Treasures of Darkness

I will give you the treasures of darkness and the hoards in secret places, that you may know that it is I, the LORD, the God of Israel, who call you by your name. (Isaiah 45:3)

If you use the term “thick darkness” to search the Bible, you may be surprised to discover the phrase almost always appears in connection with God’s presence. Thus, a passage about Moses at Mt. Sinai in the Book of Exodus reads, “The people stood afar off, while Moses drew near to the thick darkness where God was.” King Solomon, after building the Temple in Jerusalem, told the people, “The LORD said that he would dwell in thick darkness.” Similarly, the Prophet Zephaniah warned that the coming Day of the Lord would be “a day of wasteness and desolation, a day of darkness and gloominess, a day of clouds and thick darkness.” How do we square such descriptions with the more common understanding of the Lord as a God of light in whom there is no darkness?

For an answer, we need look no further than the finale of George Lucas’ 1981 film Raiders of the Lost Ark. The ark in question was the biblical Ark of the Covenant containing the stone tablets of the Ten Commandments. The Ark, which had once resided at the Temple in Jerusalem, has long since been lost to history; hence, the name of Lucas’ film. In the movie, archeologist Indiana Jones, played by Harrison Ford, is commissioned by U.S. Army Intelligence to find the Ark to keep it from falling into the hands of the Nazis, who believe it will make Hitler’s armies invincible. The Nazis gain the upper hand but make the mistake of opening the lid of the Ark, which unleashes a firestorm that consumes all the bad guys. Hollywood pyrotechnics aside, the scene is consistent with the Lord’s earlier appearance at Sinai, when the biblical account noted that “the mountain burned with fire to the heart of heaven, wrapped in darkness, cloud, and gloom.” Moses survived that encounter the same way Indiana Jones did in the movie, by turning aside when the glory of God was revealed. As the Lord explained it to Moses in the biblical account, "You cannot see my face; for man shall not see me and live."

Here then is the answer: the Lord must wrap himself in darkness, because otherwise his “unapproachable light” would obliterate every living thing in his path. Even God’s reflected glory, which shone on Moses’ face when he came down from Mt. Sinai, was so terrifying to the Hebrews that they made him wear a veil. But is the Lord’s presence really so devastating, or is it more the case that the onlookers just couldn’t see past their own fear? Much later in the story, Jesus climbs a high mountain with three of his disciples, who see him talking with Moses and the Prophet Elijah, both of whom are long dead by this time. The biblical account notes that Jesus’ face shines like the sun and his garments are white as light. A bright cloud overshadows them, and a voice from the cloud says, "This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him." The disciples are afraid, but this does not stop them from proposing to Jesus that they build three booths to commemorate this miraculous event.

If God were to put in an appearance these days, I suspect he would not come wrapped in darkness – at least not as depicted in the Old Testament, on some mountaintop that burns with fire to the heart of heaven. To get about unobserved, the Lord would hide in the last place most people would think to look: within themselves. The depth psychologist Carl Jung wrote, “One does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light, but by making the darkness conscious.” However, most people avoid this kind of dark, because they are afraid there might be monsters lurking there. And indeed there are, although they are not the kind of monsters that frightened us as small children. These monsters are really gatekeepers, and if we can get past them we will discover they are guardians of what the Prophet Isaiah referred to as “the treasures of darkness and the hoards in secret places.”

Exodus 20:21
1 Kings 8:12
Zephaniah 1:14-16
1 John 1:5
Deuteronomy 14:11
Exodus 33:20
1 Timothy 6:15-16
Matthew 17:1-9

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