves.
There is comfort in being heard, being seen, being known. To know, to see, to listen are sympathies all their own. Perhaps you’ve experienced the power of someone’s presence in moments of disappointment or grief. When nothing can be done, something is done by hearing, seeing, and knowing.
And God promises his hearing, seeing, knowing presence. It is, as Moses professes, a testament of his favor with his people.
God sees me. He hears me. He knows me—even when I am unsure what I know of myself. His face is turned to me and will remain turned to me no matter the outcome of the events that lie on the path ahead. He himself is present. He abides in whatever manner of life in which I find myself. And I’m comforted by that. I wouldn’t dare demand it, but it’s all I can ask.
I myself will go down with you.
I’ll return again and again to the memory of the moment those words leaped unbound from my phone screen into my soul. I hope it’s to me what Aslan’s golden sea was to Digory and Polly: a moment that “stayed with them always, so that as long as they both lived, if ever they were sad or afraid or angry, the thought of all that golden goodness, and the feeling that it was still there—quite close, just round some corner or just behind some door—would come back and make them sure, deep down inside, that all was well.”
Cover image by Evie Shaffer.