Prophetic Apocalyptic Language
By Jim Gunter
Every day from pulpits across this land there is a lot said about bible prophecy. And so I thought it fitting that in the following essay we would also take a look into prophecy, but prophecy that is “apocalyptic” in nature. By apocalyptic prophecy, I mean prophecy that is not only colorful in style, but prophecy that speaks to imminent destruction and judgment. Moreover, in an examination of this, I believe we will also learn just how this particular language should affect our interpretation of the “new testament” scriptures. I would like to begin this little work with the citing of a Bible passage:
“For the stars of heaven and their constellations will not flash forth their light; the sun will be dark when it rises, and the moon will not shed its light.”
Sound familiar? Because there has been so much debate and discussion for such a long time on a perceived soon-to-come “end of the world,” it’s quite probable that someone right now is thinking:
“Why sure, those are the words of Jesus in Matthew 24:29, where He described what’s going to happen at the end of the world; that it will be the time when the sun and the moon are to cease shining, and the stars are all going to fall from the sky, and Jesus comes back to the earth literally riding on the clouds of heaven!”
Now the above may have been your guess as to the passage, as well as your understanding of it. Well, good folks, if you had guessed Matthew 24:29 to be the passage I quoted, you would have been mistaken, because that was a quote from Isaiah 13:10, 13 spoken some 750 years before Jesus used this same kind of speech. My point being, that when we read this particular style of prophecy in the “new testament,” whether spoken by Jesus or written by one of the inspired writers, I believe it is imperative that we go to the original source of such language if we are to arrive at the true meaning of the passage under consideration! It is imperative because as we just learned, this awesome, colorful, celestial imagery has its roots in the old covenant Scriptures, i.e., the Law, the Prophets, and the Psalms.
I sincerely believe that if we fail to educate ourselves in the true meaning of this language in its original old testament usage and context, then we are giving our minds over to the mercy of our imaginations. And of course, when that happens, we begin to “think” we see all sorts of things, that in actuality, we don’t really see at all. And this, of course, spawns all sorts of wild speculation and erroneous interpretations which preclude us from understanding the “true” message being conveyed by our Creator.
This reminds me of the story I heard about a “Christian comedian” some years back named Wendy Bagwell. Wendy was the guest of a friend of his who met with a group of “snake handlers” somewhere in the mountains of east Tennessee. Well, as you might have already guessed, it wasn’t long at all before these folks began to bring out the snakes and proceeded with what they considered “a showing of their faith” by engaging in all sorts of dancing maneuvers in the handling of these snakes. And as Wendy’s luck would have it, it wasn’t very long before their dancing and maneuvering had placed them in the position where they were now blocking the entrance door of the building. By this time, Wendy, being more than just a little scared, was ready to change his address, and fast! And so he immediately turned to his friend and asked him where the back door was; to which his friend replied, “They don’t have a back door.” Well, Wendy wasted no time in declaring, “Well, where do you reckon they want one?”
As the story goes, a few months later, Wendy was a guest on some radio talk show and was asked by the host in a joking manner:
“Now just why have you been going around telling folks this big lie about you seeing a 47 foot rattlesnake? You know there’s no such thing as a 47 foot rattlesnake!” Wendy’s response was, “But, I didn’t lie! I really did see a 47 foot rattlesnake. Because, if you take the 6 feet I saw, and then you add to that, the 41 feet I thought I saw, you’ve got a 47 foot rattlesnake!”
The words of Jesus in Matthew 24:29, I have found to be only one of many such “new testament” prophetic utterances that have the “old testament” scriptures as their original source. And for that reason, I would like to cite a few more of those “old testament” prophecies, and their fulfillments; prophecies which use the same kind of imagery described above. And I’d like to start with the one I cited at the beginning of this essay, and which was later drawn upon by Jesus in Matthew 24:29. Of course, I’m speaking of Isaiah 13. Please examine this prophecy with me and let us see what those words meant when God utilized them for the ”first” time. Because, if we can learn what they meant back then, we can know with certainty what they would mean when used later in the new testament scriptures of the 1st century, could we not?
Isaiah 13—-God’s Judgment on Babylon:
[vs. 1] “The burden of Babylon, which Isaiah the son of Amoz did see…
[vs. 3] I have commanded My sanctified ones, I have also called My mighty ones for mine anger, even them that rejoice in my highness.
[vs. 4b]… The Lord of hosts mustereth the battle.
[vs. 5] They come from a far county, from the end of heaven, even the Lord and the weapons of his indignation, to destroy the whole land.
[vs. 6] Howl ye, for the day of the Lord is at hand; it shall come as a destruction from the Almighty.
[vs. 7] Therefore shall all hands be faint, and every man’s heart shall melt;
[vs. 8] And they shall be afraid; pangs and sorrows shall take hold of them; they shall be in pain as a woman that travaileth; they shall be amazed one at another; their faces shall be as flames.
[vs. 9] Behold, the day of the Lord cometh, cruel both with wrath and fierce anger, to lay the land desolate; and he shall destroy the sinners thereof out of it.
[vs. 10] For the stars of heaven and the constellations thereof, will not give their light; the sun shall be darkened in his going forth, and the moon shall not cause her light to shine.
[vs.11] And I will punish the world for their evil, and the wicked for their iniquity; and I will cause the arrogance of the proud to cease, and will lay low the haughtiness of the terrible.
[vs. 12] I will make a man more precious than fine gold; even a man than the golden wedge of Ophir.
[vs. 13] Therefore, I will shake the heavens, and the earth shall remove out of her place, in the wrath of the Lord of hosts, and in the day of his fierce anger…
[vs. 15] Everyone that is found will be thrust through, and everyone who is joined unto them shall fall by the sword.
[vs.16] Their children shall also be dashed to pieces before their eyes; their houses shall be spoiled, and their wives ravished.
[vs. 17] Behold, I will stir up the Medes against them, which shall not regard silver; and as for gold, they shall not delight in it.
[vs. 18] Their bows also shall dash the young men to pieces; and they shall have no pity on the fruit of the womb; their eye shall not spare children.
[vs. 19] And Babylon, the glory of kingdoms, the beauty of the Chaldees’ excellency, shall be as when God overthrew Sodom and Gomorrah.
[vs. 20] It shall never be inhabited, neither shall it be dwelt in from generation to generation: neither shall the Arabian pitch tent there; neither shall the shepherds make their fold there.”
Surely, we have no difficulty recognizing Isaiah’s prophecy here to be speaking of the judgment God was about to bring upon Nebuchadnezzar and his Babylonian empire. This prophecy, of course, was fulfilled in 538 B.C, when God’s mighty instrument of judgment—the Medes—brought total destruction upon that kingdom. Let us take note of a few remarkable things the Lord said would take place at that great judgment; a judgment that would also include some spectacular celestial phenomena:
1. God spoke of the Medes as “His sanctified ones,” “His mighty ones,” And, that it was He, Yahweh, who was “mustering the army” [vss. 3, 4b].
2. God said the Medes would “come from a far country; from the end of heaven“ [vs. 5].
3. Isaiah called that judgment “a destruction from the Almighty,” and that it would take place at a time he called “the Day of The Lord“ [vs. 6].
4. God said that “every man’s heart will melt“ and “their faces will be as flames” [vss. 7, 8].
5. He also prophesied that “the stars, including all the constellations would not give their light” [vs. 10].
6. “The sun would be darkened” [vs. 10].
7. ”The moon would not give her light” [vs. 10].
8. “The world would be punished for its evil” [vs. 11].
9. “The heavens would be shaken” [vs. 13].
10. “The earth would be moved from its place” [vs. 13].
Good folks, I believe that when considering the various elements described in this judgment on Babylon, there’s a lot I can learn about how God effects His will. And another very important thing I can learn is, the meaning of the very highly charged, highly symbolic, colorful language He employs in expressing His judgments.
Under 1, 2, and 3 above, we get another lesson about the manner in which our Father used men; often times “evil” men, to execute His judgments. First it should be remembered that the Medes were not Yahweh’s people. However, as we can see in this account He called them His “sanctified ones,” His “mighty ones.” In other words, God had “set apart” the Medes for His purpose. It was not at all uncommon for the Lord to speak of “evil’ men as His servants in a context such as this! You may remember that when Yahweh pronounced judgment upon His own people, Judah, sending them away for 70 years of Babylonian captivity, He spoke of this same king, Nebuchadnezzar, as “His servant” [Jeremiah 25:9]. He was God’s servant in the sense that he was to be His (God’s) instrument of judgment on Judah, the very same way as Rome would be used by Jesus as His lethal instrument against Jerusalem and the Jewish nation in A.D. 70! Therefore, the reason for God applying the aforementioned terms to the Medes, was as He declared in vs. 3: “They would execute His anger.”
Please let us now take a closer look into the terrestrial and celestial phenomena described in numbers 4 through 10 above.
First let’s look at (4): Would any of us believe that we are to understand that the hearts of the Babylonians literally “melted” within their chests in this great conflict? Did God really intend for us to understand that men’s faces were literally “on fire?”
Then, under (5), (6), and (7): Would any of us conclude from these statements, that all of the stars, constellations, the sun, and moon literally ceased to shine during the Medes destruction of Babylon? Of course, the obvious answer is, no!
Now please consider (9) and (10): Does God really mean for us to understand that Heaven itself literally shook in this battle? And was the physical earth literally moved from its place of orbit around the sun?
Surely, any serious student of the Father’s word would answer, “No” to all of the above questions, for he recognizes that those marvelous, super-charged phenomena did not “literally” take place. My dear friends please think about this for a moment: If that spectacular display of celestial catastrophes literally took place at that time, do you realize that the very fabric of our planet would be no more? However, this is not to say that those things did not have meaning, or that we should just simply overlook them. Oh no! Those things are very important to us, and they, indeed, did serve a most useful purpose! We all understand that they were symbols. And because they were symbols, they had to have been symbolic of “some-thing” or “some-one!” But symbolic of what, or of whom? Well, I believe if we simply allow scripture to interpret scripture, then they will tell us exactly what those things symbolized.
The Beginning of Celestial Imagery:
The very first time the sun, moon, and stars were used as symbols in the scriptures, is found in Genesis 37:9-11. Do you recall the two dreams Joseph had as a lad? The first was a dream of the sheaves of wheat [vss. 5-8], where the sheaves of his brothers bowed down to his sheaf! Upon telling his brothers of the dream, they indicated by their response that they understood its meaning, viz., that Joseph would actually rule over them one day. We are all familiar with the narrative and how that came to pass, when Joseph, later, through Divine providence, became ruler in Egypt, second only to Pharaoh in authority.
But it’s in the second dream of Joseph, where we gain the most insight into the symbols of Isaiah’s prophecy regarding Babylon. In Joseph’s second dream [vss. 9-11], the sun, moon, and eleven stars bowed down to him. He related the dream to his father, Jacob, and also to his brothers. If you will look at vs. 10, you will see that Jacob knew exactly what the dream meant, for he immediately asked Joseph:
“Shall I and your mother, and your brothers actually bow down before you to the ground?”
Verse 11 says that Joseph’s brothers were jealous of him, but that Jacob kept the saying in his mind, or heart. Yes, Jacob knew exactly what the dream meant. And, it’s also very clear from Jacob’s words, that he understood the sun, moon, and eleven stars of the dream to be “symbols!” And good folks, isn’t it interesting that we’re not left here to guess or speculate as to what the sun, moon and eleven stars symbolized? From the language, it’s clear that the sun symbolized the #1 authority figure––Jacob—the head of the family. The moon, being the lesser of the two great lights (because it reflected the light of the sun), symbolized the lesser or #2 authority figure––Rachael—Joseph’s mother. And finally, we see that the eleven stars symbolized Joseph’s brothers; those of even lesser rank, who were the subjects under the higher authorities!
Folks, I have to say that this helps me immensely, when I see this same imagery used in our Isaiah 13 prophecy regarding “Babylon,” as well as other prophetic judgments of God against nations, kings, governments, or dynasties—yea even against His own people, Israel!
And so, by having an understanding of these “symbols,” we are now in a better position to understand the Isaiah 13 prophecy of Babylon. Obviously, the sun must be symbolic of the one of greatest authority, king Nebuchadnezzar, with the moon indicative of those of lesser rank, but close to him in authority. Then, the stars and constellations; his leaders lesser in rank, such as his generals, servants, and finally his citizenry, which ultimately would mean his entire kingdom!
God Punishes the World:
I don’t know if you noticed or not, but there is one little verse in Isaiah’s prophecy concerning Babylon, on which I have not yet commented. And that is verse 11, which is under item No. 8 in the above list of 10. It reads:
“And I will punish the world for its evil, and the wicked for their iniquity…”
One could rightly ask, “Does this mean that God punished the whole world in His judgment on Babylon?” Well, perhaps this may come as a surprise, but I would answer, “Yes,” it certainly does, when one understands “the world,” of which God spoke!
The Hebrew word for the English word “world” here, is “tebel,” and according to Strong’s #8398 it is pronounced “tay-bale.” Mr. Strong defines it, ”spec. a particular land, as Babylonia etc.” And so, with an understanding of “Babylon’s” world, it provides us with further insight into determining just what God meant when He spoke the Isaiah 13 prophecy concerning Babylon. It is now very clear to me, that He was going to punish their (Babylon’s) “world
” for its evil [vs. 11]. Yahweh had determined that it was time for wicked Babylon’s world to come to an end.
I believe it bears mentioning here that in vs. 6 of this prophecy, we find a term characterized by the prophets as, “the Day of the Lord”; a term that is frequently employed when speaking of the time and execution of God’s judgments. And this proves to be quite relevant when we come to the word “judgment” and “Day of the Lord” in the “new testament” prophecies! For example, I once understood John’s reference to his “being in the spirit on the Lord’s Day” of Revelation 1:10, to simply have reference to “the first day of the week.” However, I have since come to understand that somewhat differently, simply because of the context in which John is writing. Judging from the context of the things John is about to be shown, I just cannot see the relevance of “the first day of the week.” However, I do see tremendous relevance if he is referencing, “The day of the Lord,” i.e, that day (period of time) around which the Apocalypse is centered. I think it is imperative that we keep in mind that John is about to be given a special privilege of seeing into the immediate future, things concerning Jesus’ victory over, and judgment of all His enemies; things which the Lord said, “must shortly come to pass,” because “the time is (was) at hand” at the very time John wrote those things, which I believe was approximately 65-68 A.D, which was only 2-5 years before Jerusalem fell. [Revelation 1:1, 3; Revelation 22:6, 10, 20].
Isaiah 19—God’s Judgment on Egypt:
At this time, let us now move on as we continue with the old testament accounts of Yahweh’s judgment poured out upon the ancient evil empires. The next one I would like to cite would be that of Egypt, which was prophesied by Isaiah in Isaiah, chapters 19 & 20. Beginning with 19:1, 2, the Lord said:
[vs. 1] “An oracle concerning Egypt. Behold, the Lord is riding on a swift cloud and comes to Egypt and the hearts of the Egyptians shall melt within them.
[vs. 2] And I will stir up Egyptians against Egyptians, and they will fight each against another, and each against his neighbor…..
[vs. 4] and I will give over the Egyptians into the hand of a hard master, and a fierce king will rule over them, declares the Lord God of hosts…”
[20: 3, 4]”Then the Lord said, ‘As Isaiah has walked naked and barefoot for three years as a sign and a portent against Egypt and Cush, so shall the king of Assyria lead away the Egyptian captives and the Cushite exiles, both the young and the old, naked and barefoot, with buttocks uncovered, the nakedness of Egypt.'”
I’m sure you already know that this prophecy was fulfilled in about 480 B.C, when Egypt was defeated by the king of Assyria, who then led them away to captivity. In light of our study, perhaps the more important thing here for us, is that we find more of that colorful imagery and apocalyptic language employed. For example, notice the things of verse 1:
[Vs. 1] “The hearts of the Egyptians will melt within them.”
If you remember, in the prophecy concerning Babylon, we read the same thing regarding those people. I think by now we understand that the expression, “their hearts melting within them,” was not meant to be taken literally at all. But clearly, it was for the purpose of conveying to the reader (especially Israelite reader), a feeling of despair and hopelessness on the part of the Egyptians, as God wielded the sword of His judgment (the Assyrians) against them. Indeed, all hope for them was completely gone! Just as in the case of Babylon, so it was for Egypt in this prophecy of their judgment.
Yahweh Rides on the Clouds:
Again, from verse 1, just what would you suppose we are to think regarding “The Lord’s coming” described here in this spectacular visual of His “riding into Egypt on a swift cloud?” Does anyone believe this expression means that the Egyptians received a literal, spectacular, panaramic view of Yahweh riding across the Egyptian skies on a fast-moving cloud at “His coming?” Or does this awesome sight actually “symbolize” something else instead? Perhaps if we look at a few other old covenant passages, where “clouds” are used in such fashion, they may give us a little more insight into this awesome portrait that Isaiah paints here.
Leviticus 16:2: Here the Lord instructs Moses regarding the manner in which Aaron was to perform his duties as High Priest on the annual “Day of Atonement.” God said:
“Speak unto Aaron thy brother, that he come not at all times into the holy place within the veil before the mercy seat, which is upon the ark, that he die not: for I will appear in the cloud upon the mercy seat.”
It seems to me that this verse is rather straight-forward and speaks for itself. In my view, the “cloud” clearly suggests the “presence” of the Lord. The “cloud” also concealed God; otherwise, Aaron would have been destroyed by His glory!
Psalms 97:1-6: David writes;
“The Lord reigneth; let the earth rejoice; let the multitude of isles be glad thereof. Clouds and darkness are round about him: Righteousness and judgment are the habitation of his throne. A fire goeth before Him, and burneth up His enemies round about. His lightnings enlightened the world: the earth saw, and trembled. The hills melted like wax at the presence of the Lord, at the presence of the Lord of the whole earth. The heavens declare his righteousness, and all the people see his glory.”
In this Psalm, David speaks of “G
od’s judgment on His enemies.” David, not unlike the other prophets, spoke by the Spirit of God, and uses very similar colorful, yet frightful language to convey to Israel God’s power as the Judge of all men and nations. It’s also very interesting that David depicts God’s throne as being encompassed by “clouds” to signify here, not only God’s “presence,” but also His majesty, glory, and power in judgment.
Nahum 1:1-3: God Judges Nineveh:
“The oracle of Nineveh. The book of the vision of Nahum the Elkoshite. A jealous and avenging God is the Lord; The Lord is avenging and wrathful. The Lord takes vengeance on His adversaries, and He reserves wrath for His enemies. The Lord is slow to anger and great in power, and the Lord will by no means leave the guilty unpunished. In whirlwind and storm is His way. And, ‘clouds’ are the dust beneath His feet.”
As we clearly see here, David describes “clouds” as the dust beneath the feet of our Great Creator.
“He lays the beams of His upper chambers in the waters; He makes the ‘clouds’ His chariot; He walks upon the wings of the wind.”
“From the brightness before Him, passed His thick clouds, hailstones and coals of fire, The Lord also thundered in the heavens. And the Most High uttered His voice…”
As we see in these marvelous passages from the “old covenant” writings, “clouds” were used extensively in prophecies concerning judgment to symbolize God’s “presence” or His “coming” in those judgments! So far, we have read of His coming to Egypt “riding on a swift cloud.” Then we saw Nahum describing His coming with the clouds in judgment on Nineveh, with clouds depicted as the “dust beneath His feet.” And then David describes the “clouds” as being “God’s chariot.”
Good folks, I really believe we have established quite convincingly, that all the marvelous celestial imagery that was displayed in those old testament prophecies of judgment, is not to be understood as literal “heavenly” calamities, but rather as signs and symbols. And as we have also seen, the meanings of the signs and symbols found in prophetic speech can most accurately be explained by what we see in the “fulfillments” of those prophecies. “Clouds” were indeed very conspicuous in those judgments of God.
Joel 2:28-32—God’s Judgment on the House of Judah and Jerusalem:
The next old testament judgment prophecy that I would like to examine is the prophecy by Joel in Joel 2. In this entire chapter, God, through the prophet Joel, pronounced judgment on His own people, the house of Judah, the vast majority of whom had forsaken the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and were playing the harlot. Their history is one of disobedience and idolatry, as was her sister, the house of Israel. In 721 B.C, Yahweh had given the house of Israel a writ of divorce (Jer. 3;8), and delivered them into the hands of the Assyrians, at which time their “kingdom” came to an end, as they were taken captive and dispersed among the nations (gentiles).
Sadly enough, Judah did not learn from the plight of the house of Israel (ten northern tribel). As Yahweh said: she (Judah) “was more treacherous than her sister Israel” [Jeremiah 3:8-11]. God even sent her away into 70 years of exile in Babylon, albeit, she still forsook her Lord. By the time of the first coming of Jesus, Judah had become nothing less than a rotten, putrifying corpse [See Matthew 23:29-38; 24:28]!
In vss. 28-32 of Joel’s prophecy, God said:
“And it will come about after this, that I will pour out My Spirit on all mankind; And your sons and daughters will prophesy, your old men will dream dreams, your young men will see visions, and even on the male and female servants, I will pour out My Spirit in those days. And I will display wonders in the sky and on the earth, blood, fire, and columns of smoke. The sun will be turned into darkness, and the moon into blood before the great and awesome day of the Lord comes. And it will come about that whoever calls on the name of the Lord will be delivered; for on Mount Zion and in Jerusalem there will be those who escape [Matthew 24:16 – believers in Jesus – the righteous remnant or elect of Judah – jg], as the Lord has said, even among the survivors whom the Lord calls“ [See also Matthew 24:16].
I’m sure you would agree with me that this is one of the most quoted passages (at least part of it) in the Scriptures. We recognize it as the prophecy from which Peter quoted a portion on the day of Pentecost [Acts 2:16-21]. At that great event, the apostles (who were Galileans) were proclaiming the Word of God to Jews from every nation under heaven, in their own native tongues. This being, because the apostles were endowed with the miraculous gifts of the Holy Spirit (the gift of tongues being one of those gifts). As this was noised abroad, some of the Jews were mocking and charging the apostles with drunkenness. In response to that charge,
Peter offered Joel’s prophecy as evidence that what they were witnessing, was exactly what the prophet Joel had prophesied centuries earlier. But my dear friends, as wonderful as that part of the prophecy is, it seems that most of the time, when we read from Peter’s quote on Pentecost [Acts 2:16-21], we seem to give all of our attention to only three verses [See Acts 2:16-18], while seemingly just brushing hurriedly over vss. 19-21. These verses say:
“And I will grant wonders in the sky above, and signs on the earth beneath, blood, and fire, and vapor (columns) of smoke. The sun shall be turned to darkness, and the moon into blood, before the great and glorious day of the Lord shall come. And it shall be that everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.”
Why, just look at the treasure trove of information in those words! For sure, these verses should not be separated from the rest, but should remain in concert with the verses preceding them; all as a unit! The reason for this is because they are all parts of the same prophecy! Please let us now look further into that prophecy?
First, we clearly see signs and symbols that were very similar to those that appeared in all the other “old testament” prophetic passages we examined. And we found that all of the signs and symbols were indicative of things centered around “God’s judgment” on a nation or people. So I would ask, why should it be any different in this case? Surely, if we are shown what those signs and symbols meant in the “old testament,” what possible reason could there be, to assume that they would mean something entirely different in the “new testament scriptures? Obviously, 1st century Jewish disciples would not have understood them any differently! Am I making sense here? If you would please look in both Peter’s quotation of Joel [Acts 2:16-21], and also Joel’s original prophecy [Joel 2:28-32], I believe you will conclude that it is indeed a prophecy of God’s judgment on the house of Judah, Jerusalem, and the temple, when Jesus wielded His sword of judgment (the Romans and their allies) on them in 70 A.D. Moreover, regarding this same prophecy of Joel, the apostle Peter tells us, in about 65 A.D, (only about 5 years before its fulfillment), “the end of all things is at hand… [1Peter 4:7].” The same “all things” of which Jesus spoke in Luke 21:22. James, who wrote in the same time period as Peter, in James 5:9, clearly said: “…behold the Judge is standing right at the door.”
Judgment and Salvation to come Simultaneously:
I also believe you will see in this prophecy of Joel, that there was both salvation and judgment prophesied, and would be fulfilled within the same time-frame; “salvation” for those Israelites who would accept their Messiah and the gospel, and “judgment” for those Israelites who would not.
Some well-meaning disciples insert a time gap of at least 2,000 years between Acts 2:16-18 and 19-20. They apply vss. 16-18 to Pentecost and then apply vss. 19-20 to a perceived future “end of the world.” Then they pick back up with vs. 21 and apply it and the rest of the chapter to Pentecost. Perhaps the reason for this is because they cannot envision how ”judgment and salvation” could come within the same time-frame.
But please look again with me, briefly, at a portion of Joel’s original prophecy from which Peter quoted—[Joel 2:31-32]. He said:
“The sun will be turned into darkness, and the moon into blood, before the great and awesome Day of the Lord come. And, it will come about that, whoever calls on the name of the Lord will be delivered. For on Mount Zion and in Jerusalem, there will be those who escape, and the Lord has said, even among the survivors whom the Lord calls.”
Notice Joel’s use of the phrases, “will be delivered,” “those who escape,” and “the survivors.” Very interesting, I believe! Please notice that all of the things of which Joel spoke were to take place “in those days [vs. 29].” Yes, the same “those days“ in which God said He would, ”pour out His Spirit upon all flesh [vs. 28]”: the same “those days“ in which He would, ”display wonders in the sky and on the earth [vss. 30-31].” Good folks, I must say, I find that very interesting to say the least; so interesting that it causes me to ask such questions as these:
Who are those that were to be “delivered?”
From what were they to be “delivered?”
Who are those who would “escape?”
From what would they “escape?”
Why are those that would escape, “in Jerusalem?”
Who are the “survivors?”
What would they “survive?”
Because the old covenant scriptures have by now, clearly established for us the meaning of prophetic, apocalyptic language, we will now proceed into the new covenant scriptures, for it is there where we will find the answers to each of the seven questions above regarding Joel’s prophecy.
Let us first consider those whom Joel said would be “delivered” and those who would “escape.” Good folks, I believe these are the same faithful Jews that we read of in such passages as Mat. 24:16 and Lk. 12:32, that is, the remnant of faithful Jews/the little flock who accepted the Lord Jesus as their Messiah during the 40-year transitional period from Pentecost (30 A.D.) to the “last days Judgment,” which was to come upon the house of Judah, Jerusalem, and the temple, in 70 A. D. I would like to demonstrate this by the use of the words of our Master Himself, beginning in Matthew, chapter 23.
Here, Jesus is speaking in the temple for the last time before His arrest. Here, He verbally blistered the unbelieving Jews, especially the chief priests, scribes, Pharisees, and Sadducees! In this discourse, He charged them with, not only their gross hypocrisy, but also with “the murder of the prophets“ [vss. 34, 37]. And please note carefully where He said, that upon “them” (i. e., unbelieving 1st century Jews – jg) would fall the guilt of “all” the righteous blood from Abel to one of God’s prophets named Zechariah [vs. 35]. He further said in vs. 36:
“Truly I say to you, all these things shall come upon ‘this generation’ (that then-present, 1st century generation–jg).”
Of their temple, Jesus said in vs. 38:
“Behold, your house is being left to you desolate!”
Matthew 24: Judgment Pronounced in the Olivet Discourse:
Immediately following those words, Jesus and His apostles left the temple. This brings us then to chapter 24 where Jesus, to His apostles, gave what is commonly referred to as, “His Olivet Discourse.”
Folks, in my view, this chapter is of utmost importance because it is the chapter in which the Master, from a back-drop of that “old testament imagery,” uses the same language as the prophets to describe the fall of Jerusalem, the temple, and the Jewish nation. This monumental event of 70 A.D, would bring a complete end to the old covenant or Mosaic age [Daniel 9:26-27; Daniel 12:9, 13; Matthew 24:3, 14]. For sure, by the time the inspired writer of Hebrews wrote his epistle in about 64 A.D, the old Mosaic covenant was “becoming obsolete, growing old, and thus ready to disappear” [Heb. 8:13].
Now as Jesus and His apostles depart from the temple, His disciples pointed out to Him, all the great, elegant, and beautiful buildings that comprised the temple complex. At this time, their Master said to them in Matthew 24:2:
“Do you not see all these things? Truly I say to you, not one stone here shall be left upon another, which will not be torn down.”
We can only imagine how utterly shocked and perplexed the apostles must have been to hear such an announcement from their Lord! And so they asked Him in vs. 3:
“Tell us, when will these things be, and what will be the sign of Your coming (Greek-parousia), and of the end of the age” (Gr. “aion,” meaning “age,” not world or planet-jg).
Before telling them exactly what the “sign“ of His “coming” would be, He first informed them of some terrible things that were going to happen prior to “the sign” they had asked for; things of which He gave them warning, so as to not be misled or caught off-guard [vs.4]. Those things were:
Many false Christ’s would appear [vs. 5].
They would hear of wars and rumors of wars. But the end is not yet! [vs. 6].
Nation would rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom [vs.7].
Famines, pestilences, and earthquakes would come [vs.7].
Many among his apostles and disciples, would be delivered up, and killed [vs. 9].
There would be a great falling away [vs. 10–See also Acts 20:29-30; 2Thessalonians 2:2-3, 5-7].
Many false prophets would come [vs. 11—See also 2Peter 3:2; Jude 4, 17-18].
The love of many to grow cold [vs. 12].
The Gospel would be preached to the whole world [vs. 14]. After this had been accomplished, then “the end” would come. Paul dec
lares at the time he wrote his epistle to the Colossians, that the preaching of the gospel to the whole world (Roman empire) had been accomplished [Colossians 1:23; Romans 10:18b].
And finally, it is in vs. 15, where Jesus tells His apostles exactly what the sign would be, of which they had inquired in vs. 3. He said:
Therefore, when you see the abomination of desolation which was spoken of through Daniel the prophet, standing in the holy place (let the reader understand).”
And so it was then, that the believers were to recognize that Jerusalem’s desolation was at hand, because those were, “the days of vengeance in order that all things which are written may be fulfilled” [Luke 21:20, 22].
Matthew records Jesus saying, that when that happened, there would come:
”a great tribulation, such as has not occurred since the beginning of the world until now, nor ever shall be” [Matthew 24:21].
This would be the same tribulation of which Daniel prophesied in Daniel 12:1. Daniel said:
“…And there will be a time of distress such as never occurred since there was a nation until that time; and at that time your people, everyone who is found written in the book, will be rescued” [Comp. Matthew 24:16].
Good folks, it is here, that I will invoke those words of Joel’s prophecy. I’m sure you remember that He said there would be those, “who would escape from Judea” [Joel 2:32]; those “who would be delivered” [vs. 32]; those “who would be survivors” [vs. 32]. In light of those statements, please consider now Jesus’ words in Matthew 24:16; Luke 21:20-22, as He warned His apostles:
“Then let those who are in Judea, flee to the mountains. Let him that is on the housetop not go down to get the things out that are in his house … “ [Matthew 24:16].
“But when you see Jerusalem surrounded by armies, then recognize that her desolation is at hand. Then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains, and let those who are in the midst of the city depart, and let not those who are in the country enter the city; because these are days of vengeance, in order that all things which are written may be fulfilled” [Luke 21:20-22].
Yes, these would be the same Roman armies, of whom the angel told Daniel, would “finish shattering the power of the holy people (house of Judah–jg)” [Daniel 12:7].
Good folks, to me it seems so clear, that as a result of Jesus’ warning to His apostles (who would, in turn, teach all other disciples in Judea), to flee to the mountains when they saw the Roman armies and their allies surrounding the city. And in this way, they would be “delivered (saved).” They ”escaped” from Jerusalem; they were “survivors” because they did in fact, “flee to the mountains.” Josephus recorded that the Jewish Christians fled Jerusalem, to the city of Pella, in the hills of Perea, with no record of any of them perishing! Just as a side note, it’s also interesting that this statement, “flee to the mountains,” is the source of our idiom, “head for the hills.”
Dear believer, in light of this testimony, it is much clearer to me now, why Peter kept exhorting the Jews on Pentecost to, “be saved from this perverse generation” [Acts 2:40]. The KJV renders it, “save yourselves from this untoward generation!” For many years, it was my understanding that Peter, here, had reference to their, “being saved from their sins.” But, I can see now that I was mistaken. Peter had already given them instructions concerning forgiveness of their sins back in vs. 38. But those 3,000 Jews, who became Christians that day, were subsequently instructed by the apostles of Jesus, of the same imminent destruction spoken by Jesus to His apostles in Matthew 24. In my own mind, those particular words of Peter implied that their submission to Jesus and the gospel, would not only save them from their sins, but at the same time, by way of subsequent instruction from the apostles, would save them from the great tribulation and destruction that he quoted from Joel’s prophecy, which was soon to be fulfilled.
Let us now go back to that prophetic, apocalyptic language that Jesus used to describe exactly what would happen immediately after the great tribulation of Matthew 24:21. In vss. 29-31, He said:
[vs.29] “…the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will fall from the sky and the powers of the heavens will be shaken,
[vs. 30] and then the sign of the Son of Man will appear in the sky, and then all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of the sky with power and great glory.
[vs. 31] And He will send forth His an
gels with a great trumpet and they will gather together His elect from the four winds, from one end of the sky to the other.”
What I would like to call to your attention in this passage, are the words of Jesus in vs. 30 which say: “…and they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds…”
Do you remember in our study of the old covenant scriptures, we found that the figurative phrase “coming on the clouds” was used frequently as a symbol or sign. For example, the picture of God coming in judgment of Egypt, “riding on a swift cloud” in Isaiah 19:1, or when He came in judgment on Nineveh in Nahum 1:3, with the clouds being the dust under His feet, or as David said in Psalms 104:3, “He makes the clouds His chariot.” Then there was the cloud upon the mercy seat atop the ark of the covenant, which symbolized the very “presence” of God. So, when we put all of these things together, it becomes quite clear that the expression, “coming on the clouds” was commonly used to symbolize God’s presence in judgment on His enemies. And so, in light of all these facts this, I believe it begs the question:
If we understand what this expression, “coming on the clouds” symbolized in the “old testament,” what do you suppose we should think when we see the exact same term used by our Master in the “new testament?” Wouldn’t that expression still mean the same thing?” Good folks, I believe the answer to that is obvious!
The reason I ask these questions is because it is the understanding of many disciples (just as it was once mine also), that this verse teaches that when the Lord Jesus would come the second time, He would come in physical, bodily form, and that in doing so, He would come on literal physical clouds.
First, please let me say, that I would never be critical of anyone who has this understanding. I can certainly understand why one would think thusly. But then I find myself asking more questions; questions like:
Didn’t Jesus say in Matthew 16:27-28, that He was going to come “in the glory of His Father?”
And didn’t Jesus also say in that same passage, that he was going to come in the lifetime of some of those who were listening to Him?
And didn’t He say that He was to return in the same manner as His Father?
Well, if that’s the case (and I certainly believe that it is), then wouldn’t He have to, come on the clouds just like His Father? After all, the scriptures said that The Father came into Egypt “riding on a swift cloud.” And the clouds are also “the dust beneath His feet!” And as David said, the clouds were “the Father’s chariot!”
But because “clouds” in the old testament were symbols of “God’s power, presence, and coming,” I run into a problem of explaining this. For example, I don’t believe that it would be the understanding of any one of us, that The Father “literally/physically” rode into Egypt on a physical cloud,” when He brought Judgment upon those people. So then, why should we demand that when Jesus returned, He could not do so, without coming in “physical form?” Also why would He have to come on a “literal physical cloud?” I’m also reminded that Jesus is no longer in “physical” form, but rather is “a Spirit.” Paul, in perhaps 58 A.D, said of Him in 2Cor. 5b:
“…even though we have known Christ according to the flesh, yet (now) we know Him thus no longer.”
I would like to offer just one more passage from the perspective that I view this matter of Jesus “coming with the clouds of Heaven,” After having been betrayed by Judas, He is delivered into the hands of the Jewish authorities. Shortly thereafter He is brought before Caiaphas the high priest. It is here that our Master uses that expression one more time. And folks, I believe you will find the High Priest’s reaction to what Jesus said, to be both interesting and also quite informative! In Matthew 26:63-65, Caiaphas said to Jesus:
“I adjure you by the living God, that You tell us whether You are The Christ, the Son of God. Jesus said to him, ‘You have said it yourself, nevertheless I tell you, hereafter (you) shall see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of power, and coming on the clouds of heaven. Then the high priest tore his robes saying, He has blasphemed; what further need do we have of witnesses? Behold, you have now heard the blasphemy!”
O what a marvelous passage! Don’t you just love it? Good folks, please consider this with me: Have you ever wondered why Caiaphas, upon hearing Jesus say, “hereafter you shall see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of power, and coming on the clouds of heaven,” reacted as he did? Did you ever wonder just why he became so enraged and infuriated that he would literally “tear his robes,” and then make the most serious charge of blasphemy against Jesus? So, why all of this rage simply because Jesus told him that he would see Him “coming on the clouds of heaven?” Just what was it in those few words of Jesus that set him off like that? Well, I believe if we would consider
a few things here, Matthew will give us some insight into that!
First of all, let us keep in mind, that every Jew was extremely well-learned the old covenant scriptures, having been taught them from their early childhood [2 Timothy 3:15; Acts 13:27; 15:21]. And being “high priest,” this would have been especially true of Caiaphas! Therefore, when Jesus declared that he was going to see Him “coming on the clouds,” it infuriated him for one simple reason: Caiaphas knew as well as anyone, and better than most, what “coming on the clouds” meant. He was all too familiar with those judgments that we just covered in this study, where “God the Father” came down from Heaven, on the clouds of heaven. And now, here’s Jesus making the same claim for Himself. In other words, “like Father, like Son”—thus the charge of blasphemy!
Caiaphas knew that every prophetic utterance that pictured God “coming on the clouds,” was also a symbol of His coming in judgment! For example:
He knew very well that it was God who “rode on a swift cloud” in judgment on Egypt [Isaiah 19:1].
And he also was very familiar with Nahum’s prophecy, which spoke of the clouds as being, “the dust under God’s feet.” And he knew this was God’s judgment on Nineveh!
And, he certainly knew of David’s marvelous declaration that the clouds were God’s chariot [Psalms 104:3].
And last, but certainly not least, he was all too familiar with Joel’s prophecy of judgment that was to come upon that nation (Israel) in “the last days” of that old covenant age; the same prophecy that Peter later quoted on Pentecost! In that prophecy of Joel, he employed all of the catastrophic, celestial imagery in describing that great judgment upon Jerusalem, the temple, and the nation!
And so, with Caiaphas knowing about these things regarding the Father’s coming in judgment, and now hears Jesus declaring to be the very Son of God, and would come in the very same manner as His Father, and in His Father’s glory, he just couldn’t handle it. In today’s parlance, we would say that Caiaphas completely “lost it;” he had a “total melt-down,” tearing his priestly robes!
Yes, dear friends, just as the Babylonians saw (perceived) God “riding on a swift cloud” into Babylon, The Master, with all judgment having been committed unto Him by His Father [John 5:22], came riding on the clouds of judgment on Jerusalem, the temple, and the Jewish nation in 70 A.D. Yes, I understand that to be the same “coming on the clouds” mentioned by John in Revelation 1:7, and yes, the same coming of which He had promised when He said He would come “in the glory of His Father,” in the lifetime of some of those that stood in His presence in Matthew 16:27-28, where He earlier announced His coming.
Good folks, I don’t pretend to speak for anyone but myself here, but in light of all the “old testament” examples of God’s judgment on His enemies, I am fully persuaded, that all of the apocalyptic imagery of the sun and moon not shining, the stars and constellations either falling from the sky or not shining, were simply figurative language; signs or symbols of something or someone, other than themselves. In other words these things symbolize the fall of kingdoms, governments, and individuals in authority upon whom God’s judgment fell. therefore, I believe those celestial calamities, just like in Yahweh’s judgment on Babylon (Isa. 19) are meant to be taken figuratively and not literally, otherwise the material fabric of our universe would have been destroyed many times over through the centuries!
If this little study accomplishes nothing more than to cause us all to think and be more aware of the purpose of prophetic, apocalyptic speech, it will all be worth the effort, and I will be thankful. And I would only hope that when we see such imagery used by Jesus or His apostles in the “new covenant” scriptures, and especially in The Book of Revelation, that we use reason and consult the source of such language—the “old testament scriptures” so that our imaginations do not run wild, causing us to miss the real message the language was designed to convey. This, I believe, will keep us safe from the 47 foot rattlesnake! ☺
For this reason, I am persuaded that all of us need to study more in the old covenant Scriptures so this doesn’t happen to us. I realize more every day, just how deficient I am in those ancient oracles, and how badly I need to devote more of my time in those sacred pages of our Father. May the Lord richly bless you with His grace and peace.
Yours in Him,