The Son of Man Coming on the Clouds

 

When I was a child, and a member of a Dispensational Premillennial IFB church, I would often hear my pastor commenting on any given Sunday, “It’s cloudy today—this might just be the day the Lord returns.” At other times, he would conclude the opposite: “I didn’t notice any clouds in the sky, so I guess the Lord may not return today. But this is Texas, and the weather could change at any moment.” The literal presence of clouds in the sky was seen as a necessary condition of Christ’s Second Coming. Why is this? It’s because of the Lord’s words in Matthew 24:30.

                  Then will appear in heaven the sign of the Son of Man, and then all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory.

(Matthew 24:30 ESV)

 Was Jesus predicting that on the day of his return, it will literally be cloudy? No, Jesus was alluding to a prophecy by Daniel of the coming of “one like a son of man” who comes “with the clouds of heaven.” What would be the point of predicting whether it would be cloudy on the day of the coming of the Son of Man? Let’s look at Daniel’s prophecy to which Christ alludes (the key phrases will be highlighted):     

  “I saw in the night visions,

                and behold, with the clouds of heaven

                                there came one like a son of man,

                and he came to the Ancient of Days

                                and was presented before him.

                 And to him was given dominion

                                and glory and a kingdom,

                that all peoples, nations, and languages

                                should serve him;

                his dominion is an everlasting dominion,

                                which shall not pass away,

                and his kingdom one

                                that shall not be destroyed.

(Daniel 7:13-14 ESV)

 The first thing to notice is the fact that this prophecy contains poetic language. That’s why the ESV editors (and those of most modern English versions) format the prophecy in a poetic style. Ancient Hebrew poetry does not have the same standards for literalism as historical narrative does. It is true that the Gospel of Matthew is a historical narrative, and so it is literally true that Jesus quoted Daniel’s prophecy, but the prophecy Jesus quoted in this historical narrative Gospel account is still a poetic reference.

If the reference to clouds in association with the coming of the Son of Man bears poetic, symbolic meaning, then what might that meaning be? Let’s look at a few other poetic Old Testament passages that similarly associate clouds with the activity of Yahweh.

 He lays the beams of his chambers on the waters;

                he makes the clouds his chariot;

                                he rides on the wings of the wind;

(Psalm 104:3)

If we are to take Christ’s reference to coming with clouds literally, then are we also to take Psalm 104’s statement that the LORD makes the clouds his chariot literally? Does an infinite, omnipresent Spirit need to stand on a cloud, hold a set of reins and be transported by means of atmospheric water vapor? Well, has he also literally laid giant wooden beams across a body of water and built chambers in which he might dwell? Does wind literally have wings? Of course it doesn’t. This is nothing but poetic imagery. So, what idea does this imagery of clouds convey? Basically, it conveys the idea of God’s terrifying power and authority. Notice how the Egyptians and their idols react to the image of the LORD riding on a cloud in Isaiah 19:

                An oracle concerning Egypt.

                Behold, the LORD is riding on a swift cloud

                                and comes to Egypt;

                and the idols of Egypt will tremble at his presence,

                                and the heart of the Egyptians will melt within them.

(Isaiah 19:1)

With these things in mind, let’s go back and take another look at Matthew 24:30: “Then will appear in heaven the sign of the Son of Man, and then all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory (Matthew 24:30).

I hope we can more clearly see now, that the significance of the coming of the Son of Man “on the clouds of heaven” lies in the fact of his terrifying power and great glory whose appearing will make all the tribes of the earth mourn, and at which time will occur the Last Judgment and the ultimate consummation of his Kingdom. This is just one of many examples of the need to genuinely take into account the literary structure of a passage in order to determine its proper interpretation.

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6 responses

  1. Even if Jesus would only come on a ‘cloudy’ day, would that be a cloudy day in Jerusalem or Texas? Would the entire Earth be enveloped in clouds? I hope your pastor was being sort of tongue-in-cheek when he made that statement. Then again, many IFBs don’t see much past the borders of the USA.

    1. I hope it was a little tongue-in-cheek, but I don’t know how much. But I don’t tell this on him to put him down, he’s my father in the faith. But it is an indicative anecdote.

  2. John,

    for two reasons and maybe more I like this article!

    One is the depth of the substance of the topic, and then, the simplicity with which you open it up to your readers! That was easy reading.

    That one, the making such a complex topic simple enough to read is not easy to do!

    Thanks for laying this out and making it easy to comprehend whether or not one understands what it means that He will come back on a cloud!

    1. Thanks, Michael. Some topics are definitely easier to grasp and communicate than others. Does that last statement of yours mean that you think I missed the meaning even though I communicated my interpretation clearly enough? Are there other aspects I overlooked from your perspective?

  3. No John,

    my last statement should not be taken as though I was implying you missed the meaning.

    I thought you simplified it well, for me, at least. Don’t know if others struggled with what your wrote when reading it?

    One thought has stuck with me about the “clouds” and their forming during the Lord’s return to the earth “shortly”.

    You know what a contrail is?

    I thought maybe the “clouds” were the contrails of those Elect Angels who were heading down here from there with Jesus when He returns, hence it appears He is riding on the clouds, ah, contrails of the faster Elect Angels who are out in front of Him as He descends. :)!

    I just have this feeling deep in side that some of those Elect Angels want to get down to business shortly and get to the business of grabbing up and binding and casting into the lake of fire as many of the fallen angels as they can dispatching them to their eternal abodes, quickly or “shortly” just as the Word of God describes it as “His return” when returning:

    Rev 1:1 The Revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave unto him, to shew unto his servants things which must shortly come to pass; and he sent and signified it by his angel unto his servant John:
    Rev 1:2 Who bare record of the word of God, and of the testimony of Jesus Christ, and of all things that he saw.
    Rev 1:3 Blessed is he that readeth, and they that hear the words of this prophecy, and keep those things which are written therein: for the time is at hand.
    Rev 1:4 John to the seven churches which are in Asia: Grace be unto you, and peace, from him which is, and which was, and which is to come; and from the seven Spirits which are before his throne;
    Rev 1:5 And from Jesus Christ, who is the faithful witness, and the first begotten of the dead, and the prince of the kings of the earth. Unto him that loved us, and washed us from our sins in his own blood,
    Rev 1:6 And hath made us kings and priests unto God and his Father; to him be glory and dominion for ever and ever. Amen.
    Rev 1:7 Behold, he cometh with clouds; and every eye shall see him, and they also which pierced him: and all kindreds of the earth shall wail because of him. Even so, Amen.

    1. Imaginative. Been reading Frank Peretti’s This Present Darkness lately? 😉 Thanks for clarifying.

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