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1 Chronicles

God of Darkness

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When you think of the place where God dwells, do you imagine it being a place of intense light, or thick darkness?  That seems like an easy question; after all, darkness is evil, and light is good - at least that’s what all of our movies have taught us.  Paul even tells us straight up in his first letter to Timothy that God absolutely dwells in unapproachable light:

“...He who is the blessed and only Sovereign, the King of kings and Lord of lords, who alone has immortality, who dwells in unapproachable light, whom no one has ever seen or can see.” (1 Timothy 6:15-16)

But if you were to peruse a book or a blog article written by some silly atheist  devoted to finding every supposed contradiction in the Bible, you would certainly find that this question has a couple of wildly different Scriptural answers.  For exhibit B, take a look at what Solomon the Wise has to say about the place where God dwells:

“Then Solomon said, ‘The Lord has said that He would dwell in thick darkness.’” (2 Chronicles 6:1)

First, I think that this statement begs the question: where exactly did He say that?

Well, at the giving of the Ten Commandments, Moses “drew near to the thick darkness where God was” (Exodus 20:21).  We see the same description of the mountain in the recounting of the event in Deuteronomy 4:11.  But other than these descriptions - and plenty of references to God coming in the storm clouds in judgment throughout the prophets - there is not a direct utterance from God in the Old Testament using exactly these words.  The closest thing we have is from Exodus:

“And the Lord said to Moses, ‘Behold, I am coming to you in a thick cloud, that the people may hear when I speak with you, and may also believe you forever.’” (Exodus 19:9)

So it seems pretty safe to assume that this is what Solomon was referring to when he said that “the Lord has said that He would dwell in thick darkness.”  After all, he was at that moment watching the cloud of the Shekhinah glory descend and fill the newly dedicated temple.

But which one of these is true?  Does He dwell in light or darkness?  Are the silly atheists right in thinking that this is a contradiction?  And if it’s not, then what glorious truth can we discern about God from this paradox?

To get to the heart of the matter, I think it’s very important to point out that - as Paul teaches us - God dwells in unapproachable light.  It can’t be approached - like, at all!  It is so bright and intense that we could not survive even beginning to move in the direction of its source (which is, of course, God Himself). When Moses asked to see this glory of the Lord, God had to hide him in a small cleft in the mountain so that only a little sliver of light could get in, and even then He only showed him His back as He passed by (Exodus 33:22).

Now if that’s the way God’s glory really is, then it shouldn’t be too difficult to conceive of why God would sometime need to dwell in thick darkness - like the darkness of a concealing cloud.  He appears this way to His people at Mount Sinai and in the tabernacle and the temple because this is the only way that they can survive the experience.  He wraps Himself in thick darkness in order to draw close - to have a relationship with His people.

That’s also what we see Him doing in the incarnation.  When Jesus was born, rather than showing up once again in a cloud, the second Person of the Trinity approached His people clothed as one of us: in human flesh:

“Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though He was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.” (Philippians 2:5-7)

Though much ink has been spilled as to exactly what Jesus emptied Himself of, the plainest answer is that He laid aside this lethal glory.  He did so in order to draw near to His people in the most intimate way possible - as one of us!

God’s wrapping Himself in the thick darkness of a cloud or in the lowly flesh of a man is a testimony to His astounding grace.  His full glory is unapproachable to us because we are fallen, we are lawbreakers, and our wickedness suffuses every aspect of our beings and our cultures.  What humanity became in the fall was something that is diametrically opposed to the shining and glorious goodness and perfection of our Creator - so much so that we could never, ever draw close to Him again.  We had no hope.  And He could have left us that way, but He didn’t.  Instead, He covered Himself in darkness and came to rescue us.

That’s not a contradiction.  That’s the Gospel.

What Exactly Does ‘No’ Mean?

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One of the interesting footnotes of history is that God’s original command to Adam not to eat of the tree of knowledge of good and evil got a little…distorted…as it made its way from Adam to his wife, Eve.  The specific command to Adam was simple enough:

 “You may surely  eat of every tree of the garden, but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.” (Genesis 2:16-17)

A little later in the story, though, when the Serpent asks Eve about which fruit they may eat, she cites the command a little differently:

“We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden, but God said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the midst of the garden, neither shall you touch it, lest you die.’” (Genesis 3:2-3)

Now we readers, six thousand years after the event, and with no further information, do not know where the extra ban on touching the fruit entered the picture.  It could have been something that Adam added when he related the command to Eve.  It could also have been something that Eve subconsciously added to the command in order to protect herself from even getting close to breaking the rule.  And it is in the realm of possibility that God repeated the command to Eve, but added the extra bit on the second time around.  This last possibility is highly unlikely, though, as it would indicate that either God or the recorder of Genesis left out an important detail when the command was given to Adam, only to suddenly remember it a few paragraphs later.  It seems almost guaranteed, then, that one of our first parents added this extra layer to God’s command as a hedge of protection against breaking the Law.

Men and women throughout history, and flagrantly within the pages of the New Testament, have repeated this same error.  Paul in the second chapter of Colossians shows the foolishness of trusting in your own man-made rules to protect you from breaking God’s commands:

“If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the world, why, as if you were still alive in the world, do you submit to regulations—“Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch” (referring to things that all perish as they are used)—according to human precepts and teachings? These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body, but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh.” (Colossians 2:20-23)

In light of this, how should we act when God tells us ‘No’?  The one example we have seen so far involves turning one prohibition into several.  Eve forbade herself from even touching the forbidden fruit in an effort to remind herself not to eat it.  The Jews of Jesus’ day had invented all kinds of rules around the prohibition to do no work on the Sabbath.  One well-known example was that a person was not to look in the mirror on the Sabbath because he or she might see a gray hair and pluck it, and thus do work on the day of rest.

I would submit that we should endeavor to keep the commands of God as simply as they are given.  If Colossians 2:20-23 cited above is true, and if all of Jesus’ anger towards those who held closely to their man-made ‘hedge of protection’ type rules was well-placed, then we would do wisely to memorize and keep God’s commands exactly as He has given them, without trying to protect ourselves by enlarging the territory covered by those instructions.  I say this not to provide an excuse for some to look for loopholes for favorite sins, but rather to acknowledge the fact that manufacturing our own protections to keep us from falling prey to sin only seems to cause us to trust in our own strength and wisdom instead of relying on God.

As a counterpoint to Eve’s reaction to God’s “No” in Genesis 2, I would like to look at another example of a Bible character responding to God telling him, “No.”

David was the kind of man who looked around at all of the material blessing that God had given him - treasures, wives, children, a kingdom, and a palace - and realized that while he was living in opulence, the ark of God was sitting off somewhere in a tent.  Not content with this arrangement, David immediately decided that he would build a house for God that would be even more spectacular than his own, as it should be.

The twist in the story comes when God is pleased with David’s desire, but still denies him the opportunity to build the temple.  When David recounts the story to the princes of Israel later in life, he says:

“But God said to me, ‘You may not build a house for my name, for you are a man of war and have shed blood.’” (1 Chronicles 28:3)

David’s response to God’s “No”, however, is remarkably different than the previous example.  True to God’s revealed will, David did not himself erect the temple, but he did practically everything leading up it!  A quick stroll through 1 Chronicles 28 shows us just some of what David accomplished in laying the groundwork for the temple:

  • He made the blueprints for the vestibule, houses, treasuries, upper rooms, inner chambers, and the space for the mercy seat (vv. 11-12).

  • He set up the divisions of the Levites and the schedule of service (v. 13).

  • He gathered all of the gold and silver necessary for all of the utensils, lamp stands, lamps, tables, forks, basins and cups used in worship (vv. 14-17).

  • And he gathered all of the gold and made the plans for the altar of incense and the chariot of the cherubim that was to stand above the mercy seat (v. 18).

And even as he did all of this in preparation for his son Solomon to build the temple, his heart was overwhelmed with thankfulness.  Listen to the way he praised God for allowing him and his subjects to freely give their treasures for the construction of God’s house:

“But who am I, and what is my people, that we should be able thus to offer willingly? For all things come from you, and of your own have we given you.”

David took God’s “No” and transformed it into a beautiful opportunity to pour out his own life - his time, his wealth, and his gifts - in service to God anyway.  Is that the way we treat God’s “You shall nots”?  Do we see God’s command to refrain from theft as a way to keep us poor, or as a loving opportunity to learn how to be content in all the ways that He has blessed us (not to mention preserving our relationships with our neighbors)?  Do we see His command to refrain from adultery as a jail cell designed to limit our sexual fulfillment, or as a glorious protection of the true joys that are found only in faithful marriage?

Applying this notion to Adam and Eve and their command concerning the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, how could they have done differently and glorified God through the “No”?  Well, the fruit of the tree was for making one wise.  Adam and Eve could have pursued the wisdom of God through Him directly instead of trying to take the forbidden shortcut.  Everything that they gained through the eating of the fruit could have been gained through their close relationship with God - save for the destructive experience of sin itself.

So, instead of trying to build walls around God’s commands, as if He were a cruel taskmaster who will punish every sideways glance, trust Him as the loving Father that He reveals Himself to be, and treat His commands and His answers to prayer as the good gifts that they are.  With a heart focused on His glory, dare to prepare every facet of the construction of the temple, while still being faithful to leave the final building to someone else.  Look for God-glorifying opportunities within the boundaries that He has set for you, and thank Him continually for those opportunities.