Understanding Bible Symbols: Sun, Moon, and Stars

J. Burke

References to the stars falling and the heavens passing away are frequent in Scripture. The metaphor is striking, and always associated with monumental upheaval.

But is the metaphor always used to represent the same event? And what is it most frequently used to describe - the literal dissolution of the heavenly bodies, or political disorder?

Isaiah 13:
9Behold, the day of the LORD cometh, cruel both with wrath and fierce anger, to lay the land desolate: and He shall destroy the sinners thereof out of it.
10For the stars of heaven and the constellations thereof shall not give their light: the sun shall be darkened in his going forth, and the moon shall not cause her light to shine.


The darkening of the sun, moon and stars - what do they represent? What is this event?

Here is another passage which uses exactly the same imagery:

Ezekiel 32:
7And when I shall put thee out, I will cover the heaven, and make the stars thereof dark; I will cover the sun with a cloud, and the moon shall not give her light.

The darkening of the sun, moon and stars - what do they represent? Is this the same event as described in Isaiah 13? If not, why do we find the same symbolism used? What does the symbolism mean - literal dissolution of the heavenly bodies, or political disorder?

Here is another passage which uses the imagery of the sun, moon, and stars:

Isaiah 34:
4And all the host of heaven shall be dissolved, and the heavens shall be rolled together as a scroll: and all their host shall fall down, as the leaf falleth off from the vine, and as a falling fig from the fig tree.

Why are the sun, moon, and stars used here? What is their function? Note the reference to the fig tree - but is this the fig tree being used to represent Israel here? What does the symbolism mean - literal dissolution of the heavenly bodies, or political disorder?

A simplistic understanding of prophetic symbolism would lead us to believe that since the same symbol is used in all these places, then the same event must be referred to in each case. Perhaps it might also lead us to believe that these passages describe the literal dissolution of the literal sun, moon and stars.

But this is simply not true. Let's have a look at these passages in detail:

Isaiah 34:
4And all the host of heaven shall be dissolved, and the heavens shall be rolled together as a scroll: and all their host shall fall down, as the leaf falleth off from the vine, and as a falling fig from the fig tree.

What is this event? The next verse tells us:

5For my sword shall be bathed in heaven: behold, it shall come down upon Idumea, and upon the people of My curse, to judgment.

This is speaking of judgment on Idumea (which is Edom), of political upheaval, not signs in the literal sun, moon, and stars.

Let's have a look at the next passage:

Ezekiel 32:
7And when I shall put thee out, I will cover the heaven, and make the stars thereof dark; I will cover the sun with a cloud, and the moon shall not give her light.

What is this speaking of? Is it also speaking of judgment on Edom, like the previous passage? Is it speaking of literal signs in the literal sun, moon and stars?

The first verse in this chapter tells us that it is not speaking of the same judgment on Edom:

2Son of man, take up a lamentation for Pharaoh king of Egypt...

...and the rest of the passage informs us that it is speaking of judgment on Egypt, of political upheaval, not signs in the literal sun, moon, and stars.

Now let's look at our third example:

Isaiah 13:
9Behold, the day of the LORD cometh, cruel both with wrath and fierce anger, to lay the land desolate: and He shall destroy the sinners thereof out of it.
10For the stars of heaven and the constellations thereof shall not give their light: the sun shall be darkened in his going forth, and the moon shall not cause her light to shine.

Which event is referred to here? Is this Edom, or is it Babylon? Is it speaking of literal signs in the literal sun, moon and stars?

The first verse in this chapter tells us that it is not speaking of the same judgment on Edom, or Egypt:

1The burden of Babylon, which Isaiah the son of Amoz did see.

...and the rest of the passage informs us that it is speaking of judgment on Babylon, of political upheaval, not signs in the literal sun, moon, and stars.

In very case, the quality of the event is identical, and the sense of the event is the same - every event speaks of Divine judgment on a particular people or nation.

But whilst the symbol used in each case is the same, and the same kind of events are described, the actual subject of the events themselves is different. Unless we understand how this principle of symbolism functions, we will make grave errors in our exposition of prophecy.

Brother A D Norris very correctly writes:

‘Other passages in Scripture where these heavenly symbols are used include: Genesis 37.9 (Joseph's dream); Deuteronomy 4.19; 17.3; 2 Kings 23.5 (all of heathen worship); Isaiah 13.10 (a `day of the Lord' involving the destruction of Babylon); Joel 2.10 (a `day of the Lord' on which `locusts' are brought against Israel); 2.31 (the `day of the Lord' in days following the outpouring of the Spirit; Acts 2.19-21); 3.15 (the `day of the Lord' when God sets up His kingdom); Ezekiel 32.7 (the destruction of Egypt); Matthew 24.29; Mark 13.14; Luke 21.45 (just prior to the second advent of the Lord); Revelation 6.12; 8.12 (the Fourth Trumpet).

Though the first of these, Genesis 37.9, links sun, moon, and stars with the family of Jacob, and hence with Israel (a point of importance later when we reach Revelation 12), it is plain that the symbols do not always denote Israel, particularly in view of Isaiah 13.10 and Ezekiel 32.17.

Even in Joel 3.15, where the sufferings of Israel and the Land are to the fore, since these are described in literal terms in the context it is not likely that they would be the subject of a symbolic reference too.

It seems best, in general, to take the darkening of sun, moon, and stars as a composite picture of portents spoken of by the Lord as, "the powers of heaven shall be shaken" (Luke 21.26), a dissolution of the world's existing order of things that "those things which cannot be shaken may remain" (Haggai 2.6; Hebrews 12.26-27), a proper prelude to the inauguration of the "new heavens and new earth, wherein dwell righteousness" (2 Peter 3.7-13; Isaiah 56.17; Revelation 21.1).’

Brother A D Norris, ‘Apocalypse for Everyman’, page 128

To get a grip on the basic structure of the Olivet Prophecy as it appears in each of the three gospel accounts, go here.
This will help to establish the context of these symbols.

Now let's look at the Matthew record:

Matthew 24:
29 “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.
30 “Then the sign of the Son of Man will appear in heaven, and all the tribes of the earth will mourn. They will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven45 with power and great glory.
31 And he will send his angels with a loud trumpet blast, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other.

The NET footnote regarding the reference to the sun, moon and stars, is as follows:

A quotation from Isa 13:10, 34:4 (LXX); Joel 2:10. The heavens were seen as the abode of heavenly forces, so their shaking indicates distress in the spiritual realm.

Although some take the powers as a reference to bodies in the heavens (like stars and planets, “the heavenly bodies,” NIV) this is not as likely.

But from the quotes we have considered, it is the political realm which is under view here, not the spiritual.

Furthermore, we can see that these signs (the darkening of the sun and moon, the falling of the stars from heaven), occur after AD 70, when Israel has been destroyed and dispersed. They appear therefore to indicate the fall of the Jewish nation, and the general dissolution and trouble which follows.

The Mark record says the same:

Mark 13:
24 “But in those days, after the suffering, the sun will be darkened and the moon will not give its light;
25 the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.

26 Then everyone will see the Son of Man coming in the clouds with great power and glory.
27 Then he will send angels and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven.

Again, we can see that these signs (the darkening of the sun and moon, the falling of the stars from heaven), occur after AD 70, when Israel has been destroyed and dispersed. They appear therefore to indicate the fall of the Jewish nation, and the general dissolution and trouble which follows.

The Luke record is probably the most clear - Luke expounds clearly what the other gospel writers only allude to in symbol:

Luke 12:
23 Woe to those who are pregnant and to those who are nursing babies in those days! For there will be great distress on the earth and wrath against this people.
24 They will fall by the edge of the sword and be led away as captives among all nations. Jerusalem will be trampled down by the Gentiles until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled.

There is no doubt that this passage speaks of the events of AD 70. These events are the context of the 'signs in the sun, moon and stars'. The context is therefore directing us towards events in the political heavens, rather than the literal heavens.

Luke goes on to give the same account as the other gospel writers:

Luke 21:
25 “And there will be signs in the sun and moon and stars, and on the earth nations will be in distress, anxious over the roaring of the sea and the surging waves.
26 People will be fainting from fear and from the expectation of what is coming on the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken.

27 Then they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory.
28 But when these things begin to happen, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”

Note the association Luke makes:

And there will be signs in the sun and moon and stars...

...which he expounds clearly as:

...on the earth nations will be in distress...


Political events, rather than drastic solar and stellar conditions, are the meaning here.




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