A Biblical Theology of Clouds
Everyone loves a sunny day; and, everyone hates a cloudy day, right? After all, we have a singular medical classification for the negative effects of cloudy days on the human psyche. We tend to speak of the beauty of any given day in relation to how much of the sun and sky we are able to see. However, Scripture encourages us to view the clouds in such a way as to think of the glory and presence of God. The Scriptures everywhere utilize the imagery of clouds to signal the immediate presence of God in time and space. This is one of those biblical-theological themes that has not often been given due consideration. Surprisingly, the Scriptures have much to teach, by way of illustration or allusion, about the symbolic and redemptive-historical significance of clouds.
The first place where clouds play a prominent role in redemptive history is in the flood narrative. No sooner had Noah and his family stepped off of the Ark that the LORD placed his bow in the clouds--a sacramental reminder of the covenant mercy that He was promising in preparation for the coming Redeemer. Clouds are those created symbols of transcendence and imminence. They reflect both the transcendent glory of the Lord and His imminent approach to us. The Apostle John tells us that there is a rainbow around the throne of Christ (Rev. 4:3). How fitting then, when God promises to give mercy from His Covenant throne, that He puts His bow in the clouds, as if to say, "From my majestic and transcendent throne, I will bring my mercy down to you." The Lord promised in the Noahic Covenant, "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 which is between Me and you and every living creature of all flesh; the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh. The rainbow shall be in the cloud, and I will look on it to remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth" (Gen. 9:14-16).
When the Lord brought His people out of Egypt in the Exodus, He led them out and through the wilderness for 40 years by means of the pillar of cloud. By this theophany the Lord was promising His people that He would be with them. It is a symbol of His presence and protection. The cloudy pillar shielded God's people from the blistering sun, as well as kept them hidden from the sight of their enemies. Additionally, it served to teach them that God would lead them by a way that they did not know. As Moses explained, "The Lord went before them by day in a pillar of cloud to lead the way" (Ex. 13:21). The people could not see through the pillar of cloud. They would have to trust the Lord and believe that His presence was sufficient to lead them to the place where He was taking them.
The coming of the Lord in the pillar of cloud is the first clear expample in Scripture of the Lord using clouds to symbolize His presence. The Psalmist declares, under figurative language, that Jehovah "makes the clouds His chariot" (Ps. 104:3). Nahum tells us that "the clouds are the dust of His feet" (Nahum 1:3). Clouds serve as the best picture in creation of the imminent presence of the transcendent God.
Clouds continued to play a significant role in the further revelation and theophany at Sinai. When Jehovah came down on the Mount He did so by means of a cloud. As Moses went up into the mountain to receive covenant revelation from the Lord, "a cloud covered the mountain." We are told that "the glory of the Lord rested on Mount Sinai, and the cloud covered it six days. And on the seventh day He called to Moses out of the midst of the cloud" (Ex. 24:15-16).
Continuing His redemptive work among His people, the Lord came and dwelt in the Tabernacle in the pillar of cloud: "It came to pass, when Moses entered the tabernacle, that the pillar of cloud descended and stood at the door of the tabernacle, and the Lord talked with Moses. All the people saw the pillar of cloud standing at the tabernacle door, and all the people rose and worshiped, each man in his tent door" (Ex. 33:9-10; 40:34). The people knew that the Lord had come to dwell with them when they saw the cloudy pillar come down on the Tabernacle. Additionally, the Lord would make His presence known to the Priest when He could come and dwell over the Ark of the Covenant. He promised that when He came, He would "appear in the cloud above the mercy seat" (Lev. 16:2). The Shekinah glory was a glory cloud in the Most Holy Place.
As Israel journeyed, they only did so in light of the descension and ascension of the glory cloud. We read, "Then the cloud covered the tabernacle of meeting, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle. Whenever the cloud was taken up from above the tabernacle, the children of Israel would go onward in all their journeys. But if the cloud was not taken up, then they did not journey till the day that it was taken up (Ex. 40:34-37). As God had come down on and gone up from the Mount when He revealed Himself to His people through the mediation of Moses, so too He came down and went up in the cloud as He lead His people forward through their pilgrimage to the Promised Land.
All of this is, of course, pointing forward to the coming of God in the person of Jesus. He is the glory of the Lord who came to Tabernacle with His people (John 1:14). Jesus is the enfleshing of God--the imminent dwelling of God with His people. Christ descended and ascended in order to lead us and guide us to our eternal habitation (Eph. 4:8-10). This is seen most fully at the Transfiguration (Luke 9:28-36). Jesus took Peter, James and John up on the mountain to be witnesses of His glory. Moses and Elijah (representing the law and the prophets) appeared there to bear witness to the Mediator of the New Covenant. As Moses had seen the glory of God on Sinai, He saw that glory shining in the face of Jesus. Luke tells us that as Jesus was speaking, "A cloud came and overshadowed them; and they were fearful as they entered the cloud. And a voice came out of the cloud, saying, “This is My beloved Son. Hear Him!” God the Father came down on the mountain and spoke out of the cloud, declaring and explaining that Christ was His eternally beloved Son--the fulness of His revelation. When Peter reflected back on this incident so many years later he remembered most of all the glory cloud out of which God the Father spoke. He explained that on the mountain Jesus "received from God the Father honor and glory when such a voice came to Him from the Excellent Glory: 'This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.'" (1 Peter 1:17). Jonathan Edwards captured the essence of the glory cloud at the Transfiguration when he wrote:
"There was a glory in that cloud that the apostle calls an excellent glory. When it is said in the evangelists that a bright cloud overshadowed them, it is not meant such a light or white cloud as shines by a cast of light upon it from some shining body, such as are some clouds by the bright reflection of the sun’s light; but a cloud bright by an internal light shining out of it, which light the apostle calls an excellent glory. It probably was an ineffably sweet, excellent sort of light, perfectly differing from and far exceeding the light of the sun...And there probably was an exact resemblance between the glory that the disciples saw in Christ’s face, and that which they saw in this cloud, which declared him to be the Son of God; for they saw him to be his express image."
The last place in which clouds play a significant role in redemptive history is in the ascension and in the return of Christ. After His resurrection, Jesus took His disciples up to a high mountain where "He was taken up, and a cloud received Him out of their sight" (Acts 1:9). Jesus' ascension on the clouds was foretold by Daniel (Dan. 7:13-14). He is the Son of Man ascending on the clouds of heaven and coming to the Ancient of Days to receive the Kingdom that was promised to Him. Likewise, the Scriptures tell us that "He is coming with clouds, and every eye will see Him, even they who pierced Him. (Rev. 1:7). The Scriptures promise that He will "come in like manner" as that by which He ascended to glory (Acts 1:11). One of the ways in which believers are to comfort one another in this life, while we await the full revelation of Christ, is that when Jesus comes again, "we who are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them (i.e. believers who have already died) in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And thus we shall always be with the Lord."
From the post-deluvian revelation to the parousia, the Scripture utilizes clouds to symbolize the presence of God. The next time we are tempted to complain about it being a cloudy day, we should pause and consider how the Lord uses clouds to remind us of His imminent presence and the promise of the coming of Jesus.