I was listening to Dallas Willard this last week and the way he quoted Ps 73.28 sent me off to check out a few things. The relevant phrase is: “The nearness of God is my good.” I checked a few English translations:
KJV: “It is good for me to draw near to God.”
NIV: “It is good to be near God.
NLT: “How good it is to be near God!”
RSV: “It is good to be near God.”
TLB: “I get as close to him as I can!”
Is it that my drawing near to God is good for me, or is it the fact of God’s abiding presence, his nearness, which is my good? Other translations go with the latter:
YLT (Young’s Literal Translation): “Nearness of God to me is good.”
HCS (Holman Christian Standard): “God’s presence is my good.”
NAS (New American Standard): “The nearness of God is my good.”
ISV (International Standard Version): “How good for me it is that God is near!”
JPS (Jewish Publication Society): “The nearness of God is my good.”
The Hebrew is straightforward (lit., “And I [or “And as for me”] God’s nearness [is] to me good”).
ואני קרבת אלהים לי טוב
The relevant words are qi-ră-ḇaṯ ‘ĕ-lō-hîm (God’s nearness), a construct state of the noun “nearness” followed by “God.” There is no word for “of” in Hebrew (and no –’s to indicate possession). The relationship is generated by juxtaposing nouns, the first without the definite article and the second with it, or at least the second definite by virtue of identity as is the case with “God.” For example, “house” followed by “the king” is “The King’s house” or “book” followed immediately by “Tom” communicates “Tom’s book.” Here we simply have “nearness” followed by “God,” and it’s important to note that there is nothing in the noun “nearness” that suggests that our “drawing near to God” is meant. On the contrary, when movement toward an object is described, one typically finds the verb form followed by a preposition “to” (e.g., Gen 20.24, “But Abimelech did not come near to her” or Zeph 3.2, “She did not draw near to God” and many other examples which all include a preposition in Hebrew). But in Ps 73 we have simply the noun “nearness” in construct state with “God.” The nearness here is God’s nearness to me, his presence to/with me. That presence is the assumption, and its abiding truth is my good. The first translations above miss this point, I suggest, and assume the Psalmist is describing his drawing near to God.
I am not suggesting that since God is always immediately present there’s no sense in which we can intelligibly speak of our drawing near to God. On the contrary, even though we are inseparable from the immediate reality of God’s presence, we are not consistently aware of it. We must learn to realize its truth and live in its fullness. Anyone who consistently lifts their thought Godward knows it takes an investment of self-denying effort to awaken the mind to God’s presence. We draw near to God, move toward God, in the sense that we exercise our awareness, through contemplation, of God. But these efforts only seek to realize the truth of God’s abiding presence. There is no distance (metaphysical or otherwise) that is spanned. We do not close any real gap between ourselves and God when we draw near to God. In still other words, the only way to see God is to see him seeing you.
As important as it is, our part is not the point of Ps 73.28. Here we are encouraged to name the good we contemplate, not our efforts to realize it. God is already here, already present. His “nearness” is not something my moving in the right direction “achieves.” Only if this is kept in view do we make healthy (transformational) sense of what we do in “drawing near” to realize the truth of God’s abiding presence.