28 March 2016

The Sky is NOT Falling: A Brief Survey of Apocalyptic Symbolism - Pt 4

I've spent the past three previous posts examining the issue of misunderstanding language in the New Testament that had an established symbolic meaning in the Old Testament, and the kinds of issues that causes in modern interpretations of biblical prophecy and the nature of "end time" events. In this final installment, I will examine a couple more examples, and then we'll close out this series.


Moving on, Amos gives us a prophecy against Israel, fulfilled in 722 BD when Sargon II of Assyria attacked them.
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 addressed 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 worship of Yahweh. They 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, we see in chapter eight that 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. We see a similar occurrence of this 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)
Again, in both cases, the judgment brought upon them is described as their sun going down in the day time. But in neither case did the literal sun go down in midday nor stop shining - it is symbolic language as we see over and over.


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)
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 – 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 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)
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 a brief recap, here are some of the things we have seen used commonly so far in our study of this language in the Old Testament:

  • Cloud coverings representing calamities
  • Yahweh riding on the clouds 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 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.

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 language we’ve been discussing, they were not ignorant enough to think it meant planet ending destruction like most do today.

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 prophecy experts have used it for the past 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 looking over in the parallel passage in Luke 21, we 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. We have seen over and over again how this language is dealing with national types of judgments, and not world-ending destruction.

Therefore, unless the text itself gives clear testimony that this language is being used in a totally different fashion than usual, then we should assume the same prophetic and symbolic usage is being utilized. 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 be woodenly literal, but they have totally disconnected this language from the common symbolic usage and have come up with tons of fantastical stories based on those interpretations.

Add to that an ignorance of history and what happened just a few short years after the writing of the New Testament, and the about-to-come judgment against the nation at that time is ignored, and all of this language gets thrown into our future, and the first century application is totally unknown. But that is a topic for a future discussion.

View the other parts of the topic

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4