The Solar Eclipse and Repentance in Biblical Theology

by Todd Chipman August 21, 2017

The total solar eclipse today has proven to be a scientific and cultural celebration. Professional scientists and amateur star gazers marked Monday, August 21, 2017, on their calendars years ago. Hotels, restaurants, media outlets and civil authorities have more recently scrambled to make preparations for the millions of tourists traveling to view the full eclipse in cities like Salem, Nashville, and Charleston, or small towns like North Platte, NE and Carbondale, Il.

To mark the solar eclipse on a certain day is a bit of a redundancy: the only way humans understand the phenomenon of time is by the sun. Philosophers struggle to define time, and if the way that heavenly bodies have organized human experience is removed from the discussion, their difficulty is multiplied. The creation account in Genesis 1 describes God, by means of His word, setting into orbit the sun, moon, and stars to be signs for the ordering of days and nights and human festivals (Gen 1:14).

Biblical theology interprets Scripture according to its chronological and literary sequence. Where systematic theology investigates scripture in light of doctrinal categories like God, salvation, the church, end times, etc., biblical theology operates inside the narrative or storyline of the Bible, tracing how one idea or another is understood across the flow of Genesis to Revelation. In the storyline of Scripture, the sun, moon and heavenly bodies signal God’s judgment upon humanity and at times themselves are used as instruments to carry out His judgment against human sin.

The Heavenly Bodies and God’s Judgment in the OT

The ninth plague the LORD executed upon Egypt was the suspension of sunlight from over the Egyptians in their land. When Moses stretched out His hand to obey the LORD’s command, “there was thick darkness throughout the land of Egypt for three days” (Exod 10:22). Though all the Israelites had light where they lived, one Egyptian could not see another for three days, leaving the Egyptian populace static in fear (Exod 10:23).

After the Gibeonites tricked Joshua and the leaders of Israel into making a covenant of protection with them, God’s people were in a vulnerable position. Joshua 10 records that five Amorite kings formed an alliance to attack the city of Gibeon. The Amorite invasion against a city that had come under Israel’s protection required Joshua and company to fight against the Amorite coalition of kings from Jerusalem, Hebron, Jarmuth, Lachish, and Eglon (Josh 10:5). Joshua 10:12 states, “On the day the LORD gave the Amorites over to the Israelites, Joshua spoke to the LORD in the presence of all Israel: ‘Sun, stand still over Gibeon, and moon, over the valley of Aijalon.’” And God answered Joshua’s prayer, causing the sun to stand still as a means of aiding the Israelites as they took vengeance upon their enemies (Josh 10:13). 

The psalmists too described God’s use of the heavenlies to signal judgment. Psalm 97 notes God’s rule over the natural world and the nations of men. How might God deal with the idolatrous peoples surrounding Israel? The psalmist boasted that the heavens proclaim the righteousness of God (Ps 97:6), putting the nations who serve carved images and idols on notice that the gods they created must bow to the God of Israel (Ps 97:7). The writer of Psalm102 poetically argued for God’s supremacy. Israel’s pagan neighbors worshipped the sun, moon, and stars because these seemed so strong and stable; who or what was more powerful than the sun? In Ps 102:25-28 the psalmist celebrated the LORD—the One who would outlast the heavens, the One who could change them like a garment while providing eternal security for Israel.

Among the major prophets, Isaiah predicted that the day of the God’s judgment against Babylon would be marked by darkness akin to what Egypt experienced during the ninth plague noted already (Isa 13:10). The prophet declared that when the sun and moon withheld their light, disaster would come upon the nations (Isa 13:11). Jeremiah, describing God’s judgment in ratifying the new covenant, stated that the only way God would allow His people to be removed from His presence was if the fixed order of the sun, moon, and stars could be removed from His presence; God’s watch-care over the natural world was to be a sign of His care for His people in the new covenant (Jer 31:35-36). Egypt threatened Israel not only during the days of Moses but also during the period of Exile and resettlement. Ezekiel prophesied that what God had done during the ninth plague He would do to Egypt’s Pharaoh again, causing the sun and the moon to be darkened over them, destroying them (Ezek 32:7-10). Among the minor prophets, Joel repeatedly noted that on the day of His vengeance, God would alter the heavenlies (Joel 2:10-11; 3:14-16).

The Fixed Day of Judgment in Christ

Paul’s second missionary journey (Acts 15:40-18:22) included a brief stay in the city of Athens. Athens was the ultimate cultural stop in the ancient world. Philosophy, art, wealth—an historic city of repute for the Romans as it was for the Greeks before them. Paul’s stay in Athens was not planned, however. Jewish opponents put Paul on the run from Thessalonica (Acts 17:9-10) and then Berea, too (Acts 17:14-15). Athens was to be a place of repose as Paul waited for fellow-workers Silas and Timothy to join him after they had established the church in Berea. But observing the idolatrous culture of Athens, Paul was provoked to testify of God’s judgment and salvation in Christ. Paul testified boldly of the one true God who made the heavens and the earth and does not dwell in shrines made by men’s hands (Acts 17:24). Paul exclaimed, “Having overlooked the times of ignorance, God now commands all people everywhere to repent, because He has set a day on which He is going to judge the world in righteousness by the Man He has appointed” (Acts 17:31). Paul stated that the judgment day is fixed. A day is coming when all men will be judged by the one Man, the resurrected Christ (Acts 17:31).

Paul had in view the final judgment, described also in Rev 20:11-15. It is a fixed day, the culmination of times and seasons marked by the earth’s rotation around the sun. In one of John’s concluding visions in Revelation, he noted that the sun and the moon would not be needed in the new heavens and the new earth; their purposes in marking the days until the day of judgment will have been fulfilled. The day of judgment passed and God dwelling among His people, illumining the new creation, no longer will the sun’s services be required.

A Call to Evangelistic Zeal

The sad irony of August 21, 2017, is that what many will celebrate today, even with decadence, signals God’s wrath upon human idolatry. The brief mid-day darkening of the sun provides in miniature a display of how God will one day execute His judgment across the globe. In Athens Paul’s spirit was provoked to speak about the fixed day of judgment to come—the fulfillment of the sun’s purpose—and the good news of forgiveness in Christ’s resurrection. May we be emboldened no less on this day of the (brief) total solar eclipse.