The Great Shaking
Then I saw when He opened the sixth seal, and a great earthquake happened, then the sun became as black as a sackcloth of hair, and the whole moon became as blood.
Then the stars of heaven fell prostrate onto the earth, as a fig tree casts down its untimely figs when being shaken by a great wind.
Then the firmament was separated as a scroll being furled, and every mountain and island were moved out of their places.
Then the rulers of earth, and the nobility, and the commanders of armies, and the wealthy, and the powerful, and all those in bondage and free hid themselves in the caves and in the rocks of the mountains.
And they are saying to the mountains and the rocks, “Fall upon us and conceal us from the face of the One sitting upon the throne and from the wrath of the Lamb.
“Because the Great Day of Their Wrath came, and who is able to stand?”Revelation 6:12-17
So far, everything John saw concerned a single planet. The four horsemen traversed the globe, and the martyrs called out for God’s judgment of those living on earth.
But now the entire cosmos seems to be coming unglued, and the imagery, as fantastic as it is, was vividly familiar to John’s audience.
From the beginning, God assigned portents to the sun, moon, and stars.
And God said, “Let there be lights in the dome of the sky to separate the day from the night,
and let them be for signs and for seasons and for days and years,
and let them be lights in the dome of the sky to give light upon the earth.” And it was so. God made the two great lights—the greater light to rule the day and the lesser light to rule the night—and the stars. God set them in the dome of the sky to give light upon the earth, to rule over the day and over the night, and to separate the light from the darkness.
And God saw that it was good.Genesis 1:14-18 (NRSV)
The heaven’s host have always obeyed God in service to humankind.
- The sun and moon lengthened their sojourn for Joshua.
- And the sun seemed to do the same for Hezekiah
Indeed, from humankind’s earliest memories, the skies have held mystery and meaning, and feature prominently in mythologies, religions, ceremonies, calendars, and festivals of earth. The fascination with celestial orbs was so intense and widespread that the Lord specifically warned God’s people to resist worshipping them, as most of the rest of the world would.
Instead, all of creation is said to worship God and proclaim God’s glory, including the heavens.
The heavens are telling the glory of God,
and the firmament proclaims his handiwork.
Day to day pours forth speech,
and night to night declares knowledge.
There is no speech, nor are there words;
their voice is not heard;
yet their voice goes out through all the earth
and their words to the end of the world.
Praise him, all his angels;
praise him, all his host!
Praise him, sun and moon;Psalm 19:1-4, 142:2-4 (NRSV)
praise him, all you shining stars!
Praise him, you highest heavens
and you waters above the heavens!
Black Sun, Blood Moon
Earlier prophets used similar imagery when revealing visions they had received from God about the Day of God’s Wrath.
Isaiah spoke of great destruction and desolation, of the stars, sun, and moon all going dark.
Ezekiel also spoke of the entire heavens no longer shedding their light.
But it is Joel’s dramatic apocalypse that most closely matches John’s oracle.
The earth quakes before them;
the heavens tremble.
The sun and the moon are darkened,
and the stars withdraw their shining.
The sun shall be turned to darkness and the moon to blood, before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes.Joel 2:10, 31 (NRSV)
And it is to this imagery Jesus turned in His prophetic description of the coming of the Son of Humanity, and that Peter echoed, quoting Joel’s prophecy Pentecost morning.
“Immediately after the suffering of those days the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light; the stars will fall from heaven, and the powers of heaven will be shaken.”Jesus, Matthew 24:29 (NRSV)
Shooting Stars and Comets
Twice God pointed to the stars as guarantors of God’s promise.
The first time was to Abraham, the pioneer of monotheism, progenitor of two nations—through Ishmael and through Isaac—and called the father of faith.
[God] brought [Abraham] outside and said, “Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your descendants be.”Genesis 15:5 (NRSV)
The second time, God revealed to the Magi the place and time of Messiah’s birth through the guidance of a star.
In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, magi from the east came to Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star in the east and have come to pay him homage.”Matthew 2:1-2 (NRSV)
The Firmament Furled
The prophet Isaiah observed this same unnerving phenomenon in his vision of God’s judgment on all nations.
All the host of heaven shall rot away,Isaiah 34:4 (NRSV)
and the skies roll up like a scroll.
The Apostle Peter wrote vividly of this scene.
But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and
- then the heavens will pass away with a loud noise,
- and the elements will be destroyed with fire,
- and the earth and everything that is done on it will be disclosed.
Since all these things are to be destroyed in this way, what sort of persons ought you to be in leading lives of holiness and godliness, waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God,
because of which the heavens will be set ablaze and destroyed and the elements will melt with fire?2 Peter 3:10-12 (NRSV)
The Day of the Lord
This was a very familiar concept, with hundreds of years’ worth of prophets and their utterances.
Both Haggai and Isaiah spoke of this. It evokes the imagery of the Lord descending upon Mount Sinai to consecrate the people unto God, covenant with them, and bring them into community with the Lord.
On the morning of the third day there was thunder and lightning, as well as a thick cloud on the mountain and a blast of a trumpet so loud that all the people who were in the camp trembled. Moses brought the people out of the camp to meet God. They took their stand at the foot of the mountain. Now all of Mount Sinai was wrapped in smoke, because the Lord had descended upon it in fire; the smoke went up like the smoke of a kiln, while the whole mountain shook violently.Exodus 19:16-18 (NRSV)
How Can a Mortal Be Just Before God?
The words John heard the terrified of earth cry out during this worldwide cataclysm are eerily similar to Job’s lament.
but how can a mortal be just before God?
If one wished to contend with him,
one could not answer him once in a thousand.
He is wise in heart and mighty in strength;
who has resisted him and succeeded?
He removes mountains, and they do not know it
when he overturns them in his anger;
he shakes the earth out of its place,
and its pillars tremble;
he commands the sun, and it does not rise;
he seals up the stars;
he alone stretched out the heavens
and trampled the waves of the Sea;
he made the Bear and Orion,
the Pleiades and the chambers of the south;
he does great things beyond understanding
and marvelous things without number.
Look, he passes by me, and I do not see him;
he moves on, but I do not perceive him.
He snatches away; who can stop him?
Who will say to him, ‘What are you doing?’
“God will not turn back his anger”Job 9:2-13 (NRSV)