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When is God ‘coming on the clouds’?

0012Quite early on in Revelation (1.7) we find the phrase ‘I am coming with the clouds’, and it is striking that the near universal view of commentators on this verse is that it is a reference to the return of Jesus to earth, as promised in Acts 1 and elsewhere. (Note that the New Testament never uses the now-popular phrase ‘second coming’ of Jesus, since this pairs the future with his ‘first coming’ in the incarnation, whereas the NT always pairs his return with his departure, as in ‘he will return in the same way you have seen him go’ in Acts 1.11).

On first reading, this is perhaps not surprising when we look at the verse carefully.

“Look, he is coming with the clouds,”
and “every eye will see him, even those who pierced him”;
and all tribes on earth “will mourn because of him.”
Yes! Amen. (Rev 1.7)

In this translation, parts of the verses have been put in inverted commas by the translator to help us realise the use of Dan 7.13, Zech 12.10 and Zech 12.12, albeit with some adaptations. There is a slight shift in tenses, with the parallel to Dan 7.13 in the present, rather than past, tense; the verb ‘to see’ has been changed to parallel ‘mourn’ (opsetai is echoed now by kopsetai); and the tribes of land [of Israel] now appear to be the tribes on earth (the Greek ge is the same in both cases, but the grammatical structure has changed).

Craig Koester, in his large and excellent Anchor commentary, notes the close parallel with Matt 24.30, though (as Aune points out) the allusions occur in the reverse order. In both cases, the NT texts follow the future tense of the language in Zechariah. But this raises some questions about whether the reference here is to Jesus’ return.

First, within the context of this introductory section, focussing on Jesus’ return seems slightly odd. After the prologue, in Rev 1.4 John writes an epistolary opening following the usual pattern of first-century letter writing which we also see in Paul’s letters. But it is notable that the trinitarian greeting from God emphasises God’s majesty and authority, adapting the name of God as revealed to Moses in Ex 3.14, the six- or seven-fold Spirit of God in Is 11.2, and a three-fold exposition of Jesus’ significance, which include his priority in the new creation (‘firstborn from the dead’) and his de jure authority over earthly kings. The acclamation of 1.7 is then followed by repeated emphasis on God’s majesty and power. And the vision of Jesus that follows in the second half of the chapter similarly portrays his present power and authority in quite startling terms.

Second, the parallel between 1.7 and Matt 24.30 throws up a striking contrast. Matthew’s use of these biblical citations point to Jesus’ triumph and ascension to God as part of both his vindication and the judgement by God of those in Jerusalem who rejected him which (by the time Matthew is writing) are firmly in the past. Yet exactly the same set of allusions in Rev 1.7 is taken by commentators (including Koester, who notes the contrast) to refer to Jesus’ return in the future.

To explore what is going on, we need to spend a little time thinking about ‘clouds’ and what it means to be ‘coming’ with them.

For British readers, we need to make something of a cultural shift. We are used to clouds; we see them all the time; they don’t signify anything much other than that it is going to be a normal rainy day. But if you live below the olive line, then for large parts of the year, clouds are quite unusual. This is, perhaps, part of the cultural background to the regular occurrence of clouds in the Old Testament.

A cloud (or clouds) first feature prominently in the exodus narrative, as God travels with his people in the form of a ‘pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night’ (Ex 13.21, perhaps first showing that there is no smoke/cloud without fire…). There is no doubt that this symbolises God’s presence in power, protecting his people and confounding the Egyptian army. But as the narrative progresses, it become clear that the cloud of God’s presence on Sinai (Ex 24.15–16) and in the tabernacle (Ex 40.34–35) also signify God’s mystery, otherness and unknowability. In later parts of the narrative, it is often ‘dark clouds’ which signify God’s action in power (e.g. in the song of 1 Sam 22.10) and his impenetrable presence (1 Kings 8.10–11 = 2 Chron 5.14).

Within the wisdom tradition, clouds mostly form part of the created order which manifests God’s glory and power (e.g. Job 37.15) but this is combined in the Psalms with the previous narrative tradition. So God ‘makes the clouds his chariots’ (Ps 104.3) as a symbolic expression of his presence and power in the natural realm.

It is within this symbolic context that we see the development of the language of ‘coming with the clouds’ in the prophetic tradition. When God comes again in judgement to Egypt, he ‘rides on a swift cloud’ (Is 19.1)—and when he comes to his own people to bring the judgement that leads to exile, ‘he advances like the clouds, his chariots come like a whirlwind’ (Jer 4.13). The emphasis here is less on the direction of travel (there is little reference in these verses to God going up or coming down) as it being a sign of his authority and power.

This is the canonical context for reading Daniel 7.13. God’s people are surrounded by the ferocious beasts of successive imperial powers, and they look to the Ancient of Days to render judgement in their favour—which he does as the One like a Son of Man comes to him on the clouds. And this is clearly Jesus’ intention in his use of the phrase in the gospels (Matt 24.30 = Mark 13.26, Matt 26.64 = Mark 14.62). It is worth noting here that the passage so often put with these, 1 Thess 4.13-18, doesn’t draw on this language at all. The ‘coming’ in v 15 is the noun parousia, and the ‘coming’ in v 16 is actually the word ‘descend’. And there is no mention of him coming ‘with clouds’; it is only ‘in the clouds’ that we will meet him. Paul is hear drawing on imagery of an imperial visit, and not on this OT symbolic meaning of ‘clouds’.

It is now difficult to see why Rev 1.7 shouldn’t be read within this scheme of Dan 7.13 and its use in the gospels. The text builds the picture of the authority of God as a counterpoint to the claimed authority of imperial power, and between which John’s readers must choose their allegiance. I wonder whether our difficulty in reading this way arises from our desire to connect the text with something in the world of our expectation before we read it canonically in its own symbolic world.

illinois-northfield-kraft-angel-cream-cheese-cloudFor this reason, it seems to me to make more sense to read Rev 1.7, along with all the other NT uses of the phrase, as pointing to the majesty and power of God and Jesus’ participation of that in the present by virtue of his resurrection and ascension. It also, incidentally, helps us make a bit more sense of another image in Revelation which has taken to be rather sterile in modern culture—the redeemed seated on the clouds singing with harps (Rev 14.3). Rather than suggesting the smooth, creamy taste of Philadelphia cheese spread, it is connected with the heavenly might of God in which we now participate because of Jesus.

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8 Responses to When is God ‘coming on the clouds’?

  1. Peter Llewellyn October 5, 2016 at 10:56 am #

    Good article Ian. You are quite right – about the commentators as well as about the verse itself. John’s vision is not “about” the future, even his own limited future, but addresses, exposes and diagnoses his own and every other time. It is as close to timeless as the inevitably tensed language he must use will permit. Perhaps the best commentary comes from C S Lewis’ Voyage of the Dawn Treader, where Aslan says to Lucy “I call all times Soon,” clearly enough drawing on this very verse to express his own timeless eschatology. (Disclaimer: I am still working on my book on Revelation, in which this idea is a major theme.)

  2. Jonathan Tallon October 5, 2016 at 11:57 am #

    I wonder whether other commentators (I haven’t checked) have been influenced by the Didache (about the earliest non-canonical church writing). Did. 16:8 (referring explicitly to the coming of Christ):
    ‘Then the world will see the Lord coming upon the clouds of heaven’.

    So there is a clear use of this imagery for the coming of Christ in the early church.

    This is not to disagree with your reading, but it does show that the traditional viewpoint has some support too.

    • Ian Paul November 2, 2016 at 3:25 pm #

      Thanks Jonathan—that’s interesting. I presume that Didache 16.8 uses erchomai here rather than parousia?

      If so it demonstrates an early conflation of the language of passages drawing on Dan 7.13 with 1 Thess 4.

  3. David Cavanagh October 5, 2016 at 4:38 pm #

    I think this illustrates just how delicate a task exegesis is. I’ve long been convinced that this phrase works on several levels. As most recent scholarship has shown, the reference to Daniel 7:13, where the One like a son of Man “comes” to the Ancient of Days, makes it pretty certain that the historical Jesus was not prophesying his “return” when he used the phrase, but rather to his vindication by God (which is most probably his resurrection – though the extent to which Jesus was aware of his forthcoming resurrection is debateable). On the other hand, Acts 1:11 does seem to create a link to a return, and I do wonder if the traditional reading is not a reasonable elaboration of the gospel accounts – although such readings clearly have to recognise that phrases about “this present generation” seeing such a return cannot apply!

    In terms of Revelation, I would be inclined to go with the concept of “vindication”: John is affirming that, whatever happens on the public stage of history, and no matter how much evil may seem to dominate, God is ultimately in control and working out his purposes for humanity through Christ, who is the true King…

    • Ian Paul November 2, 2016 at 3:26 pm #

      Thanks David…but is ‘delicate’ the right word? I have a sense that this reading feels pretty robust—what is needed is methodological discipline, isn’t it?

      • David Cavanagh November 2, 2016 at 4:10 pm #

        You’re right, Ian, “delicate” is not really the right word. Perhaps “intricate” or “complex” or “senstive” would be better – my point is, of course, that the phrase can have multiple meanings (or layers of meaning), and so the exegete must have a “finely tuned ear”

  4. Christopher Shell October 5, 2016 at 9:17 pm #

    1.7 almost uniquely has no structural place in this book where it is difficult to find a single verse that is not part of the book’s interrelated structure. That means it is something that John thought he simply had to say, and it was that important that the structure (which is normally everything to him) can go hang. If it has a structural place it is as programmatic statement and/or central passionate message. For it even precedes the Ezekiel-like rehearsal of time and place 1.9-10, a feature that normally comes at the very start (Ezk 1.1-2, Dan chapters 7ff.).

    I think 14.14 confirms that the idea is of riding on the clouds (also: difficult to come ‘with’ clouds in any other way). Slight alteration of Daniel’s picture is necessary because of the particular circumstance that Jesus’s return to earth is the cherished hope. 1.7 is a scene of vindication, which is indeed the whole point of a second coming. I understand ‘all the tribes of the land’ with Witness Lee and some others. Central is the idea of the anti-Christian Jewish contingent who thought they had won realising that they have in fact lost. This is the great moment that John is looking forward to.

    This verse also sheds light on GJohn’s use of ‘the Jews’, a topic on which much more can also be said. If John says ‘every eye shall see him, even those who pierced him’ he’s illogically putting universal humanity and a very particular small group in apposition. What is probably going on in 1.7 is that his *whole* purview is full of the particular group he has in mind, on whom revenge will be wrought, and this thought is so overwhelming it is as though no-one else exists. Likewise with ‘the Jews’ in GJohn: although he again appears to be using a universal phrase (even to the extent of ‘a feast of the Jews’ etc.), there really is a very particular face that he gives to this superficially large grouping: namely that of the Pharisaic authorities, so that ‘Jews’ and ‘Pharisees’ appear in strict parallel in ch.9.

    • Ian Paul October 7, 2016 at 9:32 am #

      Thanks Christopher. I kind of agree with you about ‘the Jews’ in GJohn, though I find Mark Stibbe’s analysis helpful, where he looks at the different ways that ‘the Jews’ is used, one of which is in parallel with an elite group as you say.

      I agree with you about clouds and vindication. But it is notable in Revelation that (as with 1 Thess 4) the clouds do not have this function in Jesus’ return…at all. There are no clouds in the millennium, nor any in the New Jerusalem.

      And Matt 24 appears to have no trouble in universalising the experience of those hearing the gospel, so that the (by now) Gentile mission can be seen as the whole earth seeing the truth.

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