One of the most profound and lovely insights to have dawned on this Jesus-follower over the last couple of years is that the question of whether to take scripture literally or allegorically is not an ‘or’ question at all.
The events portrayed in scripture as having happened in history actually happened, with real people doing real things with (and to) each other, with (and to) real objects, in real space and time as we know it. This fact tends to irk one kind of person. (I still delight in the fact that no archaeological discovery has contradicted the Bible.)
Yet the same stories, statements, people, objects, places and events also carry profound symbolic significance. They serve as metaphors, idioms and ‘pointers’ to deep spiritual truths, and not only in the prophetic or poetic texts. This fact tends to irk an entirely different sort of person.
For example, the Ark of the Covenant, the Hebrew Tabernacle, and the Jerusalem Temples are described as types and shadows of the real thing, in heaven (e.g., see Hebrews 8). They actually existed. They had their use in physical space-time. Now, though they’re gone, their heavenly counterparts remain.
One beautiful and unique aspect to scripture is that truths so complex as to tax the mightiest theological minds (and mine is certainly not one of them) are portrayed via analogies so common as to be understood intuitively by the simplest person who has ever lived. If a picture is worth 1,000 words, then a real physical object or phenomenon is worth 1,000 pictures.
When God then refers to that universally experienced object, substance or phenomena with just a word, what incredible power!! A million-fold? Perhaps. Light. Water. Bread. Who has not experienced these? At various points in his ministry, Jesus equates each of them to a member of the Godhead.
(OK, so maybe Helen Keller didn’t get the ‘light’ part, and those of you with wheat allergies don’t get the ‘bread’ bit, but let’s not quibble. The vast majority of people throughout human history have had direct, regular experience with these three staples of life. There are many other symbolic elements in scripture, but these three are among the most central. Others, such as wheat, operate at their intersection.)
As one reads scripture, from Genesis to Revelation, applying the marvelous and mysterious principle of “expositional constancy” (i.e., each thing means the same thing throughout, across 66 books by 40 authors and several millennia) one discovers more of the constant, unchanging character of God Him/Themself as he allows history to unfold according to his total foreknowledge and plan, intervening in ways both small and large, highly public and deeply personal.
Thus if God is living, and his Word active (and He is both of those) then we cannot limit these symbols merely to the pages of scripture. We can, even ought to also apply them (judiciously, and always consistent with scripture, with the Holy Spirit’s leading) — to the world around us.
One mustn’t equate the world with scripture — though they spring from the same Creator. Nonetheless, it would be awfully strange of God to move so many human Biblical authors to document, for example, dozens of instances of washing in water (as a symbol of cleansing from sin) and expect that we, you and me, should not also reflect on the Father and the sin-cleansing work of his Son, Y’Shuah the Christ, on the cross as we go about our day to day lives and also literally wash with literal, physical, ordinary, abundant H2O water.
Ever give thanks for fresh water coming out of your tap? Despite a week of soaking rains up here in Boston, I try and do this, at least sometimes. It’s an amazing blessing. Much of the world doesn’t have it. I’m willing to bet that our brothers and sisters in Texas and vicinity are doing so more and more as the drought there drags on and the fires rage. So too with the morning light… with bread… you get the idea. We mustn’t worship the physical objects, but give thanks to the Creator for them, and also for how they remind us of His loving character.
But don’t take my word for it. As David expresses, in Psalm 19:1-4a –
The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork. Day to day pours out speech, and night to night reveals knowledge. There is no speech, nor are there words, whose voice is not heard. Their voice goes out through all the earth, and their words to the end of the world. ['end' here implying both space and time]
Or Romans 1:18-20 –
For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse.
In other words, God designed general (‘natural’) revelation, before and outside of scripture, in such a way as to be sufficient to enable men and women to be curious enough to credit and seek God. The fact that some don’t is not due to him hiding but to their (our) rebellion, choosing to ignore or discount the plain, abundant evidence.
Enough heavy theology.
The reason I mention all this is as preface to an exploration of what one particular physical phenomenon (clouds) means in scripture, how we ought to think about it in the world, and what it may mean prophetically in this hour, as clouds have become suddenly central to the climate change debate — one which is absolutely about religious worldview: Man-centric or God-centric? Earthly or heavenly cause? Man-curable or requiring God’s perfect, intricate, omniscient guidance.
I’m out of time for today, but urge those interested to read:
- Scripture on clouds (e.g., Genesis 9, Isaiah 14:14 & 45:8, various other prophetic passages on clouds and thick darkness on the Day of the Lord, Acts 1:9-11, Matthew 24:30 & 26:64, Mark 13:26 & 14:62, 1st Thessalonians 4:17, Jude 12 and Revelation 1:7)
- A related series of posts I did a few months ago (Part I, Part II, Part III, Part IV) on the “bow in the cloud,” (pointer to Christ and His power) especially as it relates to the possibility that Genesis 9:14 offers us not just a pretty rainbow story, but a specific prophecy of the end-times.
When I bring clouds over the earth and the bow is seen in the clouds, I will remember my covenant that is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh.
I.e., does Genesis 9:14 refer to… A one-time past event? A continuing series of ordinary events? An series of intermittent, special events? Or a specific one-time future event? Or perhaps some combination of those.
Even more succinctly: Are the clouds of Genesis 9:14, in which is seen God’s ‘bow’ of power, signifying his covenant of peace the same as those described in Revelation 1:7 on which Y’Shuah the Christ is seen, returning in power to bring ultimate peace?