The Olivet Discourse – Signs in the Heavens

09May11

Matt 24: 29 “Immediately after the tribulation of those days the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will fall from heaven, and the powers of the heavens will be shaken.

This cataclysmic passage has been used by Dispensationalist as well as others to describe the utter destruction of the world at the end of Tribulations. Many Dispensationalist have taken these pictures as literal events in which the sun will actually go dark and moon will disappear as well. Some have argued it will come as fall out from a horrific nuclear holocaust while others argue it is simply a divine act of judgment.

But as the reader here will assume by now, we must do some investigation as to whether that is the best way to interpret this passage. But before heading into other passages in the Bible to discover the usage of these terms we are going to take a look at how history and cultures, especially in the far east have used celestial objects in their literature and culture.

First note the use of the sun, moon and stars in the nation’s flags. Google national flags and note just how many nations use the symbols of sun, moon and stars on their flags. These symbols have long been held to represent nations, lands, kings and peoples. This is not rare, nor is it a contemporary idea, but rather a long held and traditional use of the symbols.

And what about even our own use of these symbols in contemporary language. When one is rising the ranks of their profession we will often state, “He is a rising star.” Or when someone has come across hard times or has had his reputation tarnished in some way we are want to say “His star is falling or has fallen.”

So again, the usage of these term even in our own day is quite common to represent someone or something of stature or prominence. And in the same right we use the falling of those celestial images to describe when those prominent people or things lose their place in society.

The Bible is different in it’s usage of these images. In God’s initial covenant with Abraham he uses the image of the stars of the sky to represent the future nation of Israel.

Genesis 22:17 I will surely bless you, and I will surely multiply your offspring as the stars of heaven

This image is continued later in the story of Joseph.

Genesis 37:9 Then he dreamed another dream and told it to his brothers and said, “Behold, I have dreamed another dream. Behold, the sun, the moon, and eleven stars were bowing down to me.”

The sun and moon are universally accepted to be Joseph’s parents and the stars to be his brothers. Note that he and his brothers are also representative of the 12 tribes of Israel who were previously represented by stars descending from Abraham.

Judges 5:19-20 “The kings came, they fought; then fought the kings of Canaan, at Taanach, by the waters of Megiddo; they got no spoils of silver. [20] From heaven the stars fought, from their courses they fought against Sisera.

In the passage above we see a couplet in which the kings who are on earth are fighting a battle and those same kings are represented by stars in the heaven. This common usage of celestial images representing kings and nations is not foreign to Scripture in any way. In the book of Revelation we find an obvious reference to Israel.

Rev. 12:1 And a great sign appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars.

I thought it may be of interest to see how futurist and Dispensational commentators would interpret the usage of sun, moon and stars in the passage above. I went to the NIV Study Bible and the Ryrie Study Bible. I also went to the Scofield reference Bible but was once again left with “no comment.”

  • “In ancient cultures these astronomical symbols represented rulers
  • “the dream involved celestial images – the sun, moon and stars being easily recognized for their significance for rulership
  • “The same symbols appeared in the visions of the Apostle John [Rev 12:1] again probably representing Israel and the twelve tribes
  • The sun and moon obviously represent Joseph’s father and mother – Ryrie
  • Rev 12:1 The woman represents Israel as the sun, moon and stars indicate – Ryrie

So, in all the other instances of sun, moon and stars we find leading futurist and Dispensationalist interprets these astronomical images figuratively as representative as kings and nations. But when we come to this passage in the Olivet Discourse we are to take these things literally? How in the world is that employing a “literalist” interpretation method?

So now along with the celestial images representing nations we will also find that the placement of those images represent blessing or cursing. Again, let us consider how these images are used elsewhere in Scripture in relation to their position. What we will find is that when the sun, moon and stars are raised up high and are in their rightful place it represents blessing upon that nation.

Isaiah 30:26 Moreover, the light of the moon will be as the light of the sun, and the light of the sun will be sevenfold, as the light of seven days, in the day when the Lord binds up the brokenness of his people, and heals the wounds inflicted by his blow.

Note that in the time of spiritual blessing where wounds are healed and brokenness is bound that the light of the celestial beings is seen as greatly increasing.

Isaiah 60:20 Your sun shall no more go down, nor your moon withdraw itself; for the Lord will be your everlasting light, and your days of mourning shall be ended.

So, in a time when the Lord is the everlasting light of His people and the moon and sun never go down, we are told that mourning has ended. Again, a time of blessing is represented as a time of great light in the heavenly bodies.

Rev. 12:1 And a great sign appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars.

And this previously discussed passage shows the believing Israel is seen in the heavens with a full array of lights; sun, moon and stars!

This blessing presence represented by the lights of the heavens also are used in the negative, shown as going dark, when a nation is cursed or is going to be destroyed. We will find that the symbols of these celestial beings going dark or falling down are representative of a nation’s demise.

The following passage denote the cursing of the Lord and His wrath against a nation. It also answers the most often held accusation against the preterist interpretation of this passage. What is heard most often, coming from those that take this passage as the sun, moon and stars literally going dark or falling is that those events have obviously, physically never taken place, so they certainly cannot find their fulfillment in the first century. So as we look at the following passages of curses also note the language used. You will, without a doubt, note that these “events” have already taken place in history and so answers the critics accusation.

IN REGARD TO BABYLON

ISA 13:10 For the stars of the heavens and their constellations will not give their light; the sun will be dark at its rising, and the moon will not shed its light.

This is a past event and clearly took place thousands of years ago using the exact same language Jesus uses in reference to the city and the Temple.

IN REGARD TO EDOM

ISA 34: 4 All the host of heaven shall rot away, and the skies roll up like a scroll. All their host shall fall…9And the streams of Edom shall be turned into pitch, and her soil into sulfur; her land shall become burning pitch. 10Night and day it shall not be quenched; its smoke shall go up forever.

The language here is even more graphic. Along with the stars falling the land of Edom would have pitch and smoke that would ascend forever. This imagery denotes the finality of the curse, not the reality of smoke actually rising forever.

IN REGARD TO EGYPT

EZE 32: 7 When I blot you out, I will cover the heavens and make their stars dark; will cover the sun with a cloud, and the tmoon shall not give its light. 8All the bright lights of heaven will I make dark over you, and put darkness on your land, declares the Lord GOD.

Again, a past event described using the exact same language that Jesus uses. I would ask the Dispensationalist and futurist to explain how these past events are to be taken symbolically while the Matthew passage must be taken literally. So, in a sense I did with the Isaiah passage regarding Babylon. I went again to my resources to see how this verse is interpreted by leading futurist and Dispensationalist. I used the Isaiah passage because it is nearly an identical quote to the one Jesus uses.

ISA 13:10 For the stars of the heavens and their constellations will not give their light; the sun will be dark at its rising, and the moon will not shed its light.”

  • The statements about heavenly bodies no longer functioning…describe the total turnaround of the political structure in the Near East (Babylon) – John Martin
  • “A judgment here on ancient Babylon” – Ryrie
  • “Representing the Day of the Lord against ancient Babylon” NIV Study Bible
  • “The prophecy concerning Babylon announces the doom of the nation and city at the hand of the Medes” – Scofield Reference Bible

So, here the “literalist” must truly scratch his head in wonderment as his proponents clearly admit that this identical usage of language must represent the fall of Babylon, but do not do the same in regards to the words of Jesus.

I want to finish by taking this even one step further. Perhaps when it is reference to other nations it should be taken figuratively, but when these terms are used in reference to the nation of Israel it must be used literally? Below are passages in which the symbols of sun, moon, and stars being darkened is used. All of them relate to Israel or Judah. I will follow each one with how the NIV Study Bible, Ryrie Studay Bible or Scofield Refernce Bible interpret those uses.

  • Amos 8:9 “And on that day,” declares the Lord God,” I will make the sun go down at noon and darken the earth in broad daylight.

This represents the fall to the Assyrians

  • Jeremiah 4:14 O Jerusalem, wash your heart from evil, that you may be saved. How long shall your wicked thoughts lodge within you? … [23] I looked on the earth, and behold, it was without form and void; and to the heavens, and they had no light.

This represents the fall to the Babylonians. The nation was so destroyed it was though it was without form and void.

  • Jeremiah 4:28 “For this the earth shall mourn, and the heavens above be dark

Again, the fall to Babylon is in view

  • Isaiah 5:30 They will growl over it on that day, like the growling of the sea. And if one looks to the land, behold, darkness and distress; and the light is darkened by its clouds.

This represents the fall to Assyria

  • Jeremiah 13:16 Give glory to the Lord your God before he brings darkness, before your feet stumble on the twilight mountains, and while you look for light he turns it into gloom and makes it deep darkness.

The fall to Babylon is in view here

  • Joel 2:10 The earth quakes before them; the heavens tremble. The sun and the moon are darkened, and the stars withdraw their shining.

There was disagreement as to whether this was representative of the fall to Babylon, Assyria or a future event. But note that it still is considered “representative” and not considered to be literal events of the sun, moon and stars going dark. Even the futurist and Dispensationalist are forced to agree. They are simply inconstant and are so in an attempt to keep their fragile system in tact.

So, we must, using the Biblical standard of allowing Scripture to interpret Scripture, accept the idea that these events are symbolic of the fall of a nation or peoples. That clearly and easily falls in line with the author’s argument that this is related to the fall of Jerusalem and the temple in 70AD. Of course, we must also always remind ourselves that these events, including the symbolic sun, moon and stars and what they represent must find their fulfillment within the confines if “this generation”

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