“gloomy darkness.” The Hebrew word translated “gloomy darkness” is aphelah (#0653 אֲפֵלָה), and it refers to “darkness, gloominess, calamity” (Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon). But aphelah can refer to moral darkness, a darkness in the mind and soul as well as “darkness” (evil) versus “light” (good). Aphelah is used only ten times in the whole Old Testament, whereas other words for “dark” or “night” are used dozens of times.
The first time aphelah is used it refers to the supernatural plague of darkness that came upon Egypt as a judgment from God for their hardness of heart (Exod. 10:22). The second use of aphelah is in Deuteronomy 28 and was part of the curse pronounced upon Israel if it turned from the Law and Covenant. In the fourth use, Proverbs 7:9, the naïve young man goes to visit Folly, the adulteress. He goes “in the evening of the day, in the middle of the night and the gloomy darkness,” a graphic description of the physical and moral darkness involved in the seduction and adultery, as well as a good description of the moral darkness involved when people reject Wisdom and choose Folly, which is the wider context of Proverbs. The other uses of aphelah are Isaiah 8:22; 58:10; 59:9; Jeremiah 23:12; Joel 2:2; and Zephaniah 1:15.
Different versions and commentators have tried to capture the fuller meaning of aphelah, and so besides just “darkness,” English translations include “deep darkness” (ESV); “gloomy darkness” (NET); “darkest gloom” (HCSB); “total darkness” (NLT); and “night” (NJB). Michael Fox translates the verse: “The way of wicked is as the murk,” and quotes Ploger that this is “the darkness of their moral irresponsibility surrounding them” (The Anchor Bible). Bruce Waltke writes: “Without the moral light of either conscience within or of revelation without they do not know the cause of their calamity, for they see no connection between sin and death” (New International Commentary on the Old Testament: Proverbs). Waltke also references Meinhold in noticing that this is the first time in Proverbs that the sinner “does not know” what he stumbles over, but that same judgment is made of the unfaithful wife (Prov. 5:6); the woman Folly (Prov. 9:13); and the ones seduced by her (Prov. 7:23; 9:18). These sinners do not know the ramifications of what they are doing or the consequences of their actions.
Sinners generally do not realize that when they begin to choose sin over obedience to God, their heart begins to harden and their conscience slowly becomes “seared as with a hot iron” (1 Tim. 4:2). The human heart is never stable, never “fixed.” It is constantly changing. That is good news for the sinner who wants to change, and it is why repentance works and people can change their behavior and thought patterns. But it is bad news for the person who wants to ignore God to indulge themselves in sin. Eventually any tug of the conscience goes away. Also, eventually if not quickly, the consequences of sin become manifest in a person’s life, not to mention the unseen consequences to come on Judgment Day. Sin has done its work, darkness pervades, and the person does not know what they are stumbling over. That is why godly people must keep speaking up. Hope and help almost always must come from “the outside,” even if the outside help a person gets is a distant memory of a conversation or confrontation offering deliverance through Jesus Christ. There is always a chance that a sinner will hear the truth, come to realize their situation, and repent.