Heavenly Signs - 1

I am writing this at the onset of the eclipse, an event highly publicized for the past several weeks.  Many schools are closed; businesses are taking at least a partial holiday; eclipse parties are in progress and daily warnings have been issued against looking at the spectacle with the naked eye.  Heavenly phenomena often lift our gaze toward God, as well they should. 

An eclipse occurs when the earth, moon and sun align so that daylight briefly dims.  But lightning storms, menacing hail, howling winds, enchanting snowfalls, colorful sunsets, the aurora borealis and other wonders of the atmosphere likewise create feelings of reverence, romance and even fear.  Their novelty and immensity duly humble us.  How else has God shown His power and presence by wonders in the atmosphere?

1. Rain (Gn 6-9).  On the second day of creation God made the firmament and divided the waters which were under the firmament from the waters which were above the firmament” (Gn 1:7).  Further, “God had not caused it to rain on the earth … but a mist went up from the earth and watered the whole face of the ground” (2:5-6).  Nothing is said about rain until, as a punitive judgment on sinful man, the water vapor in the atmosphere combined with subterranean rivers to flood the whole earth (Gn 7:11, 17-24).  Thus God’s global punishment against universal sin came principally from the heavens in a novel phenomenon – rain, a rain that poured out the waters of heaven for forty days and nights.  How terrifying this must have been for those drowning beneath the torrents of God’s wrath!

2. Rainbows (Gn 9:8-17).   Yet after the deluge and the unmistakable judgment against sin, God replaced the killer rain with the rainbow of promise:  “Never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of the flood … This is the sign of the covenant which I make between Me and you … for perpetual generations:  I set My rainbow in the cloud, and it shall be for the sign of the covenant between Me and the earth … It shall be, when I bring a cloud over the earth, that the rainbow shall be seen in the cloud; and I will remember My covenant … the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh …” (Gen 9:11-13, 15). 

This is not a miraculous sign but a natural one.  A rainbow is “an arc or circle that exhibits in concentric bands the colors of the spectrum and that is formed opposite the sun by the refraction and reflection of the sun’s rays in raindrops, spray, or mist” (Webster’s Online).  How does a natural phenomenon serve as a “sign” of God’s post-deluge promise?  Perhaps in the fact that it takes both sunshine and clouds to produce a rainbow; i.e., the shining sun is testimony that the atmosphere is not so full of water vapor that the earth is in danger of being completely flooded as it was in Noah’s day.  God’s providence limits rainfall so that the earth is watered, not in-undated.  God’s ancient declaration to Noah should be a periodic reminder of God’s trustworthiness and omniscience.  Sadly, most modern cultures have willingly rejected this precedent, as Peter notes (2 Pet 3:5).  (By contrast, what an ironic travesty that the rainbow in modern times has been co-opted as a symbol by groups that have no regard for God whatsoever.)

3. Fire and Brimstone (Gn 18:16-19:29).  Not having learned the lesson of the flood, the inhabitants of Sodom and Gomorrah and other towns of the region south of the Dead Sea had once again fallen into gross immorality.  So egregious was it that God sent a delegation of angels to warn Lot to flee before they struck the area with God’s judgment:  “‘Have you anyone else here?  Son-in-law, your sons, your daughters, and whomever you have in the city – take them out of this place!  For we will destroy this place, because the outcry against them has grown great before the face of the Lord, and the Lord has sent us to destroy it … Then the Lord rained brimstone and fire on Sodom and Gomorrah, from the Lord out of the heavens.  So He overthrew those cities, all the plain, all the inhabitants of the cities, and what grew on the ground” (19:12-13, 24-25).   Skeptics might dismiss this as a natural volcanic eruption, but this attempt to avoid the miraculous judgment of God overlooks the fact that there are no erupting volcanoes in that area and that God delayed the action so that Lot could escape with his daughters. 

Jude notes that this destruction, like the flood (cf. 2 Pet 3:5-7), was intended to be an everlasting declaration of God against such behaviors:  “As Sodom and Gomorrah, and the cities around them in a similar manner to these, having given themselves over to sexual immorality and gone after strange flesh, are set forth as an example, suffering the vengeance of eternal fire” (v 7). 

4. The Plagues:  Hail, Lightning and Darkness (Ex 9-10).      

With the seventh plague there seems to be a ramping up of intensity as God is showing His might against Pharaoh:  “At this time I will send all My plagues to your very heart, and on your servants and on your people, that you may know that there is none like Me in all the earth … Then the Lord said to Moses, ‘Stretch out your hand toward heaven, that there may be hail in all the land of Egypt – on man, on beast, and on every herb of the field’ … and the Lord sent thunder and hail, and fire darted to the ground.  So there was hail, and fire mingled with the hail, so very heavy that there was none like it in all the land of Egypt since it became a nation …” (Ex 9:14, 22-24).  Hail can do great damage, but when God uses it as an instrument of judgment it is deadly.  The usually benign Egyptian skies  turned into vaults of terror as not only hail but “fire” – probably fierce arcs of lightning – destroyed everything that was exposed.

In the ninth plague God shut off all the lights so that the atmosphere was darkened with a “darkness which may even be felt” (Ex 10:21).  This was no natural eclipse as “they did not see one another; nor did anyone rise from his place for three days.  But all the children of Israel had light in their dwellings” (10:23).  The darkness was literal, but the metaphorical meaning should not be overlooked. 

There is subliminal comfort in the predictable movements of the heavenly bodies; they mark the passing of time and the changing of the seasons.  If  something so small as a partial eclipse is enthralling, what would we do if the Lord Himself were to appear with His radiance completely overwhelming the brilliance of the sun?  We will explore this and other atmospheric phenomena in the next article.