I admit to not appreciating clouds – we simply have too many of them in this corner of the globe – although we had a welcome cloud-free few weeks in May this year. Sunlight is usually in short supply; plant and crop growth are hugely dependent on it. It’s a very different story in most other parts of the world where the sun shines relentlessly, where plant growth is instead limited by lack of water and urban communities either do not have water at all or else it’s in short or interrupted supply.
But I’ve been prompted to re-think my attitude to clouds when recently a Bible teacher said that ‘clouds signified God’s power’. So I went in search of clouds in the Bible….
As well as being a visible sign of God’s presence to the Israelites as they wandered in the desert for 40 years (Ex. 13:21), clouds – black, dark, dense – appear in the poetry of the OT authors as they strive to portray God’s otherness (Deut. 4:11; 2 Sam. 22:11; Ps. 18:9 & 11; Ps.97:2; Nahum 1:13, etc.). And it wasn’t just clouds but also darkness that was associated with God – ‘deep darkness’ (Deut. 4:11), ‘thick darkness’ (Ps 97:2). I wonder how much of our emphasis on God as being light comes from our living in a relatively cloudy and dull part of the world. We really don’t see much that’s positive about clouds at all.
In dry regions clouds promise rain – think of Elijah scanning the horizon after telling Ahab that God was sending rain. Where rainfall is low, clouds are noticed when they appear. They’re rare and they’re conspicuous. Clouds also provide shade and even create their own breezes, so providing a welcome relief from the brightness and the heat of the sun.
So what, we might say, in the context of our cloudy skies? In the clear blue skies that are normal in the Sinai and in Israel, any cloud appearing would be remarkable and dramatic. They might even make the occasion memorable.
Realising this helped me read some Biblical stories with fresh eyes: the cloud covering the Tent of the meeting (Ex. 40:34-38; Numbers 9:15-23); the Transfiguration; Jesus’ ascension being hidden by a cloud (Acts 1:9); Jesus’ return in a cloud (Matt. 24:30 & 26:64; Mark 13:26; Luke 21:27; Rev. 1:7). It’s intriguing how clouds are a significant part of these accounts where the Three-in-one is present to and with us on this planet.
I’m reminded of Joni Mitchell’s song:
I've looked at clouds from both sides now
From up and down and still somehow
It's cloud's illusions I recall
I really don't know clouds at all
Might my awe at who God is be increased if I understood clouds better? Joni Mitchell went on to look at love and life in this song, having been inspired to write it by watching clouds from above in an airplane. May we be stretched in our knowledge of God and be inspired to worship Him more deeply through being willing to look at familiar objects, etc. in fresh ways.
Ethel White is a research scientist in agriculture.