The prophet Isaiah approaches us with a crucial questionnaire. It is vital in defining the character of the believer and also in affording assurance in the experiences of life. There is no fanciful, illusory religion here. It is anchored in revelation and reality. It provides the foundation of saving faith and an antidote to anxiety. The beginning of a true knowledge of the Lord is fear, comprising a dread of his awesome majesty, a reverence for his name, a submission to his will, and an attraction to his goodness. There is respect for his might and amazement at his mercy.
God is altogether astounding and excellent. He is almighty and sovereign; strong and sweet; fair and favourable; just and compassionate. His sterling quality is righteousness. To the wicked he is terror. To the penitent and humble he is utterly trustworthy. He is unbending in his holy desires and detestations. The righteous tremble and yet run to him. The unrighteous tremble and run for a place of hiding.
Those who know God heed his Servant. He is appointed as the voice of the Lord. He comes to us as the Word and we identify him as the Son. His speech is divine. It is wisdom in the science of life and death and the way to salvation in coupling our hearts and minds to the heart and mind of God. He reveals God’s thoughts and trains ours in his sacred disciplines of knowledge, obedience, and adoration.
Isaiah addresses such folk as these – those who acknowledge God in his splendour and perfection manifested in his attributes and actions. These are they who search the will and the ways of the Lord in his supreme self-disclosure, His Servant par excellence – Jesus Christ! The God-fearer finds heavenly favour and all its benefits through the Son. There is divine purpose and human privilege wedded together in the knowledge of God and obedience to the Son. Our fear forges our union with God and our obedience to the words of the greatest of Prophets sustains the union. It is the union of faith which is God’s greatest gift and man’s greatest enjoyment.
Yet to these favoured ones Isaiah addresses a surprising question that may unsettle and astonish our religious sentimentality. “Who walks in darkness and has no light? Surely not convinced believers! In our naiveté, and especially in the newness of conversion, we tend to suspect that those who fear the Lord and heed the Son ought to be sure of a life of spiritual ease. What infinite powers are on our side, but Isaiah puts his finger on a common phenomenon in the lives of God’s children. The light of early Christian experience inevitably dims in the struggles of life and the believer begins a series of encounters with darkness.
Events bewilder, doubts assail, explanations are absent, and truths that anchor us are interrogated in a merciless way. Suffering, conflict, sin, adversity, disappointment, diminish our certainties and our courage. Evil is on the rampage and righteousness recedes and suddenly we find ourselves enveloped in a darkness that will not seem to roll back. Our way becomes hesitant, heavy, and hard. Why should this be for those who sincerely revere God and acknowledge his Son? Isaiah equips us for the time of trial.
In the fear of the Lord we defer to his wisdom No light means that there is no alternative to trust, the high calling of the faithful that glorifies him most. In the darkness the believer learns to exercise the vision of faith as opposed to sight and sense, and to discover that, come what may, he is not dispossessed of his God who stands with him. In the times that are tough Isaiah does not underplay the hardship but advises, “Let him trust in the Lord and rely upon his God”. If we think God is proving us in our perseverance let us also recognize that he is also proving his steadfast love to us in the eventual outcome of the period of darkness. He is working works that we do not see until the shining of the light. We do not really know the strength of his sure support until it has been tested. We do not know the strength of his connectedness to us until it is fully stretched.
It is a shock to us when darkness descends upon us in any way. It is reassuring to know that this is a familiar experience for many of God’s dear folk (see quotes from John Duncan). Superficial Christians are full of chastisement for embattled believers. This is partly due to ignorance of the severity of divine testings and partly due to fear of them. The purpose of God is that we must be educated to view things with the eye of faith that is illuminated by the word. To trust God by his word alone is to pay him the highest honour in depending upon his veracity alone. Darkness generates dependence. Dependence results ultimately in deliverance of a uniquely divine kind.
Look, all you who kindle a fire, who encircle yourself with sparks: walk in the light of your fire and in the sparks you have kindled – this you shall have from my hand: you shall lie down in torment. Isaiah 50: 11.
Darkness brings the temptation to kindle our own fire. It is a suggestion that must be resisted. It is unbelieving man who walks by the light of sparks; bright ideas that occur to him, or practical devices to mark the way of self-willed advance. False philosophy or phony religion are the characteristics of human self-reliance. Man kindles a strange fire of his own choosing. It resembles light but is not the true light. It appears as sparks of short term appeal and plausibility but it has no part in that stream of light that shines from heaven. It provides human speculation or superstition as futile answers to matter that is dark.
The sparks account for little points of light in human reason and behaviour, and are explanations as to why fundamental sceptics can sometimes seem to approximate to truth, but these points are spasmodic, volatile, and not integral to the waves of light that flow from divine illumination. Deceptive light is manufactured by the devil and he bedazzles his subjects with it, brandishing his torch to allure them into perilous paths that lead to the abyss. With his sparks the one who appears as an angel of light entrances those who yield to the lure of false teaching either as propagators or pupils. They devise their own guidance without any inclination to fear the Lord or heed the Son. It is better to be in darkness than to despise divine dispensations that are designed to foster genuine faith.
We must face the fact. God’s children may walk in darkness for a time, and at many times. It’s a truth contrary to glib and shallow religion, and its devotees may rebuke God’s afflicted ones in an air of spiritual superiority. He does not rebuke but counsels, “Rely!” It is the opening to a deeper and more assured knowledge of God who verifies his trustworthiness and vindicates the faithful who prove to be patient.