Then the Lord said to Moses, “Stretch out your hand toward heaven, that there may be darkness over the land of Egypt, a darkness to be felt.” So Moses stretched out his hand toward heaven, and there was pitch darkness in all the land of Egypt three days. They did not see one another, nor did anyone rise from his place for three days, but all the people of Israel had light where they lived. Then Pharaoh called Moses and said, “Go, serve the Lord; your little ones also may go with you; only let your flocks and your herds remain behind.” But Moses said, “You must also let us have sacrifices and burnt offerings, that we may sacrifice to the Lord our God. Our livestock also must go with us; not a hoof shall be left behind, for we must take of them to serve the Lord our God, and we do not know with what we must serve the Lord until we arrive there.” But the Lord hardened Pharaoh’s heart, and he would not let them go. Then Pharaoh said to him, “Get away from me; take care never to see my face again, for on the day you see my face you shall die.” Moses said, “As you say! I will not see your face again.”
Exodus 10:21-29 ESV
Having witnessed the beginnings of both the biblical story and the themes of light and darkness, we now move forward in the narrative, jumping to Exodus. While the account of the Israelites’ rescue by the hand of God is well-known, we will fix our eyes upon a particular moment of that narrative: the ninth plague, darkness. Within this single moment of the battle between God and Pharaoh, we are able to further glimpse the significance of our themes of study.
THE STORY SO FAR
Before we can properly understand our present text, we need to fill in the gaps between Genesis 1:1-5 and here. After God created and ordered the cosmos, He made the first humans, Adam and Eve, making them the bearers of His own image and His stewards over the earth and its creatures. He commanded them to enjoy and cultivate the earth and to spread God’s image across the world by reproducing. A planet of pleasure was placed before them with only one prohibition: the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Wishing to become gods themselves, Adam and Eve ate the fruit, gaining experiential knowledge of what it meant to rebel against God. God’s judgment upon our fore-parents was swift but gracious. In the midst of the curses, God promised a savior, a serpent-crusher who would defeat sin, evil, and death.
And so, God’s stewards multiplied, spreading the Creator’s image that was now stained by sin. Within just a few generations, sin’s conquest of human hearts was such that God annihilated humanity from the earth with a flood. We exist today only because of God granting His grace to the family of Noah, sparing the eight of them alone from the deluge of His wrath.
But sin didn’t cease. As humanity grew strong again, they clustered together for the purpose of building a mighty tower to their greatness. This blatant disobedience to their Creator’s design was a mere recycling of the first sin, so God once again came down to bring judgment. Since they refused to fill the earth, God divided their languages to cause them to scatter, giving birth to different nations (or ethnicities).
Into this new landscape, God reached out to humanity again. God calls a man named Abraham to Himself, promising to form a great nation from his lineage, to bless all nations through him, and to give him the land of Canaan. Although Abraham and his wife were barren and beyond the years of child-bearing, he trusted God.
After Abraham’s death, his son and grandson (Isaac and Jacob) continue serving God and awaiting the fulfillment of God’s promises to Abraham. Jacob’s family is eventually taken down into Egypt due to the prosperity of his son, Joseph. Although he was sold into slavery by his older brothers, Joseph rose by the providence of God to Pharaoh’s right-hand man, and by the wisdom of God, he was able to rescue Egypt and his family from a severe famine.
While dwelling in Egypt, Jacob’s family grew. Generations passed by, and a new Pharaoh became threatened by these Israelites ever increasing numbers. He enslaved them, and Abraham’s descendants groaned to their God for salvation. Eventually God raised up Moses, a prophet through whom God would rescue His people. Through Moses, God challenges Pharaoh and the Egyptian gods by pouring out plagues upon their land. After enduring flies, sores, locusts, and many other horrors, God unleashes the ninth plague, a thick darkness upon the whole land. Upon the significance of this plague, we now turn our attention.
While each plague upon the Egyptians was devastating, the latter ones are certainly the most horrific. Only the tenth plague, the death of the firstborns, can rival the terror of this one. Notice first God’s initial words describing the darkness that He will bring upon the Egyptians: a darkness to be felt. God apparently intended to redefine the concept of thick darkness. We tend to think of darkness as being an absence of light. Similar to coldness (which is the absence of heat), darkness is not an entity in and of itself; it is mere what is left behind whenever light is removed. While we instinctually understand this to be the norm, we also have the capacity to fear a different kind of darkness. We think of darkness as thick whenever darkness seems to have substance. Such deep darkness feels like an envelopment or swallowing of light, rather than merely its absence.
Terror is the proper response to such primordial chaos. Within it, we glimpse the horror of having the Creator’s hand of grace removed, of a disordered and rebellious cosmos. In a sense, then, God was providing the Egyptians with a tangible representation of sin, and they were right to fear. Moses says that no one rose from his place for those three days. What else could they do? Although they were all in darkness, it separated them from one another. They were all together alone. God left the entire nation to cower in the dark.
This scene is an interesting juxtaposition with God’s commanding of light in Genesis 1. There, God brought light into existence and established the division between the two elements. The darkness was a primordial chaos, an absence of light, and God was dispelling it away as He shaped His cosmos into order. His commanding of light, therefore, seems entirely natural. But here He is commanding the darkness as well. He is actively shrouding the Egyptians in un-light.
Doesn’t that seem as bit odd?
Of course, darkness itself, while symbolic of evil, is morally neutral like the rest of the plagues. Flies are often associated with death and decay, but they are not themselves wicked. God, as Creator, certainly reserves all rights to use the less than pleasant portions of creation as instruments of His judgment. Nothing strange there.
And yet we could consider the symbolic nature of darkness and ask how God relates to evil in general. How, for instance, are we to think of God’s sovereignty over all things, particularly the malevolence that exists in the world? Does God control evil like He controls the darkness here?
Such complex questions require complex answers, and so if we are not willing to entertain difficult answers then we should stop asking difficult questions. And much of the complexity revolves around the meaning of words. Do we mean by controlling evil that God is responsible for the evil actions? If so, then God is NOT in control of (or, we might say, the orchestrator of) evil. Or do we mean that God controls evil by limiting its presence and consequences and by ultimately using its effects for good? If so, then God is absolutely in control of evil.
God is sovereign over all things, even evil, yet He is not the Author of evil. He actively limits the presence and consequences of evil in the world. Without His common grace, we humans would have annihilated ourselves long ago. The mere existence of each person’s conscious severely decreases the base desires and impulses that would wreak havoc. Even Satan himself is kept on this leash. In the book of Job, Satan must ask God for permission to strike Job, and although God grants his request, He still sets the boundaries which Satan cannot cross.
We should take comfort in this truth. There is no evil in this world that God will not ultimately use for good, especially for His people (Romans 8:28). This by no means excuses evil deeds; instead, it magnifies the supremacy of God’s goodness. Yes, He continues to permit wickedness for now, but it will never have the final word. We can trust that even evil plays a role into God’s unfolding story of redemption.
A PEOPLE FOR HIS OWN POSSESSION
Verse 23 ends with a phrase that I must have always read but overlooked: but all the people of Israel had light where they lived. Throughout the plagues, God made a point of explicitly distinguishing between His people and the Egyptians, and that practice is continued here. This idea is repeated throughout the rest of the Old Testament. God’s people, Israel, are separated from the other nations, the Gentiles. In fact, nations and Gentiles are the same word in Hebrew. The division was so ingrained that much of the New Testament is concerned with how Jews and Gentiles are supposed to relate to one another in Christ.
But why did God make such a distinction?
The Israelites, as the descendants of Abraham, were the inheritors of the promises that God made to their ancestor. They were made God’s people by God’s pure grace. Think about it. The Creator could have called anyone from any place to be the patriarch of His people, but He chose Abraham. And in choosing Abraham, He also chose the nation of Israel. He is clear throughout the Scriptures that this choice was unilateral. The Israelites were not chosen for their greatness nor for their morality; instead, they repeatedly prove not to be those things. God chose them in an act of grace. He became their God by choosing to be their God, and even as they repeatedly reject Him, He continues to chase after them. God chose them; they did not choose God.
Yet does this unilateral act of God mean that He simply abandoned the other nations? Did He leave them to walk in the darkness of their ways, only granting salvation to the Israelites? Too many people (even Christians) believe that a disparity lies between the Old and New Testaments. In the Old Testament, God seems to only care for His people, while in the New Testament, God desires that all ethnicities should become followers of Christ.
Such a thought is nothing more than a misunderstanding. It is a reasonable misunderstanding, since most of the Jews failed to grasp it, but a misunderstanding, nonetheless. God’s plan was always to make the nations His people. Recall that God’s original design for humanity was to fill the earth with His image-bearers who would worship Him through stewarding His world. The Great Commission was a recommissioning of the First Commission. God’s design has never wavered, but its mode of expression has manifested differently throughout various ages.
God’s plan for making the Israelite’s into His people was for them to be a beacon of light unto the other nations. Consider God’s words to them in Exodus 19:5-6:
Now therefore, if you will indeed obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession among all peoples, for all the earth is mine; and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’ These are the words that you shall speak to the people of Israel.
Israel was a holy nation, a people set apart exclusively for the glory and purposes of God. They were in all matters His people. But their status as God’s treasured possession was not so that they could develop a superiority complex over the rest of mankind. Instead, the Creator rightfully claimed the whole earth for His possession. Israel, therefore, was intended to be a kingdom of priests. Because priests acted as mediators between God and man, Israel’s responsibility was to lead the rest of the nations into loving worship of the one true God. They were to follow Israel’s example. But unfortunately, Israel repeatedly failed to offer a proper example of true worship to the nations. They constantly rejected the LORD, their God.
Through Jesus, God’s people came to be called by a new name: the church. Most in the early church also belonged to ethnic Israel, but the balance quickly shifted as the message of God’s grace spread across the globe. Today, the vast majority of the God’s people are adopted into Abraham’s family, while many of the patriarch’s biological descendants are willfully disavowing their inheritance. If the church’s fulfillment of Israel’s function was not clear enough, listen to Peter’s message to us:
1 Peter 2:9 | But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.
We are a new race of people within the overall race of humanity, a new ethnicity. We are the kingdom of royal priests, ready to lead others to the living God. We are a holy nation, a nation within the nations of the world, with a common heavenly citizenship. We are God’s treasured possess, His people. And He is our God.
Before God called him, Abraham dwelt in the darkness of sin, much more insidious than the physical plague that was brought upon the Egyptians. God brought the man of faith out of darkness so that God’s marvelous light might be displayed through him. Likewise, God’s light upon the Israelites was meant to contrast the darkness upon the Egyptians. Through His people, God revealed Himself to the Egyptians as the Most High God, the God who easily dismantled their deities, but the Egyptians continued to dwell in darkness, rejecting God’s light.
The distinction between those who belong to God and those who do not is not to be made light-heartedly. It is a deathly serious matter to claim that most people in the world are children of the darkness instead of the light. But the distinction must be made. God’s people cannot attempt clothing themselves in darkness so as not to make others uncomfortable. Light stings eyes that are accustomed to the dark. In the light, deeds are exposed, but they can be hidden under the cover of darkness. Men, therefore, love the darkness rather than the light.
The light is truly marvelous, but countless image-bearers will freely choose the dark instead. Even still, we must proclaim God’s excellencies. We must shine as lights in the world. We must reach into the darkened crevices, knowing that many will wander further still away from the light. We are God’s people, saved by the grace of the Most High; let us, therefore, fulfill our commission by filling the earth with more who will joyfully walk in His light.