I remember as a child walking down the road I lived on into the nearby town. There was street lighting most of the way apart from one section in the middle which was dark. On the opposite side of the road the ground rose steeply, and the embankment was covered with large bushes and trees. Try as I might, irrational fears would grip me as I approached the darkened bend. My stride would lengthen, my pace would quicken and sometimes I would run the few hundred yards until I got back to the safety and comfort of the light.
Looking back on that experience now it reminds me of an uncomfortable aspect of the Christian life. The Puritans used to speak of it as ‘The Dark Night of the Soul’. The Psalms refer to such experiences e.g. Ps 88:6 where Heman cries out ‘Thou has laid me in the lowest pit, in darkness, in the deeps.’ Job struggled likewise ‘When I waited for light, there came darkness’ Job 30:26. God addresses the experience through the Prophet Isaiah and tells us what we should do when it comes.
‘Who is among you that feareth the LORD, that obeyeth the voice of his servant, that walketh in darkness, and hath no light? Let him trust in the name of the LORD and stay upon His God.’ Isa 50:10
The First thing to recognize here is that this is a Christian experience. The question is put to the God-fearing person who is walking in obedience to the voice of God’s servant. This is Biblical language for vital godliness and such a man has seen his sin before a holy God, has been made wise through faith in Christ and out of a sense of awe at the Glory of God and His salvation, he is constrained to walk in obedience to God’s Commands. In the context of Isaiah this obedience has two immediate references that are helpful. The first is that he keeps the Word of the prophet. Isaiah was the servant of the Lord who communicated God’s Word and the godly of his day recognized this and obeyed what God said to them through Him. The wider context however projects us forward to Christ. From Isaiah 42 onwards the ‘servant of the Lord’ is the Messianic Saviour who will save His people through suffering (See ch 53). Being sensitive to the Messianic context of Isa 50:10 confirms that the experience addressed here is not distinct to the Old Testament but common to Christians who fear God and walk in obedience to the voice of Jesus Christ. Christians therefore can walk in darkness and have no light.
The Second thing to consider is the reason for this experience. A child of light may walk in darkness for two main reasons. The first is a chastisement for sin. When we sin, we grieve the Holy Spirit who may withdraw His influence leaving us in darkness. Isaiah deals with sin-caused spiritual darkness in Isa 59:9, 12 where Israel gropes in the dark because of the multiplication of her transgressions. The second reason can be traced to God’s sovereign good pleasure. Job, who God commended as upright in his life, was taken into the depths of darkness by this hidden purpose. We should bear both these things in mind so that if darkness comes to us it will be instinctive to examine our hearts for any sin that needs to be repented of, but at the same time remembering that the reason may be traced to God’s inscrutable yet perfect will: ‘He knoweth the way that I take, when he hath tried me I shall come forth as gold.’ Job 23:10
Thirdly we examine what this experience is: To walk in darkness and have no light is to lose the sense of God’s presence. His presence is light and His favor is expressed in the lifting up the light of his countenance upon us (Num 6:25-26; Ps 80:3). On the contrary, when this is eclipsed we are in darkness and when He hides His face we are troubled. At such times the Christian senses a distance between his soul and God. You may turn to the Scripture for comfort and to hear His voice but when you read your soul seems deaf. Your prayers feel merely formal; there is no sense of fellowship with God in any of the means of grace. The heart of the godly is disturbed under this and cries with the Shulamite ‘Saw ye him whom my soul loveth’ (Song 3:3). In addition, painful and fearful questions arise in the soul over our spiritual state. As we go deeper into this darkness or its duration is prolonged we can ask – am I really a Christian? What am I to do?
Our text helps us not only by reassuring us that Christians can endure periods of darkness but by telling us what to do when they come. We are ultimately called to faith and steadfastness from the example and command of Christ. In Isa 50 a prophetic insight is given to us into Christ’s own darkness and sufferings (v4-5) and his determination to hope in God (v7-9) ‘For the Lord God will help me; therefore shall I not be confounded.’ His darkness was beyond anything that will come upon His people in this life and we are led by his example to abandon ourselves to hope in God in the darkness as he did (cf. Ps 22:1-5).
Beyond Christ’s example we have His command to trust in the name of the LORD and stay upon our God. God’s name is everything by which He has made Himself known, the declaration of who He is, and we are to trust in this because the darkness does not change it. Children are afraid of the dark because they cannot see, but God sees perfectly in the dark, the day and the night are both alike to Him (Ps 139:12). We therefore ‘stay’ or lean upon Him as He is still all powerful, all knowing, unchangeable and abundant in grace, goodness and truth. We do not need to understand all that is going on, indeed even in the midst of our pain and confusion we can find a peace to say ‘though he slay me yet will I trust him’ (Job 13:15). We do this in the means of grace where we search for Him, and rest on Him until He is pleased to chase the dark night of our soul away and bring back the comfortable presence of His light.