Grace Extending


Are We Called to Watch the Skies for Signs Like an Eclipse?


Misunderstandings concerning what the Bible seems to say about things like a solar eclipse actually provide a great opportunity for us to become more familiar with how the Scriptures (especially the Hebrew prophets) use this kind of imagery. When John writes in the book of Revelation that at the opening of the "sixth seal... the sun became black as sackcloth" (6:12), was he witnessing some future solar eclipse that heralded the end of the world? Or when Jesus spoke about the sun being "darkened" before his second coming (cf. Mark 13:24), was he calling us to watch the skies for signs like an eclipse? If we use Scripture to interpret Scripture, then the answer is "no" to both of these questions. Here are two reasons why:

First, in most passages that describe the sun being darkened (Isaiah 13:10; Ezekiel 32:7-8; Joel 2:10, 31; Matthew 24:29; Mark 13:24; Acts 2:20), the sun is just one heavenly light affected. In most cases the moon is darkened as well, or becomes "like blood", and the stars are darkened or fall from the sky. The prophetic picture these passages present is not simply one of darkness (a biblical image often connected with judgment--cf. Jeremiah 4:28), but also one of total heavenly (or cosmic) upheaval (rather than of familiar astronomical occurrences like an eclipse).

Second, when we understand how this imagery is used the first time it's used in the Bible, we find ourselves in a much better position to make sense of other, similar passages. That first occurence is in Isaiah 13:10 where we read, "For the stars of the heavens and their constellations will not give their light; the sun will be dark at its rising, and the moon will not shed its light." Was Isaiah alerting his readers to astronomical chaos at the end of time? Not at all. Isaiah 13 contains a prophet oracle against the city/kingdom of Babylon (v. 1). Though it talks about "the world" (v. 11) and "the earth [being] shaken out of its place" (v. 13), it's clear from the passage (v. 17) and history that Isaiah is simply announcing the eventual conquest of Babylon by the Medes in 539 BC. Why this imagery of cosmic upheaval? Like our phrase "earth-shattering" (a modern example of hyperbole), this language (an ancient example of hyperbole) was meant to communicate powerfully and poetically just how severe and radical the coming change would be.

When we are sensitized by the two points above, other passages that contain similar imagery (often inspired by this Hebrew, prophetic tradition) begin to make much more sense. For example, when the prophet Joel warns his readers about a coming locust swarm (Joel 2:25), the event serves as a prophetic springboard through which he points his listeners to a future time of radical change and upheaval when "the sun shall be turned to darkness" (v. 31). When did that radical change and upheaval come? According to Peter in Acts 2:16-21, it came on the Day of Pentecost, not long after Jesus returned to the Father (Acts 1:6-11). On that day when the Spirit was poured out on the newly-born Church, there was no solar eclipse or astronomical oddity. But there certainly was a severe and radical change that took place in terms of how God was at work; a change that would lead not only to the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD, but one day, will also lead to the upheaval and judgment of all things, the culmination of God's "purpose, which he set forth in Christ as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth." (Ephesians 1:9–10)

So while fascinating events like an eclipse can provide us with powerful pictures of the amazing, material universe God created, they should also bring to mind this cosmic imagery from Scripture; imagery that was never meant to be a literal guidebook to future, heavenly phenomena, but instead, was intended to remind us that a day is coming when everything will change forever. On that day, may our heavenward gaze be on Jesus, "who delivers us from the wrath to come" (1 Thessalonians 1:10) and whose "sunrise" (Luke 1:78) will be our everlasting light:

And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and its lamp is the Lamb. (Revelation 21:23)

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