The metaphor of darkness in the Bible is used predominantly in a negative sense. However, there are very significant exceptions to this rule. Many, if not most of these exceptions relate to God – the God who is usually associated with inexpressible light. Indeed he is said to dwell in unapproachable light – ‘God, the blessed and only Ruler, the King of kings and Lord of lords, who alone is immortal and who lives in unapproachable light, whom no one has seen or can see.’ (1 Timothy 6).
Yet, when Moses approached God on a mountain, it was said – ‘The people stood at a distance as Moses approached the thick darkness where God was.'(Exodus 20). We also have metaphors where light and darkness are used simultaneously of God – ‘He mounted the cherubim and flew; he soared on the wings of the wind. He made darkness his canopy around him – the dark rain clouds of the sky. Out of the brightness of his presence bolts of lightning blazed forth.’ (2 Samuel 22).
We have a similar reality witnessed in the book of Kings – ‘The priests could not perform their service because of the cloud, for the glory of the Lord filled his temple. Then Solomon said, “The Lord has said that he would dwell in a dark cloud”.’
The biblical poets also pick up on the metaphor of darkness in relation to the God of Light – ‘He made darkness his secret place; his pavilion round about him were dark waters and thick clouds of the skies.'(Psalm 18) – and – ‘Clouds and darkness are round about him: righteousness and judgment are the habitation of his throne.’ (Psalm 97)
The metaphor of darkness also has a prophetic edge. God, speaking through the Poet says – ‘I will open my mouth in a parable: I will utter dark sayings of old.’ (Psalm 78).
Darkness, and indeed light has, I believe, another closely related metaphor – deep places. Speaking of God, the Old Testament prophet Daniel, said – ‘He reveals deep and hidden things; he knows what lies in darkness, and light dwells with him.’ And speaking to the Prophet Isaiah God himself said – ‘I will give you the treasures of darkness, and hidden riches of secret places, that you may know that I, the Lord, which call thee by thy name, am the God of Israel.’ The psalmist also cried out in Psalm 95 – ‘O Lord, how great are Your works! Your thoughts are very deep.’
I have lived most of my life in a religious culture with has sought to reveal, explain, expound and systemise its theology and beliefs so the ‘Christian’ message is one which can be delineated, understood and quantifiable to the rational mind. However, personally, I came to the conclusion a long time ago that God is far beyond all of that. He is the mysterious, unquantifiable Other – utterly beyond any human comprehension. We have glimpses, perhaps, of that glory, majesty and otherness at a microscopic level – but He is still a billion miles beyond. As the Apostle Paul, perhaps the greatest theologian of all time, excluding Jesus, would say – ‘For now we see through a glass, darkly.’ And again and again, he refers to it all as ‘mystery’ (in Ephesians particularly). A mystery he was indeed given some insight into – but a mystery nonetheless.
However, just as we know can know something of the ocean – although we never see its fulness, and can dip our feet into the shallow of its shore – so also this majestic Other allows us a glimpse of his majesty. Indeed the Apostle we have just quoted would also say – ‘For who has known the mind of the Lord that he may instruct him? But we have the mind of Christ.’ (1 Corinthians) – a bold claim indeed.
Recently a friend of mine, who is not normally given to dreaming, had a dream in which he saw a swimming pool. In the shallow end, there was much splashing and noise – but in the deep end, there was almost silence as serious swimmers practised their exercises. My friend had the distinct impression, through his dream, that God was calling his people away from the shallow end – the place of noise and frantic activity – into the deeper things of God. As I contemplated his dream I was struck by the thought that the most frightening thing for a shallow end Christian is to find themselves in the deep where their feet cannot touch the bottom. This can be a dangerous and frightening place. But, it appears to me, that to go deeper with God it is to the deep end we must go. The certain assurance of course is that we will find Jehovah Shammah (The Lord Is There). There is nowhere we can go where he is not – ‘If I go up to the heavens, you are there; if I make my bed in the depths, you are there.’ (Psalm 139).
However, going deeper, in my own experience, had often meant leaving behind many of the old certainties of the shallow end – sometimes even things that, as a shallow-end Christian, had become my theological comfort zone. I have had to accept that to go deepen has meant letting go – that my narrow tradition and dogma were not enough. I found that God dwelt in places my tradition would not swim to – under any circumstances. And yet, without doubt, I found Jehovah Shammah was there long before me – and that my shallow end mentality had restricted my appreciation of the true majesty of God and his works among his people and in his creation. To some in my tradition, these are dark places – but in them, I found light and freedom.
A huge problem today is that there appear to be so few swimming in the deep end (at least in my culture) that when a shallow end Christian finds themselves asking deep end questions they sometimes become lost – drowning in a sea of confusion. This came forcibly to my attention recently as I read the sad story of a once prominent worship leader who, because of his doubts (about eternal hell in this case), abandoned his faith altogether. I did wonder if there was anyone there for him when the solid bottom of the shallow end disappeared – anyone who would honestly say – ‘I have had these doubts as well – but I can help you to swim in a deeper place despite them.’ Oftentimes the problem is unless we can tick all the boxes in the evangelical belief questionnaire – we are disqualified and disqualification can lead to tragedy. Doubts are not allowed. However – the truth is that, almost always, doubts, uncertainty, even fear and trepidation are prerequisites of learning to swim in the deep end.
‘Let us then dare something. Let us not always be unbelieving children.
Let us keep in mind that the Lord, not forbidding those who insist on
seeing before they will believe, blesses those who have not seen and
yet have believed – those who trust in him more than that – who believe
without the sight of the eyes, without the hearing of the ears. They
are blessed to whom a wonder is not a fable, to whom a mystery is not a
mockery, to whom a glory is not an unreality.’
George MacDonald 1824 –1905 (Unspoken Sermons)