In this series, we’ve been exploring the possibility that Jesus’ “coming on the clouds” was a symbolic way of speaking about the spiritual meaning of the one of the most significant events in the First Century CE: The Jerusalem civil war, and subsequent Roman attack, culminating in the destruction of the Hebrew Temple.
But is this the only time Scripture describes God “coming on the clouds”? If there are others, do we see these “cloud comings” of God in history following a similar pattern of nature and timing?
Here I want to show how the nature of the rich, evocative language of trumpets, clouds, darkening of the constellations, burning up of the heavens and shaking of the earth’s foundations are ways the biblical writers envisioned God coming with armies in judgment.
The timing of these ‘Day of the Lord’ judgment events is within one generation of when the prophet spoke the words of warning.
Jesus and his earliest followers stand in precisely this lineage of the Hebrew prophetic pattern when they proclaim a coming of God in the coming judgment on Jerusalem and the new paradigm that was emerging.
Let’s take a look at several of these Hebrew prophetic precedents.
God’s Coming to End Saul’s Kingdom – 1000 BC
Then the earth shook and quaked, the foundations of heaven were trembling and were shaken, because he was angry. Smoke went up out of his nostrils, fire from his mouth devoured; coals were kindled by it.
He bowed the heavens also, and he came down with thick darkness [on the earth] under his feet. And He rode on a cherub and flew;
And he appeared on the wings of the wind. And he made darkness canopies around him, a mass of waters, thick clouds of the sky…The Lord thundered from heaven…And he sent out arrows, and scattered them, lightning…at the blast of the breath of his nostrils.
(2 Samuel 22:8-16, emphases mine)
Notice the descriptions: God came down and God appeared. Did God visibly appear, like a Stan Lee Marvel movie walk-on cameo?
This would be difficult to comport with the worldview of the ancient biblical writers. God is Spirit, and later Scriptures say that no one has seen God (Exodus 33:20; John 1:18; 1 John 4:12). So we have no reason to believe that these prophetic authors held that these ‘comings of God’ were bodily or even visible. Nonetheless, they were very real and perceptible in the spiritual and social worlds of their hearers, for those who had “eyes to see” and minds to perceive the spiritual significance of divine involvement.
Notice also that the ‘shaking of heaven and earth’ were symbolic ways of describing the decline of a nation. For example, in Haggai,
Tell Zerubbabel, governor of Judah, that I am going to shake the heavens and the earth. I will overthrow the thrones of kingdoms and destroy the power of the kingdoms of the nations…
For thus says the Lord of hosts, ‘Once more in a little while, I am going to shake the heavens and the earth, the sea also and the dry land. I will shake all the nations…
Likewise, the shaking of the temple system of Old Covenant Israel is symbolically described as God shaking the ‘heaven and earth’ of old in 70AD:
Whose voice then shook the earth: but now he has promised, saying, ‘Yet once more I shake not the earth only, but also heaven.’ And this word, ‘Yet once more’ symbolizes the removing of those things that are shaken, as of things that are made, that those things which cannot be shaken may remain. Wherefore we receiving a kingdom which cannot be shaken…
God Comes in a Cloud Against Ancient Egypt – 700s BC
Behold, Yahweh rides on a swift cloud, and comes to Egypt: and the idols of Egypt shall tremble at his presence; and the heart of Egypt shall melt in the midst of it. I will stir up the Egyptians against the Egyptians.
Notice that God’s coming to Egypt is described as sending the Egyptians to fight a war. The Egyptians are depicted as acting as God’s instrument, doing the divine will, in this prophesied war.
God Comes to Judge Nineveh – 600s BC
The Lord takes vengeance on his adversaries, and He reserves wrath for his enemies…in whirlwind and storm is his way, and clouds are the dust beneath his feet. He rebukes the sea and makes it dry; he dries up all the rivers. Bashan and Carmel wither; the blossoms of Lebanon wither. Mountains quake because of him and the hills dissolve; Indeed the earth is upheaved by his presence; the world and all the inhabitants in it.
In this cloud-coming judgment God’s presence is prophesied to destroy the world. But we know from the context and from history that the biblical authors mean the world of Nineveh – not planet earth.
I hope you’re beginning to see a biblical-language paradigm for this-worldly symbolic Divine appearing, in the form of temporal events whose spiritual significance was intelligible to their hearers as fulfilled within a generation of their prophesying. This stands in marked contrast to the literalistic, far-futuristic, science-fiction caricatures that – through our collective cultural amnesia – have pervaded our public discourse on prophecy and eschatology.
Join me right here at the Presence blog next week as we look at five more Hebrew biblical examples of God’s comings in history.
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.