I woke up this morning to the sound of thunder.
Not soft, distant rumblings, but wall-shaking, window-rattling cracks. Even from within the security of modern architecture and surrounded by technology and comfort, it was almost possible to imagine what it would have been like for the men and women of Old Testament times to encounter such a phenomenon.
Presumably, it would have been an awe-inspiring and frightening experience. Without a modern understanding of weather, thunder and the dramatic rain, lightning, and wind that often accompany it would have seemed almost supernatural, completely outside the control of even the most powerful human ruler.
How did the people of the Bible speak of thunder? With my ears still ringing from the thunder this morning, I thought it would be interesting to see how and where thunder is mentioned in the Bible. As it turns out, thunder is referenced frequently.
In Exodus 19 and 20, thunder and lightning are both prominent at Mount Sinai, where God himself has descended to meet with Moses to introduce the Ten Commandments. The thunder and other phenomena convey the power and majesty of God:
On the morning of the third day there was thunder and lightning, with a thick cloud over the mountain, and a very loud trumpet blast. Everyone in the camp trembled. Then Moses led the people out of the camp to meet with God, and they stood at the foot of the mountain…. When the people saw the thunder and lightning and heard the trumpet and saw the mountain in smoke, they trembled with fear. (NIV)
In many other places, thunder is described as a signifier of God’s power or as a metaphor for his voice:
After it his voice roars;
he thunders with his majestic voice,
and he does not restrain the lightnings when his voice is heard. — Job 37:4 (ESV)
The Lord thundered from heaven.
The Most High made his voice heard. — 2 Samuel 22:14 (GW)
Your thunder roared like chariot wheels. The world was made bright by lightning, and all the earth trembled. — Psalm 77:18 (CEV)
But at your rebuke the waters fled, at the sound of your thunder they took to flight. — Psalm 104:7 (NIV)
When he thunders, the waters in the heavens roar;
he makes clouds rise from the ends of the earth.
He sends lightning with the rain
and brings out the wind from his storehouses. — Jeremiah 10:13 (NIV)
Many of these verses make a point of placing thunder and other awe-inspiring phenomena under God’s control—they’re tools at his disposal. Unlike many ancient cultures that considered thunder and storms to be manifestations of deities, Israel understood the weather—no matter how frightening or powerful—to be under God’s authority.
It is not hard to imagine the voice of an omnipotent deity resounding like thunder. But God’s voice is not always described as a thunderous roar; in one memorable passage, God challenges such preconceptions by speaking with a much different voice:
[Elijah] entered a cave there and spent the night. Then the word of the LORD came to him, and He said to him, “What are you doing here, Elijah?”
He replied, “I have been very zealous for the LORD God of Hosts, but the Israelites have abandoned Your covenant, torn down Your altars, and killed Your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are looking for me to take my life.”
Then He said, “Go out and stand on the mountain in the LORD’s presence.”
At that moment, the LORD passed by. A great and mighty wind was tearing at the mountains and was shattering cliffs before the LORD, but the LORD was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the LORD was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake there was a fire, but the LORD was not in the fire. And after the fire there was a voice, a soft whisper. When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave.
Suddenly, a voice came to him and said, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” — 1 Kings 19:9-13 (HCSB)
There are many other theologically interesting references to thunder and storms in the Old Testament—and we haven’t gotten to the New Testament! Ancient references to thunder might not seem to have much relevance to your life and faith today, but there are things to be learned even in these brief passages—foremost among them that God is in control of all things.
Thunder, lightning, wind and rain are under his authority. And if even the weather itself must obey God, we can rest assured that all other areas of life, even and especially those areas outside of our own control, fall under his loving authority. The next time you find yourself caught in a thunderstorm, remember that you are loved by a God who “thunders with His voice wondrously, doing great things which we cannot comprehend.”
Image of a stormcloud by Sensenmann. Public domain.