Matthew 24:29 – Literal or Figurative?

“Immediately after the distress of those days “‘the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light; the stars will fall from the sky, and the heavenly bodies will be shaken.’”

Sam Storms (in his book Kingdom Come) asks, “Are these literal, physical, astronomical events that one might see with the naked eye?” He answers, “I don’t think so.” He continues,

“In the Old Testament, such language was used to portray not what is going on in the heavens but what is happening on the earth. Natural disasters, political upheaval, and turmoil among the nations are often described figuratively through the terminology of cosmic disturbances. . . . As we shall see, when the sun and moon are darkened or the stars fall from heaven, the reference is to the disasters and distressed befalling nations on the earth.” (264)

Isaiah 13:10 describes the impending judgment of God on Babylon this way: “The stars of heaven and their constellations will not show their light. The rising sun will be darkened and the moon will not give its light.”

In Ezekiel (32:7-15) the destruction of Egypt is described with these words: vv. 7-8 “When I snuff you out, I will cover the heavens and darken their stars; I will cover the sun with a cloud, and the moon will not give its light. All the shining lights in the heavens I will darken over you; I will bring darkness over your land.”

The destruction of Edom: (Isa. 34:4-5) “All the stars in the sky will be dissolved and the heavens rolled up like a scroll; all the starry host will fall like withered leaves from the vine, like shriveled figs from the fig tree.”

Storms writes, “The literal stars of heaven did not fall from the skies, and the literal constellations were not dissolved or rolled up as a scroll. These figurative expressions were clearly presented in a purely symbolic manner to characterize the destruction befalling nations and earthly powers.” (265)

He quotes R.T. France’s commentary on Matthew, “if such language was appropriate to describe the end of Babylon or Edom under the judgment of God, why should it not equally describe God’s judgment on Jerusalem’s temple and the power structure which it symbolized.” (265, France p. 922)

France notes

“that in the forty years since I first argued for this interpretation I have become more convinced that it best meets the exegetical demands of this controversial passage, and have been pleased to find it increasingly shared, in whole or in part, by other scholars. . . If in the process it emerges that the equally traditional embarrassment of a Jesus who mistakenly claimed that the parousia would take place within the current generation was all the time the result of false exegesis, I hope this will be accepted as a bonus rather than as a sign that the interpretation here offered must have been motivated by special pleading.” (893)

I will note that Brant Pitre argues in Jesus, the Tribulation, and the End of the Exile (Baker Academic, 2006, now out of print)

“that it is in fact literal language meant to describe cosmic effects of an event that is both historical and eschatalogical: the destruction of Jerusalem. That is, the language is literal insofar as it refers to the concrete heavenly signs that accompany the destruction of the city. Lest there be any doubt about such a suggestion, Dale Allison has made a vigorous case for the fact that similar cosmic signs wer interpreted very literally by first-century Jews such as Josephus, even when they referred to past events.” (336-37)

Kingdom Come  Matthew  Brant Pitre

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About Louis

I am a 1997 graduate of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.
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