The Sun Will Be Darkened: A Brief Survey Of Apocalyptic Symbolism – Guest Article By Jeffrey T. McCormack
Message Delivered by Jeffrey at Berean Bible Church 05/28/17
This modern generation continue to have this disconnect — this idea of a separation of the storyline between the Old and New testaments. I have said it before, and I’ll say it again; there is a great injustice done when Bible publishers make editions of the Scripture available that only contain the New Testament book. I have felt this was for many, many years, and the more I study and learn, the more strongly I feel on this point.
You can never fully understand, comprehend, or appreciate the story of the New Testament without a firm grasp on the story of the Old. The new is only good news when you read fully of the old bad news. The Gospel message of the New, is the completion and closing chapters of the story presented in the Old.
Instilled in the hearts and minds of so many believers is this false dichotomy that the Old Testament was for those old people, and the New Testament is more for us. And due to that, people have misused and abused so much of the New Testament that it has made the gospel message so twisted. And still worse, it has made the stories of the New Testament to be taken out of context fully.
Back at the 2012 conference, my lecture was dealing with this idea of understanding the whole story of Scripture, especially the Hebrew Scriptures, in order to better understand the story of the New Testament. I opened up by telling the story of the shocking question that was raised by one man.
This man asked a pastor friend of his, “What is good news about the fact that Jesus is the Messiah, the descendant of David?” If someone does not comprehend what was said beforehand about the coming messiah, or the struggles of the people and their promised hope, then this information about a messiah seems trivial for sure.
I had also discussed the response a pastor gave to the question “Did Jesus preach the gospel?” The pastor reasoned that since the gospel is justification by faith in the work of Christ and the cross, then it was impossible to say that Jesus was preaching the gospel. The pastor answered “Nope, Jesus couldn’t have. No one understood the gospel until Paul. No one understand the gospel until after the cross and resurrection and Pentecost.”
This is indeed a problem caused by too heavy of a focus on the New Testament only. There are so many other things in the New Testament that are totally misunderstood because of this same type of reason. So when it comes to the Bible story, without the old, the new makes little sense and that is why things have gotten so badly off track in the modern church.
There are so many pieces of the Old Testament that are referenced within the New, that without grasping the language and meaning of the original reference, it tends to lead to many whacky interpretations. In this message, I would like to focus on national judgment language in general, especially the sun, moon and stars terminology.
A while back, David preached the sermons on the four blood moons issue, and it really brought out all types of crazy comments from people with these physical misunderstandings. The responses were amazingly sad, as many would simply respond and state that “obviously these things have not happened, because we have not seen the stars fall from the sky, or the sky roll up like a scroll,” and other similar cosmic ideas.
Of course, one of the main scriptures raised for this is Matthew 24:29:
Immediately after the tribulation of those days the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will fall from heaven, and the powers of the heavens will be shaken. (Matthew 24:29 ESV)
Sure, just reading this verse at face value, it would appear to be talking about the end of the entire world, where the actual sun, moon and stars and creation itself is destroyed. Unfortunately, this is the general understanding by most. But we shall find that in fact, that is not what this language is talking about at all.
Another similar star to earth issue is found in Revelation 12: 3-4 where the tail of the dragon sweeps a third of the stars down to earth. Yet, this type of verse is seen by many as being symbolic and not literal — but of course, not all see it this way. John Walvoord, a major teacher of dispensationalism and president at Dallas Theological Seminary for many years, agrees with E.W. Bullinger who said:
It is impossible for us to take this as symbolic; or as other than what it literally says. The difficulties of the symbolic interpretation are insuperable, while no difficulties whatever attend the literal interpretation. (Bullinger, The Apocalypse, 1902 – quoted by Walvoord, The Revelation of Jesus Christ, 1966)
So a symbolic interpretation presents difficulties, why a literal does not? On the contrary, a literal approach has major difficulties. Stars tend to be much larger than the Earth, and a single star colliding with the Earth would obliterate it, so the thought of any more than one is inconceivable.
Walvoord and others get around this problem — or try to — by saying these stars are actually more like meteorites, but that does not solve the issue. If evolution proponents claim that a single meteorite hit the earth and destroyed all life on earth during the dinosaur age, then to consider a third of the meteorites hitting earth is again inconceivable.
The problem with all of this is that they fail to understand how the Bible uses terms like these over and over again, and so they assign them literal modern definitions that are biblically inaccurate.
We cover it from this pulpit frequently, that Hebrew symbolism and idioms are often ignored or unknown to many today. Most readers take a surface level, literal English view of the Scripture, using their 21stcentury definitions and interpretive techniques to come to their conclusions.
A simple survey of Hebrew Scripture is all that is needed to have a better understanding of verses like these in the New Testament. Let’s go back and survey how the Hebrew Scriptures used terms like these.
When you read Genesis 37 and the story of Joseph, we find a clear cut story showing the understanding of how God’s people understood the references to sun, moon and stars. This is some of what I covered in my earlier sermon, but it is worth repeating as it is a great place to start to build the foundation on. This story also shows us that it was a historic understanding well known to them — so this is not where it originated:
Then he dreamed another dream and told it to his brothers and said, “Behold, I have dreamed another dream. Behold, the sun, the moon, and eleven stars were bowing down to me.” (Genesis 37:9 ESV)
So, taking the modern approach to this verse, I guess we should understand that Joseph had a dream where one day he would basically be a God, and the literal, physical elements of the universe were going to really bow to him. Of course we know that was not the case because we know that even his family did not come to such a crazy conclusion:
But when he told it to his father and to his brothers, his father rebuked him and said to him, “What is this dream that you have dreamed? Shall I and your mother and your brothers indeed come to bow ourselves to the ground before you?”(Genesis 3:10 ESV)
So, they clearly understood Joseph to be referencing his parents as the sun and moon, and his eleven siblings as stars. These references were commonly interpreted as representing governing authorities, as understood from Joseph’s use here — but they were also often descriptive of nations or kingdoms.
This understanding is not alien to us as modern American’s either if you stop and think about it. Our own US flag has stars on it, each representing a different and separate nation state within the union — each a political power basically. Other countries use stars on their flag in a similar manner.
Let us look at some quotes from other sources on this topic.
Before the advent of speculative exegesis, most Bible commentators who studied the whole Bible understood the relationship of collapsing universe language with the destruction of the religion and civil state of the Jewish nation. (Gary DeMar, Last Days Madness, 4th ed., p. 144)
Demar’s book actually deals quite well on this topic, and the rest of these quotes are actually ones that he quoted following what he just said in his book:
That is, the Jewish heaven shall perish, and the sun and moon of the glory and happiness shall be darkened — brought to nothing. The sun is the religion of the [Jewish] church, the moon is the government of the [Jewish] state, and the stars are the judges and doctors of both. Compare Isa. 13:10; Ezek. 32:7, 8. (John Lightfoot, A Commentary on the New Testament from the Talmud and Hebraica: Matthew – 1 Corinthians, ps. 319-320 – )
The darkening of the sun and moon, the falling of the stars, and the shaking of the powers of the heavens, denote the utter extinction of the light of prosperity and privilege to the Jewish nation, the unhinging of authority of their princes and priests; the abject miseries to which the people in general, especially their chief persons, would be reduced; and the moral and religious darkness to which they would be consigned. (Thomas Scott, The Holy Bible….with Explanatory Notes…, v.3 p. 110 )
Our savior goes on, to set forth the calamities that should befall the Jewish nation, immediately after the destruction of Jerusalem. So entire was the subversion of their ecclesiastical and civil state, that it may be metaphorically represented by the sun, moon, and stars, losing their light, and all the heavenly bodies being dissolved. (W. Dalton, An Explanatory and Practical Commentary on the New Testament, v. 1 p 118 )
In ancient Hieroglyphic writings the sun, moon, and stars represented empires and states, with their sovereigns and nobility. The eclipse of their luminaries was said to denote temporary national disasters, or an entire overthrow of any state. This is still an Eastern mode of writing, and there are some classical examples of it. The Prophets frequently employ it, so that their style seems to be a speaking hieroglyphic. Thus Isaiah describes the destruction of Babylon, and Ezekiel that of Egypt — In accordance with this prediction, Josephus gives an account of the persecution and slaughter of the nobility and principal men in the city by the infuriated Zealots, computing their number at twelve thousand. (John Forster, The Gospel-Narrative, p. 307 )
Another aspect of it is seen as related to Israel’s surrounding pagan nations that worshiped these celestial bodies — or more precisely, worshipped deities represented by these celestial bodies.
And beware lest you raise your eyes to heaven, and when you see the sun and the moon and the stars, all the host of heaven, you be drawn away and bow down to them and serve them, things that the LORD your God has allotted to all the peoples under the whole heaven. (Deuteronomy 4:19 ESV – see also 17:3)
The practice of worshiping these celestial objects — or the gods they represent — was also obviously taken up by God’s people at times when they strayed from God’s commandments, as we see evidenced in Kings:
And the king commanded Hilkiah the high priest and the priests of the second order and the keepers of the threshold to bring out of the temple of the LORD all the vessels made for Baal, for Asherah, and for all the host of heaven. He burned them outside Jerusalem in the fields of the Kidron and carried their ashes to Bethel.
And he deposed the priests whom the kings of Judah had ordained to make offerings in the high places at the cities of Judah and around Jerusalem; those also who burned incense to Baal, to the sun and the moon and the constellations and all the host of the heavens. (2 Kings 23:4-5 ESV)
So, it becomes clearly obvious that the usages of language that includes terminology like sun, moon and stars, is not always to be considered literal, and must be judged based on the literary type they appear within.
And what is truly odd, is the inconsistencies and contradictory views that some commentators come to on this subject. There are many that scream about taking things literally, yet even they do not do so in their own theological systems.
Even when they do interpret the language symbolically in places, they do not always stay consistent, and turn right around and interpret the same language usage differently in other places for no real textual reason. For example, the literalist Allen Ross has mentioned it at least twice, with one of the books being edited by John Walvoord himself:
In ancient cultures these astronomical symbols represent rulers. (Allen Ross, The Bible Knowledge Commentary: Old Testament, eds. John Walvoord and Roy Zuck, p. 87)
The second dream involved celestial images — the sun, moon, and stars being easily recognized for their significance for rulership. (Allen Ross, Creating and Blessing: A Guide to the Study and Exposition of Genesis, p. 600)
And then when they get to Revelation 12, with the woman clothed with the sun, and the moon under her feet, and the crown of stars, some are quick to again leave their literalism to understand these symbolically. John Walvoord himself says:
The description of the woman clothed with the sun and the moon is an allusion to Genesis 37:9-11, where these heavenly bodies represent Jacob and Israel, thereby identifying the woman with the fulfillment of the Abrahamic covenant. In the same context, the stars represent the patriarchs, the sons of Jacob. The symbolism may extend beyond this to represent in some sense the glory of Israel and her ultimate triumph over her enemies. (John Walvoord, The Revelation of Jesus Christ, p. 188)
Yet, even after having such knowledge, and stating it in their teachings, when they get to Matthew 24:29 where Jesus is drawing from the same Genesis symbolism when stating the sun darkened and the stars falling, they appear to do a flip flop in understanding, and claim it to be a discussion of literal celestial destruction.
So, even though the Scriptures clearly teaching that those things were to happen before that generation hearing him would end, they have to reinterpret other factors to make it work on with their initial erroneous understanding.
They fail to see the prophetic discussion of the nation, represented by the temple, being described in the same celestial language of destruction as used often in the Scriptures. Milton Terry puts is ever so finely when he says:
Too little study of the Old Testament ideas of judgment, and apocalyptic language and style, would seem to be the main reason for this one-sided exegesis. It will require more that assertion to convince thoughtful men that the figurative language of Isaiah and Daniel, admitted on all hands to be such in those ancient prophets, is to be literally interpreted when used by Jesus and Paul. (Milton Terry, Biblical Hermeneutics , p.596)
Let’s look now beyond Genesis, to get an even better backdrop for how this use of celestial language has been used throughout the Scriptures.
First we’ll start with Isaiah 13, which many say was prophesied around 730 BC, and is spoken against Babylon of their time. According to the IVP Bible Background Commentary, at that time, the Neo-Assyrian Empire was probably the most powerful world network that had ever been seen up to that point.
They subjugated Babylonia and its Chaldean rulers like they did so many others. As many of the nations tried to break free over time, they caused revolts and uprisings. Shortly after 630 BC, as the Assyrian empire began to crumble, Babylonia and Media combined forces to put extra pressure on the last of the Assyrian kings, and with his death, the empire was over too. After that, began the emergence of Nebuchadnezzar and the New-Babylonian Empire.
Now, in general terms, the use of sun, moon and stars in Hebrew culture, as we have seen, is often commonly understood as referring to those in a place of authority, or a political type power. But at time, the prophet using these terms could be directly targeting the deities of another people.
According to the Mesopotamian creation epic titled Enuma Elish, the great god Marduk had placed the constellations in order to oversee the forces of nature, and assist him in the management of creation. At that time, the movements of the heavenly bodies were considered omens about things that would occur on Earth, and therefore astronomical observations were a constant practice for them. The findings were recorded and collected into the Enuma Anu Enlil.
In Mesopotamia, Egypt and Greece this information was used to prepare individual horoscopes. Using this, lucky and unlucky days could be determined by consulting the guild of magicians and astrologers. So, now knowing just how important of a part that constellations played for this nation, when we come to the text speaking of judgment upon them, pay attention to the celestial language contained here:
Wail, for the day of the LORD is near; as destruction from the Almighty it will come! Therefore all hands will be feeble, and every human heart will melt. 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.
Behold, the day of the LORD comes, cruel, with wrath and fierce anger, to make the land 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; I will put an end to the pomp of the arrogant, and lay low the pompous pride of the ruthless. I will make people more rare than fine gold, and mankind than the gold of Ophir.
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. (Isaiah 13:6-13 ESV)
By stating that on the day of Yahweh all of the celestial bodies would be darkened, Isaiah is not only simply saying their power and leaders will be removed, he is claiming that the glory of Yahweh will outshine and therefore mask all of the other supposed gods.
Since Assyria and Egypt both worshiped the supposed sun god as their primary deity, and the moon god Sin was of great importance in Babylonia, it is no surprise that the prophet targets those gods of that arrogant people.
Many agree that this prophecy was fulfilled in 539 BC when Cyrus the Persian took Babylon. But hopefully we see here how the celestial bodies of sun, moon and stars are relevant to the judgment, and were not considered to be a literal event at the time.
Also, hopefully you noted that we also see here a reference to a woman in labor, which should trigger in our minds the similar language to the birth pains we find in places like Jeremiah 48 and 49, as well as Matt. 24:8 and Mark 13:8:
For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines. These are but the beginning of the birth pains. (Mark 13:8 ESV)
Now, moving forward to Isaiah 19, we find a prophecy spoken against Egypt:
An oracle concerning Egypt. Behold, the LORD is riding on a swift cloud and comes to Egypt; and the idols of Egypt will tremble at his presence, and the heart of the Egyptians will melt within them. (Isaiah 19:1 ESV)
What we find here is again not quite the celestial language that we have been discussing, but it is the type of apocalyptic symbolism that we find in conjunction with that language as we find it more getting into the New Testament. Here in Isaiah we have God riding on the clouds as well as a little more de-creation type language of rivers completely drying up.
Associating God with using clouds is not a new idea, as we know He used clouds to represent His presence to Moses and during the Exodus from Egypt. However, now, it is a symbol of judgment as God is coming — riding on the cloud to bring destruction. As we are told in Psalm 103:
He lays the beams of his chambers on the waters; he makes the clouds his chariot; he rides on the wings of the wind; (Psalms 104:3 ESV)
So the idea of God riding a cloud is an established idea that is not considered literally taking place. Actually, some say that this type of language is taken from texts that speak of the Ugaritic god Baal. In the stories contained in the two texts the Aqhat Epic and the Baal and Anat, Baal is referred to as the “Rider of the Clouds.” Dave has covered this numerous times in past message, and again, like before, is a direct attack against a nation’s god.
His attributes include commanding the storms, unleashing lightening, and a Diving Warrior rushing into war. He even appears in the Egyptian El Amarna texts. This language in these earlier texts is very similar to Yahweh, who is the Creator, Fertility God, and Divine Warrior.
So, one of the ways that Yahweh presented himself to his people the Israelites, in order to portray himself as the true God and sole divine power, is by assuming the titles and powers of the ancient Near Eastern gods.
Then, we get over into Isaiah 34 where we’re presented with a coming judgment against Edom, and it is described again with this destructive language:
Their slain shall be cast out, and the stench of their corpses shall rise; the mountains shall flow with their blood. All the host of heaven shall rot away, and the skies roll up like a scroll. All their host shall fall, as leaves fall from the vine, like leaves falling from the fig tree. For my sword has drunk its fill in the heavens; behold, it descends for judgment upon Edom, upon the people I have devoted to destruction. (Isaiah 34:3-5 ESV)
Some translations say the mountains melted with their flowing blood. Obviously the mountains didn’t literally melt or flow with blood — but some try to make it more literal by saying the amount of blood was so much, that it loosed enough of the dirt of the mountain to cause big chunks of it to slide down. John Gill sees it this way but considers it as more of a hyperbole, stating it as being written in a more extreme fashion than it truly was. He says this saying is:
An hyperbolical expression, denoting the great number of the slain upon the mountains, and the great quantity of blood shed there; which should run down in large streams, and carry part of them along with it, as large and hasty showers of rain wash away the earth, and carry it along with them; such an hyperbole see in Rev. 14:20. (John Gill’s Exposition of the Entire Bible)
When I was first reading through this verse, my mind immediately jumped to Rev. 14:20 — so it is good to see an ancient like Gill does too; they were not totally oblivious to this language usage. In Revelation we are told that the blood “flowed from the winepress, as high as a horse’s bridle” for roughly 200 square miles.
Hyperbole indeed, yet I have heard people go into great detail as to how this was to literally occur. Blood flowing greatly, rivers of blood, etc. are all signs of the aftermath of God’s judgment and aside from Moses doing it, are not considered literal occurrences.
Also here in Isaiah we are told the hosts of heaven shall rot, or be consumed as some have it. So again, here is language dealing with the elements of heaven and speaks as if they will cease to exist. The IVP Bible Background Commentary is a fairly popular set that provides great insights from some leading Bible scholars on a majority of verses. On this verse in Isaiah they state:
Imagery of disappearing stars: Always in command of all creation, Yahweh shows mastery over the heavens and celestial bodies, causing their brightness to be snuffed out in a reversal of creation. Prominent astral motifs in the Mesopotamian religion included the idea that the gods were given stations within the heavens and “their astral likenesses” marked the zones of the calendrical year.
In the celestial omens the disappearing of a star or planet always suggested that the related deity had suffered defeat in battle. Astral deities were considered among the most prominent and powerful of the gods. The dissolving of the stars and the fall of the starry host are therefore related.
Both the natural manifestation as well as the deity connected to it are overcome in this act of judgment. (The IVP Bible Background Commentary – Old Testament, p. 624)
So, not only are we seeing these terms used as representative of national judgment, but again, they are understood as referring also to those heavenly powers assigned to a nation — their gods — and their judgment too.
This Isaiah verse also states that the sky would roll up as a scroll, which is obviously symbolic, since when this judgment came, the literal sky did not roll up — though sadly some seem to expect that to happen in our future still. The Bible Background Commentary continues, adding some additional related insight:
The three major Babylonian gods are not represented by stars but by the sky itself. Anu is the sky god, and the horizon is divided into three paths (connected to Anu, Enlil and Ea). Therefore, rolling up the sky is an act of judgment against the three main deities of the ancient world. (The IVP Bible Background Commentary – Old Testament, p. 624)
Moving on to Jeremiah 4 we find a prophecy against Jerusalem at the time, a prophecy that was fulfilled not too long afterwards when Nebuchadnezzar II took over in 586 BC. I will touch on just the highlighted versus from this section:
Behold, he comes up like clouds; his chariots like the whirlwind; his horses are swifter than eagles — woe to us, for we are ruined! (Jeremiah 4:13 ESV)
Here again, as we just saw in Isaiah 19, we find more of the symbolism of God coming on the clouds in judgment. As we continue we find mountains trembling (v. 24), the heavens above becoming dark (v. 28), and the symbolism of a woman crying out in labor pains (v. 31). Actually, if you read verse 23-26 you find Jeremiah taking imagery from the Genesis 1:2 creation account and using it in poetic form to describe a reversal of creation.
This language is used to basically say that all that they thought was consistent in life is now falling apart for them. While this type of language is commonly used in prophetic literature in connection with the Day of the Lord and coming judgment, it is of course never understood to be literal.
Taking a very brief look at Zephaniah 1, we get another prophecy of the same coming judgment of Jerusalem, and of course we find similar language from a different prophet:
The great day of the LORD is near, near and hastening fast; the sound of the day of the LORD is bitter; the mighty man cries aloud there. A day of wrath is that day, a day of distress and anguish, a day of ruin and devastation, a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and thick darkness… (Zephaniah 1:14-16 ESV)
Again, we find darkness and clouds mentioned here. All of this language is wrapped tightly in the symbolism surrounding the national judgment coming from God, and again, not literal.
Jumping now into Ezekiel 30-32, we find the prophecy of judgment against Egypt. I have read some who say this was accomplished when Cambyses of Persia conquers Egypt in 525 B.C., while I have heard others say based on Josephus, it was fulfilled in B.C. 587 when Babylon destroyed them.
The emphasis for us here does not require us to delve too deeply into the actual date of occurrence, but simply to understand that this event has already occurred, and this language again was not literally a reality. Here in Ezekiel, as expected, we find the same language is used:
For the day is near, the day of the LORD is near; it will be a day of clouds, a time of doom for the nations. (Ezekiel 30:3 ESV)
Here we find clouds again in the story of judgment as has become common we now see. It is the day of the Lord, a day he has set for national judgment. And later in the same chapter:
At Tehaphnehes the day shall be dark, when I break there the yoke bars of Egypt, and her proud might shall come to an end in her; she shall be covered by a cloud, and her daughters shall go into captivity. (Ezekiel 30:18 ESV)
Now, I will state that of course not every time we see clouds mentioned are we to assume it is a reference to Yahweh riding them in judgment. Oftentimes it is used poetically to mean that a calamity is falling on them, like in this verse here. For instance, the Targum, which is the Aramaic version of the Hebrew Scriptures that was used in the first century by many a Rabbi, puts this verse like this:
a king with his army shall cover her as a cloud ascends and covers the earth:
So, while this is not a reference to God riding the cloud, it is still a reference to clouds involved in the judgment from God. And then moving into Ezekiel 32, we see language that we find later in the New Testament, and that may be related to verse that are often misunderstood.
And I will cast you on the ground; on the open field I will fling you, and will cause all the birds of the heavens to settle on you, and I will gorge the beasts of the whole earth with you. (Ezekiel 32:4 ESV)
And the same language is used later in the book when speaking of the fall of Gog:
You shall fall on the mountains of Israel, you and all your hordes and the peoples who are with you. I will give you to birds of prey of every sort and to the beasts of the field to be devoured. (Ezekiel 39:4 ESV)
As for you, son of man, thus says the Lord GOD: Speak to the birds of every sort and to all beasts of the field, ‘Assemble and come, gather from all around to the sacrificial feast that I am preparing for you, a great sacrificial feast on the mountains of Israel, and you shall eat flesh and drink blood. You shall eat the flesh of the mighty, and drink the blood of the princes of the earth—of rams, of lambs, and of he-goats, of bulls, all of them fat beasts of Bashan. (Ezekiel 39:17-18 ESV)
Obviously there is no denying the connection that is used Rev. 19:
Then I saw an angel standing in the sun, and with a loud voice he called to all the birds that fly directly overhead, “Come, gather for the great supper of God, to eat the flesh of kings, the flesh of captains, the flesh of mighty men, the flesh of horses and their riders, and the flesh of all men, both free and slave, both small and great. (Revelation 19:17-18 ESV)
But while I did not delve into depth to determine if this is a necessary connection, but one cannot help but be immediately struck by the similarities of this bird talk with what we are told in Luke 17:
I tell you, in that night there will be two in one bed. One will be taken and the other left. There will be two women grinding together. One will be taken and the other left.” And they said to him, “Where, Lord?” He said to them, “Where the corpse is, there the vultures will gather.” (Luke 17:34-37 ESV)
This verse is often misused as some kind of Rapture of Christians off the Earth view, but in reality it is not. I like the way Reformed John Gill states it:
the one shall be taken – not by the preaching of the Gospel, into the kingdom of God, or Gospel dispensation; … nor by angels, to meet Christ in the air, and to be introduced into his kingdom and glory; but by the eagles, the Roman army, and either killed or carried captive by them. (John Gill)
The idea of the post judgment dead being eaten by the bird of the air seems to be a common thread as we have seen, and is usually understood as an ultimate shameful end, to not have a decent burial, but instead to food for the fowl of the air. Now continuing on in Ezekiel 32:
I will drench the land even to the mountains with your flowing blood, and the ravines will be full of you. When I blot you out, I will cover the heavens and make their stars dark; I will cover the sun with a cloud, and the moon shall not give its light. All the bright lights of heaven will I make dark over you, and put darkness on your land, declares the Lord GOD. (Ezekiel 32:6-8 ESV)
Again, notice here we have similar events as mentioned earlier in Isaiah 34, where mountains are flowing with blood. Hopefully you are beginning to see how this type of language is becoming a common thread in the apocalyptic symbolic language used in Scripture throughout. This is not the language of literal world ending events happening over and over again, these are all national judgments.
Now, most people tend to be quite familiar with what is said in Joel, but it is as if they ignore — or just never read — all of the uses of the language of the Old Testament, and so from Joel on into the New Testament they believe everything will literally happen for some reason.
Since we are clearly told that these words from Joel began to be accomplished in the book of Acts, we know they were not literal happenings. However, as before, we find the same types of language here:
Blow a trumpet in Zion; sound an alarm on my holy mountain! Let all the inhabitants of the land tremble, for the day of the LORD is coming; it is near, a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and thick darkness! Like blackness there is spread upon the mountains a great and powerful people; their like has never been before, nor will be again after them through the years of all generations. (Joel 2:1-2 ESV)
Note that here we have the blowing of a trumpet at the Day of the Lord, a day of darkness, gloom, and clouds. All things that hopefully ring a bell as things we’ve read time and time again in the New Testament, which we shall get to in a bit. Joel continues:
The earth quakes before them; the heavens tremble. The sun and the moon are darkened, and the stars withdraw their shining. (Joel 2:10)
The sun shall be turned to darkness, and the moon to blood, before the great and awesome day of the LORD comes. (Joel 2:31)
While some may want to simply see this as a solar eclipse and a blood moon eclipse, it must not be ignored that it is most often understood as a symbolic blotting out of the powers and rulers of the nation being judged, and as mentioned, may be directed at the deities of a nation. And we find similar language continuing on into chapter three:
Multitudes, multitudes, in the valley of decision! For the day of the LORD is near in the valley of decision. The sun and the moon are darkened, and the stars withdraw their shining. The LORD roars from Zion, and utters his voice from Jerusalem, and the heavens and the earth quake. But the LORD is a refuge to his people, a stronghold to the people of Israel. (Joel 3:14-16 ESV)
Now of course, it could be that at times this language of the sun and moon being darkened could be referring to an actual literal eclipse, or that the event was accompanied by such a literal event. We are not ruling out this possibility. Knowing that God controls the celestial bodies, and knowing he gave them for signs and seasons, it is not out of the realm of possibility that these disastrous events were accompanied by an eclipse as a sign.
And some commentators say that judgment scenarios like this may have been so intense and large, producing so much fire and smoke, that it could have filled the sky to the point of covering the light of the sun, moon or stars from sight for those on the earth in that area.
While these ideas are not an impossible scenario, it must not a considered a necessity to have gone down that way in order to fulfill the symbolism of the language used. Since the usage of sun, moon and stars has already be established as symbolic language used of national judgment, even if these natural occurrences did occur, the thrust of this language is not necessarily leaning to that physical understanding.
And while some may use this angle to explain away or strictly literalize these celestial entities becoming dark, this technique cannot be used in the places where the stars fall to the Earth, or other such language. We’ll look more at that later.
Moving on, Amos gives us a prophecy against Israel, one that was fulfilled in 722 BC when Sargon II of Assyria attacked them. Again, the scene of judgment is referred to as a time of darkness:
Woe to you who desire the day of the LORD! Why would you have the day of the LORD? It is darkness, and not light…Is not the day of the LORD darkness, and not light, and gloom with no brightness in it? (Amos 5:18, 20 ESV)
Yahweh was angry at the people of Israel, stating:
I hate, I despise your feasts, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them; and the peace offerings of your fattened animals, I will not look upon them. (Amos 5:21-22 ESV)
As the Bible Background Commentary explains:
Amos’s attack is addresses at the empty, mechanically celebrated hagim, the technical term for the three major pilgrimage festivals (Feast of Unleavened Bread, Feast of Harvest and Feast of Ingathering). Religious festivals offered frequent opportunities for celebrations, communal meals and social gatherings. What had been designed as a means to praise and honor God, however, was not bringing any pleasure to him. (The IVP Bible Background Commentary – Old Testament, p. 770)
Hopefully this brings to mind some of the scathing rebukes Christ made against the Pharisees over their abuse of the law and artificial worship of Yahweh. Their very actions and lifestyles had made them a rejected covenant people, and judgment was coming on them too. And closing out this section from Amos, in chapter eight we again find celestial language which is symbolic in nature as before.
“And on that day,” declares the Lord GOD, “I will make the sun go down at noon and darken the earth in broad daylight. (Amos 8:9)
Many commentators agree that this is best understood metaphorically as related to the sudden calamity that would come upon the people, just as we have seen previously. It can also again be directed at the pagan sun god, who at their seeming strength of day, is suddenly snuffed out. Again, this event did not literally happen. We see a similar usage and discussion in Jeremiah 15:
I have made their widows more in number than the sand of the seas; I have brought against the mothers of young men a destroyer at noonday; I have made anguish and terror fall upon them suddenly. She who bore seven has grown feeble; she has fainted away; her sun went down while it was yet day; she has been shamed and disgraced. And the rest of them I will give to the sword before their enemies, declares the LORD.” (Jeremiah 15:8-9 ESV)
In Nahum, Nineveh is to be brought under judgment, which took place when the Medes and Babylonians destroyed them in 612 BC. And wouldn’t you just know it, we find the same type of language being used here:
The LORD is slow to anger and great in power, and the LORD will by no means clear the guilty. His way is in whirlwind and storm, and the clouds are the dust of his feet. He rebukes the sea and makes it dry; he dries up all the rivers; Bashan and Carmel wither; the bloom of Lebanon withers. The mountains quake before him; the hills melt; the earth heaves before him, the world and all who dwell in it. (Nahum 1:3-5 ESV)
If taken literally, it would appear there were catastrophic earth shattering, world destructing things taking place. But again, this is simply language of judgment and national destruction, not worldly upheaval. And then verse 8:
But with an overflowing flood he will make a complete end of the adversaries, and will pursue his enemies into darkness. (Nahum 1:8)
Whirlwind and storms, clouds under his feet, dry seas and rivers, mountains quaking, flooding — all things we have seen before in the judgment setting. I would like to say a quick word about the mountains quaking. We have seen mountains mentioned at times and in various ways in these judgments, but here we are specifically seeing them quaking. In Micah 4 we are told:
It shall come to pass in the latter days that the mountain of the house of the LORD shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and it shall be lifted up above the hills; and peoples shall flow to it, and many nations shall come, and say:
“Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, to the house of the God of Jacob, that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths.” For out of Zion shall go forth the law, and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem. (Micah 4:1-2 ESV)
So, Micah is seeing Mount Zion as being elevated above every other mountain in the world, so what is the significance of that?
In the ancient Near East, a temple mountain represented the deity worshiped there and symbolized the deity’s presence with his people, the deity’s abiding victory over chaos, a gateway in to the deity’s heavenly presence, and the deity’s rule over the territory it dominated.
Micah’s superlatives for Zion as “the highest mountain” and his comparison “above the hills” helps to validate that he aims to contrast Mount Zion — and so the Lord who is worshiped there — with pagan temple-mountains and their false deities. (Bruce Waltke, Micah – The Minor Prophets: An Exegetical and Expository Commentary, Vol. 2, p. 678)
So again, symbolic language aimed at another nations god. Turning to Psalm 18, we see similar language of mountains quaking as well as a possible connection of the mountains and the temple of the Lord idea. As David was in distress by the hand of Saul, he called unto the Lord:
In my distress I called upon the LORD; to my God I cried for help. From his temple he heard my voice, and my cry to him reached his ears. Then the earth reeled and rocked; the foundations also of the mountains trembled and quaked, because he was angry. (Psalms 18:6-7 ESV)
Actually, many places in the book of Psalms we find mountains in relation to God, but that would be a whole other discussion, so I will stop at just this one comparison. So, to sum up this brief journey through the Old Testament prophets, we must come away remembering that:
Unlike prose narrative, it should not be assumed that prophetic speeches and their writings are to be taken at face value. Prophecy is commonly expressed in poetry, which is terse and rich in figures of speech and evocative symbols. The writing prophets are identified as prophets by their patently inspired poetry, not just by their amazing predictions in conformity with Israel’s covenants. (Bruce Waltke, An Old Testament Theology, Pg. 816)
The same thing can be said of the first century prophetic writings as well — they should not to be assumed as being understood simply at face value as many try to force them to.
So, as we turn now to the New testament, let us do a brief recap of some of the things we have seen used commonly so far:
- Cloud coverings representing calamities
- Yahweh the judge riding on the clouds coming in judgment
- Darkness in the day — celestial oddities
- Sun, moon and stars ceasing to give light
- Stars falling from the heavens
- Rivers/seas dried up
- Woman and labor pains symbolism
- Heaven/Earth/Mountains shaken
- The heavens rolled up like a scroll
- Lots of blood
So when it comes to approaching the New Testament books, in order to grasp what is going on, the reader has to consider the people and culture of the writers and their audience. The average Hebrew then was one who would have typically been brought up through childhood studying and memorizing these same Hebrew Scriptures we’ve been going through.
From their earliest days, they were steeped in the language and understanding of the entire story of the people of God, so they understood the symbolic language being used. As readers then, we must remember that the Apostles were pretty much all Hebrews likewise brought up in a manner resembling this. So their speech and terminology would be layered with this type of symbolism too.
Sure, we know the religious leaders of that day had messed things up quite a bit with their traditions, and so they did not always totally comprehend some of those deep prophecies that we now understand better in hindsight.
It is true that while they may have been looking for a Messiah that was different than what was standing before them, we can be almost positive that that when it came to understanding the deep symbolism of the national judgment language we’ve been discussing, they were not ignorant enough to think it meant planet ending destruction.
That being the fact, it is no surprise to think that when they heard the words of our Lord in places like Matthew 24, that they would not have been foolish enough to ever think it would be understood the way many modern prophecy experts have sought to used it for the last few centuries.
Immediately after the tribulation of those days the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will fall from heaven, and the powers of the heavens will be shaken. Then will appear in heaven the sign of the Son of Man, and then all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory. (Matthew 24:29-30 ESV)
So we have here celestial oddities of becoming dark in the day, stars falling from heaven, heaven being shaken, and Christ coming riding on a cloud. This lines up nicely with what we have been reading so far. And if you look over in the parallel passage in Luke 21, you’ll see more of the same similar language of old about the roaring of the water, men shaking in fear, and the powers of heaven being shaken. Another verse that speaks of this same first-century soon-coming judgment is Revelation 6:
When he opened the sixth seal, I looked, and behold, there was a great earthquake, and the sun became black as sackcloth, the full moon became like blood, and the stars of the sky fell to the earth as the fig tree sheds its winter fruit when shaken by a gale. The sky vanished like a scroll that is being rolled up, and every mountain and island was removed from its place. (Revelation 6:12-14 ESV)
Sun and moon darkened, stars falling, sky rolling up, mountains removed — all the language we have seen all along through the Old Testament judgments, none of which was literal earth shattering, world ending events. Therefore, unless the text itself gives clear testimony that this language is being used in a totally different fashion than it has be used for centuries by those same people, then we should assume the same prophetic and symbolic usage is being utilized here still.
As good Hebrews, taught from childhood all about this understanding of the language and idioms of their culture, they would not have heard these verses and thought of an end of the world scenario. Nor would they have thought this was going to have to be a physical event where they would see stars falling, a man riding on literal clouds, or the sky rolling up like a scroll.
Yet sadly, so many today believe that not only are these events to occur in a woodenly literal manner, but that these are still yet to come in our future. Actually, one of the sole reasons they hold that these things are yet to happen in our future, is directly related to the fact that they think them to be literally to happen.
They reason that it is obvious that these events have not occurred yet because we still see the world here and not destroyed as they feel these verses literally predict. They have totally disconnected this language from the common symbolic usage as well as totally dismissing the language of imminence for the time and people it was written to fall upon.
Add to that an ignorance of the actual historical events that indeed happened within the time frame predicted by Christ, as well as that judgment that took place against those people Christ addressed, and these verses have to then be thrown into some future age 2000 years past and counting. Until these things literally happen, some will never understand that they already have.
What is really sad, is that this is not some crazy interpretation that is held by a limited amount of people. It is not some interpretation that is on the outside fringe of Christian scholarship. It is not the minority view of church history, only held by a few whackos in the past.
This is mainstream scholarship. I have been quoting from scholars and teachers, and this has been the understanding of Old Testament language for centuries and centuries, and yet many if not most modern day teachers and preachers are clueless and continue to preach unfounded and inaccurate interpretations of fanciful mythological proportions on these topics.
The modern church is in dire needs of a revival of full Bible reading to start with, and then basic hermeneutics on top of that. May the Lord give revival to His Church. Amen.