Look to the heavens and see; And behold the clouds (Job 35:5)
“Bows and flows of angel hair and ice cream castles in the air
And feather canyons everywhere, I’ve looked at clouds that way
But now they only block the sun they rain and snow on everyone
So many things I would have done, but clouds got in my way
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”.
The study of clouds is of no small practical importance to numerous people – meteorologists, farmers, sailors and aviators; but among all the cloud-gazers one group of people in society observe the clouds with greater philosophical interest than any other – the poets. All the great poets from Browning, Coleridge, Kipling and Longfellow to Shakespeare, Shelley, Tennyson and Wordsworth along with so many others down through the ages have had their head in the clouds, figuratively speaking. The poet/author who wrote the book of Job exhorts the reader to, “Look to the heavens and see; And behold the clouds.” So it is reasonable to ask what can be learned by beholding the clouds. While we may not have given it much thought, clouds also permeate the scriptures from Genesis to Revelation. Since that is so, it is good for us to contemplate the subject. We should look at clouds from both sides now, that is to say, in both a literal sense and also a figurative sense.
Consider, if you will, the presence of clouds. One of the things that I love about the autumn is the arrival of the first cool breeze that sweeps away the heat and the haze and the humidity of the late summer. With that refreshing breeze come those distinctive, fluffy white clouds that scurry across the sky and instantly I am caught up and carried back across time and ocean to days gone by. Once more, I am sitting on top of a hill, watching similar clouds as they move across the English countryside, casting their shadows across the patchwork quilt of fields below – some now bathed in sunshine, some now blanketed by shadows. The landscape doesn’t change – but the presence or absence of the sunshine makes a world of difference to the way we view things. And isn’t that an allegory, or picture, of the troubles that come into our lives? They can affect our view of God and our relationship to Him if we look only to our present circumstances. As I look out across the landscape of my life and those who I know and love, I am reminded that clouds have, at one time or another cast their shadows over many of us. The loss of a loved one; divorce; sickness; financial problems; job loss – all of these are clouds in our life.
The presence of clouds, speak to the trials of life. Again, going back to Job, we read: “For affliction does not come from the dust, nor does trouble spring from the ground; yet man is born to trouble, as the sparks fly upward.” Imagine Job and his friends sitting under the stars at night, around a fire, while he contemplates the calamities that have befallen him and his household – the loss of his children, the loss of his earthly treasures and the loss of his health. As he stares into the fire, numbed by the shock of all that has happened to him, someone stirs the fire to add another log and the sparks dance their way up into the dark night sky while those words lay heavily on his heart; “man is born to trouble as the sparks fly upward”. The clouds of life are a given – as surely as we draw breath we will face troubles.
Ponder these words penned by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, entitled “The Rainy Day”:
“The day is cold, and dark, and dreary;
It rains, and the wind is never weary;
The vine still clings to the mouldering wall,
But at every gust the dead leaves fall,
And the day is dark and dreary.
“My life is cold, and dark, and dreary;
It rains, and the wind is never weary;
My thoughts still cling to the mouldering past,
But the hopes of youth fall thick in the blast,
And the days are dark and dreary.
“Be still, sad heart, and cease repining;
Behind the clouds is the sun still shining;
Thy fate is the common fate of all,
Into each life some rain must fall,
Some days must be dark and dreary.”
Not only do the presence of clouds speak to the trials of life but they also speak to the transience of life. If we revisit Job sitting around the fire we find him lamenting: “Terrors”, he says, “Terrors are turned upon me; They pursue my honor as the wind, And my prosperity has passed like a cloud”. Riches are fleeting, indeed. Where is our confidence placed for the future? Are we feeling comfortable with our savings and investments; with our career plans; with our retirement strategy? Do we look to our political leaders for direction and hope? But what about Job – didn’t he have every right to feel confident about the future? He was healthy, wealthy and wise. He was well respected in his community. His children brought no shame to his household. He helped the helpless and he served the Lord. And yet calamity upon calamity fell on him leaving him a broken and destitute man who wished he had never been born. His reputation evaporated along with his health and wealth.
And how often did Jesus refer to the fleeting nature of human existence? Recall, if you will, the parable of the Rich Fool. His land was fruitful, his barns were filled to capacity and he had more than he knew what to do with. But just like Job, calamity was about to befall him and he didn’t see it coming: “Soul”, he says to himself, “Soul, you have many goods laid up for many years; take your ease; eat, drink and be merry”. “Fool”, God replies, “Fool! This night your soul will be required of you”. Again, recall that Jesus likens our lives to the morning mist, which disappears with the rising sun and as grass, which withers and is thrown into the fire. How transient, indeed, our lives are and how often our plans are turned on their head when clouds overshadow our lives.
When considering the presence of clouds we should also consider the process of cloud formation. Sometimes the build-up of clouds is a gradual thing and you have time to anticipate the coming storm. I recall, many years ago, watching the company that I worked for slowly die. I was anxious, and nervous about the probability of being unemployed. It was like watching a little cloud on the horizon steadily grow into a menacing storm cloud as it moved toward me. I could see it coming and there was no way to avoid it – no way to escape from it. And that’s often the way it is in life. Perhaps it’s an unusual little lump you find in your body, or some other irregularity that creates anxiety, or the announcement by the doctor that your loved one has early indications of some disease that will slowly cause their vitality to seep away. The prognosis isn’t good and the long term outlook is bleak – the storm clouds are gathering. Or maybe it’s a problem child or a wayward spouse that’s breaking your heart. You see them heading for disaster but you can’t turn them away from the course they are on. And the clouds grow steadily darker until, finally, the storm breaks upon you.
But, sometimes, the clouds are upon you before you know it. When I was 14 years old, I was in the Air Training Corp (the equivalent of an air force ROTC) and we went off to summer camp at an RAF station in Devon in the southwest of England. One of our activities was a day on the moors, conducting an orienteering exercise. We were dropped in teams at various locations and given a map and compass and a destination point to get back to. First team back won the competition. Well, the moors of England are renowned as a wild and desolate place and the weather is extremely fickle. We started out on a beautiful, clear morning, but suddenly around midday thick clouds rolled in off the ocean and completely enveloped us in their swirling mists in a matter of minutes. It was so thick that we had to travel in single file holding the edge of the cape of the person in front of us while the leader continued to follow the compass heading. Had we not kept in physical contact, we would have been separated and lost. But, after a while, those clouds departed as quickly as they had come and we found ourselves back in the sunshine once more.
Sometimes, when the clouds of life are upon us before we know it we think we are alone, abandoned by God in the midst of our trials; but recall, once more, the words of Longfellow: “Behind the clouds, is the sun, still shining.” It is true to say that you could not see the clouds if the sun was not shining behind them. It’s a wonderful illustration of God’s sovereign control over all things.
So after having considered the presence and the process of clouds, what then, one might ask, is the purpose of clouds? One of the first things we have to realize is that God owes no one an explanation for what He chooses to allow in our lives. Poor old Job – all he wanted was an opportunity to plead his case before God and yet the heavens were like brass to his prayers. He argued with his friends, he justified himself. He emphasized his own righteousness based on his good works and he couldn’t understand why he was suffering while the wicked were enjoying the luxuries of life and ridiculing him. “Why?” he asks, “Why? Why is this happening to me?” And don’t we do the same thing? Yet listen to these words from the King James translation of Job 36:32, “With clouds he covereth the light; and commandeth it not to shine by the cloud that cometh betwixt.” With clouds He covers the light, and He commands it not to shine, by the cloud that comes between. Between what? Between us and God. Between heaven and earth. God places the cloud there for a purpose. He causes the sun not to shine on us for a season. Why? The answer to that question can only be found by looking back from the vantage point of having gone through the storm – and maybe not even then. But consider Job 37:13, “He causes it to come, Whether for correction, Or for His land, Or for mercy.” What is the “it”, to which he refers? The rains bound up in the clouds, of course.
Let us consider the three reasons given.
For correction – did He not use the rains to cleanse the earth of the wicked in the days of Noah?
For His land – listen to these verses from Deuteronomy 11:11 – “but the land which you cross over to possess is a land of hills and valleys, which drinks water from the rain of heaven”, and v.14,15 – “then I will give you the rain for your land in its season, the early rain and the latter rain, that you may gather in your grain, your new wine and your oil. And I will send grass in your fields for your livestock, that you may eat and be filled.”
For mercy – think back to Elijah and to the drought and severe famine brought on the land by the sin of the people. Then think of the rain, which came to a parched and barren land after three years of judgment. But also when we think of mercy, consider the cloud that covered Israel and led them for 40 years while they wandered in the wilderness. That’s mercy.
In the desert there are seldom any clouds. And where there are no clouds, there is no rain. And where there is no rain there is no growth. No growth? Who would want to live in a barren and parched land where there is no growth? And yet that is what we are seeking for our lives when we desire to avoid the clouds of life. Consider the Apostle Paul’s words to the Roman church: “We also glory in tribulations, knowing that tribulation produces perseverance; and perseverance, character; and character, hope. Now hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out in our hearts by the Holy Spirit who was given to us.” What are tribulations? Are they not, simply, the clouds of life. Is it not, then, for our ultimate good that God allows the clouds into our lives?
“The sunset”, as one of my favorite authors – F.W. Boreham says, “The sunset is not the glory of the sun, it is essentially the glory of the clouds. When the west is a pageant of fire, when earth and sky and sea melt into a riot of crimson and violet and gold, it is the clouds that most deserve our admiration. As though they cannot bear to let it go, the clouds catch the dying sunshine and hold it, even after the sun has vanished from our sight. They toss it to each other until every feathery fragment and fleecy tatter is ablaze.” He goes on to say; “When the sun sinks behind the clouds and appears through the vapor like a ball of fire, it is possible to behold it with steadiness and comfort. You see the sun through the tapestry of the clouds as you can never see it in its unveiled splendour”. A clouded life, he therefore reasons, is a life of revelation. Men cannot look upon the sun when it is bright in the skies. Ah, but when it passes behind the clouds, that’s another story!
I walked a mile with Pleasure,
She chattered all the way,
But left me none the wiser
For all she had to say.
I walked a mile with Sorrow,
And ne’er a word said she;
But, oh, the things I learned from her
When Sorrow walked with me!
The clouded life, then, is one that can reflect the glory of God’s Son. It is a life through which God reveals Himself, in a way that we don’t otherwise see, when the skies are clear and the sun is shining.
So, having looked at the presence, the process and the purpose of clouds; let me conclude by looking at the promise of clouds. Acts 1:9-11, in speaking of Jesus’ ascension, tells us, “He was taken up, and a cloud received Him out of their sight. And while they looked steadfastly toward heaven as He went up, behold, two men stood by them in white apparel who also said, ‘Men of Galilee, why do you stand gazing up into heaven? This same Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will so come in like manner as you saw Him go into heaven.” As we read in Matthew 24:30, “And they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory.”
Revelation 21:1-4 declares, “Now I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away. Also, there was no more sea. Then I, John, saw the holy city, New Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from heaven saying, ‘Behold the tabernacle of God is with men, and He will dwell with them, and they shall be His people. God Himself will be with them and be their God. And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes; there shall be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying. There shall be no more pain, for the former things have passed away.” There will be no more clouds in the life of the Christian; for they will have fulfilled that which they were sent to accomplish.