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;
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.
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.