Feast: The Return of the Clouds
Given 25-Sep-18; 36 minutes
Some of you may remember the palaver in the 1950's about a dreadful “nuclear winter” resulting from the widespread detonation of nuclear weapons. Pundits fretted that these detonations would force enough dust particles and debris high into the atmosphere to impede sunlight, inhibit photosynthesis, change weather patterns, render agriculture difficult if not impossible, cause famine, and so on. They talked about dust clouds lingering up there for decades.
There are other types of clouds than the ones Judy Collins viewed from both sides, and other types of clouds then those resulting from the fall of Israel at the outset of Jacob’s Trouble, clouds bearing the flotsam and jetsam of American decadence.
There are the clouds associated specifically with the Day of the Lord. Those clouds are the subject of my comments today. The church of God, using the day-for-a-year principle, generally understands the Day of the Lord to be the year-long period of time culminating in Christ’s touching down on the Mount of Olives. Most of us feel that it occurs as the final year of the time of Jacob’s trouble.
In all, the term “Day of the Lord” appears eighteen times in the Old Testament and four times in the New Testament. Additionally, the term “Day of the Lord Jesus” appears twice, and there are also other appearances in the terms of “His day” or “My day.”
Now let us take a look at this other type of cloud, God’s cloud. We will read from Isaiah 4 from the God’s Word translation. The setting is in Jerusalem in the last days.
Isaiah 4:3-6 (GW) Then whoever is left in Zion and whoever remains in Jerusalem will be called holy, everyone who is recorded among the living in Jerusalem. The Lord will wash away the filth of Zion’s people. He will clean bloodstains from Jerusalem with a spirit of judgment and a spirit of burning. The Lord will create a cloud of smoke during the day and a glowing flame of fire during the night over the whole area of Mount Zion and over the assembly. His glory will cover everything. It will be a shelter from the heat during the day as well as a refuge and hiding place from storms and rain.
Here, we have a smoky cloud created specifically by God for the purpose of protecting His people in Jerusalem. In Isaiah 4, you all recognize echoes of the Exodus cloud.
Exodus 14:19-20 (GNT) The angel of God, who had been in front of the army of Israel, moved and went to the rear. The pillar of cloud also moved until it was between the Egyptians and the Israelites. The cloud made it dark for the Egyptians, but gave light to the people of Israel, and so the armies could not come near each other all night.
Now drop down to verse 24:
Exodus 14:24 (GNT) Just before dawn the Lord looked down from the pillar of fire and cloud at the Egyptian army and threw them into a panic.
In this case, God, looking down from His cloud, protects His people while He discomforts His enemies the Egyptians. Of course, this is the same cloud which protected the children of Israel in their wilderness wondering and the same one present at the giving of the law.
Drop down to verses 16-18:
Exodus 19:16-18 Then it came to pass on the third day, in the morning, that there were thunderings and lightnings, and a thick cloud on the mountain; and the sound of the trumpet was very loud, so that all the people who were in the camp trembled. And Moses brought the people out of the camp to meet with God, and they stood at the foot of the mountain. Now Mount Sinai was completely in smoke, because the Lord descended on it in fire. Its smoke went up like the smoke of a furnace, and the whole mountain trembled greatly.
Why does God use clouds in this way? When attended with earthquakes, thunder and lightning, clouds get people’s attention in a big way. In fact, clouds like that provide a dramatic signal of God’s presence, a sign that He is around them.
Characteristically, the cloud terrified the Israelites. So, the cloud becomes a vehicle for revelation, in this context of Exodus 19, so people could hear what God was saying, He could reveal certain things.
But there is a lot more to it. Ironically, you see, the cloud permits God to hide from the people, to cloak Himself, even when He is in their presence or very nearby. By changing the thickness of the cloud, God can control exactly how much of Himself He wants to reveal. By increasing the amount of smoke, He can ensure that no one gets too close to Him.
As a means to cloak and to reveal, the cloud makes a great emblem for God’s ability and penchant to control what people learn about Him, and what they do not. Understand that God does not need a cloud to hide information. The cloud is an emblem, like a symbol of God's ability, His proclivity to hide, and at the same time to reveal, as Christ explained to his disciples in Matthew 13.
Matthew 11:25, where Christ mentions the tension between revelation and concealment, He thanks His Father that He has “hidden these things from the wise and prudent and have revealed them to babes.”
God is sovereign over the knowledge that He reveals and what He hides. We learn of Him at His pleasure, and through His grace. Paul alludes to this fact in II Timothy 3, mentioning there:
II Timothy 3:7 Always learning and never able to come to the knowledge of the truth.
Study as we might, and with the best of intentions, we come to understand only what God wants us to understand at any given moment.
Having established the irony or the paradox that clouds at once hide and reveal, let us review some scriptures which link God to clouds.
In Psalm 97:2, the psalmist writes that, “Clouds and thick darkness surround Him [God].” They envelop Him; we will see that sort of terminology again. Psalm 18 records David’s words in reference to his salvation, that is, to God.
Psalm 18:10-12 He rode on a cherub and flew; He flew upon the wings of the wind. He made darkness His secret place; His canopy around Him was dark waters and thick clouds of the skies. From the brightness before Him, His thick clouds passed with hailstones and coals of fire.
This is telling. These clouds are His clouds, not so much in that He created them, which He did, but rather because they were so special, not just carrying water, but they carried “coals of fire” as well. God’s clouds are supernatural.
David tells us these special clouds were God’s covering. He possessed them. In Nahum 1, the prophet Nahum portrays clouds as the dust under God’s feet.
Nahum 1:3 The Lord is slow to anger and great in power, and will not at all acquit the wicked. The Lord has His way in the whirlwind and in the storm, and the clouds are the dust of His feet.
So I reiterate that God’s clouds are not just your ordinary, everyday rain-cloud, what scientists call common colloidal aerosol made up predominately of water vapor. Note especially that they often come with fire and smoke, which makes them truly extraordinary.
Smoke is inimical to human life, inhibiting breathing and inducing choking. We instinctively flee from smoke. Only God’s intervention would permit a person to coexist with God in His cloud. That type of intervention probably did take place, probably when the high priest entered the Holy of Holies on the Day of Atonement.
But God’s clouds are special and unique for a second and more important reason. His clouds become lenses for His glory. The translators of the Contemporary English Version and the Good News translation render Isaiah 4:5 as:
Isaiah 4:5 (CEV) Then the Lord will cover the whole city and its meeting places with a thick cloud each day and with a flaming fire each night. God’s own glory will be like a huge tent that covers everything.
Isaiah 4:5 (GNT) Then over Mount Zion and over all who are gathered there, the Lord will send a cloud in the daytime and smoke and a bright flame at night. God's glory will cover and protect the whole city.
Exodus 16:10 (NKJV) Now it came to pass, as Aaron spoke to the whole congregation of the children of Israel, that they looked toward the wilderness, and behold, the glory of the Lord appeared in the cloud.
Exodus 24:16 Now the glory of the Lord rested on Mount Sinai, and the cloud covered it six days. And on the seventh day He called to Moses out of the midst of the cloud.
We will not be able to look at the various scriptures about the cloud which filled Solomon’s Temple, but I will just cite the incident here at its dedication:
I Kings 8:10-11 And it came to pass, when the priests came out of the holy place, a cloud filled the house of the Lord, so that the priests could not continue ministering because of the cloud [perhaps because of the smoke in it], for the glory of the Lord filled the house of the Lord.
God, in His glory, is present in His clouds. Whether we want to think of God-clouds as a manifestation of the Shekinah or not, it does not make any difference. It is clear that He is there, present in His clouds.
As a New Testament allusion to His clouds and to His glory, please turn to Matthew 17 to one of the accounts of the Transfiguration:
Matthew 17:5-6 While he was still speaking, behold, a bright cloud overshadowed them [enveloped them]; and a voice came out of the cloud saying, “This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased. Hear Him!” And when the disciples heard it, they fell on their faces and were greatly afraid.
Their reaction was a typical one. That is what happens when people are around God's clouds. People in the presence of God’s cloud fall into a state of naked terror. Again, this cloud hides God, so people do not die in the brightness of His glory. But it also provides the opportunity for Him to reveal something very important to the three disciples that they should listen to Christ. So, it facilitates communication and revelation between God and man.
After Christ’s resurrection, the apostle John refers to this very incident, and points out the glory involved.
John 1:14 And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory, the glory as of the only begotten Son of the Father, full of grace and truth.
Peter was also there at the transfiguration and he also brought forth the point of glory.
II Peter 1:17 For He received from God the Father honor and glory when such a voice came to Him from the Excellent Glory: “This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.”
Generally, the clouds of God reflect His glory, probably by fact that He is in those clouds. Turn to Zephaniah 1. This whole chapter is devoted to the Day of the Lord, expressed here as God’s reaction to sinning Judah. But as we are going to see, that is just the historical setting, because the prophecy includes all kinds of other nations, as verse 2 clearly indicates:
Zephaniah 1:2 I will utterly consume everything from the face of the land.”
Zephaniah 1:14-17 The great day of the Lord is near, it is near and hastens quickly; the noise of the day of the Lord is bitter; the mighty men shall cry out. That day is a day of wrath, a day of trouble and distress, a day of devastation and desolation, a day of darkness and gloominess, a day of clouds and thick darkness, a day of trumpet and alarm against the fortified cities and against the high towers. “I will bring distress upon men, so that they shall walk like blind men, because they have sinned against the Lord.”
Or, we could consider Joel 2. The prophet Joel, just like Zephaniah, links clouds with the Day of the Lord:
Joel 2:1-2 Blow the trumpet in Zion, and sound an alarm on My holy mountain! Let all the inhabitants of the land tremble; for the day of the Lord is coming, for it is at hand: a day of darkness and gloominess, a day of clouds and thick darkness.
As a third witness, consider Ezekiel 30. The prophecy here is about Egypt, but again, we are going to see that the impact is worldwide. So this is just the type:
Ezekiel 30:3 For the day is near, even the day of the Lord is near; it will be a day of clouds, the time of the Gentiles [nations].
Note the plural, nations. Turn to Ezekiel 32. This prophecy is still about Egypt. God says He will:
Ezekiel 32:7 “I will cover the heavens, and make its stars dark; I will cover the sun with a cloud, and the moon shall not give her light.”
In Psalm 104:3, to which we will not turn, the psalmist sees clouds as God’s chariot. Let us pursue this image a little bit, that is, God’s clouds as a means of transportation. If you stop to reflect, even the garden variety of clouds we see all the time are generally on the move, sometimes rapidly so. This fact informs the image of clouds as a means of transportation. Ezekiel 1, along with parts of Ezekiel 10, describe what we have come to call God’s portable throne.
I will focus on the cloud aspects here, rather than the throne or the angelic beings. Ezekiel introduces his description of the throne with a reference to clouds here in Ezekiel 1.
Ezekiel 1:4 Then I looked, and behold, a whirlwind was coming out of the north, a great cloud with raging fire engulfing itself; and brightness was all around it and radiating out of its midst like the color of amber, out of the midst of the fire.
Now Isaiah 14 mentions that God resides in the sides of the north; God is coming to Jerusalem; He has left His throne in the third heaven. In Ezekiel 1-9 He is coming to Jerusalem, and in chapter 10 He gets there.
Down in verse 28, the prophet relates the cloud to a stunning display of God’s glory.
Ezekiel 1:28-29 Like the appearance of a rainbow in a cloud on a rainy day, so was the appearance of the brightness all around it [the cloud]. This was the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the Lord. So when I saw it, I fell on my face, and I heard a voice of One speaking.
This again is a typical reaction. Verse 4 of Ezekiel 10 provides another example of God’s glory shining forth from His cloud:
Ezekiel 10:4 Then the glory of the Lord went up from the cherub, and paused over the threshold of the temple; and the house was filled with the cloud, and the court was full of the brightness of the Lord’s glory.
If you read these descriptions in Ezekiel 1 and Ezekiel 10 closely, you realize that God showed more detail to Ezekiel than He did to anyone else concerning the “inner workings” of His cloud. The description is a good example of what I mentioned before, the fact that God sovereignly controls just how much information He releases at any given time to any given person.
Interestingly, about the only thing that is missing from the portable throne description of Ezekiel 1 and Ezekiel 10 is smoke. Fires of coal are there, so is lightening, but there is no smoke. It may have been that God wanted to reveal so much about the cloud that He removed the smoke to allow Ezekiel to see what was going on.
Well, clearly, the throne is portable, able to move quickly. God can go wherever He chooses over the face of the earth, cloaked in His cloud. For instance, in Isaiah 19, the prophet tells us:
Isaiah 19:1 The burden against Egypt. Behold, the Lord rides on a swift cloud, and will come into Egypt; the idols of Egypt will totter at His presence, and the heart of Egypt will melt in its midst.
More well-known is:
Daniel 7:13 “I was watching in the night visions, and behold, One like the Son of Man, coming with the clouds of heaven! He came to the Ancient of Days, and they brought Him near before Him.”
So far I have focused on Old Testament allusions to God’s clouds. But He did not retire His clouds in the New Testament. Even in the context of Christ’s ascension, we will see that there is here a subtle reference to the Day of the Lord.
Acts 1:9 (Holman Christian Standard Bible) “After He had said this, He was taken up as they were watching, and a cloud took Him out of their sight.”
A dozen or so versions read that the cloud, “Hid Him from their sight,” which is actually more accurate. This depiction fits well into the idea of clouds hiding and moving. Drop down to verse 11, where two angels speak to the spellbound disciples:
Acts 1:11 (ISV) “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This same Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you saw Him go up into heaven.”
Same is the operative word here. The two angels provide two witnesses, as it were, that Christ will come again in the same way He ascended. And, He ascended in a cloud, so He will return in a cloud. This passage gives insight into the Day of the Lord, when Christ returns.
Does it also fit other prophecies about the Day of the Lord? Turn to Matthew 24, the Olivet Prophecy:
Matthew 24:30 “Then the sign of the Son of Man will appear in heaven, 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.”
Those clouds get people’s attention. Turn two chapters over to Matthew 26. Christ describes another occasion a little later in history. On trial before the Council, He avers:
Matthew 26:64 (HCSB) “You have said it,” Jesus told him. “But I tell you, in the future you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of the Power and coming on the clouds of heaven.”
Many witnesses render it more accurately, “in the clouds of heaven.”
Finally, verse 7 of Revelation 1 states:
Revelation 1:7 (TLB) See! He is arriving, surrounded by clouds; and every eye shall see him—yes, and those who pierced him. And the nations will weep in sorrow and in terror when he comes. Yes! Amen! Let it be so!
He is engulfed by clouds. Turn to Luke 17. Let us begin to wrap up with this question: How is it that everyone will see Christ, if He is hidden with clouds?
Luke 17:24-27 “For as the lightning that flashes out of one part under heaven shines to the other part under heaven, so also the Son of Man be in His day. [“His day” means the Day of Him. He is the Lord, so this is the Day of the Lord.] But first He must suffer many things and be rejected by this generation. And just as it was in the days of Noah, so will it be also in the days of the Son of Man: They ate, they drank, they married wives, they were given in marriage, until the day that Noah entered the ark, and the flood came and destroyed them all.”
Luke 17:30 “Even so will it be in the day when the Son of Man is revealed.”
Beginning probably on the day Noah entered the ark, “on the very same day” as Genesis 7:13 puts it, I submit to you that the Being whom we know as Jesus Christ was busily traveling all over the earth in His cloud.
Psalm 29:10 The Lord sat enthroned at the Flood, and the Lord sits as King forever.
The word flood there is, “mabbuwl,” a Hebrew noun which specifically refers to the Flood. There are many Hebrew words for the noun “flood,” but only mabbuwl appears in the Old Testament in reference to what we call Noah's flood. In fact, this reference in Psalm 29 is the only use of mabbuwl outside the Genesis account of the Flood.
It is pretty clear here that God sat enthroned over Noah’s flood, every day, every moment. He was on top of the action that was going on.
While there are different ways of looking at the events during the Flood, it appears that, for the better part of a year, the enthroned God presided over the Flood, busying Himself doing two things: 1) He destroyed a violent and corrupt civilization, worldwide. He destroyed it so thoroughly that archaeologists cannot find hard evidence that it ever existed. 2) the enthroned God also obliterated the antediluvian world, not just its civilization that was on that world, but He destroyed that world altogether.
You see, at the same time that He was destroying whatever evil culture and civilization existed, He also began to terraform a new world. Vast currents of water built the plains and carved out the Grand Canyon and the Great Lakes. All over the world, God was directing that sort of thing, all the while enthroned on His cloud. Christ orchestrated rebuilding as He destroyed a civilization, all at the same time.
When the clouds finally scattered, and Noah again set foot on terra firma, the geography and the topography were substantially different than when God shut the door of the ark. It was a new world.
As I pointed out the phrase, “in His day” in Luke 17:24 refers to the Day of the Lord. The clouds will return then. By the time those clouds suddenly dissipate and He is revealed, as it says here in verse 30, He will have done very much like He had done in the time of the Flood.
At His revealing, He will have spent the better part of a year in His cloud, in the gloom, in the darkness, in the wind, riding His portable throne, searching out His enemies, cutting them asunder. At the same time, He will be taking vengeance on those who are His enemies, those who have killed His saints, touching the apple of His eye.
While He is doing all of that, He will be terraforming from His cloud presiding over everything, leveling mountains with earthquakes, raising valleys, changing the directions of some rivers, building others.
In all this, He is going protect some people, those He graciously chooses as individuals who will help Him build a new civilization. That is what Isaiah 4, where we started out, is about.
He will cover some people with His glorious canopy, as it says: “A shelter from the heat during the day as well as a refuge and hiding place from storms and rain.” He will remember them just as surely as He remembered Noah during the year he was in the ark, as it says there in Genesis 8:1.
We will conclude in Luke 1. John the Baptist’s father, Zechariah, closes his comments about the newborn John with a reference to the yet unborn Messiah. Here is where Zechariah refers to Christ as:
Luke 1:78-79 “Through the tender mercy of our God, with which the Dayspring from on high has visited us; to give light to those who sit in darkness and the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace”[fellowship with God].
Understand, brethren, that before Christ could be glorified in the giving of sight, the man born blind had to live in darkness for 38 years. That was necessary for God to be glorified. It was just as necessary that, before Christ could be glorified as the One who rules wind and sea, that the people on the boat had to experience a period of terrifying distress, sure they were all about to perish.
Man’s day is about to end, and it is going to end in terrifying agony. God’s day of one thousand years is about to begin. Before that day comes, a short one-year period of deep darkness and profound gloom will cover the earth.
Yet, considering the peace, considering the fellowship the Dayspring will bring when He is at last revealed, we can only concur with the apostle John’s sentiments expressed on Patmos. After he had seen all those horrific visions of the end time, he asserted: “So be it. Come, Lord Jesus!”