Imagine the author of the Gospel of Mark wrote about the coming of the Son of Man in clouds from the same perspective as frequently found amongst the Jewish Wisdom, Prophetic and History writings. (Leave aside for this discussion the perspective of the Deuteronomist, who on other grounds appears to have spawned a separate tradition about the deity anyway — see posts on Margaret Barker’s work for details.)
Last time I posted something here without taking time to check my bookshelves to remind myself what “the professional scholars” had written I got thoroughly roasted. That was a good, if lazy, way to be brought up to speed. Now my excuse is that I am separated by thousands of kilometers from my library, and am likely to remain so for some months yet. But what’s a blog for if not to toss out off the cuff thoughts anyway? Besides, I know the following interpretation is by no means novel. But it is one that I have been a long time refusing to accept — till about now.
What I’m moving towards is the view that Mark’s depiction of the coming of the Son of Man in clouds was intended to be as metaphoric as his description of the stars falling from heaven. Further, when he spoke of everyone “seeing” this advent, he really implied a “spiritual” seeing just as surely as he meant the miracles of Jesus to be interpreted as a restoring of spiritual insight.
Let’s imagine the same author did not call Peter “Satan” because he got his timing wrong over exactly when Jesus would act apocalyptically as in returning with angelic hosts and burning up the old physical world before inaugurating a new cosmic order, but because he was opposed to the very idea root and branch, totally, absolutely. Mark’s Jesus did not tell Peter, “Yes yes, you are right, I will come as a conquering hero, but not just yet — I have to make atonement for sins first, THEN I can do the world-conquering thing, you Satan you!”
Earlier times when God “came in clouds”
2Sam 22:10, 12 –
He parted the heavens and came down; dark clouds were under his feet. . . . He made darkness his canopy around him– the dark rain clouds of the sky.
David did not literally see God come down in clouds, but he did “see” him, as Job “saw” him (Job 42:5), coming down in clouds to overthrow his enemies. The image is probably not strictly metaphorical. It was probably believed that the fates of the earthly combatants literally were decided by heavenly powers in the clouds.
Deut 33:26 –
There is no one like the God of Jeshurun, who rides on the heavens to help you and on the clouds in his majesty.
Isa 30:27 –
See, the Name of the Lord comes from afar, with burning anger and dense clouds of smoke; his lips are full of wrath, and his tongue is a consuming fire.
Check the context of this verse: It is speaking of the historical military destructions of Assyria and Egypt.
Jer 4:13 –
Look! He advances like the clouds, his chariots come like a whirlwind, his horses are swifter than eagles. Woe to us! We are ruined!
Again check the context of this verse: It is about the invading armies of the Chaldeans.
Jer 10:13; Jer 51:16 – –
When he thunders, the waters in the heavens roar; he makes clouds rise from the ends of the earth. He sends lightning with the rain and brings out the wind from his storehouses.
Jer 51:9 –
“‘We would have healed Babylon, but she cannot be healed; let us leave her and each go to his own land, for her judgment reaches to the skies, it rises as high as the clouds.’
Lam 2:1 –
How the Lord has covered the Daughter of Zion with the cloud of his anger! He has hurled down the splendor of Israel from heaven to earth; he has not remembered his footstool in the day of his anger.
And again in Ezekiel:
Eze 30:3 –
For the day is near, the day of the Lord is near– a day of clouds, a time of doom for the nations.
Eze 30:18 –
Dark will be the day at Tahpanhes when I break the yoke of Egypt; there her proud strength will come to an end. She will be covered with clouds, and her villages will go into captivity.
The context of these verses is explicitly stated as the military conquest by Nebuchadnezzar’s Chaldean army.
Eze 32:7 –
When I snuff you out, I will cover the heavens and darken their stars; I will cover the sun with a cloud, and the moon will not give its light.
Another military invasion is later addressed with the same cloud metaphor:
Eze 38:9 –
You and all your troops and the many nations with you will go up, advancing like a storm; you will be like a cloud covering the land.
Eze 38:16 –
You will advance against my people Israel like a cloud that covers the land. In days to come, O Gog, I will bring you against my land, so that the nations may know me when I show myself holy through you before their eyes.
And again a reference is made to Israel’s destruction “on a day of clouds”:
Eze 34:12 –
As a shepherd looks after his scattered flock when he is with them, so will I look after my sheep. I will rescue them from all the places where they were scattered on a day of clouds and darkness.
Other prophets used the same image:
Joel 2:2 –
a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and blackness. Like dawn spreading across the mountains a large and mighty army comes, such as never was of old nor ever will be in ages to come.
Nah 1:3 –
The Lord is slow to anger and great in power; the Lord will not leave the guilty unpunished. His way is in the whirlwind and the storm, and clouds are the dust of his feet.
Zep 1:15 –
That day will be a day of wrath, a day of distress and anguish, a day of trouble and ruin, a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and blackness
Besides, clouds are the normal habitation of God anyway
I don’t know if this was the literal view of the author of Mark, or how many heavens above the clouds he may have believed in. But this is certainly embedded in at least one literary tradition with which he was familiar.
Job 22:14 –
Thick clouds are a covering to him, that he seeth not; and he walketh in the circuit of heaven.
Ps 18:11 –
He made darkness his secret place; his pavilion round about him were dark waters and thick clouds of the skies.
Ps 18:12 –
At the brightness that was before him his thick clouds passed, hail stones and coals of fire.
Ps 68:34 –
Ascribe ye strength unto God: his excellency is over Israel, and his strength is in the clouds.
Ps 97:2 –
Clouds and darkness are round about him: righteousness and judgment are the habitation of his throne.
Ps 104:3 –
Who layeth the beams of his chambers in the waters: who maketh the clouds his chariot: who walketh upon the wings of the wind:
Wis 5:21 –
Then shall the right aiming thunderbolts go abroad; and from the clouds, as from a well drawn bow, shall they fly to the mark.
Job 22:13 –
And thou sayest, How doth God know? can he judge through the dark cloud?
Job 26:9 –
He holdeth back the face of his throne, and spreadeth his cloud upon it.
Job 37:15 –
Dost thou know when God disposed them, and caused the light of his cloud to shine?
Isa 14:14 –
I will ascend above the tops of the clouds; I will make myself like the Most High.”
La 3:44 –
You have covered yourself with a cloud so that no prayer can get through.
Clouds of creation and new creations
Clouds above are also symbolically linked with creation, or a new creation, from the time of Genesis 1:
Wis 19:7 –
As namely, a cloud shadowing the camp; and where water stood before, dry land appeared; and out of the Red sea a way without impediment; and out of the violent stream a green field:
Isa 45:8 –
“You heavens above, rain down righteousness; let the clouds shower it down. Let the earth open wide, let salvation spring up, let righteousness grow with it; I, the Lord, have created it.
Clouds: How people can see the location of the unseen God
Isa 4:5 –
Then the Lord will create over all of Mount Zion and over those who assemble there a cloud of smoke by day and a glow of flaming fire by night; over all the glory will be a canopy.
Isa 14:31 –
Wail, O gate! Howl, O city! Melt away, all you Philistines! A cloud of smoke comes from the north, and there is not a straggler in its ranks.
1Ki 8:12 –
Then Solomon said, “The Lord has said that he would dwell in a dark cloud;
2Ch 6:1 –
Then Solomon said, “The Lord has said that he would dwell in a dark cloud;
The coming of one like the Son of Man in Daniel
Dan 7:13 –
In my vision at night I looked, and there before me was one like a son of man, coming with the clouds of heaven. He approached the Ancient of Days and was led into his presence.
The coming of this “Son of Man” is within the realm where one expects deities to travel. The coming is, moreover, to another station within the clouds, namely the throne of the Ancient of Days. The context again explains that this “coming” is effecting a change of rule on earth. A kingdom is falling, and freedom is given to “the saints of the Most High”.
The kingdoms Daniel references are those of Nebuchadnezzar, Cyrus, Alexander and Seleucus (son of Antiochus and ancestor of several more Antiochus’s). I side with interpreters who see this latter kingdom (established at the Battle of Ipsus some 20 plus years after the end of Alexander’s empire) as the kingdom of iron, separate from all the rest. Not Rome. It was Antiochus Epiphanes, king of the Seleucid empire, who persecuted “the saints” of Judea, attempting to Hellenize the Jews. The book was written in the wake of the war involving the Maccabees.
The coming of one like the Son of Man to the Ancient of Days marked the success of the Maccabean rebellion against Seleucid rule. This, I believe, makes the most sense of the text of Daniel.
Daniel likes to describe the contests among kingdoms through the tussles of those kingdoms’ heavenly counterparts: see Daniel 10:20 and 12:1. The one like the Son of Man represents the kingdom of the saints, the people of God, the faithful Jews.
And the stars, the sun and the moon
Isa 13:10 –
The stars of heaven and their constellations will not show their light. The rising sun will be darkened and the moon will not give its light.
This is explained (see verse 19) as symbolic of the end of the kingdom of Babylon. The “cosmos” known as the kingdom of Babylon is no more.
If this is a poetic figure of speech, then how can anyone decide the next verse in Mark should be read literally?
Back to Jesus’ prophecy
Mark 13:24-26 –
But in those days, following that distress, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light; the stars will fall from the sky, and the heavenly bodies will be shaken. At that time men will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory.
Read through the literary tropes above, what can this possibly mean other than the destruction of Jerusalem at the hands of the Romans?
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