As I write this, I am reveling in awe of the 90% solar eclipse that was visible here in western Montana. What an event right! In a time of crazy political news cycles, it seems that the moon blotting out the sun is the only thing that had the power to change the stories we read about or hear from our local broadcasters. And for good reason. A solar eclipse happening where you live is a rare occurrence that is only likely to happen a few times in your life. I was impressed to hear of one man who was so moved by the last solar eclipse in the 70’s that he has spent forty years building the perfect, eclipse-viewing home in Wyoming in preparation for today! Can you imagine? Forty years of working, spending, building and planning, devoted to a mere two minutes of total daytime darkness? For some people, the solar eclipse is very significant.
In the Bible, we find that events like today’s are ascribed to have cosmic, divine meaning. Scriptural writers believed they were not only natural events, but signs from God for a particular purpose. In some instances, natural signs and wonders were believed to be omens given by God to get people to change their ways and shape up. You might recall that one of the ten plagues that God set upon Egypt was total darkness over the land. Unlike an eclipse, this darkness is recorded as covering parts of Egypt for three days (Exodus 10:21-29), much longer than the two minutes or so that places like Wyoming experienced, but the story seems to resemble a regular old eclipse in many ways. The purpose of this eclipse was to get Pharaoh to repent and change his hardened heart and let the Hebrew people go. In other instances, the sun’s darkness was prophesied as being part of God’s punishment of the world for its sinfulness. Isaiah spoke of the sun’s darkness as a sign of Babylon’s destruction of the kingdom of Judah for their sinfulness (Isaiah 13:10). Similarly, Ezekiel prophesied that the Egyptians would also be conquered by the Babylonians, a fate which would be accompanied by the darkening of the sun during daylight hours (Ezekiel 32:7). The prophet Joel seemed to be enamored with eclipses! Even though his short book in our scriptures only spans three chapters, he prophesied three times, “The sun and moon are darkened, and the stars withdraw their shining” (Joel 2:10, 2:31, 3:15, NRSV). Joel speaks of these signs for the people’s repentance, expecting the people to turn from their evil ways and be saved. Curiously, he also seems to think apocalyptic terms, hinting that when the sun and moon are darkened, that some will be doomed forever while others saved eternally.
This is where the new testament picks up on themes of the sun being blotted out, and where many Christians focus their attention these days – the eclipse and the APOCALYPSE! It is written that the apocalypse will likely be accompanied by an eclipse or several eclipses, or, at the very least, the sun and moon will be darkened in some way. Ominously, Jesus references the prophets above, saying in Matthew “Immediately after the suffering of those days the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light; and the stars will fall from heaven” (Matthew 24:29, NRSV). Jesus’s apocalyptic words are echoed in the Gospels of Mark and Luke, letting us know that the darkening of the sun is not necessarily an occurrence that marks the world continuing its course through time, but rather a sign of its ultimate destruction. Jesus’s prophesies were apparently revealed to John at Patmos because the book of Revelation also says that the tribulation will include the blotting out of the sun (Revelation 6:12). The eclipse and the apocalypse go hand in hand in the New Testament, telling us that the darkening of the sun means the extinguishing of life as we know it!
All of these references speak of eclipses as an epic events of divine significance. They are spoken of as though God is responding to something happening in the world, particular issues, events, or sins, by giving a cosmic sign in the heavens. In the ancient mindset, saying that an eclipse provided a message from God seemed like a perfectly reasonable explanation of what was happening in the skies. Back then it was a challenge to verify the nature and courses of planets and their satellite moons, so to say that it was God speaking to us was as good of an explanation as any. Now, though, thanks to modern science we can predict with 100% accuracy when and where every eclipse will occur for thousands of years. This information makes us entertain a couple of questions these days that we did not have to before. Does the fact that eclipses follow well-documented patterns mean that God’s displeasure with the world has a cosmic order to it? Or does that mean that scripture is wrong and that the darkening of the sun has no theological significance at all? Or, are the events that the Bible talks about entirely separate from what we have observed today?
First, in my view, scientific descriptions of cosmic happenings often do little to capture the full power and meaning of these events. Though astronomical study told me when and where the moon would be moving in relation to the sun today, it did little to tell me what it would be like to feel the temperature drop when the suns rays were diminished by the moon in the way. Nor could the scientific method describe the intangible, eerie feeling that accompanies a sky which turns to a dusky twilight when it should be bright and sunny. While I admit that I did not search very hard, I doubt there was any data to describe the significance of being joined by the young voices of my neighbors looking up at the skies in wonder at the events unfolding before their eyes. Though scientific inquiry can tell us a great deal about how things occur, much of the meaning that we draw from cosmic events like eclipses comes from our personal experience of such things. Some things just must be lived if they are to be meaningful.
Yet, there still lingers the theological question from the ancient times, “Was God trying to tell us something today?” Is the apocalypse which was foretold by Jesus, the prophets, and John at Patmos, already happening or just around the corner? Maybe, but I doubt it. As we gazed at the skies with welding masks or our little paper eclipse viewers, it is possible that we were viewing an ominous message from God about what the future holds. However, it seems to me that we are more likely to see those kinds of messages by turning on the TV than by looking at the moon crossing in front of the sun!
Still, I do believe that God was sending us a message in the events of today. God was telling us that the world and the solar system that cradles us is beautifully and wonderfully made. The stars call our attention to the truth that we are part of a beautiful symphony of creation which sings a wonderful harmony throughout the universe. Today, the moon was an astronomical apostle calling us to look to the heavenly places and give thanks for what the Lord has done. I don’t know about you, but I believe that this is a message from God that is worth paying attention to.
Rev. Seth Nelson is a pastor and the author of the book, The Church Unknown: Reflections of a Millennial Pastor. He lives in western Montana with his wife and two children.
Rev. Seth Nelson, author of The Church Unknown: Reflections of a Millennial Pastor, writes this blog. The blog focuses on the future of the church as well as how God loves and cares for us in the present. He is a pastor in Ronan, Montana.