The Cloud of Knowing: The Meaning of Clouds in Scripture

Throughout the Bible clouds reveal the presence and glory of God. Fleur Dorrell explores when they appear and why they are so important in our understanding of Scripture.

sunshine streaming through clouds above illuminating low level clouds in a valley
icon-home » Saints & Seasons » Ascension » The Cloud of Knowing: The Meaning o...

Throughout Scripture, we’re encouraged to view clouds as a possible means to reveal the presence and glory of God rather than just as a feature of the weather. Unlike the ancient Jewish Communities and the Early Church, we now know how clouds are formed and their purpose – we have the meteorological and technological expertise to study them in great detail and to predict the weather quite accurately. Something that ancient civilisations were constantly preoccupied with because they saw the consequences of bad weather every day. So much so that they cultivated a series of deities to appease and worship in the hope of good weather, fertile land and a rich harvest on which their life was so dependent.

There are over 125 references to clouds in Scripture all conveying different aspects of God’s engagement in creation for the salvation of all. Our aim in exploring some of the most important of these references is to clarify the relevance of the image of Jesus’ ascension in a cloud after his resurrection.

The first place where clouds play a prominent role is in the flood narrative in Genesis 9:14-15. When Noah and his family leave the Ark to step onto dry land God places a bow in the clouds – this rainbow is to be a reminder of God’s covenant with his people. Whenever they see the rainbow in the clouds they will remember how God saved them and of his promise to be with them forever. So clouds reflect both his transcendent glory and his imminent approach to us.

14 When I bring clouds over the earth and the bow is seen in the clouds, 15 I will remember my covenant that is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh. And the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh.
Genesis 9:14-15.

The rainbow in the cloud is referred to again in Scripture in the last book of Revelation, which unites the beginning and end of the Bible with God’s covenant. It demonstrates that God was ever-faithful to his promises in John’s vision of the appearance of God’s messenger descending in a cloud, that is uniting the earthly and heavenly sphere’s on the Island of Patmos: Then I saw another mighty angel coming down from heaven, wrapped in a cloud, with a rainbow over his head, and his face was like the sun, and his legs like pillars of fire.
Revelation 10:1.

The next time we read about a cloud is when God leads his people out of Egypt through the wilderness for 40 years by means of the pillars of cloud by day and fire at night in Exodus 13:17-22. This was the visible symbol of God’s presence and protection since it shielded the Israelites from the heat of the sun and kept them hidden from their enemies. It also taught them to trust God. Only he could lead them to safety on a path they did not know and could not see inside the cloud. The cloud here stands for the graced and given nature of God’s direction, which they have to receive and live out in their physical and spiritual journey.

Clouds continue to play significant roles, such as in the revelation to Moses at Sinai in Exodus 24, when God’s glory, or Shekinah in Hebrew, the immanent presence of God within creation, comes as a cloud and rests on the Mount for six days. Then Moses is summoned to ascend the mountain and enter the cloud, to approach God’s hidden presence and receive God’s word of life and instruction.

15 Then Moses went up on the mountain, and the cloud covered the mountain. 16 The glory of the Lord dwelt on Mount Sinai, and the cloud covered it six days. And on the seventh day he called to Moses out of the midst of the cloud. 17 Now the appearance of the glory of the Lord was like a devouring fire on the top of the mountain in the sight of the people of Israel. 18 Moses entered the cloud and went up on the mountain. And Moses was on the mountain forty days and forty nights.
Exodus 24:15-18.

In Exodus 33:9, clouds again indicate God’s presence when he wishes to speak to Moses. And this is further enhanced by the covering of the Tabernacle in a cloud whenever God is passing in Numbers 9:15-23. God’s revelation through clouds enables the holding in the tension of the two dimensions of God’s necessary transcendence and yet chosen immanence, the seen and the unseen, the hidden and the revealed.

In the Bible, clouds always suggest things beyond our control and knowledge. Clouds are part of the natural phenomena God created, which act according to his will. They are metaphors pointing towards signs and events to come, illustrating God’s intervention at particular times. They represent thresholds and liminal spaces between heaven and earth, highlighting that our grasp of the cosmos is limited and still is today despite much human development and scientific advances. This is made clear in the book of Job when Elihu asks Job if he understands the clouds and God’s authority over them:

“Hear this, O Job;
stop and consider the wondrous works of God.
15 Do you know how God lays his command upon them
and causes the lightning of his cloud to shine?
16 Do you know the balancings of the clouds,
the wondrous works of him who is perfect in knowledge,
17 you whose garments are hot
when the earth is still because of the south wind?”
Job 37:14-17.

In the New Testament, the appearance and use of clouds is just as connected to the presence and glory of God as it is in the Old Testament, drawing on parallel ideas such as Isaiah’s prediction of the Transfiguration:

I will ascend above the heights of the clouds;
I will make myself like the Most High.’

Isaiah 14:14.

So in the gospels, we read that Jesus climbed up the high mountain, which was probably Mount Tabor or Mount Hermon, with his closest disciples – Peter, James and John. They see Jesus talking with Moses and Elijah in dazzling white clothing and assume that they should make shrines in which to honour and worship the divine presence. Yet, while they’re trying to register what is happening, they notice that:
He was still speaking when, behold, a bright cloud overshadowed them, and a voice from the cloud said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.”
Matthew 17:5. and Mark 9:1-13.

God and his Son are both acting within the cloud to teach the disciples further truth about Jesus’ mission and relationship with them. The voice from within the cloud is an echo of the divine voice heard at key moments in the Bible, such as Jesus’ baptism.

Later in Mark, we have another prediction of the coming of the Son of Man by means of clouds, which is necessarily preceded by the Ascension since Christ cannot return to earth if he hasn’t first ascended to heaven. Daniel had described this prediction in one of his night visions:

13 “I saw in the night visions,
and behold, with the clouds of heaven
there came one like a son of man,
and he came to the Ancient of Days
and was presented before him.
Daniel 7:13

Using the same dramatic devices, we see the similarities once again:

“But in those days, after that tribulation, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, 25 and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken. 26 And then they will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory.”
Mark 13:24-26

This leads us to the Ascension cloud, which is used as a veil to cover Jesus rather than as a mode of ascent. The cloud covers only Jesus’ external form so that his personal relationship with Mary and the disciples who watched him ascend persists.

And when he had said these things, as they were looking on, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. 10 And while they were gazing into heaven as he went, behold, two men stood by them in white robes, 11 and said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into heaven? This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.”
Acts 1:9-11.

The old meanings of the cloud are now directly connected to Jesus as God’s son. What we read in Daniel is the opposite perspective from what Mary and the disciples see with their own eyes. What the disciples saw from below is what Daniel described from above. When Christ enters the cloud, he brings us with him, not just the first disciples. As he took on our humanity and took it to the cross, so he brings us into the presence and glory of God. As he pours grace upon us, he makes us sharers in the Divine Presence. This grace in us will only be complete when we cross the final river when we are embraced in the cloud of God’s glory at Christ’s second coming, prophesied in Revelation 1:7 –

Behold, he is coming with the clouds, and every eye will see him, even those who pierced him, and all tribes of the earth will wail on account of him. Even so. Amen.

Christ’s Ascension into heaven is a literal and spiritual border crossing, a threshold he must cross and which expresses both his humanity and divinity. He ascends as a human but returns to his divinity in heaven. Christ is both present and absent, and the body he leaves behind on earth becomes the Church, with the promise that it can follow him to heaven. So, on Ascension Day, we joyfully proclaim these rich meanings in the hymn “Alleluia! Sing to Jesus” –

Alleluia! Sing to Jesus!
His the sceptre, his the throne;
Alleluia! His the triumph,
His the victory alone.
Hark! The songs of peaceful Zion
Thunder like a mighty flood.
Jesus, out of every nation,
Has redeemed us by his blood.

Alleluia! Not as orphans
Are we left in sorrow now;
Alleluia! He is near us;
Faith believes nor questions how.
Though the cloud from sight received him
When the forty days were o’er,
Shall our hearts forget his promise,
“I am with you evermore”?

Alleluia! Heavenly High Priest,
Here on earth our help, our stay;
Alleluia! Hear the sinful
Cry to you from day to day.
Intercessor, friend of sinners,
Earth’s Redeemer, hear our plea,
Where the songs of all the sinless
Sweep across the crystal sea.

Alleluia! King eternal,
You the Lord of lords we own:
Alleluia! born of Mary,
Earth your footstool, heaven your throne:
You within the veil, have entered,
Robed in flesh, our great High Priest:
By your Spirit, left us heavenward,
In the Eucharistic feast!

Source: Musixmatch
Songwriters: William Chatterton Dix / Nigel Ogden / R H Pritchard
Alleluia! Sing to Jesus lyrics © Patterdale Music Ltd