Living in the Land of Deep Darkness

“But there will be no gloom for those who were in anguish. In the former time he brought into contempt the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but in the latter time he will make glorious the way of the sea, the land beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the nations. The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness–on them light has shined” (Isaiah 9:1–2).

Claude Mariottini
Emeritus Professor
of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary

These words of the prophet came at a very difficult time in the life of God’s people. Isaiah and the people of Israel were living in days of gloom and anguish. Assyria had invaded the Northern Kingdom and had taken thousands of people to other parts of their empire.

When Isaiah wrote these words, many people were away from the promised land, away from their families and loved ones.  The people who were deported were away from the worship of God; they were in a foreign land, living among pagan gods, among people who did not share their faith and their songs of praise.

The people who were left behind were walking in darkness; they were living in a land of deep darkness.  When one reads the Old Testament, one discovers that there are darkness and darkness. The people of Israel made a distinction between darkness and darkness.

The first darkness is hoshek.  The word hoshek means the absence of light.  At the end of the day there is darkness.  Some people are afraid of darkness, but people learn how to live with that type of darkness in their lives.

This darkness becomes a symbol of sin and rebellion, of what is evil and not good.  Isaiah said: “Woe to you who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness” (Isaiah 5:20).  This is what is meant when the Bible says that the world lies in darkness.  This type of darkness is rebellion against God.

And then there is darkness, a type of darkness represented by the Hebrew word tsalmawet. This darkness is the deep distress, the anguish a person experiences when that person feels forsaken by God.  Many times the feelings of God-forsakenness cannot be expressed with words.

This type of darkness, tsalmawet, is the darkness that comes when suffering abounds.  It is the darkness one experiences when the pain, both physical and spiritual, is intense.  In the days of Isaiah the people of Galilee lived in a land of deep darkness.

Deep darkness can become the experience of many.  This was the darkness the Psalmist experienced: “Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil for thou art with me” (Psalm 23:4).  The NRSV calls it “the darkest valley.”  The Living Bible calls it “the dark valley of death.”

Some people try to avoid going through this valley of deep darkness.  But, at times, that is impossible.  Others try to go around the dark valley, only to discover that the only way out of this dark valley of death is going through the valley.

At the end of the valley of deep darkness, however, there is hope.  At the end of this deep darkness, there is light, a light that comes from God.  The prophet Isaiah declared to Israel and to us that God cares for people who live in darkness: “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness– on them light has shined” (Isaiah 9:2).

The reason for this hope was the birth of a child: “For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given: and the government shall be upon his shoulder: and his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, The Mighty God, The Everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace.  His authority shall grow continually, and there shall be endless peace for the throne of David and his kingdom. He will establish and uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time onward and forevermore. The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this” (Isaiah 9:6–7).

In the context of Isaiah’s words, this child that was born to bring light and hope to the people was Hezekiah, the new king of Judah.  Hezekiah brought great hope to the people of Israel.  But one day the king became sick and a few years later he died. After his son Manasseh became king, darkness returned to the land and the people lived in what is called “the dark ages” of the nation.

So, the promise that was fulfilled in Hezekiah became the promise for a greater fulfillment in someone else.  This is why there is Advent, this is the reason there is Christmas. The God who cares for people became a human being to save those who are in darkness. He came to sustain those who are bowed down.

The God who cares for people came to vindicate the cause of the alien, the fatherless and the widow.  He came to help the oppressed and to feed the hungry.  This is what the Gospel of John proclaims: “The light shines in the darkness” (John 1:5).  This was also the message of the prophet Isaiah: “The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned.”

The hymn, “Here I am, Lord,” written by Dan Schultz, conveys well the message of hope present in the words of Isaiah:

“I, the Lord of sea and sky, I have heard my people cry.
All who dwell in dark and sin my hand will save.
I who made the stars of night,
I will make their darkness bright,
Who will bear my light to them?
Whom shall I send?”

For Christians to begin to understand the true meaning of the question in this hymn, they have to begin by asking, “Who is this Lord of sea and sky?”  The Lord of sea and sky is the Maker of heavens and earth.  He is the creator of the seas, and everything that is in them. He is the Lord, the Lord who is and who remains faithful forever.

He is the God who became a human being and lived among us.  He was the Word.  “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.  And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:1, 14).

He is the Lord of sea and sky because he is the creator: “Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made” (John 1:3).   He created the sea and sky and he created every human being: “In him was life, and that life was the light of every human being” (John 1:4).

But the Lord of sea and sky is not very happy:  “I, the Lord of sea and sky, I have heard my people cry.”  People are crying everywhere. They are crying every day. They cry in the morning and they cry at night. They cry when they are alone and they cry when they are in a crowd.

But the most unfortunate thing is that they do not know why they are crying. They cry because they live in darkness and sin:

“I, the Lord of sea and sky, I have heard my people cry.
All who dwell in dark and sin my hand will save.
I who made the stars of night,
I will make their darkness bright.”

Jesus Christ is the Light of the world. This is the whole reason for advent, for Christmas: “The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world” (John 1:9).

The Lord of sea and sky has heard his people cry. All who dwell in dark and sin, his hand will save. He who made the stars of night is the one who will make their darkness bright.  But the Lord of sea and skies asks: “Who will bear my light to them?  Whom shall I send?”

Our Response must be:

“Here I am Lord.  Is it I, Lord?
I have heard you calling in the night.
I will go, Lord, if you lead me.
I will hold Your people in my heart.”

“Is it I Lord?”  Christians must say, “Yes” to that question because God has called and sent them to those who live in darkness.  If Christians look inside their soul and listen to the voice of the Spirit, they will know that God has called them.

Confronted with the challenge of that question, believers must answer: “I will go, Lord, if you lead me.”  And as soon as they answer that question, they will also discover that he has already promised that he would lead them: “And lo, I am with you always to the ends of the age” (Matthew 28:20).

“I will go, Lord, if you lead me.
I will hold Your people in my heart.”

God’s people must go to those who dwell in darkness and sin.  Those who live in the land of darkness are crying out to God.  And they are crying also to us; “Come and help us.”

“I will hold Your people in my heart.”  Going is a matter of the heart.  “For God so loved the world that He sent his son” (John 3:16).

Because of love, Jesus came, and because of love we will go.

Claude Mariottini
Emeritus Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary

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