In this series, we’ve been exploring the Bible’s rich, haunting, and sometimes-confusing language of trumpets, clouds, darkening of the constellations, burning up of the heavens and shaking of the earth’s foundations.
What I’m suggesting is that just as Jesus’ “coming on the clouds” was a symbolic way of speaking about the spiritual meaning of first-century temporal events, so there are other recorded “cloud comings”of God in history following a similar pattern. These can shed valuable light on an often-overlooked aspect of biblical prophetic speech.
Last week we looked at several of these cosmic occurrences – predicted and fulfilled – in ancient Israel’s history. This week we’ll examine several more examples that take place during the time of Israel’s exile.
God Comes to Judge Egypt in the Time of Nebuchadnezzar – 500s BC
The day is near, even the day of the LORD is near; It will be a day of clouds, a time of doom for the nations. A sword will come upon Egypt, and anguish will be in Ethiopia; When the slain fall in Egypt…And they will know that I am the LORD, when I set a fire in Egypt…I will also make the hordes of Egypt cease by the hand of Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon. He and his people with him, the most ruthless of the nations, will be brought in to destroy the land; and they will draw their swords against Egypt and fill the land with the slain. (Ezekiel 30:3-4,8, 10-11)
Notice the “Day of the Lord” mentioned here is a local judgment – or war – on Egypt. According to the author of Ezekiel, God says the acts of Nebuchadnezzar are really from him, and God intends to make his presence in that war known. The army is used as an instrument of judgment in God’s hand to judge Egypt, just as the Roman army was used to judge Jerusalem.
God Comes to Judge Edom in the Time of Nebuchadnezzar – 500s BC
YHWH is enraged against all the nations, and angry with all their armies. He has utterly destroyed them…the stench of their dead bodies will come up; and the mountains will melt in their blood. All of the host of heaven will be dissolved. The heavens will be rolled up like a scroll, and all its armies will fade away, as a leaf fades from off a vine or a fig tree. For my sword shall be bathed in heaven. Behold, it will come down on Edom, and on the people of my curse, for judgment. Yahweh’s sword is filled with blood… a great slaughter in the land of Edom…For YHWH has a day of vengeance…From generation to generation, it will lie waste. No one will pass through it forever and ever. (Isaiah 34: 2-6, 8-10)
Notice that Jesus quotes from this passage in Isaiah when Jesus prophesies the Destruction of Jerusalem to his disciples in the Olivet Discourse (Matthew 24, Mark 13, Luke 21). Isaiah says that the whole host of heaven will be destroyed, the very sky will be rolled up like a scroll and God’s sword will be bathed with blood and in the sky. This is cosmic and universal-sounding language describing local events with spiritual implications.
God Comes to Judge Israel at the Time of the Babylonian Exile – 500s BC
…I will bring you into the wilderness of the peoples, and there will I enter into judgment with you face to face… All flesh shall see that I, YHWH, have kindled it…Thus says YHWH: Behold, I am against you, and will draw forth my sword out of its sheath, and will cut off from you the righteous and the wicked. …all flesh shall know that I, YHWH, have drawn forth my sword out of its sheath.
(Ezekiel 20:33-35,47-48; 21:3-5, emphasis mine)
Behold, [God] goes up like clouds
And his chariots like the whirlwind; His horses are swifter than eagles. Woe to us, for we are ruined! Wash your heart from evil, O Jerusalem, That you may be saved…I looked on the earth, and behold, it was formless and void;
And to the heavens, and they had no light. I looked on the mountains, and behold, they were quaking,
And all the hills moved to and fro. I looked, and behold, there was no man, and all the birds of the heavens had fled. I looked, and behold, the fruitful land was a wilderness,
And all its cities were pulled down Before the LORD, before His fierce anger. For thus says the LORD, The whole land shall be a desolation,
Yet I will not execute a complete destruction. For this the earth shall mourn and the heavens above be dark, because I have spoken, I have purposed, And I will not change My mind, nor will I turn from it. At the sound of the horseman and bowman every city flees;
They go into the thickets and climb among the rocks; Every city is forsaken, And no man dwells in them. And you, O desolate one, what will you do?
(Jeremiah 4:13-14, 23-30)
Notice the references back to creation. Is the prophet saying that God is going to terraform the planet? No. This is poetic and apocalyptic language to describe a war – the end of the world as they knew it.
God Comes To Judge Ancient Babylon Using the Medes – 500s BC
Wail, for the day of the Lord is near; it will come like destruction from the Almighty! Therefore all hands will be feeble, and every human heart will melt, and they will be dismayed. Pangs and agony will seize them; they will be in anguish like a woman in labor. They will look aghast at one another; their faces will be aflame. See, the day of the LORD comes, cruel, with wrath and fierce anger, to make the earth a desolation, and to destroy its sinners from it.
For the stars of the heavens and their constellations will not give their light; the sun will be dark at its rising, and the moon will not shed its light. I will punish the world for its evil, and the wicked for their iniquity…
Therefore I will make the heavens tremble, and the earth will be shaken out of its place, at the wrath of the LORD of hosts in the day of his fierce anger. Like a hunted gazelle, or like sheep with no one to gather them, all will turn to their own people, and all will flee to their own lands. Whoever is found will be thrust through, and whoever is caught will fall by the sword. Their infants will be dashed to pieces before their eyes; their houses will be plundered, and their wives ravished. See, I am stirring up the Medes against them, who have no regard for silver and do not delight in gold. Their bows will slaughter the young men; they will have no mercy on the fruit of the womb; their eyes will not pity children. And Babylon, the glory of kingdoms, the splendor and pride of the Chaldeans, will be like Sodom and Gomorrah when God overthrew them.
(Isaiah 13:6-11, 13,15-19, emphasis mine)
Is this verse saying that the earth was blasted with asteroids and falling stars? Were the sun, moon and stars all destroyed so that they wouldn’t shine anymore? Did the earth come out of its usual orbit and shake?
This is apocalyptic and symbolic language describing the shaking of the political powers of a nation – specifically, the ramifications of the Medes on the social, political and religious order of Babylon. The ‘heaven and earth’ or ‘sun, moon and stars’ language here refers to the shaking political order of the nation itself, just like the symbols you see on a nation’s flag today – a red sun for Japan, an earth for Brazil, the crescent moon and star for Islam, the 50 stars for the States of America. All universally recognized national, political and religious symbols. This same use of symbols in language is present in Biblical times.
God Comes During the Maccabean Period
For I have bent Judah for me, I have filled the bow with Ephraim; and I will stir up your sons, Zion, against your sons, Greece, and will make you as the sword of a mighty man. YHWH shall be seen over them, and his arrow shall go forth as the lightning; and the Lord YHWH will blow the trumpet, and will go with whirlwinds of the south. YHWH of Hosts will defend them; and they shall devour, and shall tread down the sling-stones; and they shall drink, and make a noise as through wine; and they shall be filled like bowls, like the corners of the altar. YHWH their God will save them in that day (Zechariah 9:13-16)
Bows and Arrows, Swords and Slings, Wine and Bowls, and altars. Battle meets ritual in this prophetic depiction of war.
I hope the biblical-language paradigm of using symbolic language to uncover the spiritual meaning of this-worldly symbolic Divine appearings is plain now. Temporal events were interpreted according to their inner significance to the soul of a nation, in a way that their original hearers understood. This stands in marked contrast to the woodenly literal, endlessly-deferred, sci-fi interpretations that – through pious repetition – have lit up our airways, bookstores, and movie screens with tales of a highly abstract future woe.
Join me right here at the Presence blog next week as we return to the setting of Jesus and his first-century followers!
Riley O’Brien Powell earned her BA in Art History from Wheaton College, M.Div from Princeton Seminary, and M.A. in Education from Harvard University. She is a mother of four, raising them with her husband, Skip Powell, MD. She is a covenant participant and theologian-in-residence at Solomon’s Porch in Minneapolis, Minnesota. You can find more of Riley’s writing on her blogs, at Living the Question and Mostly Raw Mom.