Immediately after the suffering of those days, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light; the stars will fall from heaven, and the powers of heaven will be shaken. – Matthew 24:29 (NET)
Jesus, who is unmistakably speaking about the fall of the Temple and the events that will surround that fall, as He continues to answer the question posed by His disciples of “When will these things happen?” (Matthew 24:3b), which was prompted by His own statement of “Do you see all these things? I tell you the truth, not one stone will be left on another. All will be torn down!” (24:2b), says “Immediately after the suffering,” or persecution, as it can also be translated, “of those days, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light; the stars will fall from heaven, and the powers of heaven will be shaken” (24:29).
With this, Jesus is quoting from Isaiah, primarily the thirteenth chapter (with allusions to the thirty-fourth chapter of Isaiah and the second chapter of Joel). Beginning in verse nine of that chapter, we read “Look, the Lord’s day of judgment is coming; it is a day of cruelty and savage, raging anger, destroying the earth and annihilating its sinners. Indeed the stars in the sky and their constellations no longer give out their light; the sun is darkened as soon as it rises, and the moon does not shine. I will punish the world for its evil, and wicked people for their sin. I will put an end to the pride of the insolent, I will bring down the arrogance of tyrants… So I will shake the heavens, and the earth will shake looks from its foundation, because of the fury of the Lord who commands armies, in the day He vents His raging anger” (13:9-11.13).
In this passage, as is the case in much of the work that bears the name, Isaiah is employing apocalyptic imagery. That is, he is not being literal, but rather, he is using language that will serve to inform all who hear that the events to come are going to be world-shaking, earth shattering happenings. We do this on a regular basis without giving it too much thought, when we say things like “that meal was out of this world,” or “that performance blew me away.” With this established, we realize that Jesus is using such language, which, for what it’s worth, is the same type of language in use in the book of Revelation, which is also known as “The Apocalypse.” Without digressing into that discussion, we note that the very name of that work informs us that apocalyptic, non-literal language is being used, though there are real events, real people, real churches, and real concerns being addressed and to which reference is being made.
Remaining focused on Isaiah, and taking in the context for what is on offer in the middle of that chapter, we see that the preface to what has been written is “This is a message about Babylon that God revealed to Isaiah son of Amoz” (13:1). In reference to Babylon, God revealed to Isaiah that “I have given orders to My chosen soldiers; I have summoned the warriors through whom I will vent my anger, my boasting, arrogant ones” (13:3). God’s soldiers and warriors are the Babylonians, and His anger is going to be vented against Judah, Jerusalem, and the Temple. Those that experience God’s angry judgment, as far as Isaiah is concerned, are God’s very people. When Judah is overrun, Jerusalem is ravaged, and the Temple is destroyed, it will be as if the stars, the sun, and the moon have ceased to give their light. It will be as if the foundations of the earth have crumbled.
In the thirteenth verse, we note that Isaiah speaks of both the heavens and the earth, which we will hear Jesus doing in just a short while. This judgment from God, of course, came to pass. Babylon did conquer Judah, destroy Jerusalem and its Temple, and carry many off into captivity. We also know, quite obviously, that the stars, sun, and moon did not actually cease to give light and that the earth did not fall from its foundations. When we read this, and as we consider that Jesus’ hearers will understand the reference to Isaiah and to Babylon (and the judgment that God brought upon His people through Babylon) that He is making, we know that these images are not to be taken literally. This reminds us that we are not to take them literally when Jesus says them either. It is the judgment of God and the earthly happenings that such judgment portends that are to be taken literally.