Previous article in this series: February 1, 2022, p. 210.
One of the great wonders of God’s inspired words in Scripture is that they are often revealed to us in the form of a mystery. These “mysteries of the kingdom of heaven” serve to reinforce the faith of those who are given to understand and to harden the hearts of those who reject God and His Son. Such was the explanation offered by Christ when He was asked by His disciples the reason for His teaching in parables (Matt. 13:10- 17). And such is the purpose of the frequent paradoxes that we encounter throughout Scripture. It is to this pedagogical device that we turn in this article.
A paradox is a statement or observation that initially seems to be self-contradictory, but when understood correctly reveals something that is essentially true. Some of the most profound truths of Scripture are paradoxical in nature. Among the greatest of these is the biblical teaching that salvation from sin and death was won by a Savior who came in the weakness of human flesh as a suffering Servant (Is. 53). To the unbelieving mind, Jesus’ lifelong suffering and eventual death on the cross seem utterly incompatible with His identity as the promised Messiah (I Cor. 1:18-25). And yet that is precisely the message of the gospel that the believing mind grasps and celebrates as the greatest victory ever won. Through death came eternal life. Such is the mystery of the gospel!
The title of our series on light, which is taken from Psalm 36:9, represents another biblical paradox—this time with multiple layers of embedded meaning. The apparent contradiction in the phrase “in Thy light shall we see light” comes from the fact that we do not usually require a second source of illumination to see the light being emitted by a primary source. Or to say it another way, we do not need a flashlight to know that the sun is shining. To the unbelieving mind, the words of this passage seem foolish. But with eyes of faith we behold a multifaceted gem of truth that reflects the glory of God in a variety of ways. The goal of this article is to help readers understand our passage of interest through the eyes of faith, so that together we may give glory to the Creator of light who has graciously revealed Himself to us in His Word.
The paradox of light
From a scientific perspective, light is the perfect creature with which to illustrate the concept of a paradox. This is due to the fact that several of its properties are difficult to reconcile with the laws of physics that we use to describe everyday experiences, like riding in a car or surfing on an ocean wave. For centuries, scientists struggled to make sense of the contradictory properties of light that suggested it was both a wave and a particle.1 This sort of dual identity was incompatible with the known laws of physics until the early twentieth century when the field of quantum mechanics was born. Only with this new understanding as a theoretical foundation were scientists able to explain these apparent contradictions.
Perhaps a more accessible way to illustrate the paradoxical nature of light is to point to the fact that sunlight is necessary for life to exist on earth, but that it can also be deadly. In photosynthesis sunlight gives life, but when exposed directly to unprotected cells it brings death.
In the first article of this series, we briefly discussed the properties of light as a type of energy that travels in waves. There we noted that the different colors of visible light, as well as all of the other forms of radiant energy, differ in their wavelengths and in the amount of energy they carry. Radiant energy with very short wavelengths (less than violet light) carries a higher amount of energy, whereas radiant energy with longer wavelengths (greater than red light) carries a lower amount of energy. This is the reason that we worry about getting exposed to ultraviolet (UV) light and X-rays (both of which have short wavelengths and are high in energy), but not radio waves, which are very low in energy due to their long wavelengths. The energy in UV light and X-rays is capable of damaging the genetic material (DNA) found in living cells, whereas radio waves cannot.
The paradox in the observation that sunlight is necessary for life but can kill living cells is explained by the fact that it is composed of a variety of wavelengths that together make up the entire visible spectrum of light. The spectrum of rainbow colors we see when sunlight passes through raindrops nicely illustrates this point, though even then we fail to see all of the radiant energy that is present. Red light, which is lower in energy due to its longer wavelength, is the primary driver of photosynthesis through its interaction with the pigment chlorophyll found in plant leaves. UV light, which is high in energy due to its shorter wavelength, can kill unprotected cells by virtue of its interaction with the chemical building blocks of DNA. Though similar in terms of the physics involved, these two processes yield drastically different effects on living organisms. Properly understood, the paradox of sunlight yields an amazing truth that gives glory to our Creator!
Unraveling the theological paradox
The enigmatic phrase contained in Psalm 36:9 is revealed as a paradox—and not a contradiction—when we understand the various ways that Scripture uses light as a theological metaphor. The second article in this series demonstrated that in its broadest sense, light represents the entirety of divine revelation. When light is used as a metaphor in Scripture, it may also refer to the mode by which God reveals Himself (through His Word and in the person of Christ) or to the content of His revelation (most specifically favor, truth, and righteousness).
In many cases, the Bible pairs the metaphor of light with darkness in order to paint a contrast between two diametrically opposed ideas. Righteousness and iniquity. Life and death. Favor and hatred. Truth and lie. All of these spiritually significant opposites are aptly represented by the concepts of light and darkness.
What then are we to make of Psalm 36:9 with so many potential ways to understand the idea of light? What truth is God revealing in this passage?
The first approach we can take to grasp the meaning of the passage is to look at the immediate context, which begins in verse 7 with the exclamation, “How excellent is thy lovingkindness, O God!” and ends with the plea, “O continue thy lovingkindness…and thy righteousness,” in verse 10. The word “lovingkindness” used here is an expression of God’s favor (or grace) displayed to His people, while His righteousness refers to the uprightness of His character and judgments. Light is frequently used to represent God’s favor and righteousness, so we can determine from the immediate context of Psalm 36:9 that God’s righteous character is revealed by His lovingkindness toward His people. In His light (favor) we see light (righteousness).
The broader context of Psalm 36 is also helpful. Note that the opening four verses of this Psalm begin with commentary on the wickedness of natural man in whom is found nothing but iniquity, deceit, and mischief. This picture of the darkness of human nature stands in stark contrast to the light that is revealed in the person of God, who is perfectly upright in His character. The intentional use of this contrast between the evil of man and the goodness of God further supports the interpretation of verse 9 offered above.
But I think we can say more about the phrase “in Thy light shall we see light,” since it is somewhat of a recurring motif in other similar texts in Scripture. We note two of these passages below.
Micah 7:7-9 similarly contains multiple references to light, but in this case the purpose is to reveal Christ, who brings salvation to those who are condemned in their sins through His work as the perfectly righteous Mediator of the covenant. The text reads as follows:
Therefore I will look unto the Lord; I will wait for the God of my salvation: my God will hear me. Rejoice not against me, O mine enemy: when I fall, I shall arise; when I sit in darkness, the Lord shall be a light unto me. I will bear the indignation of the Lord, because I have sinned against him, until he plead my cause, and execute judgment for me: he will bring me forth to the light, and I shall behold his righteousness.
This passage is no doubt pointing to the atoning work of Christ, the righteous One, as the Mediator of the covenant who is revealed by God (the Lord). The contrast between darkness and light used here paints a similar contrast to that used in Psalm 36. But in this case, through the light of revelation we see Jesus, who is the righteousness of God. In Thy light (revelation) we see light (Jesus Christ)!
Another striking example of the “light revealing light” motif is found in Luke 24:13-33, which records the appearance of the risen Lord to two travelers on the road to Emmaus. The story recounts a remarkable opening of the eyes of faith of Cleopas and his unnamed companion as they speak with the risen Lord. Verses 30-32 of the text are quoted below:
And it came to pass, as he sat at meat with them, he took bread, and blessed it, and brake, and gave to them. And their eyes were opened, and they knew him; and he vanished out of their sight. And they said one to another, Did not our heart burn within us, while he talked with us by the way, and while he opened to us the scriptures?
Despite the fact that the word “light” is never used in this passage, there remains a beautiful example of light revealing light as Jesus explains the gospel of grace to His two disciples through the lens of the Old Testament Scriptures. The result of His explanation was a spiritual opening of their eyes to the truth that Christ had indeed risen in fulfillment of the Old Testament prophecies that pointed to Him.
In effect, this passage in Luke 24 presents a different way to understand the phrase “in Thy light shall we see light.” Jesus Christ took in hand the written Word of God to reveal the truth about Himself to two of His followers. All three elements of this narrative—Christ, God’s Word, truth—are commonly represented by the metaphor of light throughout Scripture. Here we see the “Light of the world” revealing that God’s words to His people throughout the redemptive history have come true. In Thy light (Jesus Christ) we see light (truth of God’s Word)!
It never ceases to amaze me how one small phrase in Scripture can reveal so much about our covenant God. And while diligent study of His Word can reveal much to us, there remains a sense of mystery that I suspect will remain with us for all eternity. Blessed be the Father of lights in whom there is no shadow of turning (James 1:17)!
O the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! how unsearchable are his judgments, and his ways past finding out! For who hath known the mind of the Lord? or who hath been his counsellor? Or who hath first given to him, and it shall be recompensed unto him again? For of him, and through him, and to him, are all things: to whom be glory forever. Amen. (Rom. 11:33-36)