The Collapsing Universe in the Bible, Part 4
In part three of this series (see sidebar), Godawa explained that the mention of the “last days” in the New Testament refers to the period in which the authors lived rather than a time in the future. Here in part four he discusses the phrase, “shaking of the heavens and the earth,” and explains that it was used in the Bible as a metaphor to describe a very significant event—like the rebuilding of the temple—rather than a physical destruction of the universe.
Shaking the Heavens and Earth
In a previous article on Biblical Creation and Storytelling, I argued that the establishment of covenants by God is spoken of in the Bible in figurative terms of the creation of the heavens and earth. After all, the Jews’ entire existence and reality was interpreted through their covenant with God, so it makes perfect ancient Near Eastern sense to speak of it in the big picture terms of heaven and earth.
God describes the creation of his covenant with Moses as the creation of the heavens and the earth (Isa 51:14-16). The creation of Israel through deliverance and Promised Land was likened to God hovering over the waters and filling the formless and void earth (Deut 32:10-12), separating the waters from the dry land (Ex 15:8, 16-17), establishing the sun and moon, and defeating the mythical sea dragon of chaos to create his ordered world (Psa 74:12-17; 89:6-12; Isa 51:9-14).
If the creation of a covenant is spoken of as the creation of heavens and earth, and the ruling powers are referred to as sun, moon and stars, then what would the destruction of those powers be but the destruction of the heavens and the earth, including the fall of those astronomical symbolic entities? And what was the embodiment of that covenant but the holy Temple in the holy city of King David?
The first time that Jerusalem and the Temple were destroyed in 586 B.C. by the Babylonians, the prophets used the language of decreation to express the covenantal violation of Israel. The destruction of the Temple and exile of the Jews through God’s providence was likened to the destruction of the heavens and earth and a return to a pre-creation chaotic state, a reversal of Genesis 1 language:
I looked on the earth, and behold, it was without form and void;
and to the heavens, and they had no light.
I looked on the mountains, and behold, they were quaking,
I looked, and behold, there was no man,
and all the birds of the air had fled.
I looked, and behold, the fruitful land was a desert…
For this the earth shall mourn,
and the heavens above be dark.
Behold, the LORD will empty the earth and make it desolate…
The earth shall be utterly empty and utterly plundered…
The earth staggers like a drunken man;
On that day the LORD will punish
the host of heaven, in heaven,
and the kings of the earth, on the earth…
Then the moon will be confounded
and the sun ashamed
In the same way that the first temple destruction was earth-shattering in its covenantal impact, so the second destruction of Jerusalem and the holy Temple in A.D. 70 was of equal spiritual significance in God’s covenantal relations with Israel. It was the shaking of the heavens and earth with a punishment of the host of heaven, both astronomical and political/spiritual.
In the year A.D. 66, revolutionary Zealots and other factions had fueled a revolt against their Roman occupiers. The leaders of Israel had rejected Jesus of Nazareth as being the Messiah, but they knew the calculations of Daniel’s prophecy (Daniel 9:24-27). The 490 years were up. Messiah would arrive, crush the Roman pagan oppressors and establish the long awaited eternal Kingdom of God (Daniel 2:44-45) on earth.
The Roman emperor Nero sent his general Vespasian to crush the Jewish rebellion and bring peace back to Roman rule. The city of Jerusalem was besieged by Vespasian’s son Titus, and by the summer of A.D. 70, was completely destroyed, along with the Jewish Temple. A million or more Jews were killed, a hundred thousand were made slaves and exiled,1 and the Temple has never since been rebuilt from its ruins.
This important piece of history was extensively recorded by a Jewish historian in the Roman court, Flavius Josephus, in his book The Wars of the Jews. In this single historical event lies the key to understanding many mysterious metaphors and perplexing poetry of end times prophecy. What appears to modern Americans as esoteric Nostradamus-like riddles in biblical language about the “end of the age,” when interpreted through the images and metaphors of the Old Testament, becomes a powerful testimony of the New Covenant.
This all sheds light on Jesus’ prophecy about the impending destruction of the Jerusalem Temple when he was asked by his disciples on the Mount of Olives, “Tell us, when will these things happen, and what will be the sign of Your coming, and of the end of the age?” (Matt 24:3).
The Greek word for “age” is not cosmos as in the physical world, but aion, as in a time era. Jesus was not describing the end of the space-time universe, he was talking about the end of the Old Covenant era, the last days of the Old Covenant that culminated in the destruction of the sacramental incarnation of that Old Covenant: The Temple in Jerusalem (Matt 24:1-2).
As scholar N.T. Wright put it,
The ‘close of the age’ for which they longed was not the end of the space-time order, but the end of the present evil age, and the introduction of the (still very much this-worldly) age to come… Matthew 24:3, therefore is most naturally read, in its first-century Jewish context… as a question of Jesus ‘coming’ or ‘arriving’ in the sense of his actual enthronement as king, consequent upon the dethronement of the present powers that were occupying the holy city…When will the evil age, symbolized by the present Jerusalem regime, be over?2
The destruction of the Old Covenant order would be likened to the destruction of the heavens and the earth.
In Hebrews 12:18-22, the writer tells us that God shook the heavens and the earth when he established his covenant with Moses on Sinai. But then in verses 23-24 he says that the New Covenant is a heavenly city of God on the Mount Zion of the heavenly Jerusalem, far superior to the Mosaic covenant. Then he concludes that the end of that Old Covenant is near because a new shaking of the heavens and earth is coming, and that shaking is the establishment of the New Covenant.
At that time his voice shook the earth, but now he has promised, “Yet once more I will shake not only the earth but also the heavens.” This phrase, “Yet once more,” indicates the removal of things that are shaken—that is, things that have been made—in order that the things that cannot be shaken may remain. Therefore let us be grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken. (Heb 12:26-28)
J. Stuart Russell answers the relevant question, “What then, is the great catastrophe symbolically represented as the shaking of the earth and heavens?”
“No doubt it is the overthrow and abolition of the Mosaic dispensation, or old covenant; the destruction of the Jewish church and state, together with all the institutions and ordinances connect therewith… the laws, and statutes, and ordinances.”3
The book of Hebrews was written before A.D. 70, when the Temple was destroyed. So the physical embodiment of the Old Covenant was still on earth even though the New Covenant had been inaugurated by the death and resurrection of Christ. It was not until the Temple was destroyed that the New Covenant was considered fully inaugurated. They were living in a transition period between covenants during the years of 30-70.
This is why the writer of Hebrews says, “In speaking of a new covenant, he makes the first one obsolete. And what is becoming obsolete and growing old is ready to vanish away” (Heb. 8:13). Notice how the author says that the Old Covenant was becoming old and obsolete but was not yet replaced. That is because the incarnation of the old heavens and earth, the Jeruslalem Temple, was not yet destroyed at the time of his writing. The Old Covenant was the heavens and earth that was shaken and replaced by the New Covenant, which is the eternal kingdom that will never be replaced or shaken.
1. Flavius Josephus. Wars of the Jews, 6.9.3 (6:420).
2. Wright, N.T. Jesus and the Victory of God. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1996, p. 345-346.
3. Russell, J. Stuart. The Parousia: The New Testament Doctrine of Our Lord’s Second Coming. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1999, p. 289.
Brian Godawa is the screenwriter of To End All Wars and other feature films. He has written and directed documentaries on church-state relations, stem cell research and higher education politics. He is the author of Hollywood Worldviews: Watching Films with Wisdom and Discernment (InterVarsity Press) and Chronicles of the Nephilim, a series of fantasy novels about Biblical heroes within their ancient Near Eastern mythological context. He speaks around the country to churches, high schools and colleges on movies, worldviews and faith. His movie blog can be found at godawa.com/movieblog/.