The Old Testament. The Literal Cloud. Natural phenomena involving clouds are depicted occasionally in the Old Testament, but far from being only "natural," these are invariably linked with the direct activity of God. Especially in the books of Job and Psalms, cloud-related phenomena are described as evidence of God's mighty, wondrous works and inscrutable ways ( Job 22:14 ; 26:8-9 ; 35:5 ; 36:28-29 ; Job 37:11 Job 37:15-16 Job 37:18 ; Job 38:9 Job 38:34 Job 38:36-37 ; Psalm 77:17 ; 147:8 ). The rainbow in the clouds is a sign of the covenant ( Genesis 9:13-14 Genesis 9:16 ), and clouds themselves are presented as witnesses to the surety of the covenant with David ( Psalm 89:37 ). Withholding of rain from the clouds is seen as divine activity in fulfillment of the covenant curses ( Isa 5:6 ; Lev 26:19 ; cf. Deut 28:23-24 ), and the restoring of rain after drought is the sign of God's removing the covenant curse from Israel ( 1 Kings 18:44-45 ; cf. Zech 10:1 ).
The Metaphorical Cloud. The biblical writers frequently employ phenomena of cloud formation and activity in order to metaphorically illustrate aspects of their theological message. In a positive sense, clouds represent unlimited extent (of God's faithfulness and truth, Psalm 36:5 ; 57:10 ; 108:4 ; of Babylon's judgment, Jer 51:9 ); life-giving refreshment (of the king's favor, Prov 16:15 ); a normal occurrence (cycle of nature, Eccl 11:3 ); shade or shelter (from the "heat" of the ruthless, Isa 25:5 ); calm (of the Lord in his heavenly sanctuary, Isa 18:4 ); covering or concealment (of Israel's sins in forgiveness, Isa 44:22 ); speed and mobility (of the Gentiles "flying" to Mount Zion, Isa 60:8 ); and an abundant outpouring (of the "rain" of righteousness, Isa 45:8 , and of manna in the wilderness, Psalm 78:23 ).
In a negative sense, clouds are used to symbolize prideful self-exaltation (of the wicked, Job 20:6 ; of Satan, Isa 14:14 ); misery or gloom (at the day of Job's birth, Job 3:5 ; at the day of the Lord, Isa 60:2 ; Jer 13:16 ; Ezek 30:3 ; 34:12 ; Joel 2:2 ; Zeph 1:15 ); pervasiveness (of enemy invasion, Ezekiel 38:9 Ezekiel 38:16 ); transitoriness (of Job's prosperity and life, Job 7:9 ; 30:15 ; of Israel's love and life, Hosea 6:4 ; 13:3 ); futile, idle activity ( Eccl 11:4 ); dimness (of eyesight in old age, Eccl 12:2 ; of a nation's splendor following divine judgment, Lam 2:1 ; Ezek 30:18 ); swiftness (of divine judgment, Jer 4:13 ); and covering or concealing (of divine mercy in judgment, Lam 3:44 ).
The Theophanic Cloud. The most common usage of the Hebrew terms for cloud comes in the context of divine theophany. By far the largest group (about fifty occurrences) of these refer to the visible manifestation of the divine presence during Israel's exodus from Egypt and wilderness wandering. This sign of God's presence is termed variously: pillar of cloud ( Exod 13:21-22, ; plus eleven times), pillar of fire and cloud ( Exod 14:24 ); a thick cloud ( Exodus 19:9 Exodus 19:16 ), the cloud ( Exod 14:20 , plus thirty-three times); and the cloud of the Lord ( Exod 40:38 ; Num 10:34 ).
The pillar of cloud motif-set forth in the exodus account and expanded in the prophetic announcements of a new exodus after the Babylonian exile-encompasses a rich complex of theological meanings and functions: guidance/leading (of Israel out of Egypt and through the wilderness to Canaan, Exod 13:21 ; Num 14:14 ; Neh 9:12 ; Psalm 78:14 ); a signal for movement (breaking and setting up camp, Exod 40:36-37 ; Num 9:17-23 ); protection from danger (as a barrier of darkness between Israel and the Egyptians, Exod 14:19-20 ); the sustained, immediate, personal presence of Yahweh/the angel of the Lord ( Exod 13:22 ; Exodus 14:19 Exodus 14:24 ; 40:38 ; Num 9:15-16 ); an agency of summons (to battle, Num 10:34-35 ; and to worship, Exod 33:10 ); both a concealment and manifestation of divine glory ( Exod 16:10 ; Exodus 19:9 Exodus 19:16 ; 20:21 ; 24:15-18 ; 34:5 ; Deut 4:11 ; 5:22 ); the place of propositional revelation (as an oracular cloud, Exod 33:9 ; Psalm 99:7 ); the dwelling place/throne of divinity (over the tabernacle, Numbers 9:18 Numbers 9:22 ; 10:11 ; and in particular, over the mercy seat, Lev 16:2 ); the locus of cultic theophany (for the investiture of the seventy elders and Joshua, Num 11:25 ; Deut 31:15 ; for the inauguration of the tabernacle, Exod 40:34-35 ); shade/protection from the sun or storm ( Num 10:34 ; Psalm 105:39 ; Isa 4:5 ); illumination (as a pillar of fire by night, Exod 14:20 ; Num 9:15 ); and an agency of legal investigation and/or executive judgment (against Israel's enemies, Exod 14:24 ; and against rebels within Israel, Numbers 12:5 Numbers 12:10 ; 16:42 ).
Clouds are depicted in other Old Testament theophanies. At creation Yahweh makes the clouds his chariots ( Psalm 104:3 ). The Song of Deborah describes the appearance of Yahweh in a thunderstorm ( Jud 5:4 ). Answering David's plea for help, Yahweh rides upon a cherub from his heavenly temple with thick clouds as his canopy ( Psalm 18:11 ). Clouds are Yahweh's swift chariot as he executes judgment upon Egypt ( Isa 19:1 ). Nahum's theophanic vision portrays clouds as the dust of Yahweh's feet (1:3). In Ezekiel's inaugural vision, Yahweh emerges from a great cloud riding upon his celestial palanquin (1:4, 28), and the temple is filled with a cloud some fourteen months later when the covenant lawsuit is completed and executive judgment is about to be poured out (10:3-4).
The Eschatological/Apocalyptic Cloud. The eschatological day of the Lord is several times described as a day of cloud-mass and dark storm cloud for the nation(s) being judged ( Ezek 34:12 ; Joel 2:2 ; Zeph 1:15 ; cf. Ezek 30:2 ). On that day the anger of Yahweh will burn with "a thick rising (smoke-) cloud" ( Isa 30:27 ). Clouds of theophany are also associated with eschatological judgment/salvation ( Isa 4:5 ; Nahum 1:3 ).
The New Testament. The Literal/Metaphorical Cloud. The only New Testament reference to literal cloud phenomena is Jesus' graphic contrast between his hearers' ability to interpret the meaning of a cloud rising in the west-that a shower is coming-and their inability to interpret the present time ( Luke 12:54 ). Metaphorical cloud references in the New Testament include Jude's depiction of the unstable, deceptive, false teachers as waterless clouds, carried along by winds (v. 12), and Hebrews' portrayal of the many worthy of faith as a great "cloud of witnesses" (12:1).
The Theophanic/Eschatological Cloud. The remaining twenty-two New Testament occurrences of the word "cloud" appear in the context of theophany, and encompass six theologically crucial, eschatologically related events or visionary scenes in salvation history: (1) the pillar of cloud at the exodus, viewed as a type of Christian baptism in the time of eschatological fulfillment ( 1 Cor 10:1-2 ); (2) Jesus' transfiguration, as a foretaste of the kingdom of God, during which the Father appears and speaks in a cloud ( Matt 17:5 ; Mark 9:7 ; Luke 9:34 ); (3) Jesus' ascension, explained by the angels as a paradigm for his return ( Acts 1:9 ); (4) the "mighty angel" descending from heaven wrapped in a cloud, announcing (against the eschatological backdrop of Dan 12:7 ) that time should be no longer ( Rev 10:1 ); (5) the two resurrected witnesses ascending to heaven in a cloud, described in the context of the eschatological measuring of the temple of God ( Rev 11:12 ); and (6) Jesus' parousia, against the backdrop of Daniel 7:13, as the Son of Man coming with/on/in a cloud/the clouds/the clouds of heaven ( Matt 24:30 ; 26:64 ; Mark 13:26 ; 14:62 ; Luke 12:54 ; 21:27 ; 1 Thess 4:17 ; Rev 1:7 ; 14:14-16 ).
Richard M. Davidson
Bibliography. T. W. Mann, JBL 90 (1971): 15-30; A. Oepke, TDNT, 4:902-10; L. Sabourin, BTB 4 (1974): 290-311; R. B. Y. Scott, NTS5 (1958-59): 127-32; idem, ZAW64 (1952): 11-25; E. F. Sutcliffe, VT 3 (1953): 99-103.
Copyright © 1996 by Walter A. Elwell. Published by Baker Books, a division of
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Bibliography InformationElwell, Walter A. "Entry for 'Cloud, Cloud of the Lord'". "Evangelical Dictionary of Theology".