Blowing with the Wind

In nature, wind in one form or another – gentle breeze or stormy gale, is an indicator of change. Uneven heating on the planet drives changes in air pressure which ultimately result in the movement of air attempting to achieve equilibrium.

For the biblical authors, the wind was somewhat of a mystery. “As you do not know the path of the wind…so you cannot understand the work of God, the Maker of all things.[1] Truth be told, the wind is still somewhat of a mystery. We can track it and anticipate some trends in how the wind will blow, but knowing every path it might take will always elude us – there are too many variables to account for. Similarly, we cannot perceive or anticipate all that God is doing, but we can know some things. He has revealed a sufficient amount to us which enables us to know him and have a relationship with him.

The biblical authors recognized God as creator of the world which includes the wind: “God made the earth by his power…[he] brings out the wind from his storehouses[2] In some scripture passages, the psalmists indicate how God “makes winds his messengers” which along with other physical forces “do his bidding” to alter the world in ways suitable for the living things of His creation[3].

Rocks shaped by the wind at Vermillion Cliffs, Arizona

It would be a mistake to presume the biblical authors were just superstitious and thought every wind event was caused by God. When Elijah took refuge in a cave he was instructed to go out and wait to hear from God. A great wind came, but it is written that “the Lord was not in the wind” (nor the earthquake or the fire), but in a small whisper[4]. When Luke describes how Paul was caught in a storm at sea, there is no mention of God bringing the winds – there are other miraculous parts to that story, but the wind is not one of them[5].

While they understood God was the originator of wind, they also recognized that wind operates in the normal course of nature – that God is not the one who is constantly making the wind blow. “The wind blows to the south and turns to the north; round and round it goes, ever returning on its course.[6] Numerous passages demonstrate knowledge of some predictability about the winds as they indicate certain effects attributed to the north, south, west and east winds.[7]

Because there is a “natural law” expectation about wind, the biblical authors were able to recognize when wind was used in miraculous ways – where God is using wind to accomplish his purposes at times of significant change in the history of Israel [8]:

  • It is a wind which dries up the land after the Noahic flood.
  • A scorching east wind brings on the drought and famine at the time of Joseph.
  • The plague of locusts which descend upon Egypt are brought in by an east wind, and are removed by a strong west wind.
  • A strong east wind is involved in the parting of the Red Sea, and wind is again cited in the closing of the waters upon Pharaoh’s army.
  • Stormy winds suddenly arise during Jonah’s attempt to avoid God’s calling on his life, and they are suddenly calmed when he is thrown into the sea.
  • Jesus’ disciples also experience violent winds which are later calmed at the voice of their Master.
Christ in the Storm on the Sea of Galilee
Rembrandt van Rijn (1633)

Not all winds are the movement of gas molecules in our atmosphere. Poets both ancient and modern enlist wind metaphorically as an indicator or cause of change – both in culture and in our lives. Bob Dylan’s famous “Blowin’ in the Wind” poses a series of rhetorical questions about the human dilemmas of war and injustice with the refrain, “The answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind, the answer is blowin’ in the wind[9] The chorus rests in ambiguity – unclear whether the answers to these questions are painfully obvious or dreadfully elusive. Either way, the song longs for a change in matters of social discord.

Forty years later, Bruce Cockburn, who was also troubled about situations in the world, produced an album which related his concerns. From one song on that album, he wrote about a wind that had a personal impact:

The wind that blows through everything

Sweeps out the halls of my heart when I sing to you

It carries the moon and stars and the rain

Carries the seagulls and carries my shame away

Spins me around, stops me running away

From all the things I’ve been waiting to say…

Messenger wind swooping out of the sky

Lights each tiny speck in my human kaleidoscope

With hope.[10]

Cockburn is not as vague as Dylan on where the hope for change may come from – it clearly does not reside in human wisdom, but comes from One who has power over creation, and is able to touch a human heart. The ancient poets and prophets also spoke of this wind which moves in different ways – some gentle, some destructive, but always coming from God in order to fulfill his purposes.

A first and foremost wind is the special revelation given to man from God. One psalmist made a parallel between the effective change wrought by commands given through the natural wind, and the commands given to the nation of Israel:

He sends his command to the earth;

his word runs swiftly…

He sends his word and melts [snow and ice];

he stirs up his breezes, and the waters flow.

He has revealed his word to Jacob,

his laws and decrees to Israel.[11]

A similar parallel is given by the prophet Amos who wrote, “He who forms the mountains, who creates the wind, and who reveals his thoughts to mankind.[12] The apostle Paul viewed the scriptures in a similar light when he wrote, “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness.[13] Several places in scripture refer to winds as “a blast of breath from his nostrils”, so there is a definite connection between wind, God’s breath, and the word of God.

We know this “wind” caused a change because the lives of God-followers were observed to be distinct from surrounding cultures. Under the reign of Xerxes in the Persian empire it was noticed by Haman, Xerxes’ advisor, that “There is a certain people scattered abroad and dispersed among the peoples in all the provinces of your kingdom. Their laws are different from those of every other people…[14] Later in the New Testament, Christians cause a stir in Philippi where certain merchants complained, “These men are Jews, and they are disturbing our city. They advocate customs that are not lawful for us as Romans to accept or practice.”[15]

In stark contrast are the things of man which are temporal and will ultimately give way to the things of God which will endure forever. David wrote of the enduring nature of God’s love: “As for man, his days are like grass…the wind blows over it and it is gone…but from everlasting to everlasting the Lord’s love is with those who fear him[16] In a similar way, the prophet Isaiah wrote of the enduring nature of God’s word: “The grass withers and flowers fall because the breath of the Lord blows on them…the grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of our God stands forever.[17]

King Nebuchadnezzar asks Daniel to explain a dream he had about a statue. Daniel records in his interpretation that, “[the statue was] broken to pieces at the same time and became like chaff on a threshing floor in the summer. The wind swept them away without leaving a trace. But the rock that struck the statue became a huge mountain and filled the whole earth.[18] The statue represented past and future kingdoms which are of a temporal nature and the rock which destroyed them anticipated the eternal kingdom which would be established by the Messiah.

A parable told by Jesus seems to connect with this imagery.  Jesus cautioned those who do not follow his teachings: they will be like one who builds his house on the sand – that house will be destroyed in the rain, floods and wind. The house built on the rock – Christ’s teachings – will endure.[19]

At times, the winds of God may serve to cleanse – to in some way remove evil influences from society. In one psalm, David calls upon God for his help against those who are fighting against him: “May they be like chaff before the wind, with the angel of the Lord driving them away![20] Chaff is the fibrous structure which surrounds the seeds in a stalk of grain. After harvesting grain, it is set out to dry. Once dry, the seed heads can be rubbed to separate the chaff from the seeds. The product is then tossed up in the air on a windy day so the lighter chaff can be blown away leaving the seeds behind.

A handful of wheat seed and chaff

The cleansing wind was not something the psalmist just hoped for, but actually saw happen. David recounts how God sent a “wind” to help him overcome his enemies. In a psalm he wrote, “he soared on the wings of the wind…at the rebuke of the Lord, at the blast of breath from his nostrils [he scattered my enemies.]”[21] David recognized there was more at work in battle than what his armies were capable of doing – an unseen work – a wind.

Similar “wind” warnings went out to those opposed to the wisdom of God. In proverbs it exhorts, “since you disregard all my advice and do not accept my rebuke, I in turn will laugh when disaster strikes you; I will mock when calamity overtakes you—when calamity overtakes you like a storm, when disaster sweeps over you like a whirlwind…[22] God can make changes happen through natural consequences for not following godly wisdom.

The prophet Ezekiel condemned the false prophets who built a metaphorical “whitewashed wall” which promised peace and safety to the nation of Judah, but was really full of lies and deceptions. Ezekiel lets them know that God is going to send metaphorical rain, hail and winds to topple this wall[23].

The Flight of the Prisoners (1896) by James Tissot; the exile of the Jews from Canaan to Babylon

Unfortunately, there was a time of great rebellion against God in the history of Israel. The “wind” solution to this was more than just a blowing away of the chaff. The prophets warned the people that a great wind was coming which would scatter the people. Isaiah wrote, “All of us have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags; we all shrivel up like a leaf, and like the wind our sins sweep us away.[24] The prophet Jeremiah wrote, “A scorching wind from the barren heights in the desert blows toward my people, but not to winnow or cleanse; a wind too strong for that comes from me.[25]

The “winds” in this case – what God used to make a change in Israel – were invading nations. Writing about the Assyrian invasion of the northern Kingdom (721 B.C.), the prophet Hosea wrote, “An east wind will come from the Lord…They will fall by the sword…[26] This was not going to be pretty. Later, the Babylonians came in and conquered Judah (605 B.C.). Ezekiel describes how the once flourishing nation will be turned over into the hands of their enemies: “Will it not be uprooted and stripped of its fruit so that it withers…Will it not wither completely when the east wind strikes it—wither away in the plot where it grew?[27]

What was not evident at the time was that this wind had a two-fold purpose. Not only did it serve to cleanse the nation of Israel of its idolatry, but it set the stage for a wind that would come hundreds of years later. The dispersion of the Jews throughout the Mediterranean region was a contributing factor for the rapid spread of Christianity.

Pentecost mosaic in the Cathedral Basilica of St. Louis, Missouri

Perhaps the greatest change brought about by “wind” is that associated with the coming of God’s Spirit into the lives of believers which began at the time of Pentecost.[28] Luke described it as a “sound like the blowing of a violent wind [which] came from heaven and filled the whole house.”[29] Jesus told us that his Spirit will move in the lives of believers in ways we may not anticipate – God will move in history according to his will, not the will of men. “The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.[30]

Under his command, God has used natural winds to steer the course of history, but these are not the only kinds of winds he can use. He has used natural consequences, human authorities, invading armies, his written word, and his Holy Spirit to move individuals and human civilizations over time to conform to his purposes – in particular, to spread the good news of Christ to every continent in the world. As long as sin persists in this world like the uneven heating on our planet, the winds of God will continue to blow, and will blow in ways we can never guess. His winds will sweep humanity toward the culmination He intends.

[1] Ecclesiastes 11:5

[2] Compare Psalm 135:6-7, Jeremiah 10:12-13 and 51:15-16

[3] See Psalm 104:3-8 and 148:7-8

[4] 1 Kings 19:9-13

[5] Acts 27:13-44

[6] Ecclesiastes 1:6

[7] North wind: Proverbs25:23 Acts 27:14; South wind: Job 37:17, Luke 12:55; East wind: Genesis 41:6, 23, 27; West wind Exodus 10:19

[8] A miracle is not a breaking of natural law, but an intervention in time to produce an effect which relies upon the outworking of natural laws, but would not have occurred with natural laws working on their own.

[9] Bob Dylan, “Blowin’ in the Wind” from his album, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan (1963).

[10] Bruce Cockburn, “Messenger Wind” from his album You’ve Never Seen Everything (2003).

[11] Psalm 147:15,18-19

[12] Amos 4:13

[13] 2 Timothy 3:16

[14] Esther 3:8

[15] Acts 16:20-21

[16] Psalm 103:15-17

[17] Isaiah 40:7-8

[18] Daniel 2:34-35

[19] Matthew 7:24-27

[20] Psalm 35:5; See also, Psalm 1:4-5, 83:13 and Isaiah 17:13, 41:16

[21] Compare 2 Samuel 22:11-16 and Psalm 18:10-15

[22] Proverbs 1:24-27

[23] Ezekiel 13:10-14

[24] Isaiah 64:6; see also 66:15-16

[25] Jeremiah 4:10-12; see also 18:17, 22:22, 23:18-20

[26] Hosea 13:15-16; see also Habakkuk 1:9-11

[27] Ezekiel 17:9-10; see also 19:11-13

[28] The Greek word for Spirit (pneuma) is derived from the word for wind (anemos).

[29] Acts 2:2

[30] John 3:8

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