The Sun Darkened and The Moon Turned to Blood
Continuing our exposition of Joel 2:30-32, we’ve already discussed the natural inclination for a literal interpretation of this part of Joel’s prophecy and its natural conclusion for cataclysm. But is there a possible alternate conclusion for these verses? What if this prophecy has more to do with life than with death? What if this part of the prophecy is a cause for rejoicing and not gloom? Let’s explore.
Throughout the Scriptures, the celestial bodies are used as illustrations of greater realities. I’ve already referenced how Jesus refers to angels as stars or He refers to the Church as lampstands. Why does He use figurative language? You may recall a similar question asked by His disciples (Matt.13:10). He speaks figuratively because He wants us to understand profound things easily (remember Ruskin’s adage) and, with our limited finite fallen minds, often we’re unable comprehend nor apprehend the eternal and infinite mind of God. Calvin eloquently puts it this way:
“Knowing that our minds are heavy and grovel on the earth, he raises us above the worlds that he may shake off our sluggishness and inactivity…For who is so devoid of intellect as not to understand that God, in so speaking, lisps with us as nurses are wont to do with little children? Such modes of expression, therefore, do not so much express what kind of a being God is, as accommodate the knowledge of him to our feebleness. In doing so, he must, of course, stoop far below his proper height.”
Calvin aptly describes us as babies in need of baby-talk from God. Of divine communication expressed in imagery and figurative language is akin to us using stick figure images in grade school reading books. Nevertheless, since it “has been granted to us to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven” (Luke 8:10, Deuteronomy 29:29) we must employ the Scriptures for interpretive keys to unlock the meaning of obscure prophetic references.
An interpretive key for understanding the use of celestial bodies in prophecy can be found in Joseph’s dream. As you may recall, Joseph has two dreams concerning his future. It is the second dream which is of importance to us.
“Lo, I have had still another dream; and behold, the sun and the moon and eleven stars were bowing down to me. 10 He related it to his father and to his brothers…” Gen 37:9-10
In this second dream, Joseph sees the sun, moon, and eleven stars bowing down to him. It’s interesting to me that neither Joseph nor his family had difficulty understanding this dream. These agrarian shepherds who were supposedly “unsophisticated”, “uneducated”, and “unscientific” people - compared to us “modern day” folk - did not look to cosmology to interpret the dream, nor did they panic and assume some calamitous world-ending event would befall them. Quite the opposite. They understood the meaning and implications of his dream immediately garnering a rebuke from Jacob for such an insolent supposition.
" 'What is this dream that you have had? Shall I and your mother and your brothers actually come to bow ourselves down before you to the ground?' ” Gen 37:10
Jacob did not flinch. There was no contemplation or perplexity on his part. The implications of Joseph’s dreams were clear. The family would bow down to Joseph as he would one day rule over them. Jacob understood that the celestial bodies were created to “govern” over the Earth. The heavens, like his family’s construct, had functional roles assigned them by the Creator (signs for seasons, days, and years). Jacob’s perturbation with Joseph was related to a violation of the natural and functional order the dream proclaimed - a seventeen-year-old child (Gen 27:2) ruling over his parents. Within the context of the family, an absurdity, but only because Jacob was unaware of the greater significance of the dream. He, like Mary’s preponderance at the prophetic words from Simeon and Anna, “kept the saying in mind.”
Joseph’s dream is a significant interpretive key that unlocks understanding of God’s communication method. In Creation, God made three sources of light (function) that were to govern (role) over the Earth. The greater light (sun) was to rule over the day and supply light to the Earth. The lesser light (moon) was to rule over the night and give reflected light from the sun to the Earth. The stars too were made to govern and give light by night. How was it possible for Jacob to correlate these references to the heavenly bodies to his family? He understood because our ancient spiritual forefathers understood God’s design for all Creation. The functional design elements that were assigned to the heavens were also applied to the family. Jacob understood God’s blueprint. And so, Jacob determined that he – being the head of his house and being Joseph’s father - stood for the sun. His wife Rachel stood for the moon, and his eleven brothers stood for the stars (Figure 1).
Understanding God’s functional design for the cosmos is essential to understanding prophecy whenever celestial bodies are referenced. Knowing that the heavenly bodies were created to rule helps to understand that when God alludes to the “shaking” of the heavens, He’s shaking rulership or the institution of Government: the function which serves to maintain and preserve order. For example, in Isaiah 13:9-19 we find God judging Babylon for her evils and He says the following:
“Behold, the day of the Lord is coming, Cruel, with fury and burning anger, To make the land a desolation; And He will exterminate its sinners from it. 10 For the stars of heaven and their constellations Will not flash forth their light; The sun will be dark when it rises
And the moon will not shed its light. 11 Thus I will punish the world for its evil
And the wicked for their iniquity… I will make mortal man scarcer than pure gold
And mankind than the gold of Ophir. 13 Therefore I will make the heavens tremble,
And the earth will be shaken from its place At the fury of the Lord of hosts In the day of His burning anger…Babylon Will Fall to the Medes. 17 Behold, I am going to stir up the Medes against them…, 19 And Babylon, the beauty of kingdoms, the glory of the Chaldeans’ pride, Will be as when God overthrew Sodom and Gomorrah.”
It’s noteworthy that in this proclamation of judgment, God promises to "shake the heavens" in the apparent "extermination of sinners", and that He’d punish "the world". Yet, His judgment is restricted to Babylon and not the entire world.
Why would God reference the world when He only meant Babylon? He references the world because Babylon ruled the world. It was the world ruler of that time. Interestingly, like Joel’s prophecy, the Lord was using a foreign army - the Medes and Persians - to judge and topple the Babylonian kingdom.
In Haggai 2 we find similar language:
“6 For thus says the Lord of hosts, ‘Once more in a little while, I am going to shake the heavens and the earth, the sea also and the dry land. 7 I will shake all the nations; and they will come with the wealth of all nations, and I will fill this house with glory,’ says the Lord of hosts…. 21 “Speak to Zerubbabel governor of Judah, saying, ‘I am going to shake the heavens and the earth. 22 I will overthrow the thrones of kingdoms and destroy the power of the kingdoms of the nations; and I will overthrow the chariots and their riders, and the horses and their riders will go down, everyone by the sword of another.’”
Haggai references the shaking of heavens and Earth being associated with kingdoms or the power of kingdoms. In Hebrews 12, the writer reminds Hebrew believers of the futility of Judaism by reminding them that they will be the recipients of an unshakeable and everlasting kingdom (vs 25-29) – in contrast to the kingdom they were about to lose.
“25 See to it that you do not refuse Him who is speaking. For if those did not escape when they refused him who warned them on earth, much less will we escape who turn away from Him who warns from heaven. 26 And His voice shook the earth then, but now He has promised, saying, “Yet once more I will shake not only the earth but also the heaven.” 27 This expression, “Yet once more,” denotes the removing of those things which can be shaken, as of created things, so that those things which cannot be shaken may remain. 28 Therefore, since we receive a kingdom which cannot be shaken, let us show gratitude, by which we may offer to God an acceptable service with reverence and awe; 29 for our God is a consuming fire.”
In His warning to these completed Jews, God notes that He’s going to judge the Jewish nation once again for their collective sins (Matt. 23:35) and for the murder of Jesus Christ (Matt.27:25) and, as a result of their sins, the “heavens and earth” would be shaken and they would lose the Kingdom of God (Matt. 21:43) as it would be given to another nation (1Peter 2:9, Rev 1:6, 5:10). This prophecy finds its fulfillment in AD 70’s destruction of Jerusalem when the protection of God departs from the Temple.
Since we now understand the functional roles of the sun, moon, and stars and their symbolic correspondence for ruling, we can start to interpret this segment of Joel’s prophecy considering Joseph’s interpretive key.
We know that the sun is the source of light in our solar system as it rules by day. The moon also gives light, but it is reflected light from the sun and it rules by night. Stars also give light but in minuscule amounts compared to the sun and moon because of their distance from the Earth and only in the night for the sun obscures their light by day. In the same manner, Jacob, Rachel’s husband, ruled over his family and was responsible for teaching and leading his family. Rachel, Jacob’s wife, was also responsible for ruling over her family (under Jacob’s headship) and instructing her children. Jacob’s children ruled hierarchically over each other in birth order (Gen. 43:33).
In Ephesians 5, Paul states the following:
22 “Wives, be subject to your own husbands, as to the Lord. 23 For the husband is the head of the wife, as Christ also is the head of the church… 24 But as the church is subject to Christ, so also the wives ought to be to their husbands in everything. 25 Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself up for her…32 This mystery is great; but I am speaking with reference to Christ and the church.”
Paul equates the covenant of marriage to the New Covenant relationship between Christ and His Church having the same role and functional design elements. Furthermore, Paul ascribes correspondence to the role of the husband to Christ and the role of the wife to the Church (Bride). Additionally, it can, therefore, be intuited that since the procreative union between husband and wife yields children, it would follow that the union between Christ and His Church yields disciples (Matt. 28:19-20) to be birthed through the proclamation of the Gospel (John 3:3) and matured to the fullest stature of discipleship (1 Corinthians 14:20, Hebrews 5:13-14, Hebrews 6:1, Ephesians 4:13-14, 2 Peter 3:18).
As such, Christ not only carries the governance role as head of His family (Eph. 5:23) but bears the functional title of “Eternal Father” (Is. 9:6) as well. Therefore, it follows, that the Church is the wife of Christ (verse 24) bearing and caring for His children. She is mother Church – Eve’s antitype – married to the anti-typical second Adam bearing children for salvation (1Tim. 2:15). However, if Christ is the husband and in Joseph’s dream, Jacob - the husband – corresponded to the sun, then shouldn’t it follow that Jesus is the sun ruling over the day? And, in like manner, wouldn’t the Church – like Rachel – represent the moon ruling over the night? Is there any biblical evidence that Jesus likens Himself to the sun at any time? Let’s see.
“For behold, the day is coming, burning like a furnace; and all the arrogant and every evildoer will be chaff; and the day that is coming will set them ablaze,” says the Lord of hosts, “so that it will leave them neither root nor branch.” 2 “But for you who fear My name, the sun of righteousness will rise with healing in its wings; and you will go forth and skip about like calves from the stall.” Malachi 4
Of this verse, John Piper notes:
“Malachi has just warned that those who proudly resist God will be consumed with fire on the coming day of judgment. But then he has a different word to say to those who fear the Lord. For them the future holds something vastly more wonderful. But for you who fear my name the sun of righteousness shall rise, with healing in its wings. You shall go forth leaping like calves from the stall.
When John the Baptist's father prophesied in Luke 1:78, he alluded to this verse and said that with the coming of Jesus the day was dawning from on high. The sun of righteousness was rising. And he has been rising all over this world ever since. And one day his rise will reach its noonday brightness and he will appear in glory and the final division between the believing and unbelieving will be made.”
The rising of the sun and its healing – as noted in Malachi - is an obvious reference to the Son of Righteousness’ rising from the tomb in His victory over death and the vicarious application of eternal life applied to all who believe. In the gospel of John, Jesus equated Himself to the sun:
4 “We must work the works of Him who sent Me as long as it is day; night is coming when no one can work. 5 While I am in the world, I am the Light of the world.” John 9
In the verse above, Jesus notes two things. Firstly, His physical presence on Earth is equated to the daytime. Secondly, He notes that He is the source of light in the world. In a literal sense, we know that the source of light of the world is the sun. We also know that night only appears when the sun sets. In both instances, there is correspondence between Jesus and the sun - functionally speaking. Now, Jesus states that "night is coming" - a reference to a period in time where He will no longer work (give light) as His light will “set” (die). And, since without light it is impossible to see, this absence of light gives rise to the night – figurative language for the rise of darkness or evil. Is it any wonder that Jesus gives us of His light (the Holy Spirit) – alighting His church at Pentecost and making of us lampstands to the world in Revelations 1-3? John’s gospel poetically captures this characterization of evil as the Light of the world was about to be extinguished:
“Truly, truly, I say to you, that one of you will betray Me.” 22 The disciples began looking at one another, at a loss to know of which one He was speaking…So when He had dipped the morsel, He took and gave it to Judas, the son of Simon Iscariot. 27 After the morsel, Satan then entered into him...30 So after receiving the morsel he went out immediately; and it was night.” John 13
Indeed, there is ample reason to metaphorically ascribe the sun to Jesus. But, what about the moon and the Church? We’ve already established that Rachel, Jacob’s wife, corresponded to the moon and, since the Church is the wife of Christ, then she must be represented by the moon – who rules in the night (after Jesus leaves the world) to provide light; yet, not of her own, but reflected light from sun (Figure 2). In like manner, the Church’s light comes from Christ in whose name we do all things (1 Corinthians 10:31-32, Col 3:17, 1Peter 4:11). One more point concerning Jacob's wife (Rachel). It is noteworthy that ancient Israel identified itself to the moon; thereby, substantiating the old covenantal (marital) relationship established between God and His ancient covenant people.
"Isn’t it a strange thing, how the Jewish people identify with the moon? Wouldn’t it be more dignified to identify with the bright and powerful sun? We are the paltry moon, struggling to lend a little luminance to the darkness of the night, disappearing as the world plays its games beneath the big blue sky, waning after every waxing, owning no light of its own." The Moon and Us - Chassidic Thought
We need not interpret the stars since Jesus already defined the angels as stars (Rev 1:20) and in Job 38:7, we see further correspondence between the morning stars to the sons of God (angels) as they sang at Creation.
So, how does this all fit Joel’s prophecy? Joel noted that “sun would be darkened, and the moon turned to blood.” The sun turning to darkness means that it can no longer give light. In other words, it’s been snuffed out – it’s died. The word darkness in Hebrew chôshek means ‘darkness’ literally and it’s figuratively used to mean “death”, misery, or sorrow. The Hebrew word for blood - dâm - used to describe the moon means ‘blood shed’ or “blood dripping” and is compared to the juice of a grape (Gen 49:11, Isa 63:2, Rev 14:20,19:15) and yet, isn’t interesting that the juice of a grape isn’t produced until it’s compressed or squeezed.
Let’s reconstruct the prophecy but before we do, let’s consider one more crucial point. Jesus was crucified on Passover which meant there would have been a full moon, but not just a full moon - a blood red moon. On the day that Jesus died, there was a lunar eclipse for approximately 3 hours for all Jerusalem to have seen. Let’ examine what happens in a lunar eclipse to get deeper insight to Joel’s prophecy.
According to NASA,
“The moonlight we see on Earth is sunlight reflected off the Moon's grayish-white surface. The amount of Moon we see changes over the month — lunar phases — because the Moon orbits Earth and Earth orbits the Sun. Everything is moving. During a lunar eclipse, Earth comes between the Sun and the Moon, blocking the sunlight falling on the Moon. Earth's shadow covers all or part of the lunar surface. A partial lunar eclipse happens when only part of Earth's shadow covers the Moon. During some stages of a lunar eclipse, the Moon can appear reddish.”
When the Earth positions itself in between the sun and the moon, the Earth intercepts sunlight and filters out blue light allowing the red light to pass through and to fall upon the moon; thereby, making it appear “bloody” (Figure 3). This filtering phenomenon (known as Rayleigh Scattering) has colossal implications as it relates to Joel’s prophecy. And, when allegorically examined, we experience the poetic mind of God.
Using Joseph’s interpretive key as an allegorical framework (Figure 1) and applying it to the Lunar eclipse, we can now interpret the prophecy as the ancients would have understood Joel’s prophecy. Let’s decode Joel’s divine message from two perspectives: the spiritual (heavenly) perspective and the earthly (temporal) perspective.
From a spiritual perspective ("top down viewpoint") we understand the “blood, and fire, and vapor of smoke” to represent the covenant-keeping God making a covenant in which He pours out His wrath (Col. 1:19-20, Acts 2:23) by extinguishing (darkening) the “Sun” (Son of Righteousness). His death – being compressed like a grape – sprays and drips the moon (His wife) with His blood. She’s drenched in and covered by His blood . This poetic language is beautifully as well as scientifically expressed in the lunar eclipse.
The earthly perspective ("bottom up viewpoint") see’s God’s use of “godless hands” (Acts 2:23) to accomplish His work. These godless men are represented by the Earth (earthy, natural man - Jew and Gentile alike) which obstructs (blocks) the sun’s light (Jesus); thereby causing red light (blood) to fall upon the moon (Church) - “before the great and glorious day of the Lord shall come. ‘And it shall be that everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.”
The imagery is vivid and the message clear (Figure 4). The darkening of the sun coupled with a lunar eclipse signaled the gospel message in the sky as anyone “calling upon the name of the Lord” would be saved which they did experience 50 days after the lunar eclipse at Pentecost.
All of these elements were figures of Jesus’ suffering and subsequent death at Calvary. Incidentally, we find similar imagery of Jesus’ suffering at Gethsemane. At Gethsemane’s olive garden we find Jesus prayerfully sweating and bleeding as He agonizes to the “point of death” (Matthew 26:38) as He considers the weightiness of what was about to happen. The pressure and magnitude of the physical, emotional, and spiritual suffering He was about to experience caused His capillaries to rupture and mingle with His blood – a medical condition known as hematidrosis . Jesus’ intense suffering, at this moment and at that place (Gethsemane), is emblematic of an olive press crushing the precious olive fruit to produce oil for lighting (“the world”) and medicine for healing (“the nations”). Peter’s Acts 2 sermon helps us to understand humanity’s (Earth) role and complicity in Joel’s cosmic message:
“Men of Israel, listen to these words: Jesus the Nazarene, a man attested to you by God with miracles and wonders and signs which God performed through Him in your midst, just as you yourselves know— 23 this Man, delivered over by the predetermined plan and foreknowledge of God, you nailed to a cross by the hands of godless men and put Him to death…” Acts 2
Peter addresses Israel because she was complicit in coercing Rome to do her bidding in murdering her Messiah (John19:12). Therefore, both Jew (Israel) and Gentile (Rome) – as represented by both ancient categories for humanity - are responsible for Jesus’ death. Peter convicts both ancient parties by declaring “you nailed to a cross” (Jews) “by the hands of godless men” (Gentiles). It is in this ancient definition and context of humanity that we try to make sense of the Father’s love for "the world" (John 3:16) for it was this world that He had His son killed. How great the love of the Father! Who can fathom His gracious act of love towards mankind. When we consider that it was He who ordained the plan (Matt. 25:34, Rev 13:8) and it was His good pleasure to offer His Son (Isa. 53:10) up for us in order to satisfy the His wrath in the offense. A perfect substitutionary sacrifice was necessary but only because of our sins – our rebellion in the treasonous high crime of submitting to and collaborating with the archenemy of God. It wasn’t "the Jews" who killed Christ nor was it Rome – they are not the “Christ killers”. That distinction belongs to all mankind collectively – past, present, and future. We all are His murderers.
This point is masterfully depicted twice in Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ. The first, and most obvious reference, is found in Gibson’s Pietà scene. At the foot of the Cross, Mary (Maia Morgenstern) holds the Christ (Jim Caviezel) in her arms, but unlike Michelangelo’s sculpture where she looks down at her son, Gibson expertly captures the theology of the Cross when he directs Morgenstern to look up and out to the audience – staring at the responsible parties for her son’s fate.
The second scene is much more subtle but no less powerful. A Roman hand is seen driving the nail through the Christ character’s hand. That Roman hand was none other than Gibson’s own hand . His left hand – the “sinister hand” – an acknowledgment of his guilt and complicity in the death of Christ.
This is the heart of the Father. He ordains the death of His only begotten Son so that we can know Him and the greatness of His son (John 17:2). And Peter, in proclaiming the gospel in Acts 2, casts the light of the gospel upon the world. The alighting of the Church – by the Holy Spirit - was now at hand and she – the lesser light – was now to light up the world (Matt. 28:19) through her message.
The night had come, and the Son had left the world, but moonlight would still be provided by His Church.