One recent early morning, I was reading Psalm 36 and savoring one of the sweetest doxologies in the Bible:
How precious is your steadfast love, O God!
The children of mankind take refuge in the shadow of your wings.
They feast on the abundance of your house,
and you give them drink from the river of your delights.
For with you is the fountain of life;
in your light do we see light. (Psalm 36:7–9)
I love the way David stacks wonder upon wonder: the protection of God’s wings, the abundant feast in God’s house, the refreshing river of God’s delights, the fountain of God’s life.
But that last phrase stopped me in my tracks: “in your light do we see light.” It’s not as if I hadn’t noticed it before. I’ve loved the phrase for years. It’s as poetically beautiful as it is insightful. But that morning the profundity of it gripped me.
Just think about it for a moment: in your light do we see light. Do you know what David means? That’s what I asked myself. What is this “light”? And what is the corresponding darkness? And what light do we see in God’s light?
More than Meets the Eye
We know David is using natural sunlight as a metaphor for divine or spiritual light, an image used numerous times in Scripture — though it is also true to say that natural light is a kind of metaphorical representation of God, since he is the “true light” (John 1:9). Either way, when we ask what light is, natural or divine, we soon discover that it is not simple.
We think we know what light is until we’re forced to define it. If asked, we might be able to manage something like, “Natural light on earth is the electromagnetic radiance of the sun.” But beyond that, most of us would start stumbling about. The deeper science has delved into the nature of light, the more complexity we’ve discovered. There’s far more to light than meets the eye.
The same is true of divine light. The Bible describes it as the very radiance of God’s glory (see Revelation 21:23). If we’re asked to define this divine light, we might be able to manage (with John Piper’s help) something like, “The light of God’s glory is the radiance of ‘the infinite beauty and greatness of God’s manifold perfections.’” But again, beyond that, most of us would be hard pressed to give an articulate answer. There’s far more to God’s light than meets the spiritual “eye.”
But we know what light essentially does for us, both natural and divine.
Light and Life
In the natural realm, we depend on the sun’s light for illumination. Our physical bodies have eyes and therefore we need light to show us where we are and where we need to go. We also need it to help us see and avoid or evade the myriad dangers around us. We have good reason to have a natural fear of the dark, because it conceals those dangers. Darkness veils creatures, inanimate objects, and environments that can seriously injure or kill us. And in the dark, we don’t know the way to go.
“Spiritual light and life, like natural light and life, are woven inextricably together.”
But the sun also literally gives our bodies life. In order to survive, we eat plants that eat light, or we eat animals that eat plants that eat light. Our bodies also absorb vital nutrients directly from sunlight and would not be able to survive without the heating effect that this electromagnetic radiance produces.
So, natural light shows us the way we should go, reveals what’s true about our surroundings, and literally gives and sustains our bodily lives.
The same is true of the divine spiritual light David refers to in Psalm 36:9, the light that God is (1 John 1:5) and the light that God gives (Revelation 21:23–25) frequently described in Scripture:
- Divine light shows us the way to go. “Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path” (Psalm 119:105).
- Divine light reveals what’s true about our spiritual surroundings. “The people dwelling in darkness have seen a great light, and for those dwelling in the region and shadow of death, on them a light has dawned” (Matthew 4:16).
- Divine light literally gives us spiritual life: “God, who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Corinthians 4:6).
It is no accident that David paired “life” and “light” together in Psalm 36:9. For spiritual light and life, like natural light and life, are woven inextricably together.
Light that Is Darkness
David doesn’t explicitly mention “darkness” in Psalm 36, the spiritual counter to God’s light. But he opens the psalm with a description of it:
Transgression speaks to the wicked
deep in his heart;
there is no fear of God
before his eyes.
For he flatters himself in his own eyes.
that his iniquity cannot be found out and hated.
The words of his mouth are trouble and deceit;
he has ceased to act wisely and do good.
He plots trouble while on his bed;
he sets himself in a way that is not good;
he does not reject evil. (Psalm 36:1–4)
The darkness that concerns David is the “darkened foolish heart” (Romans 1:21) of “the wicked” whose mind “the god of this world has blinded” to keep him from seeing God’s light (2 Corinthians 4:3). And it is a terrible darkness. Here’s how Jesus describes it:
The eye is the lamp of the body. So, if your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light, but if your eye is bad, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light in you is darkness, how great is the darkness! (Matthew 6:22–23)
Part of what makes this darkness terrible is that it masquerades as light. You think you know where you are and where you’re going, but you don’t. You think you see what’s true about your spiritual surroundings, but you don’t. You think you are fully alive, but you aren’t. The light in you is darkness, and in this “light,” you don’t see light.
That is a great darkness.
Light of All Worlds
However, for all those dwelling in such darkness, there is incredibly good news. For Jesus, “the true light, which gives light to everyone, [came] into the world” precisely to dispel this great darkness (John 1:9). And he says,
I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life. (John 8:12)
Read that again carefully. Now read this: “In him was life, and the life was the light of men” (John 1:4). What do you see? What you’re looking at when you look at Jesus is the incarnation of Psalm 36:9: “in your light do we see light.”
“Jesus is the light of life and the life of light. He embodies all that we know spiritual light is and does.”
Jesus is the light of life (John 8:12) and the life of light (John 1:4). He embodies all that we know spiritual light is and does. He is “the way” and shows us the way to go; he is “the truth” and reveals the truth of our spiritual surroundings; and he is “the life” and gives us life — he’s the light from which we derive our very life (John 14:6). And in his light, we not only see light, we become “light in the Lord” (Ephesians 5:8) and therefore become ourselves “the light of the world” (Matthew 5:14).
Jesus is the personified, incarnated “radiance of the glory of God” (Hebrews 1:3). He is the “true light” of this world, and he will be the true light of the world to come (Revelation 21:23). Which means Jesus is the true light of all worlds.
David would not have known all this when he wrote Psalm 36:9. But he knew God. He knew God was “the true light, which gives light to everyone” who believes in him (John 1:9). He knew that the darkness was great, but that God’s “light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (John 1:5). He knew God was the life-giving light of the world. And so out of his faith-filled, worshiping heart flowed this beautiful, profound, poetic doxology:
For with you is the fountain of life;
in your light do we see light.