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Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament

Night (2)

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NIGHT

1. Associations of the word ‘night.’—(a) It was the season for all that demanded secrecy. Travellers on a dangerous errand went by night, as Joseph did, after he had received warning in a dream (Matthew 2:14). Nicodemus for fear of his colleagues came to Jesus by night at the Passover season; the interview may have been on the roof of some friendly house, or in one of the tents used by the pilgrims (John 3:2; John 19:39); night was also the time for theft, and drunkenness, and revelling (Luke 12:39, cf. 1 Thessalonians 5:2; 1 Thessalonians 5:7, Romans 13:12), and was convenient for plots and stratagems (Mark 14:11). The chief priests bribed the guard to say that the disciples had taken away the body of Jesus by night (Matthew 28:13).

(b) Night had its peculiar dangers and annoyances (cf. Psalms 91:5). Travellers might be delayed through stress of circumstances till after nightfall, and even till midnight (Luke 11:5), and such journeys were not without danger; ‘if any man walk in the night, he stumbleth’ (John 11:10, cf. Job 5:14). A modern traveller has spoken of ‘the villages by night, without a light, when you stumble on them in the darkness, and all the dogs begin barking’ (G. A. Smith, HGHL [Note: GHL Historical Geog. of Holy Land.] , p. 99). Such annoyances would be encountered by the host in the parable, who, coming to beg bread, arrived at midnight after stumbling through the narrow streets of the village (Luke 11:5 etc.).

(c) It was the season when Divine guidance might be looked for. Joseph and the Magi were warned in dreams (Matthew 2:12-13; Matthew 2:19). Pilate’s wife suffered many things in a dream because of Jesus (Matthew 27:19). To the Israelites the thought of night would always bring the memory of visions and revelations of God, given to their seers, beginning from the nights when Jacob saw the ladder, and wrestled with the angel.

(d) It was the season of rest (John 11:9; John 9:4), but not for all men; shepherds guarded their flocks by night (Luke 2:8); though from November to March the sheep were probably in the fold. The fishermen toiled all night (Luke 5:5, John 21:3), when the Lake was often swept by sudden gales (Mark 4:37); the men who could not watch one hour in Gethsemane were accustomed to sleepless nights. In Palestine, as in all Eastern lands, the marriage ceremony was celebrated after nightfall; lamps and torches were always the accompaniment of weddings (cf. Revelation 18:23, where the light of the lamp and the voice of the bridegroom are mentioned together). In the parable of the Ten Virgins the guests assembled at nightfall, but they had to tarry till midnight before the bridegroom came, the hour being chosen for the purpose of the parable, because then they would most likely be off their guard (Matthew 25:6).

(e) Night was the season of surprises. The day of the Lord was to come as a thief in the night (1 Thessalonians 5:2). In the night the soul of the rich fool was required of him (Luke 12:20). At the coming of the Son of Man ‘in that night,’ it is said, ‘there shall be two in one bed; the one shall be taken, the other shall be left’ (Luke 17:34). The disciples must guard against a surprise: ‘for ye know not when the Lord cometh, whether at even, or at midnight, or at cock-crowing, or in the morning; lest coming suddenly he find you sleeping’ (Mark 13:35). Especial stress is laid upon the mid-watches (Luke 12:38); it would be easy to keep the first watch, and almost impossible to sleep during the watch before the dawn.

(f) The phrases ‘day and night,’ ‘days and nights,’ are used to give a comprehensive idea of time (Matthew 4:2); or to give an impression of a continuous practice [as when we read that Anna served God night and day (Luke 2:37)], or to indicate the monotonous passage of time: the sower ‘sleeps and rises night and day,’ and nothing happens day after day (Mark 4:27).

2. Divisions of the night.—It is important not to seek the scientific accuracy of modern usage in the NT. Time was divided by natural phenomena. The night varied in length with the seasons of the year; and the length of the four watches into which the night was divided must also have varied (Matthew 14:25, Mark 6:48, Luke 12:38). In NT times tour watches were recognized, in the OT only three. The division into hours could not be made for the night-season.

‘The division of the day into hours sprang from the use of the sundial, and its peculiar character, the varying length of, the hour, was conditioned by its origin; hours of the night could be measured only by water-glass or some similar means, which would give divisions of equal length during all seasons of the year, and not varying hours like those of the day’ (Ramsay, Expos, iv. vii. [1893] p. 219).

The watches of the night are indicated in Mark 13:35 : evening (ὀψία)—midnight—cock-crowing—full morning. It was at eventide, for example, that Jesus sat down with His disciples; before ‘cock-crowing’ Peter denied Him; and in the ‘morning’ Jesus was carried away to Pilate.

3. In the life of Jesus.—Before Jesus called His disciples, He went out into a mountain to pray, and continued all night in prayer (διανυκτερεύων, Luke 6:12). After the ‘feeding of the five thousand’ also He departed into a mountain to pray (Mark 6:46 || Matthew 14:23), and not till the fourth watch did He come to the disciples, spent with their ‘bootless toil.’ From these and other references it is clear that Jesus often made the night His season of prayer. He whose mind was saturated with the OT may have recalled how the prophets had withdrawn to the mountains.

‘So, separate from the world, his breast

Might duly take and strongly keep

The print of Heaven.’—(Keble, Chr. Year, 13th Sund. after Trin.).

In the neighbourhood of the Lake, night was the only time of solitude.

‘Save in the recorded hours of our Lord’s praying, the history of Galilee has no intervals of silence and loneliness; the noise of a close and busy life is always audible; and to every crisis in the Gospels and in Josephus we see crowds Immediately swarm’ (G. A. Smith, HGHL [Note: GHL Historical Geog. of Holy Land.] p. 421).

It may be urged that Jesus teaches by His example the value of prayer in the silence of night. There are many references to such prayer in the Psalms (cf. Psalms 119:62); and it is not without significance that the time is midnight in the parable in which Jesus teaches the lesson of ‘shameless’ prayer (ἀναιδία, Luke 11:8). ‘The thing could never have taken place in the daytime. It is a story of midnight importunity’ (Whyte).

There is no reason to doubt the preference of Jesus for an abode where He would be sure of mountain solitude; we have no record that He entered Tiberias, which was a walled city (HGHL [Note: GHL Historical Geog. of Holy Land.] p. 449). ‘He entered Jericho only to pass through it.’ ‘This freedom Jesus had from childhood’ in Nazareth, Capernaum, Bethany, and other resting-places. When men did not need Him, He must be free to leave them. It is substantially true that ‘Jesus never slept in a walled city’ (see Expos. iii. iii. [1886] p. 146). The scenes of rescue on the Lake were in the night-time; then it was He walked upon the sea and stilled the waves (Mark 6:49; cf. Mark 4:39).

The closing incidents of the life of Jesus cannot be pictured except against the background of night. It was dark when they sang a hymn, and went to the Mount of Olives (Matthew 26:30). The approach of the soldiers was marked by their lanterns (John 18:3). Peter warmed himself in the chilly air before a fire of coals (John 18:18). It was possible in the dark to follow undetected afar off (Matthew 26:58). The panic of the disciples owed something to the night. It was at cock-crowing that Peter remembered his Master’s warning, and wept bitterly. The air of night is over all these scenes. It was ‘the night in which Jesus was betrayed’ (1 Corinthians 11:23).

After the Resurrection, night was falling when Jesus revealed Himself to the two at Emmaus in the breaking of the bread (Luke 24:31). They, on returning to Jerusalem, found the disciples gathered together, and Jesus appeared amongst them. When, for fear of the Jews, the disciples met at eventide, Jesus came to them (John 20:19); and it was when the day was breaking that He welcomed His weary disciples to the shore (21:4).

It is impossible to discover with accuracy the character of these Syrian nights, so wide is the variation in the climate between place and place, season and season; it is not clear whether, for example, it is literally true to say, ‘For thee I trembled in the nightly frost.’ Even when we know the impression made upon the Western traveller, we cannot tell how Jesus and His disciples, hardened by the bracing uplands of Galilee, endured the cold and the mists of night. It is clear that the nights are often as cold as the days are hot (cf. Genesis 31:40, Jeremiah 36:30; see Geikie, The Holy Land and the Bible, i. 73). At certain seasons in late summer Jesus would be exposed in His nightly vigils to the dense chilly clouds of mist of which the Song of Songs (Song of Solomon 5:2) speaks: ‘For my head is filled with dew, and my locks with the drops of the night.’ For modern descriptions of nights spent in the sacred scenes, reference may be made to Warburton’s Crescent and the Cross, and Kinglake’s Eothen. But in order to discover the colours, the lights and the half-lights of the Syrian night, those modern painters are the best guides who, like Holman Hunt and William Hole, have studied the Holy Land in the lights and shadows, which are the same as when Jesus watched through the hours of night.

4. Metaphorical applications of ‘night.’—The contrast between night and day, darkness and light, belongs to the stock of ideas common to all religions, to the most ancient vocabulary of thought. It is freely used in the OT and NT.

(a) In the opening of the Synoptic Gospels, quotations are used to depict as darkness the state of the world before the dawn of Christ (Matthew 4:16, Luke 1:79, cf. 2 Corinthians 4:6). It is upon such darkness that the gospel shines; and at the consummation of the Kingdom it is the outer darkness that awaits the evil-doers (Matthew 8:12; Matthew 25:30). Between the two areas of darkness there is the kingdom of light brought in by Jesus, whose disciples were to be the light of the world (Matthew 5:14). When Jesus was arrested, He said that the darkness had prevailed (Luke 22:53), for the high priests were the emissaries of darkness. The night was therefore an emblem of all that was set against the Kingdom of God, of the ignorance and corruption of the world which crucified Christ.

(b) The Fourth Gospel has a certain framework of contrasts, amongst which is the opposition between the light of Christ and the darkness (John 1:5; John 8:12; John 11:10; John 12:35-36; 1 John 2:8-11). While Christ is revealed as the source of light, His enemies are unmasked as the story proceeds. Though ‘darkness’ is used in this connexion, it is impossible to escape from the thought of this conflict when we read of ‘night’ in this Gospel. It is used to denote the close of the divinely appointed day of service (John 9:4). The healing of the man born blind was part of the manifestation of God, for which there was a set time. This day being past, neither Jesus nor His disciples could work. ‘In the application to Jesus the night is His death, and His retreat into the invisible world’ (Loisy). When Jesus persisted, in spite of the warnings of His disciples, in returning to Judaea, He said that the hours of the day were given for work; so long as it was the appointed time, He would be safe. The one danger was lest the day should be prolonged ‘beyond God’s appointment.’ So prolonged, the day would be as night, in which the traveller stumbles. With both these passages Luke 22:53 should be compared. Night stands also for the close of the day of grace in the life of Judas (John 13:30). Judas went out, ‘and it was night.’ The darkness is his place. Across the darkness ‘less deep than his own soul’ he moves from the light of Christ. Night stands for the new environment which he has chosen, ‘loving darkness because his deeds were evil.’

(c) In the Apostolic writings the night stands for the waning order, which will be ended by the coming of Christ. The day was at hand; the disciples must put off the garments of night, and put on the armour of light (Romans 13:12 etc.). The difference in the metaphorical use of the night may be seen by a comparison of the word of Jesus, ‘the night cometh,’ with St. Paul’s ‘the night is far spent.’ For those who are of the fellowship of Christ the darkness is already past (Ephesians 5:8, 1 Thessalonians 5:4, 1 Peter 2:9); ‘Some daylight it is, and is every moment growing.’ The darkness and the light are alternatives, and contemporary.

‘But he that hides a dark soul, and foul thoughts,

Benighted walks under the midday sun.’

Night has other associations for the modern mind. It is still the emblem of peril and evil, but it speaks also of quietness and peace; this value it has had for poets from Milton to Whitman.

‘Dear night! This world’s defeat;

The stop to busie fools; care’s check and curb;

The day of spirits; my soul’s calm retreat,

Which none disturb!’—(Vaughan).

It is important that the reader should not carry such associations into the study of the NT. There, night has always a sinister suggestion. It speaks of all that is hostile to God, who is light, and in whom there is no darkness at all. The word has changed its value in the commerce of ideas. It is with the night as with the sea. In the OT and NT both are emblems of fear and evil: in the City there will be no night (Revelation 21:25), and the sea is no more (Revelation 21:1). But in the modern mind they awaken other thoughts of attraction and kindliness. The writers and teachers of the NT use the coinage of their age; and though we may conjecture that Jesus had other memories of night than those of fear, yet He did not depart from the customary usage, in which the men of His time took night as significant of terror and evil.

Literature.—W. R. Nicoll, Ten Minute Sermons, 103; W. C. E. Newbolt, Counsels of Faith and Practice, 62; J. Parker, Studies in Texts, vi. 89; W. J. Dawson, The Evangelistic Note, 133; W. T. P. Wolston, Night Scenes of Scripture.

Edward Shillito.


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Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Night (2)'. Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/hdn/n/night-2.html. 1906-1918.

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