4. SUN, MOON, AND STARS DARKENED
Matthew: “Immediately after the tribulation of those days, shall the sun be darkened, and the moon shall not give her light, and the stars shall fall from heaven, and the powers of the heavens shall be shaken” (24:29).
Mark: “But in those days, after that tribulation, the sun shall be darkened and the moon shall not give her light. And the stars of heaven shall fall, and the powers that are in heaven shall be shaken” (13:24, 25).
Luke: “And there shall be signs in the sun, and in the moon and in the stars; and upon the earth distress of nations with perplexity; the sea and the waves roaring; men’s hearts failing them for fear, and for looking after those things which are coming on the earth; for the powers of heaven shall be shaken” (21:25, 26).
Here now is a description of the condition of things after the tribulation.1 Immediately after the tribulation, the sun, moon, and stars would be darkened. Is this language about the darkening of the heavenly bodies to be taken literally or figuratively? By searching the scriptures, we find that such expressions were commonly used by the prophets in a figurative way. From Genesis to Revelation, in fact, the “sun”, “moon”, and “stars” are used in passage after passage as symbols.
In the dream of Joseph, for example, his father, mother, and brethren were symbolized by the sun, moon, and stars (Gen. 37:9-11). The calamities that fell upon the Jews in the days of Antiochus Epiphanes were symbolized by casting down some of the host of heaven and the stars to the ground (Dan. 8:10). In Revelation, stars were used to symbolize churches (1:16, 20). The “sun” and “moon” in passages such as Revelation 12:1 in which we read of a woman “clothed with the sun and the moon under her feet” are recognized by all as symbolical.
The scriptures symbolize disaster and destruction upon nations by such expressions as these: the sun shall go down, sun darkened, light darkened in the heavens, no light in the heavens, the moon shall not give her light, stars shall fall, stars darkened, cloudy day, dark at noon day, no brightness, darkness, etc. While such language was probably more common to ancient times, yet it is not uncommon for us even today to use expressions which are comparable. When a person comes to see some truth or fact clearly, for example, we might say that he saw the “light.” A person that is intelligent is spoken of as being “bright.” Those who are considered outstanding in the entertainment field are called “stars” — movie stars, television stars, recording stars, etc. On the American flag, each state is symbolized by a star. Policemen commonly wear badges which include the star symbol — representative of their authority as policeman. Soldiers receive star shaped medals which symbolize outstanding service. We might describe the future as being “bright” if referring to good days ahead; or the future might be described as being “dark” if days of trouble are being described. We commonly speak of the Middle Ages as the “Dark Ages”, etc.
In hieroglyphic writing, the sun, moon, and stars were often used as symbols — representing empires, states, kings — and the darkening of the heavenly bodies symbolized the overthrow of these empires and their rulers.
In like manner, the holy prophets of the Bible used these same symbols to portray divine truth and warnings. The use of such symbols was not the product of a heated imagination, but was within the framework of the established and sober language of those times. We will now take a closer look at the scriptures that use these expressions.
In Ecclesiastes 12:1,2, we find that the expression “while the sun, or the light, or the moon, or the stars, be not darkened” is used to symbolize good times. Consequently, the reverse — an expression about the sun, moon, and stars being darkened — would symbolize “evil days”, days of trouble.
The nation of Israel was likewise promised bright days (blessings) if obedient to God, or dark days (trouble, judgment) if disobedient. Blessings for obedience are described in these terms: “He shall bring forth thy righteousness as the LIGHT, and thy judgment as the NOON DAY” (Ps. 37:6). “Then shall thy LIGHT break forth as the morning . . . then shall thy LIGHT RISE in obscurity, and thy darkness be as the NOON DAY” (Isaiah 58:8-10). “Thy SUN shall no more go down; neither shall thy MOON withdraw itself: for the Lord shall be thine everlasting LIGHT, and the days of thy mourning shall be ended” (Isaiah 60:20).
But on the other hand, when this nation was disobedient, just the reverse describes their condition: “We wait for LIGHT, but behold obscurity; for BRIGHTNESS, but we walk in DARKNESS . . . we stumble at NOON DAY as in the night” (Isaiah 59:9, 10, etc.)
God repeatedly warned his people in the Old Testament that if they did not repent, disaster and destruction would fall upon them. It would be a thy of “darkness, and not light . . . even very dark, and no brightness in it” (Amos 5:18-20). “The end is come upon my people of Israel . . . I will cause the SUN to go down at noon, and I will DARKEN the earth in the clear day” (Amos 8:2, 9). They would be scattered in a “cloudy and DARK day” (Ez. 34:12).
Judah and Jerusalem were warned of the destruction that came upon them in these words: “I will also stretch out my hand upon Judah, and upon the inhabitants of Jerusalem . . . a day of wasteness and desolation, a day of DARKNESS and gloominess, a day of clouds and thick DARKNESS” (Zeph. 1:4, 15). Isaiah described their condition in these words: “And if one look unto the land, behold DARKNESS and sorrow, and the LIGHT is darkened in the heavens thereof” (Isaiah 5:3, 30). And the destruction that came upon that nation was spoken of by Jeremiah in these words: “I beheld . . . the heavens, and they had no LIGHT . . . the heavens above [will] be BLACK” (Jer. 4:3, 23, 28). Jeremiah warned them to turn to God in repentance `before he cause DARKNESS, and . . . while ye look for LIGHT, he turn it into the shadow of death, and make it gross DARKNESS” and the people be carried away as captives (Jer. 13:9, 10, 16-19).
This was the message of the true prophets — men like Zephaniah, Isaiah, and Jeremiah. But there were false prophets among the people who caused the people to err. Concerning these, God said: “Therefore NIGHT shall be unto you . . . it shall be DARK unto you . . . the SUN shall go down over the prophets, and the day shall be DARK over them . . . there is no answer of God . . . Jerualem shall become heaps” (Micah 3:6, 12).
Now if such expressions as these were used to describe the destruction that came upon Jerusalem and Judah in Old Testament times, surely these same symbols were fitting ones to describe the destruction that came upon that same city and country in 70 A. D. By Jesus’ use of these symbols, the disciples knew Jerusalem would be destroyed again. The tribulation that was to come upon that city and people would not be merely a time of passing trouble, but the condition of things immediately after the tribulation of those days would be utter destruction and desolation — as symbolized by the familiar Biblical expression: the sun, moon, and stars shall be darkened.
Looking further, we find these same expressions are used in the scriptures to symbolize destruction upon other countries as well. Concerning the destruction that came upon EGYPT, we read: “Thus saith the Lord God; I will also make the multitude of EGYPT to cease by the hand of Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon. He and his people . . . shall be brought to destroy the land . . . the day shall be DARKENED . . . a cloud shall cover her, and her daughters shall go into captivity” (Ez. 30:6-18). And concerning Pharaoh, the king of Egypt, we read: “And when I shall put thee out, I will cover the heaven, and make the STARS thereof DARK; I will cover the SUN with a cloud, and the MOON shall not give her light. All the bright lights of heaven will I make DARK over thee, and set DARKNESS upon thy land . . . I shall bring thy destruction . . . I shall make the land of Egypt desolate” (Ez. 32:2-15).
Thus the overthrow and destruction that came upon Egypt by the hand of Nebuchadnezzar — who carried out the judgment of God — is described with the figures of the sun, moon, and stars being darkened.
Likewise, we read of the utter destruction that God brought upon IDUMEA. “And all the hosts of heaven shall be dissolved, and the heavens shall be rolled together as a scroll; and all their host shall fall down . . . For my sword . . . shall come down upon Idumea . . . from generation to generation it shall lie waste” (Isaiah 34:4-10). And the land remains a desolation to this day! Again we notice the pictorial language used to portray a dark time — even an overthrow and destruction.
Then there is the prophecy about the fall of Babylon which was to come “as destruction from the Almighty”, even though heathen armies were the instruments he used. “He shall destroy the sinners thereof out of it. For the STARS of heaven and the constellations thereof shall not give their light: the SUN shall be darkened in his going forth, and the MOON shall not cause her light to shine . . . Behold, I will stir up the Medes against them . . . and Babylon . . . shall be as when God overthrew Sodom and Gomorrah. It shall never be inhabited . . . but wild beasts of the desert shall lie there” (Isaiah 13:9, 10, 17-21).
That this prophecy was fulfilled is evident. The kingdom was given to the Medes (Daniel 5:28-31). It did become a desolation — as predicted — and the desolate condition of that land to this day is a mute testimony to the fulfillment. This desolation, even as we have seen in the other cases, is described in language that is highly figurative — sun darkened, moon not giving her light, and the stars darkened. In short, a very dark, dark time for Babylon was predicted — and so it was.
Now if the Lord saw fit to portray the destruction and desolation of Babylon, Idumea, and Egypt, in such symbols in the Old Testament, why should we suppose he would use different terms when he became flesh and dwelt among us?
When Babylon was overthrown by the Medes and others, it was not the LITERAL sun, moon, and stars that were darkened. When Idumea became a desolation, it was not the LITERAL stars of heaven that were dissolved or fell. When Egypt was overthrown and became desolate under the attack of Nebuchadnezzar, it was not the LITERAL sun, moon or stars that were darkened. These expressions were symbolical and were fulfilled as such. Using the scriptures as our guide, we believe it is evident that our Lord’s words in Matthew 24:29 about the sun, moon, and stars being darkened, are to be taken in the same way.
Bearing these things in mind, what is the meaning of Matthew 24:29? As we have seen, the prophecy about the tribulation pertained to a certain city — Jerusalem; to a certain land — Judea; to a certain people — the Jewish nation. What would be the condition of things for that city, nation, and people “immediately after the tribulation of those days”? Would they experience only a passing tribulation after which things would return to normal? No! Transferring the expression about the darkened sun, moon, and stars from symbol to fact, and using the other scriptures as our guide — instead of guess work! — we can see that these things spoke of complete overthrow, of destruction, and desolation. This interpretation is solidly built upon the scriptures and its accuracy is confirmed by the fulfillment that is now history.
Matthew: “And then shall appear the sign of the Son of man in heaven; and then shall all the tribes of the earth mourn; and they shall see the Son of man coming in the clouds of heaven with power and great glory. And he shall send his angels with a great Sound of a trumpet, and they shall gather together his elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other” (24:30, 31).
Mark: “And then shall they see the Son of man coming in the clouds with great power and glory. And then shall he send his angels, and shall gather together his elect from the four winds, from the uttermost part of the earth to the uttermost part of heaven” (13:26, 27).
Luke: “And then they shall see the Son of man coming in a cloud with power and great glory. And when these things begin to come to pass, then look up, and lift up your heads; for your redemption draweth nigh” (21:27, 28).
We have seen the marvelous historical fulfillment of what Jesus said would come to pass. It has all fit together perfectly — step by step, verse by verse. Now, however, it might appear that a problem has been reached, for we read: “And then shall appear the sign of the Son of man . . . they shall see the Son of man coming in the clouds of heaven with power and great glory.” What, then, is the proper explanation?
Could it be that the Lord came in a figurative sense in 70 A.D.? Some have pointed out that while there will be the final great and glorious coming of Christ, there are sometimes other ways in which he comes in blessing or judgment. For example, the words, “Return O Lord, unto the many thousands of Israel” were prayed whenever the ark was set up and rested (Numbers 10:36). After the captivity at Babylon, God said, “I am returned unto Jerusalem” (Zech. 1:16; 8:3). The Lord came to men in dreams (Gen. 21:3). He came down to see the City (Gen. 11:5). “I am come down to deliver thee” out of Egypt (Ex. 3:8). “Lo I come unto thee in a thick cloud” (Ex. 19:9).
Other scriptures speak about the Lord “riding upon a swift cloud”, coming into Egypt, and that the Egyptians would be set against the Egyptians (Is. 19:1). “The Lord . . . maketh the clouds his chariot . . .” (Ps. 104:3). David, after calling upon the Lord for help in battle, said: “The Lord . . . bowed the heavens . . . and came down . . . he delivered me” (Ps. 18:6-17). These are a few scriptural examples in which we read of the Lord coming down, visiting, returning. All agree that these are not references to his personal and visible coming at the end of the age.
Some expositors believe that it is in this same sense that we are to take the passage under consideration. With this interpretation, the part about sending forth the angels (messengers) with the sound of the trumpet is taken to mean the sending forth of the apostles with the gospel message to gather together people in all parts of the world into the church. However, we believe there are some serious objections against this position.
As we have just seen, there are verses which speak of the Lord coming on the scene in blessing, in deliverance, in judgment — verses that do not refer to his personal and visible coming. But in the text under consideration, we read: “They shall SEE the Son of man coming in the clouds of heaven with power and great glory” — language which we would normally link with the Second Coming. We notice also that “all the tribes of the earth shall mourn; and they shall see the Son of man coming in the clouds.” This ties in perfectly with a noted Second Coming passage, Revelation 1:7: “Behold, he cometh with the clouds; and every eye shall see him . . . and all kindred of the earth shall wail because of him.” Further, when Jesus was taken up, “a cloud received him out of their sight” (Acts 1:9), and when he comes again, believers will be “caught up . . . in the clouds, to meet the Lord in the air” (1 Thess. 4). All of these verses seem definitely tied together: he will be seen, people will mourn, he will come with clouds.
Our Lord’s prophecy also states that he will send forth his angels with the sound of a trumpet and they shall gather together his elect in all parts of the world. Mention of the trumpet, of course, reminds us of two noted Second Coming passages: First Thessalonians 4 which mentions the Lord’s descent from heaven and the sound of the trumpet, and First Corinthians 15 which mentions this trumpet as the last trumpet.
It is true that the word translated “angel” is sometimes translated messenger, and the word messenger is sometimes translated from the same word as apostle (the distinction usually being indicated by the context). It is also true that the apostles went forth to gather men of all nations into the church. But Christ commissioned his apostles to preach before he left! The sending forth of the apostles to preach the gospel was not linked with another coming of Christ — figurative or otherwise. By 70 A.D., as we have seen, these men had already gone forth into the world with the gospel message.
A few chapters before Matthew 24, we read that at the end of the world the angels will be the reapers of the harvest — gathering the wicked to judgment, and the righteous to shine forth in the kingdom of God (Mt. 13:24-30, 36-43).
Taking all of these things into consideration, we favor the interpretation which applies Matthew 24:30, 31 (and the parallel accounts) to the Second Coming of Christ when he will come with the clouds, in power and great glory; when men shall see him and mourn; when he shall send out angels with the sound of the trumpet to gather together believers to meet the Lord.
Of course this raises an objection. In verse 29, we read about the condition of things “immediately after the tribulation of those days.” And this next verse begins: “And then shall appear the Son of man coming in the clouds of heaven with power and great glory”, etc. Would this not indicate that the Second Coming was to occur right then? How can this be reconciled with the fact that Christ was not seen coming in power and great glory at that time?
The word that is translated “then” in this passage is tote. (Matthew uses the word 90 times — more than all of the other New Testament writers put together.) The word “then” can be used to indicate something to happen right at a given time or it can be used to indicate the order in which events will happen. We believe it is here used in the latter sense.
Jesus spoke of general events that were to occur before the overthrow of Jerusalem and then the specific sign of that destruction: Gentile armies surrounding Jerusalem. The invading armies would bring about great tribulation for the people left in Jerusalem and Judea. The condition of things immediately after that tribulation would be that of desolation. All of these things were to happen first, “and then shall appear . . . the Son of man coming in the clouds of heaven with power and great glory . . .” That Jesus was here explaining the order in which these events would occur, and not defining an exact time for the Second Coming is indicated by other things he explained in this passage.
1. The Second Coming was not to be at the time of the fall of Jerusalem, for Jesus expressly warned about any who would say that Christ had come in those days — and was in the desert or in some secret place (Mt. 24:23-27). This definitely implies that those days would not be the time of his Second Coming.
2. Jesus said Jerusalem would be destroyed and the Jews who were not killed in the tribulation of those days would be led captive into all nations (Lk.21). This could not be the same time as the Second Coming of Christ at the end of the age, for Jews will not be led away captive into all nations after the end of the age. It was following the events of 70 A. D. that they were led away captive. The one event was the end that came upon Jerusalem; the other will be the end of the age.
3. In a later part of Matthew 24, Jesus expressly said that no man, not himself or the angels, but the Father only knew the time of the Second Coming, the end of the age (Mt. 24:35,36). But concerning the overthrow of Jerusalem, Jesus definitely knew that time and stated that it would be before that generation then living would pass away. They had asked WHEN this destruction would be, and he told them. But the time of the Second Coming was NOT revealed. The two, then, are set in contrast. The possibility that a long period of time might pass before the coming of Christ is suggested by the story of the bridegroom that did not appear until the midnight hour or the master who “after a long time” returned (Mt. 25:14-30).
4. The destruction of Jerusalem was preceded by a specific sign — Jerusalem compassed about with Gentile armies. But the Second Coming, on the other hand, will come “as a thief in the night”; we are exhorted to be ready at all times; there will be no specific sign (such as a huge cross in the sky) to warn people a few minutes before Christ returns. The sign of the Son of man will be Christ himself — HE will appear! People will be eating and drinking and getting married — the routine things, just as in Noah’s day — and will not be expecting anything unusual to happen. Then suddenly Christ will come! The sign preceding the fall of Jerusalem was specific; the signs or warnings about the Second Coming are general — nothing to reveal the day or hour!
5. At the time of the fall of Jerusalem, the disciples were to escape into the mountains. Then, there was time to flee; but when Christ comes there will be no time to flee or make preparations to meet him. At the Second Coming, believers will not flee into the mountains, but will be caught up to meet the Lord in the air, in the clouds. In the first century, they were scattered; at the Second Coming they will be gathered. It is contrast all the way through.
6. Furthermore, having faith in Christ and the truth of the scriptures, and knowing that the Second Coming did not take place back in the first century, we know that a meaning should not be forced upon Matthew 24:30 that would contradict what Jesus himself went on to explain.
Having seen the detailed account of how Jesus’ words have been fulfilled in history in a remarkable manner; having seen how believing in these prophecies the Christians in Jerusalem were able to flee at the proper time; having seen how the fulfilled interpretation exalts and confirms the words of Christ; we see no virtue in trying to postpone the entire prophecy to the future — even though verse 30, if taken alone, is admittedly difficult. But despite whatever weaknesses may exist in our understanding on this point, to place the entire prophecy into the future cannot be correct, for then we would have to completely ignore the basic questions that the discourse was given to answer!
Copyrighted material used by permission of the Ralph Woodrow Evangelistic Association.
PO Box 21, Palm Springs, CA 92263