Darkness That Can Be Felt

Becky and I teach a 2nd and 3rd grade Sunday school class.  Well, I help when I’m in town and the rest of the time – most of the time – Becky goes solo.  It’s your basic kid curriculum type situation: lots of Daniel and the lion’s den, David and Goliath, Joseph and the coat of many colors, Moses floating down the Nile, etc, etc – the usual kid stories.  But it never fails, when we sit down to study for class Becky and I bump into some detail we’ve never noticed before and sometimes those little new discoveries get under my skin and work on me a while.

Last night, for example, we were reading the account of the ten plagues in Exodus.  You know the story: Moses tells pharoah to let the Israelites take a break from their laboring to go into the desert and worship God.  Pharoah says, “No way,” and then God unleashes plague after plague on Egypt designed to show His superiority to the Egyptian gods: the sun god, the god of the Nile, the god of flies, etc.

What I’d never noticed before in the story is something in this little section describing the plague of darkness in Exodus 10:

21 Then the LORD said to Moses, “Stretch out your hand toward the sky so that darkness will spread over Egypt—darkness that can be felt.” 22 So Moses stretched out his hand toward the sky, and total darkness covered all Egypt for three days. 23 No one could see anyone else or leave his place for three days. Yet all the Israelites had light in the places where they lived.

Whoa!  What was that?  Darkness that can be felt?  Felt??

I have no idea what that means.  Maybe it’s not important at all.  Maybe it’s a glitch in translation or something, I thought – A poor choice of English words. I dunno. So I dug a little.

Matthew Henry’s commentary says:

…No doubt it astonished and terrified them. The cloud of locusts, which had darkened the land (Exodus 10:15), was nothing to this. The tradition of the Jews is that in this darkness they were terrified by the apparitions of evil spirits, or rather by dreadful sounds and murmurs which they made, or (which is no less frightful) by the horrors of their own consciences; and this is the plague which some think is intended (for, otherwise, it is not mentioned at all there) in Psalms 78:49: He poured upon them the fierceness of his anger, by sending evil angels among them; for to those to whom the devil has been a deceiver he will, at length, be a terror. …they were imprisoned by those chains of darkness, and the most lightsome palaces were perfect dungeons.

Now, for full disclosure, I read a dozen commentaries.  Most of them said the word “felt” is used because A) they felt their way through the darkness or B) it was caused by a sandstorm and, you know, you can feel sand.  I don’t know who’s right.  But Matthew Henry definitely gets the prize for Commentator Most Likely To Frighten A Third Grader.  He continued:

No man rose from his place, v. 23. They were all confined to their houses; and such a terror seized them that few of them had the courage to go from the chair to the bed, or from the bed to the chair. Thus were they silent in darkness… Spiritual darkness is spiritual bondage; while Satan blinds men’s eyes that they see not, he binds them hands and feet that they work not for God, nor move towards heaven. They sit in darkness.

It was a righteous thing with God thus to punish them. Pharaoh and his people had rebelled against the light of God’s word, which Moses spoke to them; justly therefore are they punished with darkness, for they loved it and chose it rather. The blindness of their minds brings upon them this darkness of the air.

…The Egyptians by their cruelty would have extinguished the lamp of Israel, and quenched their coal; justly therefore does God put out their lights.

…Let us dread the consequences of sin; if three days’ darkness was so dreadful, what will everlasting darkness be?

…The children of Israel, at the same time, had light in their dwellings (v. 23), not only in the land of Goshen, where most of them dwelt, but in the habitations of those who were dispersed among the Egyptians… This is an instance, (1.) Of the power of God above the ordinary power of nature. We must not think that we share in common mercies as a matter of course, and therefore that we owe no thanks to God for them; he could distinguish, and withhold that from us which he grants to others. He does indeed ordinarily make his sun to shine on the just and unjust; but he could make a difference, and we must own ourselves indebted to his mercy that he does not. (2.) Of the particular favour he bears to his people: they walk in the light when others wander endlessly in thick darkness; wherever there is an Israelite indeed, though in this dark world, there is light, there is a child of light, one for whom light is sown, and whom the day-spring from on high visits. When God made this difference between the Israelites and the Egyptians, who would not have preferred the poorest cottage of an Israelite to the finest palace of an Egyptian? There is still a real difference, though not so discernible a one, between the house of the wicked, which is under a curse, and the habitation of the just, which is blessed, Prov. 3:33.

We should believe in that difference, and govern ourselves accordingly.

Yikes.  And help me, God. Amen.