The sun shall be turned into darkness, and the moon into blood, before the coming of the great and awesome day of the LORD. (Joel 2:31)
As a rule, I don't do prophecy but in the last few months I’ve been told about, or asked about, four ‘blood moons’ that are going to appear over Israel during the next two years. The excitement began to mount last year after the publication of John Hagee’s Four Blood Moons: Something Is About To Change. Hagee – the founder and senior pastor of Cornerstone Church, a Texas megachurch that boasts more than 20,000 ‘active members’ – was turned onto the blood moon teaching by Mark Biltz of El Shaddai Ministries, who challenged Hagee to study ‘the sun, moon, and stars as a source of prophetic revelation.’
Hagee writes that during the years 1493/94, 1949/50 and 1967/68, at the festivals of Passover and Tabernacles, a series of ‘tetrads’ – four consecutive total lunar eclipses – took place. Close to the time of each of the tetrads, momentous events occurred in connection with the Jewish people. In 1492, a year before the first of the listed tetrads occurred, the Jews were expelled from Spain. In 1948, a year before another tetrad took place, the modern state of Israel was founded, and in June 1967, between the first and second lunar eclipses of a tetrad, the Six Day War occurred in which the Israelis, for the first time in 2,500 years, gained sovereignty over Jerusalem.
In any given century a tetrad consisting of four consecutive total lunar eclipses, spaced six months apart may happen fairly frequently or not at all. In this century, we are set to experience a total of eight tetrads but a growing number of Bible teachers believe the upcoming sequence of lunar eclipses to be particularly significant because the eclipses coincide with Passover and Tabernacles. The first total lunar eclipse will take place this year on 15 April at Passover, and the second at the Feast of Tabernacles on 8 October. Next year, full lunar eclipses will occur at Passover on 4 April and at Tabernacles on 28 September. John Hagee believes that during the tetrad the moon will be ‘turned to blood,’ thus fulfilling Joel 2:31; therefore the next two years will herald a time of change for Israel. However, John Hagee circumspectly steers clear of predicting the kind of ‘change’ we ought to expect, except that the blood moons confirm that Jesus is coming again and we’d all better be ready.
Not every tetrad watcher is as coy as Hagee about the significance of the coming series of lunar eclipses. Some have gone so far as to state that a third temple will be constructed in the next couple of years!
By the light of the not-so-silvery moon
Because speculation about the events of the next couple of years is growing, and because I’ve been asked what I think about the teaching, and because there will be fallout from the failure of the growing speculative prognostications, I’ve decided to throw my hat into the ring.
First of all, the epithet ‘blood moon’ is not a term used by astronomers. The red moons that are frequently observed at the vernal (spring) and autumnal equinoxes are known by astronomers as the ‘hunter’s moon,’ and the ‘harvest moon.’ There is no obvious reason why the term ‘blood moon’ should be associated with the tetrads because it is far from certain that the moon will actually turn red at the four lunar eclipses. Ecliptic moons turn blood red only sporadically. Instead, they range in colour from dark brown and red to bright orange and, sometimes, yellow. Just how red a moon in eclipse appears depends on the atmospheric conditions at the time. If there is a lot of dust and ash from a volcanic eruption, for instance, the moon may turn dark brown but if the atmosphere is clear the lunar surface may indeed turn blood red. But it’s far from easy to predict how the moon will look during a total eclipse. The term ‘blood moon’ appears to have been coined by John Hagee for dramatic effect.
Second, contrary to what some of the blood moon alarmists are predicting, none of the moons in the upcoming tetrad will appear ‘over’ Jerusalem or Israel. According to the NASA web site (http://eclipse.gsfc.nasa.gov), the total eclipse of the moon on 15 April will be visible only in North America and parts of South America, and you will be able to see the Feast of Tabernacles eclipse on 8 October only if you are on a ship in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Next year, the total eclipse of the moon that occurs at Passover will be visible only in Australia, New Zealand, Eastern Russia and Alaska. The only eclipse of the tetrad visible in Israel will be the last in the series. It will take place at the Feast of Tabernacles on 28 September 2015 but when it is visible it will have almost set on the horizon and will be over in a matter of minutes. If you’re in Israel and you blink, you’ll miss it!
Bad moons rising?
Third, the astronomical phenomenon of ‘blood moons’ has been occurring throughout human history and although in the last 500 years tetrads occurred at or close to significant events in Jewish history there was absolutely no consistency about them. The series of total lunar eclipses that occurred at Passover and Tabernacles in 1493/94 took place after the Jews had been expelled from Spain, a terrible event. The tetrad of 1949/50, however, took place after a good event: the rebirth of the Jewish state. When the sequence of four lunar eclipses took place at Passover and Tabernacles in 1967/68, the Six Day War during which the Israeli Defence Forces recaptured Jerusalem, occurred between the first and second ‘blood moons.’
Depending on whether you are reading Joel or Matthew and Mark, none of the tetrads proved to be harbingers of the Day of the Lord in the sense John Hagee understands the Day of the Lord, nor did any of them occur immediately after the great tribulation!
Although Hagee, Blintz and others are warning of dramatic changes relating to Israel and the Jewish people, some of the most momentous events in Jewish history have occurred when no tetrads took place. No tetrads occurred, for example, at the time of the Exodus, or the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple by the Babylonians in 587BC, or the crucifixion (the most momentous event in Jewish history), or the fall of Jerusalem in 70AD and the exile that followed, or the last stand of the Jewish rebels at Masada, or close to the Holocaust.
Furthermore, tetrads occurred during Passover and Tabernacles in 162/63AD, 795/96AD, 842/43AD and 860/61AD, during which nothing of significance relating to the Jewish nation occurred. It is only during the last 500 years that significant events of Jewish history occurred close to lunar tetrads, which is no doubt why Hagee and Blintz highlight them.
Fourth, according to Joel 2:31 – the key text of tetrad enthusiasts – not only will the moon be turned into blood before the coming of the day of the Lord, but also the sun will be turned into darkness. Tetrad watchers appear to be ignoring that equally significant celestial phenomenon.
Fifth, in Matthew 24:29, Jesus informed his disciples that the sun would be darkened, and the moon would fail to give its light ‘immediately after the tribulation of those days.’ The tribulation of which Jesus spoke was ‘the great tribulation’ (Mt 24:21), therefore since the first total lunar eclipse of the tetrad will take place at Passover on 14 April, and since the moon is to turn to blood after ‘immediately after,’ are we to expect the great tribulation to start and finish sometime in the next six weeks?
As we try to get our heads round the prophecies of the moon turning to blood it is crucial to bear in mind that the language of the Olivet discourse in Matthew 24 is symbolic. If that sounds like theological liberalism, remember that the most die-hard literalists interpret the terminology of the moon turning to blood and the sun being turned to sackcloth and the stars falling from heaven. No one actually believes the moon will literally turn to blood, or that the sun will literally turn into sackcloth or that stars will literally fall from the sky.
‘Let the reader understand’
It is said with monotonous frequency that the prophetic scriptures should be read with the Bible in one hand and a daily newspaper in the other but it is worth asking how the Bible understands its own terminology. Each of the synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke) record the Lord’s teaching on the Mount of Olives in significantly different ways. John, who, records more of the Lord’s discourses than the other three, interestingly records no Olivet discourse. Instead, the events foretold by Jesus on the Mount of Olives, appear in a greatly expanded form in the book of Revelation.
It is interesting to compare Luke’s account of the Lord’s teaching on the Mount of Olives with those of Matthew and Mark. Where the first two Evangelists record the Hebraic symbolism in the words of Jesus, Luke interprets the colourful imagery for his readers. Where Matthew and Mark, for example, speak of Daniel’s ‘abomination of desolation,’ and add, ‘Whoever reads, let him understand’ (Mt 24:15; Mk 13:14), Luke 21:20 helpfully interprets Jesus’ apocalyptic terminology for us: ‘But when you see Jerusalem surrounded by armies, then know that its desolation is near.’
Jewish readers familiar with the apocalyptic language of the fall of Babylon in Isaiah 13:10 – ‘For the stars of heaven and the constellations thereof shall not give their light: the sun shall be darkened in his going forth, and the moon shall not cause her light to shine’ – would hardly be likely to interpret Jesus words in Matthew 24:29 and Mark 13:24-25 as simply a prediction of astronomical phenomena that occur frequently so that, in effect, the Lord was saying no more than: ‘Immediately after the tribulation of those days there will be a solar eclipse, a lunar eclipse and a shower of meteors.’
In chapter 21 of his Gospel, Luke explains the references of Jesus to the sun, moon and stars for those who might be confused about biblical symbolism: ‘For there will be great distress in the land and wrath upon this people. And they will fall by the edge of the sword, and be led away captive into all nations. And Jerusalem will be trampled by Gentiles until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled’ (Lk 21:23-24).
Taking Matthew, Mark and Luke together, the sun failing to give its light, the moon turning to blood and the stars falling from heaven dramatically and powerfully foretell the fall of Jerusalem. The fate of Jerusalem, ironically, will be that of Israel’s archetypical ancient foe Babylon. There was a time when pop songs used to describe the break-up of romances in apocalyptic terms – The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine Anymore; Don’t Let The Sun Go Down On Me; The End of the World – and the public bought those songs not only because they liked the tunes but also because they identified with the lyrics. If losing your ‘baby’ is the end of the world, what must it have been for the people of God to lose Jerusalem and the Temple and be ‘led away captive into all nations’?
Whatever their prophetic understanding, most Christians would say we are in the ‘Last Days’ but when Peter addressed the crowds in Jerusalem on the day of Pentecost, he stated that the fulfilment of Joel’s prophecy of all God’s people prophesying was proof that the ‘Last Days’ had arrived. But by the time John wrote his first letter over thirty years later, it was the ‘last hour’ (1 Jn 2:18)!
One of the great New Testament Scholars of the twentieth century, F. F. Bruce, wrote in his commentary on Acts, ‘The “Last Days” began with Christ’s appearance on earth and will be consummated by his reappearance; they are the days during which the age to come overlays the present age. Hence the assurance with which Peter could quote the prophet’s words and declare “This is it.”’
Bruce specifically refers to Acts 2:19-21: ‘I will show wonders in the heaven above and in the earth below. . . the sun will be turned to darkness and the moon to blood.’ He writes, ‘The wonders and signs to be revealed in the world of nature may have more relevance in their immediate setting than is sometimes realised More particularly, little more than seven weeks earlier the people of Jerusalem had indeed seen the darkening of the sun, during the early afternoon of Good Friday, and later that same paschal afternoon the paschal full moon may well have risen blood red in the sky in consequence of that preternatural gloom. These phenomenal are now interpreted as harbingers of the day of the Lord – a day of judgement, to be sure, but more immediately the day of God’s salvation to all who invoked his name.’ (F. F. Bruce The Book of Acts, pp.61-62).
On the day Jesus died, the sun was almost literally turned to darkness but Colin Humphreys points out that a solar eclipse does not last for hours and suggests that the darkening of the sun can be attributed to a khamsin or sirocco, one of the frequent sandstorms or dust storms that occur in the Middle East in the spring. The dust in the atmosphere may well have turned the full moon that night blood red and Humphreys cites Cyril the Bishop of Alexandria who lived in the late fourth and early fifth centuries who recorded that on the day of the crucifixion, the moon ‘seemed to be turned to blood’ (Colin J. Humphreys, The Mystery of the Last Supper pp.86).
Last of all, although in one sense I’m reluctant to be hard on ‘tetrad watchers’ because they take the Bible seriously (whether they interpret it correctly is correct is another matter, of course) but I find it deeply disconcerting that Mark Biltz should encourage John Hagee and others to study ‘the sun, moon, and stars as a source of prophetic revelation.’
Biltz and Hagee quote Genesis 1:14 as a their authority for looking to the heavens as a source of revelation: ‘Let there be lights in the firmament of the heavens to divide the day from the night; and let them be for signs and seasons, and for days and years,’ which the ancient Targum of Jonathan paraphrases: ‘. . .let them be for signs and the times of the feasts, and to reckon with them the number of days, and, sanctify the beginnings of the months, and the beginnings of the years, and the intercalations of months and years, the revolutions of the sun, and the new moons, and cycles.’ The ancient Jewish sages did not see the heavenly bodies as a source of prophetic understanding so, it’s little wonder that God warned his people in Jeremiah 10:2: ‘Do not learn the way of the Gentiles; do not be dismayed at the signs of heaven, for the Gentiles are dismayed at them.’
The bottom line of John Hagee’s Four Blood Moons is that Jesus is coming; with that much we can agree. But is it necessary to sensationalise fairly common events such as lunar eclipses in order to press home that truth? An article once appeared in the magazine of the denomination in which I served as a pastor in which the writer bemoaned a waning interest within the denomination in the Second Advent. In the next issue a reader someone suggested that the lack of interest in the End Times was a reaction to repeated dogmatic statements from the pulpits that every crisis in world events indicated that the Lord’s return was just around the corner. Human-kind cannot bear too much unreality and instead of a state of perpetual excitement, a state of apathy had set in.
In October 1973, when the Yom Kippur War broke out, a pastor I knew told his congregation that the Lord ‘could be here by Christmas.’ The following year, prophecy experts predicted the imminent return of the Lord following the publication of John Gribbin and Stephen Plageman’s best-seller The Jupiter Effect. After reading Gribbin and Plageman, another pastor terrified his congregation week after week over a three-month period with a series of homilies – illustrated in vivid detail on a vast wall chart – in which he described in graphic detail the horrors that were about to be unleashed on the world through the coming alignment of the planets of the solar system. Around the same time, a rumour began to spread that in Frankfurt or some other German city there was a super computer called ‘The Beast’ that occupied the whole of a large office block. In ‘The Beast,’ it was said, were the personal details of every single person in the world and everyone had been allocated a number and each number was a variable of 666. Or something like that; I forget the precise details.
At the same time, Hal Lindsey, Barry Smith and other prophecy buffs were confidently predicting that Jesus would return by 1988, the final year of the ‘generation’ that saw Israel reborn. Lindsey was so confident of the truth of his position that in 1980 he wrote The 1980s: Countdown to Armageddon. By the mid eighties, however, it was getting dangerously close to the deadline the prophetic pundits had set for the Lord’s return and some of them, notably Barry Smith, began pushing forward the date from 1988 to 1998. Smith even claimed that ‘the rabbis in Jerusalem’ had announced that their Messiah was going to ‘return’ in 1998!
Nothing new under the moon
History is littered with failed predictions of the Second Advent and Armageddon. And it’s not only the Jehovah’s Witnesses, Seventh Day Adventists and the Worldwide Church of God who are culpable in this respect; a number of Fundamentalist writers have done the same. In 2011, so-called Bible teacher Harold Camping gained notoriety with his widely publicised prediction that the Rapture would take place on 21 May and, after he and millions failed to fly away, he rescheduled the momentous event for 21 October. Atheist and sceptic groups across America ridiculed not only Camping but also the Bible. ‘The issue is the Bible is mythology,’ stated Larry Hicok of American Atheists, and Time magazine's website listed Camping's End Times prognostication as one its ‘Top 10 Failed Predictions.’
Some years ago a certain publication justified its repeated false predictions of the Lord’s imminent coming on the basis that people needed to be kept on their toes. Apart from being a form of false prophecy a steady diet of sensationalist claims that fail to deliver tends to engender cynicism, apathy or gullibility, all of which are corrosive of true faith.
On the night of 15 April this year, hundreds of thousands of tetrad watchers will wait for the spring full moon to turn blood red and will be disappointed. There is no guarantee that even in America, where the lunar eclipse will be visible, that it will be red. Many disappointed moon gazers will comfort themselves in the knowledge that three more full lunar eclipses will take place in the following eighteen months but none of them will be visible in Europe and it is more than likely that none will feature a blood red moon.
John Hagee’s reluctance to specify the kind of changes we should look for will be his ministry-saver. In the next three or four years tetrad enthusiasts will follow the news intently for announcements of ‘changes’ relating to Israel. And find them they will, for when is Israel ever out of the news! It might be a peace deal with the Palestinians; it might be a worsening of the situation between Israel and its neighbours; it might be a breakdown in relations between Israel and the US or a strengthening of ties with a post Obama administration; Israel might strike at Iran or Iran might step up its nuclear enrichment programme.
I’m neither a prophet nor the son of a prophet but, as the Jewish wise man Bob Dylan once said, ‘You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.’ So here’s my forecast for the next couple of years. Changes will occur in the Jewish world and when they do tetrad watchers of the world will unite to say, ‘See. We told you so!’