A Word for Today – ‘Or


hay (life, living, alive)

‘Or (Light, bring or give light)

baraq (lightning)

Light plays an important part in how we perceive the world around us, Ps. 36. 9. In fact, without visible light, there would be no life at all. And our appreciation of the importance of light is often enhanced when we find ourselves searching blindly in the dark for some object, especially when the batteries of our torch have just run out! So it comes as no surprise to us to find that light (Hebrew ‘Or) was the first thing that God created, as recorded in Genesis chapter 1 verse 3. As Stadelmann writes, ‘Light manifests most adequately the divine operation in a world which, without it, is darkness and chaos’.1 Since the source of our light, the sun and moon, was not created until the fourth day of creation, Gen. 1. 14-19, it is suggested by scholars that the primordial or undifferentiated created light of the first three days gives way to ‘light and darkness alternated at God’s behest’.2 This, of course, is an outline of the constant spiritual conflict between light and darkness that is evident throughout the Bible. It is God’s ultimate design, however, to abolish darkness completely, as well as to displace the sun and the moon by the everlasting light of His glorious presence, Rev. 22. 5, cp. Isa. 60. 19; Ezek. 32. 7. This is foreshadowed in the prophecy of Zechariah where the prophet refers to the event as a continuous day, Zech. 14. 7.

The Hebrew word ‘Or is used over 100 times in the Old Testament, both literally of natural or physical light, as well as man-made light. In a secondary sense, ‘Or is used figuratively of light that enlightens individuals who are spiritually blind. We read in Exodus chapter 10 verses 21-24 that the ninth plague brought by God against Egypt was a thick darkness, so thick that it could be touched. Yet God provided physical light for the Israelites during that period of darkness. This conveys the idea that light has a protective quality about it or, as one writer puts it, ‘light denotes safety’.3 Ecclesiastes chapter 12 verse 2 refers literally to the two main heavenly luminaries that are indispensable to human life, the sun and the moon, but then uses them as images to highlight the contrast between youthful vigour (light) and old age (darkness). The pillar of fire that led the Israelites in the wilderness in the night-time was a physical light, yet it could also be viewed as indicative of God’s glorious presence with His people, Exod. 13. 21; 14. 20. The Psalms often use the word light to express the way in which God’s countenance guides the psalmist in the right pathways, Ps. 89. 15, as well as exposing hidden sins, 90. 8. The psalmist also suggests that it was partly due to the light of God’s countenance that victory was gained for Israel against its enemies, 44. 3, and that salvation is linked directly to God’s effulgence, 27. 1; 56. 13. ‘Indeed, the Psalms frequently cast theophany in terms of a heliophany bursting with divine effulgence that reestablishes justice in the world (Ps. 50. 1-4; cp. 80. 1-2)’.4 On the other hand, the psalmist understands that darkness only leads to distress, 88. 6, and ultimately death, 107. 10. But, significantly, whilst God knows what is in the darkness and, therefore, by extension can reveal hidden matters, the phrase ‘light dwells with him’ in Daniel chapter 2 verse 22b, confirms to us that light is an essential attribute of God. It is part of His self-revelation, which is very much reflected in the Aaronic blessing of Numbers chapter 6 verses 24 to 25. Whilst the leaders of this world ‘grope in darkness with no light’, Job 12. 25, John reminds us that the God whom we serve ‘is light and in him is no darkness at all’, 1 John 1. 5, 9 RSV, cp. 1 Tim. 6. 16.

In the Septuagint (LXX), the Hebrew word ‘Or is regularly translated by the Greek word phos, which is then carried over into the New Testament where it is used over seventy times. Simply, it often indicates natural or physical light, as in Luke chapter 8 verse 16 of someone lighting a candle, or, as in Acts chapter 16 verse 29, of the Philippian jailer who used a light to enter the cell where Paul and Silas were imprisoned. We see Peter in a very dark place warming himself at the fireside following the betrayal and capture of the Lord, Mark 14. 54, and the later use by him of the word phos to show that, like prophecy, light dispels darkness, 2 Pet. 1. 19. The word is used to express supernatural or effulgent light that reflects the presence or glory of God as at the transfiguration, Matt. 17. 2, and in the personal revelation of the risen Christ to Saul on the Damascus road, Acts 9. 3. But it is the metaphorical use of the word phos that is important in the New Testament, especially as it is used to compare and contrast light with goodness, and darkness with evil. This dualism is a major feature in the prologue of John’s Gospel and throughout his whole narrative. As Don Carson observes, ‘The “dark-ness" in John is not only absence of light, but positive evil (cp. 3. 19; 8. 12; 12. 35, 46; 1 John 1. 5, 6; 2. 8, 9, 11); the light is not only revelation bound up with creation, but with salvation’.5 The Lord describes Himself as ‘the light of the world’, John 8. 12, and encourages individuals to follow Him, mirroring the imagery of the pillar of cloud in the Old Testament. Paul uses phos in 2 Corinthians chapter 4 verse 6 to show that the light of the new creation is as much the creation of God as was the light called into existence in the beginning. This is the light that illuminates the Christian’s pathway, cp. Ps. 119. 105, and provides the knowledge of the glory of God. Such is the nature of light that it underpins all God’s dealings with men. ‘Light in its varied meanings is at the heart of such central biblical themes as creation, providence, judgement, redemption and sanctification’.6 Our lives were once controlled by the kingdom of darkness, Col. 1. 13; 1 Pet. 2. 9, but now, we are ‘light in the Lord; let us therefore ‘walk as children of light’, Eph. 5. 8.

For further reading/study


  • W. E. Vine, Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words, ‘Light’.


  • Willem A. Van Gemeren, New International Dictionary of Old Testament Theology and Exegesis – ‘Or, Zondervan, pp. 324 et seq.



Hebrew Conception of the World, pg. 49.


Gordon J. Wenham, Genesis, Word, pg. 22.


Leland Ryken, James C. Wilhoit, and Tremper Longman III (Eds.), Dictionary of Biblical Imagery, IVP Academic, pg. 509.


William P. Brown, Seeing the Psalms – A Theology of Metaphor, Westminster John Knox, , pg. 198.


Don Carson, The Gospel According to John, Pillar New Testament Commentaries, Eerdmans, pg. 119.


Dictionary of Biblical Imagery, pg. 512.


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