Harry Whittaker
Studies in the Gospels

231. Darkness (Matt. 27:45; Mark 15:33; Luke 23:44, 45)*

"Now from the sixth hour there was darkness over all the land unto the ninth hour."

This phenomenon associated with the sufferings of Christ is mysterious. Why should it happen when it did? Why should it happen at all? It is recorded with the utmost brevity and simplicity, and without a word of explanation (which itself also is a fact needing to be explained!)

The first answer to these queries would seem to be that the gospel writers give no explanation because explanation had already been given-in the Old Testament. There are two Old Testament Scriptures which fill in the background to this impressive happening. It will not be amiss to consider them briefly.

Amos - Messianic prophet

At first sight, Amos 8 would scarcely commend itself to the student as a Messianic prophecy. Yet it presents an impressive sequence of ideas:

v.8: "Shall not the land tremble for this, and every one mourn that dwelleth therein? And it shall rise up wholly as a flood." This is earthquake, as at the crucifixion.
v.9: "And it shall come to pass in that day, saith the Lord God, that I will cause the sun to go down at noon, and I will darken the earth in the clear day." Darkness, beginning at noon, "the sixth hour"!
v.10: "And I will make it as the mourning for an only son (Jesus, the only-begotten Son of God,) and the end thereof as a bitter day." With this compare Luke 23:48: "And all the people that came together to that sight, beholding the things which were done, smote their breasts..."
v. 11: "A famine of hearing the words of the Lord." Jewry first refused stubbornly to accept the proffered forgiveness of God, and then were shut out of the opportunity of accepting it. Darkness descended upon their prophets. There was no longer any "Word of the Lord" in their midst.
v. 12: "And they shall wander from sea to sea, and from the north even to the east." So they have, literally!
v.13: "In that day shall the fair virgins and the young men faint for thirst." With this contrast the opening of the Christian dispensation: "And it shall come to pass in the Last Days, saith God, I will pour out of my Spirit upon all flesh: and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams: and on my servants and on my handmaidens I will pour out in those days of my Spirit; and they shall prophesy" (Acts 2:17,18).
With these also may be aligned v.2: "And he said, Amos, what seest thou? And I said, A basket of summer fruit. Then said the Lord unto me, The end is come upon my people of Israel: I will not again pass by them any more." What possible connection between a basket of summer fruit and such a grim pronouncement of doom? The clue is in Deuteronomy 26:1-11, which should be read carefully noting especially the word "basket" in v.2. Had Israel followed its duty to God in faithfulness, at the appropriate season of the year the temple court would have been crammed with baskets of summer fruit brought in thankfulness to God the Giver. But instead the prophet saw one basket only-in all the nation one man, and one only, who was prepared to render to God the things that were God's. And that man —Jesus! Hence, then, the denunciation that in place of happy rejoicing and fellowship there should be death and the curse: "The end is come upon my people Israel; I will not pass by them any more. And the songs of the temple shall be howlings in that day ... the dead bodies shall be many."

In this context, items (a) and (b) —earthquake and darkness —can have only one significance: they were a drastic manifestation of heaven's displeasure at the calculated villainy that brought about such a dreadful scene as was enacted that day at Golgotha. And as such, were they inappropriate?

A Messianic Psalm

Quite outstanding in force and clarity among the prophecies of Christ's experience at Golgotha is Psalm 18. That the Psalm is about Jesus can scarcely be doubted in the face of the following facts:

v.4: "The sorrows of death compassed me." The Septuagint phrase is used by Peter with reference to the death of Christ, in Acts 2:24.
v. 19: "He delivered me because he delighted in me" is the divine answer to the chief priests' derisive quoting of Scripture at the Son of God as he hung on the cross. "Let him deliver him, now, if he will have him." (Mt. 27:43).
v.2: "In him will I trust" is applied to Christ in Hebrews 2:13.
v.49: is applied by Paul in Romans 15:9 to the preaching of Christ's gospel to the Gentiles.
The language of v.20-24 could apply to none but Christ: "The Lord rewarded me according to my righteousness; according to the cleanness of my hands hath he recompensed me. For I have kept the ways of the Lord, and have not wickedly departed from my God . . . Therefore hath the Lord recompensed me according to my righteousness, according to the cleanness of my hands in his eyesight." Only Jesus could speak with such sublime confidence of his own righteousness, and at the same time add: "I kept myself from mine iniquity" (v.23). The language fits to perfection this sinless son of God who shared so intimately the innate propensity and curse of Adam's race.
Even the title of the Psalm is consonant with this Messianic application: "A psalm of the Beloved in the day that the Lord delivered him out of the hand of all his enemies, (see Lk. 1:74), and from the hand of Sheol"-so reads the unpointed Hebrew.

The anger of God

What the gospel writers describe but do not explain in connection with the crucifixion of Jesus is described even more fully here (in verses 4-16). It also explained.

"I will call upon the Lord, who is worthy to be praised; so shall I be saved from mine enemies. The sorrows of death compassed me, and the floods of ungodly men made me afraid. The sorrows of hell compassed me about: the snares of death prevented me" (v,3-5). The sufferings of Christ on the cross are described here. At such a time Jesus, to whom prayer was as natural as breathing, turned to his Father in heaven: "In my distress I called upon the Lord, and cried unto my God: he heard my voice out of his temple, and my cry came before him, even unto his ears."

The answer was immediate and awe-inspiring: "Then the earth shook and trembled; the foundations also of the hills moved and were shaken, because he was wroth." This is the earthquake described by Matthew. And, as in Amos 8, the reason for it is plainly given: "because he was wroth." It was the anger of the Lord against the great sin of His people.

Then follows a description of a theophany to Jesus on the cross which beggars the resources of human language: "There went up a smoke out of his nostrils, and fire out of his mouth devoured: coals were kindled by it. He bowed the heavens also, and came down: and darkness was under his feet. And he rode upon a cherub and did fly: yea, he did fly upon the wings of the wind; he made darkness his secret place; and his pavilion round about him were dark waters and thick clouds of the skies" (v.8-11).

Certain details here call for careful examination. First, the emphasis on darkness: "a smoke . . . darkness under his feet . . . darkness his secret place . . . dark waters and thick clouds . . ." It is this darkness which Matthew, Mark and Luke all mention with such tantalizing brevity.

Over against this repeated mention of darkness is a similar emphasis on the exact opposite: "fire . . . coals of fire . . . lightnings" (five phrases).

Light and Darkness

The paradox is resolved by the fact that the Divine Glory is at once Light to those who will receive it and Darkness to those who will not. The pillar of fire was light to the people of Israel, but darkness to the Egyptians. The plague of darkness in Egypt was no mere sandstorm but the drawing near of the glory of God in warning that drastic divine action was imminent; but to Israel it meant "light in their dwellings." Jesus was the Light of the World, but he also spoke parables that "seeing they might see and not perceive." He is forgiveness to those who will have him, and judgement to those who will not.

Here, then, is the explanation of the mysterious happenings at Golgotha.

The idea of an eclipse of the sun is only an ignorant guess, for it was Passover, the time of full moon when eclipse of the sun is a sheer impossibility; nor can any eclipse continue for a period of three hours.

Instead, another prophecy gives the right emphasis: "We wait for light, but behold obscurity; for brightness, but we walk in darkness . . . We stumble at noonday, as in the night" (Is. 59:9,10).

Also, the enigmatic words of Jesus, spoken six months earlier, now take on a fuller meaning: "When ye have lifted up the Son of man, then shall ye know that I am he" (Jn. 8:28).

So, whilst "the whole land" shuddered under the gloom of this frightening darkness, for Jesus on the cross it meant the brightness of the Shekinah glory, the lightning of the divine energy, the brightness that no man could approach unto.

A sacrifice accepted

For all this there was a reason, a big, compelling divine reason: Because "the life is in the blood," the blood of all sacrifices must be God's, poured out at the base of His altar or sprinkled before the veil in His Holy Place, or in the case of the most important of all sin-offerings, brought into the very presence of God Himself and there displayed upon His mercy seat between the cherubim of glory.

Yet here, at Golgotha, the blood of Jesus was being poured out as the True Sacrifice for the sins of the people but not in the sanctuary, not in the temple court, not even in the holy city, but outside the camp of Israel. Therefore, since the blood of this all-sufficient sacrifice could not be brought into the divine presence, the divine presence came to him as he hung there a-dying — came to him in the pillar of dark cloud and flashing fire, in the "smoking furnace and flaming torch" that ratified Abraham's covenant 2,000 years earlier.

Thus the prayer of Jesus was answered. The "brightness" of Him who shone forth from upon the cherubim brought to Golgotha the Father's glad acceptance of a life fully and freely offered up. This was His Beloved Son in whom He was well pleased! Surely such words of encouragement were actually spoken to Jesus as his last minutes of pain and wretchedness dragged on with leaden feet? "The Lord also thundered in the heavens, and the Highest gave His voice." When, on a former occasion the Father spake to' His Son in audible fashion, some said: "An angel spake to him", but others, less discerning, said that it thundered (Jn.12:29). Here at Golgotha were the same phenomena: "I have glorified My name, and I will glorify it again."


But whilst to the Lord's Suffering Servant there was approval and re-assurance, to those responsible for this ghastly crime the darkness, earthquake and storm were a terrifying concentration of divine hostility to this wilful display of stony-hearted villainy and calculated rebellion: "Then the channels of waters appeared, and the foundations of the world were laid bare at thy rebuke, O Lord, at the blast of the breath of thy nostrils." Here once again earthquake, but described now in such a phrase as to suggest the way by which David won a way into the holy city (2 Sam. 5:8) —"the channels of waters." How appropriately, then, does Matthew's record read: "The graves were opened . . . and the saints came out of the graves after his resurrection, and went into the holy city." Only after the death and the resurrection of Jesus could those who were to be blessed in him enter into the holy city!

Thus darkness and earthquake had an element both of blessing and of judgment. The darkness shrouded the vivid brightness of the Shekinah Glory shining in glad acceptance of the sufferings of Christ; but to all the rest it meant only divine displeasure at this culmination of human wickedness in the slaughter of the Innocent. The earthquake likewise was the Lord's rebuke because "he was wroth." Yet through it the great redemption in Christ was foreshadowed by the opening of graves and the resurrection of saints. The Psalm proceeds to celebrate the salvation of Jesus the Saviour: "He delivered me from my strong enemy (the power of the grave), and from them which hated me (the Jews who crucified him) ... he delivered me, because he delighted in me."

The two malefactors

One last consideration. If indeed the awesome Shekinah Glory of the Lord appeared to Jesus on the cross, then what did it mean for the two men who were crucified with him? The one hung there in unbelief and blasphemy, and now he was in the very Presence of God! The other had been newborn to a faith that was altogether unique. If, indeed, Jesus did say to him: "Today thou shalt be with me in Paradise," then here was the fulfilment of his promise!

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