24 March 2016

The Sky is NOT Falling: A Brief Survey of Apocalyptic Symbolism - Pt 1

In this short series, I would like to take you on a brief journey through some of the apocalyptic and symbolic language found in the Old Testament Scriptures. I will be taking a look at the types of verses that set the stage and lay the solid ground-work for understanding the New Testament prophecy verses that seem to confuse so many readers of the Bible these days. 

Sadly, when it comes to the New Testament Bible prophecy scenario, so many readers are oblivious to how so much of the same language is used frequently in Old Testament prophecy, and so they total miss and misunderstand what is being said by this language. 

Probably the biggest cause of this, is the fact that so much attention is given to the New Testament writings alone, and so people get a truncated understanding of language. 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. But worse yet, it has made the stories of the New Testament to be taken out of context fully.

After all, while the New Testament is the good news - it is only truly good because it comes at the end of the story that contained the "bad" news. Without understanding the whole old story, the good news is not ever to be truly understood - it is at best just a truncated view of the story. The idea of understanding the whole story of Scripture, especially the Hebrew Scriptures, in order to better understand the story of the New Testament was the general thrust of of a lecture I gave at a church conference in 2012. 

I opened up that lecture by telling the story of the shocking question that was raised by one man. He 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.

I also discussed the response a pastor gave to the question “Did Jesus preach the gospel?” The pastor reasoned that since the gospel is the story of 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 could understand the gospel until after the cross and resurrection and Pentecost.”

That is a truncated New Testament only story that makes little sense out of its context in the whole story. Of course, there are so many other things in the New Testament that are totally misunderstood because of this same type of reasons. So when it comes to the Bible story, without the old, the new makes little sense, and that is why things have gotten so bad in the modern church sadly.

There are so many pieces of the Old Testament that appear in the New, and without properly grasping the original reference, it leads to so many wacky interpretations. For our purposes in this series, I would like to focus on national judgment language in general, especially the sun, moon and stars imagery.

Just like Chicken Little, the majority of modern day churchgoers have a theological understanding that causes them to believe the Bible teaches about the sky literally falling. And just like Chicken Little, they are wrong. The recent "blood moon" fiasco brought more of this type of craziness to the limelight due to typical misunderstandings.

The typical response to the "end time" scenario of these cosmic occurrences, most will respond and simply state that obviously these things have not yet happened, because we have not seen the stars literally fall from the sky, or the sky roll up like a scroll, and other similar ideas. 

Of course, one of the main scriptures in question for this type of study is that of 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)

Is this verse talking about the end of the entire world where the actual sun, moon and stars and creation itself is destroyed? Most in the church today seem to see it that way. 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 not all do. Dispensational teacher John Walvoord 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, TheApocalypse, 1902 – quoted by Walvoord, TheRevelation of Jesus Christ, 1966)

On the contrary, a literal approach has major difficulties, as stars tend to be much larger than the Earth. 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. 

Hebrew symbolism and idioms are often ignored or unknown to many today. Most readers take a surface level view of the Scripture, and use 21st century 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. So, let us go back and survey how the Hebrew Scriptures used terms like these. We'll start with Genesis 22:17, which tells us:

I will surely bless you, and I will surely multiply your offspring as the stars of heaven and as the sand that is on the seashore. And your offspring shall possess the gate of his enemies and in your offspring shall all the nations of the earth be blessed, because you have obeyed my voice. (Genesis 22:17-18 ESV)

Now while he does not refer to the offspring as stars, this is an early connection of people and stars language being referenced together. Of course, we see that this prophecy came to pass, as we are told plainly in Duet. 1:10:

The LORD your God has multiplied you, and behold, you are today as numerous as the stars of heaven. (Duet. 1:20 ESV)

Does that mean Abraham’s descendants have been multiplied to number into the billions, or however many the inconceivable amount of stars actually is? No, of course not, it is being used in a symbolic manner to mean a large amount, not a literal amount.

Now, when you jump over to 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 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 elements of the universe were going to literally bow to him. Of course we know that was not the case, and 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 cosmic 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 – a political power basically. Other countries use stars on their flag in a similar manner. 

I will now share a series of 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, LastDays Madness, 4th ed., p. 144)

The rest of these quotes are actually ones that DeMar quoted following what he just said:

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, ACommentary on the New Testament from the Talmud and Hebraica: Matthew – 1 Corinthians, ps. 319-320 – [1859])

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 ExplanatoryNotes, v.3 p. 110 [1832])

Thus it is that in the prophetic language great commotions and revolutions upon earth, are often represented by commotions and changes in the heavens. (Thomas Newton, Dissertationson the Prophecies, Which Have Remarkably Been Fulfilled, and at this Time areFulfilling in the World, p.362 [1754])

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 onthe New Testament, v. 1 p 118 [1842])

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 [1847])

Hopefully, you can see hos historically this language of cosmology was not to be understood literal, but figurative and symbolic of national judgement from the Lord. We will pick up here and proceed in the next part.

View the other parts of the topic

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4