Response to John Noe's
Seven Demanding Evidences Why Christ Returned As and When He Said He Would
Copyright 1999 by Pastor Robert L. Garringer
Part Two: Noe's Examples of Radical Symbolism in Prophecy
Preterists insist that imminent time-frame references in prophecy are always literal while dramatic cosmic content is figurative with a limited purpose, to express the force and finality of God's judgments on specific nations in the historical past.
The first part of this preterist assertion is the most believable, but Part One of our response to John Noe and our reply to his counter-response include sufficient evidence that the imminent tone of prophecy does not always have a literal intent.
Our focus will now turn from the preterists' belief in the literalness of timing to their belief in the figurative nature of the content of many predictive prophecies.
Note the problem preterists create for themselves when they reduce all biblical predictions of cosmic activity to an expectation of purely earthly, national-judgment events.
They must theorize that the prophets systematically used "cosmic catastrophic language" in what Noe calls "a technical way" to describe significant natural, military, and political activity involving Israel or the Church, and the surrounding nations. Christ's expected return in the clouds is also understood as an example of a standard prophetic form, the expectation of an invisible divine judgment-visitation. On the face of it, before any analysis is done, one can see how difficult it will be for preterists to demonstrate the truth of these ideas.
The apostles actually saw Jesus ascend into a cloud and were told immediately that He would return in the same way as He was seen going. (Acts 1:9-11) Preterists must somehow equate this description of the physical experience of the apostles with poetic passages in the Old Testament that include such verbal images as God "riding" on a cloud or making clouds His "chariot." Similarly, the literal universal flood of Noah's day must be made a parallel to a non-literal universal fire at "the day of judgment." Simon Peter tells us that both the flood and the fire bring the world's destruction. (II Peter 3:5-7, 10-13) Yet preterists understand this destruction in something less than the obvious sense in one or both cases.
The burden of proof is definitely on the preterists.
Still Noe feels up to the task. He claims to have uncovered a "long historical precedent and usage" (p. 8) in the prophetic Scriptures that makes the real meaning obvious when Jesus predicted that He would come back in the clouds and Peter stated that the elements will melt with a fervent heat.
To preterists, these are ways of saying that God was ushering in conditions of war that would wipe out the rebellious Jewish nation and carry forward God's purpose in a new order, centered in the Church to the exclusion of Israel.
Two Kinds of Symbolic Predictions
Noe sees two kinds of technical
figurative references in prophecy, illustrated in the dual example just
First, he speaks of "cloud-coming imagery" (p. 8) that he believes is abundantly illustrated in the Old Testament. According to Noe, it was standard prophetic form to write of the Lord coming in (or on) a cloud (or clouds) to bring about the fall of a nation.
Second, he speaks of "cosmic terminology figuratively depicting the impending judgment" upon "powerful political oppressors and sinful nations who oppose God..." Noe is speaking here of what he calls a "collapsing universe" predicted by the prophets that included "sun and moon darkened, fire, stars falling, sky rolling up, heavens rotting away, earth moving, shaking, etc." "It sounds like the 'end-of-the-world,' Noe explains, "but none of these acts of God were universe-destroying or time-ending events." (p. 8)
Noe gives extensive lists of Scripture passages, rarely quoting anything from them, to back up his belief in this "long and well-established biblical precedent" (p. 7) of stating earthly expectations of national judgment as a non-literal "coming of the Lord in the clouds" accompanied by a non-literal time-ending catastrophe.
It is amazing, in light of Noe's confident statements, to discover that:
(1) only one of the Jewish prophets he refers to asserted that God was coming in association with a cloud to bring about the fall of a nation andNoe's so-called cloud-coming imagery seems to be a confusing mix of:
(2) not even one prophet used cosmic, catastrophic, collapsing universe language to announce the fall of nations in the historical past.
(1) literal language that refers to real clouds as those seen at Sinai,Likewise, Noe takes all references to such things as the earth shaking and the sky being overcast to be illustrations of a collapsing universe that signal a non-literal end of the world. By bundling together every such reference, he hopes to multiply his examples and create the impression that a standard prophetic form exists where it does not.
(2) the mentioning of other clouds that might be metaphorical with a variety of points of reference, and
(3) the incorporation of Scriptures that announce the fall of certain nations but say absolutely nothing about either clouds or the Lord "coming" in the judgment-events described.
Sometimes biblical authors wrote of earthquakes, darkness, or celestial or atmospheric affects that are clearly limited and temporal in scope. The prophets did not have in mind a final, cosmic catastrophe in these cases, and they may or may not have had a literal intent. (We will not take the time in this article to search the context to determine the literal or figurative nature of each example. That would be unnecessary and distracting from our more basic purpose.)
Once in a while, predictive prophecy includes language that seems to spell the complete upheaval of the natural order. Here the tag, collapsing universe, applies accurately, but in these cases the prophets are speaking of a judgment that targets the whole world and all nations, not some specific nation in the historical past. We must be alert to what the biblical writers have actually stated and in what context their statements were made.
It is also important to pay
attention to the literary form of Noe's examples. Whether or not we are
reading predictive prophecy in a particular case makes all the difference.
If there are common patterns of expression in prophetic passages, we ought
to find them in prophetic passages, not somewhere else. Now we will take
a closer look at Noe's examples.
The Form of Noe's Evidence for Cloud Coming Imagery
On page 7, Noe lists 45 full chapters from the Old Testament and part of another to illustrate what he calls "God's many comings in judgment" and "the use of cloud phraseology" (p. 7) that had been standardized by Jesus' time as a way of speaking of national judgments.
In the remainder of the paragraph in which this list appears (p, 8), he gives a second list, a series of Bible verse references that includes portions of chapters named in his first list along with eight new ones.
It is significant that with his lists he gives only four partial quotations, and one of these is a glaring misquote. He twice mentions the phrase "day of the Lord" with no specific Scripture in mind. He notes that Daniel 7:13 includes the phrase "coming on the clouds" and that Deuteronomy 33:2, a reference outside either of his lists, mentions God coming down at Sinai with "myriads of angels."
Apart from these three phrases, he accurately quotes nothing else from the many pages of Old Testament Scriptures that he mentions in this section. Then comes the misquote from Ezekiel 38:16, another reference in addition to those in his lists.
He says that this verse states
that God would come up against Israel "as a cloud to cover the land." Notice,
first, that Noe does not seem to see the enormous linguistic difference
between coming in a cloud and coming as a cloud. So this is not an example
that helps his case in the first place, but more to the point, Ezekiel
38:16 states that Gog, not God, is the cloud-like invader of the holy nation.
"Coming in the Clouds" in Noe's Forty-six-Chapter Listing
Noe's first list does not illustrate God's "many comings in judgment" as he claims, since only one of the forty-six chapters mentions God coming in any sense. In this one case, the Lord has come down to Moses long before any violent judgment begins, and He has come, not in a figurative cloud, but in a literal burning bush.
"Cloud" used as an undisputed figure of speech is found only once in all these chapters (Jeremiah 4:13). Here, as with Gog, it is Jerusalem's enemy, not the Lord, who "shall come up as clouds," not in or on them.
The four other references to clouds in these chapters might be figurative. In Zephaniah 1:15, "the great day of the Lord" is called "a day of clouds." Then Ezekiel speaks of "a day of clouds" (30:3) and a cloud that will cover Babylon (30:18). He later states that God will cover the sun with a cloud (32:7). In each of these cases, it is conceivable that the prediction precedes a literal and very fitting fulfillment. The darkness at Sinai and Golgotha indicate that God sometimes creates an appropriate meteorological background for profound scenes of revelation and fulfillment.
The "trouble and distress" and "devastation and desolation" are literal in Zephaniah 1:15, for example, as well as the "trumpet and alarm" in the next verse. So can one be blamed for believing that the "clouds and gloominess" predicted in this context are also real? A figurative reference cannot be ruled out, however, in these examples of predicted clouds, but they have nothing to do with the Lord coming.
So Noe could have reduced his forty-six chapters of evidence to five and pointed out that only one chapter mentions the Lord coming, and none of the clouds in the other four chapters is associated with His coming.
More specifically, his list contains one thousand one hundred ten verses. Of these, one verse states that Lord has "come," and this is in a non-judgment, non-predictive passage. Only five verses mention clouds with no connection to the Lord coming. Two of the cloud references are found in the same chapter in Ezekiel with a third two chapters away.
Summary of Our Survey of Noe's First List
The kindest thing that can
be said about Noe's effort so far is that "cloud coming imagery" is non-existent
in these chapters, and there is nothing in them to parallel the statement
that Jesus will come in the clouds just as He was seen going into heaven.
Noe's Additional Examples in His Second List
Noe adds eight Scripture texts to portions of the forty-six chapters of his first list to expand evidence that the Old Testament establishes the Lord's "cloud-coming" presence in prophesied judgments against nations.
We note that only one of these references (Isaiah 19:1) pictures a cloud-coming judgment, and it is found in a poem. Linguistically, this poetic passage does not parallel the non-poetic description of what the apostles saw and the messengers of God said in Acts 1:9-11.
The other examples He gives are irrelevant because they have nothing to do with judgments against nations. The cloud images convey other aspects of God's nature and actions.
Now we will look closely at each example.
The contents of Isaiah 19:1 sounds much more like the kind of thing Noe believes he has found all through the Old Testament, but even this example fails. Here God is coming on a cloud to judge the nation of Egypt, but He is "riding" the cloud, and the cloud is a "swift" one. The idols of Egypt are stunned at the Lord's arrival, and Egypt is depicted as having a common "heart" that will "melt" as the Lord dashes over her borders.
This is the one example that comes as close as Noe can get to illustrating the "cloud-coming" approach of the Lord in judgment, but in all honesty, no serious linguist would put forward Isaiah's poetry as a parallel passage, explaining the intended meaning of Luke's prose in Acts, Chapter One.
Psalm 18:9-12 with II Samuel
22:10 are portions of the same poem quoted in two different places in Scripture.
The poem celebrates God's deliverance of David from his enemies. Someone
might argue that this is something like God's judgment against a nation
that He has determined to destroy, but three facts must be noted:
(1) This is not what David's poem is about,
(2) The poem is not predictive prophecy, and
(3) God does not come in or on a cloud in the poem.
This time He is riding on a "cherub" and "wings of the wind."
The clouds that are mentioned are thick and dark in order to conceal the Lord, not to reveal Him.
Preterist theologians, including Noe, believe that the Fall of Jerusalem was the Parousia (presence) and Apokalupsis (revelation) of Christ. So it is significant that the clouds of David's poem have exactly the opposite affect. The poem reads, "He made darkness His secret place; His canopy around Him was dark waters and thick clouds of the skies." (Psalm 18:11) The tone, the intent, and the poetic context of these words contrast sharply with the Lord's quiet ascension and reception by the cloud in Acts, Chapter One.
The point of Psalm 68:4 is not that God comes in judgment against nations. Instead, this verse is a joyous statement that prompts songs and praise and rejoicing with no reference to enemies or battles or judgments. "The Lord rides on the clouds" is an apparent reference to His sovereignty over the weather if "clouds" is the accurate reading here.
According to the New King James margin, the Jewish Targum reads "heavens" (See also verse 33.), and the carefully copied Jewish Masoretic text mentions neither clouds nor heavens. Its textual reading is translated "Extol Him who rides upon the deserts." [Italics added.]
Psalm 104:3-4 announces God's greatness in relation to the world He has created. The statement that He "makes the clouds His chariot," is an apparent reference to all clouds and is followed by the thought that the Lord "walks" rather than "rides" as in Psalm 18 "on the wings of the wind." The Lord coming or appearing in order to judge is not in view in this poem.
Nahum 1:3 announces God's greatness by showing either how insignificant storms and clouds are to so powerful a God or how they are expressions of His presence and purpose. Suggested translations include "He has His way in the whirlwind and the storm" and "His way is in the whirlwind and the storm."
The clouds mentioned at this point in the verse are not a vehicle for the Lord's approach. Instead the prophet is suggesting that when we look at any sky and see any cloud, no matter how impressed we are, we must remember that the clouds are merely the "dust of His feet."
Nahum goes on to state that the seas, rivers, vegetation, mountains and movements of the earth are all subject to God's control (verses 4-6).
This is a judgment passage, and Nahum is pointing out to the subjects of God's wrath that He is so powerful that there is no way to resist Him. So the immediate theme from the middle of Nahum 1:3 to the middle of 1:6 is not the up-coming destruction of Nineveh. The theme is the power and greatness of God.
Daniel 7:13 would give some hope for Noe's "cloud coming" theory except that the coming here does not lead to the judgment and fall of a nation. This is the classic Old Testament reference to the "Son of Man" title that Jesus claimed for Himself and used over and over again. It is also the classic reference to the Son of Man coming with the clouds that is the background of Jesus' pronouncement before Caiaphas. This is also the parallel passage par excellence to Luke's description of Jesus' ascension and the statement of the angels' promise that He would return "in like manner."
In full this verse reads, "I was watching in the night visions, and behold, One like the Son of Man, coming with the clouds of heaven! He came to the Ancient of Days, and they brought Him near before Him." He is not coming to destroy. He is coming into the presence of God with all nations assembled.
The next verse completes the vision and explains what His coming is all about, "Then to Him was given dominion and glory 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 the one which shall not be destroyed."
Without doubt, as many Bible scholars have indicated, this is the scriptural passage that would have come to the minds of Caiaphas and the rest of the Sanhedrin present when Jesus made His fateful statement that from this point on, they would see Him at the right hand of God and coming in the clouds.
Likewise, this is what came to mind when the apostles watched the Lord ascend into a cloud and heard the angels pronounce that He would come back in the same way.
But in first century Israel, the expectation of the Son of Man coming with clouds would not suggest a devastating judgment against Israel or anyone else. In this part of Daniel's vision, the judgment is already past--a judgment, not against Israel, but against other nations at war with her.
The One Like The Son Of Man comes with the clouds in Daniel's night vision only after "the beast was slain, and its body destroyed and given to the burning flame" and after "the rest of the beasts...had their dominion taken away..." (Daniel 7:11, 12).
The arrival of this Royal
One will be the occasion of a majestic coronation service led by God Himself.
Daniel 7:13-14 envisions the Messiah at the center of the grandest coronation
of all. Every nation will acknowledge Him, and His kingdom will not end.
Summary of Our Survey of Noe's Second List
There are only three examples here of predictive prophecy. (Isaiah 19:1; Nahum 1:3; Daniel 7:13) Only two of these have any relevance to the cloud-coming theory, Isaiah 19:1 and the most relevant of all, Daniel 7:13.
Isaiah 19:1 seems to be the kind of evidence Noe needs to establish his assertion. It speaks of God coming in connection with a cloud in order to judge a specific nation. However, the reference has two problems for Noe:
(1) Isaiah 19:1 is outstanding for its uniqueness. This is the only example that comes close to fitting Noe's criteria. (By itself, it can hardly establish a prophetic precedent.)Daniel 7:13 is certainly the controlling biblical source in all of our discussion of clouds and the Lord's return. Would Jesus' words have
(2) The verse is obviously figurative and contrasts sharply with the sober statement in Acts that Jesus will come as He was seen going.
No, His statement would have brought to mind the inauguration of an eternal, universal Messianic Kingdom, solemnly formalized in the presence of the Ancient of Days.
So a close study of cloud
imagery in those parts of the Old Testament listed in Noe's study indicates
that "clouds" have a variety of meanings in Scripture and that there is
no standard, technical structure to be found, including the cloud-coming
imagery Noe is seeking.
Noe's Examples of a Collapsing Universe
As we have noted, Noe and preterists generally believe that the prophets consistently wrote of the fall of specific nations as if the world was coming to an end. "The predicted cosmic, seismic, and meteorological upheavals did not literally happen," they say, "but the nations were destroyed, and so the predictions were accurate though figurative."
We have also indicated that this idea is given a false legitimacy because Noe--and others--include every reference to earthquakes, stars, and overcast skies to be a prophecy of the figurative collapse of the universe. So examples are multiplied. Noe increases the number even more by listing whole chapters that have no cosmic language in them whatever just as he cited whole chapters with no reference to clouds in order to illustrate his "cloud-coming imagery."
In reality, however, the prophets in Noe's examples never predicted that the universe would collapse in association with the fall of nations in the past. In a few places, they did speak of less than cosmic celestial, atmospheric, and geological activity when writing about God's judgment on specific nations. These predictions are sometimes obviously figurative.
But we have not been given valid evidence that it was standard prophetic practice to state end-of-a-nation predictions in end-of-the-world language.
The prophets saved that kind
of talk for God's predicted judgment on the whole world.
Noe's Single Collapsing Universe List
This time Noe puts all his alleged references to a collapsing universe in one list of thirteen chapters from seven books of the Bible. How well does this evidence hold up under scrutiny?
Isaiah 13 includes language that can be taken to mean the complete upheaval of the natural order (13:10), especially when it is stated that God will "make the heavens tremble; and the earth will shake from its place." (13:13) However the immediate context indicates that God is punishing "the world" (13:11) and that the objects of his wrath will scatter "each...to his own people, each will flee to his native land." Isaiah is not speaking of the fall of a specific nation in the past.
Isaiah 24 is also concerned
with a universal judgment "on the earth and among the nations." (24:13)
"The kings on the earth below" (24:21) are being punished by the Lord,
in this case. The severe cosmic activity referred to is even more thoroughly
documented than in Isaiah 13 (24:18-21), but so is the confirming language
that the prophet is speaking of a universal judgment. (24:1, 3, 4, 6, 13,
Isaiah 34 states, "All the stars of the heavens will be dissolved and the sky rolled up like a scroll; all the starry host will fall like withered leaves," etc. (34:4) But this is not talking about the fall of Edom, introduced in the next verse. The passage begins as a call for judgment on "the earth...the world...all nations." (34:1-2)
Micah 1 begins as an indictment of a holy God against the "earth and all who are in it" (1:2), but the scene of action quickly changes to Judah (1:5), and it is in this limited context that geological disruption is described. "The mountains melt beneath him and the valleys split apart." (1:4)
This is a very colorful way of describing the awesome presence of God, but it is not a prediction of either a figurative or literal end of the world.
Zephaniah 1 is clearly a prediction of the end of the world and of all natural life. (1:2, 3, 15, 18)
Although Noe includes the one-chapter book of Obadiah in his list, there is nothing in the book that remotely resembles the prediction of an earthquake or any kind of terrestrial or celestial activity.
Joel 1-2 focuses on an attempt by an invading army to take Jerusalem but says nothing of a collapsing universe. The mighty army that gallops ever closer to cause the earth and sky to tremble. The sun and moon and stars are to be darkened, according to this prophecy, as the army approaches with the Lord in the lead (2:10-11), but all of this can be conceived to be a figurative description of the dust and smoke of battle. There is no implication here that the natural order will cease.
Ezekiel 7-10 is a lengthy section of Scripture, but like Obadiah there is not a word in it about any unusual natural activity in sun, moon, stars, or the earth. Noe may have included it because Ezekiel describes unusual visions in the lower atmosphere, but this hardly qualifies as an example of the universe in chaos.
II Samuel 22 appears in this list as it did in both of Noe's cloud lists, but it is as out of place here as it was there. Again, the passage is a figurative way of describing the distress, danger, and deliverance David experienced, but no one can legitimately claim that David is describing the end of the world.
Preterists theorize that there is a radical symbolism in prophecy that was well in place by the first century that made the prophets' words a dead giveaway when they wrote of clouds, falling stars, etc. Preterists argue that the prophets were using an established, systematic literary form in such expressions.
The form was so entrenched by the first century, according to preterists, that when Christians of that time used the phrases, "coming in the clouds," "the stars will fall," and "the end of the age," everyone knew what they meant. Another national judgment was in view; in this case, the destruction of Jerusalem itself.
In fact according to preterists, this was the preferred way of speaking about Jerusalem's fate in letters to churches and sermons preached in the first two-thirds of the first century. These expressions and others like them were used over and over again. Hardly anyone would come right out and say "Jerusalem is going to fall as a result of God's judgment." They opted for this standard, encoded method of expressing themselves.
Only preterists seem to miss the radical nature of this theory.
"Where did Christians learn to speak that way?" we ask. The preterists respond, "It was adopted from the Old Testament prophets."
But if Noe's work is indicative of the core of the preterist case, the evidence is not there. There is no Cloud-coming Judge embedded indelibly in the figures of speech of biblical prophecy, and there is no final celestial and terrestrial upheaval routinely prophesied when a nation was condemned to God's judgment.