If God is light, how is it that he dwells in darkness?

Questions about God, the Bible and the Christian culture

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Question: I would like to understand a couple of Bible verses that talk about God, darkness and light. Exodus 20:21 says, "The people stood far off, while Moses drew near to the thick darkness where God was." 1 Kings 8:12 says, "The LORD has said that he would dwell in thick darkness." Psalm 97:2 says, "Cloud and thick darkness are all around him, righteousness and justice are in the foundation of his throne." And Psalm 18:9 says, "He bowed the heavens and came down; thick darkness was under his feet."

But then some verses say we are to cast off the works of darkness... like Roman's 13:11-12. Proverbs 4:19 says, "the way of the wicked is as darkness..." And Ecclesiastes 2:14 says, "...but the fool walketh in darkness..." Now, 1 John 1:5 says,  "This then is the message which we have heard of him, and declare unto you, that God is light and in him is no darkness at all." So, how is it around him? Daniel 2:22 says, “... he knows what lies in darkness, and light dwells with him.”

I do not understand how it is that God dwells in darkness before Israel in Exodus. Is there a Hebrew word for darkness with different meanings or descriptions? I believe God's word to be true and infallible. I just would like a better understanding of these verses. That way I know and can explain to someone who may have the question about it. Thank you!

Answer: Greetings friend. I appreciate your stance on God’s word — that you believe it to be infallible. That’s our stance, too — and the fact that we have this in common makes the job of answering your question all the more pleasant.

I will go into the original Hebrew a bit to satisfy your request, but the way you organized your question shows me that you’ve already discovered the answer. If you would just relax and read all your verses in English without the presupposition that every word in the Bible fixes the meaning of every other appearance of that same word in the Bible, these differences will tease themselves out. Let me explain.

You have grouped the verses Exodus 20:21, 1 Kings 8:12, Psalm 18:9 and Psalm 97:2… and you are afraid that these are talking about the evil type of darkness mentioned in Romans 13:11-12 — and that, therefore, God either lives in (or has within himself) this type of darkness... which the Bible says elsewhere (1John 1:5) that he does not and/or cannot have.

If this is where you are, then you are giving these verses the wrong reading; none of them teach that. There is indeed a “darkness phenomenon” that’s described in these verses, but they are not teaching that God is darkness. Now, God does “own” certain types of darkness. For one thing, he created darkness (evil) (Isaiah 45:7). Furthermore, he routinely uses the images of darkness to describe his hiddenness. But this is different than God declaring that he abides in darkness... or that he is darkness itself.

The four verses you coupled together are talking about the thick cloud that God “hides” behind in the Old Testament. Now, God has no physical form, so he doesn’t actually hide. But he has chosen to represent his presence physically in different ways… like in a burning bush (Exodus 3:2), a pillar of cloud by day and fire by night (Exodus 13:21), and in your verses, by thick clouds — physical phenomena that obscure light (by definition)... and are, therefore, often translated in terms of darkness.

Below is the lexicographical information from the Enhanced Strong’s Lexicon for the Hebrew word used to communicate the word or phrase translated as darkness in your first four verses. Note that when these verses refer to God, the language never describes an “evil” type of darkness; it describes a “hidden” type of darkness — which is a different animal! ... and now that you know what they are saying, you will probably see it by just reading them in English. Nevertheless, here’s the Hebrew data.

6205 עֲרָפֶל [ʿaraphel /ar·aw·fel/] n m. Probably from 6201; TWOT 1701b; GK 6906; 15 occurrences; AV translates as “thick darkness” eight times, “darkness” three times, “gross darkness” twice, “dark cloud” once, and “dark” once. 1 cloud, heavy or dark cloud, darkness, gross darkness, thick darkness.

The purpose of the clouds referenced in your four verses is for us humans to be aware of God — but not to see him. These are “dark” phenomena by design, and the original authors understood that. That language carried over into the metaphors, too, such as in Psalm 97:2. But whether the verses are describing actual phenomena or metaphors, these are talking about an obscuring darkness, not an evil darkness... and God’s holiness is unsullied in these passages.

Clouds are also a motif for judgment — and there’s plenty of that in the Old Testament! Jesus used this, too... as he left us in the clouds (Acts 1:9), and he is prophesied to come back in them (Acts 1:11). Because we understand cloud imagery, we know that this verse is telling us that he’s coming back in judgment, not in evil or obscurity.

This means that part of your analysis is correct. Darkness is representative of bad and evil things — and they should be eschewed by man and God alike! But don’t fall into the trap of thinking that darkness in this sense equals darkness in the “thick cloud” sense — or other senses. They are not all equivalent. Some darkness images are appropriate for God and some are not.

Here is the lexicographical information for Proverbs 4:19.

“But the way of the wicked is like deep darkness; they do not know what makes them stumble.” (Proverbs 4:19, NIV)

653 אֲפֵלָה [ʾaphelah /af·ay·law/] n f. From 651; TWOT 145c; GK 696; 10 occurrences; AV translates as “darkness” six times, “gloominess” twice, “dark” once, and “thick” once. 1 darkness, gloominess, calamity. 2 wickedness (fig.).

Here is the lexicographical information for Ecclesiastes 2:14.

“The wise have eyes in their heads, while the fool walks in the darkness; but I came to realize that the same fate overtakes them both.” (Ecclesiastes 2:14, NIV)

2822 חֹשֶׁךְ [choshek /kho·shek/] n m. From 2821; TWOT 769a; GK 3125; 80 occurrences; AV translates as “darkness” 70 times, “dark” seven times, “obscurity” twice, and “night” once. 1 darkness, obscurity. 1a darkness. 1b secret place.

Here is the lexicographical information for Daniel 2:22

“He reveals deep and hidden things; he knows what lies in darkness, and light dwells with him.” (Daniel 2:22, NIV)

2816 חֲשֹׁוךְ [chashowk /khash·oke/] n m. From a root corresponding to 2821; TWOT 2747; GK 10286; AV translates as “darkness” once. 1 darkness.

I don’t want you to miss what’s at issue here: similar words and phrases are free to have different meanings in different contexts. The best way for an English speaker to determine this is simply to read the English Bible in context. Looking at the Hebrew solves another type of problem — which is the opposite of your problem: finding the many different English words used to translate a single Hebrew word.

But since you have expressed an interest in the Hebrew, let me give you a free tool and a few lines of instruction. First, go to the following link: https://biblehub.com/text/exodus/20-21.htm.

You are now in free the Bible Hub website on a page that is exploring the Hebrew words in Exodus 20:21. In the third column entitled English, find your target word or phrase (the thick darkness), then follow that line back to the first column entitled Strong’s and click on the number (6205). That will take you to a page that has all the information I gave you and more!

Note all the different ways that word has been brought into English. If you go to the link https://biblehub.com/exodus/20-21.htm, you will see how over twenty different Bible translations have chosen to translate this verse from ancient Hebrew into English! Enjoy.

(Mainsail Ministries articles often have a preamble where I discuss the thinking that went into them. These are called Monday Musings — and if you haven’t read the one associated with this article — consider doing so at the following link: 20201012 If God is light, how is it that he dwells in darkness?).

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