“Then the LORD said to Moses, ‘Stretch out your hand toward the sky so that darkness spreads over Egypt—darkness that can be felt.’ So Moses stretched out his hand toward the sky, and total darkness covered all Egypt for three days. No one could see anyone else or move about for three days. Yet all the Israelites had light in the places where they lived” (Exodus 10:21-23, NIV).
Written by Steven Barto, B.S. Psych.
The plagues of Egypt in the story of the Exodus are ten calamities inflicted upon Egypt by God in order to force Pharaoh’s hand to free the enslaved Hebrews. Pharaoh’s stubborn resolve caused Egypt to suffer extreme devastation because of the ten plagues. The Egyptians ultimately lost nearly everything, including their crops, potable water, livestock, their first-born sons, and even their army. One would think Pharaoh would get the message after seeing his land and its people suffer plagues of blood, frogs, lice (or gnats), flies, livestock, boils, hail, and locust infestation. Yet he remained defiant, refusing to free the Hebrews.
The LORD instructed Moses to call darkness down upon Egypt. Eugene Peterson’s translation of Exodus 10:21-23 states, “GOD said to Moses, ‘Stretch your hand to the skies. Let darkness descend on the land of Egypt—a darkness so dark you can touch it.’ Moses stretched out his hand to the skies. Thick darkness descended on the land of Egypt for three days. Nobody could see anybody. For three days no one could so much as move. Except the Israelites: they had light where they were living” (MSG). According to the Hebrew-Greek Key Word Study Bible, in the footnote, God created darkness, and He can use it against His enemies. This pervading darkness is also referenced in Joel 2:2a: “…a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and blackness” (NIV).
Matthew Henry’s Concise Commentary on the Whole Bible notes this plague as “darkness which might be felt, so thick were the fogs. It astonished and terrified. It continued three days; six nights in one; so long the most lightsome palaces were [as] dungeons” (p. 87). The Egyptians literally sat in a soup of darkness, unable to see anything or do anything. Pharaoh’s bullheadedness regarding God’s demand that he free the Hebrews brought upon Egypt a physical darkness that nothing could penetrate. Matthew Henry’s commentary states, “…never was [a] mind so blinded as Pharaoh’s, never was [the] air so darkened as Egypt”[emphasis mine]. If three days of utter, palpable darkness were so dreadful, I wonder what everlasting darkness will be like
This darkness was specifically calculated by God to effect the spirit of the Egyptians, whose chief object of worship was Ra, the sun-god. Its suddenness and severity mark it as a preternatural withdrawal of light. No matter how you interpret the mechanism by which this darkness developed—thick clammy fog, vapors, a sandstorm, or chamsin—it was such that it overwhelmed the senses, and so protracted as to continue for three days. Seventy-two hours of sheer madness. The symbolism is uncanny given that the sun was an object of Egyptian idolatry. This calamity correlates with Revelation 16:10: “Then the fifth angel poured out his bowl on the throne of the beast, and his kingdom became full of darkness…” (NKJV).
The darkness that fell upon Egypt when Pharaoh refused to set the Hebrews free was not just darkness. Rather, it was a pervasive physical and metaphysical darkness so great and total that the Egyptians could not even safely walk through their houses without danger. Amazingly, the antithesis of this darkness is the miraculous Light of the LORD that shined in the homes of each Jewish family throughout the duration of this plague. God was not simply amusing Himself through the ten plagues. Rather, it showcased the cumulative effect of a complete and pervasive manifestation of God’s glorious justice—a literal example of the punishment God dishes out for complete and continual disobedience.
Darkness followed the plague of locusts without warning or pronouncement, signifying God’s relentless resolve. Its substance created conditions that were physically unbearable. Massive and considerably burdensome. This plague had a repressive impact on the mind and spirit of the Egyptians. Imagine having no physical reference point. No indication that anyone or anything existed. The nagging question would be, Where did everyone go? Even if the Egyptians could have moved, they would not have been able to outrun the darkness. It would have chased them down. It was the utter absence of life-giving light. Nothing can grow in darkness. All that is real and alive is choked off.
I cannot imagine darkness so thick it can be felt. The only event in my life that comes close to putting “utter darkness” in perspective involves a trip to an anthracite coal mine with my sons when they were younger. While 300 feet down in the mine shaft, the tour guide gave us a warning and then shut off the lights. You cannot fathom sheer darkness unless you experience it. I literally could not see my hand in front of my face, and lost all sense of where I ended and the darkness began.
The Amplified Bible expresses Exodus 10:21-23 as follows: “Then the LORD said to Moses, ‘Stretch out your hand toward the sky, so that darkness may come over the land of Egypt, a darkness which [is so awful that it] may be felt.’ So Moses stretched out his hand toward the sky, and for three days a thick darkness was all over the land of Egypt [no sun, no moon, no stars]. The Egyptians could not see one another, nor did anyone leave his place for three days, but all the Israelites had [supernatural] light in their dwellings.” The Dake’s Annotated Reference Bible says “…darkness which could be felt was so dense that no light could penetrate it enough for anything to be seen. No one could move from his place. This could be a picture of the outer darkness of hell.” The footnote regarding Moses stretching his hand toward heaven, although a simple gesture, showed the powerful result of Moses obeying the LORD. In other words, God said, “If you do this, I will do that,” and it came to pass in a flash.
WHEN GOD SPEAKS, WE MUST LISTEN AND OBEY
Malachi 2:2 states, “If you do not listen, and if you do not resolve to honor my name, says the LORD Almighty, I will send a curse on you, and I will curse your blessings. Yes, I have already cursed them, because you have not resolved to honor me” (NIV). Frankly, we can only “listen” to the LORD when we have prepared our hearts to hear Him. If you want to hear Him speak, you must be quiet, focusing on what He is saying. Listening for God’s voice requires having a desire to actually hear Him. Not surprisingly, this also requires making a conscious decision to block out the chaos around you and focusing your thoughts on Him. David said this in Psalm 143:8: “Let the morning bring me word of your unfailing love, for I have put my trust in you. Show me the way I should go, for to you I entrust my life” (NIV).
God Uses Darkness to Lead Us to the Light
I love Isaiah 9:2, which says, “The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of deep darkness a light has dawned” (NIV). It’s no secret that we are living in a fallen world; one marred by sin and disobedience, resulting in servitude, misery, illness, deceitfulness, hatred, bigotry, stubbornness, and countless calamities. It is rather easy to get discouraged under such circumstances. Worse, it is likely most of us forget the fallen nature of mankind and all of creation. Many believers today get ensnared by the devil, blaming God when bad things happen to good people. This is a sure sign that we’ve gone “heart blind.” This is a kind of spiritual sickness in which we give up and give in, expecting nothing but doom and gloom. We become accustomed to existing in a broken world, no longer able to see the Light.
It cannot be denied that where there is sin there will be darkness. Jesus said, “This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that their deeds will be exposed. But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what they have done has been done in the sight of God” (John 3:19-21, NIV).
Jesus: The Light of the World
Then Jesus spoke to them again, saying, “I am the light of the world. He who follows Me shall not walk in darkness, but have the light of life” (John 8:12, NKJV).
“I am the light of the world,” is rooted in Jesus’s relationship with the Father. He speaks from God and for God and as God. Apart from Jesus, we live in darkness. We have limited (human) capacity to understand who we are in Christ. We cannot accurately interpret or explain what we see in the world. Aimee Joseph puts it this way: “The beauty of our humanity is still evident, but ugliness abounds.” In her blog post The Lack of a Loom she writes, “Without a loom, without what is called a meta-narrative, we end up with disconnected piles of threads and yarn and fabric. Sure, we can organize them into neat piles, putting sweet silky feelings and experiences in one pile, grouping commonplace day-to-day experiences and emotions in another and gathering the itchy, scratchy strands of suffering into a discard pile. But, living without a loom leaves us with lives and hearts and societies that are divided and compartmentalized at best, and schizophrenic and purposeless at worst.” In other words, without Christ, our beauty remains incomplete and unexpressed.
The light of Christ is the brightness of God shining on the scrim of our human soul. Life can be wonderful on earth—as it often is—but not fully complete without Jesus. In other words, it is not “abundant life.” We are all created to crave the Creator, our Father, and we’re given access to the Father through a relationship with Jesus. When we come before the Father through our Great Intercessor, we begin to see even the darkest corners of our hearts brighten. But it is only through coming to the end of us that we find Jesus. We begin to see ourselves as God sees us: clothed in the righteousness of Christ. Only then are we set free to run to and cling to God. Only then can we hope to escape the darkness of sin.
Baker, W., Zodhiates, S. (2008). Hebrew-Greek Key Word Study Bible. Chattanooga, TN: AMG Publishers.
Dake, F. (2008). The Dake’s Annotated Reference Bible. Lawrenceville, GA: Dake Publishing, Inc.
Henry, M. (1997). Matthew Henry’s Concise Commentary on the Whole Bible. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, Inc.
Joseph, A. (January 17, 2019). “The Lack of a Loom.” [web log comment]. Retrieved from: https://aimeejoseph.blog/2019/01/17/the-lack-of-a-loom-3/