Walking in the Dark
There is much darkness in our world, and there is no visible road from here to our heavenly home. How can we walk in the dark? We must walk by what our ears hear, not by what our eyes see.
The Prophecy of Isaiah: An Introduction Commentary, Alec Motyer
The Book of Isaiah, chapters 40-66 (NICOT), John N. Oswalt
Isaiah: God Saves Sinners, Raymond C. Ortlund, Jr.
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Last year I had the privilege of officiating the wedding of Teddy and Billie Tsai, two members here. During the reception, one of the games they played involved them each being blindfolded, while the other told them how to navigate an obstacle course within the building to get to their mate. They each had to walk, not by what their eyes saw, but by what their ears heard. It was hard to say the least; it doesn’t come naturally to us, and your arms almost instinctively go up to remove the blindfold. And in this case, it was a fun game involving a blindfold, but you can imagine scenarios where you might need to walk through darkness. If you were walking through a cave with no light, but you could hear a trusted voice telling you where to go, you would have to walk by what your ears hear from that voice, not by what your eyes see. One of the ways Israel’s condition is described throughout the book of Isaiah is as “darkness,” and it is described that way again in the verses on which we are focusing today in verse 10. There it is described as darkness with no light. Israel was in exile, under God’s judgment, with no visible way to escape and return to their homeland. As Christians today, we too are away from our heavenly home. We can’t see it, and there is no visible road from here to there. Not only that, but there are times where God takes us into particularly dark paths, where we can’t see any way out. So how can you walk through the darkness that is life away from your heavenly home, especially when God lets you feel the darkness in acute ways? When it’s so dark your eyes can’t see, walk by what your ears hear. We’ll see in this text to whom you should listen, how he walked, and then how you must walk.
To whom you should listen
Our passage today begins with someone saying that the Lord GOD has given him the tongue of those who are taught. Who is this speaker? We learn in verse 10 that it is the servant figure who we’ve encountered a few times in Isaiah. Last week in chapter 49 we saw that the servant was a single representative Israelite, who would come to save the people of Israel, and who, in fact, would then also be made a light to all nations, so that God’s salvation would reach the end of the earth. He says here in verse 4 that the Lord GOD has given him the tongue of those who are taught, that he may know how to sustain with a word him who is weary. We saw last week that this servant subdues his enemies not with the sword, but with his word, and now here we see that his word is not only used to subdue his enemies, but to sustain his weary people. He has the ability to speak such words because he is one who has been taught. It is the tongue of those who are taught, not the tongue of those who have figured it out themselves, or those who are just good with words. And he got this tongue, this ability to sustain with a word him who is weary, from the Lord God himself, for it was he who taught him. The rest of verse 4 gives us this image: Morning by morning he awakens; he awakens my ear to hear as those who are taught. The poetic image here is of a teacher and his disciple living together (as they often did). The teacher wakes up every morning, goes to wake up his disciple, and in so doing wakes up the ear of his disciple, to hear the word of his teacher.
In verse 5 he says the Lord God was successful in this—he has opened his ear, and the servant was not rebellious; he turned not backward. And in verse 6 we see that the path on which the Lord God told him to walk was not an easy one. It involved being stricken and disgraced. Yet not only did the servant willingly endure such mistreatment; he leaned into it. He gave his back to those who strike, and his cheek to those who pull out the beard. He did not hide his face from disgrace and spitting.
This is one worthy of our ears, then. This is the one to whom we should listen. When it’s so dark your eyes can’t see, you don’t want to walk by everything your ears hear. This is one of our big issues today, right? Who can you trust? To whom can you listen? You watch one news network, and it’s like they’re reporting on a different reality than another. Everybody’s got their slant on things, and in many cases, their slant is driven by what sells. But here’s the voice to whom we should listen as we walk in a darkness so thick that our eyes cannot see. He’s able to teach because he was first willing to be taught, and his teacher was none other than the Lord God himself. We can trust him to teach because he’s not teaching us to walk a path he was unwilling to walk himself. He has proven that he actually believes what he’s saying by being so willing to obey it himself that he gave his back to those who strike, and his face to those who spit. This is clearly not a teacher who’s just telling us what’s popular to turn a profit for himself, as so many of the popular voices of our day are; he’s proven that by choosing to live a decidedly uncomfortable life out of obedience to the Lord God.
So, who is this servant, and where can we go to hear him? In Mark 1:35, we read this of Jesus: “And rising very early in the morning, while it was still dark, he departed and went out to a desolate place, and there he prayed.” Morning by morning he met with the Lord God. Speaking to the Pharisees, Jesus said, “When you have lifted up the Son of Man, then you will know that I am he, and that I do nothing on my own authority, but speak just as the Father taught me. And he who sent me is with me. He has not left me alone, for I always do the things that are pleasing to him” (John 8:28-29). He speaks only what the Father has taught him, and he does not rebel, but rather always does the things that are pleasing to the Father. And on his way to the cross, we read of these things happening to him: “They spit in his face and struck him” (Matt 27:26); “they spit on him and took the reed and struck him on the head” (Matt 27:30); “Then Pilate took Jesus and flogged him” (John 19:1). And in all this he did not fight back, but willingly gave his back to those who strike, and his face to those who spit, becoming obedient to the Father to the point of death, even death on a cross.
So he’s the one to whom you should listen when it’s so dark your eyes can’t see. He’s the one to whom you should listen when you’re weary. Do you think of Jesus like that? I can recall hard times in my life: The loss of a friend, a break up, and in those times, there were certainly people I instinctively wanted to be around. When you want to plunge headlong into sin, there are other people you instinctively want to be around. But if you really get Jesus, then when you’re weary, beaten down, discouraged, and you can’t see any way out, he’s the one you should instinctively want to be around! He knows how to sustain with a word him who is weary. Do you see him that way? I once heard Pastor Ray Ortlund point out that Jesus never said, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you a challenge.” He said, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Matt 11:28). What do you expect Jesus to say to you when you’re weary? Do you expect him to beat you up for it, and then send you away with more to do? That’s not the real Jesus. Earlier in Isaiah he was described this way: “a bruised reed he will not break; and a faintly burning wick he will not quench” (Isaiah 42:3). This servant is a burden-lifter, not a burden-adder. He doesn’t beat up the weary; he sustains them.
Ok, but how do you hear the voice of this servant? Bodily, he is now in heaven. We can get some insight into that by first asking how they, the original hearers of these words, could hear the voice of the servant. In verse 10 we see that they could: There was a people who feared the LORD and obeyed the voice of his servant. How could they do that hundreds of years before Jesus was even born, though? Clearly he wasn’t with them bodily. They could because Jesus is the Word that was with God in the beginning and was God, and even before he took on flesh, he was the Word that God spoke through the prophets, of which Isaiah is one. We could say, then, that Isaiah was a lower-case “s” servant of the LORD, and the people obeyed the voice of the ultimate Servant by obeying his voice, as he spoke to them the word of God. So also, when we come to the New Testament and read the stories of Jesus’ life on earth, we find that he instituted an office of lower-case “s” servants. In Luke 1:2 they are called “eyewitnesses and ministers of the word,” and the word translated “minister” there is the same Greek word commonly translated servant. Jesus called these people apostles. Morning by morning he taught them, they followed him in the path of obedient suffering, and he authorized them to speak his word in his name. So the apostle Paul can say to the Ephesians that Jesus Christ himself came to them preaching peace, although Jesus had already ascended into heaven at that point, and it was in fact Paul who came to them preaching.
Those apostles then did two things with the word they heard from the incarnate Servant himself: They spoke it to faithful men, and authorized them to teach others also (2 Tim 2:2). These men they called elders or pastors, which is just another word for shepherd (1 Tim 5:17, Titus 1:5-9). Then they also wrote the word down and oversaw the writing of the word by others, and those writings now make up what we know as our New Testament. So, how do you listen to the voice of Christ now? Where do the sheep go to hear the voice of their shepherd? In the most literal sense, they hear him by hearing those who have been set apart to preach his word as shepherds, but then we could say that those who live among people groups where the Bible has been printed in their language can read his word by reading the Bible. Let’s consider each of those briefly.
The most straightforward application is that you need to join a church, whereby you identify your elders/pastors/shepherds, and then you need to attend the gatherings of that church so you can hear them proclaim the word of Christ. Is that a priority for you? When considering what church to join or what kind of men to appoint as elders, you should look for underservants who are first willing to be taught before they presume to teach others. When evaluating a man, consider: What pastors was he first willing to learn from? Do they affirm his calling? Is he a diligent student of the Word himself? Is he willing to wake up early to meet with God? We could call that the “learner” test: Is the man a learner? But then this text also gives us the obedience test: Is his obedience to the word exemplary? Is he clearly willing to do uncomfortable things out of obedience to Jesus, even when it brings criticism upon him? Join churches led by those kind of men; appoint those kinds of men to be elders in your church.
Ok, so that’s to whom you should listen. But then also consider how you listen. Is your ear open? Are you willing to be taught by those appointed as teachers in your church? And are you willing to obey even when it’s uncomfortable? There’s another sense in which we are all lower-case “s” servants of the LORD. If you want to serve the LORD, if you want to even be able to help others, to sustain with a word any who are weary, you first must be willing to be taught, and you must be willing to obey even when it’s uncomfortable. The idea of pastors being set apart for the ministry of the word isn’t that the word ends with them; it’s that all the members of a church are then being equipped to sustain one another with the word (Heb 3:13, Eph 4:15). And given the fact that we do have printed Bibles in our language, and even now on our phones, it makes sense that we would read them. I wouldn’t put a law on you to do that morning by morning, but it is a pattern we see here in Isaiah 50, in Jesus’ life, and throughout the history of the church, that Christians rise early to get alone with their Father, read his Word if they are able, and pray to him. When you read the Bible, you know you are getting the word of Christ, and you can use that then to ensure that the humans who are preaching to you are preaching that word. So when you’re in the dark, when you’re weary, walk by what your ears hear from Christ, as his word is proclaimed by faithful pastors and as it is written in scripture. He’s the one to whom you should listen, and he will sustain those who do.
But it won’t be easy. Verse 6 showed us that for him it meant giving his back to those who strike, and his face to those who spit. How’d he willingly endure all that? Let’s look next at how he walked.
How he walked
In verse 7 we get this contrast: People are spitting on him and striking him, but the Lord GOD, the same one who commissioned him to speak and told him to walk that hard path, helps him. Therefore, though he did not hide his face from disgrace and spitting, he has not ultimately been disgraced, because he’s walking not by what his eyes see or his back and face feels: The striking, the spitting, or even by what his ears hear from the voices of his enemies, the shameful things they say about him. Therefore, he says, he has set his face like a flint. Flint is a hard rock. The people of Israel were described in Isaiah 48:4 as obstinate, and God said there that their neck is an iron sinew, and their forehead brass. So no matter how kind God was to them, they were stubbornly disobedient. Note the contrast with this servant, though: No matter how unkind people were to him, he was stubbornly obedient to the Father! May we be so stubborn in our obedience. How’d he do it?
He goes on in verse 7 to say that he sets his face like a flint, knowing that he will not be put to shame. He who vindicates him is near, and that could just as easily be translated, “he who justifies me” is near. In the Greek translation of the Old Testament, the word translated “vindicate” in the ESV is translated with the same Greek word that so commonly appears in the New Testament as “justify” in our English translations. Justification is a courtroom term—it refers to a judge declaring a defendant righteous. So verse 8 paints the courtroom scene: The servant asks who will contend with him, or who is his adversary, and invites him to come into the courtroom. But the judge, the Lord GOD himself, is the one who justifies him, not because he plays favorites; with the LORD there is no partiality, but because the servant is truly righteous, and he is suffering these things precisely because he is being obedient to the Lord GOD! Note the contrast again between living by what is seen and what is not. The Lord GOD is invisible, while the accusers are very visible. Yet the servant walks by faith in what God has said, knowing that he is the one who justifies him, who declares him righteous.
Isn’t that Jesus? How was he able to endure the striking, the spitting, the disgrace, and even the cross, without fighting back? How was he able to willingly turn his back to those who strike, and his face to those who spit? We saw on Good Friday just a few weeks ago that he was numbered with the transgressors, crucified as a criminal, and the people even chose a murderer over him. In the courtroom of his day, the people declared him guilty, and he willingly bore that sentence for us who were truly guilty, to suffer the penalty we deserved. And yet on the cross Dave showed us how Jesus said to his Father, “into your hands I commit my spirit” (Luke 23:46). He was able to willingly endure such suffering because he entrusted his case to his Father; he was trusting his Father to be the one who justified him. And that’s what his Father did when he raised him from the dead. Though they called him a criminal, in Romans 1:4 we read that by his resurrection from the dead, God the Father declared him to be the Son of God. He has been justified.
And therefore, whoever believes in him is now justified, declared righteous by God, because they are one with him. When Kate Middleton married Prince William, she became British royalty, though she was not royal in herself. That legal status became hers through her union with William, and so we are not righteous in ourselves. We are those, like Israel, who have closed our ears, and who even when we have heard the word of the Lord, have rebelled and turned backward. Yet the moment anyone is united to Jesus by faith, they are declared righteous in him. That legal status becomes theirs through their union with Christ. Believe in him today, and God will declare you righteous. That’s his word of promise in Christ. Hear it today, and walk by it.
Walk by it, and you too will be able to set your face like a flint, to obey even when it brings what looks like disgrace. When it comes to walking in darkness, some of the darkest times in our lives are when we sense very acutely that people really, really don’t like us. When people speak evil of us, criticize us, mock us, whether to our faces or behind our backs, and even if we may face beating and spitting of the sort described here; certainly our brothers and sisters in Christ around the world do face that today, and even death for their faith. How can we walk through that? We must walk by what our ears hear in the word of Christ. We must trust that God has declared us righteous in Christ, and look forward to the day when he will declare us righteous, though the world declares us evil. In Philadelphia today, probably the most common way Christians are accused of evil is because of what Christians believe and say about gender and sexuality. But don’t let such intimidation tactics make you start to question whether God’s word is true and good. Keep your ear open to him, and set your face like a flint to walk in the path of obedience. Give your back to those who strike and your face to those who spit, trusting that the one who justifies you helps you, and you will not be put to shame in the end.
Now generally when we’re facing the accusations of the world, we’re facing false accusations. They’re either accusing us of things we didn’t do, or they’re calling righteous things we did or said evil. There are times, however, where the world criticizes us for things we really did get wrong in God’s sight. We aren’t perfectly obedient servants. And with those accusations, the world finds a ready ally in our conscience, and with the devil himself. So some of the darkest moments for Christians are when we really have sinned, and other people, the devil, and our conscience is showing us that we did. How do you walk through that darkness? Once again, don’t go by what your eyes see. Your eyes see your sin, but God declares you righteous by the righteousness of Christ, which you can’t see. As John Owen has said it, the gospel will make a man to feel sin but believe righteousness. Go by sight, go by feelings, and you’ll feel condemned. But open your ear to the word of the Lord God himself declaring you righteous in Christ, and you can keep going. Where you have been guilty of sin, turn, and set your face like a flint in the direction of obedience.
As I’ve already begun talking about how you must walk, let’s dive into that more in the last two verses of our passage.
How you must walk
Now in verse 10 we turn from the speech of the servant to the speech of Isaiah. There he addresses those who fear the LORD and obey the voice of the servant. Notice the link between those two: Those who fear the LORD demonstrate that they do by obeying the voice of his servant. So Isaiah begins verse 10 by basically saying, “If you want to serve the LORD and obey the voice of his servant, here’s how you must walk”: Let him who walks in darkness and has no light trust in the name of the LORD and rely on his God. Darkness in the Bible is typically a sign of God’s judgment. I mentioned earlier that Israel was in darkness in exile in Babylon, and there was no visible way out. They were in darkness, and had no light. Our bodies also still remain under the judgment pronounced on the whole creation, and our home is in heaven, which we cannot now see. There is no visible path from here to there. And to varying degrees, God allows us in this life, even as Christians, to feel the darkness. There are some who are truly in Christ, but feel him to be so distant at times that it is as though they have no light.
What are we to do in such times? When it is so dark that your eyes can’t see, walk by what your ears hear. Trust in the name of the LORD, and rely on your God. It is interesting that we are specifically told to trust in the name of the LORD here, and not simply to trust the LORD. What’s in the name of the LORD? The LORD’s name is unique; it is Yahweh, a name meaning, “I am,” a name that could only be properly given to him, because he is the only god whose essence it is to exist, who simply is, and who made everything else. And his name, then, has various things attributed to it: He is gracious, gentle, kind, just, powerful, the one who delivered his people from Egypt, the one who fed them and led them in the wilderness, the one who gave them victory over the Canaanites, the one who promised to never leave them nor forsake them, and so on. To trust in the name of the LORD, then, means to hear with faith those things rightly attributed to him. It means when you’re in darkness, you actively listen to the preaching of the word, you actively listen to fellow church members speaking that word to you in conversation, you actively read the Bible if you can read and have the Bible available in your language, and you believe what is revealed therein. You actively think with faith about how God is good, how God is in control, how God will do justice in the end, how God has promised never to leave you or forsake you, how God works all things together for the good of those who love him, and so forth. And one of the things you hear with faith, the central thing to hear with faith, is how Jesus walked through the darkness for you. What’s darker than a tomb? What’s darker than death itself? There is no visible way out of these, but Jesus walked into them, trusting in the name of the LORD, and relying on his God, and three days later he came alive, and walked out of that tomb, so that one day you too, if you are willing to walk through darkness with him, would be raised with him.
The alternative is presented in verse 11. There we read of those who, instead of trusting in the name of the LORD and relying on their God in the darkness, kindle a fire for themselves, and equip themselves by burning torches. They don’t want to walk by what their ears hear; they want to see! So Isaiah tells them to go ahead and walk by the light of their fire, and the torches they have kindled. But the end, what they will receive from the LORD’s hand, is torment. Israel was tempted in all kinds of ways in their times of darkness to look to something visible for help. They were prone to look to the visible strength of Egypt, or to a visible idol, a statue they could make, then bow down to and worship. Today you may look to the visible number in your bank or retirement account, the visible person who tells you they love you, the visible title in your company, the visible vacation, even the visible priest or ceremony, but the idea is the same: When in darkness, we’re tempted to trade faith in what our ears hear of the Lord our God for some visible hope.
Because the picture in verse 10 is not that we if trust in the name of the LORD, he’ll light up the darkness. The picture is that we remain in the darkness. You believe God is good, you trust what Jesus did for you on the cross, and life is still hard! But you know you could tell a little lie and help your financial situation. You know you could look at that website and you’d feel better. You know you could hide Jesus and his words and the world would like you more. And look, the Bible acknowledges that, right? Verse 11 says those who light their torches get to walk in light! Those who trust in the LORD remain in darkness!
But the Bible also shows us the real end of these things. Those who light their own torches get to walk in light for a time, but it ends in torment, a torment that comes from the hand of God himself. God is a just and holy God, and if we refuse to trust him, if we insist on making our own light in darkness instead, he will execute a just judgment on us for it. It’s kinda like if you’re ever feeling down and you turn to junk food for comfort, you kinda know you can’t keep doing that with impunity. You kinda know that doesn’t end well. And the catch with sin is that if you turn to it once while in darkness, it becomes easier to turn to it again. You never learn to walk by what your ears hear because you still insist on walking by what your eyes see. And so guess what? You never stop, the day of judgment comes, and you receive torment from God’s hand. Don’t turn to sin for momentary light in the darkness. Don’t trust even in lawful things (the money, the vacation, the house, the spouse, etc.) for light in the darkness. Don’t let getting out of the darkness be the thing you feel you must do at all costs, even at the expense of faithfulness to your God.
There is a better way. The servant of the LORD has come. Morning by morning he was taught by God himself, and he obeyed all that he heard, even through violence, shame, and, ultimately, death on a cross, so that we who have rebelled against the LORD could be justified by faith alone in him alone. Though there is no visible way from here to our heavenly home, Jesus is the way, and though you have not seen him, you love him, and though you do not now see him, you believe in him. Through the darkness of weariness, through the darkness of exile, through the darkness of scorn, through the darkness of even your own sins, when you can’t see a way out, walk by faith in what your ears hear. Hear with faith the word of Christ, listen only to those shepherds who preach the word of Christ, and look forward to the day when you will hear the word of Christ from the very lips of the risen Christ, saying to you, “Well done, good and faithful servant. Enter into the joy of your master.” In that day night will be no more. You will need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God himself will be your light (Rev 22:5).