In my teaching and reflection on issues around eschatology and the ‘second coming’ of Jesus, there is one phrase that keeps coming up, and to which people thinking about these things keep returning: the language of the Son of Man ‘coming with the clouds.’ When I have offered an alternative reading to the key passages in Matthew 24 and Mark 13, this is one of the main things that people get stuck on. I think the reason for this is that people assume that the key questions have obvious answers—so we don’t even need to ask them. But it is important to reflect on: in this phrase, where is Jesus coming from, and where is he coming to? When will this happen? And what is the origin of the phrase?
We find the phrase early in the Book of Revelation, at Rev 1.7, and it is striking that the near universal view of commentators on Revelation 1.7 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). We should also note that the phrase is in the present tense ‘He is coming’ Ἰδοὺ ἔρχεται but we often take present tenses in English to have a future sense (as in ‘I am coming round to see you tomorrow’).
So on first reading, this interpretation 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 biblical (that is, Old Testament) language. According to one estimate, Revelation alludes to the OT on 676 occasions, which is on average more than once in each of its 404 verses. Some commentators suggest that this verse constitutes a quotation, rather than a mere allusion, since the parallels are so clear, though on no occasion does John use any kind of quotation formula (‘as it is written…’).
The parallel texts are Dan 7.13, Zech 12.10 and Zech 12.12, albeit with some adaptations. This combination of OT texts are also combined in Matt 24.30 (though nowhere else in the NT) and some interesting things arise simply from comparing the texts:
|Zech 12.10, 12
|All the tribes of the land will mourn
|and all tribes of the land will mourn
|The land will mourn, tribe by tribe (v 12)
|and they will see
|and every eye will see him even those who pierced him
|they will look to me, the one they have pierced and they will lament for him (v 10)
|the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven, with power and great glory
|Behold, he is coming with the clouds
|behold, with the clouds of heaven there came one like a son of man
In all three places, that is, in Matthew, Revelation, and Zechariah, the term for the people is φυλή and not ἔθνος, a tribe and not a ‘nation’. Although ‘tribe’ can be used to describe a larger group, it almost always refers to a group within a nation, and in Zechariah it clearly refers to the twelve tribes of Israel. Most ETs wrongly translate this as ‘nation’ in Matthew and Revelation, under pressure from the interpretive tradition which assumes this is about Jesus’ return. (Of course, this means that appealing to ‘all the nations…’ to show this is about the return of Jesus is a circular argument).
The word for ‘land’, γῆ, can refer both to the land of Israel, the surface of the earth on which crops are grown, and so by extension ‘the earth’ meaning the whole world. (It is also used on contrast to ‘the sea’.). Which meaning is intended here hinges on the translation of φυλή; ‘nations’ belong to the ‘earth’, but ‘tribes’ belong to the ‘land [of Israel]’.
Zech 12.10 has lots of manuscript issues, arising from the difficulty of the idea of piercing God, and the change in subject (from ‘me’ to ‘him’) half way through the verse. The NET Bible notes comment:
Because of the difficulty of the concept of the mortal piercing of God, the subject of this clause, and the shift of pronoun from “me” to “him” in the next, many MSS read אַלֵי אֵת אֲשֶׁר (ʾale ʾet ʾasher, “to the one whom,” a reading followed by NAB, NRSV) rather than the MT’s אֵלַי אֵת אֲשֶׁר (ʾela ʾet ʾasher, “to me whom”). The reasons for such alternatives, however, are clear — they are motivated by scribes who found such statements theologically objectionable — and they should be rejected in favour of the more difficult reading (lectio difficilior) of the MT.
Rev 1.7 expresses the three elements of ‘coming on the clouds’, ‘every eye will see him’ and ‘all the tribes will mourn’ in exactly the reverse order to Matt 24.30. At several points, Revelation follows the OT texts more closely too, in retaining the ‘behold’ from Dan 7.13, in following Zech 12 in the right order (which Matthew reverses), and in including the reference to ‘those who pierced him’, which makes it clear that this is a reference to the Jewish nation.
Craig Koester, in his large and excellent Anchor commentary, notes the close parallel with Matt 24.30, and David Aune notes that 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 here drawing on imagery of an imperial visit, and not on this OT symbolic meaning of ‘clouds’.
We also need to be aware how much our interpretation of these ideas is shaped by the implications of the term ‘to come’. In English, this almost universally has a sense of motion towards the reader. But the same is not true of erchomai in Greek. The word occurs frequently, and it is not uncommon for ETs to render it as ‘go’ or ‘went’, as in ‘I may go and worship him’ in Matt 2.8, ‘he went and lived’ in Matt 2.23, 4.13, ‘he had gone indoors’ in Matt 9.28, ‘he went throughout Galilee’ Mark 1.39, and so on. There is a clear sense of arriving at something, but that something is not always the place of the observer or speaker. It is interesting to reflect on how different it would be to translate Dan 7.13 and its echoes as ‘he went/is going with the clouds…’
This also highlights a major issue we have with almost all English translations, which is a particular problem in Matthew 24. At different points the text refers to his arrival and royal presence as king at The End, for which the Greek term is the noun parousia (Matt 24.3, 37, 39); at others Jesus refers to his Danielic ‘coming with the clouds [to the throne of God]’, for which the Greek term is the participle erchomenos (Matt 24.30); and at still others he talks about his future return being like a thief who ‘comes’ at an unknown hour, using the finite verb erchetai (Matt 24.43, present tense though translated in ETs as past). But all three of these are translated using the term ‘coming’, which in English is both a participle (‘Coming to a stop, he put the brake on…’) and a gerund (‘the moment of his coming to us…’) and is used for the continuous present tense, sometimes with a future meaning (‘I am coming to see you tomorrow’). No wonder we get confused!
It is now difficult to see why Rev 1.7 (and, with it, Matt 24.30) 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 therefore say in my commentary on Revelation:
7. The style changes again, drawing on the apocalyptic texts in Dan. 7:13 and Zech. 12:10. Most commentators think that coming with the clouds refers to expectation of Jesus’ return; but everywhere else in the New Testament, Dan. 7:13 is used to describe Jesus’ victorious ascent to the right hand of the Father. In Matt. 24:30–31 the same two verses are combined, and Jesus then declares solemnly ‘This generation will not pass away until all these things take place’ (Matt. 24:34). In Mark 14:62, Jesus quotes Dan. 7:13 to tell the High Priest what he will witness. And Stephen’s final vision, before his martyrdom, is a vision of the ascended Jesus, described using the ‘Son of Man’ terminology from Daniel 7:13 (Acts 7:55–56). Those who pierced Jesus have indeed mourned (Acts 2:37) and many have seen the truth about Jesus. John reconfigures the context of Zech. 12 from being Jerusalem to the whole of the known world, where Jesus has been ‘publicly attested as crucified’ (Gal. 3:2).
Such a reading fits perfectly with the preceding verses: the acclamation here is of God and Jesus as the ones who are enthroned with power, setting the stage for the displacement of imperial authority as the one that rightly commands our allegiance. The Greek Yes corresponds to the Hebrew affirmative Amen, emphasizing the mixed Jewish-gentile nature of the recipients.
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.
For 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.