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Editor’s Note: This is the first of a two-part series on applying a biblical understanding of darkness to one’s life. Part Two will run next Monday.

Darkness is a Power

Tossing and turning, I reach for the clock beside my bed and see that it is 3 am. Trying not to awaken Judy, I stare into the darkness and drift off into some state between waking and sleeping. For years I have been waking up in the middle of the night, and the older I become, the longer I stay awake.

Many define darkness as the absence of light. As I stare into the darkness night after night, I am not sure that darkness is merely the absence of light. Darkness has substance and power. Both space and time, so decidedly demarcated in the light of day, dissolve in the dark of night. The maps and schedules that define my life dissipate, and I find that I am unmoored, floating in the primordial waters of spacetime. Memories drift into my consciousness, encounters from yesterday and yesteryear, awkward moments, tense relationships, the good that I would but did not do. In the darkness at three in the morning, I am painfully aware of the broken pieces of my life. 

I used to dread waking up every night. I felt that darkness was my enemy, endured the onslaught of night, and anxiously awaited the deliverance of morning light. Over time, however, my feelings have changed. I began to realize that darkness has its own distinctive light and its own peculiar grace. It both shines a light on the flotsam of my soul and affords me time to examine the broken pieces of my life. Like a kintsugi artist, I could take the fragments up, gild them back together, and restore the vessel of my soul.

Kintsugi, as imagined by the author’s granddaughter.

I am not sure I would go so far as Paul Simon and call darkness “my old friend,” but sometimes I experience its dissolution as a time for restoration and space for God. This change in my understanding of darkness coincided with a change in my understanding of its biblical meaning.

Darkness is Destruction and Death

Raised in a Reformed community, I heard numerous sermons and received catechetical instruction that invited me to imagine God as light and the world as caught up in a struggle between the forces of light and darkness. My various mentors highlighted biblical passages such as the following:

All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it (John 1:3-5)

This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light and in him there is no darkness at all (1 John 1:5)

And there will be no more night; they need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign for ever and ever (Revelation 22:5)

As a graduate of Calvin, influenced by the teachings of Abraham Kuyper, I felt called to combat the vast and dark forces at work in the various spheres of the world and to join God in striving for victory at the end of time. I adopted this understanding of cosmic combat as my world view and could not imagine darkness as anything other than a force opposed to light, a biblical symbol for the ignorance and deception that led to destruction and death.

As I continued to study and took a deeper dive into the scriptures, I discovered that their portrayal of darkness was multivalent. While some passages portrayed darkness negatively as a force trying to overcome the light of God, others portrayed it positively as the abode of God and a cloak that makes communion with our blindingly radiant God possible.

Darkness is the Abode of God

Ancient believers understood God to be a sovereign whose energetic being was the source of all and whose words created both the world (Genesis 1-2:4) and the nation of Israel (Exodus 19-24). They saw these two acts of creation following similar patterns: both portray darkness as the abode of God and a cloak of protection from divine radiance, and both portray God’s words as the means of creation.

Genesis 1-2:4 is a visionary passage in which an unknown prophet–Moses according to tradition–reveals what no person could ever have witnessed: how the world came into existence when God’s words and breath congealed to form the created order. This passage is an example of Hebrew poetry where the repetition of key words link the lines together to expand their meaning. The prophet introduces the vision with a description of the state of the world before God begins to speak:

In the beginning when God created

the heavens and the earth,

and the earth was a formless void

and darkness covered the face of the deep,

and the Spirit/Wind of God swept over the face of the waters (1:1-2).

The prophet sees three primordial “substances,” all amorphous and ubiquitous, all layered upon one another. The first substance is a watery deep–called in successive lines a formless void, the deep, and the waters. The second substance is a darkness that covers the deep. The third substance is the Spirit/Wind of God who sweeps through the darkness and over the face of the waters.

What is often overlooked in this depiction is the relationship between darkness and the Spirit of God. Darkness envelops the Spirit of God as it sweeps over the face of the waters. The prophet depicts darkness as the abode of God.   

As the vision continues, the prophet sees God weaving this primordial darkness into the fabric of the created order:

Then God said, ‘Let there be light’;

and there was light.

And God saw that the light was good;

and God separated the light from the darkness.

And God called the light Day,

and the darkness he called Night.

And there was evening

and there was morning,

the first day (1:3-5).

Inspired by this portrayal of darkness, ancient believers were convinced that God did not exist apart from the created order. God was with them every single day of their lives—thus the name Immanuel. When they passed through the evening into the night, they had entered the abode of God. The ancient Israelites, as well as Jews today, acknowledged the importance of darkness by celebrating evening as the beginning of their day. In the dark of night, God was present and might come to them in dreams and visions. God came to Abraham on a starry night (Genesis 15), to Jacob with his dream of a ladder between heaven and earth (Genesis 28), to Joseph with his dream of sheaves of grain bowing down (Genesis 37), to Elijah in a still small voice (1 Kings 19), to the shepherds keeping watch over their flocks by night (Luke 2), and to the disciples when Jesus came walking on the water in the fourth watch of the night (Matthew 14:22ff., a recapitulation of Genesis 1:1-2).

In Exodus 19-24, Moses mediates a covenant between God and the tribes of Israel on Mt. Sinai. With fire, smoke, thunder, and lightning, God appears on top of the mountain. God’s radiant being is consuming and intense, and Moses would be in mortal danger but for the cloak of a dark cloud that protects him. Moses enters the dark cloud where God resides, receives the law and commandments, and mediates the covenant between God and Israel:

And the appearance of the glory of the Lord,

was like a devouring fire,

on the top of the mountain

in the sight of the people of Israel.

And Moses entered the middle of the cloud,

and he went up the mountain.

And Moses was on the mountain

for forty days and forty nights (24:17-18).

Darkness and Worship

Ancient believers celebrated Genesis 1-2:4 and Exodus 19-24 as two separate but related acts of creation, and these two acts were the foundation upon which Israelite worship was built. Both acts were remembered and reenacted in the various liturgies performed at the tabernacle and later the temple.

The ark of the covenant, the key to understanding Israelite worship, was the center of the sacred space and the destination of all the pilgrims coming to the tabernacle and temple. It represented the throne of God, the place from which God ruled and spoke the words that sustained the realm. God spoke ten words (the ten declarations that follow “and he said” in Genesis 1-2:4) that created the physical structures of the world, and gave ten commandments that created the social structures of the nation of Israel. Inside the ark were the tablets of these commandments written by the finger of God. 

The ark resided in the tabernacle and later the temple; both sanctuaries consisted of two chambers: the outer sanctum called the Holy Place which held the menorah and the table of shewbread, and the inner sanctum which held the ark. This inner sanctum was a place of darkness. God’s instructions for building the tabernacle made clear that darkness was God’s desired abode. God demanded that layers of woven cloth and animal skins cover the Holy Place and the Holy of Holies. This covering shielded these chambers from the light of the sun, moon, and stars.

God also commanded that a woven curtain separate the Holy Place and the Holy of Holies. This curtain shielded the ark from the light of the menorah in the Holy Place. God dwelled in darkness in the Holy of Holies. As Solomon said at the dedication of the temple: “‘The Lord has said that he would dwell in thick darkness. I have built you an exalted house, a place for you to dwell in forever (1 King 8:12-13).

The tabernacle and temple were the centers of Israelite worship, and the liturgies brought pilgrims into the presence of God who was enthroned above the ark. Through the agency of the High Priest, who wore the bejeweled breastplate representing Israel’s tribes, pilgrims entered into the darkness of the Holy of Holies, a place where the demarcations of space and time dissolved. They returned to the place and time when God spoke the world into existence and gave Moses the law. They believed God was speaking the world and the nation into existence once again, and returned home to begin life anew.

Darkness Mediates the Divine Presence

Darkness is a major theme in the scriptures. We are most familiar with its negative depiction as a force opposed to God, less familiar with its positive depiction. Yet the scriptures teach that darkness is the abode of God, and God has woven darkness into the fabric of the created order. Evening is the door to the divine abode and darkness mediates the divine presence. The scriptures affirm that I am a child of the light and a child of the night.

When I awaken night after night and stare into the darkness, I experience something more than the absence of light, something more akin to a power. This power exposes the brokenness of my life but also affords me the chance of greater wholeness and deeper intimacy with God. In the dark of night, I realize a comfort and an adumbration—a foreshadowing of my entering the deep darkness of death that draws ever closer.  

In the second part of this essay, I will probe more deeply what happens in the dark of night, especially during what our spiritual ancestors called the “dark night of the soul.” I will ponder a particular encounter that often drifts into my consciousness, an encounter marked by unresolved tension. It is an encounter with my father. 

Tom Boogaart

Tom Boogaart is Dennis & Betty Voskuil Professor Emeritus of Old Testament at Western Theological Seminary and a frequent contributor to the Reformed Journal. 


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