The Collapsing Universe in the Bible, Part 2
This is the second in an ongoing series about the language of "de-creation" in the Bible. For Godawa's introductory comments to the series, please see part 1 (sidebar).
Sun, Moon and Stars
First, let’s take a look at the usage of sun, moon and stars in the Old Testament. In the ancient Near East, there is often a conceptual equivalency or link between stars, heavenly bodies, and deities.1 The Encyclopedia Judaica notes that, “in many cultures the sky, the sun, the moon, and the known planets were conceived as personal gods. These gods were responsible for all or some aspects of existence. Prayers were addressed to them, offerings were made to them, and their opinions on important matters were sought through divination.”2
But it was not merely the pagans who made this connection of heavenly physical bodies with heavenly spiritual powers. The Old Testament itself equates the sun, moon, and stars with the angelic “sons of God” who surround God’s throne, calling them both the “host of heaven” (Deut 4:19; 32:8-9).3 Jewish commentator Jeffrey Tigay writes, “[These passages] seem to reflect a biblical view that… as punishment for man’s repeated spurning of His authority in primordial times (Gen. 3-11), God deprived mankind at large of true knowledge of Himself and ordained that it should worship idols and subordinate celestial beings.”4
There is more than just a symbolic connection between the physical heavens and the spiritual heavens in the Bible. In some passages, the stars of heaven are linked interchangeably with angelic heavenly beings, also referred to as “holy ones” or “sons of God” (Psa 89:5-7; Job 1:6)5. Consider the following passages that equate the host of heaven with both astronomical bodies and angelic spirits simultaneously:
- “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?...when the morning stars sang together and all the sons of God shouted for joy?” (Job 38:4-7).
- “You are the LORD, you alone. You have made heaven, the heaven of heavens, with all their host, the earth and all that is on it, the seas and all that is in them; and you preserve all of them; and the host of heaven worships you” (Neh. 9:6).
- “It grew great, even to the host of heaven. And some of the host and some of the stars it threw down to the ground and trampled on them. It became great, even as great as the Prince of the host [Michael]” (Dan 8:10-11; Dan 10).
In the passages above, we see the equivocation of sun, moon, and stars with heavenly angelic powers. But there is another symbolic connection made in the Old Testament of the sun, moon, and stars with earthly human authorities such as kings and rulers. It is as if these earthly principalities are empowered by or represent images of those spiritual beings and principalities.
In the passages below, notice that the destruction of earthly powers is expressed through the figurative language of a collapsing universe: The sky rolling up and the sun, moon, and stars being darkened or falling. Another way to describe this discourse is the language of “de-creation.”
Kings at war early 13th Century B.C.
“The kings came, they fought… From heaven the stars fought, from their courses they fought against Sisera” (Jud 5:19-20).
The destruction of Babylon in 539 B.C.
“the stars of heaven and their constellations will not flash forth their light; The sun will be dark when it rises, And the moon will not shed its light” (Isa 13:10).
The destruction of Edom in 586 B.C.
“all the host of heaven will wear away, And the sky will be rolled up like a scroll; All their hosts will also wither away” (Isa 34:4).
The destruction of Egypt in 587 B.C.
“When I blot you out, I will cover the heavens and make their stars dark; I will cover the sun with a cloud, and the moon shall not give its light. All the bright lights of heaven will I make dark over you, and put darkness on your land, declares the Lord GOD” (Ezek 32:7).
The destruction of Edom in 586 B.C.
“For the LORD is enraged against all the nations, and furious against all their host; he has devoted them to destruction, has given them over for slaughter…All the host of heaven shall rot away, and the skies roll up like a scroll. All their host shall fall, as leaves fall (Isa 34:2-5).
During none of these historical events did the sky “literally” roll up or the stars fall or the sun and moon turn dark. These passages correlate the collapsing universe figuratively with the fall of earthly regimes and the spiritual powers behind them.
And this figurative understanding is not a new invention. Eschatology expert Gary DeMar writes, “Before the advent of speculative exegesis, most Bible commentators who studied the whole Bible understood the relationship of collapsing universe language with the destruction of the religious and civil state.”6 Scholar Kenneth L. Gentry adds, “In Scripture, prophets often express national catastrophes in terms of cosmic destruction. The famed twelfth-century Jewish theologian Maimonides notes that such language ‘is a proverbial expression, importing the destruction and utter ruin of a nation.’”7
Perhaps some clarity can now be brought to the New Testament usage of the same exact imagery when describing the last days and the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem.
“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” (Matt 24:29).
“When he opened the sixth seal, I looked, and behold, there was a great earthquake, and the sun became black as sackcloth, the full moon became like blood, and the stars of the sky fell to the earth as the fig tree sheds its winter fruit when shaken by a gale. The sky vanished like a scroll that is being rolled up, and every mountain and island was removed from its place” (Revelation 6:12-14).
Within the Church, there are several interpretations of when these prophesies are fulfilled, past, present, or future. But that does not concern us here. My main point is that these passages are so often used to look for a series of astronomical or geophysical catastrophes in creation, but now we see that they are actually a figurative expression rooted in Old Testament imagery of the fall of ruling powers.
What I will argue next is that in the New Testament, the usage of these images denotes more than just ruling powers being vanquished; it figuratively depicts the end of the old covenant order itself.
1. Some examples of orthodox scholars who hold to this view are Sproul, R.C. The Last Days According to Jesus. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1998; and Gentry, Kenneth L. Jr. Navigating the Book of Revelation. Fountain Inn: SC, Goodbirth Ministries, 2009.
2. I. Zatelli, “Constellations.” Toorn, K. van der, Bob Becking, and Pieter Willem van der Horst. Dictionary of Deities and Demons in the Bible. 2nd extensively rev. ed. Leiden; Boston; Grand Rapids, Mich.: Brill; Eerdmans, 1999.,. 202-204; “Astrology and the Worship of the Stars in the Bible,” ZAW 103 (1991): 86-99.
3. “Astrology”, Berenbaum, Michael and Fred Skolnik, eds. 2nd ed. Encyclopaedia Judaica. Detroit: Macmillan Reference USA, 2007, p. 8424.
4. See also Deut 4:19; Deut 17:3; 2King 23:4-5; 1King 22:19; Neh 9:6.
5. Tigay, Jeffrey. JPS Torah Commentary: Deuteronomy. Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society, 1996): 435; as quoted in Heiser, Michael S. “Deuteronomy 32:8 and the Sons of God,” Bibliotheca Sacra 158 (January-March 2001): 72; Copyright © 2001 Dallas Theological Seminary; online: http://thedivinecouncil.com/
6. See also Psa 148:2-3, 1King 22:29 & 2King 21:5. In Isa 14:12-14 the king of Babylon is likened to the planet Venus (Morningstar) seeking to reign above the other stars of heaven, which are equivalent to the sons of God who surround God’s throne on the “mount of assembly” or “divine council” (see Psa 89:5-7 and Psa 82).
7. DeMar, Gary. Last Days Madness: Obsession of the Modern Church. Powder Springs, GA: American Vision, 1999, p. 144.
8. Ice, Thomas and Kenneth L. Gentry Jr. The Great Tribulation Debate: Past or Future? Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel, 1999, p. 55.