Will you walk in the darkness, or make a fire?
“10. Who among you fears the Lord and obeys the voice of his servant? Let him who walks in darkness and has no light trust in the name of the Lord and rely on his God. 11. Behold, all you who kindle a fire, who equip yourselves with burning torches! Walk by the light of your fire, and by the torches that you have kindled! This you have from my hand: you shall lie down in torment.” (Isaiah 50:10-11)
This passage, coming at the end of the third servant song of Isaiah (50:4-11), describes two possible responses to the Servant of the Lord. First to recount a bit of the context, I believe that one of the primary themes of the latter part of Isaiah is exile. Chapter 39 ends with a prediction of the exile, and the ensuing chapters appear to be addressed to Israelites in exile, even mentioning Cyrus by name. This doesn’t necessarily mean that the chapters were written after the exile, but that’s another topic. Israel in exile would have considered her experience to be darkness. Indeed, Lamentations 3:1-6 describe it in such terms. Imagine watching the blood bath in the streets of Jerusalem, as a ravaging army cut down men, women, and children. The temple is desecrated and its treasures carted off to be used for a very different purpose than that described in Leviticus. You then find yourself living in a foreign land, everyday hearing a foreign language, not being familiar with the customs of your new city, being surrounded by people worshipping a god other than the Lord.
Isaiah’s answer to this situation is the Servant of the Lord. Yet as it is in our day, so it was for Isaiah – the Servant does not enjoy uniform acceptance. There are those who accept the Servant and there are those who reject him. What is striking about Isaiah’s description of these responses is how he reverses the meaning of a common biblical metaphor. Usually in Scripture, especially in the Johannine corpus, walking in darkness is equivalent to living in disobedience to God’s law – being a child of Satan and an enemy of God. Living in the light is a metaphor for walking in obedience and honoring God. Isaiah flips the metaphor. He says that those who walk in darkness are blessed and those who walk in the light will experience God’s judgment. What are we to make of this seeming contradiction?
Closer inspection reveals that Isaiah is not contradicting, but rather further explaining the typical biblical metaphor. As stated above, these words were written primarily with the children of Israel in exile in mind. In the midst of such apparent hopelessness and loss (i.e., darkness), there were only two options. One could walk forward in the darkness trusting in the Lord or one could make one’s own light to walk by, that is, to trust in one’s own wisdom and strength.
Isaiah is thus saying that there are times when God wills for us to walk in the darkness for a while. How often is it true in our Christian experience that we see as but through a glass darkly? We don’t understand why a certain providence is ours. Life takes an unexpected turn. The church runs you out for preaching the truth. Your child dies at birth. You are rejected by all of your potential graduate programs. How is the Christian to respond to such circumstances? Isaiah would say that the answer is not to think that you are wiser than God and to go forth trusting in your own ability, while accusing God of lack of foresight or malevolence. Rather, the proper response is to wait on the Lord while being faithful to obey all the light that he has given you. Waiting in darkness is difficult. Walking forward in the darkness is even more difficult because you cannot see the way before you. Nevertheless, it is better than the outcome for those who walk by the light of their own intellect – to lie down in torment. As the hymn says, “I may not see the way I go, but, oh, I know my guide.”