In the previous article of this series (January 15, 2022), we began a discussion of Psalm 36:9b, which contains the phrase that serves as the title for this series. This profound and enigmatic phrase points us to the first of God’s creatures—light. The prior article explained a few aspects of light from a scientific perspective, which reveals God as the Creator of energy in all of its various forms. This time we turn from the science to the theology of light.
The wide variety of scriptural uses for the word “light,” which occurs over 250 times in the King James Version, mirrors the marvelous complexity of light from a scientific perspective.1 A careful study of these references in Scripture indicates that light represents all that which is revealed by God through His spoken word and in the person of Christ, especially His favor, truth, and righteousness. The components of this definition can be demonstrated by a host of representative passages, to which we now turn.
Significant purpose is implied by God’s wisdom in setting forth light as His first creature. While God’s last works of creation, His image-bearing friends Adam and Eve, were certainly the pinnacle of His handiwork from the point of view of redemptive history, the very first thing that He made also demonstrates God’s grand purpose for creation. That purpose is to reveal Himself in all His glory and majesty, specifically in the person of His Son (Col. 1:15-17).
Most of the texts that refer to light in a literal sense point back to God’s creative act in the beginning, emphasizing that He is the source of all that we can see and know. A good example of this is Psalm 104:2, which clearly references the first and second days of creation in its ode to the unsurpassed greatness of God. Several other passages are even more overt in connecting light to the concept of revelation, using phrases such as “He revealeth” or “will make manifest” as a parallel to the concept of light (see Dan. 2:22; I Cor. 4:5; Eph. 5:13-14). So clear is this relation that we continue to use it as a common idiom in the English language. We readily understand that when something is “brought to light,” it will be a new revelation to us (Job 28:11).2
The mode of revelation
Additional concepts associated with light in Scripture build upon the central theme of revelation by providing further insight into both its mode and content. The primary mode by which God has chosen to reveal His counsel is through His spoken word, which is why Scripture is often referred to as a “lamp” or a “light” on the pathway of life (Ps. 119:105 and 130; Prov. 6:23). The Old Testament shekinah (pillar of cloud/fire) is also typological in this sense. God’s will concerning Israel’s wanderings through the wilderness was revealed by a pillar of illuminating fire that constantly showed them the way to go. Having been given the full revelation of God’s Word in the canon of Scripture, which Peter refers to as “a more sure word of prophecy,” we too have a “light that shineth in a dark place” to which we do well to take heed (II Pet. 1:19).
While the entirety of God’s inspired Word is the revelation of Himself and His counsel concerning the purpose of creation, it is in the person of Jesus Christ that God is most fully revealed in all His glory. The first chapter of the book of John establishes a direct relation between the revelatory power of words and the person of Christ when it refers to Jesus as both the “Word made flesh” and “true Light” by which we behold the glory of God “full of grace and truth.” There can be little doubt that John’s reference to Jesus by these names was intended to remind his audience of the great messianic passages from the book of Isaiah that prophesied of a coming Light who would illuminate the dark state of Israel (see Is. 9:2; 10:17; 60:1).
Biblical references to Jesus Christ as “the Light” are further confirmed by His own repeated claims to be “the light of the world” (John 8:12, 9:5; 12:35; 12:46). Jesus’ Jewish audience, who were undoubtedly familiar with the prophecies of Isaiah, could not have possibly missed the significance of these words by which Jesus claimed to be the Messiah. The very fact that Jesus had to depart and hide Himself after making this direct claim (12:36) makes clear that those who hated and rejected Him knew exactly what He meant. The implications of such a claim are unmistakable, as Paul notes in Colossians 2:9: “for in him dwelleth all the fulness of the Godhead bodily.” One who is the “light of the world” must be very God!
The content of revelation
Light is revelation and light often refers to the twofold mode of revelation, namely God’s Word and the person of His Son. But light in Scripture also frequently refers to the content of what God reveals. Three specific aspects of God’s revelation are intimately connected to the concept of light: favor, truth, and righteousness. When we speak of God’s favor in connection with light, we must understand it to represent the particular grace of God toward His elect people in Christ (Ps. 112:4). The most notable representation of this concept can be found in the phrase “the light of thy countenance,” which occurs repeatedly throughout the Psalms (see Ps. 4:6; 44:3; 89:15; 90:8). This, too, is the context in which Psalm 36:9 is found. The surrounding verses (vv. 7, 10) speak of God’s “lovingkindness” demonstrated through His protection and provision for His children. The light of God is a display of His favor toward the “children of men.”
The converse of this idea, that God turns His face away in anger at the sins of His children, is represented by the antithesis of light, which is darkness (Lam. 3:2). The contrast between light and darkness finds its parallel in the contrast between life and death, which similarly reflect the contrast between God’s favor and anger throughout Scripture (Ps. 56:13). This is the typical usage in the book of Job, wherein Job connects darkness to the grave as he laments his dire circumstances at the hand of God. This is also the symbolic importance of the plague of darkness in Egypt and the three hours of darkness that occurred when Christ was on the cross. Both point to death as being the time when “the light of God’s countenance” was removed from the creation or its inhabitants.
Another aspect of light in Scripture is its connection to the concept of truth. All that is revealed by God in His Word is truth. Apart from this Word, and the eyes of faith to behold it, natural man is left in the darkness and ignorance of his sin without even comprehending the misery of this condition (Job 24:13). This is why the knowledge of salvation is closely related to truth and light. Several passages throughout both testaments of Scripture make this connection, indicating that the revelation of God’s gracious salvation brings light and happiness to those who receive it through the gift of faith (Ps. 43:3; Isa. 50:10; Act 26:18).
It is significant that some of Christ’s most noted miracles during His earthly ministry involved restoration of sight to the blind. Darkness and blindness are synonymous with ignorance of the truth. Restoration of vision, therefore, represents the opening of one’s eyes of faith. One of these instances, found in John 9, is particularly helpful in demonstrating this relation. In this text, a man who was blind from birth was healed by Jesus and simultaneously brought to faith in Jesus as the Christ. Both his physical eyes and his spiritual eyes were opened at once to the fact that Jesus was indeed “the light of the world” (9:5). This event and others like it are the fulfillment of Isaiah 42:16, where God declares, “And I will bring the blind by a way that they knew not; I will lead them in paths that they have not known: I will make darkness light before them, and crooked things straight. These things will I do unto them, and not forsake them.”
The third metaphorical use of light in Scripture is in reference to righteousness. One of the most frequent ways that this relation is expressed is once again through the contrast between light and darkness, which is often used to illustrate the difference between good and evil or righteousness and wickedness (II Cor. 6:14). This is the most common use of light in both the book of Isaiah (see 5:20; 59:9) and in the writings of John. John 3:19-21 is worth quoting here because it brings together several of the concepts that have been noted thus far:
And this is the condemnation, that light is come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil. For every one that doeth evil hateth the light, neither cometh to the light, lest his deeds should be reproved. But he that doeth truth cometh to the light, that his deeds may be made manifest, that they are wrought in God.
Note especially how righteousness is characterized as “doing truth,” which is very similar to the idea of “walking in the light” that the apostle uses in I John 1:7.
The connection between righteousness and light is also used in Scripture to represent the character of God in all His perfections (I John 1:5; Rev. 21:23-24; 22:5). Like the person of Christ, Jehovah is Himself sometimes personified as light. The psalmist declares “the Lord is my light and salvation” (Ps. 27:1) and Isaiah promises that “the Lord shall be unto thee an everlasting light, and thy God thy glory” (Is. 60:19-20). In His very essence God is light because He is the standard of righteousness. This standard is codified in the law, which is the clearest revelation of God’s righteous character in Scripture. It is no wonder then that the law is also referred to as light in several passages of His Word (Prov. 6:23; Is. 51:4; Hos. 6:5b).
Those who know the righteous Lord by a true faith and have been sanctified by Christ will seek to follow His will by obeying the commandments of Scripture. This is why the daily walk of God’s children is also referred to as “light” in Scripture. Just as the moon reflects the light of the sun, the walk of believers reflects the righteous character of God (Prov. 4:18; Is. 2:5).
This imagery is repeatedly presented throughout Scripture as a definitive truth declared by God when members of the church are referred to as a “light unto the Gentiles” (Is. 42:6; 49:6; 60:3; Luke 2:32; Acts 13:47) or as “light of the world” (Matt. 5:14-16). At the same time, however, it is also frequently presented in the imperative form of a command (Luke 11:35-36; Eph. 5:8; I John 2:8-10). This is perhaps most striking in Romans 13:8-14, where Paul follows his vigorous defense of the free gospel of justification by faith alone with the command to obey the law as an expression of love: “The night is far spent, the day is at hand: let us therefore cast off the works of darkness, and let us put on the armour of light” (v. 12). The children of God are light. And they are commanded to walk in that light. Both are equally important metaphorical uses of the word in reference to God’s wonderwork of sanctification.
Certainly, more could be said about the manifold uses of light in Scripture because it is such a common metaphor. What we have described above, however, should provide sufficient insight for us to return to Psalm 36:9 in our next article. In that final installation of this series, we will explore the potential meaning—or perhaps better, meanings—of the phrase, “In thy light shall we see light.”
1 It should be noted that the KJV uses the word “light” in ways other than in reference to the form of energy created on the first day, which is why the word is more common in this translation than most others. Among these other uses the most common is in reference to that which lacks weight or significance (for example, see I Sam. 18:23, II Kings 3:18). 2 This passage is one of the curious parallels to Psalm 36:9, which contains the twin concepts of great waters and light. It is possible that what both Job and the psalmist are referencing is the great creative act of God in the first day of creation when He brought forth light upon the chaotic waters of the creation.