25 March 2016

The Sky is NOT Falling: A Brief Survey of Apocalyptic Symbolism - Pt 2

In part one of this series we began examining how cosmic language - sun, moon, stars - was not always considered literal heavenly/planetary bodies like we tend to assume today. In the ancient worldview, this language was symbolic and used frequently to refer to rulers, leaders, nations and the like. We ended by looking at some quotes from theologians of the past on this approach We pick up now by looking at how another aspect of it is seen as related to Israel’s surrounding pagan nations that worshiped these celestial bodies – or more precisely, worshiped 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)

This verse is ripe with the language of Yahweh's Divine Council, and the allotment by Yahweh of the rebellious nations to those lesser gods of His council. Those gods were allotted for the other people under, while Israel was to be faithful only to Yahweh. Yet, the practice of worshiping these celestial objects 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 things like the sun, moon and stars, is not always to be considered literal.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 across the board.

And while they do interpret this 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 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, Creation and Blessing: A Guide tothe 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 JesusChrist, p. 188)

Yet, even after having such knowledge, when they get to Matthew 24:29 where Yeshua is drawing from the same Genesis symbolism, they do a flip flop in understanding, and claim it to be a literal celestial destruction. 

Even with the Scriptures clearly teaching that those things were to happen before the generation hearing him would end, it still is lost to them. 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, BiblicalHermeneutics [1890], 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 the world had ever seen. 

They subjugated Babylonia and its Chaldean rulers like they did so many others. As many of the nations tried overtime, they caused revolts and uprisings in order to break free. 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.

According to the Mesopotamian creation epic titled EnumaElish, 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, we can see the important part that constellations played for this nation, and so 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 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. 

Note and file away that we also see here a reference to a woman in labor, which should ring in our minds as being 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 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 also not celestial type language as we have been discussing, but it is the type of apocalyptic symbolism that we find in conjunction with it as we get 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 to be 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.”

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 say 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 too – so it was even more confirmation to see Gill does too. 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’s 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. (TheIVP Bible Background Commentary – Old Testament, p. 624)

This 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 it to. 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) 
I am hoping by now you are starting to see a little bit of the point, and that this language is commonly used to speak of non-literal cosmic events in history, which we will see in upcoming articles was spoken of as coming to the first century church. I will stop here for now, and will move into other historic happenings in the next part.

View the other parts of the topic

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4