Explanation Of The Phrase: “The Clouds of Heaven”
In the New Testament the phrase: "and they shall see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven" (or similar) is quite common in reference to the return of Jesus Christ.
In this article I will go through the Bible to attempt to work out what is meant by this enigmatic phrase - “the clouds of heaven” and what that has to do with the return of Jesus Christ.
Indeed there are over 150 references to clouds in the Bible and while a few refer to clouds in the natural sense such as pouring forth rain, most of these references have to do with God, His nature, His revelation, His judgment, war and the nations.
A few of the more puzzling verses are listed below:
Daniel 7:13-14 I saw in the night visions, and behold, One like the Son of man came with the clouds of heaven, and came to the Ancient of Days, and they brought Him near before Him. (14) And dominion and glory was given Him, 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 that which shall not be destroyed.
Matthew 24:29-30 And immediately after the tribulation of those days, the sun shall be darkened and the moon shall not give her light, and the stars shall fall from the heaven, and the powers of the heavens shall be shaken. (30) And then the sign of the Son of Man shall appear in the heavens. And then all the tribes of the earth shall mourn, and they shall see the Son of Man coming in the clouds of the heaven with power and great glory.
Mark 14:62 And Jesus said, I AM! And you will see the Son of Man sitting on the right hand of power and coming in the clouds of the heaven.
Revelation 1:7 Behold, He comes with the clouds, and every eye will see Him, and those who pierced Him will see Him, and all the kindreds of the earth will wail because of Him. Even so, Amen.
This is mysterious symbolism and conjures up thoughts of UFOs, aircraft, or angelic chariots, however the actual answer is quite different! Symbolically the clouds are the mid-point of heaven where God and man meet for either blessings or judgment.
Fellowship With God / Meeting God/ Covenant
Clouds are associated with God meeting with or remembering mankind. The first reference to a cloud is in Genesis (and such first references are often important and defining references).
Genesis 9:12-15 And God said, This is the token of the covenant which I make between Me and you and every living creature with you, for everlasting generations: (13) I set my rainbow in the cloud. And it shall be a token of a covenant between Me and the earth. (14) And it shall be, when I bring a cloud over the earth, that the rainbow shall be seen in the cloud. (15) And I will remember My covenant which is between Me and you and every living creature of all flesh; and the waters shall no more become a flood to destroy all flesh.
The next reference to a cloud is the pillar of fire and cloud associated with God and the tabernacle – the cloud provided guidance, blessing and revelation of God while also concealing God from the congregation.
Exodus 13:21-22 And Jehovah went before them by day in a pillar of a cloud, to lead them the right away, and by night in a pillar of fire, to give them light, to go by day and night. (22) He did not take away the pillar of the cloud by day, nor the pillar of fire by night, from before the people.
The Angel in the cloud also protected the Israelites from Pharaoh’s army (so we see the cloud as a dwelling place for heavenly beings).
Exodus 14:19-20 And the Angel of God, the one who went before the camp of Israel, moved. And he went to the rear of them. And the pillar of the cloud went from in front of their face and it stood behind them. (20) And it came between the camp of the Egyptians and the camp of Israel. And it was a cloudy and dark night, but it lit up the night, so that the one did not come near the other all night.
God acts in judgment from the cloud to defeat the Egyptian chariots:
Exodus 14:24-25 And in the morning watch it happened that Jehovah looked to the army of the Egyptians through the pillar of fire and of the cloud, and troubled the army of the Egyptians. (25) And He took off their chariot wheels, and made them go heavily, so that the Egyptians said, Let us flee from the face of Israel, for Jehovah fights for them against the Egyptians.
Even when Israel later murmurs against God the glory of God appears in the cloud:
Exodus 16:10 And it happened as Aaron spoke to the whole congregation of the sons of Israel, they turned toward the wilderness. And behold! The glory of Jehovah appeared in the cloud!
At this point we can begin to see that the “cloud” is where God encounters man for either blessing or judgment. This of course becomes very potent at the giving of the law at Mt. Sinai:
Exodus 19:9 And Jehovah said to Moses, Lo, I come to you in a thick cloud, that the people may hear when I speak with you, and believe you forever. And Moses told the words of the people to Jehovah.
Exodus 19:16-19 And it happened on the third day in the morning, that there were thunders and lightnings, and a thick cloud upon the mountain. And the voice of the trumpet was exceedingly loud, so that all the people in the camp trembled.
Exodus 24:15-18 And Moses went up into the mountain, and a cloud covered the mountain. (16) And the glory of Jehovah abode upon Mount Sinai, and the cloud covered it six days. And the seventh day He called to Moses out of the midst of the cloud. (17) And the sight of the glory of Jehovah was like devouring fire on the top of the mountain in the eyes of the sons of Israel. (18) And Moses went into the midst of the cloud, and went up into the mountain. And Moses was in the mountain forty days and forty nights.
God’s normal means of communication with Moses was from the cloud:
Exodus 33:9-11 And it happened as Moses went into the tabernacle, the cloudy pillar descended and stood at the door of the tabernacle, and Jehovah spoke with Moses. (10) And all the people saw the cloudy pillar stand at the tabernacle door. And all the people rose up and worshiped, each man in his tent door. (11) And Jehovah would speak to Moses face to face, as a man speaks to his friend. And he turned again to the camp. But his servant, Joshua the son of Nun, a young man, did not leave the middle of the tabernacle.
See also Exodus 40:34-38 and Numbers 9:15-23 for the dense cloud at the dedication of the tabernacle and its role in guiding the people of Israel and the timing of their journeys. (The people could not move until the cloud moved). The same thick cloud also appears at the dedication of the Temple (1 Kings 8:10,11, 2 Chronicles 5:13,14). In stark contrast the cloud fill the Temple one last time before the glory departs the house in Ezekiel (Ezekiel 10;3,4). Zechariah tells us to ask for revival (“latter rain”) and that it will comes from God’s storm clouds (in the time of travail and war perhaps in the End Times)
Zechariah 10:1 Ask rain from Jehovah in the time of the latter rain. Jehovah shall make storm clouds, and He gives them showers of rain, grass to everyone in the field.
Revelation of God’s Name, Glory and Nature
And the glory of God’s name and nature is revealed from the cloud:
Exodus 34:5-7 And Jehovah came down in the cloud, and stood with him there, and proclaimed the name of Jehovah. (6) And Jehovah passed by before him and proclaimed, Jehovah! Jehovah God, merciful and gracious, long-suffering, and abundant in goodness and truth, (7) keeping mercy for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, and who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of fathers on the sons, and on the sons of sons, to the third and to the fourth generation.
In the tabernacle God appears in the cloud above the mercy-seat:
Leviticus 16:2 and Jehovah said to Moses, Speak to Aaron your brother, that he does not come at all times into the sanctuary within the veil before the mercy-seat, which is on the Ark, so that he will not die. For I will appear in the cloud on the mercy-seat.
And when God meets with the 70 elders he does so from the cloud:
Numbers 11:25 And Jehovah came down in a cloud and spoke to him, and took of the spirit on him and gave it to the seventy elders. And it happened when the Spirit rested upon them, they prophesied. But they never did so again.
When the glory of God meets with Job and Ezekiel it is from a windstorm and with the cloud:
Ezekiel 1:4-5 And I looked, and behold, a windstorm came out of the north, a great cloud, and a fire flashing itself, and a brightness to it all around, and out of its midst, like the color of polished bronze out of the middle of the fire
God can also hide Himself in a cloud and conceal His revelation from us especially if we have been wicked (Lamentations 2:1, 3:44):
Lamentations 3:43-44 You have wrapped Yourself with anger and pursued us; You have slain; You have not pitied. (44) You have wrapped Yourself with a cloud from any prayer passing through.
Both Judgment And Protection
God also moved in judgment from the cloud in His judgment of Miriam with leprosy for complaining against Moses (Numbers 12:5-16), his “meeting” with Miriam was harsh! A similar “cloud judgment” happens in the plague of Numbers 16:42-50 after the people grumble over God’s harsh judgment of Korah.
So when Jesus returns the holy saints will “meet Him in the air” on the clouds (1 Thessalonians 4:16,17) and experience blessing, but the unbelieving world will see Him in the clouds and know terror and judgment! (More on that later)
In Deuteronomy 31:15 God appears to Moses one last time before he dies and gives Moses the Song of Moses which is to be a judgment against unfaithful Israel (Deuteronomy 32) .
In the final blessings of Moses he sees God as the Majestic one in the clouds who rides forth and protects Israel;
Deuteronomy 33:26-27 There is none like the God of Jeshurun, who rides on the heaven to your help, and in His majesty on the clouds. (27) The eternal God is your refuge, and underneath are the everlasting arms. And He shall throw the enemy out from before you, and shall say, Destroy!
Thus when Christ returns “in the clouds” He shall return in majesty to protect Israel and to destroy all the enemies of God. Clouds frequently accompany God when he goes to war (Judges 5:4, 2 Samuel 22:12-16, Psalm 18:11-14, 77:17,18; Isaiah 30:30)
Isaiah 30:30-31 And Jehovah shall cause His glorious voice to be heard, and the bringing down of His arm shall be seen with raging anger and flame of a devouring fire, cloudburst and storm and hailstones. (31) For through the voice of Jehovah, the Assyrian shall be beaten down, who struck with a rod.
God’s attributes such as righteousness, justice and truth are associated with the clouds or reach to the clouds ( Psalm 108:4; 97:2; 36:5; 57:10; Isaiah 45:8, Nahum 1:3)
Psalms 57:10 For Your mercy is great to the heavens, and Your truth to the clouds.
Satan who is the prince of the power of the air (Ephesians 2:2) seeks to be “above the clouds” and thus like God (Isaiah 14:14).
The Judgment Of The Nations
Ezekiel tells us that the judgment of the nations shall be a “cloudy day”:
Ezekiel 30:1-7 And the Word of Jehovah came to me, saying, (2) Son of man, prophesy and say, So says the Lord Jehovah: Howl, Woe is the day! (3) For the day is near, even the day of Jehovah is near, a cloudy day. It shall be the time of the nations. (4) And the sword shall come on Egypt, and great pain shall be in Ethiopia, when the slain shall fall in Egypt, and they shall take away her multitude, and her foundations shall be broken down. (5) Ethiopia, and Libya, and Lydia, and all the mixed people; and Chub, and the men of the land who are in covenant with them shall fall by the sword. (6) So says Jehovah: Those who uphold Egypt shall also fall, and the pride of her power shall come down. From Migdol to Syene they shall fall in it by the sword, says the Lord Jehovah. (7) And they shall be ruined in the midst of the wasted lands, and her cities shall be in the midst of the wasted cities.
The minor prophets associate the day of the Lord with a “cloudy and dark day” from which Israel is rescued (Ezekiel 34:12, Joel 2:2, Zephaniah 1:14-18) and Ezekiel compares Gog and Magog to a “cloud” covering the land (Ezekiel 38:9,16). It seems that the “cloud” of evil a great and mighty people (Joel 2:2) coming against Israel is the “cloudy day” when God returns to protect His people.
Clouds are also God’s means of shattering the power of the astrological deities that were so revered in the ancient world (e.g. the Egyptians and Babylonians) such as the sun, moon, and stars:
Ezekiel 32:7-8 And when I put you out, I will cover the heaven and make its stars dark; I will cover the sun with a cloud, and the moon shall not give her light. (8) I will make all the bright lights of the heavens dark over you, and will set darkness on your land, says the Lord Jehovah.
The New Testament
During the transfiguration God appears in a bright cloud and speaks to Peter, James and John (Matthew 17;5,6; Mark 9:7; Luke 9:34,35)
Matthew 17:5-6 While he yet spoke, behold, a bright cloud overshadowed them. And behold a voice out of the cloud which said, This is My beloved Son in whom I am well pleased, hear Him. (6) And when the disciples heard, they fell on their face and were greatly terrified.
Similarly Jesus is received by a cloud (god’s Presence) during the Ascension:
Acts 1:9 And saying these things, as they watched, He was taken up. And a cloud received Him out of their sight.
As are the two witnesses of Revelation 11
Revelation 11:12 And they heard a great voice from Heaven saying to them, Come up here. And they went up to Heaven in a cloud, and their enemies watched them.
Paul says that the Israelites were baptized into the cloud:
1 Corinthians 10:1-2 And, brothers, I do not want you to be ignorant that all our fathers were under the cloud, and all passed through the sea. (2) And all were baptized to Moses in the cloud and in the sea,
And Christians will meet Christ in the clouds of heaven
1 Thessalonians 4:16-17 (16) For the Lord Himself shall descend from Heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ shall rise first. (17) Then we who are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds, to meet the Lord in the air. And so we shall ever be with the Lord.
The heroes of faith form a “cloud of witnesses”:
Hebrews 12:1 Therefore since we also are surrounded with so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight and the sin which so easily besets us, and let us run with patience the race that is set before us,
John’s final prophecies are given to the apostle by an angel clothed in a cloud:
Revelation 10:1-2 And I saw another mighty angel coming down out of the heaven, clothed with a cloud. And a rainbow was on his head, and his face was as the sun, and his feet like pillars of fire. (2) And he had a little book open in his hand. And he set his right foot on the sea and his left foot on the earth.
So in the New Testament the place of baptism, reception by Christ, ascension, faith fellowship, prophetic revelation and transfiguration is “the cloud”.
When Jesus returns he will come ‘with the clouds” (Revelation 1:7, Matthew 24:30, 26:64; Mark 13:26, 14;62; Luke 21:27) to receive His saints in fellowship so we will be with Him forever and He will reap the earth from a cloud:
Revelation 14:14-16 And I looked, and behold, a white cloud. And on the cloud sat one like the Son of man, having a golden crown on His head, and a sharp sickle in His hand. (15) And another angel came out of the temple, crying in a great voice to Him sitting on the cloud, Thrust in Your sickle and reap, for the time has come for You to reap, for the harvest of the earth was dried. (16) And He sitting on the cloud thrust in His sickle on the earth, and the earth was reaped.
Jesus, the Son of man, is the one who sits upon the cloud and judges humanity!
God appears in the cloud at various significant points in redemptive history such as:
- After the flood to make a covenant with Noah
- The Red Sea baptism of the Jews
- Mt. Sinai and the giving of the Old Covenant
- The wilderness wanderings and judgments
- The revelation of the glory of God to Moses, Job and Ezekiel
- The inauguration of the Tabernacle and the Temple
- The abandonment of the Temple by the glory of God
- A final great battle against the Jews
- A latter rain revival comes from God’s storm clouds
- The Transfiguration
- The Ascension
- When the final two gospel prophetic witnesses leave the earth
- The reaping of the saints by the Son of Man sitting on the cloud
- The rapture of the saints to be with Christ in the clouds
- The final return of Christ ‘with the clouds” so every eye will see Him
These clouds were both literal and symbolic – the cloud over the Tabernacle was visible for miles, yet it also symbolized God’s Presence, guidance, grace and communion as it did as it covered the mercy seat. Christ’s return will be on real and literal clouds, which will also symbolize both His grace and His judgment. For the saints the clouds are a place of fellowship with Christ and of latter rain, for the unbeliever the clouds area place of lightning and terrifying judgment.